Politics & Policy

The Calvinball World of Elite White Liberals

Activists march in opposition to Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh in New York City, October 6, 2018. (Stephen Yang/Reuters)
They expect to play a spoiled-brat version of the game, in which only they would make up the rules.

Part 1: Calvinball
Too many college-educated white liberals don’t know how to lose and don’t accept the rules when it doesn’t suit them. They think that all institutions should be like the administration of Evergreen State College — corrupt, partisan, and on their side. These liberals are used to playing Calvinball (making the rules up as they go along) and find it terribly unfair when the rules are applied as written instead of how they would like them to be in that moment.

Pew finds that white liberals are about 35 percent of politically active Democrats and Democratic-leaners. They are also the most affluent, educated, and ideologically extreme segment of the Democratic coalition. They are also by far the most likely to make political donations and have attended anti-Trump protests. They might like to think of the Democratic party as a rainbow coalition of all the people, but the greatest share of money and rage is coming from the affluent, white, and liberal.

In most of America, people of all ideologies jostle alongside each other. For all the clickbait stories about how to tell off your conservative uncle at Thanksgiving dinner, many Americans know and love people with whom they disagree, and they either avoid talking politics or do so in a lighthearted manner.

But there are exceptions. There are institutions in which white liberals are hegemonic and are able to use their power to silence and harass dissidents. In these institutions, norms and rules can be flexible in order either to favor those who are associated with the Left or to injure those who are seen as enemies of the Left. These liberal-dominated institutions — tertiary education, journalism, entertainment — shape the characters and expectations of the people who go through them. These white liberals are not used to dealing with their opponents as equals who are subject to the same rules, and they can’t accept any defeat or setback as legitimate.

In November 2014, Rolling Stone published Jackie Coakley’s allegations about being gang-raped at the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. The allegations were a collection of outlandish, impossible, and poorly constructed lies that instantly collapsed on contact with actual journalism. UVA’s administration immediately suspended all fraternities and sororities even though they had reason to doubt the accuracy of the story since it included a libelous fabrication about a senior UVA administrator.

In the short term, it didn’t matter. Faculty called for the abolition of fraternities and sororities, and the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house was vandalized. The right people were accusing and the wrong people were the accused. That meant punishment and vilification preceded investigation. Jackie Coakley was an enthusiastic but incompetent liar, and her allegations were easily verifiable as false. The UVA administration eventually allowed the fraternities and sororities to reopen, but Coakley’s targets were lucky that her lies were such that a negative could be proven.

At Evergreen State College, left-wing students formed an impromptu, baseball-bat-wielding militia to hunt down suspected wrongthinkers. The college administration delicately referred to them as a “community patrol” dedicated to protecting the Evergreen campus from “external entities as well as those community members they distrust,” but it politely suggested they stop using bats in their patrols.

George Bridges, the president of Evergreen State, repeatedly told the campus police to stand down as left-wing protesters disrupted university events and menaced dissenters. The campus police chief told dissenting faculty member Bret Weinstein to stay away from the campus because her department could not guarantee his physical safety. As one administrator put it, under George Bridges, “freedom of speech is only for speech with which you agree and aggressively silencing those with whom you disagree is fair game.”

During Brett Kavanaugh’s bitter and contentious confirmation hearings, Harvard students filed fraudulent Title IX complaints that Kavanaugh’s presence constituted a hostile environment. Not one person believes that any Harvard students were afraid that Kavanaugh would attack them during a lecture or office hours, but the university caved and announced that Kavanaugh’s classes would no longer be offered.

Television host Jimmy Fallon ejected comedian Norm Macdonald because show producers were “crying” about Macdonald’s making supportive comments about his friends Roseanne Barr and Louis CK. Fallon’s combination of cowardice (shifting the responsibility onto nameless producers) and complicity (using protest as a pretext for harassing or expelling dissenters) is standard for these kinds of events.

One should not conclude from these examples that liberals are necessarily enthusiastic about believing female accusers. When congressman, Democratic National Committee deputy chairman, and Minnesota attorney-general nominee Keith Ellison was accused of domestic violence, liberals accepted that the Minnesota Democratic party was the appropriate agency to investigate the truth of the allegations. Ellison was granted the presumption of innocence and allowed to keep his offices during this no doubt impartial investigation.

Luckily, Ellison was favored by white liberals and was not preemptively suspended. Anybody can imagine the response of white liberals if Senate Republicans had responded to the sexual-assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh by announcing an investigation by the Republican National Committee. In institutions that are dominated by white liberals, the only consistent rule is that there are different rules for different sides.

This standard was made explicit in the case of Kevin Williamson. Williamson was fired by The Atlantic for his hyperbolic writing about abortion. The Atlantic had earlier published Ta-Nehisi Coates’s shameful ramblings about his indifference to the death of New York City firefighters who, he insanely felt, were ready to “shatter” his body.

When Williamson pointed out The Atlantic’s history of publishing vitriolic attacks on Mother Teresa, editor Jeffrey Goldberg responded that the writer of those attacks “was in the family. You are not.”

And that is the important point. Some people and groups — baseball-bat-wielding left-wing mobs, Jimmy Fallon, Keith Ellison — are in the family. Some people and groups — fraternities, Brett Kavanaugh, dissident college professors, Kevin Williamson — are not in the family.

The legendary comic strip Calvin and Hobbes had a game called “Calvinball.” The rules were nonsensical to the outsider and the players made up them as they went along, to gain tactical advantage. But the point was that the players were alternating in changing the rules.

In many elite institutions, elite white liberals are used to playing a spoiled-brat version of Calvinball in which only they get to make up the rules. Sometimes the rule is believe the accusers (when the targets are fraternities or Republican nominees). Sometimes — like with Keith Ellison — the rule is pictures or it didn’t happen (sorry, Al Franken). Sometimes colleges need safe spaces, and sometimes armed left-wing militias are an understandable but overenthusiastic response to peaceful, democratic critics.

The key is the relationship of (mostly white, affluent, privileged) activists to authority. They might be students, junior staffers at media companies, or television producers, but they all know that they are part of the in-group and that authority is looking for a pretext to apply the rules in a partisan manner against the out-group. They know that authority is corrupt, and that rules and procedures will be manipulated or ignored to harass the opposition. These expectations of special treatment don’t just disappear when these people leave their institutional playpens.

Part 2: Everything Is So Unfair
Trump is supposed to be a white supremacist, yet both the Pew survey and videos of anti-Trump mass demonstrations indicate that prosperous whites are the angriest Trump opponents. They are the angriest partly because they are also the most disappointed.

In The Emerging Democratic Majority, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira argued that the increasing share of the nonwhite electorate meant that liberals and Democrats would create a majority liberal electorate. Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection victory seemed to vindicate Judis and Teixeira. If liberals could just recreate the 2012 Obama coalition, they would be nationally unbeatable.

That was probably true, but white liberals didn’t recreate that coalition partly because they didn’t want to. The Obama of 2008 and 2012 devoted time and money to winning over rust-belt, working-class whites. He didn’t win all of them, but he won enough to keep the key states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan in the Democratic column.

Hillary Clinton and her campaign wrote off those voters. She didn’t even visit Wisconsin in the general-election period. She and her campaign assumed she could win by running up large margins among nonwhites and white liberals.

This wasn’t quite the Obama model, but it was more satisfying for liberals because it meant they no longer had to cater to nonliberal whites with retrograde attitudes about immigration, trade, and environmental regulation.

This isn’t a problem of diversity. It was a problem of white liberal arrogance. The decision to write off these voters wasn’t forced by Black Lives Matter or the Hispanic Caucus. These voters were written off because white elites like Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager Robby Mook believed that white rust-belt wage-earners were finally in a richly deserved political grave. It then turned out that those voters were the difference between winning and losing the Electoral College.

The post-Kavanaugh whining about the undemocratic nature of the Senate follows a similar pattern. First, the whining isn’t really about Kavanaugh. If the advice-and-consent function had belonged to the House of Representatives (where Republicans had won a majority of the aggregate vote), Kavanaugh’s nomination would have been more certain and less dramatic.

The liberal complaining is better understood as preemptive mourning for the anticipated failure of Democrats to win control of the Senate in the November midterm elections. Just as elite, white liberals wrote off rust-belt, working-class whites, they are now writing off red-state ticket-splitters who reliably vote Republican for president but often vote Democratic for Senate.

These ticket splitters have been enormously important. Obamacare would not have passed — even absent a filibuster — if not for the votes of Democratic senators from states that Obama lost in 2008. The red-state Democratic senators also turned out to be a hardy breed. In 2012, the first election after the passage of Obamacare, six states that voted Republican for president simultaneously elected Democrats to the Senate.

Now, despite Trump’s unpopularity, white liberals are not expecting similar results. The tendency of social-media liberals to slander their political opponents creates special problems for red-state Democratic senators. After every mass shooting, liberals go on social media to call gun owners the real terrorists threatening America.

Red-state Democrats then have to choose whether to stand up for their voters and draw the attacks of their party’s richest, most active, and most unhinged faction. Affluent white liberals aren’t very good about taking direct criticism from social inferiors (a category that very much includes West Virginia senator Joe Manchin). They will politely ignore Obama telling them to be less intolerant, but white, moderate red-state Democrats won’t get that leeway.

The result is that red-state Democratic senators end up trying to find the middle ground between their voters and the people who loudly hate their voters. They try to show they sympathize with red-state ticket-splitters without standing up for them in a way that will irritate elite liberals. They will vote for Republican Supreme Court justices, but only if it is certain that they are going to be confirmed anyway. These red-state Democrats end up looking more like weasels than genuine moderates, and it makes it harder for them to win.

It was elite white liberals who chose to abandon successful (though emotionally unsatisfying) strategies that had produced Democratic presidents and Congresses. They were the ones who insulted or ignored key political allies.

The response of these white liberals is not to blame themselves. If they lost a presidential election, then it is the fault of the illegitimate Electoral College. If Kavanaugh is confirmed and Mitch McConnell remains majority leader, the Senate is illegitimate. If there is a fifth conservative justice, then the Supreme Court is illegitimate. Obama told liberals that “given population distribution across the country, we have to compete everywhere.” Instead, liberals chose to compete in ever fewer places, and then cry twice as hard when they lost.

The experience of white liberals with corrupt and partisan authority influences how they deal with their disappointments and defeats. They are used to authority stepping in to change the rules in their favor. They don’t want constitutional change, because if they lost under new rules, those rules would then become just as illegitimate.

They want — they expect — a Jimmy Fallon or a George Bridges or a Jeffrey Goldberg to step in make everything better. Attendees of Trump rallies might chant “Lock her up.” Black Lives Matters protestors might chant “No justice, no peace.” But if you hear a protester issue a long, piercing screech, it is probably a college-educated white liberal. There is a reason for that. The theorists of intersectionality teach us that for the privileged, equality can feel like oppression.

In The Atlantic, Adam Cohen brilliantly captured the entitlement and power hunger of elite white liberalism. Cohen writes of how Brett Kavanaugh can “minimize” the damage his presence does on the Supreme Court by recusing himself from a large number of cases (and thereby giving the four liberal justices an effective veto over any rulings) and otherwise voting with liberals Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.

This is very odd given what the Left told us about Kavanaugh. We have been told that he has sexually assaulted at least two victims and gang-raped untold others. Kavanaugh was also accused of committing perjury after perjury in both his first and his second rounds of Senate testimony. Collectively, liberals like Cohen and the Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee have accused Kavanaugh of committing more felonies than the average serial killer. If he is such a hardened, violent, and chronic offender, as alleged, the goal shouldn’t be begging him to recuse. It should be putting him in a cage for the rest of his life.

Adam Cohen’s article makes more sense as an implicit offer of conditional amnesty. If Kavanaugh votes the right way for long enough, he might get the same indulgent treatment that Ted Kennedy received and Keith Ellison still receives. Sure, liberals pretended to believe that Kavanaugh ran a rape gang, but Ted Kennedy undeniably drowned a woman, sexually assaulted a waitress in public, and still got to be the beloved liberal lion of the Senate. If Justice Kavanaugh shows enough enthusiasm for abortion, there is no reason why he can’t be a redeemed rapist and the liberal lion of the (now legitimate) Supreme Court.

In the delusional game of white, liberal Calvinball, all things are possible.

Peter Spiliakos lives in Massachusetts and is a former columnist for the online version of First Things.

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