Politics & Policy

Biden Won’t Stop the Illiberal Left

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden participates in the first 2020 presidential campaign debate in Cleveland, Ohio, September 29, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
On one pundit’s misdiagnosis of the political landscape.

Over at The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk argues that a vote for Joe Biden is a vote against the illiberal Left. Don’t like Antifa, or the “woke” ideologies that seek to silence democratic debate, and transform liberal institutions into ideological hothouses? Well, then Joe’s your man. The illiberal Left is empowered in Trump’s America, says Mounk, but it will surely wither before the awesome power of moderate Democrats.

Now, there is always a plausible element of the arguments that suggest a moderate concession will avoid the perils of extremism. Republicans sometimes made a version of this when they said that they’d have gotten a little bit of protective trade action against China, and a little bit more border enforcement, if only Democrats could have accepted Mitt Romney and his binders full of women. They’d have stopped the party from lurching toward Trump.

But there are a few problems with Mounk’s case. He doesn’t mention some obvious things. Take, for example, the fact that Donald Trump is defunding the indoctrination of federal employees in the illiberal left-wing ideology of critical race theory. Yet, even rather moderate organs such as *the Washington Post* treat this as perverse behavior, which leads me to believe that a President Biden would likely restore funding to them.

But more seriously, Mounk doesn’t describe the illiberalism on the left with any rigor. He merely says that the illiberal Left makes two intellectual mistakes. “The first,” he writes “is to focus so tightly on the country’s flaws that its strengths become invisible, and its institutions dispensable. The second is “to believe that the Right poses such an imminent danger that any form of resistance against it is justifiable, even if it involves violence.”

But this excessively dark view of the American project and its political institutions predated Trump. Although it has roots in radical 20th-century ideologies, its rise in prominence dates to the second term of the Obama administration, perhaps because of some disappointment that the Obama administration did not bring the kind of change some progressive hoped for. This pessimism is no clearer than in the writings of Ta-Nehisi Coates. And a foreshadowing of this current summer’s unrest and its relationship to progressive politics is evident in Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s decision to “[give] those who wished to destroy space to do that as well.”

Although the violence associated with Antifa does excite opposition, the primary objective of the Right’s resistance is toward the illiberal Left’s mostly legal forms of social repression, indoctrination, and bolder attacks against equality before the law.

The social repression includes outrage and pressure campaigns to deprive dissenters (often people not known for political conflict) of their livelihoods and social reputations (e.g., Brendan Eich, James Damore). They fear that the illiberal Left will increasingly capture and weaponize the existing “sensitivity-training” structures, and the attached Title VII–litigation machine, to make adherence — or at least submission — to their political doctrines semi-compulsory for employment across huge sectors of the economy.

The Right would like to resist the spread of illiberal-Left indoctrination into educational institutions. Countless parents will have received “anti-racist” statements inspired by Ibram X. Kendi from their local K-12 public school districts this year. Many others will have noticed that the illiberal Left could assemble for protests and riots without being in danger of punishment for violating public-health restrictions this summer. Generally applicable restrictions and public shaming were imposed on, say, religious congregations, but were mysteriously lifted for the illiberal Left.

Mounk’s description of the political relationship between his center-left colleagues and the illiberal Left undercuts his argument. Mounk’s new project, Persuasion, is grounded in an unshakeable commitment to liberal democracy and free speech. But the existence of an objectionable figure on the Right — in this case, Trump — just makes those commitments too difficult. For Mounk, Trumpian provocation “makes it much harder for establishment institutions, as well as moderate voices on the left, to hold their ground.”

So Mounk, thinking of No. 1, asks conservatives to give up all the priorities they don’t share with him, because “a Biden victory would make it easier, not harder, to push back against Antifa types who think engaging in violent tactics to resist the Trump administration is justifiable.”

But, again this misunderstands the challenge of the illiberal Left, which is not merely reducible to Antifa. In the real world, what we find is that it is never easy enough for the center-left to resist the hard Left’s demands. Look at the trouble James Bennet found at the New York Times. After running an op-ed by Arkansas Republican senator Tom Cotton, he could only be protected by the institutional liberals for a few hours. And, after enduring a day-long struggle session, he was still fired. Even in those liberal institutions that have absolutely thrived during the Trump era, liberal institutionalists can protect moderate dissenters from the new orthodoxy for about 24–48 hours before giving in to the illiberal Left within.

The mistake is in viewing the illiberal Left’s rise as part of some thermostatic response to Trumpism — a fever that will subside when the irritant is gone. But the illiberal Left’s rise is structural. The current trajectory is one of consolidation.

It is unthinkable to imagine Mounk writing a column explaining that the existence of Antifa or of cancel culture makes it just too difficult for him to condemn or resist the populist Right, and that he can’t confront the Right until the illiberal Left goes away.

Voting Trump is unlikely to break the back of the illiberal Left. But let’s not give in to the self-flattering bravery of moderate liberals, who can stand up for free speech until the exact moment a conservative makes it too difficult.

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