Epistemic Closure on the Left

Progressives have chastised Trump voters as undereducated, overly emotional, and not equipped to deal with complex issues. But too many of their laments read like an indulgence in vanity. As Claire Lehmann said:

These words — for anyone who voted for Clinton or *Remain* — are like a caramel sundae for the brain. They reassure people that their prejudices are not only correct, they are smart. And that those who don’t share their interests, their voting preferences, or their values, are not just different in the way that apples and oranges are different, they are *inferior*.

Blaming “low-information voters” does less to explain progressive’s defeats than shift responsibility for them. A less flattering view of Trump’s victory is that progressives were rebuked for their own failings.

With each passing month, beliefs that were once common and openly debated have been added to the ever-expanding list of “racist” or “sexist” heresies. As a result, Lehmann said, “public discourse is driven by a false economy of virtue-signalling,” which has crippled our ability to “deal with tough issues in a frank and open manner.”

Consider the example which occurred in Australian parliament just last week. When Australia’s Immigration Minister Peter Dutton told politicians in Question Time that 22 out of the last 33 people charged with terrorist-related offences in Australia were from a second and third generational Lebanese-Muslim background, Senator McKim from the Greens party called him a “racist”. Later, on Sky News, Senator McKim said: “Undoubtedly the advice [Dutton’s] got is accurate but just because something is fact doesn’t mean that it’s reasonable or productive to talk about it.”

From the cover-ups of sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany and the cover-ups of sexual assaults in Rothertham UK, to the partial release of 911 transcript of the Orlando Nightclub shooting in the US, to an Australian senator saying that is not reasonable or productive for an Immigration Minister to talk about *facts* — the public feels that on this topic, the powers-that-be are spineless at best, deceitful at worst.

And when policy is not up for debate and when conversation is taken off the table, the natural consequence will be growing suspicion and disillusionment in the populace. This is a bad outcome for liberal democracies.

While it is absolutely true that there is a robust body of literature which shows that immigration is beneficial for economic growth, there is another body of research which shows that increased diversity undermines social cohesion and social trust. “Low-information” people may intuitively sense this. But they know which body of research their politicians will refer to on television talk shows and in Parliament. And it’s not the research on social trust.

This is one reason why charges of wholesale ignorance are so obtuse. “High information” people ignore evidence if it conflicts with their preferred narrative *all the time*.

Lehmann adds that “high information” voters are “just as likely to be ideologues who are resistant to updating their beliefs when faced with new evidence. This includes social scientists.” They may even be better “at coming up with rationalisations as to why their preferred ideology is not only best, but in the national interest.” Too many progressive “explainers” are rationalisations of this very kind.

To be clear, the proper role of expertise in democracy is a perennial concern. But it cannot be honestly addressed by insulting voters. I am not even convinced it should be a greater concern, at this moment, than the sorry state of the left.

Lehmann’s essay is exactly the sort of self-scrutiny that the center left needs right now. And yet, it may only be possible outside of the progressive movement. In fact, I doubt many of us who make such criticisms will even be accepted as liberals. We are more likely to be denounced as neoconservatives, if not worse. Well, so be it. America deserves a better liberalism.

A reformed liberalism would not claim that the “arc of history” bends in its direction. It would not conflate enforcing the nation’s borders with white supremacy. It would do more to quell, and less to foment, ethno-racial Balkanization. It would treat rising homicides as injustices, not as cues to change the subject. And instead of trying to explain away Islamist violence, it would acknowledge that most Islamists mean what they scream when they massacre civilians.

Again, anyone who seeks to reform liberalism in this manner will be reviled by the hard left. But the more vehemently radicals denounce us as traitors, the more reformers should ask: How much common ground do we actually share with them?

After Progress

I originally chose “liberal, but not progressive” as the tagline for this blog to express my moderate unease with the progressive movement. In the past couple of years, however, this disquiet has become something more severe. When artists and writers at Charlie Hebdo were massacred by illiberal fanatics, for the crime of blasphemy, too many progressives responded by pissing on their corpses. The movement, I have come to believe, cannot be trusted to defend the open society from its enemies.

In a recent essay titled “The Closing of the Liberal Mind,” political philosopher John Gray tried to make some sense of this devolution. Nothing, Gray said, “illustrates the decay of liberalism more vividly” than the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

The party Corbyn has created is not easily defined. Aside from the anti-Semitism that is a strand of its make-up, it has no coherent ideology. The legacy of Marxism is notable for its absence. There is no analysis of changing class structures or any systematic critique of the present condition of capitalism. Such policies as have been floated have been plucked from a blue sky, without any attempt to connect them with earthbound facts. The consensus-seeking values of core Labour voters are dismissed as symptoms of backwardness. As for the concerns about job security and immigration that produced large majorities in favour of Brexit in what used to be safe Labour areas, the Corbynite view seems to be that these are retrograde attitudes that only show how badly working people need re-education.

Corbyn’s refusal to specify any upper limit to immigration at the last party conference in Liverpool illustrated his detachment from electoral realities. But far from being a debilitating weakness–as it would be if Labour were still a conventional political party–this rejection of realistic thinking is the principal source of his strength in the new kind of party he has created. From being a broad-based institution that defended the interests of working people, Labour has morphed into a vehicle for an alienated fringe of the middle class that finds psychological comfort in belonging in an anti-capitalist protest movement. While a dwindling rump of trade union barons continues to act as power-broker, Labour’s northern fortresses are crumbling.

The defining feature of Corbynism, Gray said, “is not an anachronistic utopian socialism, but a very modern kind of liberal narcissism.” It is less a plan to win elections than a performance of righteousness.

The claim that what has emerged from Corbyn’s takeover of the Labour Party is an inchoate and extreme type of liberalism may seem perverse. He and his followers never cease to inveigh against neoliberal economics–a blanket term that seems to include every market economy in the world–even as they show a consistent bias in favour of tyrannies in their protests against military action, their anti-war campaigns focusing solely as they do on the policies of Western governments. It might seem that Labour under Corbyn has abandoned liberal values altogether, and there are some who talk of a new left-fascism.

Yet this is too easy an analysis of the change that has taken place. Corbyn’s Labour is no more crypto-fascist than it is Trotskyite. In some respects–such as his support for unlimited freedom of movement for people–it embodies a hyperbolic version of the liberalism of the most recent generation. In others, it expresses what liberalism has now become. There have always been many liberalisms, but the mutation in liberal thinking over the past few decades has been deep and radical. From being a philosophy that aimed to give a theoretical rationale to a way of life based on the practice of toleration, it has become a mindset that defines itself by enmity to that way of life.

Corbyn’s “inclusive” attitude towards Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA fits in with a left-liberal world-view that supports ­anti-colonial struggles in a general embrace of identity politics. Fashionable nonsense about cultural appropriation may not matter much, as it has been largely confined to increasingly marginal universities. However, it expresses what has come to be seen as a liberal principle: the right of everyone to assert what they take to be their identity–particularly if it can be represented as that of an oppressed minority–by whatever means are judged necessary. If free speech stands in the way, the practice must be discarded. It terrorism is required, so be it. This represents a fundamental shift in liberal thinking.

This metamorphosis was not without precedent. Since at least the nineteenth century, political thinkers have seen in liberalism the potential for self-destruction. Leszek Kolakowski called it “the self-poisoning of the open society.” By this Kolakowski meant “the process by which the extension and consistent application of liberal principles transforms them into their antithesis.” In an act of self-negation, liberal slogans and concerns are turned against the foundations of a free society.

Nevertheless, there have been, as Gray said, “many liberalisms.” More grounded versions have prevailed in the past, and one may do so again. Trump’s victory and the routing of the Democratic Party, at all levels of government, has created the opporutnity to forge something new and long overdue: a chastened liberalism.

Confronting Trump

The election of Donald Trump alone is not be enough to end liberal democracy in America. Bulwarks remain against the real threat his presidency poses of illiberal democracy. The most important of these, as David Frum said, will be “the active vigilance of freedom-loving citizens who put country first, party second.”

One of the few things I expect Trump will actually do as President is punish his enemies. That would not be without precedent, but with Trump, the difference of degree could be so extreme that it would amount to a difference in kind. In light of this reality, liberal democrats (with a small “l” and a small “d”) have a responsibility, as Benjamin Wittes said, “to protect democratic institutions against his promised predations” and to defend those he targets for abuse.

One would hope that Congress would be a partner or tool, in such a project, being a coordinate branch of government with vast legislative, oversight, appropriations, and impeachment powers. But I have my doubts that Congress would, in practice, be up for a serious confrontation with Donald Trump. So far, in contrast to many conservative intellectuals and a great many former Republican officials, most Republican members of Congress have jumped–many of them uncomfortably, but they have jumped–on the Trumpist train. And it’s hard to imagine Trump winning the presidency without the GOP retaining control of both chambers of the legislature. […]

The point is that there is no reason at this stage to imagine that the legislature will be a viable venue for push-back, which is a shame considering the powerful set of tools at its disposal. The Coalition of All Democratic Forces should certainly see what kind of use it might make of the legislature, but realistically, we should probably expect that the coalition’s job in Congress will be to prevent Trump from passing anti-democratic legislation. That is, the task in Congress will be a negative one of denying Trump the use of the Article I powers, not the positive one of the coalition’s using them itself.

That leaves the tool that will certainly be available: the courts. The courts have a few obvious advantages, starting with hundreds of independent judges of both parties whom Trump cannot remove from office and who don’t have to face his supporters in forthcoming elections.

This tool is not a cure-all by any means. Much of what the President does, after all, is not justiciable, particularly the president’s overseas activities. Trump as president would be able to do a huge amount of damage that no amount of litigation would be able to restrain–probably including certain versions of his utterly noxious Muslim ban. So I don’t want to suggest that what I’m about to propose can “tyrant-proof” the presidency. As I have argued before, the only way to tyrant-proof the presidency is to not elect tyrants as president.

That said, litigation can restrain certain things, and a great deal of what Trump proposes to do will be ripe for legal challenge, particularly as his actions impact individuals who will have standing to sue or the right to defend themselves. As Trump attempts to use the powers of the presidency to lash out at people or groups, the actions he takes will generally give rise to litigation opportunities.

Wittes called for “a very public, cross-ideological network of lawyers and philanthropists.” This network will “offer a systematic defense of the values the Coalition of All Democratic Forces holds in common and to have the ability to respond rapidly to actions that threaten those values: to forestall such actions in court as long as possible, to whittle them down, and to block those that can be blocked.” If President Trump conflates peaceful dissent with insurrection, for example, this coalition will come to the defense of individual freedoms.

In this conflict, the conventional shorthand of left and right obscures more than it clarifies. The real divide, as Wittes said, is between those who “believe in rule of law institutions or mob rule led by demagogues.” I expect fanatics on the right will be emboldened with their demagogue commanding the executive branch. But the threat to liberal democracy does not come exclusively from them, though they are assuredly in the stronger position. I also expect the far left will go ballistic.

For years, a faction of the American left has attacked the distinction between civil and uncivil disobedience. They have claimed the authority to use any means they deem necessary, including violent intimidation, against anyone they deem oppressive. Their imperious claims are more than just talk, as hyperactivists have already shown in their violence against Trump supporters. They are unlikely to accept Trump’s presidency as legitimate, and we cannot assume their resistance will be peaceful.

A coalition to defend liberal democracy must hold the line against both the authoritarian right and the illiberal left. The two may wish to destroy each other, but in practice they are accidental collaborators. Each one takes harms inflicted by the other as a license to respond in kind. Those who put country first, party second, must not indulge activist violence. We have no common cause with anyone who aspires to be, or any faction that would cheer for, another Leon Czolgosz.

Note: The date stamp on this post is incorrect. It was originally published on November 9, 2016.

Humane and Endless War

Presidential elections are generally a bad time for policy debates. Political horizons tend to narrow, and discussions are relentlessly framed in terms that favor one candidate over another. A valuable exception this month came from Samuel Moyn. Professor Moyn’s expertise is in law and history, and he has a keen sense of intellectual history. He recently gave a talk at New America on “How Warfare Became Both More Humane and Harder to End.” It can be heard here, and it is worth your time.

I suspect Moyn’s views and my own diverge in some important ways. I doubt we take the same view of the Islamist movement, given some of his passing comments. Also, I have even less patience than he seems to for “neutral” NGOs like the ACLU and their conceit of being “above politics” — hence the last paragraph on my about page. Nevertheless, we share a concern about the weakened restraints on going to war.

The Vanities of Self-Hatred

Self-hatred is a form of self-absorption, which is rarely a source of moral clarity. In The Tyranny of Guilt: An Essay on Western Masochism, the French writer Pascal Bruckner said:

Nothing is more Western than hatred of the West, that passion for cursing and lacerating ourselves. By issuing their anathemas, the high priests of defamation only signal their membership in the universe they reject. The suspicion that hovers over our most brilliant successes always threatens to degenerate into facile defeatism. The critical spirit rises up against itself and consumes its form. But instead of coming out of this process greater and purified, it devours itself in a kind of self-cannibalism and takes a morose pleasure in annihilating itself. Hyper-criticism eventuates in self-hatred, leaving behind it only ruins. A new dogma of demolition is born out of the rejection of dogmas.

Thus we Euro-Americans are supposed to have only one obligation: endlessly atoning for what we have inflicted on other parts of humanity. How can we fail to see that this leads us to live off self-denunciation while taking a strange pride in being the worst? Self-denigration is all too clearly a form of indirect self-glorification. Evil can come only from us; other people are motivated by sympathy, good will, candor. This is the paternalism of the guilty conscience: seeing ourselves as the kings of infamy is still a way of staying on the crest of history. Since Freud we know that masochism is only a reversed sadism, a passion for domination turned against oneself. Europe is still messianic in a minor key, campaigning for its own weakness, exporting humility and wisdom. Its obvious scorn for itself does not conceal a very great infatuation. Barbarity is Europe’s great pride, which it acknowledges only in itself; it denies that others are barbarous, finding attenuating circumstances for them (which is a way of denying them all responsibility).

For Bruckner, there is a crucial distinction between repentance and remorse. He said, “the former recognizes the sin the better to separate itself from it and to enjoy the grace of convalescence, while the latter remains in sin out of a sick need to suffer its burning. Remorse does not repent of its sin; it feeds on it, wants to remain attached to it forever.” The latter is often mistaken for moral courage, but in reality, it is an expression of condescension. When we refuse to hold a group of people fully accountable for their actions, we are treating them as less than equal.


The most pervasive hatred in American politics – of which I am trying to wean myself – is also the least chastised. It is the obsessive hostility to professional politicians and the transactions of everyday politics. Jonathan Rauch dubbed it “politiphobia.” In his essay “How American Politics Went Insane,” which is a sort of addendum to his recent book Political Realism, Rauch said:

Using polls and focus groups, [political scientists John R.] Hibbing and [Elizabeth] Theiss-Morse found that between 25 and 40 percent of Americans (depending on how one measures) have a severely distorted view of how government and politics are supposed to work. I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even _exists_. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.

If politicians won’t do the job, then who will? Politiphobes, according to Hibbing and Theiss-Morse, believe policy should be made not by messy political conflict and negotiations but by _ENSIDS_: empathetic, non-self-interested decision makers. These are leaders who will step forward, cast aside cowardly politicians and venal special interests, and implement long-overdue solutions. _ENSIDS_ can be politicians, technocrats, or autocrats – whatever works. Whether the process is democratic is not particularly important.

Chances are that politiphobes have been out there since long before Hibbing and Theiss-Morse identified them in 2002. Unlike the Tea Party or the Working Families Party, they aren’t particularly ideological: They have popped up left, right, and center. Ross Perot’s independent presidential candidacies of 1992 and 1996 appealed to the idea that any sensible businessman could knock heads together and fix Washington. In 2008, Barack Obama pandered to a center-left version of the same fantasy, promising to magically transcend partisan politics and implement the best solutions from both parties.

From this point of view, there are “obvious, commonsense solutions,” which “special” interests have undermined. Most political conflict does not come from the clash of rivalrous goods or honest discord between legitimate interests. It comes from selfish indulgence – when it’s not the result of some conspiracy. A wholesome unity lies just beyond our reach, if only we had the right leadership.

The promise is as alluring as it is false. This unease and unhappiness with conventional politics is, I expect, genuine, but it cannot be eradicated. It is an example of what Karl Popper called “the strain of civilization,” which must be borne by those who live in – and reap all the advantages of – an open society.