In the fevered minds of “leftists” (for lack of another “acceptable” word, I’ll use the word chosen by Kathryn Joyce and Jeff Sharlet in their In These Times post and adopted by Michelle Goldberg in the New York Times), their once-fellow travelers are turning away from the truth and beauty and joining the right.
Joyce and Sharlet’s broadside largely obsesses over bold-faced name converts, from Mike Taibbi and Naomi Wolf to Russell Brand and Dave Chappelle. Goldberg tries to take it a step further, because who among us doesn’t form our view of the world based on Russell Brand?
What gives this migration political significance, however, are the ordinary people following them, casting off what they view as a censorious liberalism for a movement that doesn’t ask anyone to “do the work” or “check your privilege.” Joyce and Sharlet write, “We, the authors of this article, each count such losses in our own lives, and maybe you do, too: friends you struggle to hold onto despite their growing allegiance to terrifying ideas, and friends you give up on, and friends who have given up on you and the hope you shared together.”
Mind you, there is no distinction between progressives who have rejected illiberalism and Trumpkins. To the left, any variance from the orthodoxy is tantamount to joining the Proud Boys. But I digress.
A key question for the left is why this is happening. For some celebrity defectors, the impetus seems clear enough: They lurched right after a cancellation or public humiliation.
It’s understandable why someone like Goldberg would focus on celebrity defectors. She neither knows nor cares about names that no one puts in bold face who suffer similar experiences. In one comment, an erstwhile progressive tells of a twit in which she used the wrong word, word that was beloved two days ago but hated yesterday, causing a mob to attack her infidelity to the cause. Assuming, arguendo, that most of us do not take our cue from celebs, but reach our own decisions, the “why is this happening” query requires deeper consideration.
Part of the answer is probably that the culture of the left is simply less welcoming, especially to the politically unsure, than the right. The conservative movement may revel in cruelty toward out-groups — see, for example, the ravening digital mobs that descended on the podcaster Julia Mazur for a TikTok she made about the pleasures of life without children — but the movement is often good at love-bombing potential recruits.
If by “less welcoming,” Goldberg means intolerant and hostile to heretics, perhaps she has a point. But then, you have to be a “potential recruit” before you get “love-bombed” by the right or they can be just as intolerant and hostile. Try saying “Trump ain’t that great” and see how much love you get from Steve Bannon.
But I think there’s a deeper problem, which stems from a crisis of faith in the possibility of progress. Liberals and leftists have lots of excellent policy ideas but rarely articulate a plausible vision of the future. I sometimes hear leftists talk about “our collective liberation,” but outside a few specific contexts — the ongoing subjugation of the Palestinians comes to mind — I mostly have no idea what they’re talking about.
Do they have excellent policy ideas, such as the “ongoing subjugation of the Palestinians” since that’s the only example of a “plausible vision of the future” Goldberg has to offer? Some might dispute her premise. Does that make them Trump supporters?
It’s easy to see what various parts of the left want to dismantle — capitalism, the carceral state, heteropatriarchy, the nuclear family — and much harder to find a realistic conception of what comes next. Some leftists who lose hope in the possibility of thoroughgoing transformation become liberals like me, mostly resigned to working toward incremental improvements to a dysfunctional society. Others, looking beyond the politics of amelioration, seek new ways to shake up the system.
There is a question whether change should be incremental or radical, evolution or revolution. Granted, the left of the moment favors radical change, burning down what exists and has somehow managed to sustain us to this point in our existence. By tossing in the word “realistic,” Goldberg takes shelter without facing the end game of the left. It’s not that she isn’t against the nuclear family, but that “liberals like her” aren’t convinced that communism will work this time, if we finally do it right.
I posit a different theory as to why the flow runs rightward, meaning away from the fringe of progressivism and toward liberalism, and rarely, if ever, leftward. People grow up. Believing in a future where we all ride unicorns prancing on rainbows may sound lovely until you realize that unicorns aren’t real. Identity politics may sound glorious until people realize that they are forfeiting their children’s lunch, for which they worked hard, spent frugally and failed to loot any diner, for the sake of others. How many progressives have handed over the keys to their home and car to the first black person they came across? It’s easy to feel. It’s a lot harder to explain to your hungry children why you gave their lunch away.
But isn’t there some way to fight discrimination against black people, feed the hungry, respect women’s agency and still survive in a pluralistic society where you neither hate the Jews nor applaud terrorism as long as it can be spun to benefit an “oppressed” group? Yes, and it’s called liberalism. Perhaps the explanation for why so many former leftists are turning right is that they are coming to the realization that they were wrong, that leftists are wrong. The abandonment of progressive identity politics isn’t because there is a crisis of faith in progress, but because their faith is restored. It’s just that progressivism isn’t the answer.