Progressives vs Liberals: Jonathan Chait fires the starting pistol


Last week, I wrote that internal divisions within the cultural left were becoming more visible. A new wave of progressive authoritarianism and dogma, largely driven by identity politics, was creating a new class of progressive radicals who will inevitably clash with moderate liberals who still care about free speech and individual rights.

This week, the well-known liberal columnist Jonathan Chait identified the same problem. In a piece for New York magazine which went viral overnight, Chait writes that despite a brief death in the 1990s, political correctness has made a comeback, and is now damaging liberalism just as much as conservatism. As the piece explains, this is because there are serious divisions on the cultural left that have been obscured by mainstream political discourse. According to Chait, some on the left are simply not committed to the enlightenment ideal of freedom:

It is true that liberals and leftists both want to make society more economically and socially egalitarian. But liberals still hold to the classic Enlightenment political tradition that cherishes individuals rights, freedom of expression, and the protection of a kind of free political marketplace….Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually  more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed.

This is nothing new of course. As Chait acknowledges, this ideology was widespread on US campuses in the late 80s and early 90s, before being rejected by mainstream liberal commentators and Democrat politicians like Barbara Jordan who condemned the idea outright. Can we therefore expect the new wave of political correctness, like the last one, to be relegated to the margins by saner figures on the left? There are a number of reasons why I think this won’t happen – or at least not soon.

First of all, as John Sexton has pointed out elsewhere on this site, the instinct to punish people for failing to abide by social norms is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Those who feel this instinct particularly strongly will always gravitate towards the cultural hegemony of the day in order to satisfy their instincts. The frequent comparisons of advocates of political correctness to puritans are more than just hyperbole – had these people lived in the 17th or 18th centuries, they probably would have been puritans. The values that authoritarians seek to impose on others may change with the times, but the authoritarian instinct remains the same.

Secondly (and here is the crucial difference to the 1990s) political correctness has moved beyond the academy to acquire serious clout in the media, especially online media. ABC’s response to political correctness in the 1990s was to give Bill Maher a show entitled “Politically Incorrect”. Contrast this with the hysterical response of online media to Chait’s article:

“Punch-drunk Jonathan Chait takes on entire internet” – Gawker 

“Jonathan Chait, please accept this spa gift certificate – on us” – Gawker

“John Hodgmen rebuts Jonathan Chait with dazzling Twitter essay” – Salon

“John Hodgman drops serious wisdom about political correctness, privilege, and the internet” – Vox

“The truth about political correctness is that it doesn’t actually exist”Vox

“Understanding the microagressions that trigger Jonathan Chait” – Salon (written by the author of “What’s the Matter With White People”)

“Jonathan Chait doesn’t really care about free speech” – Flavorwire
“A note to Jonathan Chait: dissent isn’t suffocation” – Jezebel

“Helicopter Liberals: Or why Jonathan Chait is history’s greatest monster” – Raw Story

It’s no surprise that online media has gone after Chait with such a vengeance. Identity politics has become incredibly important to online media, because, as Chait explains in his essay, outrage generates clicks – and nothing generates outrage more than identity politics:

Every media company knows that stories about race and gender bias draw huge audiences, making identity politics a reliable profit center in a media industry beset by insecurity. A year ago, for instance, a photographer compiled images of Fordham students displaying signs recounting “an instance of racial microaggression they have faced.” The stories ranged from uncomfortable (“No, where are you really from?”) to relatively innocuous (“ ‘Can you read this?’ He showed me a Japanese character on his phone”). BuzzFeed published part of her project, and it has since received more than 2 million views. This is not an anomaly.

With an increasing number of people receiving their news online, this means that the new political correctness is likely here to stay. While not everyone who clicks on outrage-bait articles on identity politics necessarily agrees with them (indeed, a look at any comments section beneath such articles suggest more than a few people don’t), they still click on them. And that will ensure the survival of the format.

On top of that, it will encourage those with authoritarian instincts, particularly those of the online world. Social media progressives have become wedded to “call-out culture”, a polite word for digital vigilantism, in which hordes of online activists mob the social media accounts of individuals or organisations.

The symbiotic relationship between outrage-baiting digital media and authoritarian activists can be seen most clearly in the case of Justine Sacco, in which Gawker blogger Sam Biddle’s publication of an offensive tweet by Sacco immediately led to her becoming a trending topic – and not in a good way.

Jonathan Chait is one of the first mainstream liberals to understand what is happening and publicly challenge it. Others, like Bill Maher, are aware of the dangers of the PC ideology but have less understanding of how digital media helped cause its dramatic re-emergence. But as more liberals figure out what’s going on, they are likely to be as concerned as Chait.

The stage is set, therefore, for a protracted struggle. Digital media will continue to sustain the radical extreme of the left, and moderate liberals will be increasingly concerned about what this means for their mainstream appeal.

Meanwhile, conservatives who remember how the Tea Party were portrayed as dangerous extremists may well be wondering if it isn’t time for some payback…