San Francisco mayor London Breed has promised a crackdown on “the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”
Photo: Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
It’s been seven or eight years since a wave of illiberal norms around the discussion of race and gender began to hit an expanding array of progressive institutions. The name for this phenomenon kept changing, from political correctness to call-out culture to cancel culture to wokeness, because every time a new label came along, Republicans would slap it on literally anything that wasn’t right wing. (Mitt Romney recently blamed President Biden’s economic policies on his “woke advisers.”) What remained of the liberal left would have to clarify that, no, what they were critiquing was stuff that was really far out there: impenetrable jargon, irrational mobs, struggle sessions, creepy forced apologies, absurd firings.
In certain quarters, a deep fatalism set in about the survival of liberal values, articulated by critics including Andrew Sullivan and Wesley Yang, who has described the left’s new thinking as “successor ideology” — a term that presumes it is destined to displace the old liberal ideology. Michael Lind, a co-founder of New America, claimed that, within the center left, “debate has been replaced by compulsory assent and ideas have been replaced by slogans that can be recited but not questioned: Black Lives Matter, Green Transition, Trans Women Are Women, 1619, Defund the Police.”
But I don’t take the success of the illiberal left for granted. I think it can be halted. In fact, I suspect that the floodwaters are already receding.
The way the illiberal left has been dealing with race and gender is of a piece with the way it has approached a range of debates in the social-media era. Activists reduce nearly every issue to a moralistic binary and cast any dissent as a personal failing. Disagree with the policy activism of the Sunrise Movement? You’re a boomer happy to let the planet fry after you enjoy your remaining time on it. Not sure single-payer health care is the best strategy? You must want people to die on the street.
It is on identity-related issues that this style of thinking has made the most headway. Academia has produced left-wing philosophical challenges to liberalism that treat speech as tantamount to violence and regard political disputes as a zero-sum conflict between oppressor and oppressed. And while these illiberal norms often originated on campus, they have expanded into progressive communities like primary schools (mostly private ones), media, publishing, and political and social-activist organizations.
What has made this all feel so unstoppable is that critics had reasons to be afraid of speaking out against it. When the New York Times forced science writer Donald G. McNeil Jr. to resign for quoting (not using) a racial slur, Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan suggested that anybody who disagreed with his termination was also racist. “It’s not hard to believe,” she wrote, “that any White person who would freely utter or defend the most offensive racial slur in English may well be someone with a history of other problems.” This is a pure distillation of witch-hunt logic: Anybody who objects to the fairness of the proceedings is presumptively implicated in the crime of the accused.
But a system based on frightening dissenters into submission is a brittle foundation for social change. What appeared to be broad assent within elite institutions was actually enforced silence. It is beginning to give way to careful but firm pushback — on campus, in media, and in politics.
After a Chinese-born professor had to give up teaching his class at the University of Michigan in October for showing students a dated film in which Laurence Olivier appeared in blackface, nearly 700 faculty members signed a letter calling for his reinstatement. The dean of Yale Law School, a staging ground for some of the most notorious abuses of this era, publicly expressed regret after school administrators last year tried to make a student recite a humiliating apology script following a trumped-up outrage (he had sent a jocular party invitation referring to his apartment as a “trap house”). This spring, after protesters shouted down a Federalist Society event on campus, the dean called this “unacceptable” and said “at a minimum it violated the norms of this Law School.” Meanwhile, a growing list of colleges is following the University of Chicago’s 2015 establishment of the principle that a campus should be a place for free debate.
The recent Times editorial defending free speech against threats on both sides represents a turning point. The article’s rather anodyne free-speech-is-good argument masked its larger significance: America’s most important newspaper was implicitly promising not to let social-media outrage campaigns dictate its decisions. The Philadelphia Inquirer in February published a history of its own blinkered racial past by Wesley Lowery that revealed how angry readers forced its well-regarded executive editor to resign over a column by the paper’s architecture critic* lamenting the burning of buildings during the George Floyd protests. While Lowery told the story in a neutral, just-the-facts way, it was impossible to interpret its publication as anything but a confession of error.
After Democrats lost seats in Congress in 2020, and nearly lost the presidency, they began to say out loud things they only whispered privately before. Former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter blamed “white wokeness” for denying the crime wave in his city. Congressman Ruben Gallego seethed over the left’s use of the word Latinx: “When Latino politicos use the term, it is largely to appease white rich progressives who think that is the term we use.” San Francisco mayor London Breed, whose city is also facing a spike in crime, lashed out at “the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”
I can think of three reasons why the PC wave may be ebbing. The first is that many liberals who were uncertain how to respond to these norms have seen enough of them to decide they don’t like them, having gone from positive or indifferent to critical. Writers like Matthew Yglesias and Jeffrey Sachs, who a few years ago were dismissing the notion of any rising trend of illiberalism on the left as a myth, have since conceded the trend is very real. Left-wing publications like Jacobin and commentators like Briahna Joy Gray have increasingly criticized the left’s rigid approach to gender and identity.
Second, the cultural changes brought about by these ideas quickly exposed their inherent impracticality. One response to the Floyd murder was a massive surge in demand for workplace racial-sensitivity training, some of which was clumsy and some of which was simply ludicrous. Some anti-racism trainings defined white supremacy to include “written communication,” “a sense of urgency,” “scientific, linear thinking,” “planning for the future,” and other habits of any viable organization.
The third, and largest, factor curtailing political correctness was the 2020 elections. The defeat of Donald Trump removed an accelerant in the discourse. By rubbing the country’s face in his unapologetic racism, and posing as a transparently disingenuous critic of “cancel culture” (who was, in reality, trying to cancel his critics all the time), Trump did more to encourage PC excess than a thousand Robin DiAngelos could have.
The Democrats’ middling performances in 2020 and the 2021 off-year elections, and the lessons they might contain for the upcoming midterms, have brought elected Democrats face-to-face with the consequences of allowing the most militant members of the progressive movement to bully their party into adopting maximalist stances on issues like school closings, immigration enforcement, and crime. It’s now much harder for progressives to depict, say, support for enforcing immigration law or opposition to defunding the police as inherently racist when it’s clear the communities supposedly offended by those positions support them. There is an old saying that politics is downstream from culture, but in this case, culture is downstream from politics. When Democratic elected officials openly blamed their troubles on purity tests imposed by social activists, it gave permission for liberals elsewhere to resist tactics to which they had previously submitted.
It turns out that democracy itself has been the corrective factor. The passions of the past half-decade have shown that, for all its faults, the Democratic Party, with its multiracial coalition that is accountable to the public, is the institution in American life that is best equipped to beat back illiberalism. The Republican Party succumbed completely to fanaticism long ago.
*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Philadelphia Inquirer’s architecture critic resigned over a column published during the George Floyd protests.