Though they come at politics from different directions, the woke Left and the Trumpian Right share striking similarities in their core political beliefs, assumptions, and tendencies. Moreover, they both chip away at America’s withering classical liberal consensus, which is in dire need of preservation.
Thanks to the forces of wokeism (or the “successor ideology,” to use Wesley Yang’s phrase) and Trumpism, liberal democracy is losing strength at the ballot box and in the realm of ideas. Passions are running hot. In-group solidarity and out-group hatred are so strong that they are coming into open conflict with classical liberal tenets like the dignity and uniqueness of the individual and the importance of safeguarding constitutional democracy. For those on the fringes of the left and right, talk of individual rights, constitutionalism, and democratic procedure don’t quite hit the spot. Tribalism does.
Many Americans thirst for political enemies and seem ready and willing to advocate policies and adopt belief systems so long as they are distinct from those of the other side. Political scientists refer to this dysfunction as “negative polarization” or “negative partisanship.” Writing in National Affairs in the fall of 2019, the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch summed it up: “Partisans are not so much rallying for a cause or party they believe in as banding together to fight a collective enemy.” What they are for, we are against.
To the beleaguered ranks of classical liberals seeking to gain back some ground, I would offer a piece of advice: Leverage the power of this negative polarization to political advantage.
The woke Left and the Trumpian Right, the twin threats to classical liberal values, are similar in fundamental ways—but they hate each other. So, while it’s important to defend and advance liberal democracy on the merits, we should also get creative: First, let’s point out the similarities between the woke Left and the Trumpian Right. Few of them will be persuaded (or will even listen); but those who do will be in a vulnerable intellectual position and open to joining our ranks. Since they are repelled by their opponents, the realization that they are so like their nemeses could open the door to serious rethinking. In this way, we can open the door—at least a crack—to liberal conversion.
The Woke Pot and the Trumpian Kettle
To make the case that the Trumpists and their woke enemies are similar, we should stress a few themes they share: first, oppressor-victim modes of thinking; second, a penchant for conspiracism; third, a desire to frame America as a damned nation; and fourth, a commitment to particularism over universalism. Illiberalism on both America’s left and its right share these traits. Taken together, these forces work against core tenets of classical liberalism—particularly the inviolable dignity and agency of the individual—and its political product, liberal democracy.
The tendency of both the identitarian Left and the Trumpian Right to view themselves and their nemeses through the lens of oppressors and oppressed stems from the fact that both of them consider the fundamental building block of politics to be the group, not the individual. Both factions see American politics and society as consisting not of interactions among unique individuals of varying talents, desires, and interests, but of a few homogenous blocks in zero-sum competition with one another.
Especially after the moral panic of the summer of 2020, the Left’s building blocks are racial groups. The immense socioeconomic, cultural, and human diversity within each racial group is not of much interest to them; hence, their use of the phrase “people of color”—despite the descriptive value of that term being questionable, as Peter Skerry has argued.
Within the illiberal elements of the Right, some are similarly obsessed with race, although most of them mix their “White” identity with cultural and economic resentments. For much of the Trumpian Right, American life consists of “elites”— many of whom are hell-bent on artificially promoting the interests of racial minorities, they claim—versus the forgotten, downtrodden (White) backbone of the “real America.”
In the minds of illiberals on both left and right, interactions between these two groups are not complex. One group is an oppressor group, the other is oppressed. This construct produces very strange beliefs—like the notion on the left that multimillionaire African Americans at the heights of American business, culture, or sports are somehow victims because of the melanin levels in their skin, or the belief on the right that someone as powerful as the last President of the United States was really, like his voter base, a victim—of liberal media and cultural bias, of “deep state maneuverings,” of a wrongfully “stolen election.”
This is where the penchant for conspiracism comes into play for both sides. The woke Left and Trumpian Right, seeing American politics as a zero-sum competition between distinct, internally homogenous groups, are incapable of viewing disparities, injustices, or, really, any social phenomena as the result of many complex, contingent, interlocking dynamics. Instead, every less-than-desirable American reality is a consequence of intentional oppression by the oppressor group. This is the essence of conspiracism, a desire to see a nefarious, coherent plan at work when in fact there is none.
Much ink has been spilled (rightly) on conspiracy theorizing by the Trumpian Right. For members of the MAGA-verse, the “stop the steal” slogan and the chaos of January 6 were just the latest and most violent results of their long-running desire to unearth a liberal elitist scheme to end America as we know it and beat the forgotten real Americans into submission.
If we look under the hood of the “anti-racism” of the left, we find the same drive toward conspiracism. Ibram X. Kendi, Exhibit A, is the high priest of the anti-racist church in today’s America. Here is Kendi in The Atlantic a year ago, addressing Black Americans:
No-knocking police officers rushed into your Louisville home and shot you to death, but your black boyfriend immediately got charged, and not the officers who killed you. Three white men hunted you, cornered you, and killed you on a Georgia road, but it took a cellphone video and national outrage for them to finally be charged. In Minneapolis, you did not hurt anyone, but when the police arrived, you found yourself pinned to the pavement, knee on your neck, crying out, ‘I can’t breathe.’… The state did not want you to breathe. But your loved ones did not ignore you. They did not ignore your nightmare. They share the same nightmare.
A lot is going on in the quote above, but here I highlight the way Kendi groups his Black readers together with Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd as one and the same—victims of an active White supremacist plot to oppress or even kill you. There is no space for tragedy, randomness, chaos, or contingency in this mode of logic, just premeditation and A-to-B causality.
Such ways of thinking—simplistic, there is no other word for them—lend themselves to perverse interpretations of the American experiment by both the Left and the Right. Both see America as damned or irretrievably marred.
For the woke Left, the source of America’s damnation is its harrowing racial past: American history is bound by an unending, undifferentiated thread of anti-Black oppression. Not much has changed between 1619 and 2021. Racism is at our core. Progress is a farce.
The Right, on the other hand, sees damnation in America’s future. The halcyon days are behind us; only liberal elitism, cancel culture, and anti-Right bias are left in store. The “end of America as we know it” is just one lost election away. Indeed, the speakers of such words and their audiences know their deeper shared truth: America is already lost.
Whether America is seen as damned by its past or its future, these beliefs dismiss individual agency: There is no canvas on which we can actively craft our future. There is just fixity, together with our powerlessness.
This is a depressing view of the world. While we may find pieces of these illiberal left and right frameworks appealing, they lead nowhere. They speak to no higher goals, no universal aspirations. Their political advocacy is ultimately aimed at reversing perceived intergroup power disparities; they are not seeking to advance universal principles. Neither agenda speaks the language of a shared human nature or shared common desires, let alone a shared humanity. Their politics are not aimed at advancing the common good or putting large ideals into practice; instead, they aim to use—and, if necessary, create—fundamental differences between “us” and “them” in ways advantageous to “us.”
How Classical Liberals Can Win
There is opportunity here. Adherents of woke ideology on the left and the nationalist-populist reactionary right not only stand opposed to America’s liberal democratic experiment but detest one another, to different degrees and in different ways. To revive a classical liberal consensus, we must chip away at their respective bases of support. One way is to tap into this mutual hatred.
Instead of waxing poetic about the merits of classical liberal tenets, we should start by convincing each group of the similarities it shares with its supposed enemies. I have laid out a preliminary case for those similarities, and I hope that more capable thinkers can build on and flesh out this first stab.
Having done so, we can start chipping away at the Left identitarians’ and Trumpists’ sense of security within their respective tribes and their belief in the rectitude of their sides’ political projects and narratives. The anti-racists can begin to question “anti-racism;” the MAGA adherents can begin thinking about alternatives. A small fissure can be opened within each camp’s ranks.
Into that void a full-throated defense of liberal democracy can and must step. First, though, we must pry open the door.
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