This year, several high-profile writers have left left-leaning publications after running afoul of what they describe as a pervasive culture of censoriousness, groupthink and intellectual-risk aversion. This month, Donald Trump once again stunned much of the liberal establishment by dramatically beating polling expectations to come within about 80,000 votes of another Electoral College victory.
It’s worth asking whether there’s a connection between the two — that is, between the left’s increasingly constricted view of the world and the increasing frequency with which leftists are surprised by the world as it is.
What, today, is leftism, at least when it comes to intellectual life? Not what it used to be. Once it was predominantly liberal, albeit with radical fringes. Now it is predominantly progressive, or woke, with centrist liberals in dissent. Once it was irreverent. Now it is pious. Once it believed that truth was best discovered by engaging opposing points of view. Now it believes that truth can be established by eliminating them. Once it cared about process. Now it is obsessed with outcomes. Once it understood, with Walt Whitman, that we contain multitudes. Now it is into dualities: We are privileged or powerless, white or of color, racist or anti-racist, oppressor or oppressed.
The list goes on. But the central difference is this: The old liberal left paid attention to complexity, ambiguity, the gray areas. A sense of complexity induced a measure of doubt, including self-doubt. The new left typically seeks to reduce things to elements such as race, class and gender, in ways that erase ambiguity and doubt. The new left is a factory of certitudes.
It’s from that factory that writers like Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald have fled, and from which many other independent-minded thinkers will, sooner or later, follow. For them, the loss isn’t devastating: They have large followings and can use new digital platforms like Substack to make a generous living.
For the new left — and the publications that champion it — the loss is much greater. It makes them predictable, smug and dull. It alienates readers. A current article on the New York magazine website is titled, “I Think About Björk’s Creativity Animal a Lot.” For gems such as this they got rid of Sullivan?
But worse than making it dull, the purge (or self-purge) of contrarians has made the new left blind.
According to the incessant pronouncements of much of the news media (including a few of my own), Donald Trump is the most anti-Black, anti-Hispanic and anti-woman president in modern memory. Yet the CNN exit poll found that Trump won a majority of the vote of white women against both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden. He also improved his vote share over 2016 with both Latino and Black voters, while losing most of the advantage he previously had with college-educated white males — precisely the demographic his policies had supposedly done most to favor.
If the catechism of today’s left determined reality, none of this would have happened. Racial, ethnic or sexual identity would have trumped every other voting consideration. But as the Texas Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar recently told Axios: “Trump did a much better job at understanding Hispanics. Sometimes, Democrats see Hispanics as monolithic.” Latino voters in his South Texas district were particularly turned off by progressive rhetoric about defunding the police, opposition to fossil fuels and decriminalizing border crossings.
What is true of Cuellar’s constituency is true of everyone: People are rarely reducible to a single animating political consideration. Nor should they be subject to a simple moral judgment. Motives are complicated: It is perfectly possible to see Trump for the reprehensible man he is and still find something to like in his policies, just as it is possible to admire Biden’s character and reject his politics.
The apparent inability of many on the left to entertain the thought that decent human beings might have voted for Trump for sensible reasons — to take one example, the unemployment rate reached record lows before the pandemic hit — amounts to an epic failure to see their fellow Americans with understanding, much less with empathy. It repels the 73 million Trump voters who cannot see anything of themselves in media caricatures of them as fragile, bigoted, greedy and somewhat stupid white people.
It also motivates them. The surest way to fuel the politics of resentment — the politics that gave us the Tea Party, Brexit and Trump, and will continue to furnish more of the same — is to give people something to resent. Jeering moral condescension from entitled elites is among the things most people tend to resent.
Which brings me back to the flight of the contrarians. As the left (and the institutions that represent it) increasingly becomes an intellectual monoculture, it will do more than just drive away talent, as well as significant parts of its audience. It will become more self-certain, more obnoxious to those who don’t share its assumptions, more blinkered and more frequently wrong.
To the enemies of the left, the self-harm that left-leaning institutions do with their increasingly frequent excommunications is, ultimately, good news. The mystery is why liberals would do it to themselves.
Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.