The quote in the headline comes from an extended op-ed by Thomas Frank.
Not that long ago, Frank was the lefty guy that the media turned to, to explain why conservatives were winning in red states. And his answer was more lefty economic populism. These days, Frank occupies that awkward position of the more old-fashioned Bernie Sanders supporters, people on the Left who want more economic populism and less cancel culture and identity politics (that was actually Bernie Sanders 1.0 before he revamped into Bernie 2.0 or AOC’s grandpa and came out for gun control, open borders, and identity politics) and are fighting the Biden/Hillary establishment.
It’s 2021, which means the only place that would run this essay by Thomas Frank is apparently the UK’s Guardian. The US media is frothing at the mouth for the censorship that he describes.
These days Democratic politicians lean on anyone with power over platforms to shut down the propaganda of the right. Former Democratic officials pen op-eds calling on us to get over free speech. Journalists fantasize about how easily and painlessly Silicon Valley might monitor and root out objectionable speech. In a recent HBO documentary on the subject, journalist after journalist can be seen rationalizing that, because social media platforms are private companies, the first amendment doesn’t apply to them … and, I suppose, neither should the American tradition of free-ranging, anything-goes political speech….
What all this censorship talk really is, though, is a declaration of defeat – defeat before the Biden administration has really begun. To give up on free speech is to despair of reason itself. (Misinformation, we read in the New York Times, is impervious to critical thinking.) The people simply cannot be persuaded; something more forceful is in order; they must be guided by we, the enlightened; and the first step in such a program is to shut off America’s many burbling fountains of bad takes.
Let me confess: every time I read one of these stories calling on us to get over free speech or calling on Mark Zuckerberg to press that big red “mute” button on our political opponents, I feel a wave of incredulity sweep over me. Liberals believe in liberty, I tell myself. This can’t really be happening here in the USA.
Frank’s answer is a familiar one. And a satisfying one. But it’s only half-right.
What explains the clampdown mania among liberals? The most obvious answer is because they need an excuse. Consider the history: the right has enjoyed tremendous success over the last few decades, and it is true that conservatives’ capacity for hallucinatory fake-populist appeals has helped them to succeed. But that success has also happened because the Democrats, determined to make themselves the party of the affluent and the highly educated, have allowed the right to get away with it.
There have been countless times over the years where Democrats might have reappraised this dumb strategy and changed course. But again and again they chose not to, blaming their failure on everything but their glorious postindustrial vision. In 2016, for example, liberals chose to blame Russia for their loss rather than look in the mirror. On other occasions they assured one another that they had no problems with white blue-collar workers – until it became undeniable that they did, whereupon liberals chose to blame such people for rejecting them…
Or perhaps this new taste for censorship is an indication of Democratic healthiness. This is a party that has courted professional-managerial elites for decades, and now they have succeeded in winning them over, along with most of the wealthy areas where such people live. Liberals scold and supervise like an offended ruling class because to a certain extent that’s who they are. More and more, they represent the well-credentialed people who monitor us in the workplace, and more and more do they act like it.
There’s little doubt that this is true at a very basic level. And behind Frank’s reasoning is the idea that the Democrats have become a Blairite party, to use Guardianspeak, a neo-liberal order that represents a rising upper-middle-class managerial elite that believes in repressing those who are different.
And it’s true as far as that goes.
This sort of thing is why Glenn Greenwald, and a handful of other prominent lefties now have their substacks retweeted by conservatives.
Except there’s one basic thing missing from the neo-liberal critique of what we used to call political correctness.
Democrats didn’t abandon liberalism because they turned their backs on leftist economic populism. They embraced economic populism because they became leftist, and they’re championing censorship for that same reason.
Is there really any way that liberals could move leftward and take power… without censorship? Name the number of leftist regimes that championed free speech and believed that their opponents should be free to say what they please?
Establishment Democrats are more enthusiastic about political repression than economic populism because they want power. And that gets closer to the heart of what Frank and the lefty dissidents are critiquing.
But the same argument can be made about the Left.
The economic populism dissipates into a managerial state (that was the charge that almost unseated Stalin and led him into his original campaign of brutal repression) and purges political opponents.
Finally, Frank fails to address the role of identity politics in this repression, something that Andrew Sullivan, Greenwald, and other lefties at least struggle with. The Democrats have become a coalition between powerful white lefties and minority groups. They keep calling for censorship while claiming that free speech threatens minorities. Frank links to one such screed, but can’t actually address it. And that’s understandable.
Democrat ideology isn’t really economic populism anymore except within the framework of identity politics. Bernie Sanders 1.0 wanted economic populism without the identity politics. Frank isn’t ready to directly issue that call which makes this article a cop-out. He mourns the decline of liberalism, but refuses to recognize that it declined because the Democrats embraced a twisted version of the politics he championed. Instead of elevating the working class, Democrats built an ideological coalition along the lines of their political voting base, shedding the white working class, and then trying to silence them using brute force. That’s a twisted vision, and Frank, who wanted a working-class Democrat movement is now resigned to watching a militant party of minority CEOs and white non-profit bosses demand the political repression of their enemies while wondering how we got here.
He shouldn’t wonder too hard. Orwell called all this, except the racial identity politics, in the Road to Wiggan Pier. Enjoy your Ingsoc.