Ian Tuttle writes that “Radicalism at one end of the political spectrum means radicalism at the other.”
The culprit for [the Democrats’] shellacking at every level was not decades of labeling cultural conservatives “racists” and immigration restrictionists “xenophobes” and abortion opponents “misogynists”; it wasn’t the foolish decision to dismiss the white working class not as simply unwinnable but as not worth winning — moral reprobates with backward views; it wasn’t the choice to clear the way for a presidential candidate with longstanding issues of corruption and untrustworthiness; it was “white supremacy” and “sexism” and “fake news.” On Thursday, in a forum at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook blamed his candidate’s loss on FBI director James Comey.
Obviously, the Left’s diagnoses of the ascendancy of Donald Trump are not wholly wrong. Among a small fringe, Trump’s was an explicitly racialist appeal. Likewise, “fake news” was a real problem, from “rigged election” conspiracy theories on Infowars to the Drudge Report’s multiple stories about Bill Clinton’s “son,” Danny Williams, a story that Drudge itself debunked years ago.
But 60 million people are not “white nationalists,” or dupes, or whatever else. They are, on the whole, well-intentioned Americans whose priorities simply differ from those of Slate writers. The Left has failed to understand the extent to which its intolerant, often coercive, approach to issues that permit good-willed disagreement has turned off voters who might otherwise be sympathetic to their general program — and radicalized further those who aren’t. The Democratic-party chairman of Mahoning County, Ohio, recently told the Washington Post, “People in the heartland thought the Democratic Party cared more about where someone else went to the restroom than whether they had a good-paying job” — and that’s because it did.
The Left has been relentless in giving to every partisan dispute the moral urgency of warfare. It’s the Left that turned Supreme Court nominations into nasty affairs. It’s the Left that co-opted America’s health-care industry on a party-line vote. It’s the Left that scrapped the filibuster. It’s the Left that forced nuns to purchase contraception. If the Right was willing to countenance a great deal of heterodoxy in 2016, it’s in part because they perceive a Left that has become unconscionably radical.
That is not to say the Right does not have serious problems of its own creation. Trump’s success would not have been possible without a real, and alarming, moral and intellectual vacuity. Opportunism in right-wing media trades on the emotivism of talk-radio listeners eager to have their worst fears about the country confirmed, and ideological zealotry has made the necessary task of compromise more difficult.
But radicalism breeds radicalism, and the Left, in the aftermath of a massive defeat, should recognize that. A Left that ensconces itself in a sanctimonious refusal to consider the world from the perspectives of its detractors is a Left destined to become more politically impotent and nastier. That may work to Republicans’ short-term gain. But a nastier Left means a nastier Right.
America needs a sane Left. At its best, the Left balances right-wing excesses. Where the Right elevates the individual, the Left attends to the good of collectives. Where the Right values social solidarity, the Left values difference. The Right emphasizes the best parts of our common traditions; the Left is sensitive to how those traditions have left certain people vulnerable, marginalized, or disenfranchised.
This is worthy work. But it can’t be imposed, and shouldn’t be. A Left that can temper its sense of apocalypse by recognizing the legitimate moral prerogatives of its political opponents would aim to persuade rather than coerce — but, for that reason, would be able to expand its coalition and be better able to find common ground with the Right.
A sense of common cause would be vastly preferable to our current moment of extreme polarization and defensiveness. But it requires a bit of humility. The Left, not its myriad scapegoats, is most responsible for its failures this year. A Left that can acknowledge that, and respond accordingly, will lead to a less radical Right, and a healthier politics overall.