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My grand theory of the left
There isn't one! But anything can be taken too far.
He writes that the story itself is not significant, but “the manner in which del Valle’s supporters have convinced themselves to stand with her — by looking away from all the facts that conflict with their pristine moral worldview about who’s oppressed and who’s the oppressor — bears resemblance to a much more consequential form of left-wing moral idiocy that we've seen on college campuses in recent weeks: the willingness of many students and faculty to excuse (or even in some cases celebrate) Hamas’ terror attack that killed over 1,400 people.”
October 7, and the response to it, are eliciting a lot of these big takes. Jonathan Chait did one about “the illiberal left” that believes “the legitimacy of a tactic can only be assessed with reference to whether it is being used by the oppressor or the oppressed.” Roy Teixeira wrote that “huge swathes of the American left have become infected with an ideology that judges actions or arguments not by their content but rather by the identity of those involved in said actions or arguments. Those identities in turn are defined by an intersectional web of oppressed and oppressors, of the powerful and powerless, of the dominant and marginalized.”
On one level, I agree with these guys that something like this is taking place and that it’s bad.
But in the spirit of someone who broadly agrees with them, I want to dispute this tidy grand theorizing. On the one hand, I think it takes far too narrow a view of What’s Wrong With the Left and ignores that fact that sloppy and pernicious modes of thought have gained traction across a much wider set of interests that have nothing to do with their hierarchy of oppressions. But on the other hand, I think these pieces are too sour and condemnatory. Public opinion and public policy were both much more conservative in the 1990s. We’ve lived through a broad leftward shift in the constellation of forces in the United States that has brought positive change on everything from cleaner water to poor kids getting health insurance, senior citizens having better prescription drug coverage, gay couples having the right to marry, and beyond.
When politics shifts left, though, one has to recalibrate one’s own level of concern with regard to enemies on the left. Twenty-five years ago, you could find some incredibly kooky ideas on display at the old Revolution Books location down by Union Square or in the Maoist International Movement Notes ’zine, but you’d be hard-pressed to make the case that it was anything other than a curiosity. Today, the left wields enough institutional power that it’s worth worrying about bad left-wing ideas gaining real traction over at least some institutions and geographies. But I’m skeptical one can categorize these ideas quite so neatly.
New York’s climate disaster
One notable instance of left politics going off the rails, after all, has nothing to do with identity-based hierarchies of oppression or even fringy activist groups.
In 2021, New York State closed the Indian Point nuclear plant with the support of then-governor Andrew Cuomo (if anything a moderate Democrat) and assurances from mainstream environmental groups that shutting down the state’s main source of zero-carbon electricity was a good idea and ambitious climate goals could still be met:
In 2019, New York State enacted ambitious climate and clean energy legislation called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA), which includes economy-wide mandatory carbon reduction and clean energy goals. The CLCPA mandates that New York’s electricity system must be 70 percent renewable by 2030 and 100 percent zero carbon by 2040. And it includes groundbreaking equity provisions to ensure that climate and clean energy benefits are realized by environmental justice communities. The CLCPA also includes nation-leading climate and clean energy mandates for solar power, offshore wind, battery storage and energy efficiency. Significantly, energy modeling done for the state, which assumes the retirement of Indian Point, confirms that these goals are achievable.
The reality, though, is that the state’s natural gas use has soared in the wake of the plant’s closure.
Meanwhile, the cost of completing offshore wind projects has risen for a variety of reasons, leading the companies who were developing offshore wind for New York to ask the state’s utility commission to give them more money. The regulators have declined to do this because they don’t want to raise people’s electricity bills, which has called into question whether the offshore wind projects will actually be built.
Problems in this sector are pretty systemic. Orsted just cancelled two big New Jersey offshore wind projects, paying a $4 billion penalty to the state because that was cheaper than moving forward in the face of exorbitant costs. So this debacle was not exactly due to some kind of inherently pathological aspect of progressive decision-making. Over in California, Gavin Newsom made the opposite decision and extended the life of the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant in order to improve his state’s energy mix. And the Biden administration has been working aggressively to keep nuclear plants open. So the fuckup here is a little bit idiosyncratic to New York, but New York is a pretty large state. And while the Biden administration has mostly been good on nuclear issues, their strident support for the Jones Act has contributed to the high cost of offshore wind, making things worse.
Which is just to say there are any number of ways unchecked left-wing thought can drive policy off the rules, including ones that have nothing to do with grand theories about hierarchies of oppression.
Cause and effect in the oppression olympics
Even within the domain of identity politics, it turns out that these big ideas about listening to the most marginalized are applied awfully selectively. People find this out any time they try to turn these identity considerations against misguided left-wing ideas. Schools closed during the spring of 2020 all across the country as part of a probably sound effort to control the spread of Covid-19. But it was clear the question would soon arise of whether they should reopen in the fall. Those of us familiar with the extant literature on learning loss were warning in the spring that it was going to be really important to get schools back open in the fall.
But lots of jurisdictions, primarily the more progressive ones, did not do that.
People arguing for reopening would often make the point that prolonged closures were most harmful precisely to the low-income Black and Hispanic students who were allegedly the focus of concern of progressive politics. But that intervention made exactly zero difference in the debate. Far from being completely overtaken by identity-based epistemologies, the institutionalized left was incredibly willing to blow off the interests of the most marginalized. For various reasons, “be very cautious about Covid” had become the left-branded position, so there was no racial justice case for school reopening to be made. As with the Jones Act and offshore wind, part of the story was just the interest group lobbying of the teachers unions. This is why Democrats have become increasingly hostile to charter schools, even though research findings are increasingly positive about the impact of charter schools, especially those serving low-income Black and Hispanic kids.
But there was also a genuine freestanding ideology around Covid that I don’t think had any particularly clear ideological basis in anything that had happened in the world prior to 2020. Covid maximalism swept through progressive politics in rapid and unexpected ways, re-enforcing criminal justice reform maximalism when it came to letting people out of prison early, but overriding racial justice maximalism when it came to keeping public schools open.
And the same is true on energy issues. One of the big challenges in current American politics is that while most voters know that climate change is real and want the government to take action to curb it, they care more about keeping energy prices low. Most rank-and-file Democrats, especially the wealthier and better-educated ones, feel differently, so the Democratic Party donor- and staffer-class tends to be a little out of touch with the electorate’s priorities here. One point I occasionally make to try to get progressive elites to take energy costs more seriously is that the negative impacts of high gasoline and electricity prices fall harder on Black and Hispanic households, because theoretically, elite progressives are very committed to racial equity and this argument should persuade them. But this doesn’t actually work. The good news is the left is not actually committed to oppression epistemology; the bad news is they just have a lot of ideas that are wrong.
Full spectrum shift
My deflationary view of all of this is that we are living through the ideological equivalent of this chart about climate change.
As progressive ideas have grown in prominence and influence, it’s become much harder to ignore the more extreme versions of progressive ideas.
My general view, though, is that most political tendencies come in both sound and unsound forms. In college, I learned a lot from Robert Nozick, who introduced me to some important libertarian ideas, and over the years I’ve learned a lot about different policy issues from friends and acquaintances at libertarian institutions like Cato and Mercatus. Given the populist climate of Trump-era politics, I think libertarianism is kind of underrated and deserves more influence. That being said, precisely because libertarian ideas have such a clear grounding in a small number of principles, I think they tend to morph with alarming speed into wildly unsound versions of themselves.
This country could benefit from a lot of supply-side health care policy reforms that are mostly deregulatory and market-oriented in nature. But overly lax opioid prescribing policies have been disastrous, and aversion to paternalistic public health measures has contributed heavily to America’s anomalously poor life expectancy outcomes. We also really do not need a true market-based approach to health care financing where anyone poor who gets sick just dies in the street without treatment.
By the same token, though, most bad trends on the left are recognizable versions of perfectly reasonable ideas. It is true that burning fossil fuels has negative externalities and that public policy should do more to curb those externalities. There is real evidence of racial bias in traffic stops and a problematic tendency for conservatives to endorse or justify racially biased policies in terms of statistical aggregates. The government of Israel really has been trying to steal the West Bank, in parallel with its more legitimate security policies, and right-wing politicians in both Israel and the United States express troubling and borderline genocidal attitudes toward Palestinian civilians. Left Covid maximalism went off the rails, but the basic idea that “Donald Trump should take the pandemic more seriously” was completely correct — countless lives could have been saved if he’d urged his fans to skip holiday travel in November-January 2020 and just wait for the vaccine rollout. Basically anything can be taken too far, and in a big world, someone is going to try.
Enemies on the left
I get that a lot of people are annoyed by my reluctance to draw firm lines and issue huge categorical injunctions here. But I really do think the deflationary account explains the most and fits the facts the best. The big story of American politics over the past 15-25 years is that public opinion has shifted to the left, and public policy has mostly shifted to the left with it.
That’s why Mike Johnson having views on LGBT issues that were standard GOP fare in the recent past is treated as a huge embarrassing problem that he’s slinking away from. That’s why earlier this year, Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump accused each other of wanting to cut Social Security. That’s why for the first time ever, most rank-and-file Democrats now self-identify as liberals and why the Democratic Party’s current policy stances are to the left of the ones Obama ran for re-election on. This broad leftward shift in opinion has achieved a lot of fantastic things for the country: Medicaid has expanded to cover many more people, Medicare provides a more robust set of benefits, SNAP has become more generous, the air and water have gotten cleaner, and attitudes toward race and gender have become more egalitarian. A lot of political commentary from people on the left strikes me as stuck in a weird time warp in which the Reagan Revolution and Clinton-era triangulation never stopped. But the process has, in fact, been running in the reverse for the past quarter-century, and that is mostly good.
But it’s not 100 percent good because pretty much any idea from the left or the right — we should reduce CO2 emissions, free markets are good, it’s wise to pay extra attention to the interests of marginalized groups who might get overlooked, family structure is important to kids’ life outcomes, we should take the Covid-19 pandemic seriously — can be taken too far or instantiated in an unsound way.
The leftward shift means that the balance of power between unsound right-wing ideas and unsound left-wing ideas is in closer equilibrium today than it was in 1998. That’s change for the better, all things considered. But it does mean that paying attention to and pushing back on unsound left-wing ideas is more important than it used to be, because the odds that such ideas will have meaningful policy influence are higher. The important thing, though, isn’t to deconstruct some big picture construct, it’s to plug away on the specifics, day-in and day-out. The strong and slow boring of hard boards, so to speak.