The Illiberal Left

The Economist this week has a good article on something that has been bothering me for a while now. I haven’t been able to express it clearly but this article does a good job. I think the title sums it up nicely:

The threat from the illiberal left []

Before I go into the article let’s establish two things:

  1. We are going to discuss the illiberal left, but I agree with the article that the most clear and present danger to America comes from the illiberal right. I just won’t be focused on the threats from the right in this post.
  2. I’m a a left leaning American liberal.

But what doe “left leaning American liberal” mean? To start with I’m firmly on the Democrat side of the political parties in today’s America closer to the center than many of the most vocal democrats around today.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given I’ve been a loyal reader of The Economist for two decades, a newspaper founded in the classical liberalism tradition, that I am a liberal, but liberalism is complicated. The Economist’s definition of classical liberalism as given in the article:

[C]lassical liberalism believes human progress is brought about by debate and reform. The best way to navigate disruptive change in a divided world is through a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets and limited government.

From The Economist, The threat from the illiberal left [] published in the September 4th 2021 edition.

That definition should cover both the Democratic and Republican parties in the US… The US was founded in the liberal tradition and it’s major parties are both liberal in the broadest sense but they espouse distinct flavors of liberalism. I say I’m on the Democratic side as I have a strong preference for “social liberalism”, per Wikipedia, social liberalism is:

a political philosophy and variety of liberalism that endorses a social market economy within an individualist economy and the expansion of civil and political rights. Under social liberalism, the common good is viewed as harmonious with the freedom of the individual.

Wikipedia, Social Liberalism []

Social liberalism is the default when talking about “American liberals” [], where the term liberalism is usually used without a qualifier to refer to social liberalism.

But I like that The Economist definition uses “individual dignity” not “individual freedom”. I think that in the pursuit of providing dignity to all individual laws which limit the extend of individual freedom can be justified. Something along the lines of “your freedom to throw a punch ends at your targets nose…” You could write books on the minutia of liberalism and it’s varied definition… here’s a short reading list: The Literature of Liberalism [] from the Economist.

Liberalism, classical or social, is a big tent, it can encompass both the left and right we are familiar with in mainstream politics of the “west”. The modern west is based on the ideas of liberalism as a whole, but there are still two (and sometimes more) sides. Where do I fit left to right? Well, we all gravitate to views we already hold and judging by my personal media choices and where they fall on the AllSides media bias chart [], I “lean left”:

My daily news source is the BBC, but obviously, The Economist is important, I read it almost cover-to-cover weekly and The Guardian, The Atlantic and Politico are all contributors to my reading list. But I have to say I lean hard as I find myself reading Vox regularly (and watching their YouTube channel), I’ve read (and linked to) Democracy Now and Alternet in the past (though I drifted away from them, either I became more conservative or they became more liberal?) and I have subscribed, off and on, since the late 90’s to Mother Jones.

OK, so I’ve established that I’m a left leaning social liberal.. so what? Lets look at what the article actually is actually saying? In short it says that the new generation of left wing Americans are becoming illiberal.

[A]n illiberal left… has recently spread from elite university departments. As young graduates have taken jobs in the upmarket media and in politics, business and education, they have brought with them a horror of feeling “unsafe” and an agenda obsessed with a narrow vision of obtaining justice for oppressed identity groups. They have also brought along tactics to enforce ideological purity, by no-platforming their enemies and cancelling allies who have transgressed

From The Economist, The threat from the illiberal left [] published in the September 4th 2021 edition.

It’s always the university students.

We’ve seen this growing for some time, the cancel culture that started with getting speakers or professors silenced and kicked out of universities a decade ago has spread.

The fact that this movement grows out of “elite university departments” gives credence to the conservative right’s critic that they are silenced by leftist universities. And of course as these young graduates have taken jobs in upmarket media the conservatives scream they are being silenced by the “left leaning media”, (though the chart above shows there is a thriving right leaning media and the fact that most people get their news from one side or the other and less often from the center is one big issue, trapping us all in an echo chamber or filter bubble.)

Superficially, the illiberal left and classical liberals like The Economist want many of the same things. Both believe that people should be able to flourish whatever their sexuality or race. They share a suspicion of authority and entrenched interests. They believe in the desirability of change.

From The Economist, The threat from the illiberal left [] published in the September 4th 2021 edition.


the illiberal left put their own power at the centre of things, because they are sure real progress is possible only after they have first seen to it that racial, sexual and other hierarchies are dismantled.

From The Economist, The threat from the illiberal left [] published in the September 4th 2021 edition.

Herein lies the heart of what makes me uncomfortable about the far left in the US… The forced conversion or casting out of those deemed heretical or not sufficiently committed.

I agree that racism is a problem, that it is institutionalized; both intentionally by people who consciously subscribe to a white supremacist point of view and unconsciously by people who don’t think about their actions or are unaware of bias they have for whatever reason.

I agree that sexism is a problem, that is is institutionalized, both intentionally by people who are misogynistic and through long established structures and norms.

I agree that homophobia is a problem, that is it institutionalized.

I agree that Islamophobia is a problem.

I agree that xenophobia is a problem.

And transphobia

And a long list of other phobias and -isms…

I also agree that addressing the wrongs these phobias and -isms have caused and continue to cause is hard. I will take great efforts to change peoples minds and fix the systems. And that even those issues, like racism that have been in the spotlight for a long time have not been addressed enough. The civil rights movement was decades ago, and we have not finished our work there.

What I don’t agree with is cancel culture and the top down imposition of equity through any means possible. This is another form of intolerance and repression. I can’t put it better than The Economist did:

Progressives of the old school remain champions of free speech. But illiberal progressives think that equity requires the field to be tilted against those who are privileged and reactionary. That means restricting their freedom of speech, using a caste system of victimhood in which those on top must defer to those with a greater claim to restorative justice. It also involves making an example of supposed reactionaries, by punishing them when they say something that is taken to make someone who is less privileged feel unsafe. The results are calling-out, cancellation and no-platforming.

From The Economist, The threat from the illiberal left [] published in the September 4th 2021 edition.

This is the same problem, in essence I had with The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins []. Forcing people to get in line with your solutions to problems does not fix the problems. Even when I agree with the these peoples goals I can’t support their methods. Which runs the risk of getting me canceled I guess.

When I say I agree with their goals, here is what I mean. This week saw the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Richmond is an hour from where I grew up, and this follows the removal, in July, of the Stonewall Jackson statue in Charlottesville, my home town, that was the center of a Nazi rally a few years ago. Removing these statues is called “cancel culture” by many conservatives. But I think removing these statues is correct and it’s not canceling people in the same way as stopping a speaker at a college because you don’t agree with them or getting a professor banned because they have published something that offends your or your sense of justice.

The myriad statues of confederate “heroes” around the US South is part of a concerted, revisionist effort to redeem the South – the Lost Cause [] narrative. To say the war was not about slavery, even to say that slavery was “good” for the slaves, that they were happy. The statues were erected to terrorize the black population of the South. The amazing success of the effort to change the narrative about the South and the Civil War is mind boggling. Even halfway around the world, non-Americans have swallowed The Myth of the Kindly General Lee []. Here is a WhatsApp conversation from yesterday:

N████ M█████: America is changing for the better…?

M█████ N████████: [RE: America is changing for the better…?] This doesn’t make any sense.. from whatever little I know, Gen Lee was a brilliant soldier, an honorable man and a patriot… Irrespective of which side he fought for… There is no reason to disrespect him now.

beggs: “even if one conceded Lee’s military prowess, he would still be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in defense of the South’s authority to own millions of human beings as property because they are black. Lee’s elevation is a key part of a 150-year-old propaganda campaign designed to erase slavery as the cause of the war and whitewash the Confederate cause as a noble one. That ideology is known as the Lost Cause, and as the historian David Blight writes, it provided a “foundation on which Southerners built the Jim Crow system.””

beggs: from:

beggs: We don’t have statues to Rommel around Europe because he was a great general… he was a Nazi. We should not be celebrating Lee as a person, he was defending slavery. and the lionization of Lee and other confederate “heroes” is based on a concerted effort to redeem the south as part of the racist defense of the “southern (racist) lifestyle”

C█████ L██████: Exactly… a lot of the southern memorials were not erected for the prowess of or achievements of the confederacy (a government created for the sole purpose of defending slavery) but as a not so subtle message to the black population. They were saying… while the federal government may be forcing certain laws and protections, you are still in the south. For example, the rebel battle flag was added to the Georgia State flag in 1952, as a direct protest to federally forced integration of blacks and whites in schools. These symbols and memorials across the south, where I grew up, are a form of terrorism, against the black population. I didn’t understand this when I was a kid. People from Beggs and I generation were largely feed the lost cause narrative. It took curiosity and a sense for history to learn what all this really meant. I think this memorials have a place in history books… not in our parks and public places. If you want a further sense of some of what has happened from post civil war all the way to 1970s, in the southern US.. take a look at this map of documented lynchings ( so yes, taking down these racist, terroristic memorials is fucking great for America… it’s coming to terms with reality to create a safer future for all… including my mixed family, who were in effect illegal up into the late 1960’s in most southern US states.

Social issues are complicated. I say take the statues down because they were put up to mislead people and whitewash the past. To repress an entire class of people.

Anyway, this post is getting way too long. Go and read all the articles linked to. And add these two, also from the September 4th 2021 edition of The Economist, (if you can due to paywall):

Before I go I want to include two more thoughts. The first is that I always liked this saying when I was young. You hear a lot of liberals use it, usually misattributed to Voltaire:

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it

Evelyn Beatrice Hall (not Voltaire)

That sounds great, from a liberal point of view —in order to progress though open dialog and debate you have to defend others rights to speak, even if you disagree with what they say. But if you start to extend that to the full spectrum of opinions, including those that are advocating intolerance or violence… should you still defend their right to say it? At some point you come to the paradox of intolerance…

if a society is tolerant without limit, its ability to be tolerant is eventually seized or destroyed by the intolerant

Wikipedia, Paradox of intolerance []

And I think the “my way or the highway” approach of the illiberal left is too close to this form of intolerance. They may be intolerant for the right reasons but I don’t think it will end well. The more they force people in line with their view of the solutions the more people will rebel. I still think the illiberal right is a greater threat than the illiberal left —see Texas new attack on abortion [] the Republicans perennial siren song to the conservative faithful— but both sides sound too authoritarian in their approach to governing.

Finally, I think the illiberal left should remember the golden rule… If they don’t want to be banned and canceled when others who disagree are in power they should not advocate banning and canceling others. You can’t ban people into thinking your way, if you fix the problems you want addressed through intolerance people will resent the changes for how you forced them down their throats. Learning the lessons and society moving in the right direction still requires better ideas to change people not just change the law.