Monday, October 17, 2016

The purity politics of radical liberalism, part III

This is the third of a multi-part series. Part I is here; part II is here.


Last evening, self-identified Democrats raised over $13,000 for Donald Trump. As noted previously, many of them are the very same liberals who have spent the past several months telling protest voters that our political action should be dictated by outcomes, not by lofty principles or self-serving appeals to conscience. In this case, the outcome is completely straightforward: Trump stands to gain 75 to 2,500+ votes, depending on how efficiently he spends the money. Even if the money doesn't end up directly in Trump's accounts, it will certainly aid the notoriously reactionary North Carolina GOP; whatever happens, it will be a net gain for the American right, and a net loss for their victims.

Responding to all of this, an exasperated Ian Williams wrote last night: "I'm still trying to figure out how the people who think you can donate the GOP to civility aren't the weirdo idealists in this scenario".

The answer, of course, is that they are. This is in fact precisely the same tendency I described months ago as radical liberalism: the impulse to demonstrate commitment to liberal ideology in the most extreme, reactionary way possible. Perversely, doing this is supposed to be a testament to one's political principle and insight; embracing right-wing radicalism means that you are willing to buck petty partisanship, look past superficial appearances, and truly honor liberal ideals no matter how they might happen to play out in practice.

That's why, as I noted in the first part of this series, you get guys like Arthur Chu insisting that his feminism is so pure and powerful it even (somehow) justified praising Margaret Thatcher. The ideology that drives Chu to support Thatcher is the exact same ideology that drives Shirky to support Trump: in the name of liberalism, these alt-centrists will abet the most toxic politics imaginable, and punch left against anyone who calls them out on it. This behavior isn't driven by reasoned, apolitical calculation or a modest, moderate instinct for compromise; it's reflexive and fanatic, animated entirely by an impulse to demonstrate ideological piety.

It's easy to dismiss the notion of an "alt-center" as a cheap play on popular rhetoric about an alt-right and an alt-left, but I'm not particularly wedded to the terminology. What's important here is simply to recognize that despite their horseshoe theories and endless rhetoric about extremists and radicals, our liberals, centrists, and moderates are not themselves somehow above the ideological fray. And when blinkered by ideology, the alt-center can be one of the most dangerous and regressive forces in American politics.


UPDATE: Reader Aidan Griffith has pointed me to this incredible quote in the Boston Globe from David Weinberger, who launched last night's fundraiser:
I completely understand the hesitation to donate any money to a political party that stands for beliefs that I find anathema...But that’s also, in its own peculiar way, the reason why this statement, I think, is even more powerful. This is an expression of commitment to democracy, even when we are thoroughly opposed to what our political opponents believe.
One doesn't need to psychoanalyze the alt-center to understand how its ideology works - they admit it quite explicitly. Weinberger wants to express his commitment as "powerfully" as possible, and thinks this is best accomplished through the "peculiar" strategy of supporting politics that he (supposedly) "find[s] anathema".