The regressive left, the alt-right and the need for a radical centre
by Patrick Webber
In the last issue of Inroads I examined the rise of new populist movements in western Europe and North America, suggesting that they share common threads of parochialism and a rejection of postwar liberal ideals, rendering old left-right methods of describing political movements obsolete.1 I offered ideas on how those holding broadly liberal views (pro–free trade, pro-immigration, pro-internationalism) could challenge the populist narrative. One of these was calling for new political alliances: if the old left-right binary has been transcended, it is, by definition, no longer effective. This article seeks to expand on this suggestion and explain how the rise of the regressive left and alternative right (alt-right) movements, which share the parochial populists’ illiberal impulses, intensify the need for a political realignment in defence of classical liberal values.
Most people still slot themselves into categories of centre-left or centre-right, conservative or social democrat, usually on the basis of which political party they are inclined to support. Those occupying that broad centre ground ignore the fact they have more in common with one another than with the extremists who increasingly dominate discourse on the left and right, threatening the very foundation of Western society. Given the increasing intellectual and political pressure these illiberal flanks now exert, new alliances must be developed to defend the legacy of the Enlightenment and classical liberal values.
The idea of realignment is gaining currency. The Economist recently acknowledged the end of left vs. right, saying the new divide is between those who champion “open” and “closed” societies.2 British Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has written that the biggest political divide is “liberals against authoritarians.”3 Another Brit, journalist, alternative right interpreter and agent provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, says the real political fault line is between libertarians and authoritarians – interesting given his soft-selling of the alt-right movement. Soviet-born American journalist Cathy Young says she would love to see a “liberal-conservative alliance of reasonable people,” with the emphasis on reasonable.4 Many others who cherish the inheritance of centuries of liberal progress, or at least appreciate the society it has bequeathed us, recognize the need to reorganize our politics. So what does the new divide look like – and what lies on its darker side?
The illiberal threat
Any casual observer of contemporary Western political debate can see the breakdown of the established norms on which democratic societies have operated since 1945. These norms include, but are not restricted to, freedom of speech and expression, open inquiry and debate, the universality of human rights and the dignity of the individual, the primacy of evidence in making arguments and developing policy, a preference for the free movement of trade, capital and people, and internationalism in foreign policy. No party or movement perfectly applied these ideals, but they were broadly shared by Western elites and publics, and efforts were made to promote and even to export them.
The groups undermining these values come from the extreme left and right. On the left the politically correct movement of the 1980s and 1990s, based largely in universities, has evolved into what is often called, by opponents, the regressive left. Central to this movement are authoritarian impulses and tactics, most evident in a dedication to the suppression of free speech and expression, particularly on university campuses.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and Reason magazine5 offer comprehensive if depressing catalogues of the regressive left’s activities, citing hundreds of cases of “neo-totalitarianism,” as Cathy Young puts it. The excesses of so-called Social Justice Warriors can appear harmless because they are often ridiculous, like the recent protest against yoga classes at the University of Ottawa, cancelled because they were accused of “cultural appropriation.” This surreal triviality obscures real and dangerous thought policing, dissent silencing and speech banning as listed in FIRE’s annual report on university speech codes. The 2016 report, assessing 440 universities in the United States, found that as of September 2015 only 22 (5 per cent) were free of written policies that threaten free expression. Forty-nine per cent had “severely restrictive … policies that clearly and substantially prohibit protected speech.”6 This is a lower percentage than in recent years, but that does not mean campus censorship is in retreat. As FIRE President Greg Lukianoff wrote in early 2016, “Unfortunately, this may be only a temporary high-water mark; pressure from students and the federal government makes the resurgence of speech codes almost inevitable.”7
When second-wave feminist icon Germaine Greer is threatened with a ban on speaking at the University of Cardiff because she refuses to accept the existence of transgenderism, it is clear that the children of the political correctness revolution are devouring their parents.8 FIRE’s database of speaker disinvitations (attempts to ban a speaker invited to campus or disruptions so that the speaker cannot be heard) shows a steady climb in this trend. In the five years between 2000 and 2004, there were 22 recorded disinvitations on American campuses, while in the five years between 2012 and 2016 there were 56. There were 18 disinvitations in the first nine months of 2016 alone.9 In the U.K., the “No Platforming” of speakers by the National Union of Students is a parallel example of assault on free speech.
While the rise of political correctness informs much of the regressive left’s thinking, its intellectual roots lie in postmodernist thinking, with truth and morality regarded as relative, subjective and influenced by dominant historical and political narratives. This approach to the world, begun as critique of “hegemonic thinking,” has morphed into a hegemony of its own, creating a rootless orthodoxy where anyone citing contradictory thoughts can be dismissed not on the basis of their argument but on their incidental individual characteristics, or as an agent of nefarious forces. Any philosophy based on a rejection of fact was obviously doomed as a positive project but postmodernism did offer a crude political platform: anyone who disagrees with a postmodernist is wrong.
Postmodernist thinking blended with the exhaust fumes of aging New Left radicalism to produce the regressive left’s toxic rejection of Western culture. Adopting sinister political positions, such as the embrace of Islamism and authoritarian regimes provided they are anti-Western, are part and parcel of this movement. Matt Carr, of the regressive left British “Stop the War” coalition, responded to calls by moderate Labour MP Hilary Benn to militarily intervene against the Islamic State (Daesh) in Syria by saying, “Benn does not even seem to realize that the jihadist movement that ultimately spawned Daesh is far closer to the spirit of internationalism and solidarity that drove the International Brigades [antifascist volunteers who fought Franco in the Spanish Civil War of 1936–39] than [then–U.K. Prime Minister David] Cameron’s bombing campaign.”10 Just one example of the warped logic, not to mention moral bankruptcy, the regressive left employs.
Traditional leftist suspicion of American foreign policy, legitimate during the Cold War when Washington supported tyrants like Chile’s Pinochet as long as they were anti-Communist, has degenerated into knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Anything America does is bad; anyone acting against America must be good. This critique, fused with armchair revolutionary anticapitalism, has extended to a knee-jerk anti-Westernism that distorts multiculturalism. Non-Western cultures are exalted while the West is denigrated. A quick Google search reveals dozens of ostensibly “left” defences of female genital mutilation (FGM). It is impossible to imagine the same defence being mounted if FGM was an Appalachian rather than African tradition.
Perhaps subconsciously aware of the weak intellectual foundation on which its ideas are built, the regressive left does not seek to argue for its views but rather to prevent any questioning. Research, inquiries or questions that challenge its assertions are to be not just opposed but suppressed and banished by banning or silencing speakers or by focusing not on the argument but the identity of the problematic speaker.
These movements cannot be dismissed as fringe spectacles, eccentrics inhabiting the musty corners of university humanities departments and internet forums. Given the number of young people who cycle through our university system and the rise of virtue-signalling (defined by The Spectator as “the public expression of an opinion on a given topic primarily for the purpose of displaying one’s moral superiority before a large audience to solicit their approval”11) within the media and broader society, the totalitarian impulses of the regressive left are being felt ever more widely. Commentator and writer Jonathan Chait summed up the reach of this illiberal crusade in early 2015:
Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.12
The generation most imbued with regressive left thinking is increasingly willing to support legal curbs on free speech. A spring 2015 study by Pew Research found that 40 per cent of American millennials, those aged 18 to 34 at the time of the survey, believe “government should be able to prevent people publicly making statements that are offensive to minority groups.”13 A disturbing segment of the generation currently attending university is supporting censorship. It would be naive to expect this behaviour to change radically after graduation.
In addition to illiberal attitudes toward speech, the regressive left exhibits its illiberal orientation with its embrace of identity politics. Incidental characteristics – race, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or ethnicity – are elevated over the value of the individual and the value of reason and argument. The regressive left sees this intellectual reductionism as enlightened – ironic in that it rejects a central theme of the Enlightenment. As American journalist Robert Tracinski noted in his critique of the regressive left and alt-right, “the central theme of the Western intellectual tradition is about rising above tribalism to arrive at universal values.”14 The regressive left is travelling in the opposite direction.
Making assumptions about an individual and ascribing value or lack thereof on the basis of incidental factors is at the heart of the sexism, racism and other prejudices that Western liberals have worked for generations to rubbish, with much success. The regressive left abandons that heritage and embraces the thinking that leads to such prejudices. Take a specific case: employing racism to ostensibly combat racism. By abandoning the progressive effort to eliminate racism by encouraging colour-blindness, the regressive left has given rise to a new breed of leftist racism. Today the debate is over “racialized” communities that have inherent worth not because their individual members have worth as human beings that should not be undermined by the distractions of skin colour or place of birth but because their race is itself a source of positive identity and pride. With this, the regressive left has given new life, legitimacy and intellectual armour to more traditional racists, reincarnated in the form of the alt-right.
The alt-right: Mirror image of the regressive left
The alt-right is the regressive left’s identity politics in mirror image. Less well established than its left counterpart, it is a nebulous grouping of antimainstream conservatives, internet trolls and white nationalists. Richard Spencer, an American white nationalist who popularized the term in 2010 with the launch of his website,15 is a lead advocate and guru of the movement. His racist nationalism is based on the same intellectual framework as the regressive left’s identity politics, except with whites as the preferred group, with their own incidental collective characteristics placed above the individual. The regressive left’s hierarchy of grievances, which views straight white males as the ultimate enemy, has convinced a number of straight white males that the obvious answer is an identity politics of their own. If the regressive left proposes a society of Darwinian conflict, it is not surprising that this thinking is spreading to others who find group divisions appealing. The regressive left’s identity politics has simply given the alt-right a new set of intellectual tools.
The alt-right’s identity politics is manifested primarily in a need to protect the white race from genetic conquest. As Tracinski notes:
The primary political program of the alt-right is not opposition to immigration, though that is clearly important to them. The main reason they oppose immigration is because letting in brown-skinned people might lead to white people marrying them and producing non-white babies. Their real central demand is an end to miscegenation, the mixing of the races. Analyze everything they say, and it all boils down to that. When they talk about “white genocide,” that’s what they mean: not that people of European descent are going to be stuffed into ovens, but that whites will be wiped out of existence by interbreeding with dark-skinned people.16
This idea, that race is what ultimately defines people, explains the alt-right’s geopolitical views. The alt-right champions Russian President Vladimir Putin as a fellow guardian of Western civilization, someone the West ought not oppose. The flaw is equating Western values with race or ethnicity, when the essence of the West’s intellectual contribution is the replacement of the ethnic tribe with universal human values. Putin is an interesting source of unity between the alt-right, which lauds him for his aggressive defence of whites, and the regressive left, which applauds him for his opposition to the West. It is unlikely that Putin is troubled by this contradiction.
The alt-right exploded into popular consciousness during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign with Donald Trump’s hiring of Stephen Bannon as his campaign CEO. Bannon runs Breitbart News, which he has described as “the platform for the Alt-Right.”17 Breitbart is not converted to the alt-right’s white nationalism but soft-sells it in order to appeal to a growing market segment.
With Reagan-Bush conservatism unable to protect its electoral base in the white working class, and with the left’s regular mockery and dismissal of that group’s culture and concerns, the alt-right has a huge potential for growth. The rise of social media and new media – in the form of blogs and internet-only news programs – offers a means to crystalize political thought, building on increased scepticism of experts and traditional opinion leaders. The alt-right’s audience has heard the regressive left’s postmodern message: there are no facts, hierarchies are oppressive and no one in authority is to be trusted. That authority in most Western countries is vested in people more broadly liberal than at any point in history is irrelevant to those on either extreme.
These movements, right and left, are able to organize online, bypassing the traditional filters parties put in place to avoid extremist takeovers. They are embedding themselves in established political parties of the centre-left and centre-right and within the broader political discourse. Jason Willick, writing in The American Interest, sums up the double threat these two forces represent:
The PC left and the alt-right exist symbiotically with one another: Working together to exacerbate tribal loyalties, to undermine the legitimacy of the state as a political unit, to question the idea that Western institutions can really treat groups of people with equal respect – in other words, to draw out and hijack the inherent weaknesses and contradictions in the Enlightenment liberal tradition. It’s unlikely that either movement has the cultural power or breadth of appeal to succeed on its own. But taken together, they make a fearsome foe.18
An increasing segment of Western public life no longer adheres to classical liberal values of free speech, free inquiry, free debate and reason (not to mention the post-1945 ideal of increasing global economic liberalism). Consider the rise of Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the U.K. Labour Party, parochial populists throughout western Europe, and conspiratorial worldviews, and the broader demands for censorship, public shaming and thought policing, all assisted by postmodernist thinking that rejects the existence of objective truth and embraces subjective “realities.” The old centre-left and centre-right are being overtaken by foes hostile not just to their policy prescriptions but to the principles that underlay the emergence of their democratic politics in the 18th century. But no compelling arrangement beyond the traditional centre-left and centre-right coalitions has as of yet been conceived.
A new political alignment
The undermining of liberal principles is a mighty challenge that requires a mighty rethink. If those values are to be secured, in politics and broader society, it will depend on those currently engaged in the politics of the old centre-left and centre-right to recognize their common values and their common foes, and to act accordingly.
Principles of free speech and open debate, although always caveated in their application, were until recently assumptions shared by the vast majority. They were a shared philosophical and political starting point. Alongside support for the universal franchise and belief in an independent judiciary, they were views so universally held that no party or movement in a free society needed to distinguish itself by supporting them.
This is no longer the case. Extreme examples rooted in the right exist in the nationalist governments of Poland and Hungary but can also be seen in the rise of right-wing populism in western Europe and in Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the United States Constitution, press freedom and the unwritten norms of democratic discourse. Meanwhile, the regressive left, if not effectively checked, is well placed to significantly influence political thinking and debate. Dressed up in rosy language, its totalitarian demands for censorship too often convince or bully the centre-left’s craven politicians to blindly seek or accept accommodation.
A political realignment must unite those who believe in free speech absolutism, open debate and open inquiry. This means a fierce defence of the First Amendment in the United States and a rolling back of speech codes in other countries, such as laws against “hate speech” and blasphemy in Canada. It means the promotion of aggressive, informed debate in civil society. The new alignment must embrace the centrality of the citizen, rejecting the regressive left’s notion of zero-sum justice: the idea that there is a fixed amount of justice in the universe and that increasing justice for some means limiting it or removing it outright for others. The regressive left is obsessed with retributive redistribution in the redressing of social ills. It is not enough to remove legal discriminations against a group; restitution must be demanded from the supposed oppressor. This matches the attitude toward economics and wealth, which assumes that global wealth is fixed and any economic gain by some must mean economic loss by others. The notion of everyone winning is foreign.
The alt-right and other nationalist movements share this pessimism, seeing a world where the regressive left’s emphasis on racial politics is augmented by the creation of besieged racial enclaves. Their growing appeal is not restricted to the alt-right. In July 2016, Babu Omowale, “national minister of defense” for the People’s New Black Panther Party, called for the eventual creation of a black-only nation out of five southern U.S. states.19 This would destroy the cosmopolitan pleasures of our modern world, where people have unparalleled opportunity to travel, move, work, love and exist without control from governments or other authorities.
A new political alignment must renew the fight to eliminate discrimination against groups based on sex, nationality, race and so on – not as an opportunity to war against other groups but as part of a struggle against the very idea of those group distinctions and in favour of individual freedom rooted in a notion of common humanity. The ideas one holds ought to be the only basis for conflict.
That means setting rules around intellectual debate and accepting that there is a universal truth that can be, if not known, at least pursued. It recognizes the intellectual decline that has accompanied the rise of postmodernism and relativism, the elevation of the subjective over the objective, the tribe over the universal, the muzzle over the debate. An empirical framework lifts up all debate, privileging only reason and logic. This is vital: while there will be differences on issues including taxes, social welfare, even the justice system, if discussion takes place in accord with classical liberal and Enlightenment principles we are likely to see further progress and development, as we saw when these principles were accepted by most Western countries throughout the second half of the 20th century.
The notion of treating people as individuals combats a populist narrative that champions nationalism over internationalism and hostility toward outsiders regardless of their individual merit. The new political alignment unites those who believe values and morals are universal, applying equally to all humans regardless of the culture they live in or the location of their birth. This means openly rejecting cultural relativism and insisting on a secular, liberal approach to public life.
This new political alignment lies along a liberal vs. authoritarian axis. To resurrect a label first posited by the late British centre-left politician Roy Jenkins in the 1970s, what is needed is a radical centre. In terms of economic and foreign policy the new alignment is committed to broadly free markets and open trade (with room for evidence-based debate within these parameters), and internationalism in foreign policy.
The new alignment does not require the shedding of current political labels; there is room for social democrats, liberals, conservatives, libertarians and so forth, provided they believe in these core tenets. The new alignment is not a replacement for policy but the rebuilding of a common foundation on which different policy structures can be built, a clear statement that all ideas must be contained within the principles described above and those that cross those boundaries will be forcefully confronted.
These suggestions will not sit easily with some readers. They demand a forceful calling out of bad actors within one’s own political camp and a warmer embrace of those in other camps who share the same broad ideals. They mean defending those in other political camps when their freedoms are threatened and constantly acknowledging a commonality of principle. Advocacy for this new alignment needs to occur in broader civil society, in conversation, opinion pages, on social media, via think tanks and advocacy groups and through political parties. The mechanics of a new alignment are not settled – first the need for that realignment must gain currency.
Resetting public discourse around classical liberal values requires action on numerous fronts. It requires nurturing robust popular sentiment in support of those values, revulsion toward those who oppose them, and a society where censorious identity politics, the dismissal of the individual, the poison of relativism and the intellectual dead-end of disregard for evidence are relegated to a small minority. This minority may be persistent, but it will be persistently defeated in the open light of reason and debate.
1 Patrick Webber, “The Politics of the Raised Drawbridge,” Inroads, Summer/Fall 2016, pp. 46–55.
2 “The New Political Divide,” The Economist, July 30, 2016.
3 Tim Farron, “The Biggest Divide in Politics is not Left Against Right, but Liberals Against Authoritarians,” New Statesman, July 28, 2016.
4 Both Milo Yiannopoulos and Cathy Young made these statements on The Rubin Report. See “Milo Yiannopoulos and Dave Rubin Talk Donald Trump, Censorship, and Free Speech (Full Interview),” March 25, 2016, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DiA0P9iELAA, and “Cathy Young on Russia, Putin, Regressive Left, and Alt Right (Full Interview),” October 14, 2016, retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlahrDewrXQ
5 See FIRE website at https://www.thefire.org/ and “College PC” at http://reason.com/tags/college
6 Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Spotlight on Speech Codes 2016, p. 4, retrieved from https://d28htnjz2elwuj.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/22125256/SCR_Final.pdf
7 Greg Lukianoff, “Campus Free Speech Has Been in Trouble for a Long Time,” Cato Unbound: A Journal of Debate, January 4, 2016.
8 Ben Quinn, “Petition Urges Cardiff University to Cancel Germaine Greer Lecture,” The Guardian, October 23, 2015.
9 Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Disinvitation Database, retrieved from https://www.thefire.org/resources/disinvitation-database/#home/?view_2_page=13
10 Philip Collins, “In Corbyn’s Warped World, the US is the Enemy,” The Times, October 14, 2016.
11 James Bartholomew, “The Awful Rise of ‘Virtue Signalling,’” The Spectator, April 18, 2015.
12 Jonathan Chait, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” New York magazine, January 27, 2015.
13 “40% of Millennials OK with Limiting Speech Offensive to Minorities,” Pew Research, November 20, 2015.
14 Robert Tracinski, “Yes, The Alt-Right Are Just a Bunch of Racists,” The Federalist, April 4, 2016.
15 See http://www.alternativeright.com/
16 Tracinski, “Yes, The Alt-Right.”
17 Sarah Posner, “How Donald Trump’s New Campaign Chief Created an Online Haven for White Nationalists,” Mother Jones, August 22, 2016.
18 Jason Willick, “The Campus Left and the Alt-Right Are Natural Allies,” The American Interest, September 1, 2016.
19 David Love, “Is it Time for Black People to Reconsider a Black Nation Within a Nation and Armed Self-Defense?”, Atlanta Black Star, July 17, 2016.
Patrick Webber is an independent researcher in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and former Head of the Research Unit for the New Brunswick NDP.