generativist / reactions

The Left's Excesses

I’ve deliberately avoided talking about Trump and Trumpism since the inauguration. He’s a deep gravity well of fuckery and caustic polarization, and we were extremely lucky to have achieved escape velocity. But, Karen Stenner’s recent interview on The Larger Us gave me a reason to revisit it (from a safe, distant orbit).

Focus on the excesses of the left from the right during Trump had two distinct motivations:

For some people, it reflected their natural orientation. This had the unfortunate effect of inducing a pathological leniency towards Trump. But the charitable interpretation doesn’t demand reduction of cognitive dissonance as cause. If you have conservative values, the left threatens them in chronic and obvious ways. Core individual beliefs rarely update instantaneously. Group ones almost never do. Consequently, the threats people are most attuned to are fairly static. To expect otherwise indulges in fantasy.

For others, focus on the excesses of the left was part of an authoritarian consolidation process. It’s hard to play the victim while you are in power. To maintain the perception of threat, you need near-omnipotent villains. The mainstream right spent a generation developing the appropriate boogieman: the RaDiCaL LeFt. That a proto-authoritarian movement would invoke that script isn’t surprising. They didn’t need to invent anything. They just lazily reached for the most convenient delusion-sustaining cognitive device.

But here’s where things get tricky.

To focus on the left’s excesses during the Trump administration misallocated attention. To focus some attention on them now that the left is in power doesn’t.

Privately recognizing these excesses isn’t hard. If something reduces the world to neatly-partitioned Good and Evil, it’s an excess. Our lives are messy. If invoked as justifiable means to some assumed-inevitable end, it’s an excess. There is no terminal state, save death.

Publicly identifying excesses is a different matter. It feels like either betrayal or middling pusillanimity or both. That’s the inertial force that recently bound a great many otherwise well-meaning and sincere conservatives to the mast of a decadent and sinking ship. You can trace this force’s influence throughout history. It doesn’t have a “side” on the left-right continuum. It’s an emergent aspect of a rich social process. As such, cheap heuristics are a poor defense. You have to continually reevaluate which scales need thumbing, then push down accordingly.

On the contemporary left, two excesses are worth revisiting.

The first is the idea that everyone who made up MAGA is irredeemable. The movement is; the people aren’t. The former was a complex system stuck in a desperately pathological state. The latter are human beings. Rejecting the possibility of redemption casts us all further down into the pit. And, redemption contingent upon repentance is compulsion that commits us to a continuation. If you want a new socio-cultural trajectory, you can’t fix people to their roles in the last one.

The second is the expectation that people with different beliefs and values must adopt all of yours. Coupled with threat, that’s pathological. Implemented with power, it’s authoritarian. But, even at best, it’s a confused impossibility. People simply won’t adopt your beliefs and values. And even if they did, the outcome wouldn’t be great. You’re not uniformly right; they’re not uniformly wrong. We find truth and solutions (and sometimes both!) by mixing things. Frustrating this process doesn’t partition Good from Evil. It recursively breeds irreconcilable differences. That’s escalation, not redirection.

If you want a new course heading, this all matters. The disease that made America vulnerable to Trump predated him. To frame everything by this recent lamentable moment of our shared history stunts the imagination. And that rarely has good effects.

Currently, we find ourselves in massive social debt. There are many causes for this. One is a direct consequence of a new kind of starve the beast: the right believed 1) the price paid in social and institutional trust was more than compensated for by achieving their political ambitions; and 2) they wouldn’t be the ones repaying the debt. More-than-frustratingly, the strategy was sound. While the assignment of blame may not be uniform, repayment is. Punishing the wicked doesn’t work at scale.

More critically, there is no throne to take that can’t and won’t be retaken. The Great Man perspective of history isn’t merely boring — it’s wrong. They exist, but only as illusions. The power they enjoy and exercise is a projection of the incentives induced by the systems inhabited. The only way forward is through reconfiguration. By all means, defend the things that need defending! But recognize that intolerance and righteousness are often hard to tell apart. And both can have the perverse effect of freezing things as they are.