What is the “Alt” Left?

Much has been written about the “Alt[alternative]-Right” It is attacked as a sort of updated paleo-conservatism—or anti-orthodox conservatism that promotes white identity, often dressed up with hip culture to appeal to younger right-wingers.

Yet no one seriously believes that a supposed Alt-Right is a widespread phenomenon, much less that it drives the Republican Party or the Trump administration. The latter, for example, is the most pro-Israel American government in recent memory.

During the primaries, Trump was often accused by the conservative pundits of being moderate and nationalist in conservative clothing. The Trump message is often under attack from traditional conservatives as too centrist, aimed at the lower middle classes, not serious about cutting back entitlements, and too soft on Obamacare reform.

But on the other side, an “Alternative Left” is no longer an “alternate” wing of the Democratic Party or traditional liberalism. It now drives the Democratic Party trajectory.

What are its tenets other than the obvious of addressing man-caused climate change by radically restructuring the American economy, favoring a lead-from-behind stature abroad, and seeing “you didn’t build that” capitalism as parasitic rather than nourishing of American democracy?

Its overarching ideology seems to be a filtered version of campus postmodernism. Therefore the “truth” is simply a pastiche of “stories” or “narratives.” They can gain credence if those with power and influence “privilege” them, in efforts to enhance their own status and clout. “My story” is just as viable as “the truth,” a construct that does not exist in the abstract.

For the Alt-Left, there are not really inanimate laws of human nature or language. Instead political mobilization can construct powerful narratives of change: Opposition to gay marriage can be endorsed by both Obama and Clinton in 2008 and then be reconstructed as proof of right wing bigotry by 2012.

Zones of neo-Confederate federal nullification to stop the deportation of illegal alien criminals can be rebranded as “sanctuary cities” to protect the innocent “migrants” from arbitrary and racist immigration laws. “La Raza” does not really mean “The Race.” Instead Raza simply denotes the “people” in reference to oppressed communities.

The Obama victory of 2008 had a profound effect on the Democratic Party, suggesting that the “power” of getting elected twice gave “truth” to Obama’s polarizing brand of organizing groups based on ethnic and racially based grievances, in concert against a supposedly fading and bigoted establishment. (This axiom is in need of some postmodern revisionism after the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the loss of most governorships, state legislatures, the Congress, the presidency and the Supreme Court.)

The Alt-Left largely dismisses the old liberal idea of 1960s Civil Rights. Liberals once promoted integration and the goal of an American melting pot empowered by the time-honored traditions of racially blind integration, assimilation, and intermarriage. The liberal goal once was a common American culture and experience where race became subsidiary. Yet we hear little from liberals any more about non-discrimination and integration. Instead, preference, diversity, and segregated safe spaces become the new discriminatory and reparatory agendas.

The Alt-Left also believes that racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious identity is essential not incidental to character—as evidenced from the profound by the recent racialist statements of would-be candidates to head the DNC, to the ridiculous, as the careerist-driven and invented identities of a Sen. Elizabeth Warren or Ward Churchill or former white/black activists such as Rachel Dolezal and Shaun King attest.

Blatant appeals to racial chauvinism such as those of La Raza (“The Race,” a phraseology popularized in Franco’s Spain in imitation of Hitler’s Volk) or “Black Lives Matter” (that went to great lengths to reject counter ecumenical arguments that “All Lives Matter”) are not just tolerated as useful political props, but institutionalized by the Alt Left to the degree that the Obama Justice Department used fines collected from financial institutions to redistribute to such Alt-Left radical identity political groups.

Another tenet is the age-old left wing idea that the noble ends of “fairness”—equality of result, and government mandated redistribution—justify almost any means in obtaining them. At Obama rallies in 2008 and 2016, no conservative goons stormed the assemblies and sprayed mace at the audience; at current Trump gatherings protesters in masks try to incite violence, in order to suggest that mayhem is innate to Trump’s appeal. There were no Inauguration Day obscenity-ridden protests on January 20, 2009. To have adopted such tactics to disrupt an Obama rally would have been “racist.”

On campus, sexual assault has vastly expanded from traditional definitions of rape to now include one party’s post-coital unhappiness over initially consensual sexual congress, while justifying denial of due process to the accused in such cases as is supposed to be accorded to all defendants under the Constitution. Indeed, the Alt-Left’s fear is that accusations of sexual assault on campus would be customarily turned over to the local District Attorney, who would work within the Bill of Rights and not be free to prejudge defendants in the manner of campus ideological Star Chamber courts or administrative edicts.

The Alt-Left also does not really believe in free speech, at least as it was calibrated by the New Left of the 1960s that mandated “free speech” zones on campus, wrote academic handbooks outlining the need for protected expression, such as the Yale University’s highly regarded Woodward Report, or, in hippie fashion, equated free speech with advocacy for obscenity and pornography. Reading Mark Twain is hurtful and should be banned, screaming “F—k you to a Yale professor’s face is free speech and to be encouraged.

The purpose of safe spaces and trigger warnings is to deny free association and expression on grounds that purported victims deserve extra-constitutional protections. In French Revolution or Maoist style, speakers deemed antithetical to campus majority views or liable to influence students in the wrong directions are often barred from giving speeches, or have their lectures shouted down, violently so if need be.

When student protesters and outside activists disrupted Milo Yiannopoulos at Berkeley and Charles Murray at Middlebury, their activism was predicated on the assumption that they would never be subject to criminal charges leveled by those local district attorneys. Presumably, the influence of new Alt Left ideology had at least won some sympathy from campus officials or so instilled a fear of career imperilment that administrators had green-lighted exemption from criminal prosecutions.

The Alt-Left’s idea of the nullification of law is not limited to campuses. Over 300 sanctuary cities and jurisdictions have now adopted states’ rights arguments from the 1850s (which resurfaced under the Dixiecrat movements of the 1940s and 1950s, before ending with George Wallace defying federal law enforcement’s desegregation orders at the doorway to the University of Alabama). Local laws trump federal legislation, and thus entitle sanctuary cities to shield illegal aliens wanted on federal criminal warrants.

In California, a third of the population polls that it would like to secede from the Union and is encouraged to do so occasionally by state officials and legislators. And like kindred Confederates of old, the Alt-Left does not envision federal nullification as an abstract concept adoptable in theory by any local and state jurisdiction.

Certainly, San Franciscans would go to court to sue a Utah city or the state of Wyoming if either declared EPA endangered species legislation null and void within their jurisdictions or suspended or superseded federal gun registration statutes. A chief tenet of Alt-Left nullification is that the innate moral superiority of the Left allows it to render inert any law it finds reactionary or unhelpful to its agenda (immigration law, the ACA employer mandate, the Defense of Marriage Act, the contractual order of Chrysler’s creditors, or NSA surveillance laws)—on the premise that such principles are not transferable to other groups who do not share its supposedly unique ethical agendas.

Postmodern relativism reinvents standards of probity to fit changing perceptions of morality: the filibuster was bad under Obama but good under Trump. The “Biden Rule” opposed lame duck presidents from nominating Supreme Court justices—except when they were declared morally superior nominees. The nuclear option was a necessity corrective to mindless rejectionism unless the rejectionism became rebranded as moral and principled. Pen and phone executive orders were constitutional remedies for gridlock—until they became unconstitutional overreaches to stop gridlock. Powerful minorities and women were role models—but if conservative deserved smears as traitors to their race and sex.

A final tenet of the Alt-Left is its ease with Big Money—in rejection of the 1960s leftist notion that small is beautiful, simplicity is revolutionary, and lucre is proof of exploitation and criminality. Today, an inverted orthodoxy is that billionaire grandees from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to Hollywood have been flipped from robber barons to social justice mavens (read they are so wealthy that they are personally exempt from the deleterious ramifications of their own ideology that falls on the poorer and less influential). There is nothing odd about an Alt Left activist consulting his ample stock portfolio, insisting on granite and marble in his kitchen, or preferring Mercedes to Lexus; the old left wing idea that life emulates ideology is passé.

Anything once deemed exploitative and autocratic—the military, hugely endowed private foundations, an imperial presidency—for the Alt-Left is welcomed as expedient, on the premise it can bypass legislative logjams and fast track or fund moral agendas such as transgendered restrooms, women in frontline combat units, gay marriage, or climate change.

For now, the Alt Left has crushed its Democratic opposition. Bill and Hillary Clinton have mostly renounced their political positions of the 1990s—from opposition to gay marriage, work requirements for welfare, closed borders and enforcement of existing immigration law to support for more police, tough sentencing, and drug enforcement.

So is there an Alt-Left?

Not exactly.

The real Alternative Left is what is left of the Blue Dog Congressional delegation or the remnants that occasionally pop up around an enfeebled James Webb or Joe Manchin.

The old Alt-Left in contrast is the Democratic Party—not an alternative to it. In its present manifestation, not just a Harry Truman and JFK or even Bill Clinton would be seen as noxious, but the earlier incarnations of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 as well.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author of the just released New York Times best seller, The End of Everything: How Wars Descend into Annihilation, published by Basic Books on May 7, 2024, as well as the recent  The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump, and The Dying Citizen.