Tablet magazine recently published a feature examining the world of “Left heretics,” describing the commonalities among heterodox individuals branded still theoretically under the large, diverse tent that is “the Left.” I wasn’t surprised to find the podcast I co-host, “What’s Left?,” listed alongside other heretics such as the “Red Scare” podcast, journalists Michael Tracey and Lee Fang, and public intellectual Angela Nagle (who appears frequently on “What’s Left?”—a small world of dissidents indeed!).
I did, however, begin thinking about the process by which one becomes a “Left heretic,” enduring a deluge of extremely online opprobrium before being asked to leave the Left, transitioning from heretic to apostate.
Most people who have given this matter any thought assume, at a minimum, that the heretic has failed to utter the appropriate shibboleths about riots, borders, class, race, and so on. And this, at least on the surface, is how such inquisitions unfold: first you fall out and then you’re kicked out. But the actual mechanisms by which “Left orthodoxy” is manufactured are far more insidious, and warrant closer scrutiny. In 2020, heretic hunting involves participation from a wide variety of soi-disant agents and operatives, most doing the work solely for the clout it affords them.
That the Left should give rise to so many schisms and splits comes as no surprise, historically speaking. Historian Christopher Lasch’s The Agony of the American Left, published in 1969, offers a succinct explanation of the divarications that compromised late-19th century populism, the socialism of the 1920s and 1930s, the post-World War II Left, and even the 1960s of the New Left which had crystallized while Lasch was writing about it.
In each instance, it was easy enough to co-opt careerists, which was how the CIA wound up underwriting the magazines and other cultural projects of the anti-communist leftism of the 1950s, or to inform on peers with actual commitments to the cause, or to ostracize or alienate dissidents, which had the effect of pushing leftists like Norman Podhoretz and David Horowitz to the Right.
The Right, by contrast, has always been harder to pin down. The Republican Party was tied to certain internecine purity movements in its early days of existence, sometimes tied to aggressive disputes among figures within the associated 19th-century abolition, temperance, and women’s suffrage movements. And throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with the rise of the “New Right,” it was associated with various Moral Majority-style evangelical groups, many mobilized in the wake of the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, which federalized a limited “right to abortion” and removed the ability of states to determine whether or not to ban certain types of early-stage abortion procedures.
Among these newly-ascendant evangelicals, there were purges for this or that moral failing, usually always tied to hypocrisy—Ted Haggard “researching” LGBT and drug lifestyles he purported to denounce, Jim Bakker committing various financial and personal misdeeds, or that strange period in American history when Republican House Speakers Newt Gingrich and Bob Livingston resigned back to back for marital indiscretions—rather than publicly articulated beliefs as such.
And when such articulated beliefs do drive out a certain caste of people, as with the William Kristol NeverTrumpers and the Lincoln Project set, it seems their beliefs were always already aligned with where they currently find themselves, on the side of neoliberalism and private capital, and the Right didn’t exactly expel them as much as move its big tent far enough away that it no longer provided adequate shelter for their market depredations.
From “Selling Out” to “Doing the Work”
It is within this strange and ever-expanding “consensus coalition” against Donald Trump—encompassing Google, Amazon, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Goldman Sachs, the Lincoln Project people, most of the deep state, academia, nearly every career civil servant, the Democratic Party, “independent”-voting suburbanites offended by Trump’s lack of politesse, innumerable nonprofits—where what’s left of the Left finds itself.
Within such a coalition, there won’t be room for many Bernie Bros or identity politics activists, with chairs awaiting only the ones lucky enough to be offered a chance at decades-long careers speaking for everyone else technically still on the Left team. These are the cushy sinecures that await those willing to play ball, as they awaited their hippie forebears who also lost their faith but kept their jobs. In the early 1990s, we anti-consumerism types would have called this “selling out;” in 2020, it is merely “doing the work.”
As it was in the 1950s and the 1970s, decades of far-left decline and retrenchment, this means clearing the hold of dissidents, oddballs, heterodox thinkers, and anyone else whose ballast might hasten the sinking of the ship. For people on the Right, this process might seem puzzling, given that their ranks sometimes swell with strange and even unwelcome bedfellows. When ex-Klan Grand Wizard-turned-turned Louisiana state representative David Duke ran for senator and governor of Louisiana in quick succession in 1990 and 1991, then for president in 1992, he did so at least nominally as a Republican, a label he retained until hooking up with the Reform Party in the late 1990s, a variegated party that during this time included everyone from Minnesota Governor Jesse “the Body” Ventura, to ex-Republican populist Pat Buchanan, to future president Donald Trump.
Duke floated around the Republican periphery for years and, so far past cancellation he had come full circle, continued to draw public attention. But within the Left, minor figures whose ideological crimes may consist of nothing worse than an unwelcome tweet or complaint about a progressive magazine’s pay rate are shown the door tout de suite. It would likely surprise some older conservatives that long-time opponents ranging from socialist war hawk Christopher Hitchens (dead, but that’s no matter!) to New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan now number among the ranks of the “reactionaries” against whom the institutional Left has aligned itself. So, for that matter, do a host of other semi-notables, encompassing liberals such as Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog and leftists like Lee Fang and Glenn Greenwald. All of them remain on the periphery, plying their media trade to greater or lesser success, and any of them could cause “Left Twitter” to explode into paroxysms of rage with a single unwelcome tweet or against-the-grain article.
Twitter, by the by, is where all this media action happens. This was the online terrain first colonized by Trump, whose tweets still constitute the sun around which everything else on that platform revolves. It is also a place I wouldn’t frequent if I weren’t there to study and at times participate in the media ecosystem, all the while examining the ferocious intra-Left competition over clout and eyeballs in lieu of actual dollars and cents. You needn’t be on Twitter to know who Lee Fang, Glenn Greenwald, Jesse Singal, and Katie Herzog are. And regardless of their importance to what leftists call “the discourse,” they don’t matter here, except as mini-moons whose gravitational pull drags “hot take” asteroids—dogpiles and struggle sessions and cancellation crusades—towards them.
Twitter, to most people, doesn’t matter aside from whatever Trump happens to be posting and whatever media stories favorable to Trump the platform happens to be censoring. Yet it is also where a great deal of professional media consent is manufactured; it is where both the media and leftist hierarchies, which have become increasingly intertwined and thus increasingly shrill and partisan, are crystallized; and if you speak ill of the nattering nabobs who lord over this platform, they will by turns urge you to “log off and grill” or their clout-chasing catspaws will flood your private messages with angry comments.
Or so I’m told. I don’t socialize within these groups and thus don’t constitute a threat to their virtual livelihoods, so I’m spared the spleen. But I’ve seen it: vicious male feminists filling a hated woman’s inbox with rape and murder fantasies so vulgar they’d give pause even to those Victorian England creeps writing their own ersatz Jack the Ripper “Dear Boss” letters to the London tabloids. Complicated, coordinated attempts at doxxing people’s home addresses, places of employment, and so on. Coordinated “ban attacks” devoted to mass-reporting and then canceling some hapless former fellow-traveler whose takes have begun to offend their delicate sensibilities. And of course, there are always people nosing around on the boundaries of what’s left of the Left, sniffing for signs of “contrarianism,” ready to skim a sentence they dislike and reply with a disgusted rejoinder along the lines of “this ain’t it, chief” or “not a good look, maybe delete this.”
The Left Titanic
There are vanishingly few seats left on the Left Titanic, a shortage made more acute as the ship is engulfed by the aforementioned anti-Trump coalition that connects nearly every power player in the world of technology and finance. These are the latter-day robber barons whose targeted charitable grants, among other “good works,” advance specific narratives intended to distract from their own ill-gotten gains—for example, funds from the likes of Google to hire underrepresented or marginalized people to report, but only on stories within their underrepresented or marginalized communities, rather than everything else. Such table scraps might be tasty, but they wouldn’t suffice to feed the Donner Party much less all these would-be leaders of the Left.
This is a critical distinction: I am here talking about people aspiring to lead the Left, to be seen on the Left, to manage the Left. There are many such people in existence; our universities have over-produced them, at least relative to any conceivable national need, and now they justifiably want something meaningful to do. What they do not want to do, unlike the “rank and file” of the Left, the putative coalition of workers and impoverished people and marginalized folks they were trained to lead, is work themselves. No, in the words of one of their notable poets and “sex work legends,” they would “rather die than work.” In such a world, there are too many “this ain’t it, chiefs” and not nearly enough followers.
The broader point is that these university-certified Marxists and intersectional theorists and dual-power activists cannot do anything with their would-be coalitions, because they aren’t at the head of any such coalitions. Pieces of those coalitions are still represented by various old-school politicians like Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), or the new politicians using choice bits of left language to take them over. But they don’t belong to this Left, “certified” or not.
It isn’t quite “LARPing” or grifting, as they frequently accuse each of doing given how fiercely they project their insecurities onto one another, but it doesn’t amount to much: a few thousand jobs perhaps, additional spaces for people to tweet or rant on YouTube or podcast to some amount of acclaim, and let the devil take the hindmost. The contrarian-hunting is so ferocious because, as in academia, the stakes are so low.
For a long time, I wondered where I fit in this world. I had grown up in the long, toupee-wearing shadow of Youngstown Rep. James Traficant (D-Ohio), who had secured my uncle’s appointment to Annapolis, and always identified as a Rust Belt Democrat. I still do, in fact, because those old values continue to resonate with me: family, friendship, loyalty, a commitment to organized labor and the promotion of the skilled trades, a sense of being rooted in this polluted soil.
Down South, people stroll onto your property and bring you home-cooked food, and in New York people scurry along with their eyes facing the sidewalk. But in my hometown, people left you to your own devices and uttered not a word about your goings-on unless or until you stepped onto their property, whereupon they told you to “get the hell out of there, you dumb son of a bitch.”
These angry flare-ups between neighbors were constant, but they were meaningless. Most people loved their neighbors because they hated their neighbors, but no one wanted to cancel, crush, or otherwise dispose of their neighbors. Disagreements were frequent and sharp, both within families and among neighbors, but these disagreements weren’t magnified out of proportion because there was a sense that everyone was stuck here, tied to this coal patch of ground, such as it was. I’m overgeneralizing, of course—things aren’t like they used to be and they never were—but that infertile soil never yielded a harvest of contrarian-hunters or clout-chasers.
The larger question, of course, is what it all means. Why bother to hunt contrarians at all, to denounce them in the tweets or drive them from your imagined virtual community? The answer there seems simple enough: the Left leadership struggles are a battle to run the Left™, the business side of this operation.
Contests in the College of Cardinals to select a new pope are different in kind but not in purpose; like the fictional Highlanders, “there can be only one.” But it does mean that this group of would-be leaders and tastemakers isn’t all that different from the televangelists or Republican operatives they might decry. They are engaged in the same seedy business but pursuing it by means of different yet no less dirty tricks.
Like any other rigidly stratified hierarchy, the consequence of ostracism is severe: “The Left, love it or leave it!” And even though some of you might hate to see it, many of us dissidents have loved leaving it.