Opinion | Migrations From Left to Right During Dark Times

Some recent books and articles have grappled with why both public intellectuals and everyday people increasingly migrate from Left to Right. It is a critical topic again today, pertinent to the fabric of intellectual life, cultural turns within various institutions, the decline of public support for Ukraine, and the real danger that Donald Trump will win the 2024 election. A recent book by Naomi Klein, Doppelganger, zeroes in on the issue, as does a recent column by Michelle Goldberg in the New YorkTimes. Klein is alert to how a public shaming of then Leftist Naomi Wolf by the Left for sloppy research encouraged her to jump to the Right where she was welcomed, feted, and given ample room to embrace her favorite conspiracies on the Right. Steve Bannon, previously anathema to her, became a beloved host and inspiration.

We will not talk further about the two thoughtful writings by Klein and Goldberg, except to say that our reading profits from their explorations, distributes the phenomenological and political weightings differently, and adds a dimension given short shrift in their accounts. The turn from Left to Right, of course, has a long history, marked for example by the turn in the nineteen fifties by the left-wing pragmatist Sidney Hook to the Right and the shift from Cold War liberalism to neo-conservatism by luminaries such as Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. The former once said, “A conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”

What makes this movement so active again today?

For academics who have followed this path, the older pulls do come into play. Shaming followed by Right invitationalism is surely one of them. Finding a place in a Right institution—say, the Claremont Institute or the Heritage Foundation–with ample funding from conservative billionaires, well-financed conferences, connections to a media landscape that engenders public praise and pecuniary benefit, all carry considerable appeal. And, of course, the Christian Right is primed to welcome any Christian who moves from embracing deep pluralism to demand imposition of a Christian state.

Until and unless the Left comes through with a new agenda that speaks to the sense of collapse so many feel in their guts, more people will find it increasingly appealing to run from the Left and Middle toward the New Right.

One sort of shaming that academics of the Left have experienced emerges out of the new regime to closely monitor campus discourse. One trap, for instance, that universities set for themselves and then walk into is first to regulate institutionally academic discourse on race, gender, and religion and then face belligerent charges from the Right of hypocrisy for not clamping down against those supporting Palestine after Israel’s response to Hamas terrorism by reducing the open prison in Gaza to rubble. Unless universities punish students and faculty for antisemitism in the same way that limits are set to acceptable discourse on race, gender, and sexuality, they are said to have failed in their responsibilities. Of course, in the current heated atmosphere, the term “antisemitism” has been expanded by the Right to include any and all criticism of the state of Israel as a religiously exclusive state. Administrative pronouncements supporting freedom of speech in the face of such right-wing attacks thus ring hollow when the same administrations already regulate so much speech and behavior inside and outside the classroom.

The intent of Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), when she attacked relentlessly three university presidents earlier this month, was not to level the playing field: it was to trap the institutions, to attack gender, sexual, class, and race diversity, to support donor and public pressure on universities from the Right, and to identify the U.S. strongly with Netanyahu rather than with active pursuit of a two-state solution. The trap the universities inadvertently set for themselves—and which Stefanik sprung—encourages some who have been hassled by bloated administrative bureaucracies to run to the Right.

The irony is that in initiating policies to protect students from mild forms of discomfort, universities confine faculty independence and blunt student opportunities to cultivate intellectual and emotional maturity in the rough give-and-take of ideas. Bloated bureaucracies of “care” infantilize students by encouraging them to absorb any insult or slight as an infliction of emotional trauma. The elevation of such excessive policies belittles the severe damage that occurs on campuses from sexual assault and racial violence. And they breed resentment among faculty or students accused of racism or sexism for saying mild or even stupid things. That is the crew Stefanik seeks to attract.

While colleges and universities are highly visible institutions, even more important, perhaps, is the shift among those on the authoritarian Left already eager to hear and propagate conspiratorial theories. If you are Glenn Greenwald, for instance, much more room and comfort is provided to you on the Right than on the Left. So historically members of the authoritarian Left (most Leftists refuse to go that way) find more favorable hunting grounds when they switch the content of their conspiratorial readings while retaining the authoritarianism that infused them.

Doubtless, different mixes of these pressures play upon intellectuals, popular constituencies, and scattered individuals in turn. Working and lower middle-class white males, for instance, are pulled by a mix of class resentments joined to the compensatory conviction that white men should have priority over women and other racial categories. Entire campaigns on the Right foment and intensify such sentiments, treating them rather than class inequality and insecurity to be the source of the troubles such men feel. Some African-American men also increasingly seem to feel that the pursuit of gender equality takes away one of the few zones of comfort available to them.

Another generic feature of late-modern life, however, insinuates itself into these sensibilities and temptations, amplifying them and drawing them closer together.

Let us put it this way. From the post-WW II era until, say, the 1990s in the United States and Europe, three popular ideologies competed, very unevenly, for primacy. There was a Keynesian agenda of growth and stability linked to modest egalitarianism. There was a neoliberal drive to push income and wealth rapidly upward amid thinly veiled pretenses that, if you were lucky and inordinately ambitious, you too might clamber to the top of the heap. There were communist and socialist movements demanding a much larger role for the state, as they promised greater equality and abundance for regular people. The second drive—neoliberalism–has had by far the strongest run in recent decades in most western states.

Amid their profound differences, one thing was shared by all three orientations. They were all built around the promise to promote rapid economic growth into the foreseeable future. Today, those complementary projections into the future ring hollow. The destructive character of accelerating climate change pulls the props from under all three ideologies; those tacit projections of growth and mastery over nature no longer sink so securely into the mores of life, particularly for young people and members of the working and middle classes. Indeed the future promises to draw more and more migrants from southern venues into temperate zone states, with neither a cultural ethos nor leadership prepared to receive them. Indeed, neoliberals sometimes seem to enjoy fomenting immigration drives from the south, so they can then oppose immigration vehemently without admitting their contribution to its sources.

Some constituencies—mostly in the white working class, Republican Party, and superrich donor groups—respond to this intuitive sense that established institutions are built around an unsustainable future by belligerently denying or ignoring climate wreckage and by creating racial and religious scapegoats to blame for all adverse conditions. Others, hanging precariously onto the middle class, respond by admitting that climate wreckage is true while suppressing that admission from active orientations as soon as possible. Some donor types even acknowledge through their behavior that the future promised by neoliberalism is now dead; they then dedicate themselves to maximizing short-term profits now, regardless of how they foment economic insecurity and foster climate wreckage. This donor class conveys most starkly a belligerent nihilism that reverberates more widely.

Democracy turns out to be a casualty the base is willing to face. So is real attention to climate destruction.

And the Left? Though there are signs of creative movement in some quarters, it has not yet promulgated a possible future that both breaks with classical capitalist and productive socialist projections and carries a chance of pulling more young people into its orbit. A future that could help temperate zone states respond wisely to new conditions unexpected by the classical ideologies. In these circumstances—in which none of the old ideologies rings true to diverse constituencies—the temptation grows for those in privileged locations to latch onto neoliberal capitalism opportunistically, tugging it toward the fascist right to sustain it a while longer. That is the mood discernible in widespread attractions to campaigns and actions by Donald Trump, Elon Musk, and Steve Bannon today. It is less that this intense base believes the false stories they hear; more that it embraces the animosities defined and holds onto its definition of the future as the best of a bad lot.

The unstated objective is to keep the current fossil fuel, commodity system alive as long as possible, even though to do so creates havoc. Democracy turns out to be a casualty the base is willing to face. So is real attention to climate destruction.

Until and unless the Left comes through with a new agenda that speaks to the sense of collapse so many feel in their guts, more people will find it increasingly appealing to run from the Left and Middle toward the New Right. As the credibility of the old ideals of growth fade, ideals once intended to liberate us from the grievous harms of poverty, racism, sexism, and economic insecurity, a new Fascist Right forged under the shadow of climate wreckage, expanding migration drives, racist state policies, extreme economic inequality, and police state responses to dissent becomes more active now and increasingly probable to take over.

The task the Left must set for itself today is to rethink old Leftist ideals of abundance and growth in egalitarian ways, as it also shows how destructive the neoliberal agenda must become under these conditions. Doing so to pull more constituencies toward new ideals of being in the world. It is not an easy task, to say the least. It has also become indispensable to the world we inhabit.


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