I don’t read Chait enough to diagnose why I don’t care for him — his vaguely liberal views always make me too queasy to think hard enough about what he’s saying, which is a good warning sign. But Alex Pareene does read him carefully and gets specific about what’s annoying. It’s not just that he’s always complaining about “free speech” on campus and how colleges are starting to wise up to the conservative scam of booking controversial assholes, it’s that he always favors avoiding calling out the bad guys.
In the course of defending his piece on Twitter, he has effectively made it clear that he thinks it’s inappropriate to label any person or cause “white supremacist” unless the targets of the label have openly embraced it. He has suggested that a political tendency can’t be “white supremacist” without vocal anti-Semitism, which is silly in the American context—as Ali Gharib points out, Judah P. Benjamin, perhaps the most prominent Jewish politician in the country at that time, served in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s cabinet. Chait has argued that Rep. Steve King, who has explicitly argued that “somebody else’s babies” pose a “demographic” threat to “our civilization,” is merely “edging closer” to white supremacy.
So I’m safe from criticism by Chait if I make Nazi salutes, advocate putting brown people into camps, sloganeer about white genocide, and quote The Bell Curve to say that some races are inferior, as long as I don’t say, “I’m a white supremacist”? Good to know. I wouldn’t want to get on Chait’s bad side.
Something that is well-known to people who’ve read Chait for years, but may not be apparent to those who just think of him as a standard-issue center-left pundit who is sort of clueless about race, is that he is engaged in a pretty specific political project: Ensuring that you and people like you don’t gain control of his party.
I say “you” because his conception of the left almost certainly includes you. He is not merely against Jill Stein voters and unreconstructed Trotskyites and Quaker pacifists. He means basically anyone to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996. If you support a less militaristic foreign policy, if you believe the Democratic Party should do more to dismantle structural racism and create a more equitable distribution of wealth, if you think Steve fucking King is a white supremacist, Chait is opposed to you nearly as staunchly as he is opposed to Paul Ryan.
I’m not one of those people who has read Chait for years, so it’s good to have that flaw pinned down in the dissecting tray for me. But is Pareene right? I want to see Chait’s own words. So he quotes him defending Joe Lieberman in 2006. Joe Lieberman! Jesus.
In the end, though, I can’t quite root for Lieberman to lose his primary. What’s holding me back is that the anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman’s sins. It’s a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent. Moreover, since their anti-Lieberman jihad is seen as stemming from his pro-war stance, the practical effect of toppling Lieberman would be to intimidate other hawkish Democrats and encourage more primary challengers against them.
This is Chaitism distilled: They may be right—about Joe Lieberman, about the Iraq War, about the racism of the conservative movement—but they are right for the wrong reasons, and we cannot let them gain a foothold.
Yeesh. At least now I can go back to not reading Jonathan Chait with a clear conscience.