The neoliberal policing of the left

Jonathan Chait is a columnist in New York magazine. Friends sometimes send me links to his article because they think he presents a sensible, liberal, perspective. I have never been impressed by him, just as I have never been impressed by Nicholas Kristoff, another columnist much favored by liberals. Alex Pareene captures well what I don’t like about Chait’s work. He says that the goal of neoliberal Democrats like Chait is to prevent the Democratic party from moving further to the left than the boundaries set by (say) the Clintons.

Pareene uses a recent column by Chait as the starting point of his analysis.

New York’s Jonathan Chait writes today about the “dangerous consequences” of the left’s use of the label “white supremacist” to describe Donald Trump, the alt-right, and American conservatism in general.

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.

(Commenter felicis also mentioned this tendency of people like Chait in a comment on the post about the Air Force Academy chief’s speech.)

Pareene then goes on to get to the root of what people like Chait are really driving at.

Chait is policing the way the left does politics because he does not want the left-wing style of doing politics to gain prominence.

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.

It’s not merely that he thinks your ideas or politics are wrong. He has been battling for years to keep you from having any ability to influence the politics or strategy or direction of the Democratic Party. This is the actual message of much of his work: Don’t let the left win. I don’t even think he’d dispute that, really. But everyone should be clear on how expansive his definition of “the left” is, because you’re probably in it.

The nice thing is, though, he’s already lost.

Chait’s side—the side of the Marty Peretz-era New Republic, the side of welfare reform and regime change, the side that clings to the fairy tale version of Democratic history in which the sober white centrists saved the party from the hippies and black radicals—lost its party years ago. Its only remaining constituency is magazine editors.

It should not be surprising that Chait used to write for the New Republic, that bastion of neoliberalism that supported the disastrous wars that the US has engaged in and that he also supported Joe Lieberman for the US senate after he had been defeated in a primary by a more progressive candidate.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    Chait’s side—[…]—lost its party years ago. Its only remaining constituency is magazine editors

    Yeah. Oh, and the people who pick the candidates for the election, which is why the Democrats lost the last one and will probably lose the next one. Apart from them, yeah.

  2. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    To Pierce.
    That was an interesting read. As a fanboy of Mill I am also offended at the author’s misuse of Mill. The point of conversation is to find bad ideas so that the bad ideas die. The author suggests that we should have more libertarians and conservatives in university staff -- why? The point of the Mill approach is progress, and the libertarians and conservatives are wrong. If anything, the author is suggesting a quota system. The author is so frustrating and infuriating.

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