Did the center-left lose the 2020 election?
Life is hard for both #neverTrump and #neverWoke
As you know, I am developing a Fantasy Intellectual Teams game, and one idea is to have a league of think tanks. I thought: wouldn’t it be fun to include The Brookings Institution and The American Enterprise Institute, a natural rivalry between the center-left and the center-right? So I contacted friends at both think tanks to get their ideas for which of their scholars might be high scorers.
Concerning Brookings, one of my AEI friends casually remarked,
Being on the losing side of the intra-left debates has not been good for them
I thought, losing side? Didn’t Biden, the center-left candidate, just win? But in fact the center-left does seem to be a relatively weak force these days.
As of 2021, both the Democratic and Republican establishments are reeling from what Martin Gurri calls The Revolt of the Public. Both the left and the right must reckon with an illiberal, religiously fanatical constituency. On the right, Mr. Trump bullies and insults anyone who is less than worshipful toward him. The large body of his supporters that is willing to comply with his demands for personal loyalty represents the illiberalism of the right.
On the other side, there are the young progressive activists who are so certain of their moral rectitude that they see those who do not share their positions as heretics. They are unwilling to allow heretics even to enjoy gainful employment while holding dissenting beliefs. These activists represent the illiberalism of the left.
There are a number of intellectuals on the left who are outspoken in defense of liberal values, such as freedom of speech. Examples include Jonathan Haidt, John McWhorter, and Bari Weiss, who are unhappy with the social justice activists within the progressive movement. I will refer to the old-fashioned liberals as #neverWoke, in order to compare and contrast them to the center-right intellectuals who took up the banner of #neverTrump.
Note that some on the center-right deliberately adopted the label #neverTrump in 2016. As far as I know, there is no group on the center-left calling itself #neverWoke.
In their book Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, Robert P. Saldin and Steven M. Teles dissect the history of the #neverTrump movement. I enjoyed the book and wrote this review.
In the Saldin-Teles account, the #neverTrumpers lost both before and after the 2016 election. During the primaries, they were unable to stop Trump. At that point, their expectation was that Trump would be decisively defeated, so that they would be well positioned to win intra-party struggles going forward.
Trump’s win shocked and dismayed the #neverTrumpers as much as it did the left. But while the left could respond by mobilizing in opposition, the #neverTrumpers found themselves isolated and bereft.
Unlike the #neverTrumpers in 2016, the #neverWoke in 2020 should have been pleased by the results. Their preferred candidate, Joe Biden, won the nomination, thanks to Representative James Clyburn’s endorsement in the South Carolina primary and establishment pressure on other candidates to withdraw. And Biden went on to win in November. But the social justice activists have maintained their stance of intolerance and intimidation toward those who do not join their cause.
To this day, #neverTrumpers feel intimidated by Trump supporters’ loyalty to their man. I suspect that many leading conservatives would like to say, “Donald Trump lost the 2020 election. It was close, but it was not stolen. We need to move on from Donald Trump.” But apart from Senator Ben Sasse and a few others, hardly anyone prominent in Republican politics says so out loud.
Similarly, the #neverWoke feel intimidated by the social justice activists. In their hearts, the #neverWoke believe in free speech, a market economy, and other liberal values that the social justice activists reject. But among Democratic politicians and think-tank scholars, few are willing to say so out loud.
Essayist Scott Alexander foresaw the political dynamic that would be unleashed by the Trump phenomenon. Back in 2016, in the process of giving a backhanded endorsement of Hillary Clinton, he wrote,
If Trump fails, then . . . conservatives can at least get started right now picking up the pieces instead of having to wait four years. There’s a fundamental problem, which is that about 30% of the US population is . . . mostly not involved in US intellectual life, but form the biggest and most solid voting bloc in the country. . . . that’s always going to be the conservative party’s cross to bear and conservatism is always going to be less intellectual than liberalism in this country. . . .maybe if Trumpism gets decisively defeated it will encourage people to work on the problem.
He also predicted the effect that Mr. Trump would have on the dynamics of the left.
If the next generation is radicalized by Trump being a bad president, they’re not just going to lean left. They’re going to lean regressive, totalitarian, super-social-justice left.
This seems to be where we are. The older generation of center-right intellectuals is in disrepute with Mr. Trump’s constituency. And the older generation of center-left intellectuals is in disrepute with young progressive activists. Contrary to appearances, the center-left lost in 2020, just as the center-right lost in 2016. Both appear to be playing a diminished role in our political culture.
Note: The point of this essay is that center-left intellectuals (as well as center-right intellectuals) now play a much-diminished role in our political culture. Please address your comment to that claim. This is separate from the issue of whether or not the Biden Administration itself is moderate. Your opinion on the latter issue will only tell me about your political leanings, without speaking to my main point. Keep that opinion to yourself.