The Woke and the Dead
The Democratic Party might have made a small mistake when they undid a significant amount of their superdelegates’ power to decide presidential nominees. The Election of 2016 offered us the spectacle of Republican civil war, one that revealed a huge gap between GOP voters and the party’s leaders. It was a revealing conflict, one that played out in the media and on Twitter with great detail. And now the Democrats can enjoy their own version of it.
The question is whether the presidential primary for 2020 will reveal a similar gap between the average voter and the party elite. If there is such a gap, it probably isn’t over policy—the Democratic Party seems to be moving left. But one might emerge in the contest over the party’s soul. Does it still retain any liberal grounding, or has it become post-liberal and driven by the woke imperative of universal equality?
Consider some of the candidates and their liabilities: Robert “Beto” O’Rourke offers a solid menu of progressive policies, but he’s already under assault for his “white privilege,” and will no doubt find himself apologizing for his ongoing public depression over losing to Texas Senator Ted Cruz. If Joe Biden attempts a serious run, he will have to disavow much of his career while offering obeisance to every social justice cause that presents itself. California Senator Kamala Harris would make an ideal candidate in almost every respect, except for her obvious-in-hindsight failures in social justice as a prosecutor in San Francisco. As denizens of Left-Twitter now have it, “she’s a cop,” and who knows how she’ll outrun that. Then there is New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who in a previous life in the House earned an “A” rating from the NRA, and has been repenting of that and her previous stance on immigration. And the list of apologies goes on.
One could be forgiven for thinking that the slow march toward identifying a Democratic challenger who can both set progressive hearts aflutter and defeat Donald Trump will hinge on who offers the most compelling case for his or her own wokeness and identity—real or contrived—without alienating too many voters closer to the political center. But the challenge this presents is that the most influential and very online progressive core of party activists seem to be driving the narrative, tilting the scales toward ideological purity rather than electability.
So, the primary campaign may well offer the most demanding test of virtue-signaling ever yet devised outside of Ivy League presidential searches. At the heart of it all, we’ll see a dynamic that has repeated time and again in such circles: the omnipresent fear of being overtaken from the Left, of being found wanting in zeal for cosmic justice.
One can understand the Democrats’ paranoia at being left behind by History, or consumed by the unyielding wheel of the revolution. One need only recall the fate of the Girondins or the Mensheviks—or more recently, that of a progressive feminist unfortunate enough to believe in the hoary old binary of male-and-female—to see the dilemma. The challenge here is that to the degree the Democratic Party takes an ever-more-definitive stance as post-liberal, the party’s faithful also lose out on being able to know where it is safe to stand.
To the degree a political party is anchored around fairly stable, liberal principles like fairness, or some minimum standards of social welfare, it’s relatively easy to know what good politics are, and what’s safe to say or do. A liberal advocating improved social welfare provisions might understand their mission as helping rather than transforming society; they might be content when some of the largesse of the society at large makes its way into the hands of the less fortunate.
One way of thinking about the liberalism of a politician like New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, or a theorist like John Rawls is that it could encompass a constellation of goods: equality is an important goal, but in their thought it always remained tempered by other competing aims, like liberty, property, stability, or civic order. You can disagree with how anyone in this camp struck the balance, but there was a balance to be maintained.
But that’s just the thing: in a post-liberal political world driven by equality, these tedious moderating certainties can’t be trusted. To be an advocate for a thoroughgoing social justice demands a radical and ongoing exposure of oppression, injustice, and especially inequality. You can always find another kind of inequality and there’s always another frontier for social justice to conquer. Without some moderating force, equality becomes a reductive, unwavering, eliminative ideology.
Progressive politicians—and, really, anyone with a social media profile—increasingly find themselves in a situation entirely beyond their control. While you could see this logic begin to work out in the academy a decade or so ago, now it’s simply become part of our public life, one enshrined as a primary goal of Left-leaning politics. So, last year’s radical position is today’s orthodoxy. But also might be tomorrow’s thought crime, and you can never know when positions you thoughtfully staked out in the past will move beyond the pale of acceptability.
The recent example of Brian C. Buescher, a nominee for the U.S. District Court for the District of Nebraska revealed some of the fault lines that this pursuit of egalitarian public virtue opens up: Senator Harris, and also her Hawaiian colleague Senator Mazie Hirono, pressured Judge Buescher on the basis of his membership in the Catholic men’s fraternal organization Knights of Columbus, an organization that Sen. Hirono argued takes “extreme positions.”
The usual people on the Right leapt into action to defend Judge Buescher, but were joined by at least one Democrat, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who also criticized her colleagues. In another time, she would make an ideal contender for the nomination: she’s reliably and deeply progressive, a combat veteran weary of foreign intervention, and a multi-racial member of a minority Hindu sect. Even if to remain a member of her party she’s had to adjust other positions, Gabbard’s principled stance on this issue indicates that she knows not everything can be socially constructed or destroyed. But this wasn’t enough for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who pronounced her unfit to be the party’s nominee against Trump in 2020.
There are always casualties in the war for social justice, and some of them are those that fail to show insufficient zeal for the right kind of justice at the right time. In the upcoming campaign, there will only be the woke and the dead.