Beware the Commissars of Political Correctness!

I actually quite like Jonathan Chait’s work – he’s mostly very competent at a certain kind of centrist trolling. But the tune he’s whistling is getting a little boring. Today, he asks whether we can take political correctness seriously now, and provides his own answer to his own rhetorical question: Yes – And We Must Do It Before It Is Too Late.

It is possible — and, for many sympathizers on the left, convenient — to dismiss these sorts of incidents as just so much college high jinks. “College students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students,” argues Daniel Drezner, in a passage that attracted widespread support on the left. … Colleges have disproportionate influence over intellectual life … the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the p.c. left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others. The phenomenon also exists in other nonacademic left-wing communities … It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement. … American political correctness has obviously never perpetrated the brutality of a communist government, but it has also never acquired the powers that come with full control of the machinery of the state.

The problem is that we’ve been here before (quotes below taken from old CT posts, since the originals have long since fallen into the maw of the maelstrom that is the New Republic archives).

Jonathan Chait in 2006, on the netroots:

But it’s not true if you take account of their political style, which is distinctly New Left. It’s a paranoid, Manichean worldview brimming with humorless rage. The fact that the contemporary blog-based left, unlike the McGovernite New Left, lacks a well-formed radical program is some measure of comfort. However, I think there’s lots of evidence to suggest that this style of thinking is suggestive of a tendency to move in more radical directions over time. That, of course, is exactly what happened to the New Left, many of whose members starting off as relatively sensible liberals, or left-liberals before veering into the abyss.

Jonathan Chait in 2007, on how the radical blogospheric left was co-opting Matthew Yglesias

The party-line sensibility that pervades the netroots is not some artificial, Stalinist imposition. The close ties that exist among the netroots and its allies grow out of the technology they use so naturally. … Even Matthew Yglesias, who writes one of the most independent-minded liberal blogs, confessed in March that he had soft-pedaled his opposition to gun control. “I don’t write about this issue much because, hey, I don’t want to be a wanker,” he wrote.

In Chait’s favor, he’s certainly consistent over time. In his universe, Marxist radicalism takes many guises, whether it be cloaked in Daily-Kos style political organizing, or exemplified by assistant professors acting like self-aggrandizing arseholes at student demonstrations. But always and everywhere, it’s a burning and urgent threat to liberal democracy and the American Way of Life.

Against him is the fact that he’s demonstrably not that hot at prediction. The netroots never spawned any equivalent of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Matthew Yglesias appears to have successfully resisted the blandishments and social pressures of the radical left (although Chait seems to intimate that Cultural Commissar Drezner has not). I suspect that college demonstrations against racism and sexism are similarly unlikely to blossom into totalitarianism. At this stage, I don’t think that Chait’s outpourings can be dismissed entirely as trolling – they clearly stem from sincere beliefs. But it would be nice, in an ideal world, if he acknowledged that this isn’t the first time he’s claimed there were reds under the bed and found out, when he looked, that it was a stuffed teddy-bear instead.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

Henry Farrell

Henry Farrell is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University.