The Radicalizations of the American Mind

Why liberals need to grapple with the complexity of the new left.

Avant-garde social movements are jarring among the non-adherent. It’s part of their point—and familiar at the moment. By 2019, a set of radical political theories on the left has spread from college campuses into professional media and mainstream culture, variously emphasizing demands for safe spaces free of posttraumatic triggers, limits on free speech to offset structural privilege, new pronouns to help de-normalize cisgender identity, and other unconventional imperatives. You’ve probably seen scare quotes around “safe spaces,” “structural privilege,” or “cisgender identity” as often as not.

Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump
by Robby Soave
All Points Books, 336 pp.

A more familiar but still disruptive politics of anti-capitalism has meanwhile been on the rise across the left under the old banner of socialism, while a politics of white nationalism, resurgent on the right, has echoed the tropes of fascism. All together, these movements haven’t just bewildered the uninitiated majority of the country; they’ve seemed to hasten a steep erosion of consensus around the terms of political debate in America and a metastatic spread of conflict without common ground.

For anyone committed to the foundational mores of liberal democracy, such as toleration, free expression, and due process, the encroachment of illiberal consensus from all sides represents a special problem. Liberal-democratic politics may be compatible with any number of radical ideas over time, but it also depends on the maintenance of a common social repertoire that includes a broad investment in mutual persuasion, a commitment to evidentiary argument, and an openness to creating diverse coalitions for distinct political ends. The more radical politics thrives by working against this social repertoire, rather than with it, the more it stands to threaten liberal-democratic politics as such.

In his new book Panic Attack, Robby Soave takes a comprehensive and critical look at the flourishing ecosystem of American radicalism with this problem in view. That means surveying a lot of ground: the hugely influential worldview informed by intersectional theory, which focuses on the complex interactions among racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression; the related politics of identity, culture, and power behind Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, and trans activism; the new salience of the Democratic Socialists of America; and the alarming phenomenon of the hateful, cruel, and ironical alt-right.

It also means going to some historical depth. While Soave’s subtitle is Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, he understands that, like so much about this age, the state of its radicalism has vastly more to do with decades of emerging conditions that preceded Donald Trump’s presidency than it does with Trump himself. In a sense, Panic Attack works as an anthology of historical explainers. Perhaps you’re uncertain about the origins and significance of ideas like “cultural appropriation” or “gender dysphoria,” the importance of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, or the influence of Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory on undergraduate instruction in the humanities and social sciences? Soave lays these out clearly, without condescension to either his subject matter or the reader.

He integrates them, as well, in an overarching historical narrative. Despite their eclecticism and sporadic mutual enmity, Soave argues, the array of radical movements asserting themselves since Trump’s election share a core set of themes, apart from which we fundamentally can’t understand them. More specifically, they’re driven by a core set of experiences that have unmoored “Zillennials”—a mash-up term of art combining Soave’s own Millennial generation (born 1981–96) with the younger Gen Z (1997–)—from some of the basic assumptions of their
forebears.

As Soave sees it, Zillennials have been raised in a chronically freaked-out “safety culture,” at home and at school, that has left them broadly unprepared for some of modern life’s tougher realities. They have then been loaded with unprecedented student debt and dropped into an extraordinarily rocky economy. With the intensifying influence of social media, and the powerful new modes of social normalization they’ve catalyzed, Zillennials have been primed for immersion into a networked set of radical ideas that have seemed to speak meaningfully to their lives. Coming largely out of the academy, these ideas have emphasized a capacious view of victimhood and an associated need for protection from psychological harm; an antipathy to capitalism; and a hard turn away from the traditionally youth-friendly norms of free expression that characterized the civil rights and antiwar eras.

The result has been a proliferation of new forms of common sense that are contemptuous not only toward liberals’ traditional embrace of markets in the economic realm, but also toward the traditional defenses of free expression, open debate, and due process that liberals have often shared with radicals on the left in the social, political, and legal realms.

Like many concerned about “political correctness,” Soave locates these tendencies first and foremost on college campuses, the sources of some of the more familiar and dramatic illustrations. These include the deliberate disruption and harassment of campus speakers—occasionally quasi-fascists, sometimes mainstream conservatives, but just as often heterodox liberals or even left radicals—on account of the putative harm their ideas do to one or more categories of oppressed people. Other illustrations include the establishment of new campus regulatory powers to enforce radical norms and various successes in reshaping curricula to conform with them. But Soave also sees these new norms beyond academia, in patterns of fierce division, exclusion, and censure that inflect different race-, sex-, and gender-based identity movements across society at large.

Notably, when Soave reports conversations with left-radical protestors, they tend to convey little interest in liberal theories of the case at all. “Free speech is allowing people to express themselves in a way that doesn’t put other people down,” one tells him at an anti-alt-right counterdemonstration last year. “It doesn’t oppress people and damage our society.” Elsewhere, an antifascist activist is incredulous about any need to justify physically attacking a peaceful group of right-wing demonstrators: “They’re fucking Nazis.” Elsewhere still, in arguing to cancel the screening of a pro-gay film about Stonewall that a group of student activists deemed in an open letter “discursively violent” toward members of the trans community, an undergrad student dismisses the idea of showing the film and then debating about it. “Critical discussion,” she says, “is simply a way of engaging in respectability politics.” Overall, the lack of engagement with liberal ideas is at least as striking as the substance of any radical ideas themselves.

The role of this negative space seems key to interpreting the story Soave is telling in Panic Attack. It’s not uncommon in skeptical accounts of “political correctness” to encounter the idea that radical politics goes too far in an illiberal direction. But Soave’s account is different. The physics of contemporary radicalism that he describes isn’t really linear, in the sense that “too far” would imply, so much as circular: as liberal-democratic mores become increasingly meaningless among radicals, they themselves increasingly see only left versus right, socialist versus fascist, radicalism versus radicalism. The only lucid way to respond to the world and win the future is, now, to understand that liberals are objectively allied with your most extreme political enemies; and the more forceful you imagine those enemies to be, the more force you’ll consider necessary and justified to counter them.

This dynamic may account for what some will no doubt consider a glaring disproportionality in Soave’s book: he devotes one chapter, less than twenty-two pages out of 280, to the alt-right. This appears to be because he considers the movement’s reach tightly limited. “The alt-right doesn’t have a comparable base of power,” he writes, in reference to the radical left’s dominance on college campuses, “but its members have played an important role in infesting social media sites and making them miserably toxic places.” The alt-right has been violent, even lethally; it’s everywhere hateful and ugly; but, for Soave, its only true political achievement is to have dressed itself up as something the left would maximally fear and react to, while feeding cues to a nihilistic and insecure president who, of course, reads the world extensively through social media.

The alt-right, Soave believes, has failed to grow for the same reason it’s succeeded at all: despite all the anger and disaffection it can speak to, it has no argument for destroying the legacy of liberal democracy in the United States that’s in any way compelling to most Americans. It just feeds off the twisted psychology governing a very online, disaffected fringe population of white men who consider themselves victims. “Alt-right activists often chant ‘You will not replace us!’ at their marches,” Soave writes. “They are specifically radicalized by the idea that multiculturalism is about erasing white identity.” That is, as timeworn as its KKK-style white-supremacy tropes are, the alt-right makes no sense as a contemporary movement, even to its members themselves, apart from the core narrative that a “politically correct” left is oppressing them. The alt-right is, for Soave, only marginally significant apart from its codependent relationship with the radical left.

Left-radical protestors tend to convey little interest in liberal theories of the case at all. “Free speech is allowing people to express themselves in a way that doesn’t put other people down,” one says.

This is an account in which cause and effect can play ambiguously. That won’t please everyone. But it does help give Panic Attack an unusually subtle aspect. Soave is interested, above all, in the underlying political psychology of our fragmented moment. Self-identified radicals may inevitably feel stereotyped or altogether misunderstood. They may also feel suspicious, particularly knowing that Soave identifies as a libertarian. But the dominant themes of the book aren’t specifically libertarian; they’re generally liberal-democratic, and Soave gets at them in a remarkably open spirit of liberal-democratic dialogue.

There’s an important substance to this style. Critical commentary about threats to free speech and due process can often work itself up about a monstrous formation like “postmodern cultural Marxism” that’s ostensibly beneath everything one could hate about the present-day radical left. It can imagine something like a single rhizome supporting and sustaining all sorts of toxic social tendencies—“politically correct” degradations of plain language, performative anger, and so on—that we might otherwise understand as distinct.

In effect, single-rhizome thinking like this reapplies the fundamental analogy in the concept of radicalism itself, with its etymological origins in the Latin radix, meaning “root.” Radical politics understands itself as going to the roots of society’s problems and addressing them there. Single-rhizome thinking is radical anti-radicalism. It sees no compromise, let alone prospect for transformative mutual understanding, with people immersed in the vocabulary of the radical left; the root has to be dug out and destroyed before it destroys us.

Soave rejects this way of thinking. Which allows him not only to distinguish different theoretical frameworks (for example, “postmodern” theories from Marxism), but also to see value where radically anti-radical analysts might not—as he does in the relentless attention Black Lives Matter has brought to policing and the criminal justice system or in the achievements that trans and queer activists have made in extending the equality and dignity that gay activists won before them. Which in turn allows Soave to be uncommonly specific rather than overly general in his criticisms. It’s a rare virtue.

Occasionally, Soave struggles to balance the intricacies this virtue can demand with the scope of the book. At times he just moves too briskly, as, for example, in his summary of G. W. F. Hegel’s significance for modern politics, which he interprets in one paragraph by reference to a single blog post. At others, he invokes idiosyncratically libertarian reasoning about a complicated and contestable issue. This tendency may be most pronounced in a chapter assessing a miscellaneous range of contemporary political movements without consistently establishing their connection to his central argument. For instance, his discussion of post-Parkland youth activism on gun control offers no reason to see it as a form of radicalism, apart from conjectural links to “safety culture.” The effect is one Soave might have preferred to avoid in an argument otherwise characterized by recurring efforts to establish good faith.

Toward the end of the book, Soave shifts from sympathetic critic to frustrated potential ally. In his chapter on the alt-right, for example, he argues that the contemporary left is engaged in a devastating array of strategic and tactical blunders, alienating armies of potential allies and ensuring the impossibility of the sort of coalitional alliances that could effectively counter Trumpian politics. “Political power, at least for now, is firmly in the right’s grasp,” he writes. “And it’s probably more likely to stay that way as long as the right’s foes—the left, but also liberals, centrists, and libertarians—remain hopelessly divided.”

The idea that we could overcome the far right’s political dominance through strategic and tactical compromises among its opponents is, in its way, hopeful. But it may also wish away the problem: Soave’s left radicals aren’t, as they see it—or even as he presents them on the whole—really here to defeat Trump; they’re here to do what they can to ensure that what follows Trump is a radical future. And as Soave notes throughout the book, this is a future liberated quite precisely from the politics of compromise, the “moderation” and the “centrism,” that radicals on the left believe have allowed radicals on the right to gain so much ground in America over the decades—and have enabled systematic forms of oppression for longer still.

In the end, the challenge for coalition building between liberal-democratic stalwarts and left radicals isn’t really strategic or tactical; it’s political. They don’t obviously want the same things, and so they can’t obviously think about coming together to undo Trump or the Republican Party in the same way. Neither should liberals, or anyone else intent on defeating the Trumpian right, accept without argument that a coalition with left radicals makes sense as a strategic priority at all—compared with, say, helping the Democratic Party win at the state level, undo GOP-engineered gerrymandering, or just run better national campaigns. As Soave himself reminds us throughout Panic Attack, the politically disaffected population in America super-outsizes the actually radicalized population. But then, if liberals ever needed a demonstration of how crucial it is for them to see beyond electoral strategy, renew their ability to speak compellingly to a world rife with injustices, and intellectually seed a liberal-democratic future that no one can take for granted, the Age of Trump is it.

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J.J. Gould

J. J. Gould is editor at large of the Washington Monthly.