545 Comments
author

OK, I will admit this is a very Substack-y Substack post.

Expand full comment

There's a common model in political theory that there are three fundamental values: order; freedom; equality. These values cannot be reduced to each other nor wholly reconciled with each other. What your “ideology” is is mostly a reflection of which value you instinctively value most. If you value order most, you're broadly a conservative; if you value freedom most, you're broadly a liberal; if you value equality most, you're broadly a socialist (including “SJLs” etc).

Once you have this three-value model you can relate it to other things. It looks a lot like the traditional monarchy–oligarchy–democracy model of ancient Greek political philosophy. It also looks a lot like a hierarchy of needs, where equality pre-supposes freedom pre-supposes order; that is, you can't build a free society unless you already have a minimum degree of order, and you can't build an equal society unless you already have a minimum degree of freedom. All in all it's a useful model that I think more people should adopt.

Expand full comment

This discussion leaves out a group of people: older, traditional leftists who are dismayed by the excesses of the "woke" group but do not align at all with liberal thinking as you rightly define it. Exemplified by Bernie Sanders and the older members of DSA (many of whom, tellingly, broke with the organization in the wake of October 7th,) they may not be large enough (or relevant enough) to merit consideration, but I do wonder where they fit in.

Expand full comment

Nate, as a Reform Jew who has spent the past many years sitting on DEI boards while going home and discussing with my wife that there's not a place for us in the discussion. But I thought being an ally was important. There are parts of the fight I still think are very important - specifically around women's equality. But I'm done fighting for people who will turn their back on me. I won't fight against them but I feel pretty burned.

Expand full comment

I think you've captured something interesting here, but want to zoom in on one particular thing: your triangular diagram(s) with poles of liberalism, "Social Justice Leftism" and "MAGA Conservatism." Or, if I can rephrase, liberalism, illiberal leftism and illiberal rightism.

This carries with it, I would argue, an unstated assumption: that a left-leaning Liberal and a right-leaning Liberal have more in common with each other than they do with the illiberal Left and illiberal Right. That commonality very well *could* be true, but I think it also very much could be un-true. If you think of the situation not as a triangle but as a chart, with a "liberal-illiberal" axis and a "left-right" axis, that can better visualize the conflicting ideological pressures many people are being torn between.

The thesis that "left-Liberals and right-Liberals should join forces against illiberalism" is something that some people would very much *like* to be true on both sides. But since the liberal-illiberal conflict rose to the fore of American politics in 2016, attempts to make that happen haven't tended to go very well. The left-right axis has a *lot* of gravity, and when push comes to shove a lot of left-liberals conclude they have more in common with illiberal leftists (despite differences) than they do liberal rightists, and vice versa for right-liberals.

Put another way, the description of American politics as a tripartite division is more aspirational than descriptive. It could end up being true but is not demonstrably true yet.

Expand full comment

Great post.

This makes perfect sense of my own reactions to recent events. For time out of mind, I have thought and said that the only division between me and the left is that I have more patience and believe in waiting to make changes until we have a clear majority. But lately, I have been stewing over the tone and substance of left wing posts, their simple assumption of moral and factual correctness, and their willingness to dismiss all dissent as racism. Which, of course, needs to be silenced by whatever means necessary.

What I once thought was just another right wing talking point has turned out to be accurate -- based on the left wingers own words, including in forums where I know the people and can be certain that these are not right wing impersonators of leftists.

This illiberal left wing crowd is not as immediate a threat as Donald Trump, because they have no opportunity to change our form of government in the next couple years. They cannot use the military against our population. They can't leave NATO or stack the government apparatus with incompetent cronies. Thus, the short term priority remains staving off a second Trump presidency.

But your post clarifies for me that this is a two part struggle, and the second task is to defeat the illiberal left. People who believe in silencing dissent are beyond the pale, they fundamentally misunderstand the conditions that must be in place in order to keep government loyal to the needs of everyday people. Maybe because they do not know enough history to realize how ahistorical and fragile that arrangement is.

In the meantime, I am going to be more cautious about which Democratic candidates I contribute towards, particularly in the primaries.

Expand full comment

So what of those of us who believe all of the following: (a) Hamas & their ilk who believe in eradication of Israel/Israelis/Jews must be hunted down & dismantled; (b) Oct 7 was triggered by Hamas and they bear the sole cause for Israel's reaction; (c) Israel the state has had a significant role in the Palestinian issue and their cause, and in the Netanyahu times even propping up Hamas as a buffer; (d) Palestinians have as much right for life, freedom and statehood as Israelis do; (e) Palestinian people have and are suffering in the currentmath, and in the past - and will do so in future unless Israel and its key supporters actively and urgently pursue a 2-state solution; (f) the US establishment - republican or democratic - reflexively supports Israel regardless of cause, including almost unconditional supply of arms, resources; and rarely does something equivalent to be a buffer to Israel and for Palestinians; and (g) a lot of the rift between the left & liberals & the right is explained because of these; and no one side is entirely correct.

At the end of the day - it is so sad that as a collective population, we cannot muster equal empathy for both Israelis and Palestinians, and the people who are actually suffering.

Expand full comment

"So Jewishness is an edge case that makes the entire identity politics architecture look kind of dubious, if we’re being honest."

Derrida was a young Jewish boy in French Algeria when his citizenship was "taken away" from him. Vichy France no longer considered Algerian Jews citizens. He was expelled from his school. When the old regime emerged victorious, his citizenship was "returned" to him - he re-enrolled. He considered this a formative shock and inspiration. Since when was sacred citizenship like a special garment, able to be removed and later worn again? And on whose authority? The word, the whole concept began stinking. Dubious.

Your thought, along with Derrida's, perhaps strikes at the heart of the Jew's ability, in exile, to inspire discomfort and hatred. The Jew is simply a living breathing challenge to the reliability of words and ideas (in some eras, this is equally true of any 'Other'). We see it in words - is Yom Kippur a "holiday" if it's not cheerful? Can one embrace authority if one questions it? The Jews seem to have unusual answers to these questions. If a despised minority is also smart and wealthy, are they privileged? There's an instability there, a cognitive dissonance, and it makes certain personalities feel desperately unsafe - without linguistic certainty, the world around us feels increasingly unhinged.

In our society, comfort is decreasingly derived from social connection, and increasingly from understanding the world around us (this is a by-product of the philosophy of science, which has provided us with so many miracles). We will increasingly tend to rigid dogmas to maintain our psychological comfort - and the Jews will be at risk once again.

Expand full comment

I feel like you make two fundamental mistakes when taking about SJW ideology- first, the idea that it isn't about material conditions and the history that produces them, and second, the idea that the left is somehow less democratic than liberals. Neither of these reflect the self-image or internal rhetoric of the left. I would point you to the difficulty in booking "the leader" of occupy or BLM for an interview.

But from the SJW perspective, this is another example of the historical trend where the center loves leftist rhetoric but joins with the right wing when chips are down.

Expand full comment

Welcome to the woke jihad, comrade. If you do not believe in the holy sacraments, you are an infidel. All you need to say to see the schism is "Islam is right about women and gays". https://yuribezmenov.substack.com/p/how-to-wage-a-progressive-jihad

Expand full comment

You seem to rule out the idea that folks are just aligning more with conservatives on these cultural issues lately, but we've been warning you about these SJWs for a while! And this distinction you imagine between the left and liberals sure wasn't too obvious before these leftists endorsed a terrorist organization. There was no split in the liberal coalition until many of them realized they'd gone too far.

Expand full comment

"So Jewishness is an edge case that makes the entire identity politics architecture look kind of dubious, if we’re being honest."

OK -- but it matters that it's also an edge case that makes some elements of the "liberal" point on the triangle look kind of incoherent and ridiculous as far as its opposition to "the entire identity politics architecture" goes.

because here you have this faction of people who are broadly opposed to all sort of ethnic/identitarian card-pulling and appeals to ancient land debts and indefinite historical grievances and rigid hierarchical ethnic sorting, etc etc., unless we're talking about Israel and Zionism, in which case Bret Stephens will happily transforms into Ibram X. Kendi and start doing the whole speech-is-violence routine and massively discount the ethnic and religious tensions (with liberalism) that are obviously inherent in the very self-conception of the state. with a couple sentences worth of tepid caveats to preempt the hypocrisy charges, of course, but still--it is a shaky and unpersuasive stance. Bari Weiss slips into a phone booth and comes out looking like Michael Hobbes.

so no, I don't think Jewishness specifically glitches the SJL/SWJ worldview so much as it broadly glitches some elements of all three points on the triangle, just in different ways.

Expand full comment

My head hurts too much right now to speak intelligently. As a Conservative Liberal (or a Liberal with a conservative sensibility, I am indifferent to how you define me) I have never felt at home in the Democratic Party. Despite many Progressives claiming there is a business friendly wing of the party where I could abide peacefully I have always found the energy from them to be INCREDIBLY hostile to people who share different views (not that the Republicans are better, I am simply describing dems). The reaction to the conflict was as predictable as it was demoralizing, as a friend of mine said there's something about the conflict which simply rots the brain.

Expand full comment

Another place you see this split is trans issues.

Expand full comment

One of my takes that's highly unpopular because all sides involved have differing reasons to dislike it is that I think woke is a really good word to describe the belief of "being aware of discrimination and always advocating for action to stop it". It's a concise, four letter, one syllable word that gets the message through, and we should have more of those words. The Social Justice Leftism initialism Nate coins here is very reminiscent of the relatively recent and unwieldy Social Justice Warrior phrase that's capturing the same concept. And before that came "politically incorrect", which was also highly syllabic, but also a phrase that always struck me as misleading from how it was commonly used: I think it better captures the broader concept of needing to hold back one's words at times to not alienate too many allies, which includes but is nowhere near limited to issues of discrimination.

Nonetheless, Nate does a good job of capturing a real and troubling phenomenon. Whatever we call it, I've long held the view that the term liberal should be used much closer to its root construction of "of or for liberty", and not as a lazy synonym for left wing. There are real, major differences, and they matter. Jonathan Chait was a bit of a trail blazer in this regard when he wrote that essay on this subject that alienated a fair amount of his allies at the time, but it's starting to look more and more like he was onto something. Thanks for writing this, Nate!

Expand full comment

The SJL might deny a vote to Biden (or another Democrat) if they hate him enough, but I have a hard time seeing any substantial portion of it turning to the Republicans. Saying "Well, they both have authoritarian tendencies" is not really going to get you to voting for an R candidate. Part of the reason that the extreme left/right are so ambivalent about democracy is that they see it as a mechanism to achieve or ensure their goals, not a goal in itself - but their actual goals are still heavily opposed to one another. Fascists and communists both have authoritarian tendencies, that doesn't mean communists vote for fascists, or vice versa.

If the coalition breaks, it'll be liberals siding with Rs (though not MAGA Rs). Lefties just don't have any common cause with any part of the modern Republican party. Not the social conservatives, not the libertarians, not the hawks, nobody.

Expand full comment