the national interest

The Still-Vital Case for Liberalism in a Radical Age

Photo: Bobby Doherty

David Shor is a 28-year-old political data analyst and social democrat who worked for President Obama’s reelection campaign. On May 28, Shor tweeted out a short summary of a paper by Princeton professor Omar Wasow. The research compiled by Wasow analyzed public opinion in the 1960s, and found violent and nonviolent protest tactics had contradictory effects. Shor’s synopsis was straightforward:

It is easy to see why a specialist in public opinion whose professional mission is to help elect Democrats while moving the party leftward would take an interest in this research. But in certain quarters of the left — though not among Democratic elected officials — criticizing violent protest tactics is considered improper on the grounds that it distracts from deeper underlying injustice, and shifts the blame from police and other malefactors onto their victims.

One universal fact of political life is that people tend not to enjoy highlighting faults committed by their own side, and often respond to others bringing up behavior they don’t want to defend outright by deflecting blame. Conservatives are united less by a zeal to affirm every one of Donald Trump’s actions than a reluctance to denounce them. Likewise, while few leftists go so far as to explicitly advocate violent or destructive acts, refraining from criticism of violent protests is, among parts of the far left, almost a social norm.

And so, despite its superficially innocuous content, Shor’s tweet generated a sharp response. To take one public example, Ari Trujillo Wesler, the founder of OpenField, a Democratic canvassing app, replied, “This take is tone deaf, removes responsibility for depressed turnout from the 68 Party, and reeks of anti-blackness.” Shor replied politely:

Trujillo Wesler repeated the accusation of racism (“YOU need to stop using your anxiety and ‘intellect’ as a vehicle for anti-blackness”), and then tagged Dan Wager, the CEO of Civis Analytics, the firm employing Shor, “Come get your boy.”

At least some employees and clients on Civis Analytics complained that Shor’s tweet threatened their safety. The next day, Shor apologized for tweeting Omar’s paper:

Civis Analytics undertook a review of the episode. A few days later, Shor was fired. Shor told me he has a nondisclosure agreement preventing him from discussing the episode. A spokesperson for Civis Analytics told me over email, “Out of respect for our employees and alumni, Civis does not publicly discuss personnel matters, and we don’t plan to comment further.”

Over the weekend, “Progressphiles,” a progressive data listserv, announced it was kicking Shor out, according to another member of the group. Shor, who did not respond to comment, has been a member of the group but has not posted there in two years. The entire reason for his removal is the controversy over his “racist” tweet:

David Shor, a member of this community, knowingly harassed and bullied another member of this space. In response to a well-deserved call in over a racist tweet, he encouraged harassment that led to death threats instead of choosing to learn and grow from his mistake. We as the Progressphiles Moderators, professionals in this industry, and as people, absolutely condemn this behavior. It is unacceptable to make people on this list and in this community feel unsafe for calling out wrongdoings. We cannot begin to decolonize our minds if we do not create safety for those fighting against white supremacy. It is on all of us to do this work, but especially to show up for those already doing it and make sure they are safe. By not acting, we are perpetuating the racism and sexism we know exists on this list and in our community at large. As such, we have removed David Shor from Progressphiles.

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The preconditions that permitted these events to go forward are the spread of distinct, illiberal norms throughout some progressive institutions over the last half-dozen years. When I wrote about the phenomenon in 2015, a common response was to dismiss it as the trivial hijinks of some college students, a distraction from the true threats to democratic values. It certainly was (and remains) true that the right poses a vastly greater danger to liberalism than does the far left. My own writing output reflects this enormous disproportionality. It is also true that the intended (if not always actual) target of the left’s illiberal impulses — entrenched systems of inequality — remain an oppressive force in American life, and that the cause to dismantle them is just.

Nonetheless, it is an error to jump from the fact that right-wing authoritarian racism is far more important to the conclusion that left-wing illiberalism is completely unimportant. One can oppose different evils, even those evils aligned against each other, without assigning them equal weight.

Both American public opinion and many institutions have moved left on race and gender during this time. It is a positive change opening humane new possibilities for reform, but it has come along with some illiberal side effects. Over the last few weeks, as protests against the murder of George Floyd produced outrageous brutality against protesters, the good primary effect and the bad side effect seem to have advanced rapidly in tandem.

Without rehashing at length, my argument against the left’s illiberal style is twofold. First, it tends to interpret political debates as pitting the interests of opposing groups rather than opposing ideas. Those questioning whatever is put forward as the positions of oppressed people are therefore often acting out of concealed motives. (Even oppressed people themselves may argue against their own authentic group interest; that a majority of African-Americans oppose looting, or that Omar Wasow himself is black, hardly matters.) Second, it frequently collapses the distinction between words and action — a distinction that is the foundation of the liberal model — by describing opposing beliefs as a safety threat.

Working from these premises, many reactions by the left that might seem bizarre to somebody unfamiliar with this world (say, an older or more moderate person who doesn’t work in academia or the progressive movement) can make perfect sense. Since criticism of violent protests is racist, and racism obviously endangers black people, an act as seemingly innocuous as sharing credible research poses a threat to safety.

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A somewhat more typical example of the dynamic played out last week through a drama surrounding Lee Fang, a left-wing Intercept reporter. Like many Bernie Sanders supporters, Fang often lacerates mainstream liberals (including me) both for insufficient populist zeal and, on occasion, for excessive focus on identity at the expense of class. His views on economics put him well to the left of the Democratic Party, while his views on race and gender would sit comfortably in the middle of it, and often put him at odds with fellow leftists.

During the first few days of the George Floyd protests, Fang set off a firestorm first when he tweeted a corrective about Martin Luther King, who is often quoted out of context as though he defended violent protest tactics:

This tweet, a breach of the same norm against criticizing violent protests that Shor violated, provoked a bitter back-and-forth on Twitter with Akela Lacy, a highly regarded fellow investigative reporter at the Intercept. The Intercept’s social-media policy “encourages staff members to address disagreements directly with colleagues rather than airing them publicly” but does not flatly prohibit it. Lacy seemed to draw from a preexisting suspicion of Fang’s iconoclastic views on identity issues, and treated his invocation of King’s speech as a provocation.

Several tweets deep into a bitter exchange, Fang replied, “this may be fun for you but there are lives at stake.” Fang deleted the tweet, but Lacy — understandably offended at the notion that she might be having fun debating violence in black communities amid a crisis — shared the screenshot, commenting, “Lee doesn’t seem to know when it’s better to listen than try to be right. People should know how he treats his colleagues. Nobody on this site wants to see violent images and he continues to be offensive to black reporters and black people.”

A few days later, Fang recorded several interviews with participants in a Black Lives Matter rally in Oakland. One of his interview subjects, a young African-American Black Lives Matter supporter, told Fang he wished the movement devoted more attention to non-police violence faced by minorities in his community. Fang posted the exchange without comment, other than labeling it a “measured critique”:

It is easy to understand why somebody — especially one predisposed against Fang — would view this comment with suspicion. Bringing up crime in black communities to deflect away from systemic racism is a conservative trope so familiar and clichéd it is often summarized with the mocking shorthand “what about black-on-black crime?” And the simplistic comparison of deaths at the hands of white police versus minorities fails to acknowledge both the broader patterns of mistreatment by police that falls short of outright murder, and the fear this creates, so that a single police murder can terrorize thousands and shape their view of the state in a way that a local murder cannot.

Fang’s interview subject probably lacks familiarity with the history of this issue being used as an excuse for racism, and almost surely didn’t realize the cruel resonance of the phrase “black-on-black crime.” Still, he was not arguing for focusing on violent crime as an alternative to demanding reform, but as an addition to the agenda of a movement he supports. (“It’s stuff like that I want to be in the mix.”)

Read more generously, his comment expresses a not-uncommon concern within the black community, where police abuse and neglect are often two sides of the same coin. White law enforcement has a long tradition of ignoring black crime victims as an expression of discounting the value of black lives. In “Worse Than Slavery,” a history of the Mississippi criminal justice system being used to functionally re-enslave African-Americans after the Civil War, David Oshinsky wrote, “because the great bulk of this crime was black on black, the Negro community suffered most of all. As one white man noted: ‘We have very little crime. Of course, Negroes knife each other … but there is little real crime. I mean Negroes against whites or whites against each other.’”

It seems likely that the man Fang interviewed simply wanted the movement to address an issue that has understandable importance in his life, without abandoning its core commitment to confronting racism, and that Fang posted the interview because he found it provocative and interesting.

But the interview became the match on the kindling. Lacy called him racist in a pair of tweets, the first of which alone received more than 30,000 likes and 5,000 retweets:

A journalist friend of Fang’s told me he felt his career was in jeopardy, having been tried and convicted in a court of his peers. He was losing sleep for days and unsure how to respond. “All of us were trying to protect his job and clear his name and also not bow to a mob informed by an attitude that views that you disagree with are tantamount to workplace harassment.”

The outcome of this confrontation was swift and one-sided: Two days later, Fang was forced to post a lengthy apology.

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The controversy at the New York Times presents a more ambiguous, but high-profile, case. After it published an op-ed by Tom Cotton calling for the military to prevent rioting and looting, outraged Times staffers denounced the editors for publishing it, the paper apologized for its publication, and then ousted editorial page editor James Bennet.

Cotton is not a sympathetic case. His op-ed’s main claim — that rioting might spread uncontrollably without military intervention — quickly proved false. He also failed to devote any attention to addressing the main objection to his argument, which is that soldiers would — either accidentally (due to a lack of training in police operations) or deliberately (through orders sent by President Trump) — target peaceful demonstrators under the guise of curtailing crime. If the Times had never run Cotton’s column, the world would not have missed his contribution.

It was the process surrounding his op-ed that was so unsettling. The editors’ note announcing the retraction claimed it failed to meet the paper’s standard of publication, citing a handful of tendentious (though not exactly false) claims. Cotton asserted that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa [were] infiltrating protest marches to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.” (Video has shown left-wing radicals who look like antifa demonstrators engaging in vandalism, though it remains unproven whether they identify specifically as antifa.) The editors further call Cotton’s claim that police bore “the brunt” of violence an “overstatement,” and used quotes around what should have been a paraphrase.

Most oddly, owner A.G. Sulzberger expressed dismay at the op-ed’s “contemptuous” tone. His assumption that the page is normally a contempt-free zone might come as a surprise to many of its columnists and their readers.

What made this explanation so strange and obviously jury-rigged is that nothing like this standard has ever prevailed at the Times op-ed page before. The Times publishes overstated, contemptuous, and even factually questionable columns routinely. Nor does the paper normally treat minor factual quibbles as grounds to withdraw publication. Driving home the double standard, the Times news story about the op-ed erroneously described Cotton as having called “to send the military to suppress protests,” when he had argued explicitly the opposite. Cotton rejected the “equivalence of rioters and looters to peaceful, law-abiding protesters,” and urged, “a majority who seek to protest peacefully shouldn’t be confused with bands of miscreants.” (The story corrected this significant error three days later after critics highlighted the incongruity.)

Cotton’s column broke open a longer-standing debate over whether the Times should run conservative columns. Numerous progressive critics, both inside the paper and out, either frontally oppose inviting any conservatives to contribute, or else hold those columnists to a standard of accuracy and cogency far higher than they hold more ideologically congenial writers, whose factual and logical errors draw little controversy.

Before his removal, Bennet argued that Times readers benefit from exposure to right-wing argument. An additional, unstated rationale is that publishing some conservatives on the op-ed pages gives readers (who often fail to distinguish between news and opinion) more confidence in the fairness of the Times’ reporting. The questions of changing the ideological tenor of the news and opinion sections are linked: Many critics have called for dispensing with the goal of reportorial objectivity and eliminating or dramatically scaling back its right-leaning columns.

Journalism professor Jay Rosen has an essay connecting the backlash against Cotton to a more longstanding goal to push the Times leftward. “Debate-club democracy — where people of goodwill share a common world of fact but disagree on what should be done — is an expensive illusion to maintain during a presidency that tries to undermine every independent and factual check there is on the executive’s power,” he writes, presenting the need to dispense with neutrality and join the resistance as an emergency response to Trump’s authoritarianism.

One problem with this position is that, as many of us have argued, Trump is merely an especially gross outlier in his party’s more longstanding radical trend. Indeed, later in the same essay, Rosen suggests the emergency measures enacted in response to Trump will be permanent: “Dean Baquet and his lieutenants have another phrase: We are not the resistance,” he argues, “but if that were entirely true, James Bennet would still have a job.”

Since objective reporting was traditionally defined by white editors, he reasons, integrating the newsroom means abandoning the goal. Rosen identified what he called a “contradiction: minority journalists who are supposed to simultaneously supply a missing perspective and suppress that perspective in order to establish their objectivity.”

But why can’t more representative newsrooms instead refine their conception of neutrality, rather than abandon it? Indeed, wouldn’t staffs that more closely reflect the population have an easier time incorporating the perspectives of all sides and coming closer to the elusive goal of objectivity? To take a concrete example, if it took a critical mass of black reporters to force the media to report accurately on police brutality, an obvious conclusion is that diversity can enhance objective reporting, not that the goal of objective reporting has failed.

To imply minority reporters inherently undermine the goal of objectivity is a strange premise. The objectives of diversifying the Times staff and turning it into an avowedly political institution are distinct. Either could be accomplished without the other.

Or, to put it differently, newspapers could simultaneously work toward a broader range of backgrounds and ideological perspectives. Rosen is not the only one pitting those two goals against each other.

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The most concerning thing about the Cotton episode is the logic that was given to pull the column in the first place: “Running this puts Black people, including Black @nytimes staff, in danger,” a phrase repeated thousands of times on social media.

The line of reasoning here is perfectly coherent. We can easily imagine a world where Cotton’s op-ed persuades Trump to deploy troops, who then kill protesters and reporters, many of them black. But we could envision a similar sequence resulting from any number of op-eds. Suppose the Times had given an op-ed to an advocate of repealing Obamacare at the crucial moment, persuading John McCain to supply the deciding vote to eliminate it. Millions of people would have lost insurance, and as a direct result, tens of thousands of them would have died.

Many other policy debates have life-and-death consequences: the environment, unemployment, and so on. On nearly all these issues, the brunt of policy failure falls disproportionately on black Americans, who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, losing their insurance, being harmed by pollution, and other threats.

Politics is a matter of life and death. If you start with the premise that one side has a monopoly on truth, you inevitably land on the conclusion that questioning its ideas is dangerous.

The question isn’t whether the Times should apply any ideological standard to its columns; it always has. The question is whether the appropriate standard is one that lends itself so readily to abuse. The norm of suppressing a belief because somebody saying it makes them or others unsafe has left a trail of absurd or horrifying episodes in academia and elsewhere that many progressives insisted didn’t matter because It Wouldn’t Happen Here. And yet as this norm spreads, its central flaw has never been resolved: Any definition of “unsafe” that aims for a Tom Cotton will hit a David Shor or a Lee Fang.

This piece has been updated with new reporting.