The Complicity of the ‘Comfortable Liberals’ in the Decline of American Constitutional Democracy

Posted in: Politics

It would be nice to believe that the January 6th Select Committee’s work, including the compelling hearings that they have been holding this month, will make a difference and save American constitutional democracy. Sadly, it will not, because the destruction of the rule of law in this country is already baked into our future, and no one who is not part of the problem can craft a way out at this point.

We should all be clear that the blame for the emergence of one-party autocracy in the United States lies primarily and firmly with those Republicans who are willing to win elections at all costs and happily manipulate the system to set up permanent minority rule. Even the Republicans who are not actively abetting that outcome are at the very least not standing up to say that their country comes before their party. When the supposed heroes highlighted by the Select Committee include people who would vote for Donald Trump again—with one saying that “I believe that the greatest threat to the country is the progressive agenda being pushed by the Democratic Party” (yes, higher taxes on the rich are worse than insurrection, I guess)—we know everything we need to know about their commitment to the Constitution.

Even so, there is no reason to pretend that the Republicans have not been aided in their long-running takeover of American politics by large segments of the Democratic Party, including its top leaders. From 1988 presidential nominee Michael Dukakis’s refusal to defend “the L-word” (his opponent’s sneering dismissal of the dreaded word liberal) to the party elites’ full-on freakout against Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 primaries, to the party’s leaders blocking progressive candidates and popular policies to this day, the Democratic Party has been led by people who have often seemed almost laser-focused on undermining their own long-term political viability by taking the supposedly safe way out.

In today’s column, I talk about two less obvious ways in which the Democratic establishment has helped to bring about their own irrelevance (and doom younger generations in the process). These seemingly separate matters have something important in common: Democratic elites’ willingness to elevate their own personal comfort above all else by supporting conservatives’ slanders and actions against the left.

Again with the Cancel Culture? Oy!

Observation #1: For the past several years, mainstream liberals and Democrats have been agreeing with conservatives who complain about “cancel culture,” “wokeness,” and so on. Observation #2: Some liberals have also suddenly decided that they need to oppose criminal justice reform—in particular, to oppose efforts by progressives to make the system less brutalizing toward the poor and people of color.

As I suggested above, these matters might seem to have little to nothing to do with one another. In fact, however, both are areas in which the anti-progressives in the Democratic Party are showing their true colors, supporting conservative positions not because conservatives are right but because these self-styled centrists (or “realists,” as they would have it) are personally discomfited and react by attacking their supposed allies.

Take cancel culture, the latest rebranding of the always-empty idea of political correctness. In May 2021, I published “Go Ahead and Cancel Me, You Erasing, Censorious Silencers; Also . . . Woke!” here on Verdict. I had hoped not to have to return to the subject, but purported liberals continued to reinforce that false narrative. After trying to ignore the topic for months, I finally wrote a pair of Verdict columns earlier this year (here and here). There, I mocked a perfect distillation of the vacuousness of anti-wokeness, which the editors of The New York Times had published (not as a guest op-ed but as their considered group opinion) under the headline: “America Has a Free Speech Problem.”

The problem with the editors’ hand-wringing was not only that their examples were pathetically minimal but that they—proud defenders of the First Amendment that they are—completely mangled the notion of free speech. Specifically, they cried: “Americans are losing hold of a fundamental right as citizens of a free country: the right to speak their minds and voice their opinions in public without fear of being shamed or shunned.”

Citizens of a free country do not, and never have, possessed such a right. Indeed, the very reason that free speech is such a potent idea is that people can shame and shun others, which is what the rough-and-tumble marketplace of ideas is all about. But the people who sit atop the hierarchy did not like the idea that there are now people—especially young people who have different notions of politesse—who are willing to call out the elites. “Wait, you’re shaming and shunning us? This is cancel culture run amok!”

In my columns ridiculing the editors’ thin-skinned complaints, I noted that there is a broad group of comfortable pundits and politicians who have decided to scold America’s youth for being too censorious. I noted as merely one example that the “Morning Joe” crowd on MSNBC (only one of whom identifies as conservative) had begun to agree loudly with conservatives who have complained that American universities are now filled with young people who are terrified to speak up lest they be shamed and shunned.

Given that such descriptions of college campus life are inevitably supported by nothing more than anecdotes—“I’ve talked with my twentysomething-year-old kids, and they told me that they feel censored at school”—I drew on my own experiences teaching for more than thirty years at a wide range of college and universities, public and private, large and small. There is, as far as I can see, no evidence that there is a meaningful problem—and certainly no evidence that any problem that might exist has lately gotten out of control. Do young people say hurtful things to each other? Are they quick to judge? Yes and yes, but that has always been true of young people.

I then decided to ask some of my students directly about this. I had a particularly helpful conversation with two of my research assistants, Grace O’Connell and Tonianne Attard, who were at the time second-year law students. (I asked them directly whether they were willing to have me name them in this column, and they both said yes.)

Before we dove into the conversation, I wanted to be sure that they would not feel pressure to tell me what they thought I wanted to hear. I thus pointed out that it would in fact be arguably more interesting if they were to tell me that “professors just don’t see it” or that for some other reason I failed to understand that there was a real problem. Being wrong is sometimes more mentally stimulating than being right. More generally, they knew that I wanted to hear their honest opinions, because my feelings were not going to be hurt if they disagreed with my take on campus life in 2022. I can take it.

To my surprise, both of them were more dismissive of the whole panic about cancel culture than I had been. They told me that the whole idea has been so overhyped that it is now a running joke, with students having arch conversations like this: Student A—“Can you meet for lunch at 1?” Student B—“Sorry, I have to go back to my apartment.” Student A—“That’s it. You’re canceled!” Student B—“Yeah, sure, of course I am. Oh no!”

More substantively, they both offered the idea that elites’ reactions against so-called cancel culture were “an effort to evade accountability.” The formula is simple: say something offensive, receive negative feedback, and then say: “You can’t hold me accountable for my views because that’s censorship.” If a person wants to speak her mind (up to and including being a bigot), she should at least own it. I later found an excellent piece in The Nation with the on-point headline, “When Railing Against Cancel Culture Is About Railing Against Accountability,” so obviously my RAs are not the only people who noticed the bob-and-weave from people who do not like being called out—and who think that their cushy positions should insulate them from criticism.

What is often most notable about the complaints coming from the comfortable elite is that their examples and arguments are so toothless. In 2019, no less than Barack Obama—who, despite his lionized status among liberals, was very much a practitioner of the politics of capitulation and who perfected the Democrats’ continued defensive crouch on issue after issue—announced that he was against “woke” shaming. The content of his complaint, however, was notably vacant, as reported in The Washington Post:

“There is this sense sometimes of, ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’ and that’s enough,” he said, noting that the mind-set was only “accelerated by social media.”

Obama went on to describe an example of the behavior he was cautioning against.

“If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, because, man, you see how woke I was?” he said, drawing laughter from the audience. “I called you out.”

But the act of public shaming on social media, Obama said, is “not activism.”

“That’s not bringing about change,” he said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

How Obama decided that young people think that being judgmental is “enough” is anyone’s guess. Is it not possible that being connected on social media allows people to voice their opinions while also being activists? For that matter, might it not even make it possible to be more active and to undertake more actions that are most definitely not “easy to do”?

But honestly, if this is the major problem facing America’s youth—that some of them are too critical for Barack Obama’s taste—then we should feel pretty good about America’s youth. Even so, that rambling nothingburger weirdly led, according to The Post, to bipartisan accolades, with soon-to-be-failed presidential candidates Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard joining Ann Coulter in lauding the former president’s supposedly important stand. Yang even tweeted: “He is right on all counts.” Deep.

The Similarities Between the “Cancel Culture” Panic and the Reaction Against Progressive Prosecutors

The common fact about non-Republicans who become complicit in hyping a nonexistent wokeness problem is that they are overwhelmingly people who are unaccustomed to being challenged. Rather than welcoming new voices into the sometimes-raucous public square, these people tut-tut their lessers, telling them to be quiet and listen politely to the people who know better.

With much more serious immediate consequences, the same can be said of those non-Republicans who have responded to recent panic over crime by suddenly deciding that maybe Joe Biden was right after all in the 1990s when he pushed through a disastrous expansion of the American carceral state. The nervous response to hyped crime statistics is: “Crime is up? So much for reform. Lock them up!” And the “them,” of course, are the same people who have been told that Democrats truly have their backs, but the time is never quite right to improve their lives. Somehow, those who are already comfortable always come first.

The most prominent recent example of this reactionary tic is the successful recall of San Francisco’s progressive district attorney Chesa Boudin. In a Dorf on Law column published on the day of his recall election earlier this month, I noted that the assault on Boudin was being driven by right-wing billionaires but was being supported by many of San Francisco’s comfortable Democratic elite.

Why were they angry with Boudin? According to an exhaustive news article in The New York Times, “recall advocates describe a pervasive feeling that quality of life in San Francisco has deteriorated.” Indeed, crime has gone up in many cities in the US, but San Francisco has been a notably less violent city than others, including those cities that elect beat-their-heads-and-jail-’em old school prosecutors. There simply was no fact-based case to be made that things have become, if you will, “more worse” in SF than elsewhere—and even less of a case that any such change was Boudin’s fault.

Conservatives smugly piled on after the recall, claiming that liberals have again been “mugged by reality.” That, however, is exactly the opposite of what happened. To the contrary, some liberals mugged weaker people because the liberals felt uncomfortable—and they were willing to blame the hippies for unleashing mayhem on the streets.

What had Boudin in fact done? The closest that The Times’s reporters came to a substantive description of his purported sins was to say that Boudin had “promised to end cash bail, stop prosecuting children as adults and expand diversion programs that offer defendants a chance at rehabilitation instead of prison,” and that he had at least started to do some of those things. Meanwhile, however, the quality-of-life crimes that had the lapsed liberals quaking in their Guccis were not being enforced by a police department that had a political vendetta against Boudin.

So, to take the first item on Boudin’s policy list, because some Bay Area liberals (understandably) do not like it when there are burglaries in their neighborhoods, their response is to bring back cash bail? That is the functional equivalent of bringing back debtors’ prisons, and as my Verdict colleague Joseph Margulies noted in a column in 2019, putting people in jail is not only brutalizing but predictably results in deaths behind bars (often suicides within days of being jailed). And remember that these are the accused, not the convicted (which is not to say that it is acceptable to make prisons hell for anyone); yet they stay behind bars because they cannot buy their way out.

It is a moral outrage to turn our backs on the powerless, allowing “pervasive feelings” to move Democrats to support Republicans’ reactionary agenda.

To be clear, no one can be blamed for feeling discomfort with the increasingly sad conditions on San Francisco’s streets over the past decade or so, which is a problem caused not by changes in prosecutors’ strategies but by massive and worsening economic inequality. It is when weak-kneed liberals default to failed law-and-order responses—which inevitably harm the poorest and weakest in society—that they make matters worse and betray their own professed principles in an ultimately doomed attempt to protect themselves.

As I noted above, the criminal justice side of my two examples carries consequences both immediate and horrible, unlike the seemingly bloodless battles over political correctness, wokeness, or whatever. Even so, the common thread is unmistakable. Too many Democrats who consider themselves enlightened and concerned about others—and who truly are those things, up to a point—suddenly become fluttery and lash out in response to challenges to their own comfort.

To repeat my earlier disclaimer, the unreliable Democrats whom I am criticizing here are not The Problem. The fact is, however, that they are not only not The Solution but in fact often make things worse. They elevate their own feelings to the point where they are willing to punch down on weaker people, based on neither evidence nor logic. When the history of American constitutional democracy is written, this moral and strategic failure will loom large.

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