Freddie de Boer has been hammering away at the idea that the way progressive politics is currently practiced is bad for the goals of progressive politics. The way to succeed as a political coalition is to try to convince people, he says. And he sees media and university progressives not taking up that effort but instead using strategies like (a) making fun of people who disagree with them for not being cool (b) using the administrative apparatus to persecute opposition or (c) engaging in violence and silencing tactics. He thinks these are morally permissible, but ineffective.
I find these strategies to be morally repugnant. So I do want to agree with him that we shouldn’t use them. But I do wonder whether they’re as ineffective as he claims.
Take for instance making fun of people. The idea here is to make progressivism this cool club people want to join, and then police entry into that club. I find the equation of taste with values abhorrent as an idea. It’s a thing I work very hard to avoid in my life. Whenever I’ve started big political arguments with people I generally agree with on politics, it’s usually because I suspect they are doing this. So normatively, I completely agree with de Boer. To the extent that the progressive strategy is to ally progressive politics with being cool it is bad and I wish we stopped doing this.
But unpleasant as I find the tactic, I think it works to advance the political goals of the people engaging in it. I think about how socially liberal policies have advanced in the US, and I think a large part of the advance came from making social conservatism of any kind embarrassingly uncool.
Take gay rights. I think people’s minds on gay rights have genuinely been changed very quickly. And I think a lot of that mind-changing was done through mockery. If you ask what the most effective thing Dan Savage did to advance gay rights is, for example, I’m pretty sure coining santorum was it. Gay rights activists expanded their tent not by moving the stakes farther out, but by mocking everyone who wasn’t already inside. And often though not always, that mockery was on the basis of taste.
And yes, these struggles are sometimes internecine. The cool trying to put distance between them and the slightly-less-cool. If that was where it stopped, this would be politically useless. But I think in political opinions as elsewhere, there are domino effects. People who are into shitty coffee at diners make fun of their less cool periphery that are into pour-over. People into pour-over make fun of those drinking americanos. We americano-drinkers mock ugg-wearing aficionados of the pumpkin-spice-latte. And they in turn mock those who get their coffee at dunkin donuts. And over time, the attitude of one set of people expands onto the next. In politics it is much the same.
Pop quiz: who said “Americanos are for Frasier Crane!” – my coffee snob co-worker at the university, or my anti-coffee-snob co-worker at the lumber yard?
My internal Freddie de Boer counters that even where it looks like progressives are winning, we aren’t at all. Wages are stagnating for everyone but the super-rich, inequality is growing, police brutality isn’t disappearing to say the least, and Trump is cruising to the Republican nomination by out-insulting everyone.
And yes, maybe the gay rights example isn’t much. But I think it’s at least an example of this strategy working. Whereas I struggle to think of a recent example where trying to convince people worked. For de Boer’s strategy to work, there needs to be a large group of people that are engaged politically, but not engaged socially and not aware of pop culture. I find it hard to believe that this group is bigger than its opposite.
This has been about making fun of non-progressive people for their taste, but I think the same way about violence and fighting against speech you disagree with: often morally repugnant, but potentially more effective at advancing your goals than trying to convince people. So I guess my question to de Boer is: what is your evidence that these strategies work less well than others?
The stakes for figuring out a working strategy are high. It sounds fucking stupid to say it about political movements because this is about how peoples lives and livelihoods, of fucking course the stakes are high. But what I mean is: what if Jennifer Victor is right, and the major political parties in the US are realigning in such a way that economic progressivism will no longer be represented to any extent by either major party? Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court seems to suggest this kind of development. I don’t know if it’s true or not. But if it is, then it becomes really important to answer what we should do to effectively fight back. I hope the answer is to try to convince people. But I wonder if maybe it’s just to make fun of them instead.