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Criticizing Your Own Side

Political books can be a bit predictable. The challenge is often that right-wing people criticize the left-wing or left-wing people criticize the right-wing. This means you know where it is going before the book even starts. Depending upon your views, some comments might resonate more with you than others but the comments aren’t at all surprising. It is more interesting when criticizing your own side. This means the discussion can be a bit less interesting. Even if you disagree with the author (and I do on many points) at least you couldn’t perfectly predict the book’s contents. This is a good description of Fredrik deBoer‘s book “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement”. In this, the author, who places himself firmly on the left, argues that the left in the US has lost connection with what is important because it has been hijacked by elites (e.g., humanities professors).

Out-Group Homogeneity Bias

For my PhD, I studied out-group homogeneity bias. This is when you think groups you do not identify with are less varied than they truly are. This happens a lot in politics. Left-wing observers might not see nuances between different conservative positions but these differences are real and can create significant rifts. Mitt Romney is not Donald Trump. Right-wing observers might think of the left as a coherent whole even while there are major disputes going on. Joe Biden is not Bernie Sanders. Political groups are usually a lot more varied than outside observers might think.

Fredrik deBoer illustrates disagreements on the left. He describes himself as a Marxist and adopts what might be a traditional view of someone from that group. His argument is that class is a central feature of political life. He is keen to emphasize that this doesn’t mean he thinks other things don’t matter. A lot of the book involves him repeating that he thinks race, gender etc… matter, but despite this he thinks class should be the core driver of discussions. He calls for adopting a class-first perspective.

Given he is a Marxist, deBoer’s views of liberals (who are not radical enough in his thinking) are perhaps a little less nuanced than they could be. I’m not convinced that the vast majority of the people he classes as elite liberals voted for Hillary Clinton rather than Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary as he seems to suggest. Still, that doesn’t take too much from his central point about the need to get beyond an elite bubble. It is important to talk to voters in normal language that they understand and about topics they perceive as important.

Criticizing Your Own Side

The author is keen to recognize reality. I didn’t always agree with his views of what reality is, but attempting to perceive reality seems like a good starting point for any type of strategy. To change the world you have to work with the world as it currently is to hope to move it towards where you want it to be. This element of his argument makes a lot of sense to me. Don’t focus on where you would like to be starting, but instead on where you are actually starting.

To this end, the problem the author wants to raise is that the left has adopted terminology that doesn’t resonate with many voters. Therefore, his book is, therefore, an extended argument that the US left needs to change.

Contemporary left discourse has been overwhelmingly influenced by trends in humanities departments at elite universities…Nobody wants to sound unsophisticated, so everyone adopts these terms even if they are not particularly comfortable with them.

deBoer, 2023, 201

Furthermore, many feel the need to support people who mostly (but not totally) agree with them in culture wars. So they aren’t willing to push against their ‘own side’. He rejects this:

It’s OK to call nonsense nonsense, even if you feel it’s on your side.

deBoer, 2023, page 207

To his mind, because there was little pushback, the left has got saddled with language and priorities that don’t work for most people. They would do better by concentrating on pocket-book issues that might resonate more with the sort of non-elite voter they want to appeal to.

A Bit More ‘How’ Would Be Nice

One disappointing feature of the book was that I don’t think it lived up to its title. Even if you agree with deBoer that it has happened, I wasn’t really sure how the elites had actually ‘eaten the social justice movement’. It was more an argument that the elites have eaten the social justice movement, rather than a proper illustration of how they had eaten it. Much more detail would be useful.

Funny Examples

Politics can be fun. Sadly, this is sometimes because you deal with people who have some strange ideas of the world. One anecdote deBoer shares is that he was in a protest group that wanted to move away from voting because voting is ‘hegemonic’ — i.e., voting allows for certain views to dominate others. The majority in his group wanted to move towards consensus decision-making. He didn’t think that was a good idea. He worried that any consensus decision-making procedure could be held up by one person’s opposition. This means not much would actually happen. Apparently, the group argued for quite a while and so deBoer suggested they take a vote on whether to adopt a consensus-based approach and said that he would accept the outcome. That wasn’t acceptable — because the others weren’t fans of voting. Instead, after more debate, no consensus was reached. He was then asked to leave the group. In order to ensure that everyone got to contribute equally to the decision, the group needed to exclude the person who didn’t agree with them. This is pretty odd and perhaps a tiny bit hegemonic.

For an even funnier discussion, deBoer highlights The New York Times headlines about Occupy Wall Street. The protesters were debating whether it was even appropriate to have demands. The (complete nonsense) counterpoint to the basic point that a protest movement must have demands is that demands disempower those issuing them by making the protesters supplicants. When making demands you are asking for something which could be denied so some (weird) people apparently thought that was a mistake. Imagine representing a group in a negotiation but refusing to ask for something. You’d never get what you wanted as the counterparty you are negotiating with wouldn’t even know how to placate you. Protests must have a set of demands or else the protest is just a large outdoor picnic.

Criticizing Your Own Side: You Should Do It As Some Ideas Are Truly Nonsense

For more on political strategy see here, here, and here.

Read: Fredrik deBoer‘s (2023) “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement“, Simon & Schuster

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