Heterodox Liberal Thinkers: Please Stop Throwing Us Conservatives Under the Bus

By Charles Love

For a long time, the battle lines of our current culture war were clearly partisan. As identity politics took hold and went from a political tactic to the hegemonic liberal view, fighting against the idea that race and gender should be part of every calculation was something the right-of-center largely did alone. But recently, a growing number of liberal and centrist thinkers are coming forward to denounce this view of American life, and as a black conservative, it's heartening to see. Many like me have grown weary at the progressive obsession with race, putatively on our behalf, and we welcome these new fellow warriors. It's undeniably encouraging to see left-leaning people beginning to speak out against a radical movement tearing at the fabric of America and seeking to divide us.

But as these heterodox liberals begin to find their voices, I want to urge them to resist a tendency I've been noticing that I think harms our mutual cause. It's the tendency to find a conservative to throw under the bus while making their case. And it undermines the crucial work of their criticism.

Here's how it usual happens: A liberal challenging a radical argument they disagree with will first offer up a rebuke of a conservative who actually agrees with them on the issue but who is cast as an ideological opponent. "Just because I don't agree with radical Leftists on this doesn't mean I'm a deplorable like this guy," they seem to be saying. "I'm a good liberal like you."

You saw this at work in the much-discussed Harper's letter last summer, which in opposing the illiberal Left made a point of calling out the Right in even harsher terms as a foil. "The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting," read the letter.

Of course, it's understandable why these thinkers use this approach. When it looks like you're siding with your political adversary, you have to make it clear that you are not "one of them." If you want to point out a flaw on the Left, you must first make the point that you are not some evil conservative. As Jodi Shaw, the courageous woman at the center of a Smith College discrimination suit, told me in a recent interview, "Pointing out that I'm a liberal is like the price of admission to the conversation."

But there are several problems with this approach. It weakens your argument if you cannot articulate your concerns without bringing up a scapegoat to attack, and it limits your audience. Most of the people who use this approach are liberals and it's apparent they are speaking to other liberals. But if the goal is truly to improve the union, it cannot be good to ostracize people who share your view on the topic. (And truth be told, the more extreme liberals will not support you regardless of your points about the other side.)

Liberals seeking to push back against cancel culture and a moral panic around race are crucial at this moment. But what they're doing when they scapegoat the conservatives who got there long before they did is further strengthening the very powers and pressures they are trying to oppose. In other words, saying the equivalent of "Don't cancel me, I'm not with him" is just feeding the flames of the cancel culture mob which, more often than not, is made up of liberals.

Take Persuasion, a publication I truly respect, as I do all the liberals who have gotten caught in this trap. Persuasion, a truly excellent new publication that emerged from the ashes of the last eighteen months, describes itself as "the community for those who believe that a free society is worth fighting for." In The Perils of 180ism, Yascha Mounk, Persuasion's founder, opens by discussing an old Colbert Report skit on "Truthiness." Mounk had recently re-watched the skit and "realized that it could now describe a much broader cross-section of the ideological spectrum than he originally intended. Yes, it did and still does describe much of conservative America," writes Mounk. "But there are also plenty of slogans that my own friends and colleagues on the left parrot, even though they do (or should) know that they are misleading."

Like the other examples in this genre, Mounk's words read as a not-so-subtle rebuke of the Right, the foil he is using to show how terrible the Left has become: "The Right is obviously wrong and now we've become like them" is the implication. Mounk admitted as much in his piece: "Let me be abundantly clear," he wrote. "I do not believe that the two sides in America's great political fight are morally equivalent."

I have no doubt that Mounk and other heterodox writers have the best intent for the country. But following every attack on a leftist idea with, "Don't get me wrong, conservatives are worse!" or constantly dredging up former President Trump's misdeeds cannot be the path to unity or a reversal of our decline.

Those adopting this approach will likely argue that it is necessary to point out the flaws of both sides to remain objective and not come off as condoning bad behavior. Unfortunately, it often comes off as an attack on a large portion of the population, negating much of the positive intent of the argument.

It also creates a binary of us vs. them that does not reflect the views most Americans have on these complicated topics. While the goal is unity and inclusion, the approach leaves the majority of Americans despondent about both sides, which will lead to apathy rather than encouragement.

Perhaps if we move beyond the both sides approach, and stop calling those we disagree with adversaries, we can build that free society we have been striving for since our founding.

[Charles Love is the executive director of Seeking Educational Excellence, host of The Charles Love Show, and the author of the upcoming book Race Crazy: BLM, 1619, and the Progressive Racism Movement.]

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