WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE LEFT? ILLIBERALISM AND THE ‘REGRESSIVE LEFT’

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By Louis Devine

Repeated ad-nauseam since the election of Donald Trump, many agree that the old way of doing politics, located somewhere along the left-right spectrum, is dead. The far right has embraced economic protectionism, a position formerly occupied by the left, whilst the left drifts further into authoritarianism as it both fails to defend liberal principles and attempts to police the language and thought of its political opponents. Whichever way you look at it, discussing politics within a framework of ‘left versus right’ no longer makes any sense.

Being someone who optimistically identifies as from the so-called ‘left’ of politics, this critique focuses almost exclusively on progressives. (Although do not mistake this for a tacit endorsement of conservatism. As Dave Rubin often says: “I want to get my own house in order first.”)

There is a body of academics and public intellectuals who have studied progressive politics and essentially reached the same conclusion: there is a growing sub-faction in the left wing of those who are neither progressive nor liberal. Whether you label them ‘regressive leftists’ (a term coined by politcal pundit Majiid Nawaz), or ‘illiberal authoritarians’, one cannot deny that the integrity of the left has been deeply compromised from within.

Tribal as we are, humans prefer those who see the world the same way they do. As fun as debate can be, we quickly become irascible when others do not share our core principles and values. Sure the goal of a healthy democracy is not to seek uniformity of opinion, but to facilitate debate between opposing views that does not lead to acrimony or violence.

The left has abandoned its principles when it chooses to pursue the former over the latter. Instead of defending our opponents right to freedom of speech, we will label them, for example, bigoted or Islamophobic. In some cases, ‘opponents’ will even be prevented from speaking all together. Instead of taking the principled high road and eschewing violence in all its forms, it seems that punching fascists is acceptable. Instead of relishing challenging conversations, we retreat into our online echo chambers.

This is the illiberalism of the regressive left. Yet many dismiss the left’s moral grandstanding as benign, or even righteous. So long as progressives don’t seek out a one-party state, or legally curb our rights to freedom of speech or assembly, what is the harm?

Those who hold this view, however, seriously underestimate the left’s complicity in the rise of far right populism sweeping the Western world. And principles of free speech aside, what is the efficacy of this approach?

Political polarisation between left and right has escalated from amicable disagreement to carnal hatred. Conservatives are evil, mean-spirited bigots, while progressives are self-flagellating, overly emotional crybabies. Some might argue that making certain views politically incorrect to the point where one fears expressing them in the public sphere helps keep a lid on prejudicial views and maintains the social cohesion of multicultural societies.

Up until a year ago this was not an unreasonable view. Those who harboured conservative dispositions were made to fear expressing themselves to the point where nearly every poll wrongly predicted the two biggest political events of 2016: Trump and Brexit.

This phenomenon has been dubbed the ‘shy voter effect’ or the ‘shy Tory factor’. In his rebuke of laws which limit freedom of speech, American philosopher and jurist Ronald Dworkin suggests that democratic results based upon a majority opinion are accepted only if the minority feels as if it was sufficiently enfranchised by the decision-making process. This is not limited simply to being allowed to vote, but having one’s opinions legitimately form part of the preceding civil debate.

In essence, the left has created a chilling effect on free speech.

Had progressives bothered to engage with the substance of anti-immigration sentiments and perhaps occupy a rational middle ground rather than simply hurl ad-hominem attacks at social conservatives, the political landscape might look very different today. In a rare display of coherence and insight, alt right British political commentator Milo Yiannopolous was correct when he declared on ‘Real Time with Bill Maher’ (YouTube): “if you don’t show up to debate, you lose.” By putting certain debates beneath them, the left has already lost by default.

If the left is serious about winning elections and achieving progressive ends, it must renew its commitment to liberalism. Dangerous ideas must be fought with better ones, and opposing arguments must be listened to, not silenced. As John Stuart Mill once said: “He who knows only his side of the case knows little of that.” If there any better epitome of post-truth, it is those progressives who believe the course forward for the left is to double down on illiberal tactics and to shout louder at conservatives.

Perhaps it is an alternative fact that they did not live through the same 2016 that I did.

Louis is a second year University of Melbourne Arts student, majoring in politics and philosophy.

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