New York’s Jonathan Chait writes today about the “dangerous consequences” of the left’s use of the label “white supremacist” to describe Donald Trump, the alt-right, and American conservatism in general.
In the course of defending his piece on Twitter, he has effectively made it clear that he thinks it’s inappropriate to label any person or cause “white supremacist” unless the targets of the label have openly embraced it. He has suggested that a political tendency can’t be “white supremacist” without vocal anti-Semitism, which is silly in the American context—as Ali Gharib points out, Judah P. Benjamin, perhaps the most prominent Jewish politician in the country at that time, served in Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s cabinet. Chait has argued that Rep. Steve King, who has explicitly argued that “somebody else’s babies” pose a “demographic” threat to “our civilization,” is merely “edging closer” to white supremacy.
But I don’t really want to take on Chait’s thesis. Other people can argue the ideas with him. I don’t even really care about this specific piece, which, by the end, reveals itself to be just another paint-by-numbers “the greatest threat to free speech in the nation today is college students heckling an asshole” column. I just want to explain what he’s doing, and why.
While Chait might read like he’s making a sort of historical or semantic argument, he’s making a political one. He’s saying: Don’t call conservatives white supremacists. He might claim to take this position in the name of strict historical accuracy, and to protect liberal norms of political tolerance, but the Steve King equivocation is the tell. He’s saying “don’t call conservatives white supremacists” mostly because he doesn’t like the idea of a politics in which Democrats and liberals, and not just a fringe left wing, condemn white supremacist tendencies by name. Chait is policing the way the left does politics because he does not want the left-wing style of doing politics to gain prominence.
Something that is well-known to people who’ve read Chait for years, but may not be apparent to those who just think of him as a standard-issue center-left pundit who is sort of clueless about race, is that he is engaged in a pretty specific political project: Ensuring that you and people like you don’t gain control of his party.
I say “you” because his conception of the left almost certainly includes you. He is not merely against Jill Stein voters and unreconstructed Trotskyites and Quaker pacifists. He means basically anyone to the left of Bill Clinton in 1996. If you support a less militaristic foreign policy, if you believe the Democratic Party should do more to dismantle structural racism and create a more equitable distribution of wealth, if you think Steve fucking King is a white supremacist, Chait is opposed to you nearly as staunchly as he is opposed to Paul Ryan.
It’s not merely that he thinks your ideas or politics are wrong. He has been battling for years to keep you from having any ability to influence the politics or strategy or direction of the Democratic Party. This is the actual message of much of his work: Don’t let the left win. I don’t even think he’d dispute that, really. But everyone should be clear on how expansive his definition of “the left” is, because you’re probably in it.
Here is a very instructive passage from a column he wrote in 2006. The rest of this column is dedicated to listing the many ways in which Joe Lieberman, then engaged in a bitter primary fight, was a terrible Democrat. But:
In the end, though, I can’t quite root for Lieberman to lose his primary. What’s holding me back is that the anti-Lieberman campaign has come to stand for much more than Lieberman’s sins. It’s a test of strength for the new breed of left-wing activists who are flexing their muscles within the party. These are exactly the sorts of fanatics who tore the party apart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They think in simple slogans and refuse to tolerate any ideological dissent. Moreover, since their anti-Lieberman jihad is seen as stemming from his pro-war stance, the practical effect of toppling Lieberman would be to intimidate other hawkish Democrats and encourage more primary challengers against them.
This is Chaitism distilled: They may be right—about Joe Lieberman, about the Iraq War, about the racism of the conservative movement—but they are right for the wrong reasons, and we cannot let them gain a foothold.
That his disdain for the left would lead him to support Lieberman is basically all you need to know about his politics. It is overly simplistic to reduce the fight over the identity of the Democratic Party to Joe Lieberman on the one hand and Bernie Sanders on the other, but if, purely as a thought experiment, those were the only two futures on offer, it’s clear which one Jonathan Chait would pick. He would rather belong to the party of Joe Lieberman. If you wouldn’t, then you’re the sort of person he has spent his career fighting against.
The nice thing is, though, he’s already lost. I’m certain that most Democrats, and nearly everyone in the next generation of Democrats, and even the majority of Democrats who supported Clinton over Sanders in 2016, would reject Lieberman in favor of a more explicitly left-wing direction. Even a majority of people who read and enjoy Jonathan Chait blogs would probably do likewise. Chait’s side—the side of the Marty Peretz-era New Republic, the side of welfare reform and regime change, the side that clings to the fairy tale version of Democratic history in which the sober white centrists saved the party from the hippies and black radicals—lost its party years ago. Its only remaining constituency is magazine editors.
Second, I don’t spend a whole lot of time discussing left-wing thought because my interest in ideas is primarily, though not completely, in proportion to their influence on American politics. There’s room for bringing in ideas that have little or no impact at the moment, but I don’t do much of that.
This was, in 2011, already wishful thinking—an attempt to create a political reality by forcefully stating it. Now it’s a historic marker: the last moment when Chait could reasonably believe that his side would permanently beat back the radicals.