Now, the New York Times is neither unique nor particularly leftist, but it does set standards for progressive discourse in more than one country. What concerns me most here are the ways in which contemporary voices considered to be progressive have abandoned the philosophical ideas that are central to any liberal or Left-wing standpoint: a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a firm distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress. All these ideas are connected. The Right may be more dangerous, but today’s Left has deprived itself of ideas we need if we hope to resist the lurch to the Right.
This Rightwards lurch is international and organised. The solidarity between them suggests that nationalist beliefs are only marginally based on the idea that Hungarians/Norwegians/Jews/Germans/Anglo-Saxons/Hindus are the best of all possible tribes. What unites them is the principle of tribalism itself: you will only truly connect with those who belong to your tribe, and you need have no deep commitments to anyone else.
Amusingly enough, I just got done reading a short, incisive book about this exact conceit, that your political opinions are the result of mindless tribalism, while mine are the fruits of dispassionate reasoning. As the authors state early on:
As an alternative to this essentialist theory of ideology, we propose the social theory of ideology. While the essentialist theory says that distinct political positions correlate because they are bound by a unifying essence, the social theory says that issues correlate because they are bound by a unifying tribe. According to the essentialist theory, people start with an essential principle, use that principle to think themselves to hundreds of distinct political positions, and then join the tribe that just happens to agree with them on all of those positions. The social theory says this is backward: people first anchor into an ideological tribe (because of family, peers, or a single issue), adopt the positions of the tribe as a matter of socialization, and only then invent a story that ties all of those positions together. Ideologies, in other words, are reverse engineered to fit tribal actions and attachments. They are “post hoc constructions designed to justify what we’ve just done, or to support the groups we belong to.”
Practically speaking, “conservative” and “progressive” don’t mean anything more than “what Republicans and Democrats are currently doing.” Different eras are defined by different core issues around which the parties sort themselves, and like everything else, parties evolve with no regard for consistency. The authors compile numerous amusing examples of radically opposed policies and beliefs being forced to lie down together on the Procrustean beds of “left-wing” or “right-wing.” Neither conservative nor liberal/progressive mean the same thing they meant a century ago, and they surely won’t mean the same thing in another century. The temptation to find abiding essences behind these political labels is like a mechanical rabbit, and without fail, the intellectual greyhounds take off in pursuit of it. Neiman is a philosopher, so naturally she prefers her theories of what the left should be to the reality of what it means today. And speaking of intellectuals:
Self-deception also explains why the educated are more ideological. It’s counterintuitive that more intelligent people would be more likely to accept a simplistic model in politics when they don’t in other realms, but once we realize that intellectuals are more skilled in using “system two” thinking to rationalize “system one” impulses, it makes sense that they would be more likely to construct stories that make their partisanship sound principled. Psychologist Tali Sharot notes that “the greater your cognitive capacity, the greater your ability to rationalize and interpret information at will, and to creatively twist data to fit your opinions.”