In recent months, the direction taken by some progressive groups in the US has become concerning to us in the UK. While a lot of our political views are firmly left of center (from a British perspective), I can’t help but notice that there is a growing illiberalism undermining the progressive cause, which is to say we should be challenging intolerance not reinforcing it.
The trend of progressive intolerance towards dissenting opinions is visible in both the US and the UK and is most evident on university campuses on both sides of the “Pond”. Virginia has not been immune from this either. In March of this year, your General Assembly passed the “Virginia Campus Free Speech Bill” and, also in March, the president of your most prestigious university, UVA, made a keynote address to the American Council on Education on the need for free speech on college campuses.
There are several UK examples of this kind of illiberalism, which also parallel those on US campuses – the most prominent being the practice of ‘no platforming’. The UK’s National Union of Students introduced the practice in 1974, as a way of preventing the spread of far right nationalism. Progressive students at US colleges have taken similar practices, violently disrupting campus lectures, rioting, and threatening violence against their opponents.
The intolerance of opposing views on campus has traditionally been reserved for members of fascist or racist groups. But in the UK it has also led to the censorship of figures such as Germain Greer, a celebrated feminist whose remarks about trans women were insensitive, but consistent with a generation trying to make sense of modern nuance. These are progressives that have championed progressive causes for decades, yet made the mistake of being out of touch with the current conversation.
US progressives and students are becoming increasingly guilty of a similar behavior. The most recent example in the US was the abuse directed towards Dr. Bret Weinstein at Evergreen State College in Washington, after he challenged a controversial notion put forward by the university’s students. Disagreeing with the concept of a student protest landed him in a position where he received death threats, was labeled a racist, and forced the university to relocate their commencement.
The US right wing media and Republican politicians rejoice in cases like that of Weinstein.
Analysts always look for what are called ‘combat indicators’, some sort of signature that flags up the intentions of one’s opponents. And the appearance of Weinstein on multiple right wing news programs and talk shows (Fox News, The Rubin Report and The Joe Rogan Experience) is a serious ‘combat indicator’.
For instance, wouldn’t an assault on progressives have a greater impact coming from their own institutions, as opposed to the usual suspects such as Milo Yiannopoulos or Tomi Lahren? If a progressive academic like Weinstein feels the only place he can get a fair hearing is in a Fox News studio, then something has gone badly wrong.
At this point, the job typically reserved for right wing attack dogs and social media outlets to mock the absurdity of progressive movements is being done for them. They then get to serve this illiberalism to their audiences as proof about how unhinged the left has become – an approach conservative strategists are now adopting more frequently. This played out last night in the Georgia special election for the 6th District where a campaign ad claimed, “The unhinged left is endorsing and applauding shooting Republicans,” in reference to the shooting of Congressman Steve Scalise. Needless to say, the progressive challenger lost.
During our most recent election in the UK, the government and its media baron patrons saw the left wing opposition come together and gain ground in the opinion polls. Their answer was the same tried and tested vitriol of the right wing media, which waged a relentless smear campaign against the head of the Labor Party, Jeremy Corbyn – much to their detriment.
Why is this important for Virginia?
Because younger voters tend to be less reliant on traditional print media and more likely to absorb alternative online news sources and forms of communication. And I see the right wing media and Republican Party in the US already looking ahead at how to use these same scenarios for the next round of state elections in Virginia and throughout the US.
It’s in the interest of both Republicans and their media allies to discredit and divide progressives as much as possible, even at this early stage. And the right and ‘alt right’ are becoming deeply proficient at exploiting the growth of identity politics in both the US and UK.
Each time a progressive group lazily uses terms such as ‘oppression’, ‘racism’, ‘sexism’ etc – without quantifying how the label applies – it is being seized upon and used to undermine legitimate grievances that can be used during any election cycle.
And every time progressives disrupt speakers or refuse intellectual engagement, there will continue to be a backlash. This tactic remains counterproductive, and makes progressives look weak and authoritarian if opposing or controversial views cannot be discussed. Progressives could take a leaf out of Jeremy Corbyn’s playbook and prioritise broader popular ideas that are ‘for the many, not the few’. Progressives did, after all, just make a big come back in the most recent UK elections. Progressives in Virginia should be looking to do the same.