Opinion | One Thing We Can Agree on Is That We’re Becoming a Different Country
In Kaufmann’s view, a new, assertive ideology has emerged on the left, and the strength of this wing is reflected in its ability to influence the decision making of university administrators:
In universities, only 10 percent of social science and humanities faculty support cancellation (firing, suspension or other severe punishments) of those with controversial views on race and gender, with about half opposed and 40 percent neither supporting nor opposed. And yet, this does not appear to cut through to the administrations, who often discipline staff.
On Sept. 4, The Economist published a cover story, “The illiberal left: How did American ‘wokeness’ jump from elite schools to everyday life?” that argues that there is
a loose constellation of ideas that is changing the way that mostly white, educated, left-leaning Americans view the world. This credo still lacks a definitive name: it is variously known as left-liberal identity politics, social-justice activism or, simply, wokeness.
Why do we come to see political or other conduct as acceptable, when we had formerly seen it as unacceptable, immoral, or even horrific? Why do shifts occur in the opposite direction? What accounts for the power of “the new normal”?
Sunstein is especially concerned with how new norms expand in scope:
Once conduct comes to be seen as part of an unacceptable category — abusiveness, racism, lack of patriotism, microaggression, sexual harassment — real or apparent exemplars that are not so egregious, or perhaps not objectionable at all, might be taken as egregious, because they take on the stigma now associated with the category.
Sunstein is careful to note, “It is important to say that on strictly normative grounds, the less horrific cases might also be horrific.”
A key player in this process is what Sunstein calls “the opprobrium entrepreneur.” The motivations of opprobrium entrepreneurs
may well be altruistic. They might think that certain forms of mistreatment are as bad as, or nearly as bad as, what are taken to the prototypical cases, and they argue that the underlying concept (abuse, bullying, prejudice), properly conceived, picks up their cases as well. Their goal is to create some kind of cascade, informational or reputational, by which the concept moves in their preferred direction. In the context of abuse, bullying, prejudice, and sexual harassment, both informational and reputational cascades have indeed occurred.
Sunstein cites “microaggressions” as an area that “has exploded,” writing:
At one point, the University of California at Berkeley signaled its willingness to consider disciplining people for making one of a large number of statements,” including “America is a melting pot,” “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough,” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
Opprobrium entrepreneurs can be found on both sides of the aisle.
Jeffrey Adam Sachs, a political scientist at Acadia University, has written about a flood tide of Republican-sponsored bills in state legislatures designed to prohibit teaching of “everything from feminism and racial equity to calls for decolonization.” In an article in February, “The New War On Woke,” Sachs wrote:
One of the principal criticisms of today’s left-wing culture is that it suppresses unpopular speech. In response, these bills would make left-wing speech illegal. Conservatives (falsely) call universities ‘brainwashing factories’ and fret about the death of academic freedom. Their solution is to fire professors they don’t like.
Sachs’ bottom line: “Once you let government get into the censorship business, no speech is safe.”
Zachary Goldberg, a graduate student at Georgia State, has researched “the moral, emotional and technological underpinnings of the ‘Great Awokening’ — the rapid and recent liberalization of racial and immigration attitudes among white liberals and Democrats” for his doctoral thesis.
Goldberg has produced data from the 2020 American National Election Studies survey showing that white liberals, in contrast to white moderates and conservatives, rate minorities higher on what political scientists call a thermometer scale than they do whites.
One of the less recognized factors underlying efforts by conservatives and liberals to enforce partisan orthodoxy lies in the pressure to maintain party loyalty at a time when the Democrats and Republicans are struggling to manage coalitions composed of voters with an ever-expanding number of diverse commitments — economic, cultural, racial — that often do not cohere.
Jonathan Rodden, a Stanford political scientist, elaborated in an email:
For issue activists and party leaders in the United States, management of internal party heterogeneity is a central task. In order to get what they want, the core of “true believers” on issue x must develop strategies for managing those with more moderate or even opposing views, who identify with the party primarily because of issue y. One strategy is persuasion on issue x via messaging, from social media to partisan cable television, aimed at wayward co-partisans. Another is to demonize the out-party on issue y in an effort to convince voters that even if they disagree with the in-party on issue x, the costs of allowing the out-party to win are simply too high. A final strategy is to relentlessly enforce norms by shaming and ostracizing non-conformists.
I asked William Galston, a senior fellow at Brookings who has written extensively about Democratic Party conflicts, what role he sees white liberal elites playing in the enforcement of progressive orthodoxies. He wrote back:
You ask specifically about “white liberal elites.” I wonder whether the dominant sentiment is guilt as opposed to (say) fear and ambition. Many participants in these institutions are terrified of being caught behind a rapidly shifting social curve and of being charged with racism. As a result, they bend over backward to use the most up-to-date terminology and to lend public support to policies they may privately oppose. The fear of losing face within, or being expelled from, the community of their peers drives much of their behavior.
For some white liberals, Galston continued,
adopting cutting-edge policies on race can serve as a way of enhancing status among their peers and for a few, it is a way of exercising power over others. If you know that people within your institution are afraid to speak out, you can get them to go along with policies that they would have opposed in different circumstances.
Instead of guilt, Galston argued, “this behavior is just as likely to reflect leadership that lacks purpose and core convictions and that seeks mainly to keep the ship afloat, wherever it may be headed.”