When Donald Trump announced his bid for the Republican presidential nomination back in June, he was introduced by his daughter Ivanka as “the opposite of politically correct.” Since then, much of the garrulous real estate magnate and reality TV star’s campaign has centered on efforts to earn that title. He has railed against Mexican immigrants and derided John McCain’s experience in North Vietnamese POW camps. When asked at the Republican debate in August how he would rebut the charge that he is part of a purported “war on women,” he answered by suggesting that political correctness has made the U.S. less economically competitive. The closest he came to addressing the charge was to tell Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly, who had asked the question, “I’ve been very nice to you, although I could probably, maybe not be, based on the way you have treated me. But I wouldn’t do that.”
Except, of course, that he would. Twenty-four hours later, he was back on cable news with comments that seemed to imply that menstruation was the reason Kelly had singled him out. That went too far for the pundits at the collaborative RedState blog, who promptly rescinded Trump’s invitation as a speaker at a conservative forum they hosted the following evening. Predictably, Trump derided the decision as “another example of weakness through being politically correct.”
It is unclear how far Trump could go to distinguish himself as the least fettered candidate before finally breaking his hold on the rank-and-file. To date, he continues to lead in many polls, even as career Republicans like Rick Perry and Scott Walker fall to the wayside. Despite having taken aim at three important segments of the electorate — women, veterans and Hispanic immigrants — Trump’s antics have only endeared him to conservatives who admire a willingness to express resentments most Republican politicians regard as taboo. He wins acclaim precisely because he breaks taboos, the biggest among them being that against offending Americans who have traditionally had to struggle for inclusion in the political process.
Every presidential hopeful claims to be the candidate we need, but the politicians we get are more often those that we deserve. Faced with a popular demagogue, it is both natural and necessary to ask, “What have we done to deserve this?” In Trump’s case, the tide of popularity he’s ridden the last several months would hardly be possible were it not for a recent revival in popular anxiety over the rumor of illiberalism. That anxiety is evident in the proliferating expressions of concern about the influence of political correctness, social justice warriors, and so-called outrage (or call-out) culture. No matter which name is used to invoke it, the gist is that groups ideologically opposed to free expression are actively working to suppress political ideas they find offensive.
Historically, it is conservative pundits who have insisted most on that premise, but more recently a handful of Democrats and leftists have aired reservations that tend to confirm their fears for them, striking a confessional tone that, whether incidentally or by design, appeals to the anxious. For most of 2014, those complaints hewed to the edges of public discourse, but in January they shifted to the center after masked gunmen killed twelve people in an attack on the satirical French weekly, Charlie Hebdo.
Initially, the massacre inspired a show of solidarity under the ad hoc rallying cry Je suis Charlie! Soon, though, non-Francophone advocates discovered that much of Charlie Hebdo’s satire seemed to come at the expense of religious and ethnic minorities. Worried that the slogan might suggest support for the paper’s editorial positions, and not just its right to print them, many pushed back: Je ne suis pas Charlie! By then, though, free speech jingoism had set in. Activists who dared suggest that support of liberalism might not require personal identification with Charlie Hebdo were greeting as quislings.
Within two days of the attack, French authorities tracked the killers, French–Algerian brothers Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, to a printing factory on the outskirts of Paris. After a nine hour standoff, the Kouachi’s rushed the police and were gunned down. Their passage as children through France’s orphanage system, and as young men through its prison system, as well as their identification with jihadist groups, raised uneasy questions about the legacy of colonialism, the conflict between theocracy and liberalism, and France’s treatment of its own minority groups. For many Americans, though, the takeaway was that the assault on liberal values was being waged not only by jihadis, but also, closer to home, by segments of the American left.
From the beginning, talking about political correctness was a way of talking about resisting political correctness. The educator Herbert Kohl recalled Jewish socialists in the New York of his childhood using it as a criticism of those who supported Stalin’s non-aggression pact with Hitler. By the Sixties, it had become a inside joke in leftist circles. A few may have used it “straight up, without irony, without self-mockery,” according to Ruth Perry, who founded MIT’s women’s studies program and wrote a history of the term, but “almost as soon as anyone did use it that way, it was picked up and parodied by the skeptics, the anarchists, the individualists — whoever was worrying about the constraints of dogma.” When lesbian feminists at Barnard College’s contentious 1982 Conference on Sexuality branded themselves “politically incorrect,” the inversion worked because their audience understood the phrase as an anti-authoritarian pun.
By the following decade, though, political polarities had reversed. Enjoying a third consecutive term in the White House, and with no particular interest in meeting the opposition halfway, conservatives could afford to treat accusations of political correctness naively, as though it were an established ideology of the left. On campuses, opposition to that ideology was driven by a small alliance of academics under the aegis of the National Association of Scholars. Founded in 1985 with a sizable endowment by the John M. Olin Foundation, the NAS positioned itself as a reform organization dedicated to combating liberal intolerance.
For many conservatives, the struggle over universities was a return to the seedbed of their own political convictions. After World War II, the G.I. Bill had set conservatism on a new intellectual trajectory, focused in part on anti-communism. For its partisans, the value of the university was tied to its role as arbiter of Western values. Foremost among those values was classical (as opposed to social) liberalism. William F. Buckley Jr., soon to launch a chief organ of mainline conservatism, the National Review, began his career with a best-seller calling out liberal professors at his alma mater. That book, God and Man at Yale, made a conservative stock-in-trade of defenses of the humanities canon. The Closing of the American Mind — written while its author, Allan Bloom, was director of the University of Chicago’s Olin Center — made the “Great Books” tradition a cause célèbre in the late Eighties. Reagan’s appointment of William J. Bennett, first to the National Endowment of the Humanities and then as Secretary of Education, elevated it to a presidential mandate.
Bennett’s and Bloom’s defenses of the canon were responses to academic changes wrought by the liberalizing student movements of the Sixties. Often generalized as “the New Left,” they were, in fact, distinct groups formed in opposition to campus or government policies (especially the war in Vietnam), or around marginalized identities, as with Chicano Power, Black Power, second wave feminism, and the gay rights movement. Some inclined farther to the left — the Black Panther Party, for example, had formed as the militant Marxist-Leninist alternative to more moderate Black Power groups — but inasmuch as they shared an underlying philosophy, its goal was equal political representation for groups to which it historically had been denied.
After the California National Guard (deployed by then-governor Ronald Reagan) violently put down protests at Berkeley University in 1968, popular sentiment shifted in favor of student demands for the creation of academic departments for the study of issues related to gender and ethnicity. Black, Latino and women’s studies departments quickly spread to campuses across the nation. In addition to establishing permanent centers for research, these departments contributed to the development of policies aimed at encouraging demographic equality on campuses.
Those efforts were opposed by an emerging branch of conservative thought with roots in the liberal New York intellectual scene. Pessimistic about the ability of government to redress poverty and racism, some intellectuals had begun to argue that the defense of liberalism might be better served by conservative ideals. They contributed to a rapidly growing body of theory centered mostly around two political journals: Irving Kristol’s The Public Interest and the Jewish-interest magazine Commentary as led by long-standing editor Norman Podhoretz. Branded “neoconservatism” by its detractors, the movement solidified during the 1972 election when its torchbearers burned their bridges by endorsing Nixon.
Antecedents to nearly every major rhetorical feature of modern anti-illiberal anxiety may be found in neoconservative thought. The insistence that liberal ideals depend for their survival on the conservation of a predominantly European tradition; the stand over questions of how to redress race and gender inequality, particularly in academia; the habit of tracing purported threats of illiberalism back to the New Left — all hark back to conflicts that inspired the original neoconservative break. Even the many formulations of illiberalism as a culture may be traced back to neoconservative origins. Podhoretz had written of the postwar academic boom that “millions upon millions of young people began to be exposed to — one might even say indoctrinated in — the adversary culture of the intellectuals.” The point recalls God and Man at Yale, but the key phrase, “adversary culture,” is borrowed from Lionel Trilling, who had mentored Podhoretz at Columbia. Its appeal is the rhetorical strap it provides for bundling together attitudes and behaviors that Trilling and his neocon inheritors considered subversive. “Adversary culture” collapses their differences from the outside, fostering the illusion of unity even when significant disagreements — like those between radical feminists and transgender activists — put liberals at odds with one another. And in names like the culture wars, outrage culture and Cultural Marxism, the notion of adversary culture continues to reverberate in nearly every purported manifestation of illiberalism since.
The notion that society is rife with groups consciously opposed to the bedrock principles of liberalism is an anxiety that recurs throughout American history. While McCarthyism represents the most infamous example, the most relevant to current anxieties are the so-called “p.c. debates” that raged during the early Nineties.
Many of the stories that would fuel the debates were first publicized by the NAS and reported by sympathetic journalists. For years, Richard Bernstein had written at the New York Times about the wrangles between educational traditionalists and their (as he would have it) “Orwellian” opposition. In October of 1990, he described the liberal trend in academia as “The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct.” The phrase soon swept the media. Newsweek echoed it under the headline “Thought Police” on their Christmas Eve edition. New York Magazine illustrated an influential 8-page jeremiad, “Are You Politically Correct?”, with archival pictures of Hitler Youth and Mao’s Red Guard. In a commencement address at the University of Michigan, President George H. W. Bush described political correctness as a brand of extremism. Opposition had become a matter of executive policy.
One of the driving forces behind anti-p.c. anxieties were recruitment practices, collectively known as affirmative action, instituted to redress decades of systemic racial and gender bias. Prior to the p.c. debates, neoconservatives had principally relied on two basic arguments against affirmative action. The first, advocated by Podhoretz, contended that quotas and preferential hiring violated the principle that society ought to reward individual merit. The second, rooted in a controversial report from an assistant secretary of labor, Daniel Moynihan, was that, by advancing minority candidates from dysfunctional communities, affirmative action set its beneficiaries up to fail.
The p.c. debates introduced a third approach, arguing that direct intervention could unfairly undermine speech as well. By the early Eighties, deep-pocketed investment (much of it originating with the Olin Foundation) and the cultivation of positions in think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute had given neoconservatives an outsize voice in policy discussions. To attract bright young recruits, foundations like Kristol’s Institute for Educational Affairs helped establish independent student papers to compete with the official newspapers of major universities. The most infamous, the Dartmouth Review, was known for provoking on-campus clashes — especially with the black faculty of the school’s ethnic studies departments, whom Review editorials often depicted as the undeserving beneficiaries of preferential hiring.
The Review’s best-known alumnus was Dinesh D’Souza, a founding editor who had gone on to serve as domestic policy analyst under Reagan before joining the American Enterprise Institute. It was at AEI that he wrote Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus, which claimed to expose the erosion of liberalism occurring within the American university system. D’Souza argued that both the canon and the laudable speech of conservative faculty would be safer if undeserving applicants were excluded by a recruitment process based solely on individual merit. What he presented as the natural order had been undermined by “the victim’s revolution,” which allowed nearly anyone to usurp influence so long as they could credibly claim to have been oppressed by Western civilization.
Some universities and faculty had, in fact, overstepped the bounds of liberalism. Most famously, the University of Wisconsin–Madison had attempted to curb on-campus hate speech with a disciplinary code later deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge. Yet, there was virtually no evidence of a widespread trend in illiberalism. A survey of schools by the American Council on Education found that speech-related controversies and attempts to enforce political correctness had occurred in only a tiny minority of schools; the Modern Language Association reported that English professors still relied heavily on the canon. Even the exceptions cited by D’Souza and reported in the national press often fell apart under scrutiny. Investigative journalists found that reports of an angry mob interrupting a history lecture at the State University of New York had been based on spurious stories circulated by the NAS. Fact-checking one of the most discussed cases from Illiberal Education and “Are You Politically Correct?” — that of Harvard professor Stephan Thernstrom — The Nation found that both publications had misrepresented the response from administrations; neither had bothered to interview Thernstrom’s accusers.
Despite mounting evidence that campuses were not, after all, in the throes of a p.c. revolution, Illiberal Education rode the New York Times best seller list for fifteen weeks in 1991. A year later, the academic debate had all but faded from public view, but D’Souza had persuaded the mainstream that academia was only “the birthplace and testing ground for this enterprise in social transformation.” The real threat was that illiberalism might escape the ivory tower.
While the poster children of anti-illiberalism have traditionally belonged to one or another persuasion of conservatism, the latest bout of anxiety is distinguished by the number of anxious voices hailing from the left. In the weeks after Charlie Hebdo, the status of free speech was a daily topic of discussion in the American press. One of the most popular contributions was written by Jonathan Chait, a former senior editor of the left-leaning New Republic who stepped down in 2011 to take a staff position at New York Magazine. With “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” he rescued political correctness from its Nineties oblivion, linking it directly to American responses to the violence in France. Liberals who hesitated to proclaim Je suis Charlie!, he argued, were engaging in “a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate.” Putting a finer point on it: “Not only is it not a form of liberalism; it is antithetical to liberalism.”
In many ways, “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” is typical of anxious defenses of liberalism. It purports to find the sort of theoretical underpinnings left curiously unspoken by the groups popularly supposed to demand political correctness. Not that there aren’t groups in Western society united around a genuine opposition to liberalism — pro-monarchist neoreactionaries, for example, or theocratic utopians — but they tend to be outspoken in their illiberalism, and their rationales are often explicitly cultural. Rather than focus on these self-consciously adversary cultures, though, the anxious routinely cast about for crypto-illiberals among groups focused on social and political equality.
Thus, the line Chait sketches between Marxism and modern illiberalism passes through feminism by way of Constitutional lawyer and second wave theorist Catherine MacKinnon. That, in itself, is unsurprising. Postwar feminism is a perennial bugbear of the anxious, who are prone to ignore the diversity of its movements, reducing it to only the most radical positions of the second wave. That caricature is sometimes styled “gender feminism,” in contrast to the conservative alternatives proffered by Camille Paglia and AEI fellow Christina Hoff Sommers, both of whom were outspoken in the original p.c. debates and have recently returned to the theme.
Far from unusual, then, Chait’s gesture toward feminism is almost perfunctory. His evidence for MacKinnon’s illiberalism amounts to a quotation from “Not a Moral Issue,” a 1984 essay wherein she cast doubt on “the liberal view” that “[every] time you strengthen free speech in one place, you strengthen it everywhere.” Inequality, she argued, sometimes cants free speech victories so that they come at expense of marginalized groups, like women. A central example in “Not a Moral Issue” is the obscenity charges brought against the producers of the pornographic film Deep Throat. In finding for the defendants, the court ultimately ignored actress Linda Lovelace’s testimony that she had been coerced into performing the film’s sex acts. For MacKinnon, this is a quintessential example of a free speech victory won at the cost of a woman’s rights. But it renders her position incoherent to suppose that disagreement over the unequal distribution of liberal rights amounts to a wholesale rejection of liberalism. The entire force of her argument depends on the liberal assumption that freedom of speech is a right worth attaining.
Indeed, tendentious readings are characteristic of anxious rhetoric. In a recent book, The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech, Fox News pundit Kirsten Powers connects “delegitimization,” supposedly the left’s “strongest weapon in a country with unparalleled free speech protections,” to philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s notion of “repressive tolerance.” Marcuse’s thesis was that the principle of toleration could, in certain circumstances, actually constrain individual liberties — as when we tolerate institutions that disenfranchise minority groups. In its place, he recommended “liberating tolerance,” a conception he traces back to the liberal political philosophy of John Stuart Mill.
Yet the anxious routinely interpret Marcuse’s distinction between repressive and liberating tolerance as a Trojan horse designed to disguise the suppression of speech. Not content with First Amendment protections against government suppression, they seek to inoculate speech against social consequence as well. “If you can’t suppress views you don’t like with repressive laws,” Powers explains, “then delegitimize the people expressing them.” On that account, nearly any attempt to meet speech with criticism — itself a form of speech — can always be reframed as an attempt to silence the speaker.
That judo-like reversal is indicative of the way the anxious appropriate the language of grievance. Thus, D’Souza argued that campus conservatives, and not disenfranchised minorities, were the real casualties of the “victim’s revolution.” Robert Weissberg of the University of Illinois called them “the queers of the 1990s,” on the premise that they feared the consequences of having their political sympathies publicly outed. Stephen Thernstrom, the Harvard professor depicted in Illiberal Education and “Are You Politically Correct?”, responded to accusations of racism by saying, “I felt like a rape victim.” His students had complained that he had settled responsibility for racial inequality on domestic abuse among black families, the same argument that had inspired a critic of the Moynihan Report to coin the phrase “blaming the victim.”
In addition to victimhood, the anxious also appropriate the language of internal critique. Like “politically correct,” “social justice warrior” was coined by the left. It was used primarily to caution other progressives against overzealous debate tactics. Sometime last year, though, popular use took a sharply reactionary turn. “SJW” now functions as an epithet for anyone outspoken in their advocacy of progressive politics. By implication, the struggle for social justice is being fought against conservatives and moderates who, in a typically neoconservative formulation, represent a truer brand of liberalism.
It is, by every indication, a remarkably narrow conception of liberalism. That may be illustrated by the way “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” depicts political protest. Most of Chait’s examples are of students protesting against speaking engagements by controversial public figures. These he presents as evidence of the p.c. revival, but such demonstrations work by answering liberty with liberty, speech with more speech. Far from being silenced, the “victims” are all influential public figures who routinely deliver their disquisitions from nationally visible soapboxes, often for five- and six-figure speaking fees. In fact, the schools’ willingness to pay those fees, presumably out of revenue collected from tuition and fees, is often closer to the bone of contention.
Contrast that to Chait’s account of a 2014 altercation between anti-abortion protesters and a feminist studies professor. Confronted with graphic images of aborted fetuses, the professor, Mireille Miller-Young of the University of California–Santa Barbara, had angrily wrested a placard from one of the protesters. She later destroyed the sign in her office.
For Chait, the incident is a clear example of how p.c. culture encourages oversensitive liberals to suppress offending speech. Nor is he alone in writing as though Miller-Young’s behavior was, in the first place, a conscious and premeditated strike against freedom of speech and, in the second, the story’s sole relevance to liberalism. Yet, one need neither excuse nor endorse Miller-Young’s behavior to note that the anti-abortion protesters had set themselves in opposition to a liberty the Supreme Court has consistently upheld since Roe v. Wade. For the anxious, it seems, every question of liberal rights finally reduces to, or is trumped by, the right to speak on behalf of conservatism.
Chait and his editors may have thought they were safely updating a theme that had served New York Magazine well in the early Nineties, but the context has since changed. The original p.c. debates took place as the decline of Soviet influence robbed conservatism’s anti-communist plank of its urgency. “Are You Politically Correct?” and Illiberal Education had responded by shifting focus toward purported instances of internalized subversion. “With the collapse of Marxism and socialism around the world,” D’Souza wrote, “activist energies previously channeled into the championship of the proletariat are now ‘coming home,’ so to speak, and investing in the domestic liberation agenda.”
Ultimately, though, it was the outward pivot represented by Francis Fukuyama’s essay “The End of History?” that would shape neocon priorities leading into the 21st century. While prominent neoconservatives, most of them associated with the Project For a New American Century, turned their attention toward foreign policy, stewardship over anti-p.c. rhetoric fell to two not entirely compatible groups. There were, first of all, libertarians like Alan Charles Kors, an historian who had allied with neoconservatives during the p.c. debates. As a nominee to the NEH late in George H. W. Bush’s presidency, Kors was a member of the small team responsible for disbursing federal grants for humanities projects at educational institutions. Afterward, he and civil liberties attorney Harvey Silverglate launched a non-profit, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which continues to serve as the country’s most visible watchdog against political correctness in academia.
At the same time, elements farther to the right were busy mutating anti-p.c. rhetoric. While other strains of postwar conservatism were cultivating an intellectual base in the Sixties and Seventies, the socially-minded branch known as the New Right had taken an aggressively populist approach. Through the work of organizations like Heritage Foundation and the Moral Majority, it concentrated less on the elaboration of a consistent political theory than on building voting coalitions to support candidates that embodied its moral vision. Reagan’s campaign promises to reinstate school prayer, overturn Roe v. Wade, and encourage a creationist curriculum were savvy appeals to the New Right’s moral agenda. In return, their votes helped secure his presidency.
In 1999, a leading New Right figure named Paul Weyrich circulated an open “Letter to Conservatives,” reframing political correctness as the shibboleth of a purported conspiracy he called “Cultural Marxism.” Weyrich, who had created the Heritage Foundation, and William Lind, an historian at another Weyrich-founded think tank, the Free Congress Foundation, had based their theory on a hostile interpretation of the work of the Institute for Social Research, an institution established at the University of Frankfurt am Main to study the European workers movement from a socialist perspective.
Even before the rise of the Nazi party drove the Institute to relocate at Columbia University, though, its core group, known as the Frankfurt school, had broken with Marxist orthodoxy. Appointed in 1930, the Institute’s second director, Max Horkheimer, charted a new course, called Critical Theory, which focused on the study and critique of authoritarianism. Its purpose was to develop liberating social and philosophical insights by contrasting and criticizing theories from a range of disciplines, including psychology, sociology and economics. The willingness of the Frankfurt School to apply Critical Theory even to the foundations of Marxist thought set them at odds with the Stalinist and Maoist seats of power, precipitating the end of the Institute’s association with Moscow’s Marx-Engels Institute.
Members of the Frankfurt school (Marcuse among them) would go on to attract readers in New Left circles. As Weyrich and Lind would have it, those American liberals were the vector that has made Cultural Marxism not merely adversarial but ascendant. Lind has called it “the ruling ideology of America’s elites.” Its purported goal is “the destruction of Western culture and the Christian religion.”
Anxiety about Cultural Marxism has since filtered into nascent revanchist ideologies like the Men’s Rights Movement, as well as into the neoreactionary rhetoric of the so-called Dark Enlightenment. Over the last year, it has been increasingly tied to the anxiety over social justice warriors, as when voting blocs billing themselves as the Sad Puppies attempted to halt the “Leftwingization” of awards granted for science fiction writing. At the far extremes, you can find Cultural Marxism and political correctness referenced in antisemitic literature (most of the Frankfurt theorists were secular Jews) and by groups opposed to the Western spread of Islam, most notably in the manifesto of Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.
The varieties of anti-illiberalism that have proliferated in the mainstream since January have, until recently, concentrated almost entirely on gender and sexuality, even as police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement brought race back into the public consciousness. Then, in June, the murders of nine members of Emanuel AME, an historic black church in Charlotte, South Carolina, drew national attention to a Confederate battle flag flying over that city’s state house. Advocates rallied for the removal of what they saw as an inducement to violence. Defenders grumbled loudly as politicians and businesses distanced themselves from the flag. Even President Obama, in a eulogy for state senator Clemente Pinckney, who was among the slain, felt compelled to comment that removal would not amount to political correctness.
The controversy soon touched the contest for the Republican nomination. In an online manifesto, the Emanuel AME gunman had cited the Council of Conservative Citizens, a non-profit that rails against political correctness, Cultural Marxism and racial integration. Several Republican candidates soon discovered that their campaigns had previously accepted donations from the group’s founder. Most donated equivalent amounts to Emanuel AME, a restorative move CCC supporters dismissed as yet more political correctness.
Though it likely was not the intent of mainstream writers who, like Chait, helped to re-popularize accusations of political correctness, its revival is prone to resonate with far right extremists who have spent the last two decades freighting the term with ominous significance. Thus, it can be difficult to guess whether the source of a pronouncement like “[the] modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones” is to be found in “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” or the writings of Weyrich and Lind. For partisans of the far right, that ambiguity may well seem an opportunity for détente.
Likewise, when candidates for the GOP nomination deride political correctness at campaign rallies, it can be difficult to distinguish the cheers of hard-line chauvinists from those of more moderate conservatives who believe themselves to be merely picking up where the p.c. debates left off. Sometimes, though, the hardliners make it radically simple. Thus, at a recent rally in Mobile, Alabama, some supporters could be heard to shout “white power” in response to Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Even before Trump’s entry into the field, there were hints that the upcoming presidential election would be an anxious one. Mike Huckabee, the former Baptist minister and Arkansas governor-turned-pundit, has long inveighed against political correctness. By May, he had cleared away his professional commitments in anticipation of a second run at the presidency. That same month, left-field candidate Dr. Ben Carson told a crowd at Nevada rally, “Political correctness is something I detest.”
If Trump’s rhetoric postures him as an example of commercial success in the face of political correctness, supporters may likewise see Carson, a distinguished neurosurgeon who happens to be black, as emblematic of the Podhoretzian triumph of individual merit that argues against the need for policies like affirmative action. Similarly, in a year marked by a landmark ruling on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, as well as the warning in Chief Justice Scalia’s dissent that the decision would lead to discrimination against its Christian opposition, Huckabee appeals to New Right voters as a champion of “politically incorrect” religious values. None of the three are likely to win the nomination, but by pressuring other candidates into escalating demonstrations of anti-illiberal zeal, they distort the Republican field.
If Chait is correct, that won’t be the end of it. “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say” ends with the suggestion that pro-Clinton Democrats “may find it irresistible to amplify p.c. culture’s habit of interrogating the hidden gender biases in every word and gesture against their side.” That prediction may have the force of self-fulfilling prophecy. Gearing conservatives to view any discussion of gender as an attempt to suppress conservative speech could complicate the Hillary campaign’s relationship to feminist supporters. That turn of events might even please some liberals for whom Clinton is a deeply divisive figure. Whether or not Chait intended to provide a blueprint for derailing political discussion of gender bias, that is precisely the sort of function anti-illiberal rhetoric routinely plays.
One need not be anxious about purported assaults on liberalism to feel that the state of public discourse has been eroded by a recent groundswell of outrage and call-outs. Much of that is due not to political correctness, but to garden-variety heedlessness. There is an important distinction to be made between the positions we oppose and the people who hold them. When we fail to do so, pronouncements we intend for the correction of bad ideas become personal accusations instead. Relayed and amplified by others, those accusations can resemble the gathering of an angry mob. Some within that mob may even turn to vigilantism. Since the mid-Nineties, the democratization of digital communications, particularly via social media, has precipitously raised the volume of such heedlessness, but the causes are as much technical as they are cultural.
If, as Chait and others have suggested, segments of the left turn against their own as often as they turn against their opponents on the right, part of the reason may be that there is, after all, no distinct culture uniting the left. That would explain why modern liberals speak of one another conditionally as “allies,” as well as why those alliances often break down the moment discussion strays into disputed territory. It might be better for public discourse if the left did possess a culture worthy of the name. Then, at least, they could call upon their shared culture to help resolve those disputes.
Yet, while the specters of Cultural Marxism and the New Left may have more to do with the anxieties of liberalism’s would-be defenders than with actual illiberalism, that is not to say that those anxieties have no object. Political correctness not only exists, it is a commonplace of political life. To say, for example, that centrists within the GOP are “Republican In Name Only” is to brand them politically incorrect with respect to conservative ideology, just as DINO is a marker of heterodoxy within the Democratic party. But political correctness exerts a force only where there is an established political orthodoxy. In America, no orthodoxy compels as much allegiance as liberalism, which is precisely why accusations of illiberalism are capable of eliciting such strong reactions from both sides of the political spectrum.
In any case, intimations of illiberalism will almost certainly play a part in the coming election. With luck, they will lose steam before they do serious damage to the political process. Any role they may play in deciding the presidency will have more to do with anxiety than reason.