2022-07-09-08 Thomas Zimmer on American liberal elite

Thomas Zimmer (@tzimmer_history): On July 4, the New York Times published an essay by the president of the Ford Foundation. It’s an interesting window into the mindset of America’s ostensibly liberal elite: a superficially compelling, yet utterly unconvincing, inadequate, and severely misleading diagnosis. 1/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1545425019769159680/photo/1

The essay comes in the wake of the Long Last Week of June which saw the Supreme Court escalating its frontal assault on the civil rights order, and more generally in the context of a rapidly accelerating reactionary counter-mobilization against American democracy. 2/

It’s given the most prestigious platform: In the paper of record, on Independence Day, a reflection on the state of the American project, and a passionate plea to “step away from the extremes” and “renew our fidelity to the values that bind us.” 3/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1545425353182789633/photo/1

It’s striking how the author’s diagnosis of what actually plagues the country is presented almost entirely in the language of the Right’s culture war complaints – a compilation of reactionary talking points and moral panic building blocks. 4/

What are the problems, according to Darren Walker: a “culture of absolutism,” too much “performatively asserting our own virtue or righteousness” (rightwingers just call that “virtue signaling”), too much complaining about microaggressions… 5/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1545425695463071744/photo/1

What else: too much “intolerance and incivility,” cancel culture (“we shame and cancel”), self-censorship, and the “coarsening” of the political discourse. Both sides are to blame, we’re told – but all of these things are coded as “leftwing behavior” in the broader discourse. 6/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1545425959989518338/photo/1

Walker isn’t entirely oblivious to what is actually going in the country: He acknowledges that there are “people and groups denigrating human rights and human dignity,” and includes a quick warning against “false moral equivalence.” 7/

He also mentions, in one sentence, that “a minoritarian stranglehold – a tyranny of the minority – is suffocating … our democracy.” Yet this is presented as just one item on the long list of issues, and not even one the author believes deserves special emphasis. 8/

To the extent that the essay contains an explanation for what’s causing all these symptoms, we’re being presented a relatively standard economic anxiety approach: as “the mobility escalator has ground to a halt,” people are driven to “anxiety, resentment, and grievance.” 9/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1545426360642031618/photo/1

The author’s hopefulness relies entirely on an empty idea of American exceptionalism: “What makes the American people exceptional,” he assures us, “what makes America great” is the “act of becoming more perfect.” We’re not there yet – but we’re guaranteed to get there! 10/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1545426517001490434/photo/1

It’s a strikingly unfiltered, blunt version of exceptionalist progress gospel. It’s as ahistorical as it is politically disastrous, stifling any serious grappling with America’s past and present and effectively blunting the liberal response to the slide into authoritarianism. 11/

The solutions we’re being offered leave no doubt how utterly detached from the realities of the political conflict this essay is. Theirs is nothing that would address the problem of minority rule that was acknowledged in passing – it’s all just “Let’s hug” unity propaganda. 12/

The author thinks it is “by rediscovering and recommitting to our American identity” that the country can heal, he implores us to “renew our fidelity to the values that bind us.” So, what is that “American identity,” what are those values? 13/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1545426940504543236/photo/1

Thankfully, the author is very clear: “We” – he means: we Americans, all of us – “believe in equal representation, equal rights and equal justice.” No, really: The president of the Ford Foundation looks at America in 2022 and proclaims those are values shared by all. 14/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1545427119563472896/photo/1

I understand, of course, the aspirational nature of this essay. But here, the aspirational spin serves to entirely obscure the actual nature of the political conflict and provides cover and legitimization to the reactionary political project. 15/

The reality of American politics is that one party is dominated by reactionary forces that do not believe in equal representation and equal rights, that a sizable portion of the electorate is not willing to accept those values and favors white conservative rule instead. 16/

If what the author is proclaiming about American identity and shared values was even remotely true, the fundamental conflict over democracy that defines the country wouldn’t exist. “My solution to the conflict is to simply deny it exists.” Brilliant. 17/

It’s all presented in words that may sound good in a vacuum. But in the reality of the political conflict, they not only ring hollow, but, at times, feel like cruel taunts. What does it mean “to listen with humility, curiosity and empathy – with open hearts and minds”? 18/ https://twitter.com/tzimmer_history/status/1545427792212393986/photo/1

If this is directed at the reactionaries who are committed to taking away people’s bodily autonomy and deny them, in the case of trans people, for instance, even the right to exist in the public square, it is astonishingly naïve and, politically speaking, bizarrely impotent. 19/

If, however, it is directed at the people who are targeted by the reactionary assault, who have their equality, dignity, and civil rights stripped away, then it’s just an outrageous call for the victims to be more understanding towards their abusers. 20/

Consider this: This essay, ostensibly a reflection on what threatens American democracy, does not contain the words “Republican,” “conservative,” or “reactionary.” It is so abstract and vague that the actual political conflict becomes entirely unrecognizable and invisible. 21/

I find it really hard to be inspired by something that is so inadequate analytically, so full of empty claims and proclamations. It’s a marvelous act of obscuring rather than illuminating what is actually threatening American democracy, and as such, it is highly problematic. 22/

This essay is interesting and significant as a window into the worldview, mindset, and political analysis of an ostensibly liberal elite, and as such, it might help explain why the response from these circles to the acute crisis of American democracy has been so inadequate. 23/

I worry that it is also significant in the political impact it has. Not this single piece by itself, of course. But these elites matter, they possess big public platforms and tremendous influence. And if they go around the country offering people this… that’s a problem. 24/

If America’s liberal elites and institutions, tasked with upholding and defending democracy, either don’t understand the situation or simply can’t bring themselves to address it openly and act accordingly, democracy in this country stands little chance. /end

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