Jul 13 • 35M

How the Left was Lost

It all started in 2012

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Sasha Stone
The podcast version of Sasha Stone's Substack essays.
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What has become obvious to anyone paying attention is that we are living through a kind of revolution. 

It is not a physical one. As my friend Abe Greenwald wrote in Commentary Magazine, it “is not being fought within the physical limits of a battlefield. It is instead happening all around us and directly to us. It is redefining our culture, our media, and giving new shape to our public and private institutions. It is remaking the nation before our eyes.”  

In other words, this is a revolution of culture. A revolution of ideas.

Bari Weiss, The New Founders America Needs

Everyone has their own version of how the Left was lost. This is mine.

I tell my story as someone who was very much a devoted Hillary supporter in 2016 and an early Biden supporter. I tell this story as someone who got online in 1994 with one foot in the real world, and one foot in the virtual one. I also tell this story as someone who is no longer a Democrat.

Any slim chance there might have been for me to support the Democratic Party has been eliminated by the undemocratic partisan show trials of January 6th, an authoritarian power grab based on the lie that Trump brought the Proud Boys to DC to launch a violent insurrection against the US government.

Trump would not have urged Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz to debate the election in the Senate if he wanted to overthrow the government. All the violent riot did was interrupt the case he was trying to make and hand absolute power to his enemies. He might be a lot of things but dumb is not one of them.

Yes, the Democrats have used January 6th as a Reichstag Fire to grow their power, punish citizens and present a litmus test to anyone who dares to question the results of the 2020 election.

After the American people watched the Democrats and the media completely memory hole what happened in the Summer of 2020, most are looking at these hearings and the reactions to January 6th overall, as an existential crisis the political aristocracy has time and money to care about.

Biden’s America

By the Summer of 2020, I could see that there was something very wrong with the Left. Because I still wanted Biden to win, I was worried they were abandoning three basic fundamentals this country relies on:

Freedom of Speech - cancel culture was raging
Law and Order - “Defund the police” was trending
Patriotism - attacking Federal buildings, and historical statues, saying America was “systemically racist.”

Not only did no one listen to anything I had to say, but they were angry at me for saying it. Neera Tanden wrote me personally and asked me to stop criticizing the Democrats until after the election because defeating Donald Trump was the main priority. But I was beginning to worry more about this new version of the Left taking power than I was even Trump.

If the things we were seeing at newspapers and across all institutions - silencing dissent, firing people right and left and this suddenly strident doctrine that was being forced down everyone’s throat got into government? Then our country would start to look a lot more like an authoritarian utopia of the 1984 kind.

Turns out, we have become that authoritarian utopia, at least online. We trusted the Big Tech oligarchs with our data, our friendships, our preferences, our financials. Now they’re turning on those who are non-compliant and tossing them out of what looks a lot like the “Inner Party” in 1984.

The Left was never the “resistance.” They were always the empire. You can’t be that rich, that power, and control almost every area of American culture from Hollywood to book publishing to media to science and big tech and not be the empire. Trump’s side was the “resistance” and still is.

It feels eerily like 1984 now that the internet is ruled by a partisan cabal doing the bidding of the government. Even the Two Minutes of Hate feels like every day on Twitter or the January 6th show trials.

That’s because George Orwell recognized the hypocrisy of a movement supposedly based on equality that was still totally unequal. It’s kind of like how the Left has those lawn signs that say “This House has no Hate” but of course, they are filled with hate of those they have deemed the “bad” people.

Moral superiority against those with less power than you have is not a good look for the Left. They justify it because they have re-ordered the power hierarchy in this country, which puts the most marginalized people at the top and the least marginalized at the bottom.

If you are white, to them, you are powerful therefore you must be dropped to the bottom of the new hierarchy. Likewise, if you are Black and extremely wealthy, you are still marginalized and at the top of the hierarchy. They are hard-liners when it comes to skin color but fluid with gender.

The first time I heard that the Left no longer believed class to be an issue was pointed out by Conservative analyst Victor Davis Hansen who wrote:

During the 1980s cultural war, the left’s mantra was “race, class and gender.” Occasionally we still hear of that trifecta, but the class part has increasingly disappeared. The neglect of class is ironic given that a number of recent studies conclude class differences are widening as never before.

Middle-class incomes among all races have stagnated, and family net worth has declined. Far greater percentages of rising incomes go to the already rich. Student debt, mostly a phenomenon of the middle and lower classes, has hit $1.7 trillion.

States such as California have bifurcated into medieval-style societies. California’s progressive coastal elites boast some of the highest incomes in the nation. But in the more conservative north and central interior, nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty line — explaining why one of every three American welfare recipients lives in California.

There are two conflicting world views not just in America but in other countries — global elitism vs. nationalist populism. To the Left of this country, and much of Gen-Z, they have come of age online so they aren’t so locked into the idea of America as a place with states and borders. Ideology matters to them more. One kind of future would be like 1984 where many countries have come together to form a broader, virtual union.

But there is another movement across the globe to push back against it. Some have called it “Far Right” nationalism but it is the side that opposes the “woke” indoctrination, and the new environmental policies. There are already uprisings against what many countries have done with masks, vaccines, and now the climate.

The Democrats, the media, and Biden tell Americans every day how little they care about their problems. Only the wealthy can afford to sit around all day ruminating on January 6th and the existential crisis of Trump.

Batya Ungar-Sargon was on the Progressive Left but, like so many others out there, and understands that the working class of this country is not reading the New York Times or watching MSNBC. They’re mostly watching Tucker Carlson. So she goes on his show because she knows she can reach a much broader audience. She is, to my mind, the kind of guiding light we need moving forward.

And that is why I watch Tucker Carlson, because he is the most-watched cable news host and he’s the most-watched among the working class, which my former party has all but abandoned.

The Empire’s New Clothes

2008 turns out to be a pivotal year. It was the year that Neil Howe and William Strauss predicted would spark the “Fourth Turning,” which would be something along the lines of the Civil War.

Here is how Howe and Strauss describe the Fourth Turning on their site:

The Fourth Turning is a Crisis…This is an era in which America’s institutional life is torn down and rebuilt from the ground up—always in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s very survival. Civic authority revives, cultural expression finds a community purpose, and people begin to locate themselves as members of a larger group. In every instance, Fourth Turnings have eventually become new “founding moments” in America’s history, refreshing and redefining the national identity.

Howe has said that he believes it was the financial crisis of 2008 that led to the $700 billion bailout that sparked the Fourth Turning. And indeed, two populist uprisings sprang to life in its wake - Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. There were other uprisings during Obama’s presidency, like the storming of the Capitol in Wisconsin and Michigan, not to mention the formation and activism of Black Lives Matter, all of these mobilized by whole communities connecting online.

The ways in which social media spurs political mobilization and even violence have only been applied to the Right but think about this: Kenosha burned to the ground before journalists got the false narrative corrected, that he was unarmed and “breaking up a fight.” They only seem to worry about the Trump supporters but I expect in a few years they will come to regret that.

2008 was also the historic election of the nation’s first Black President, Barack Obama. That would spark not just a movement, but a full-blown religion that would influence American culture in ways not felt on the Left since JFK.

The other major turning point that occurred in 2008 was that Obama became the first President to use a social media platform, Twitter, to build his coalition. Twitter became the Church and the fulcrum for the Left. It would only intensify over time and in 2020 Twitter would become the authoritarian arm of the empire, which was now controlled by the Democratic Party.

Obama’s first term win would send the Left into a kind of rapture. For a community that was already trying to aim towards self-improvement with the rise of therapy and anti-depressants, not to mention daily talk shows like Oprah where we began to understand the difference between “good” people and “bad” people. We were already on the path towards perfecting our new utopia even before Obama rose to power, but once he did, the utopians had a leader and a religious figure.

The rapture would last just four years. By Obama’s second term, 2012, the Devil had come to the Left in the form of racism. Before that, most of the country was pleased Obama had won. It felt like an important milestone in a country whose history and legacy were stained not just by slavery, but by the Jim Crow era of the South that destroyed whole generations of Black citizens.

Obama had been a uniter. That was until things started going badly for his administration. His progressive policies drove an extreme reaction by the rising populist movement on the Right and eventually, in his second term, Obama had a solid red Congress.

The more Obama was obstructed by Congress, and the more the Tea Party rose up to oppose Obama’s policies, the more the focus on racism began to permeate the consciousness of the Left in a new way. Racism was baked-in. It wasn’t anything you did it was something you were. An accusation is enough because how can anyone prove that they aren’t?

Any white person who opposed or even criticized Obama, who had become and remains a god-like figure on the Left, had to be racist. By 2013, Critical Race and Gender theory would spread from college campuses to high schools to online social media sites like Tumblr.

Even before Trump ran in 2016, there was this idea that racism was everywhere and in everything. That 2013 generation on Tumblr went to college and enacted their online justice ideology in real-world activism. Remember, if your only experience of presidential leadership is Barack Obama — and you believe half the country is “white supremacist” then your activism is going to center around “fixing” the omnipresent racism the same way the Puritans were chasing witches to purge the Devil from their otherwise devout village.

And since this generation understood that you broadcast your identity online and on social media, what you did, what you stood for, and what you fought for defined who you were and separated you from people who weren’t doing that. I remember during the Summer of 2020 my niece was begging me to put something about antiracism on my Instagram but I had been writing about racism and advocating for Black artists for years on my website, awardsdaily.com. That felt performative to me and frankly, she sounded like she was in a cult - they were urging her to drop her relatives who weren’t committed to racial justice.

This was in 2015:

My daughter told me she first started noticing what we call “Cancel Culture” originating on Tumblr in 2013 with the website “Yur Fav is Problematic” wherein a self-appointing army of strident thought-police would call out celebrities or anyone whose platform was growing if they committed any sort of crime against the new doctrine.

Here is just a sample of what that looked like.

Naturally, as the Left was becoming more politically extreme, so too did the Right rise up to challenge that movement and push back.

Around 2013, Trump began “getting political” on Twitter. Part of it was his alignment with the Tea Party, though really its representative was Sarah Palin who ran as John McCain’s running mate in the pivotal year of 2008. The Tea Party was already considered a “racist” movement by the Left, thus anyone involved in it had to be racist.

Here is Steve Bannon way back in 2012 explaining what would become the Trump strategy to win in 2016. Bannon has also been labeled as a racist, along with the MAGA movement.

Minute 222.

One of the biggest disadvantages for the Left and even the Never Trumpers is that they are now being caught with their pants down since they are losing Hispanic and Asian voters. Even Black voters are starting to flee the Democratic Party. The America First movement per Steve Bannon has been actively trying to recruit those voters. Anyone who knows the movement knows it isn’t based on race or racism. Once they become aware of that, the entire Left and the media instantly lose credibility.

The media and the Democrats have been whipping members of the Left into a state of hysteria for six long years. Longer. They never stopped to think about what that might be doing to the formidable minds coming of age online.

That kind of delusional thinking is what got us to Evergreen and what got us to the Summer of 2020.

The Fourth Founding

There are some offering us a way out, a new “founding” of sorts. Bari Weiss whose Common Sense offers a path forward that retains some of the altruism of the Left in its current state but also seeks to build a new foundation of American life that preserves the things that define this country. Weiss has written a brilliant manifesto of sorts from a speech she gave at the new “free-thinking” university she helped build:

1. To be a founder in 21st-century America means to reject the politics of resentment and to recognize our privilege. 

My dad lost a younger sister to cancer. My dad also has MS. So why does he constantly say he is the most privileged man in the world? Because he grew up in a stable, loving home with two parents. Because he has meaningful work. Because he has Judaism and the community that comes with it. Because he married the love of his life. 

And, above all else, because he had the great, good fortune to be born in America.

Even with all our flaws and failings, even with inflation and polarization and tribalization, anyone who is honest will admit that there is nowhere better to build a life. 

Saying that right now feels radical, because grievance and resentment define the current cultural moment. It’s a dead end. We must get back to gratitude. 

James Strock who writes of America’s Fourth Founding in a must-read piece called Who Lost America lays out exactly what has happened to this country since around 2013:

Demands for recognition and respect of non-majority identities are by no means new. They recur through the course of our history. They’re a feature, not a bug of our national experiment. They prompt periodic resets of American political life, sweeping more people into full participation. Those holding power are persuaded to acknowledge the rights of others, in the ceaseless cause of aligning our practices with our ideals.

What’s different now is that the most conspicuous variants of identity politics reject the ideals of individual rights and autonomy for all. Instead, they assert that existing hierarchies are irredeemably illegitimate, built on oppressor group power dynamics. Rather than making it possible for more people to compete and earn places in talent and competence hierarchies, these critics seek to invert them. Those classified as members of historically marginalized groups would be placed at the top based on immutable characteristics. This approach inclines toward rule by an elite, tending toward autocracy rather than democratic self-governance.

This yields a banquet of consequences. Group victimization is venerated; individual achievement is derogated and deconstructed by frenzied packs of injustice collectors. Institutional power is honored; political persuasion is neglected. Representative democracy is discredited as built upon past, unjust assumptions and institutions, rather than safeguarded as a foundation for the ongoing pursuit of progress.

When we put it all together and we look at what this country has become at the hands of the Left, we have a larger majority that will reject it. They will reject Hollywood movies that are soaked through with dogma (almost all of them are). They will reject candidates who drive some of the more extreme policies of the Biden administration. They will reject what appears to be indoctrination in our public schools.

And hopefully, they reject this bizarre new religion that seems to exist only to alleviate the guilt and shame of the most successful and wealthy Americans who loved Obama enough that they wanted to atone, eternally, for their sins of white privilege. Watching them alternate between white guilt and being white saviors is exhausting. It seems so self-serving and punishes those in the middle or at the bottom who have no marginalized status to allow them entry to the inner party. They are asked or demanded to be “good allies” and give up their talent or their skills and take a step back to allow for equality of outcome rather than opportunity.

But we are a country that still needs to be based on the hardest working and the very best to rise to the top regardless of status, race or any other way societies categorize and rank their citizens from birth. We should be giving everyone a shot, not telling others to slow down for those behind them to catch up.

Strock ends his piece by saying we can’t wait for any savior to rescue us:

How will we diagnose and alleviate the pains afflicting our body politic? Are we experiencing America’s death throes? Or is a new nation struggling to be born?

The answer is unlikely to be found through the calamitous clarity and contingency of foreign war. And it’s unlikely to be delivered from on high here at home, by a leader as yet unidentified.

As with the generation of 1776, the Civil War generation, and the Greatest Generation, the American future depends on us, ordinary citizens bound one to another in a extraordinary, fateful experiment.

The Left I used to know stood up for the little guy, the working-class poor, not just those they choose to help because they are ideologically compliant. We didn’t punish or cancel artists. We didn’t censor and bully journalists. There is no doubt we have lost our way. Perhaps a massive red wave will give the Democrats a chance to collapse completely and then rebuild with new blood and a better path forward.