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Signs of Hope in the Fight Against the Radical Woke
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Signs of Hope in the Fight Against the Radical Woke

In 2020, the center held.

At the start of the election season, I feared that I belonged to the smallest constituency in American politics—the micro-slice of voters who both rejected Donald Trump and were alarmed at the Democratic Party’s lurch to the left. In my view, Trump deserved to lose, but the left did not deserve to win—it had been too captured by culture war extremism (including public funding for abortions), flirtations with defund-the-police radicalism, and the embrace of cancel culture intolerance.

On the right there has long been a sense that the illiberal left represented an unstoppable force. It dominated the academy, dominated Hollywood, dominated Big Tech, and dominated the institutional media. In that telling, only Trump kept it from dominating Washington D.C. The religion of wokeism was ascendant, and Trump’s defeat would signal its victory over American life.

The reality has always been a bit more complicated—especially to those of us who’ve long fought in the trenches against progressive intolerance. As a legal matter, colleges and universities are more free than they were 20 years ago. The media is less monolithic, and legacy media is less dominant. And while white Democrats are unquestionably more progressive than they were even five years ago, the progressive wing of the Democratic Party was soundly defeated in the presidential primary by perhaps the most mainstream, moderate choice in the entire Democratic field.

But still, true stories of progressive intolerance abound. I don’t have to repeat them all, but when the New York Times doesn’t have room for James Bennett or Bari Weiss, New York magazine can’t tolerate Andrew Sullivan, Matt Yglesias finds Vox too constricting or Glenn Greenwald leaves the publication he founded for the greater liberties of his own Substack newsletter, then there is a real problem with woke fundamentalism on the left.

But a funny thing is happening to our national narratives. First, a narrow but decisive slice of voters found a way to both reject Donald Trump and to block leftist rule. And second, an increasing number of Democrats and progressives are now sounding off against the far-left—and proving that they can survive (and thrive) in open defiance of the most intolerant trends in American culture.

While Donald Trump’s refusal to concede is understandably gobbling up most of the post-election attention, it’s fascinating to watch a significant number of Democrats come to the quick and obvious conclusion that the party’s move to the left may have cost it control of the federal government. Their more-moderate presidential candidate won, but elsewhere—as Josh Kraushaar reports—ticket-splitting Biden voters helped the GOP in those districts where “Republicans prioritized pragmatism and Democrats nominated progressive ideologues.”

Indeed, James Clyburn, the powerful Democratic representative whose endorsement before the South Carolina primary helped save Biden’s flailing presidential campaign, has been extremely blunt. Far-left radicals hurt Democrats, and Clyburn said that the late John Lewis agreed:

“‘Defund the police’ is killing our party, and we’ve got to stop it,” the South Carolina kingmaker said in an interview with CBSN Monday. It was a topic he said he and the late civil rights leader and Congressman John Lewis discussed.

“John Lewis and I were very concerned when these slogans came out about ‘defund the police,’” he said. “We sat together on the House floor and talked about how that slogan … could undermine the BLM movement, just as ‘burn, baby, burn’ destroyed our movement back in the ’60s.”


“John would never yell, ‘burn, baby, burn;’ John would never say, ‘defund the police,’ as progressive as he was, and I’m just as progressive as anybody else,” Clyburn said. He went on to say that “we just lost Joe Cunningham,” a South Carolina Democratic House member who lost his reelection bid against Republican Nancy Mace. “And we lost him over ‘defund the police.’”

Days earlier, the New York Times reported on an emotional meeting of House Democrats, where embattled moderates expressed similar sentiments:

Representative Abigail Spanberger, who narrowly escaped defeat on Wednesday in a conservative-leaning district in Virginia that Democrats had also toiled to protect, chastised her progressive colleagues for embracing the “defund the police” movement and for not pushing back forcefully against accusations of socialism. If Democrats did not acknowledge the election results as a “failure” and change strategies, she said using an expletive for emphasis, they would be “crushed” in future elections.

These comments are significant—in part because they did not result in the kind of online shame storm and backlash that resulted in politicians beating hasty retreats back to the base. But it’s also significant that Yglesias and Greenwald have loudly said “enough” to the woke pressures at progressive publications and struck out on their own, joining The Dispatch at Substack.

There’s a glass half-empty/glass half-full element to these developments. The half-empty analysis is right at the top of the newsletter. The fact that men with progressive credentials as sterling as Yglesias and Greenwald didn’t feel at home at publications they helped found illustrates the breadth and depth of the problem with far-left intolerance and groupthink.

Yes, true. But here’s the glass half-full—they had the courage to resist and a place to land without diminishing the power of their voice. 

Indeed, Substack’s top outlets and writers (with The Dispatch leading the pack) represent a cross-section of right- and left-wing dissidents who’ve struck out on their own and aren’t just surviving, we’re thriving. That includes my friend Yascha Mounk and the mainly center-left writers at Persuasion (full disclosure, I’m on Persuasion’s unpaid board of advisers), our friends at The Bulwark, Andrew Sullivan, and the left-wing journalist Matt Taibbi, who has written a series of scorching, viral critiques of the mainstream media.  

No, we don’t all have the same views. In fact, we disagree with each other on countless issues. But if there is one value this merry Substack band shares, it’s a commitment to America’s liberal values, including its commitment to free speech.

I’m not naïve. I know that the media needs more than Substack to counter cancel culture. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in previous battles with intolerance, it doesn’t take many dissenters to break the cultural momentum of fear and shame.

Earlier today, I had a fun conversation with Yascha while I filled in for Jonah on The Remnant. I argued that defenders of liberalism and liberal values possessed an advantage in the cultural fights to come—intolerance tends to breed a degree of misery in the communities it controls, and people don’t like to live in fear. They don’t want to be afraid of running afoul of cultural standards that can shift at the speed of a single tweet.

Yascha’s response was insightful. “It’s hard to enforce misery without an army.” At the end of the day, so long as a society remains legally free it’s difficult for true intolerance to prevail over the long term. The public, ultimately, gets the decisive vote—in politics, media, and pop culture.

In 2020, the outcome of the political vote was clear and decisive. The center held. A significant enough slice of voters broke with the mobilized base and told both parties to do better. Do better than a populist demagogue in the White House. Do better than woke radicals in Congress.

The cultural outcome is not quite as clear, but there are now thriving outposts (“fighting institutions” in Yascha’s memorable phrase) dedicated to the defense of liberalism on the left and the right. And when each new liberal combatant survives and thrives, it blazes a trail for the next dissident, then the next. Courage is contagious, and courage can win the culture war for America’s classical liberal cultural values.

One last thing …

Did you miss this? Please tell me you didn’t miss Kyler Murray’s Hail Mary against Buffalo. But if you did, I’m here to help. Behold the best play of the NFL season so far:

Photo of Abigail Spanberger by Ezra Deutsch-Feldman via Wikimedia Commons.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.