Liberals and centrists have no idea how to combat the challenge of an ascendant far right.
This cluelessness, often masked by seemingly confident bluster from the punditocracy, has deep historical roots, and it grows out of genuine vulnerabilities in the liberal political tradition. But make no mistake: The approach to combating the far right that is favored by many liberals is inadequate. At best it's ineffective. At worst it's counter-productive. And no one benefits by pretending otherwise.
Consider the widespread severe reaction among liberal journalists and pundits to a recent profile in The New York Times of a white nationalist from Ohio named Tony Hovater. The author of the article, Richard Fausset, describes Hovater's life in rather mundane detail and without rendering explicit judgment of his morally execrable views. The overall effect is to give the impression that people holding flagrantly racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-democratic views may be more prevalent than most of us would prefer to think. They may even live right next door or regularly pass us in the grocery store.
To many liberal critics, the article was an outrageous, morally irresponsible exercise in "normalizing" politically toxic views, with an implicit message that flagrantly racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-democratic views are as acceptable as mainstream liberal or conservative commitments.
What makes this reading odd is that in emphasizing the unremarkable aspects of Hovater's life, Fausset echoes the main point of another recent essay that has received overwhelming praise from many of the same liberal critics: Adam Serwer's "The Nationalist's Delusion" in The Atlantic. What is this point? That President Trump prevailed in the 2016 election because of racism that is both a potent political force and widespread among white Americans.
Which is exactly what one might conclude from reading the Hovater profile — though with one crucially important difference. Whereas Fausset writes as a reporter, describing his subject's views with a minimum of judgment and largely leaving it to his readers to evaluate them, Serwer's essay is suffused with an unmistakable disgust for the people and ideas he writes about. Like many liberals, Serwer believes that tens of millions of white Americans are toxically racist — and that calling them racist loudly and repeatedly, and before as wide an audience as possible, is crucially important to winning the political battle against them.
Where do liberals get this idea? From a long history of doing exactly that — with decidedly mixed results.
Just two years after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the French-Algerian author (and member of the French resistance) Albert Camus deployed the extended metaphor of a pestilential plague to write about the rise of right-wing totalitarianism. The plague begins underground and in dark corners, with rats spreading it among the human population. To defend against it, its would-be victims deploy public health measures, including quarantine.
This approach to understanding and defending against the far right has become pervasive in Europe, where some countries make it a crime to espouse virulently anti-liberal views, and where it is treated as obvious by centrists that far-right parties should never be permitted to join governing coalitions. As long as such parties received few votes, this restriction seemed like a sensible precaution as well as a powerful statement that liberal toleration has its limits.
But now that far-right parties are receiving a significant share of the vote, the reliance on quarantine has become problematic. The center-right party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been struggling to form a government in large part because it refuses to consider permitting the upstart far-right AfD party, which came in a strong third in recent elections, to participate in a governing coalition. That failure could well lead to a new round of elections in which the AfD uses this very weakness among the centrists to increase its vote share further, thereby making the formation of a government even more difficult.
In the U.S., where a large region of the country clung to de jure white supremacy until a mere 50 years ago and where President Trump managed a demagogic takeover over of the Republican Party using overtly racist appeals, there is less institutional resistance to illiberal political ideas than there currently is in Europe. (The plague isn't quarantined in Washington; it's invited into the halls of power.) But in civil society, liberals take something closer to the European position, insisting that denunciation and the upholding of a cordon sanitaire are essential to defending freedom and democracy.
The trouble is that it's far from clear why they think this will work. We live at a time when toxic ideas regularly go viral, with the contagion spreading through a wide array of technologies, regardless of what journalists do or say. Clearly those at all sympathetic to Tony Hovater's white nationalist agenda aren't going to be persuaded by the thundering disapproval of liberals. Such disapproval may, in fact, make those ideas seem more appealing to some.
But then who exactly is the intended audience for the righteous name-calling? Do Fausset's critics really worry that New York Times readers will be tempted to join in Hovater's provincial fascist crusade by reading the profile? And do they also think that these same readers can be persuaded to resist this temptation merely by seeing the subject of the profile repeatedly labeled a racist?
The daunting truth is that bad ideas can only be defeated by better ideas. Repeatedly denouncing the bad ideas as bad simply isn't sufficient. Liberals need to convince the greatest possible number of voters that liberalism can and will improve their lives, and far more so than the morally heinous proposals of the far right. Many liberals think they're already doing this, but the proof is in the election results, which show that they need to do better. And imposing quarantines won't get the job done.