Back in the spring of 2020, when there were a lot of anti-racist protests going on, my friend Billie and I had a conversation that has been stuck in my brain since. She and I both grew up in conservative, evangelical households—her parents were missionaries in Turkey—and we’ve both moved pretty far to the left politically. (The kinds of Christianity we each espouse have changed a lot too, mine partly by becoming Catholic, but not in ways that map predictably to our politics.)
Something had stuck out to us both since entering mostly left-wing spaces: namely, that leftists hate each other. You think the Right hates the Left? You haven’t seen two leftists who agree on almost everything trying to accomplish a shared goal together. The relentless infighting, the sheer, shameless savagery, is astonishing.1 But the same thing is not true of the Right on the whole—even when differences of principle among right-wingers are far more substantial than intra-Left disputes.
So Why Do Leftists Fight So Much?
Billie pointed out that the through-line of most leftist politics is reducing harm, both directly and indirectly. This is why we’re concerned with things like classism, misogyny, racism, and so on. Our legal and economic systems tend to keep not only luxuries, but the necessities of life away from people who need them, and use social inertia rooted in prejudice to do it. That makes fighting those things an important part of protecting people, the same way insisting on the humanity of the unborn is an important part of protecting people.
But that also introduces a complication. If politics is about harm reduction, then every political disagreement can become an issue of not merely seeing things differently, but of needing to defend the vulnerable against people who will otherwise hurt them.
That’s not great for nuance. It can make seeing shades of grey a moral compromise, instead of an act of prudent realism. It can provide a way for really destructive forms of rage and resentment to represent themselves as righteous. There’s a leftist slogan that anger is a rational response to injustice, and that’s absolutely true—a lot of right-wingers lob bad-faith criticism at the Left for “being angry,” as though that in itself were irrational or hypocritical. But not all anger is created equal, and not all responses are proportionate.
And Why Don’t the Right Fight Like This?
Of course, the Right does occasionally eat its own. Every political movement does. But we’ve seen what a gargantuan amount of publicly exposed hypocrisy, even criminality, it can take to unseat a Dinesh d’Souza or a Jerry Falwell. And plenty of men and women just like them are trucking along in spite of being exposed. Trump remains the darling of much of the Right; there’s no sign of Matt Gaetz or Marjorie Taylor Greene being pilloried by the GOP. Why?
It’d be easy to say the Right just has no principles, but that seems obviously wrong and shallow to me. (Even finding someone’s principles disgusting isn’t the same thing as them not having principles.) I think a big part of it is that the Right looks at politics a lot more pragmatically; a lot more cynically, if you like. The point is, they’re operating with goals in mind too, and their tactics are consistent with those goals. And harm reduction is not their through-line.
In some ways, this is a strength. The Right doesn’t believe in utopia, so they don’t bother trying to bring it about. They expect the world to be challenging and even harmful some of the time, so the idea that you need to disassociate yourself from harmful people isn’t a given; partial or temporary alliances are fine, so long as they promote their goals. The Left (correctly) argues we can make the world a better place to live in, but that isn’t the Right’s project. It only makes sense they aren’t trying to achieve it.
Shrewd as Doves, Innocent as Serpents
So what? Am I saying the Right is smarter than us and we should just throw in the towel? No; among other things, I think the leftist idea that everyone should have access to housing, health care, and education as a matter of human dignity, and not as a perk of serving capitalism, is far more Christian than any version of right-wing politics. I’ve come around to the view that using the state to secure those rights is appropriate, but even if I hadn’t, securing those rights somehow would still be (to my mind) the obviously good and just thing to do.
But there is a change that leftists can and should make, and that’s learning to make distinctions within the category “harm.” How severe is the harm under discussion? How direct is it? How certain? Using a homophobic slur is bad, but it’s a different kind and degree of badness than punching a gay man in the face, even though the two absolutely can be connected.
And intentionality matters too. A lot of people on the Right complain about how they’d like to support such-and-such a leftist idea, but leftists were so mean to them they just had to advocate policies that leave people jobless, sick, and homeless. There’s no sense trying to appease those people; but there are also people, on the Right and in the center, who looked into the Left and, in good faith, found nothing but a bubbling morass of judgmental, white-hot contempt. So they didn’t bother with leftism. Because the truth is, not many people choose their politics based solely, or even primarily, on ideas; we can rise to that level, but most of us go where we feel cared about and respected.
Hang On …
There’s a possible misunderstanding here I want to nip in the bud, though. A lot of people will interpret this as “Protecting white feelings is more important than protecting Black lives,” or mutatis mutandis for whatever dimension of society you please—gender, religion, etc. That’s obviously untrue, and those of us who are part of various majorities or powerful groups (men, straight people, white people, Christians, middle and upper-class people) need to watch ourselves. Being defensive when we feel hurt is a really natural reaction, and none of us is above it; but we need to take care it doesn’t distort our thinking or our politics.
But. There is a tendency with some leftists to put all the onus on other people to understand what we’re trying to do. And even if that were fair—which I’m not sure of—it isn’t going to work. “It’s not my job to educate people!” No, and it’s not Steven Crowder’s job either, but he’s more than happy to do it. We certainly don’t need to guilt disadvantaged, tired people into being educators, but those of us who are up for it need to rise to the occasion. It’s an act of service we can render to other people; a way, in fact, of reducing harm.
1Incidentally, this is why right-wing conspiracy theories about the Left being in total control of things are hilarious. The Left can’t find consensus on how to escape from a paper bag, and you think they’re puppeteering all of society?