Opinion | Where Liberal Power Lies

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The right can see all this happening, and so just as liberals see political authoritarianism in a Republican Party clinging to power via the Senate’s rural bias, conservatives increasingly see that same G.O.P. as the only bulwark against the cultural authoritarianism inherent in tech and media consolidation. As long as the Republicans retain some power in Washington, Twitter can be forced to walk back its shutdown of the Post (as it did, days after) and Facebook will remain a safe space to share Ben Shapiro posts … but once you hand full political power to liberalism as well, the right fears that what starts with bans on QAnon and Alex Jones will end with social-media censorship of everything from pro-life content to critiques of critical race theory to coverage of the not-so-peaceful style in left-wing protest.

My own view is that this conservative anxiety risks three mistakes. The first is an exaggeration of the consequences of any given election: Losing the presidency for four years and the Senate for two will not immediately make Republicans irrelevant to the calculations of Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg, and a movement that’s poised to make a very Catholic mother of seven the sixth conservative on the Supreme Court retains considerably more resources than, say, dissident movements under Communism.

The second is a somewhat exaggerated sense of the possibilities for permanent cultural control available to a tech-enabled progressivism. The Californian writer James Poulos, who coined the term “the pink police state” to describe the phenomenon that Dreher and others call soft totalitarianism, also emphasized the way that dissent and transgression under this system still “recedes from the reach of officialdom,” often outstripping and eluding the would-be censors. The new progressivism is a powerful orthodoxy in certain ways, but brittle and beset by internal contradictions in others, and the full expanse of American discourse is unlikely to ever fall permanently under its control.

Finally, writers anxious about soft totalitarianism on the left tend (not always, but too often) to underestimate how much of a gift the presidency of Donald Trump has been to exactly the tendencies they fear. Trump’s own authoritarian impulses and conspiratorial style are so naked, so alienating and frightening, that many people who might otherwise unite with conservatives against the new progressive establishment end up as its reluctant fellow travelers instead.

But having offered these doubts about the diagnosis, let me stress that the mix of elite consolidation and radicalization that conservatives fear is entirely real — and its reality is one reason among many to recognize that no, even in a second term a hapless bully like Trump will not become a dictator and the Republican Party will not establish permanent one-party rule.

Power lies in many places in America, but it lies deeply, maybe ineradicably for the time being, in culture-shaping and opinion-forming institutions that conservatives have little hope of bringing under their control.

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