We Need To Talk About the Alt-Left
I’m a lifelong Democrat. I’m from deep-red Arizona, where I campaigned for president Obama’s losing bid to take the state in 2008. My wife is a (documented) immigrant; our dog, a puppy mill rescue from North Carolina. I don’t own a gun; I don’t even have a car.
I spent five years teaching English in the Middle East. I’ve overcome depression and a suicide attempt in my teenage years. I have family that has been jailed for both just offenses (robbery) and unjust ones (marijuana).
Have I ticked enough Liberal boxes to criticize my own side?
Not if I’m speaking to a member of the Alt-Left.
What’s an “Alt”?
The term is pretty new, so what it means it still largely up for grabs. I’d like to proffer a very specific meaning.
“Alt” describes a worldview that takes traditional American ideologies and strips them of their Enlightenment-driven cores. Gone is logic, reason, and rationality. Gone is the emphasis on the relationship between the individual and the government.
The only relationship that matters, then, is that of the group to the government. Which group governs; which group is governed. Which “identity” has the moral authority to rule; which does not. In the Alt worldview, the individual does not matter. The group is supreme; individuals are expendable.
The Alt worldview applauds unscientific approaches to the world. The Alt worldview despises science, data, history, and facts. It cheers conspiracy, story-telling, myths, and double-think, if only because group power dynamics do not survive intense scrutiny for very long.
Reaching back into history, the Alt is the same mentality that produced totalitarianism of all ideological stripes. It’s the worldview the U.S. Constitution built multiple safeguards to try to prevent.
So first, let’s talk about the Alt-Right
The “Alt” of “Alt-Right” is a great description of a new take on a very old political force. The traditional American Right has long anchored itself on manufactured American myths: the rugged farmer, the tough factory worker, the cowboy settler, the Iwo Jima Marine. Each focused on the success of the American individual to overcome obstacles: environmental, economic, military.
The Alt Right kept all the trappings of those myths while removing the individual from the equation. Instead of attributing the economic boom of the 1950s to workers who individually made good choices, the Alt-Right attributes it to the naturally superior attributes of a civilization headed up by white, Christian males.
The myths are the same: the attribution for success is what’s “Alt”.
This changes the political calculus. The traditional American Right sought, in all its stripes, to empower American individuals. They wanted people to act like the mythical individuals of the past by stripping away the powers of the Federal government and combating collectivist Communism. The Alt-Right, on the other hand, seeks to empower the groups headed by white, Christian males to dominate and subdue all other groups they deign to be inferior.
The Alt-Right worldview explains why so few of Trump’s policies make any economic sense to many Trump voters. It is not about providing greater economic freedom to his supporters; it’s about putting them back on top socially by gutting the safety nets of their group enemies.
Bad news: we on the Left have an Alt-Left, too
Part of the reason the GOP became hijacked by the Alt-Right is because traditional Rightist conservatives, like those at the National Review, George W. Bush campaign strategist Karl Rove, and the Republican National Committee, kept their heads in the sand. Mouthing pieties about neoliberalism lifting all boats and government being the problem is all it took to get pass from these supposed gatekeepers of the party.
If we’re going to keep the Dems from following in these footsteps, we must do better.
For us, the American Left has longed been a dominated by the idea that the individual needs a state to provide balance and guidance. The state is not a “nanny” in this view — it’s a guardian, the one who ensures what you’re buying is neither poison nor snake oil. For the American Left mythos, this is the moral priest sermonizing against racism, the missionary teacher bringing immigrant children into the body politic, the impassioned engineer using public works to give electricity to darkened hills, the moral leader commanding great armies to stop genocides. Each myth focused on the successful relationship between the individual and the state. As partners seeking greater public good, one corrects the excesses of the other.
But the Alt-Left has repeated the playbook of the Alt-Right. Rather than noting the essential role of the individual in the formation of an equitable society, the Alt-Left presumes only certain groups are able to participate. While the Alt-Right excludes everyone but those who hold white, Christian male values, the Alt-Left excludes everyone who is not, in their view, a minority.
In the Alt-Left worldview, society’s leadership can only be entrusted to their definition of an oppressed minority.
A Medium blogger, DiDi Delago, put it this way:
If history has taught me anything, it’s that there’s nothing more disappointing or dangerous than a room full of white people. With that in mind, I’d like you to consider why anyone would expect white-led anti-racism organizations to be any different.
This is Alt thinking to the letter: the group matters, not the individual. Delago is writing categorically: no one but her approved list may lead social change organizations. Her historical evidence builds her case, but only if one accepts her presumption that it’s okay to judge individuals based on the past behavior of other people. (It isn’t, just to be clear).
And that “labeled” moniker is key to both sides of the Alt divide: they demand you pick a side. You must have a racial, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural label picked, and it must play by their One Drop rules. Through these labels, your side can be assigned, your leaders chosen on your behalf.
Another Medium writer, Erynn Brook, provides yet more evidence of the Alt-Left’s dedication to group power:
It didn’t take long to discover that a lot of white folks just aren’t ready to show up. They’re missing some really basic listening and communication skills that are essential to solidarity. They’re missing the critical analytical skills to see systemic racism, micro-aggressions or switches in coded speech.
In other words, they lack the group-think training necessary to behave with the discipline needed for the group. That micro-aggressions are problematic social constructs at best — that coded speech requires careful examination before being proven — are presumably not part of the training manual.
These approaches to social justice are ahistorical as well as philosophically bankrupt. Like the Alt-Right, the Alt-Left ignores historical fact to construct a dangerous myth that their constructed groups are the only suitable ones for leadership. The Alt-Right presumes that majoritarian groups are always blameless; the Alt-Left does the exact same thing, only it swaps them out for constructed minority groups.
Both sides seek the same thing: political totalitarianism. In the pursuit of their unscientific, irrationally perfect worlds, their political tendencies demand escalating exclusion, action, and, eventually, violence.
They both formulate contradictory and superficially compelling language to surround their rotten ideological cores. The Alt-Right pretends to champion free speech (until you get banned from Reddit’s /r/The_Donald for criticizing the president), while the Alt-Left pretends to seek equality (until activists compile elaborate “racist” or “privilege” tests that only they can pass, and which by extension give leadership only to them).
Both seek to police language and thought down to the most irrational of details. If they can reprogram the way you think, they can convince you to abandon your individuality. Most importantly, these sophisticated approaches to uncommitted thinkers are meant to bypass reasonable conversation: by hitting emotional buttons, they stop you from thinking, and force you to choose a side.
It is the non-violent form of terrorism: producing greater and great emotional friction until you are forced to conform to a group for emotional safety.
Being “Alt,” this empowers new sets of elite shut out from the mainstream political system. It produces would-be rulers like Louis Farrakhan and Lena Dunham for the Alt-Left and Milo Yiannopoulos and Richard Spencer for the Alt-Right. Both sets mirror one another; leveraging emotional appeals to groups, seeking to annihilate the gray space of individuality, corralling “theirs” under their rule. They both do as all elites do: they gather as much power as they can, using whatever tools they have, to gather more and more power.
Elites who base themselves on individualism stand upon quicksand: to convince one voter is to lose another. Elites who do so with groups stand on solid cement: their group polices itself, forever purging unfavorable thoughts and impulses on behalf of the new leader. This is the bedrock of totalitarianism.
We liberal Democrats who remain must remember that our most successful leaders — FDR, Truman, Johnson, Obama — based themselves on the individual humanity of our country. They did not play to the groupthink of the Alt movements. We are in danger of losing our party — as the GOP lost its — to an Alt movement that will ultimately fail.
Demand to be treated as an individual. Demand your labels to be dropped. Demand your arguments to be weighed on the basis of who you are, and not who they have labeled you. That is the first step to putting the Alt movement of both Right and Left firmly into the grave.