The perils of purity politics

How ideological rigidity undermines progressive change

Joan Westenberg


No matter how fiercely you advocate for progressive change, a chorus of critics will inevitably pounce, angrily proclaiming that your efforts just aren’t enough. They’re too little, too late. They’re problematic.

And while it may be tempting to bow to the pressure of the self-appointed arbiters of progress, giving in to their demands is a surefire path to stagnation and ineffectiveness.

The impulse to denounce others for perceived ideological impurity stems from a deep-seated need for validation and a sense of moral superiority. When the world feels frightening and beyond our control, calling out others for their supposed shortcomings provides a seductive illusion of power and righteousness. It’s a way of asserting one’s ideological bona fides, of positioning oneself as the true standard-bearer of progressive values. But it’s no more than Puritypolitik legerdemain.

By setting an impossibly high bar for what constitutes “true” progressivism, the purists effectively create a circular firing squad, one in which no one can ever measure up to their exacting standards.

For decades, LGBTQ activists pushed for the right to marry, facing fierce opposition from social conservatives and religious groups. And when…