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MATTHEW BOOSE: Liberals don’t have an answer for Steve Bannon
When it was reported on Monday that The New Yorker invited Steve Bannon to its annual festival, it didn’t take long for editor David Remnick, caving to pressure from liberal celebrities invited to the event and leftists on Twitter, to cancel the invite.
Criticism of both the invitation and Remnick’s decision to rescind it has fallen into basically two camps, with shades of opinion in between. One group, on the left, says that Bannon’s ideas are toxic and hateful, and as such, there is no point in debating them. To them, giving Bannon a platform at a glossy magazine is dangerous because it will only amplify his views.
The other camp, representing the center, criticizes both Remnick and the left for trying to beat Bannon’s worldview by ignoring it. This view says that instead of de-platforming Bannon, Remnick should have invited him on and ripped him apart with facts and logic. By dropping Bannon, Remnick just handed him a victory.
Both get something right, and both get something wrong. The left is correct to point out that debating populism — at least within the framework of liberalism — is basically an exercise in futility. But those on the center are also right to point out that ignoring populism won’t make it go away.
If the left is naive to think they can de-platform populism and nationalism out of existence, then the center is naive to assume that they can save liberal democracy with TED Talks.
Populism and nativism are the biggest challenges to the current order, and liberal democracy needs to reckon with them to survive. De-platforming Bannon sends the message that it’s acceptable to ignore the people listening to his populist, nativist message.
But ignoring people who feel disenfranchised won’t mollify them or diminish their number. It will only make their political movements bigger and angrier.
Look no further than Sweden, where a right-wing nationalist party stands to make significant gains in elections this weekend. Or Italy, where the first populist government in Western Europe was elected this year.
Some on the left have argued that it’s possible to disengage from people like Bannon while quarantining their ideas from afar. Perhaps they’re right — but it’s not clear what that entails for the growing number of ordinary people in Europe and America who are fed up with globalization.
If it’s really a waste of time to debate nativists, then the alternative must be to keep liberalism afloat through brute force. This is increasingly how the left actually deals with populist nativism: rather than convincing people to remain loyal to a failing system, liberals enforce their ideas with a religious, pointedly illiberal, ardor.
Despite an appearance of open-mindedness, the liberal center’s response is not much different in this respect. Enlightenment-aligned centrist liberals are faithful that nativism and populism are ultimately toothless. To them, these philosophies might be bad, but they can be defeated soundly by the light of reason.
There’s nothing irrational, though, about people turning away from a broken system. It is, in fact, very rational for people to reject liberalism because of lost national identity, social solidarity, or jobs. If anybody is irrational, it’s the self-satisfied bourgeois intellectuals who won’t condescend to look at the fire climbing up the walls.
The problem is not so much that nationalism is illogical — it’s not. Rather, the problem is that liberals see their views as the only ones associated with reason, so they never end up actually debating anybody but themselves.
When liberals talk about logic and reasoning, they assume that liberalism is the only rational way to see the world. To them, bad people are irrational and xenophobic, and good people are rational and tolerant.
With this, liberals end up dismissing nationalism by defining it as irrational, and therefore unthinkable.
The Economist, a liberal publication, defended its decision to not disinvite Bannon from its own event for the sake of defeating his ideas, the “antithesis” of liberal democracy, in an “open debate.” The purpose of the whole exercise, apparently, is to “reaffirm and refresh liberalism.”
But Harvard professor Adrian Vermeule pointed out the apparent circular logic here: “If the conversation is really an open test of ideas, how can you know in advance that it ‘will reaffirm and refresh liberalism’?”
Whether of the leftist or centrist variety, liberals don’t have a good answer for people like Bannon. The left’s solution is to label them as incorrigible bigots that need to be expelled from polite society — but ostracism will only further inflame their resentment.
The center’s answer is to convince nativists to give up their intolerant views with PowerPoint slides showing how much better things are getting, even when the people they’re trying to reach are rigidly convinced that things are getting worse.
A growing number of people are starting to see the world like Steve Bannon does. Unable or unwilling to candidly recognize and challenge them, liberals have doubled down on their beliefs with religious fervor, likening tolerance to a “light” that contrasts with the “darkness” of nationalism.
When the best explanation the liberal discourse can muster for the failure of their worldview is a mass retreat from reason, the discourse is stale.
Bannon deserves his place in the marketplace of ideas. People like him need to be engaged and debated, but frankly, without any smug assumptions that their ideas are untenable.
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