Canceled? Welcome to Our World

The right says political intolerance isn't new. Now that it afflicts the left too, we need unity among all who value liberalism.

When was the first time you were called a Nazi for saying something ordinary and reasonable? Nazis are the one universally accepted symbol of evil in our culture, so you tend to remember it. For me, it happened in 1987, when I was a college freshman advocating free markets (which, for the record, the Nazis were not in favor of).

About that same time,  I saw protesters on campus trying to shout down Justice Antonin Scalia for giving a talk about the Constitution. Just last year, a student group at Princeton declared George Will—that mild-mannered, bow-tied classical liberal—too controversial to be invited to speak on campus. 

So when I see center-left liberals worrying that the culture has a problem with political intolerance, I think: Welcome to our world.

To be sure, mainstream concerns about censorious wokeness, or what we used to call political correctness, have been bubbling below the surface for a long time. But for many on the center-left, this did not become a personal crisis, and therefore did not seem such a high priority, until the last year or two—when the crocodiles decided to eat them next.

Suddenly, it seemed, the list of people with offensive views now included authors of children’s books (J.K. Rowling), mainstream journalists (Matthew Yglesias), and even the editorial page editor of The New York Times (James Bennet). No wonder so many center-left intellectuals scrambled to sign the Harper’s Letter in defense of free speech and open inquiry.

The political commentator Andrew Sullivan summed up the attitude of these formerly mainstream figures when he lamented that the summer of 2020 “felt like a psychic break from old-school liberalism.” Wait, last summer? For a lot of us, this has been going on for decades.

This is not just my impression. recent poll by the Cato Institute and YouGov asked people how free they felt to express their political opinions without fear of backlash. The results made it clear that the recent concern with “cancel culture” is recent only for one side. According to the poll, 77% of people who self-define as on the right say that they already self-censor to avoid backlash; I suspect this number has been above 50% for a long time.

What’s new is that those who define themselves as liberals are beginning to feel that way too. The poll found a big divide between “centrist” or traditional liberals and “strong liberals,” a misleading way that the poll labeled the woke left. The traditional liberals are the people who just went over the 50% tipping point. “In 2017,” the poll found, “most centrist liberals felt confident (54%) they could express their views. However today, slightly less than half (48%) feel the same. The share who feel they cannot be open increased 7 points from 45% in 2017 to 52% today.”

The woke left has been targeting liberals because they are the only targets remaining. Those of us on the right, by necessity, long ago made ourselves uncancelable by building or finding platforms that are not dependent on the kind of mainstream center-left liberal institutions that are now driving out the center-left liberals. A wave of writers like Sullivan and Yglesias have begun their own newsletters on the Substack platform in search of more editorial freedom. I’m not because I already built my own equivalent, an independent, subscription-based online newsletter, all the way back in 2004.

The point of this is not to say, “Thou hypocrite!” or to berate the liberals for being late to this party. The point is to figure out, now that we are all in the same boat, how to row together—and to realize that we are going to need each other in a long-term fight against illiberalism on both the left and the right.

In recent years, I’ve talked with a lot of traditional conservatives of the classical-liberal bent who have been assuming that, once Donald Trump is out of office, the old mainstream of reasonable conservatism will reassert itself, and everyone will start reading George Will again instead of Breitbart. The way Trump left office, drawing his followers deeper into conspiracy theories and outright insurrection, shows how unlikely this is to happen.

Similarly, there are a lot of left-of-center liberals right now who seem to think the excesses of cancel culture are a passing mood, that the fever will break—particularly with a moderate Democrat in the White House—and it will once again be safe for people like them to securely enjoy elite positions in the culture.

There is a natural human tendency, when things go wrong, to want to go back to the way things were five minutes before you began to realize it was all going to smash—without inquiring too deeply about why that blissful state didn’t last. I am afraid that some of my conservative and liberal friends are doing this.

The temporary alliance of convenience forged during the Trump era—when many of the reasonable people on the right have found themselves in sympathy with the pro-free-speech liberals and, hopefully, vice versa—will need to be made more permanent. In forging this alliance, it will be helpful to have the perspective of those of us who learned to live with cancel culture long ago—and also to learn from our mistakes.

Political and ideological coalitions tend to seem permanent and natural right up to the point when they fall apart. On the right, there has been a long and famous fusionist coalition between the classical-liberal wing—those of us who take inspiration from the individual rights philosophy of America’s founders—and a more religious and nationalistic wing.

The corrupting effect of a coalition is that it encourages its members to paper over our differences, to place too much value on unity against what we imagine to be a monolithic threat from the Other Side, and—worst of all—to let the illiberal faction of our own coalition get into our heads, so that the group shapes policy and rhetoric to mollify them. This caused a lot of conservatives to see no enemies to the right, until they were blindsided by the realization that a large number of their supposed allies do not really value freedom—no matter how loudly they may chant the word.

On the left, traditional liberals have found themselves similarly blindsided by the illiberal faction of their own coalition, and it should lead them to examine what deep ideological differences they have gotten used to papering over, and to what extent they have let the illiberal wing of their coalition not just into their institutions, but into their own heads. And I would invite them to question whether they now find themselves in the wrong ideological coalition.

I am suggesting an ideological realignment, the birth of what you might call a neo-classical liberal coalition, in which the more liberal wings of both the left and the right make common cause. I am not talking about a moderate or centrist coalition. Such a thing has been tried before, and it cedes too much initiative to the illiberal extremes, as if the only principled options are two variations on totalitarianism, and we’re just trying to find some kind of muddled middle ground between them.

What I am proposing is a coalition that brings together different kinds of advocates of a free society. We should be looking at what we have in common, figuring out how we can work together, and finding ways to have friendly debates about where we agree and where we disagree.

For example, traditional liberals should be willing to acknowledge that expansion of government power and the invocation of the public good as a reason to override individual rights can be used as instruments of authoritarianism. Consider conservative demands to regulate or even nationalize social media so that they can force Twitter and Facebook to give a platform to their political leaders. The arguments against this have had to rely on the distinction between government censorship and decisions made by owners of private companies. So Twitter shutting down Donald Trump for incitement or Simon & Schuster declining to publish Josh Hawley’s book is not a violation of the First Amendment, since no private entity can be forced to provide anyone with a platform. This is Classical Liberalism 101, and a great example of how you need property rights to define and protect freedom of speech.

By the same token, conservatives should be willing to reconsider their assumption that a revival of traditionalist religious morality is the only way to preserve a free society—an argument that looks particularly shaky in light of widespread evangelical support for authoritarian Trumpism.

The point isn’t that we all have to convince each other or paper over our ideological differences. The point is that we should be talking to each other—and listening.

We shouldn’t be willing to give up “freedom” or “liberalism,” either as words or as ideas, to those who are manifestly unworthy of them, and instead we should find ways to rally together as a broad coalition, unified by support for the main elements of a free society: political freedom (elections), intellectual freedom (free speech), personal freedom (tolerance) and economic freedom. On that last point, we are going to have the most disagreements. But at some point, we have to define ourselves as people who want to live in a free society while having internal debates over the specifics of what it means and what it requires.

The first step is to see each other as fellow liberals in the broadest sense of the word, and to view that common ground as more important than the old partisan loyalties.

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and author of So Who Is John Galt, Anyway? A Reader's Guide to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.