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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Teixeira: The Right Stuff for the Left

The following article by Ruy Teixeira, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, politics editor of The Liberal Patriot newsletter and co-author with John B. Judis of the new Book “Where Have All the Democrats Gone?,” is cross-posted from The Liberal Patriot:

It’s a strange political world we live in now. Back in 2010, there was a raging controversy controversy around “epistemic closure” on the right, where many on the left and some dissenting conservatives characterized fierce advocacy in GOP ranks for even the most dubious right-wing takes on the perfidy of the Obama administration as the product of an intellectual ecosystem that was sealed off from the real world—existing in a bubble through which reasonable criticisms could not penetrate. Indeed, such criticisms were summarily dismissed by the faithful as left-wing disinformation and prevarications whose acceptance in any form would undermine the GOP and its righteous drive to save the country.

That was then. This is now. The Trumpified sectors of the GOP still have plenty of epistemic closure going on—but now the left itself and even the White House has joined the party as Nate Silver recently pointed out.

This directly connects to a concept I have popularized called the “Fox News Fallacy.” As I originally described it in the summer of 2021:

This is the idea that if Fox News (substitute here the conservative bête noire of your choice if you prefer) criticizes the Democrats for X then there must be absolutely nothing to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often. The problem is that an issue is not necessarily completely invalid just because Fox News mentions it. That depends on the issue. If there is something to the issue and persuadable voters have real concerns, you will not allay those concerns by embracing the Fox News Fallacy. In fact, you’ll probably intensify them by giving such voters the impression that Democrats simply don’t care about their concerns and will do nothing to address them. That will undermine the Democrats’ ability to respond to predictable attacks against their candidates….

We might think of epistemic closure as the logical result of a cascading series of Fox News Fallacies that render Democrats’ theory of the case bulletproof to criticism—and therefore incapable of real change. It becomes more an ideology that a guide to successful electoral action and effective policy-making.

Nowhere is this epistemic closure stronger than on the progressive left which has had extraordinary success making its views “That Which Cannot Be Questioned” within the Democratic Party mainstream. The progressive left thoroughly dominates what John Judis and I call the Democrats’ “shadow party”—the activist groups, think tanks, foundations, publications and websites, and big donors and prestigious intellectuals who are not official parts of the Democratic Party, but who influence and are identified with it.

And they do not like criticism. There is no better exemplar of their determination to enforce epistemic closure within Democratic ranks than the new book, Solidarity, by Astra Taylor and that noted Fighter for the People, Leah Hunt-Hendrix, an heir to the Hunt oil fortune. Jonathan Chait observes:

…[A]s the left has gotten stronger, it has become less socially acceptable to critique it. That people disagree with my [Chait’s] opinions is to be expected. What is notable is that disagreement per se has become controversial. There is a growing, if not yet universal, norm of movement discipline often summarized as “Don’t punch left.”

“Don’t punch left” is the core tenet of Solidarity, a new book by Astra Taylor and Leah Hunt-Hendrix. In a laudatory interview with the Washington Post, Hunt-Hendrix said the book was aimed not only at progressives in general but also specifically at liberals who criticize the left, naming me [Chait] and newsletter author Matthew Yglesias as “falling into the right’s divide-and-conquer strategy.”….

The progressive movement emerged over the past two decades out of a series of component groups representing causes like civil rights, environmentalism, abortion rights, and labor. Over the past two decades, these groups, sometimes called “The Groups,” have evolved from a patchwork of atomized single-issue organizations into a relatively unified movement. Each component part now habitually supports the projects of the others: Abortion-rights groups endorse defunding the police….

Since their goals are both to move the Democratic Party leftward and to hold together the progressive coalition, it follows that criticism from liberals poses a significant strategic threat. “Too often, liberals seek to legitimize their positions by punching left, distancing themselves from social movements to make themselves appear reasonable by comparison, which only strengthens the hands of conservatives and pulls the political center to the right,” they write, urging liberals to instead accept “the necessity of working in coalition with progressive social movements.”

Which presumably means accepting whatever these self-appointed tribunes of the people in The Groups have to say about any given issue, no matter how absurd. Can’t punch left after all!

Madness. Underneath this power play to silence critics is a noxious ideology that fits epistemic closure like a glove. This ideology—call it “intersectionalism”—judges actions or arguments not by their content but rather by the identity of those involved in said actions or arguments. Those identities in turn are defined by an intersectional web of oppressed and oppressors, of the powerful and powerless, of the dominant and marginalized. With this approach, one judges an action not by whether it’s effective or an argument by whether it’s true but rather by whether the people involved in the action or argument are in the oppressed/powerless/marginalized bucket or not. If they are, the actions or arguments should be supported; if not, they should be opposed.

This approach was always a terrible idea, in obvious contradiction to logic and common sense. It has not improved with age. It has led much of the left and large sectors of the Democratic Party to take positions that have little purchase in social or political reality and are offensive to the basic values most people hold—and to be impervious to criticism about them. Hence, epistemic closure.


That helps explain, but does not excuse, the vogue for “anti-racist” posturing. This dates back to the mid-teens and gathered overwhelming force in 2020 with the George Floyd police killing and subsequent nationwide protests. It became de rigueur on the left and in most of the Democratic Party to solemnly pronounce American society structurally racist and shot through with white supremacy from top to bottom. No argument along these lines was too outrageous if it came from or on behalf of “people of color,” who must be deferred to given their place in the intersectional hierarchy.

Nothing exemplifies this better than the lionization of Ibram X. Kendi, whose thoroughly ridiculous claims were treated as revealed truth by tens of millions of good Democrats. This was a man who called for the passage of an “anti-racist Constitutional amendment” that would:

…establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.

It is truly shocking that this kind of totalitarian thinking was tolerated for even a micro-second in respectable Democratic circles. But it was. Intersectionalism begat epistemic closure. Only racists would criticize “anti-racist” ideas, no matter how ridiculous. So the train rolled on. And it rolls on to this day, preventing Democrats from confronting the many ways they are alienating ordinary working-class voters whose complicated views of the world cannot be contained within the progressive bubble.

It is time for Democrats to bust out of the epistemic closure that imprisons so much of their thinking. A good beginning would be to discard the fundamental belief that conservatives are always wrong about everything and can never be right. In reality, the right is not always wrong and the left is not always correct. The blanket condemnation of conservatives is a tribal belief that always bothered me in my years at the Center for American Progress, leading as it did to disregarding all criticisms, no matter how reasonable, that came from the right and treating allconservatives as little better than tools of Satan. This did not make sense to me and seemed dubious empirically. Some of the criticisms from the right werecorrect and many conservatives were good and interesting people whose views simply differed from my own.

Indeed, some conservatives, by virtue of being conservatives, make good points and provide useful analysis that the left, reflecting its traditional commitments and current epistemic closure, has difficulty producing on its own. Matt Yglesias makes this case in an excellent recent essay, “What the right gets right.” Some excerpts from the article:

[O]ne thing the right gets right is a patriotic attitude toward The United States of America…[M]ost people on the contemporary American left are skeptical of, if not outright hostile to, the idea of patriotism. If you picture someone with an American flag bumper sticker on their vehicle, you’re probably picturing a conservative guy and his truck. Personally, I’m glad that Joe Biden tries to avoid ceding patriotism to the right, but I do think the reality of the situation is closer to “Joe Biden agrees with conservatives about patriotism” than “the left is into patriotism, too.”… I don’t really want to do a whole “patriotism is good” take here (try Noah Smith or read One Billion Americans), but I think American conservatives come out better on this score in part because I think conservatives have a generally clearer sense of history….

Progressives typically characterize their stance on this as being that it’s important to tell people about the darker aspects of history. And they’re right—it is a good idea for people to learn about those things. But I think the standard progressive read of this gets the figure and the ground backwards. The implication of a lot of these takes on episodes of violence, bigotry, displacement, and cruelty in American history is that these episodes are what’s distinctive about the United States of America.

But if you read the history of anywhere, you’ll see that it’s not like there’s some other country where you wouldn’t say “it’s important for people to learn about the darker aspects of our history.” History is dark!…

Conservatives have their own flawed tendency to lapse into nostalgia for the recent past, but I do think they typically have a more clear-eyed view of the reality that the whole of human history is littered with atrocity and cruelty. It’s naive to view our sociocultural antecedents here in the United States as flawless, shining heroes, but it’s also naive to think the violence and brutality of American history is what’s unique about it, rather than the fact that we’ve settled into a prosperous and liberal status quo…

The related thing that conservatives get right is a sense that good things are vulnerable and it’s worth worrying about wrecking everything.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s mantra, paraphrasing Theodore Parker, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is a nice bit of motivational speaking. But this often leads progressives to the view that there is a strong and inherent directionality to history, and thus that any noisy movement for reform with adequate progressive branding must be good. You hear a lot with regard to the Gaza protests that the people complaining are just the same as the people who complained about every good and virtuous social movement of the past. Implicit is the sense that there is no such thing as a social movement that was bad….

The view here is that the important thing is to position yourself on the side of reform, rather than to ask too many questions about the precise contents of the reform.

But while I do think it’s true that you shouldn’t miss the forest for the trees, it’s actually very important for a reform plan to be based on true facts and workable ideas. The fact that Black lives do matter makes it more, rather than less important, to propose criminal justice reforms that save rather than cost lives. The fact that burning fossil fuels has harmful externalities makes it more, rather than less important, to accurately understand energy economics. Conservatives often err by being excessively skeptical of reform efforts, but they are correct to say that one should be somewhat skeptical, and I think correct that center-left circles sometimes get too squeamish about saying no.

In the present-day American context, I think this relates to both patriotism and history—conservatives are right to think that, in the context of history, we have things pretty good and that we should be cautious about overturning the apple cart without being quite rigorous in our thinking….

All kinds of people, both liberal and conservative, have incorrect anti-market intuitions that lead not only to bad policy choices, but to bad anti-pricing norms.

One important virtue of conservative politics, though, is that official doctrine on the right is that markets are good. So when some right-wing suburban NIMBYs are pounding the table about how they hate apartment buildings, you can come at them with some points about property rights and economic growth….There’s much more to building a prosperous economy than saying nice things about successful business people, but if you are in the business of saying nice things about successful business people—as conservatives generally are—then “these successful businesses help power economic growth” is a pretty obvious argument….

[A]t a certain point, people [on the left] started suggesting that degrowth could be a virtue…Or that the real solution to our ecological problems is for everyone to be poor.

This is dumb, and plenty of people on the left (even the far left) know that degrowth is dumb, but the fact is, it’s a live controversy on the left in a way that it is not on the right. There is, of course, more to life than the monolithic pursuit of economic growth, but it’s a genuinely massive conceptual error to see growth as undesirable or to be indifferent toward it….[A] growing and vibrant economy is genuinely very important. Conservatives have this right, while progressives are mired in disagreement about it. And the correct progressive faction is the one that can appreciate these conservative insights.

You get the idea. Conservatives, by virtue of their world outlook, are inclined to consider some important factors and see some critical problems that people on the left are not. This means that for the left to succeed at scale, both in electoral and governance terms, it needs, paradoxically, some of the right stuff. And that means ditching intersectional politics and epistemic closure once and for all.

One comment on “Teixeira: The Right Stuff for the Left

  1. Martin Lawford on

    Gerard Baker, editor at large for the Wall Street Journal, argues that the Fox News Fallacy is how the reporters and editors in the mainstream media explain their loss of public credibility, which is now at an historical minimum. They claim that the majority of Americans who distrust their reporting do so because Fox News and other right-wing news channels has made them “horrifically misinformed” (actual quote from a journalism professor). Baker points out that the journos who claim this fail to ask the question behind the question: In that case, why do people watch Fox News?


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