Published June 8, 2020
The resignation of the editorial page editor of the New York Times for publishing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton calling for the military to quell the riots marks the completion of the long, slow transformation of the Democratic Party. Whatever face the Democrats present to the world, their woke left fringe is now in charge. That fringe has not only abandoned core American principles like freedom of speech and due process, it has reimagined American history as a story of “systemic” oppression and demanded radical transformation along identitarian–socialist lines. If the New York Times can’t stand up to Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of its odious and just-plain-false 1619 Project, how will Joe Biden stand up to a woke New York Times?
Past his prime, without a policy compass to speak of, Biden would be long gone if he hadn’t been the Democratic establishment’s last best hope of blocking Bernie Sanders. Biden is supposed to give the party a moderate face that will appeal to centrist voters. Increasingly, however, the bases of the two parties are becoming the real contestants in this election, while the candidates are just along for the ride. True, Trump is larger than life and a constant media obsession. Yet Trump appeals to Republicans — whether they like his style or not — chiefly because he protects them from the illiberalism and cultural overreach people such as Hannah-Jones. Trump’s larger-than-life personality matters less than it seems because he’s all about the base.
And Biden? His centrist past and doddering persona also matter less. Biden has been shoved out front for tactical purposes by a party that has long since moved on. Biden is peripheral. Here is where we actually are: The left half of the country calls the right half bigots, and the right half calls that accusation bigotry in reverse. Increasingly, that is becoming the core issue in this election, and we’ve been building toward this unhappy impasse for decades. Politicians are always, to some degree, stand-ins for a base. Yet this is out of the ordinary. Precisely because consensus on basic American principles has collapsed, this election is more about clashing bases than clashing candidates. It is less two men vying for the favor of a crowd than one crowd pushing back against the other.
It would have been interesting to see how Biden balanced the centrist side of his party with an increasingly aggressive and empowered Left. But what now remains of a Democratic center to balance with its left? The image of Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey being booed and shamed out of a rally for refusing to abolish his city’s police force is what the Democrats’ internal balancing act has morphed into. Frey is no centrist. He helped set the riots loose by abandoning a police station to protesters who quickly burned it down. Yet Frey’s refusal to actually abolish the police now puts him on the fast-melting right flank of a party gone wild.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been more of a team player since the 2019 confrontation in which she implied that Speaker Pelosi was racist. (AOC called Pelosi “outright disrespectful” for criticizing “newly elected women of color.”) What will happen after the election, however, if Biden takes the White House and the Democrats hold the House, or even take the Senate? At that point, the bigotry accusation game will resume, but now with a massively emboldened Left. Hannah-Jones’s victory at the Times foreshadows a series of successful pressure campaigns from the woke Left against a Democratic administration and Congress. The police may not be “abolished,” but there’s plenty that Biden and his attorney general will be able to do to hamstring law enforcement. And that’s just the beginning of what a now-dominant Democratic Left will demand and receive from a Biden administration.
Meanwhile, the Left is actively defending the politicization of public health by “experts” who claim that social-distancing policies can be set aside or modified for the sake of fighting racism — but not for protesters who want to restart the economy or attend church. The common thread in all this is that the classical liberal aspiration to neutrality has been well and truly abandoned by the Left. Support for expertise that sets aside politics, and for forums like op-ed pages that allow for open debate, used to be consensus positions held both parties. Yet the New York Times — the Democratic Party’s brain — is now well on its way to rejecting all of that.
Via Hannah-Jones and the 1619 Project, the Times has committed to the view that America has been systemically racist from its Founding to today. “Systemic oppression” is a neo-Marxist construct incompatible with the classical liberalism upon which our constitutional system rests. From a classically liberal perspective, rights and responsibilities inhere in the individual. Jobs are awarded, and authors are included in curricula, according to individual merit, not group membership. Opinions are neither elevated nor dismissed because of the historical “privilege” or “oppression” of one’s group. Policies on health care, policing, housing, or education that are neutral with respect to race, gender, ethnicity, and religion are not presumed to be bigoted because social outcomes do not always fall in precise proportion to the demographic composition of the population. To believe otherwise is to embark on a massive project in social engineering that will cancel the liberties of Americans — precisely what is intended.
Like many other Democratic candidates for president this year, Joe Biden has now adopted the rhetoric of “systemic racism.” Evidently, he will no more be able to stand up to the demands of the party’s woke Left than the Times was able to stand up to the creator of its 1619 Project.
By the way, the decision to promote a tendentious “history” project run by journalists rather than scholars — and to press it on the nation’s schools — is yet another example of the rejection of classical liberalism. A proper newspaper ought to be reporting on disputes and developments within the history profession, not actively propagandizing for a highly contested and controversial historical point of view. That the Times has committed itself to a project of ideological transformation in the form of the 1619 Project — rather than to fair reporting on contested developments within the history profession — indicates that true liberalism and traditional journalism are dead at the Times. The Cotton fiasco is the logical outcome of the Times’s earlier surrender to Hannah-Jones’s illiberal project. And now Biden is every bit as trapped in this dynamic of surrender as the Times.
The deeper precedent, and a critically important cause of the Democratic Party’s rejection of classical liberalism, is what happened 50 years ago when our universities adopted preferential treatment by race, sex, and ethnicity, and then established “studies” programs built around identity politics rather than the ethos of liberal education. In the early days, preferential treatment and politicized academic departments were seen as regrettable but necessary and temporary suspensions of classical liberal principle. Yet the inability to stand up to accusations of systemic racism from the Left finally drove classical liberalism out of the university. The “studies” departments grew in size and influence. Their commitment to a neo-Marxist critique of liberalism — that its promises of freedom, rights, and neutral treatment were simply covers for systemic oppression by rich straight white men — became the common wisdom of the academy. Academic free speech is on its deathbed as a result.
Now, with a generation of graduates schooled under the “studies” regime, the collapse of classical liberalism has moved into the mainstream. Joe Biden and the editors of the New York Times are essentially caught in the same web as a university administrator. Their impulses are still classically liberal, but they can’t stand up to accusations of racism, no matter how excessive or unfounded, and no matter how much those accusations are used as battering rams against liberal principle itself. Once the “studies” programs were instituted — with a purpose, ideology, and recruiting mechanism that was illiberal from the start — it was too late to back out, too late to say “no,” to whatever demand came next. Similarly, once the Times endorsed the 1619 Project, with its attack on the liberal principles at the core of America’s story, the die was cast. The marketplace of ideas was over for the Times.
The creation of illiberal “studies” programs is a forgotten legacy of the riots of 1968. We know about the Kerner Commission and the battles over urban policy in the Johnson and Nixon years, but the birth of “studies” programs at exactly the same time, under threats of violence and repeated takeovers of campus buildings, is forgotten. This was not limited to the infamous incident of gun-toting students at Cornell, but was repeated on campuses across the country, if in only slightly less threatening form. That is the deeper legacy of the riots of 1968.
Illiberal radicals are a minority on most campuses, yet they rule because their expansive accusations of bigotry, like their willingness to suppress critics and commandeer buildings, intimidate the majority, and cow liberal administrators into submission. A President Biden will be a perfect stand-in for a meek liberal college president who can’t afford to get on the wrong side of a Left that knows it won’t be disciplined and is only too happy to silence others. Biden is the face of the Democratic Party, but far from the fact of it. Once the Times goes, the media go. And without media backup, a Democratic president has nothing. The Democrats’ center has collapsed, leaving Biden little choice but to play to his illiberal left. If Biden wins, the Left is in charge. And they aren’t just straining to abolish the police. Their real target is 1776.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.