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How the liberal consensus exercises its power

The most striking feature of this year’s presidential contest has been its unreality. In order to participate meaningfully in mainstream discourse surrounding the election, it has become necessary to deny the plain testimony of one’s senses, to agree without hesitation to things one would have denied with equal fervor 24 hours ago, to abandon previously held standards of evidence with an almost lunatic fideism (and to revive them at will), to approach all questions with a heuristic of team spirit.

It would be pointless to suggest that either of the two loosely defined factions in our public life is guiltier of these things than the other. For every absurdly sweeping declaration about Russia (do the ’80s still want their foreign policy back?) or the limited role of the judiciary from liberals, there is a corresponding offense on the other side (the about-face on the question of confirming Supreme Court justices during election years; the right’s newfound and largely performative opposition to the 1994 crime bill).

But let’s be real. There is such a thing as a liberal consensus, recognizable as such to everyone who does not participate in it and, one would hope, even to some of those who do. Its unstated premise is that events, even natural phenomena such as hurricanes, somehow conform at a basic ontological level to what happen to be the talking points of the older of our two major political parties.

Instead of what is good for the goose being good for the gander, adherents reflexively insist that the goose is a Russian operative or, in happier times, the paid agent of the Brothers Koch, that any alleged sightings of the gander in similar habitats are “thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories,” that while the goose’s honks have been rated by “fact checkers” as “misleading” or only “partially true,” those of the gander have been misrepresented by the silly goose who doesn’t know the difference between “predators” and “superpredators,” and that suggesting otherwise or even drawing attention to any of this is tantamount to illiteracy. This is why in public discourse vague principles such as “transparency,” sentimental nonsense about the role of the free press in a democracy, pollyannaish optimism about technology, even what look very much like coherent policy views (e.g., the value of restraint in foreign policy), are no sooner articulated than they are abandoned or explained away lest events overtake welcome coincidences.

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What I am attempting to describe is the worldview that dominates journalism, business, education, the professional classes, the federal bureaucracy, and perhaps above all the technology platforms that augment our understanding of reality. Their virtual monopoly of all the major institutions of American life allows them to impose the epistemological equivalent of loyalty oaths as the condition for membership in polite society. Hence my decision to concentrate on it at the expense of what is by comparison a more provisional right-wing indifference to facts.

It is absurd to pretend that the scope of this consensus is not broadening even as I write this, or that the demands it makes upon its adherents are not becoming more risible by the minute.

Outdoor transmission of the coronavirus was a serious concern until the minute rioting began in Minneapolis a few months ago.

The New York Times was committed to providing its readers with the widest possible array of views, including those of brutal foreign dictators, until a Republican senator wrote an op-ed article about crime, which apparently threatened both the safety of its staff and the peace of the republic itself. (A few months later the same newspaper ran an essay by a Chinese bureaucrat congratulating the regime on its brutal suppression of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.)

Allegations of sexual assault were supposed to be accepted without hesitation as true until unambiguous dispositive evidence to the contrary was made available, but not when they involved Joe Biden.

A few hundred Tea Party grandfathers protesting bans on the sale of garden gnomes in the rural Midwest were bringing the country to the brink of civil war, but when armed vigilantes took over part of a major city and black teenagers were shot (the ostensible grounds for the occupation of the district in question) as a result of the ensuing lawlessness, we were asked to put our thinking caps on and recognize the obvious differences.

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The Supreme Court imposed abortion and same-sex marriage on the country (in the latter case over the will of African-American and Hispanic electoral majorities in states such as California); even the idea that the same unelected body might reverse these or other decisions is at odds with democracy itself.

Users of Twitter are asked to inhabit a mental universe in which the historical reality of the Holocaust is less certain than the integrity of Biden and his son Hunter, whose sordid business dealings in China and Ukraine cannot be discussed openly on social media platforms. (When I pressed a left-wing interlocutor on this seemingly obvious incongruity, I was told that the facts concerning the Holocaust were unlikely to affect the outcome of this year’s presidential race. This, I believe, is what is called saying the quiet part out loud.) These examples could be multiplied infinitely.

This is why I was not remotely surprised to read Glenn Greenwald’s letter of resignation from The Intercept, the online left-wing magazine he helped to found in 2012. Never mind that the last decade of muckraking, in which he, Edward Snowden, and Julian Assange participated, had endeared him to what I had thought was an entire generation of American progressives. The idea that it is beyond the pale for a newspaper to publish emails that suggest, without quite establishing, a financially compromised relationship between a presidential candidate and a foreign power should be unintelligible to anyone whose memory extends to the last election cycle. We spent the better part of two years being told that a member of the president’s family setting up a meeting with Russians over email was evidence that Trump was a Manchurian candidate.

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It goes without saying that in Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Andrew Sullivan, Bari Weiss, and other prominent journalists who have publicly broken with the consensus, President Trump does not have allies in any conventional sense. But just as the liberal consensus is only too happy to elide the distinctions that made Mitt Romney a racist, sexist enemy of the people only eight years ago, it cannot accept the idea that someone might dislike the current administration and even wish to see it removed from power without being willing to lie about Trump’s opponent.

It is worth pointing out that participation in the liberal consensus tends to be half-conscious at best. It is probably not the case, for example, that most of my fellow journalists begin each day asking themselves, “What can we do to help Biden’s campaign?” Instead it is mainly a question of implicit selection bias, of having wildly divergent responses to what are in every relevant sense similar cases, to which one would imagine the same degree of scrutiny and the same moral strictures would apply. (This is why, for example, no one thinks of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as the left-wing equivalent of Louie Gohmert.)

For this reason I do not think that this behavior, which in private life is sometimes referred to as “gas lighting,” is especially morally repulsive. But this does not mean its effects are not disastrous, or it’s not all but totalitarian in its scope. It almost certainly explains the rise of something like QAnon, which also attempts to subsume all of creation, both visible and invisible, into a pop Hegelian narrative about the inevitable unfolding of a somewhat different but equally irresistible world-spirit.

I am loath to deny QAnon supporters the same consolations enjoyed by the other half of the population. Far lonelier is the position of those of us who attempt, no doubt imperfectly, to situate ourselves outside both of these reality-denying consensuses and see the world for what it really is.