Some people experiment with narcotics, and others have a proclivity for kinky sexual practices. For a few months in 2014, I experimented with a more dangerous vice, something called “libertarianism.” I was in my twenties, given to youthful indiscretions, and, under the protection of white, middle class privilege and advantage, the political debates of the Obama years seemed rather benign, at least in comparison to America’s present and escalating psychotic episode. I had already written a book on Bruce Springsteen’s political music and activism, having long embraced leftist politics. Libertarian ideology became briefly attractive, because I had sensed that the left was growing too moralistic in its articulation of policy proposal. My aversion to Puritanism in all forms led me to believe that any set of political principles that purports to allow everyone to run wild, without interference from law enforcement or any other official regulator of human behavior, is desirable.
I had also read an entire library of Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. Much to their chagrin, I’m sure, their documentation and description of state sponsored injustice, oppression, and cruelty brought me so far left around the track that I started coming around to the right. If the federal government, exercising the imperial destruction of the military-industrial complex, is responsible for a staggering resume of war, assassination and immiseration of countless people, why not make that same institution “so small that it can drown in the bathtub,” to cite the poetry of the lugubrious villain Grover Norquist.
My own intellectual exploration coalesced with my successful transition into adulthood. My then-girlfriend — soon to be wife — and I bought a lovely home. I signed my second book deal, wrote regularly for several reputable publications, and obtained a decent position at a fine university. The myth of meritocracy massages the beneficiaries of our economic disorder into a state of self-confidence and complacency. Any philosophy that tells people like me, who grew up in the suburbs, attended private elementary school, and never had to confront the mean fangs of poverty or the bare knuckled fist of racism, that we earned everything we have solely according to the volition of our own brilliance, skill and diligence will inevitably attract devotees. It is for this reason that a friend of mine’s assessment of libertarians remains so definitional: “It’s a lot of white guys jerking off.”
Being a writer, I’ve intellectually come of age in public. I landed my first writing job immediately out of college, producing political commentary for a small newspaper in a mid-sized Illinois city. As a consequence, almost every political thought I’ve entertained for more than four minutes is on the record somewhere. Naturally, during my individualist phase, I wrote several libertarian-leaning essays for different publications — the crown jewel of which was a largely apolitical interview with David Mamet, who despite his right wing advocacy, remains an artistic treasure for his authorship of “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “American Buffalo,” and two masterful collections of essays, “The Cabin” and “Make-Believe Town.” Giving me less pride are essays on the necessity of laissez faire economics, criticisms of “identity politics,” and the efficacies of “limited government.”
I also attended a few libertarian events under the auspices of America’s Future Foundation, a “network of liberty minded young professionals.” Quickly, I detected resemblance to a cult among the spry Ayn Ran adherents of AFF. When I mentioned, for example, that I was writing a book about John Mellencamp, a few members immediately turned away from the conversation, one of them mumbling a sentence with the word, “leftist.”
More disturbing than the conformity of a group of people priding themselves on individuality was their inability or refusal to even entertain the existence of any structural influence in personal and social outcomes, even when the consequences manifest in blood on the streets. If one is not poor, economics can remain relatively abstract, but when Michael Brown was shot down in the streets in August of 2014, under — according to the even the most generous interpretations — suspicious circumstances, libertarians, including those I was coming to know, were eerily silent. For ideologues skeptical of the exercise of state power, they seemed coldly disinterested in the violent instrument of the state crushing the lives of innocent men, even teenagers. So, I returned to leftism, and wrote a reading list for the Daily Beast on books essential to my own understanding of racial injustice in America, as much a homecoming for my own thinking and writing as a recommendation for my readers.
My sobriety from libertarianism did not result from a dramatic rock bottom moment, merely an awakening back into the reality I had earlier accepted; a fresh, but familiar realization that individuals myopically pursuing their own interests have no solution to ecological catastrophe, thousands dying for lack of health insurance, lethal disparities in the public education system, and the unending terror and devastation of racism. I could not align with any political ideology that did not instinctively, and deliberately, side with the victims of unjust police shootings, the poor children in dysfunctional schools, or the families drinking poison in Flint, Michigan.
Aristotle defined politics as “matters relating to the collective,” and Freud delineated society as containing three elements — the family, the state, and social norms. Libertarianism is politically and sociologically illiterate, as it aspires to deny any connection between people outside of commerce or, what F. A. Hayek called, “voluntary transaction.” The profit motive cannot solve social crises if those who suffer are merely citizens, not consumers.
Shortly after ending my affair with libertarianism at the friends-with-benefits stage before it became more serious, I had the first of many exhilarating conversations with civil rights hero and legendary crusader for justice, Jesse Jackson. When I asked Jackson about the right wing reduction of the racial gap to “personal responsibility” — absentee fathers, educational performance, etc. — he demolished libertarian reasoning with simple, but profound acuity, beginning his answer with the words, “They are just stating the obvious. Of course, children will typically do better with two loving parents in the home instead of one, but then what?”
Libertarians seem to lack any answer, whether it is a matter of economics, education, health care, or the environment, to “then what?”
Jackson also explained that a meritocracy is authentic and legitimate only if the “playing field is even, rules are public, goals are clear, referees are fair, and score is transparent.” America has had corrupt and biased referees enforcing two different sets of rules, using a manipulated scoreboard, since its founding. Progressive politics aims to establish the genuine meritocracy and democracy Jackson delineates with his sports metaphor.
I’m reflecting on my own intellectual travails not because of my own arrogance — although that is always a possibility — but because they relate to three crucial issues in contemporary American political culture: The battle for the Democratic presidential nomination of 2020, the right wing dominance of YouTube, and what fashionable pundits like to call “tribalism.”
Craig Werner, professor of African American history and author of "A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race, and The Soul of America," once explained the following about Woody Guthrie, who in addition to writing many of the world’s greatest folk songs was also an avowed socialist, anti-imperialist, and at least in his political positions, anti-racist:
He had a ways to go in his personal life, as anyone born white in the United States does, and he went with that. He stopped telling racist jokes on his radio show. He did that for awhile. Then, he got a letter from a young, black man who said, “This is hurtful.” Woody responded immediately. He said, “I’m sorry that I did it. I wasn’t thinking about it. It’s where I came from.” One of the things most important for white folks is to figure out is that it ain’t about being perfect. It ain’t about being politically correct. It’s about dealing with the times you screw it up.”
The Twitter-activist nexus of the left, which is a minority within any left-of-center demographic, has gained significant cultural cache in political discourse. Their influence has already cast aspersions and suspicions on many of the Democratic candidates for president. Anyone applying for the most important political position in the country deserves to fall under scrutiny, but that scrutiny will soon become unhealthy, even suicidal for a political party, if it insists on perfection. Joe Biden has the most objectionable record of the all of the candidates, but even Kamala Harris has received plenty of attacks for her record as District Attorney in San Francisco, and subsequently, Attorney General in California. Bernie Sanders’ record on gun issues leaves him vulnerable to liberal derision, and Pete Buttigieg is already defending his utterance of the phrase, “All lives matter,” in a speech as mayor of South Bend, and his decision to fire a black Chief of Police too quickly, not giving the Chief an opportunity to defend himself against accusations of impropriety.
As someone who wrote some essays that I now view as ignorant, I do not fall into the same category as a political official who implements policy that directly harms constituents, but I can understand personal transformation, regret, growth and, to use Werner’s phrase, “screwing it up.”
If we don’t allow a record to include some examples of screwing it up, and do not exercise some capacity for forgiveness, or even empathic understanding, we cannot listen to Woody Guthrie, we cannot support the work of someone like Christian Picciolini, a former Neo-Nazi leader and propagandist who now dedicates his life to convincing young men to leave and disavow hate groups, and cannot, in good conscience, vote for anyone.
We will celebrate a self-destructive form of ignorance that shows little regard for the messy and contradictory realities of political progress at the governmental level. Lyndon Johnson had a history of not only racist rhetoric, but enforcement of Jim Crow in Texas. As president, he signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Barack Obama was the most supportive president of gay rights in the history of the country, but in 2004 he said, “marriage is between a man and a woman.”
Finally, if we continually administer a praxis of purity on each other, we will lose the ability to compete with an increasingly devious, amoral, and extreme right wing.
The libertarian temptation to which I briefly succumbed has become more dangerous than it was in the Obama years, because of the emergence of social media as a dominant force of political communication and recruitment.
Ezra Klein, writing at Vox, recently revealed and analyzed how in the right wing universe of YouTube, a seemingly dull and innocuous content creator, such as the bromide machine Dave Rubin, is only one or two clicks away from the hateful loons of the “alt-right.” Rubin, who hosts a talk show dedicated to scorning the “regressive left,” attempts to distance himself from far right extremists by reminding his critics that he is married to a man, “begrudgingly pro-choice,” vaguely supportive of public education, and in favor of the legalization of marijuana. Rubin occasionally undermines his claim of moderation by drooling over brazen amplifiers of white supremacy, but he also demonstrates a willful obliviousness to the political characteristics of his audience. The research Klein examines proves that the young, white men who spend hours watching right wing programs on YouTube care predominantly about hating the left, multiculturalism, and feminism, and do not make the distinctions Rubin pretends are important.
In “Democracy in Chains,” Nancy Maclean explores the history of libertarianism, providing irrefutable evidence that it gained political stature in the United States not in opposition to taxation, but racial integration of public schools. It is endlessly curious that libertarianism and conservatism — two approximate philosophies that claim to champion the “primacy of the individual” — are always just around the corner from the deadliest form of collectivism and identity politics: racism.
If someone begins to believe that his success is solely due to his own ability and effort, he might soon look at those less successful as incompetent and lazy. Dismissing institutional and political explanation for disparities, such as racism and sexism, will often lead to, ironically, the adoption of racist and sexist views. This process is all the likelier to complete itself in the minds of young men when the President of the United States is a racist and sexist, and white supremacy is gaining steam on social media.
There is no form of tribalism that has accumulated a bigger body count than racism, but many social critics are correct when they identify political tribalism as a pernicious problem in American culture. “Cancel culture,” Twitter invective, and an eagerness to condemn, rather than converse, can only strip democracy of its essential scaffolding. The Trump base, still chanting “build the wall,” is likely unreachable, but many people who might have once said, or even done something stupid or hurtful are more than capable of, like Woody Guthrie, “dealing with it,” and making an edifying contribution to politics and culture.
Frequent reports of friendships ending over political disputes, and marriages under stress due to different voting choices, cannot lend themselves to a positive diagnostic report on the state of American life.
Believers in democracy should have reflexive distrust and discomfort with anything that too closely resembles religious zealotry. Cancel culture, the insistence on perfection in political candidates, and the social media inspection of everyone’s former words and deeds carries a flatulent whiff of dogma, inquisition, and excommunication.
The principles of the Enlightenment are a better bedrock for a healthy democratic culture. One of its most eloquent and important advocates, Voltaire, had this to say on the subject: “What is tolerance? It is the consequence of humanity. We are all formed by frailty and error; let us pardon reciprocally each other’s folly — that is the first law of nature.”
We have no choice but tolerate ourselves, even as we are most intimately familiar with our own errors and frailties. We would do well to extend that service to others.