Strange Reversals

I’m sorry to keep posting about politics, but things are becoming so interesting. There is no question that we are living in a transitional period politically, without a clear sense of how things will finally pan out. But one of the things that makes this transitional period so interestingwhich, back in the 20th century, I don’t think any of us could have foreseen in our wildest dreamsis the strange (and, historically speaking, quite sudden) reversal between left and right that has come to characterize policy both foreign and domestic. From right-wing identity politics to Tucker Carlson’s leftist agenda to would-be conservatives following in the wake of Thomas Paine (the father of leftism), to Republican senators like Josh Hawley drawing on leftist tropes, it is becoming increasingly hard to keep track of where the differences lie between left and right.

I recently read two articles that helped to lay these reversals out with a clarity and lucidity usually lacking in our public discourse. The first article is from Ross Douthat, the token conservative at the New York Times. In his article, “How the Right Became the Left and the Left Became the Right,” Douthat observed that “one of the master keys to understanding our era is seeing all the ways in which conservatives and progressives have traded attitudes and impulses.” He continued:

The populist right’s attitude toward American institutions has the flavor of the 1970s — skeptical, pessimistic, paranoid — while the mainstream, MSNBC-watching left has a strange new respect for the F.B.I. and C.I.A. The online right likes transgression for its own sake, while cultural progressivism dabbles in censorship and worries that the First Amendment goes too far. Trumpian conservatism flirts with postmodernism and channels Michel Foucault; its progressive rivals are institutionalist, moralistic, confident in official narratives and establishment credentials…. If you had been told in George W. Bush’s presidency that a trove of government documents would reveal the Department of Homeland Security essentially trying to collude with major corporations to regulate speech it considers dangerous or subversive, an effort extending from foreign threats to domestic ones, you would have assumed that this was all Republican overreach, a new McCarthyism — and that progressives would be up in arms against it.

When we turn foreign policy, these reversals reach almost unbelievable proportions. And that brings us to the second article I want to share, written by David Sacks for Newsweek titled “The Neocons and the Woke Left Are Joining Hands and Leading Us to Woke War III.” Sacks opens his article by surveying the landscape of our very recent past.

Just over a decade ago, former President Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary to become president due in no small part to his opposition to the Iraq War. At the time, the Left despised neocon hawks for pushing the Bush-Cheney administration’s disastrous Forever Wars in the Middle East. Moreover, the Left supported Obama in his policy toward Ukraine when he refused to escalate with Russia over Crimea, pointing out that America has no vital security interests in Ukraine, though Russia does. As a result, Russia would always be able to maintain “escalatory dominance,” Obama said. “This is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for.”

That was then. What about now? To see the changed lie of the land, we need look no further than the vitriol from the establishment left after Elon Musk suggested a pathway forward for peace in the Ukraine. Again from David Sacks’ Newsweek piece:

The president of Ukraine himself, Volodymyr Zelensky, accused Musk of supporting Russia—even though Musk’s company SpaceX donated Starlink to Ukraine’s war effort at an out-of-pocket cost of $80 million… Ukrainian Ambassador to Germany Andrj Melnyk was less subtle, telling Elon to “f***k off,” while David Frum tweeted without evidence that “Russian sources” had used Elon to float a “trial balloon” of a peace proposal because they’re afraid of losing Crimea. Scores of blue-checks on Twitter followed their lead, ordering Musk to stay in his lane.

What matters in this story is not that Musk was told off, but rather, that a Twitter hive mind is using the same intolerant cancellation tactics that they use to shut down debate on domestic political issues in order to shape U.S. policy toward Ukraine. They are doing so by demonizing dissent, defaming opponents, and closing off as ideologically unacceptable any path to peace or even deescalation.

The online mob has decided that any support for a negotiated settlement—even proposals that Zelensky himself appeared to support at the beginning of the war—is tantamount to taking Russia’s side, denouncing voices of compromise and restraint as Putin apologists. This removes them from acceptable discourse and shrinks the Overton window to those advocating the total defeat of Russia and an end to Putin’s regime—even if it risks WWIII.

Later in the article David Sacks explains these moves in light of a Neocon-Woke marriage:

What makes the “I stand with Ukraine” version of the Twitter mob unique is that it brings together two forces that used to be sworn enemies of one another—the woke Left and the neoconservative Right. It turns out they share many of the same loathsome ideological and personality traits, and have a similar “slash and burn” approach to political engagement. It’s a new political marriage….

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Since neoconservatives largely walked out of the Republican Party over Trump and disavowed all of their conservative domestic policy views to become commentators on MSNBC, the Left has discovered a new love for interventionist foreign policy, as long as it serves “democracy” and opposes “autocracy”—an increasingly malleable term that both the wokes and the neocons now use to define not just Putin but also democratically elected leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary, Giorgia Meloni in Italy, and Donald Trump in the United States.

Despite voting for Obama because he promised to break with neoconservative foreign policy, the Left has now joined with neocons to oppose Obama’s restrained foreign policy in Ukraine.

This shift is disorienting, but on a purely tactical level, it makes a certain amount of sense. Neocons invented the cancellation game before there was even a Twitter board on which to play it. Neocons arrogantly dismiss the other side’s point of view as argued in bad faith and not worth considering, and label anyone who dares question the cause as a heretic or traitor.

David Frum set the neocon standard for this tactic when he branded the small number of pundits on the Right who opposed the Iraq War as “Unpatriotic Conservatives” at the outset of that strategic disaster. Fast forward to today and anyone who suggests that NATO expansion could have been a contributing factor to the current Ukraine crisis, or that the sanctions imposed on Russia are not working and have backfired on a soon-to-be-shivering Europe, or even that the U.S. must prioritize avoiding a world war with a nuclear-armed Russia, is denounced as a Putin stooge.


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