By Matthew Delaney
The left’s greatest attribute is knowing when to move on from something once it no longer suits them. Case and point is how they treated Bernie Sanders.
After Hillary Clinton lost her 2016 electoral bid, the Democrats tapped into the radical base fostered by Sanders and celebrated rising stars like Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But when it came time to put Sanders forward as the party’s candidate in 2020, Democrats had all their moderate candidates drop out and rally behind Joe Biden to snuff out any chance of that happening.
On the flip side, the right’s worst attribute seems to be copying, and then trying to outdo, the left’s latest behavioral fad as soon as it goes out of fashion. Texas’ new abortion law is the embodiment of the right trying too hard to “beat” the left at their own game. That game being ‘piss the other side off regardless of the cost’ (think vaccine passports).
Predictably, it seems like the right will get stuck holding the bag of ‘cancel culture’ when all is said and done.
The law bans abortion after 6 weeks — typically before most women know they’re pregnant. It’s seen as particularly radical because it deputizes private citizens to sue doctors, clinics, and other abortion providers who disobey the restrictions. In other words, it allows private citizens to “cancel” practitioners, or at the very least, saddle them with cumbersome legal fees to fend off a lawsuit.
To be clear, ‘canceling’ is when one group’s moral judgment is used to exorcise another person or group from polite society for violating the offended group’s obviously superior personal code. That could be through shame tactics or through economic coercion like getting them fired. Typically, there’s some combination of both.
In the past five years, it’s been largely left-wing forces working to abolish modes of thought and behaviors it deems unsightly.
Before it really had a name, cancel culture went after people like biology professor Bret Weinstein and obscure Google engineer James Damore in 2017. Smarter people than me have noted its ancestors predate them by four years with the rodeo clown fired for wearing an Obama mask at the Missouri State Fair.
That general attitude eventually moved to larger targets. There was the attempt at thwarting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Then there’s the banning of certain books by publishers and sometimes major retailers like Amazon. Maybe most monstrously, there’s now a debate about denying aid to unvaccinated hospital patients who come in with Covid-19.
At least one Alabama doctor said as much, and a Texas doctors group is debating that same choice. CNN’s Don Lemon and Late-Night host Jimmy Kimmel have said with their own righteous indignation that unvaccinated people shouldn’t get ICU beds.
Of course, this isn’t canceling. This is just holding people accountable for their actions. Cancel culture is actually a feature of the American right, you see. A quick Google search shows plenty of stories from major media outlets that work hard to convince you of that very fact.
Reason’s Nick Gillespie takes it a step further and cites multiple conservatives who have thrown their weight behind censorship objectives (to be fair, he offered plenty of left-wing ones as well). There were those in the 1950s who went after vulgar forms of art and anyone who was thought of as a communist.
There were modern day examples as well. Gillespie mentioned how Kentucky’s state legislature essentially wanted to cancel free speech when it planned on fining protesters who cussed out or flipped off cops.
We often forget conservatives aren’t necessarily innovators by any stretch of the imagination. They “conserve” traditions and principles that helped found this nation. To do that, they’ll adopt the tactics of the more creative and culturally influential left to try and speak the language of the people. Sadly, canceling enemies is one of the ways we communicate now.
As expected, it doesn’t bode well for them. I’ve already talked about how conservatives mimicking late night TV come across as unoriginal and boring. But there’s plenty of other prominent, copycat examples to go with that. How about electing reality TV star Trump after seeing Barack Obama treat the presidency like his own reality TV show for eight years? Or better yet, watching left-wing radicals burn down cities all last summer being followed by right-wing loons rioting at the Capitol building in January.
One thing we can all agree on is that right-wing groups go harder than left-wingers do. Yes, the left did establish an “autonomous zone” in Seattle last summer — but did it with the virtual blessing of that city’s mayor. The right is regularly degraded in most arenas by our nation’s educated class, and they basically said “fuck it” to all that and still stormed the Capitol.
This is where the trap comes in. Think of our two political ideologies as an unhappy married couple, with the left being the wife and the right being the husband.
The wife starts arguing about something the husband doesn’t think is important. Annoyed that she’s being brushed off, the wife gets testy and may even take a swipe at the husband. Suddenly, the husband snaps and says something out of bounds. Now he’s the bad guy for reacting to a problem that the wife created out of whole cloth.
Cancel culture follows a similar trajectory. Originally, it was a way to depict wokeness as a form of heightened respectability for society’s lesser-thans, as I believe Bloomberg’s Noah Smith correctly argues. However, it’s since morphed into a kind of emotional identity politics where those who can’t feel the exact same way as left-wingers are heartless.
Right-wingers were correctly offended by this characterization. But instead of making the left look like the pompous know-it-alls they are, the right has snapped. That’s why they’ve tried to ban profane protest speech and have outlawed abortion in Texas with their newest restrictions. Restrictions which tasked regular people to stalk practitioners and help them enforce the law.
Right on cue, the left seems to be abandoning cancel culture from its highest perches. Look no further from recent articles in The Atlantic and The Economist to prove this point.
You can map out what will happen next: There will be a come-to-Jesus moment for the left on cancel culture’s excesses. Then, a brief period of acknowledging all the wrong that was done in the name of “doing right.” Finally, it will leave the typically slow-footed conservatives to “own” cancel culture.
I don’t believe this is a coordinated plan, mind you. But I do think intellectually nimble thinkers on the left watch something goes out of style — like right-wing counterparts copying them — and reflexively move in a new direction. Like how they liked the vigor Sanders’ radicalism put in the Democratic party during the Trump years, right up until it came time to be serious with him as a presidential candidate.
Texas’ abortion restrictions are rigid. It will prompt women to test themselves more regularly and be more selective with who they have sex with. I don’t think that’s a bad thing — you could argue that’s the point of the bill — but it also takes heavy handed measures to produce that social engineering.
Unsurprisingly, one of the leaders of a Texas pro-life organization said that he thinks “we can have more faith in our judiciary than assuming they’re just going to be pawns of the pro-life movement.”
I wouldn’t be so sure about that. With a law that gives everyone license to see it followed, and a culture already starved of forgiveness and Red America bearing the brunt of that, I could see this as the right getting their own revenge soon. They might even enjoy it for a while.
But once the left reclaims the high ground for embracing tolerance and contrition, right-wingers will wish they didn’t jump with both feet on to cancel culture at a time when it was already fading. Then again, you can’t save everyone from themselves.
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