Partisanship & Denial:

A Response To Andrew Sullivan and Finally Getting It


William Deresiewicz

Editor’s Note: The November 4, 2022 installment of Andrew Sullivan’s “biased and balanced” weekly is titled “Will Biden and the Democrats Finally Get It?” I read Sullivan each week, and each week I allow him to piss me off. Dutifully I put myself through an exercise occasionally illuminating, more often disappointing, though rarely dull. I accept that he’s bound once in a while to be right, and find myself amused that he would think to claim anything resembling “balance.”
  Sullivan’s contention in the November 4th installment is captured in his subtitle, which reads: “The far-left has made the far right more electable.” Possible, of course, to argue about the very meaning of the term “far-left” in Sullivan’s assertion, and to note that thereby he seeks to establish an equivalence between the existence in American public life of a far-left as toxic and powerful as the far right that has made it into the White House, corrupted our major institutions, and spearheaded an assault on democracy itself.
  Sullivan contends that President Biden is in thrall to the far-left agenda and that this is obvious in his support for the following: big government expansion; massive stimulus (fueling inflation); record rates of mass migration; removal of legal restrictions on abortion; “the replacement of biological sex with postmodern ‘genders’”; “the imposition of critical race theory in high schools and critical queer theory in kindergarten”; and plans to regulate media disinformation.
  Each of these policies and proposals is of course worth arguing about—I’m not thrilled about “critical queer theory in kindergarten”–, but the notion that all or most of them belong to a “far-left” agenda spearheaded by a wild-eyed radical named Biden is apt to seem compelling only to someone disposed to dismiss them as plainly unthinkable. Someone, that is, like Sullivan, who imagined, a day or two before the November 2022 election, that of course the far right would be rewarded with smashing victories as a result of the high inflation and CRT their candidates were complaining about. Just so, Sullivan regarded as laughable David Brooks’s observation that the Democrats under Biden had made “heroic efforts to win back white working-class voters,” when Sullivan might at least have acknowledged that notable efforts have been made, whatever their success in winning back voters.
  At any rate, in reading, and rereading, Sullivan’s installment, and dealing with the usual exasperation it engendered, I was struck by the way he declared that of course, as long as Trump himself was not on any ballot, he would vote for Republicans in the November election. No misgiving there. No queasiness about support for a corrupt and feckless major American political party. No crisis of conscience about supporting officials virtually all of whom have aided and abetted efforts to restrict voting access for minorities, politicized the campaign to vaccinate people in a pandemic, lauded the efforts of the Supreme Court to dismantle the concept of legal precedent and thereby turn back the clock on abortion rights, and shown no appetite at all for holding to account the insurrectionists and fascists-in-waiting who now constitute a substantial proportion of elected Republican office-holders.
  Is that an unbalanced assessment of the American political right at the present moment? All the rage in many sophisticated political circles these days is the notion that people on both sides have fueled the noxious polarization that has poisoned our politics. We are enjoined to avoid demonizing those with whom we disagree, and thus to remember that thoughtful people in a democracy will naturally hold drastically different views. But it would seem foolish to allow words like “demonization” and “polarization” to prevent us from stating the obvious, which is that the differences that divide partisans nowadays are not merely judgments about what works well in rebuilding our economy, or what is apt to prevent Iran from further developing nuclear weapons, or even what threat to “liberty” is entailed in denying people the right to carry automatic weapons. If Andrew Sullivan cares as much as he says he does about “democracy,” then he must own up to the fact that a great many elected Republican officials are fully enlisted in campaigns to tear it to pieces.
  As David Bell has argued, a great many people on the Republican right are inspired and directed by “quasi-authoritarian” thinkers at “places such as the Claremont Institute,” which “justify (as somehow ‘republican’) the gerrymandering of congressional seats, the hugely disproportionate power granted small rural states in the Senate, and the way the Electoral College gives presidential candidates the ability to win elections while losing the popular vote. They also tout the ‘great replacement theory’ according to which elites are consciously trying to replace ‘real Americans’ with immigrants who do not share their values, thereby casting doubt on the legitimacy of naturalized citizenship for millions…..Most dangerous, they press the notion that Republican-controlled state legislatures have the right to override the popular vote.” Bell calls those who hold such views “Trumpian populists,” but it is clear that such views are held or at least not opposed by those in the Republican party who do not at present regard Trump as their leader.
  And thus I have wondered why someone as smart as Sullivan should continue to operate as if, were it not for Donald Trump and a few of his toadies, the party of conservatism might still be the party of the sane middle, a bulwark against a so-called “far-left” that, to be sure, has promoted several policies I myself find reprehensible, but hardly constitutes a danger to democracy or to accredited liberal ideals.
  In the end, thinking about all of that, wanting to see what William Deresiewicz would make of Sullivan’s take on politics and polarization, I commended the Sullivan to his attention, and found, as in the past, that the brilliant Deresiewicz thinks for himself, and takes no prisoners.


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  I’m not here to argue that Sullivan’s right, or that he’s wrong. For what it’s worth, I think he’s some of both. But I’m more focused on the fact that we are having this conversation at all. “[H]owever much some of us are willing to concede much that smart conservatives say about OUR politicians,” our editor wrote me in proposing it, “there really is a vast difference between THEM (political conservatives) and US (liberals).”
  To which I say (I’m sorry, Bob), so what? Yes, the other side is worse, far worse. But saying so and leaving it at that—which, in my experience, is what we almost always do, whether the criticism comes from smart conservatives, fellow liberals, or anybody else—strikes me as a product of what I’ve come to think of as the partisan mentality: a repertoire of attitudes and responses, of intellectual vices, that afflict the politically impassioned on both sides of the national divide. And that, to me, is the important issue here: not whether Sullivan is correct about this or that point, but the ways that that mentality, which is rooted not in reason but in psychic need, interferes with our ability to think.
  And I do mean our. As someone who has been a liberal partisan his entire life, I have detected all these vices in myself. They come with being a partisan, which is itself a psychic disposition.
  One vice is triumphalism. When you win, you think you’ll never lose again. “It’s the start of a new progressive era!” How many times have I heard that declaration in the wake of Democratic victories or in the midst of progressive uprisings? In 2006, with the blue wave in the midterms. In 2008, with the election of Barack Obama. In 2011, with the Occupy movement. In 2013, with the election of Bill de Blasio (believe it or not). Republicans do this, as well. It’s been said that the GOP’s turn to rejectionism, which began in 1994 under the generalship of Newt Gingrich, was sparked by Bill Clinton’s election. After Reagan’s landslide ten years earlier and, even more, the elder Bush’s thumping win in 1988, Republicans believed that they’d secured a permanent electoral majority. Clinton’s victory deranged them, and they have not recovered to this day.
  After years of skepticism about the new-progressive-era thing (how can you know that an era’s begun, until it is well underway?), I finally succumbed myself in 2020: before the election, in anticipation of another Democratic wave, and even afterwards, despite the latter’s failure to materialize. Biden was going to be the new FDR, just like he said. We were going to abolish the filibuster, and then we were going to pass universal healthcare, ban the gerrymander, admit DC and Puerto Rico, pack the court, tax the rich, clear the way for the revival of the unions, and inaugurate a reign of happiness. Boy was I high on that dream. Everything was going to be okay! And that’s the source, I think, of this particular illusion: the infantile desire to believe that everything is going to be okay, that you are safe, that all your wants will be fulfilled.
  The corollary is catastrophism, the child’s despair at setbacks and defeats. Evil has won; we will never be happy again. Democracy is on the brink, or freedom is. We are five minutes from fascism, or a collectivist hell. This is catastrophism, but it is also apocalypticism: a belief in the possibility, even the inevitability, of a total and permanent negative state. Apocalypticism correlates, in turn, with utopianism—or, in other versions, arcadianism, which projects the ideal society onto the past. There has never been a reign of happiness—not when America was “great,” not before the rise of cisheteronormative patriarchal racial capitalism—and there never will be. Things get better and worse, but for generations now—in the developed world, at least, the sphere of liberal democracy and regulated capitalism—they have stayed within the 40-yard lines. The pendulum swings to the right, and then it swings back to the left, an apparently robust and stable equilibrium. No wealthy country, having reached that point, has yet regressed, and I don’t see any reasons to believe that that is going to change in the foreseeable future. What I see are feelings: dread, alternating with elation—the extremes of the bipole.
  But let’s go back to 1994. The Republicans couldn’t believe that Bill Clinton had won—that he could have won, in the world as they conceived it. Faced with a choice between belief and reality, they rejected reality. They refused to recognize his victory as legitimate, just as they went on to do with Obama’s and Biden’s. But our side does the same, even if we do it less egregiously. We did it in 2004, when Kerry lost. We did it with bells on in 2016. When the basis of the delegitimation isn’t factual, or allegedly factual—Russia, the popular vote; in congressional contexts, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the structure of the Senate—it is moral. Trump was unfit. His voters were racists, or misogynists, or deluded by Fox. The election, therefore, somehow, didn’t count. “Not my president,” we said: a slogan that conflated the factual and moral in a blur of denialism and, in its absurdity (what, were we seceding from the union?), flaunted its desperation.
  Denial: the partisan’s commonest vice. The passage in Sullivan’s column that seems to me most indisputable is the one where he enumerates the “absolute assertions” of the left: onCovid, CRT, and so forth. But I think his implication, that these are deliberate falsehoods, is wrong. Liberals actually believe these things (just as Trumpists actually believe that the election was stolen). Believe that the economy is fine. That fears of crime are just a problem of perception. That closing schools for a year and a half was a wise and prudent policy. That no one’s teaching CRT in K-12, only the reality of slavery and segregation. That puberty blockers are safe and reversible.
  Maintaining denial is easy: you just refuse to take in anything that might disrupt it. The average liberal, I’m sure, has no idea that, controlling for class, police do not kill African-Americans at a higher rate than whites. That most of the hate crimes being perpetrated against Asian-Americans in places like New York and San Francisco are committed by people of color. That illegal crossings at the southern border are at an all-time high. That there has been significant dissent, among legitimate experts, on basic aspects of pandemic policy. That no good evidence exists for the “affirmative” approach to gender care in youth, which is why Sweden, Finland, and other European countries have pulled back from it.
  How could they have any idea? Their media—our media—does not report these things, or if they do, they brush past them as quickly as possible. I’ve pretty much stopped tuning into NPR, because it’s gotten so absurd, but I do still listen to The Brian Lehrer Show, from WNYC, where you can hear some useful conversations. What you cannot hear is anyone who might disrupt the leftist point of view. Last April, Lehrer ran a segment on the progressive take on New York governor Kathy Hochul’s first few months in office. He didn’t run one on the conservative take, or the centrist take, or even the liberal take. His segment on the use of “pregnant people” in lieu of “women” in the context of the abortion debate involved a single guest who patiently explained (to use the old Leninist phrase) why the former is correct. His panel in December on the biggest stories of the year included two journalists and a left-wing academic. I doubt it crossed his mind to also have a right-wing academic. All this is typical of NPR. Again, what is the ratio of conservative columnists in the New York Times to liberal and progressive ones, and when is the last time the paper ran an op-ed by a Republican politician? Yet such pieces used to be common, just as NPR routinely solicited views from across the political spectrum.
  This is what it means to live inside a bubble. But when we talk, on the left, about a bubble, we only ever mean the other side’s (which certainly exists). Of ours we are oblivious. For that’s the thing about a bubble: you do not know you’re in one, because you’re in one. Its existence is another fact that cannot penetrate the bubble. Or if it does, it’s quickly neutralized. For bubbles, like bodies, have immune systems. This is key to their homeostasis. So one response, when destabilizing information somehow gets across the membrane, is to refuse to believe it (which includes refusing to check it). How long did the left insist that Hunter Biden’s laptop wasn’t real, or that the coronavirus couldn’t have resulted from a lab leak? Just saying these kinds of things—just talking about the fact that Fauci deliberately lied, early in the pandemic, about the efficacy of masks, or that social media platforms suppress information inimical to progressive positions—makes you sound like a conspiracy theorist. Makes me sound like one, even to me.
  Another response involves a kind of guilt by association. If Ron DeSantis says it, or Fox reports it, it is ipso facto false. This is especially useful, since any criticism of the left, legitimate or not, will almost certainly be taken up by someone on the right. But the process also works the other way. Anyone who criticizes the left, no matter their political credentials, who even brings up inconvenient truths, is ipso facto on the right: a racist, a fascist, a transphobe; JK Rowling, John McWhorter, Jonathan Haidt (me, you may be thinking). The logic is perfectly circular—or, as we might say, spherical.
  The last line of immune defense returns us to where I began. You acknowledge the criticism, but then: “the other side is worse.” And yes, it is—worse and worse. Appalling. Malignant. But therefore what? Are truth and morality relative? Do someone else’s greater sins exempt me from examining my own? The other side is worse: I heard that all the time growing up during the Cold War—in reference to racism, economic injustice, American imperialism. “We’re better than the Soviets”: as if that settled all claims.
  Not long ago, I wrote a piece for a liberal quarterly about one of the issues I’ve talked about here: the drift at NPR, the Times, and elsewhere toward ideological conformity and the exclusion of unwelcome facts and opinions—in other words, the bubble. The editor’s initial response ran in part as follows: “[T]his is a really strong piece…Like all your best pieces, and like many of the other best pieces I’ve run, this one makes me a little scared, but also makes me excited by the prospect of waking people up. It wakes me up. I’ve felt some of this without ever quite admitting it to myself.” This was, of course, exactly the reaction I had hoped for. But then he got cold feet. Two weeks later, he wrote to say he’d changed his mind; he was killing the piece. I had written an essay about the bubble, but I couldn’t get it through the bubble (an irony I pointed out to no avail). “I know that on some level the outrages of conservative media go without saying,” went the editor’s core objection. “But they are more than outrages: they are homicidal; they are treasonous. I know that your piece isn’t about conservative media and that you do make a nod in the direction of their transgressions. But it feels understated.”
  In other words, the other side is worse. Yet if you say the other side is worse, you let yours off the hook. And we have to stop letting ourselves off the hook: not despite the fact that the other side is worse, but precisely because of it. The other side is terrible, is evil, and that is why we have to win. But you do not win by ignoring reality, even (or especially) when reality includes unwelcome truths: includes your lies, your hypocrisies, your policy disasters, your ideological absurdities. You only make yourself stupid. You only make yourself look foolish and dishonest.
  There will never be a lack of people on the left promoting the left and attacking the right, and justly so. The obligation of the intellectual—the kind of person who reads this magazine—is something different, something more difficult. Not to defend the left, but to tell it truths it doesn’t want to hear. To keep it honest, to keep it aligned with reality. This can be unpleasant work. It is never popular; it is sometimes lonely. It necessitates unceasing doubt, unending cognitive and moral discomfort. But for the intellectual, finally, there is no “us,” no “side.” There is only the truth: the attempt to see and speak it. That is the calling; that is the job.