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Review | Should progressives want the support of the ruling classes?


It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a zealous ideological conviction will find confirmation of his worldview somewhere online. The most wrongheaded stance you can think of was tweeted with soppy sincerity by someone with 45 followers in 2011; the most embarrassing phrase you can imagine was deployed on a now-defunct blog in the early aughts. The internet is a veritable museum of fringe opinions, all of them ripe for misrepresentation. If a teenager on Tumblr dares to joke that she identifies as a planet, an assistant producer at Fox is sure to spend the next decade sniffing out her confession with the single-minded fervor of a truffle pig, all in the hopes of presenting a one-time oddity as a culture-defining tic.

Controversial blogger, bracing commentator and heretical leftist Fredrik DeBoer is fond of scouring both the internet and the annals of personal experience for similarly dubious delicacies. “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement,” his new critique of contemporary leftist strategy, eschews the rigors of social science, relying instead on the approachable yet deceptive consolations of anecdote.

DeBoer’s central contention — that “American progressive movements are forever wandering from the righteous to the ridiculous” — concerns adult activists and policymakers, yet his book begins with a story about a small group of students. “When I think of the pathologies of political organizing,” he writes, “I often think first of an example that’s quite trivial. Here the stakes were very low, and yet, to me, it says something about how the left works.” During DeBoer’s stint as a master’s student at the University of Rhode Island, he explains, a student group demanded — and eventually secured — an LGBTQ+ center on campus. But when questioned about the atrocities and injustices they hoped to tackle next, the victorious activists replied that they planned to fight the university’s ban on the hard seltzer Four Loko.

It may seem that the foibles of American coeds, a group not famed for maturity or even sobriety, have little to do with the finer points of national policy. Yet DeBoer follows a long line of pundits in suggesting, without much justification, that elite campuses are reliable microcosms of wider societal trends. The sorts of absurdities displayed by naive student groups, he suggests, are also responsible for the failures of #MeToo and Black Lives Matter. Though both movements initially galvanized much of the populace, DeBoer maintains that neither produced lasting changes. In the end, he laments, “very little happened. No major federal legislation would result from the upheaval.”

The ostensible aim of “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement” is to explain the left’s failure to capitalize on the popularity of #MeToo and BLM — and at times, it lives up to this promise. DeBoer is most convincing when he echoes a theory devised by the philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò, author of “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else).” Adopting Táíwò’s terminology, DeBoer maintains that the left is afflicted by “elite capture”: The phenomenon occurs when “the tastemakers who define our political moment,” the “very ones with the ability to participate in the national political conversation,” are “out of step with everyday citizens from the constituencies they ostensibly speak for.” The most downtrodden demographics cannot participate in conversations about their own fates precisely because “they lack the cultural capital and economic stability to have a presence in our national media and politics.” It is no surprise, then, that elite reformers have almost always opted for purely cosmetic changes. DeBoer is right that Robin DiAngelo’s much-lauded “White Fragility,” for instance, is “something like a textbook for treating racial inequality as a matter of interpersonal niceties rather than as a flesh-and-blood reality that is embedded in the structures of American life.”

Throughout “How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement,” DeBoer is critical not only of the elite co-option of BLM and #MeToo, but also of activists’ alleged refusal to articulate concrete policy proposals. By DeBoer’s lights, “defund the police” was a confusing slogan, while #MeToo (ridiculed by DeBoer as “#Memetoo”) was primarily an online fad with few consequences on the ground. If leftist movements are to have a greater impact in the future, he concludes, they should strive to reflect the interests of the working classes, agitate for material and not merely cultural reforms, and focus on what DeBoer regards as the universally invigorating question of economic inequality, rather than racism and sexism, which he takes to be more divisive.

Some of DeBoer’s suggestions are sound enough: It is true that material considerations are too often overshadowed by representational concerns, and it is true that elites, by dint of controlling much of society, tend to hijack the narratives that emerge from popular uprisings. But it is also true that BLM and #MeToo were grass-roots affairs with participants from all walks of life. BLM was by many measures the biggest social movement in American history, far too widely endorsed to be the preserve of a few conniving elites. What reason do we have to believe DeBoer’s assertion that “BLM activists” were “an army of graduate students and professors, journalists and pundits,” much less his vaguely conspiratorial insinuation that BLM was a movement orchestrated by “the Black professional-managerial class”?

If DeBoer is wrong about the popular appeal of BLM and #MeToo, neither of which was an exclusively middle-class project, then the rest of his account begins to crumble, too. For it is likely that both movements did, to some extent, reflect the interests of the oppressed and that both were more successful than he cares to admit. Though he makes much of the lack of ensuing federal legislation, not all meaningful change takes place at the national level, and not all institutional overhaul is enshrined in law. BLM prompted innumerable legal reforms in states and cities, among them the reallocation of police funds in Los Angeles and bans on chokeholds and tear gas in Colorado, but it also inspired a generation of progressive prosecutors who vowed to change the criminal justice system from within. #MeToo may not have yielded any federal legislation, either, but it gave rise to countless campus and workplace codes of conduct that established harsher punishments for harassment and assault.

Nor is culture as neatly divorced from political outcomes as DeBoer seems to believe. The discursive shifts he dismisses as window dressing have often proved consequential in the long run. Though he excoriates Occupy Wall Street for failing to produce a list of clear demands, he reluctantly acknowledges that the movement paved the way for Bernie Sanders’s highly visible presidential campaign — which in turn pushed the Biden administration to the left, culminating in the most labor-friendly National Labor Relations Board in decades.

Perhaps most important, it is impossible to assess whether DeBoer is carelessly generalizing when he offers up colorful examples of leftist hysteria. His thesis — that identity politics have distracted activists from the central bolus of economic inequality — certainly feels plausible. Like many people who have spent years pickled in the brain-addling acid of the internet, I can point to any number of online scandals that seem to demonstrate that leftist culture has become shallowly symbolic or, worse, viciously intolerant. For instance, DeBoer recalls the case of David Shor, a Democratic data analyst who, during the height of the BLM protests, tweeted “a political science paper that argued that the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had swayed voters and helped elect Richard Nixon” — and who was unjustly fired as a result.

But it is the business of a book like DeBoer’s to clarify and contextualize, to cut through the vibes and vapors to the cool, hard truth. Shor’s termination was unfair, but how common are cases like his? How widespread are the excesses and outrages that anyone with a search engine can find if they type furiously enough? Time and time again, DeBoer punts on the difficult questions, choosing instead to substantiate sweeping empirical claims by appealing to affect, anecdote and atmosphere. To prove that Occupy Wall Street was disorganized, he quotes one protester; to show that BLM supporters endorsed looting, he simply proclaims that “defending riots became something of a cottage industry among progressives in 2020,” then cites a single example.

It is hardly a shock that BLM and #MeToo attracted some unsavory allies. Mass movements are, by definition, massive, and every large group includes some lunatics on the margins. To point to the existence of a few fanatic hangers-on is hardly to indict a movement or its methods. Indeed, a motley coalition is — for better or worse — a necessary result of any truly democratic foray. Who, then, is DeBoer’s intended audience? Movements are not agents amenable to persuasion. There is no secretary to whom DeBoer could hand a petition, demanding more stringent “message discipline.” There is only the flash and the fury, the sudden surge of belief in a better life. If the wayward beast of a mass action cannot always be coaxed into behaving rationally, so much the better: That is the source of its chaos, but also the source of its force.

Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic for The Washington Post.

How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement

Simon & Schuster. 244 pp. $29.99

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POST AUTHOR: Becca Rothfeld

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