The End of Progressive Intellectual Life
by Michael Lind Apr 12, 2022
I have never liked the term “public intellectual,” but like its 19th-century predecessor, “publicist,” it describes a social type that plays a useful role in liberal democracies in which at least some government decision-making is influenced by open debate rather than secret discussions behind closed doors. To influence voters, public intellectuals write for a general educated public (not necessarily the less-educated majority) in ordinary language, not jargon. Like the policymakers whom they also seek to influence, they are necessarily generalists. In the service of what the Brazilian American public intellectual Roberto Unger calls a strategic “program,” public intellectuals ponder connections among different policy realms—economic, foreign, and cultural—if only to ensure that one policy does not contradict another. Public intellectuals tend to annoy their own side by probing its internal weaknesses, while trying to convert members of the other team rather than simply denounce them.
The centralized and authoritarian control of American progressivism by major foundations and the nonprofits that they fund, and the large media institutions, universities, corporations, and banks that disseminate the progressive party line, has made it impossible for there to be public intellectuals on the American center left. This is not to say that progressives are not intelligent and/or well-educated. It is merely to say that being a progressive public intellectual is no longer an option, in an era in which progressivism is anti-intellectual.
If you are an intelligent and thoughtful young American, you cannot be a progressive public intellectual today, any more than you can be a cavalry officer or a silent movie star. That’s because, in the third decade of the 21st century, intellectual life on the American center left is dead. Debate has been replaced by compulsory assent and ideas have been replaced by slogans that can be recited but not questioned: Black Lives Matter, Green Transition, Trans Women Are Women, 1619, Defund the Police. The space to the left-of-center that was once filled with magazines and organizations devoted to what Diana Trilling called the “life of significant contention” is now filled by the ritualized gobbledygook of foundation-funded, single-issue nonprofits like a pond choked by weeds. Having crowded out dissent and debate, the nonprofit industrial complex—Progressivism Inc.—taints the Democratic Party by association with its bizarre obsessions and contributes to Democratic electoral defeats, like the one that appears to be imminent this fall.
Consider center-left journals of opinion. In the 1990s, The New Yorker, The Nation, Dissent, The New Republic, The Atlantic, and Washington Monthly all represented distinctive flavors of the center left, from the technocratic neoliberalism of Washington Monthly to the New Left countercultural ethos of The Nation and the snobbish gentry liberalism of The New Yorker. Today, they are bare Xeroxes of each other, promoting and rewriting the output of single-issue environmental, identitarian, and gender radical nonprofits, which all tend to be funded by the same set of progressive foundations and individual donors.
You cannot be a progressive public intellectual today, any more than you can be a cavalry officer or a silent movie star.
It is not surprising that the written output of this billionaire-funded bureaucratic apparatus tends to read like an NGO word salad with crunchy croutons in the form of acronyms that stud post-intellectual progressive discourse: DEI, CRT, AAPI, BIPOC, LGBTQ+. Wokespeak is Grantspeak.
Meanwhile, in one area of public policy or politics after another, Progressivism Inc. has shut down debate on the center left through its interlocking networks of program officers, nonprofit functionaries, and editors and writers, all of whom can move with more or less ease between these roles during their careers as bureaucratic functionaries whose salaries are ultimately paid by America’s richest families and individuals. The result is a spectacularly well-funded NGO-sphere whose intellectual depth and breadth are contracting all the time.
In the 1990s, you could be a progressive in good standing and argue against race-based affirmative action, in favor of race-neutral, universal social programs that would help African Americans disproportionately but not exclusively. Around 2000, however, multiple progressive outlets at the same time announced that “the debate about affirmative action is over.” Today race-neutral economic reform, of the kind championed by the democratic socialist and Black civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and the Marxist Adolph Reed, is stigmatized on the center left as “colorblind racism,” and progressives in the name of “equity” are required to support blatant and arguably illegal racial discrimination against non-Hispanic white Americans and “white-adjacent” Asian-Americans, for fear of being purged as heretics.
Immigration policy provides an even more striking example of the power of Progressivism Inc. to stifle debate on the center left. Up until around 2000, libertarians and employer-class Republicans wanted to weaken laws against illegal immigration and expand low-wage legal immigration, against the opposition of organized labor and many African Americans, who for generations have tended to view immigrants of all races as competitors. The Hesburgh Commission on immigration reform, appointed by President Jimmy Carter, and the Jordan Commission, appointed by President Bill Clinton and led by Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan, the pioneering civil rights leader who was left-liberal, Black, and lesbian, both proposed cracking down on illegal immigration—by requiring a national ID card, punishing employers of illegal immigrants, and cutting back on low-skilled, low-wage legal immigrants. As late as 2006, then-Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton both voted for 200 miles of border fencing in the Southwest.
Then, virtually overnight, the progressive movement flipped and adopted the former talking points of the Chamber of Commerce cheap-labor lobby. While Democratic politicians deny that they oppose enforcing immigration laws, center-left journals and journalists keep pushing the idea of open borders, in alliance with crackpot free market fundamentalists. On April 12, 2022, David Dayen in the American Prospect wrote that “declining immigration rates since the pandemic have contributed to labor shortages in key industries and harmed Americans who rely on those services.” Dayen linked to an article in the libertarian Wall Street Journal bemoaning rising wages as a result of lower immigration. On Feb. 20 of this year, The New Yorker published a long essay by Zoey Poll, “The Case for Open Borders,” a fawning profile of the libertarian ideologue Bryan Caplan, author of Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration, which, appropriately, takes the form of a graphic novel—that is to say, a comic book.
Back in 2015, Ezra Klein, then editor of the “progressive” outlet Vox, asked Sen. Bernie Sanders about the idea of “sharply raising the level of immigration we permit, even up to a level of open borders.” Sanders replied in alarm: “Open borders? No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.” The lobby FWD.us, funded by Facebook and other large tech corporations that prefer hiring indentured servants (H-1Bs) bound to their employers instead of free American citizen-workers and legal immigrants, denounced Sanders for holding “the totally-debunked notion that immigrants coming to the U.S. are taking jobs and hurting Americans.” Vox then published an article by Dylan Matthews titled “Bernie Sanders’s fear of immigrant labor is ugly—and wrong-headed.” “If I could add one amendment to the Constitution,” Matthews declared, “it would be the one Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Robert Bartley once proposed: ‘There shall be open borders.’” In 2018, the progressive author Angela Nagle was canceled by Progressivism Inc. when she published an essay in American Affairs, “The Left Case Against Open Borders.” By 2020, when Matthew Yglesias, a co-founder of Vox, published One Billion Americans, the purging of dissidents and the fusion of the Progressivism Inc. party line on immigration with the anti-union, cheap-labor policies favored by The Wall Street Journal and Silicon Valley was complete.
The energy debate provides another example of the closing of the progressive mind. As recently as the early 2000s, some environmentalists favored reducing atmosphere-heating carbon emissions by expanding nuclear power, replacing coal with lower-carbon natural gas, or both. By 2010 these positions had been thoroughly anathematized by Progressivism Inc. Not only all fossil fuels but all nuclear energy—which provides 20% of utility electric generation in the United States, roughly the same as all renewable energy sources put together—must be completely eliminated from the energy mix, according to the green commissars. Insofar as only around 11% of global primary energy, and only around a quarter of global electricity, comes from renewable energy (chiefly hydropower, which has limited potential for expansion), the green fatwah against nuclear energy seems self-defeating—as well as certain to shovel American money to China, which holds near-monopolies on the rare earth metals and production facilities used to make things like solar panels and lithium batteries. China also happens to be a major source of the fortunes of some of the billionaires who fund progressive media and NGOs.
At this point in history, the foundations and advocacy nonprofits of Progressivism Inc. do not even bother to go through the charade of public debate and discussion before imposing a new party line. Half a century of debate, discussion, and activism gradually led to a majority consensus among American voters in favor of “negative liberty” for gay men and lesbian women, whose right to be free as individuals from discrimination in employment, housing, and military service need not require other Americans to change either their actions or their views.
In striking contrast, in a few years the ideology of gender fluidity went from being an obscure strain of thinking on the academic left to becoming the centerpiece of a radical program of social engineering from above carried out simultaneously by progressive, corporate, and academic bureaucracies. During President Obama’s second term, the federal government reinterpreted Title IX, a civil rights law passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, and suddenly threatened federal lawsuits and the cut-off of federal funding for public schools that did not allow boys and girls to use the bathrooms of the opposite (biological) sex, and demanded that boys and young men with gender dysphoria be allowed to join girls’ sports teams and use female locker rooms and showers. States that resisted this bizarre misreading of Title IX, which eliminated legal distinctions grounded in biological sex that the statute was written to protect, found themselves boycotted by multinational corporations and sports leagues. Corporate employees and university personnel who questioned the new party line now did so at risk of being fired or punished. All of this happened just between 2012 and 2016, with no public debate or discussion within the progressive camp, and no attempts to persuade conservatives, libertarians, liberals, or even pre-2012 progressives—only a sudden diktat from above, accompanied by contemptuous threats of punishment. In 2012, progressives were allowed to agree with Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at the time that, while lesbian women and gay men should have access to civil unions, marriage should be between a biological man and a biological woman. By 2020, you were a hateful reactionary conservative bigot if you did not agree that some men can be pregnant and some women have penises.
Who decides what is and is not permissible for American progressives to think or discuss or support? The answer is the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundation, the Omidyar Network, and other donor foundations, an increasing number of which are funded by fortunes rooted in Silicon Valley. It is this donor elite, bound together by a set of common class prejudices and economic interests, on which most progressive media, think tanks, and advocacy groups depend for funding.
The center-left donor network uses its financial clout, exercised through its swarms of NGO bureaucrats, to impose common orthodoxy and common messaging on their grantees. The methods by which they enforce this discipline can be described as chain-ganging and shoe-horning.
Chain-ganging (a term I have borrowed from international relations theory) in this context means implicitly or explicitly banning any grantee from publicly criticizing the positions of any other grantee. At a conference sponsored by the Ford Foundation that I attended more than a decade ago, an African American community activist complained to me privately: “Immigration is hurting the people in the neighborhoods we work in. The employers prefer illegal immigrants to young Black workers. But if we say anything about it, Ford will cut off our money.”
Shoe-horning is what I call the progressive donor practice of requiring all grantees to assert their fealty to environmentalist orthodoxy and support for race and gender quotas, even if those topics have nothing to do with the subject of the grant. It is not necessary for the donors to make this explicit; their grantees understand without being told, like the favor-seeking knights of Henry II: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?” In the last few years, even the most technocratic center-left policy programs—advocating slightly higher earned income tax credits or whatever—have often rewritten their mission statements to refer to “climate justice” and “diversity” and routinely sprinkle grantspeak like “the racial reckoning” and “the climate emergency” throughout their policy briefs in the hope of pleasing program officers at big progressive foundations.
Thanks to the buy-out of the American center left by Progressivism Inc., there is literally nothing for a progressive public intellectual to do. To be sure, there are plenty of other kinds of mental work that you can perform as a member of the rising generation of young progressives even in the absence of a functioning public intellectual sphere. You can keep your head down and doubts to yourself, as you work on the technocratic policy that appeals to you the most: raising the minimum wage or free school lunches, perhaps. Or you can write endless variants of the same screed denouncing Republicans and conservatives as rabid white nationalists threatening to create a fascist dictatorship right here in America. Or you can join mobs on Twitter and social media to take part in Two-Minute Hate campaigns against individuals or groups singled out for denunciation that day by Progressivism Inc. Or you can try to obtain fame and bestseller status and wealth and tenure by getting the attention of the MacArthur Prize committee and editors at The Atlantic by auditioning for the role of designated spokesperson for this or that “protected class” or minority identity group—nonbinary Middle East or North African MENA), for example, not low-income Scots Irish Appalachian heterosexual Pentecostalist.
You can even be a professor. High-profile American progressive academics like Paul Krugman and Jill Lepore and Adam Tooze who moonlight as public affairs commentators are not public intellectuals, because they have the pre-approved left-liberal opinions on all topics that are shared by nine-tenths of the U.S. academic bureaucracy, from the richest Ivy League superstars to the lowliest adjunct at a commuter college. Back in the early 1990s, when as a young neoconservative Democrat I worked for The National Interest, our publisher, Irving Kristol, exploded in comic exasperation one day: “People are calling professors intellectuals! Professors aren’t intellectuals. Intellectuals argue with each other in cafes and write for little magazines. Professors are boring people who take out their dusty 20-year-old notes and give the same lecture over and over again.”
Unlike academics who recite the approved current center-left positions on all issues, genuine intellectuals, even if they happen to be employed by universities, are unpredictable. Often they are unpopular, because they criticize their own allies and appreciate what other schools of thought get right. They do not indulge in contrarianism for its own sake but tend to be controversial, because they put loyalty to what they consider to be truth above party or faction. Needless to say, such intellectual mavericks tend to perform quite poorly when it comes to the boot-licking, rote repetition of political slogans, acronym-juggling, groupthink, and “donor servicing” that constitute the forms of intellectual activity favored by big foundations and NGOs, whether of the right or of the left.
Young progressives who prefer a life of significant contention to a career of lucrative grant-mongering may take some solace from the fact that we have lived through this kind of foundation-driven, extinction-level event in our nation’s intellectual life before. In “Why Intellectual Conservatism Died,” published in Dissent back in 1995, I wrote that “instead of boldly attacking falsehoods wherever they are found, conservative editors tend to print only what they believe will confirm the prejudices of the program officers. The addiction to foundation dollars has reinforced the disastrous ‘no enemies to the right’ policy. The last thing the foundations want is for one set of grantees to criticize the policy views or intellectual standards of other grantees.”
Sound familiar? In hindsight, the end of the Cold War under Ronald Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush witnessed a golden age of discussion and controversy on the American right, as neoconservatives debated paleoconservatives and religious-right thinkers, and national security hawks debated isolationists and foreign policy realists. Around 1992 that window suddenly closed, as right-wing foundations like Bradley and Olin made it clear that the only nonprofit organizations and journals that would receive funding would be those that espoused a new version of “fusionism”—uniting neoconservative fantasies of American world domination in foreign policy, libertarian fantasies about privatizing Social Security, and religious-right wishful thinking about a Christian or Judeo-Christian revival.
Thanks to blacklisting and censorship, foundation-imposed groupthink triumphed on the right, consolidating Conservatism Inc. and driving away those of us who sought to put the life of the mind above the life of the party. A decade later, President George W. Bush attempted to implement fusionist conservatism with a rigor that Reagan never attempted. In foreign policy, the Bush administration used 9/11 as an excuse to invade Iraq and attempted to realize the conservative fantasy of an American global empire, plunging the Middle East into chaos and bringing Iraq War critics Barack Obama and Donald Trump to power. In domestic policy, Bush tried to partly privatize Social Security, creating a voter backlash. The 2004 Bush-Rove campaign against gay marriage, calculated to bribe working-class evangelicals into voting for the party of tax cuts for the rich, backfired and led to majority acceptance of gay men and lesbians and the defection of many younger Protestant evangelicals.
On today’s center left, as on the bygone center right, the groupthink imposed by behind-the-scenes donors and their favored nonprofits and media allies is resulting in electoral disaster—this time, for Democrats. The progressive foundations, billionaires, and woke corporations backed a California initiative to legalize anti-white and anti-Asian discrimination; it lost, in part because so many Black and Hispanic Americans support the ideal of a colorblind American society. Democrats underperformed dramatically in 2020, even after COVID killed the economy and terrified most Americans, because the slogans of foundation-backed nonprofits—like Defund the Police and comparisons of the U.S. border patrol to the Gestapo—alienated many Democratic voters as well as swing voters. Black Democrats have favored candidates like Joe Biden and New York City Mayor Eric Adams who oppose anti-police radicalism. And a major reason for the political shift of Hispanic voters in Texas border counties is their opposition to the Democratic Party’s toleration of mass illegal immigration, summed up in the fatuous slogan “No human being is illegal.”
Conservatism Inc., including flagship journals like the National Review and flagship think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, remains a museum of mummies. Today, Progressivism Inc. is equally brain-dead. What survives of intellectual politics in the United States today consists of a growing number of exiles from establishment wokeness on Substack and an assortment of dissident leftists, conservatives, and populists, some of whom have come together in new publications like American Affairs, Compact, and The Bellows, and in quirkier couture shops like Tablet.
Having watched from up close over the past four decades as cliques of foundation program officers, individual billionaires, and their nonprofit retainers lobotomized first the American right and then the American left, I hope that I may live to see the American center left free itself from top-down orthodoxy and welcome dissension, discussion, and debate once again. But I doubt I will live that long.
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