This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Freddie deBoer, author and journalist, about his new must-read book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement.
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SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Freddie deBoer, a left-wing author, journalist, and popular Substack writer. He’s also the author of the must-read new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, that provides, in his words, “a sympathetic yet critical look at the social justice movement over the past decade.” I’m grateful to speak with him about the movement’s successes and failures, the role that it’s played in our politics, and why he thinks returning to a class-based consciousness is ultimately key to better outcomes for progressives. Freddie, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.
FREDDIE DEBOER: Thanks for having me.
SEAN SPEER: You wrote in a recent Substack post in advance of the book’s release that it is not about “wokeness or other broad concepts of social liberalism. Instead, it’s about American progressive social movements, particularly civil unrest that engulfed the country in 2020.” What did you mean, and why was it important to set that out clearly? Talk about what the book is and isn’t.
FREDDIE DEBOER: Sure. So I have for my entire adult life been part of what I would call the activist Left, engaging in various forms of real-world organizing because I believe strongly in confronting politics from multiple dimensions and directions at once. It simply is the case that there is a big difference between people going out on the streets and pressing for a particular sense of social change as distinct from—at an Ivy League university if they have a controversy over what the cafeteria is serving, or if there’s a new language code passed down by the HR department in a Fortune 500 company. Those are distinct things, and I felt it necessary to make that distinction because people speak with a very limited palette politically.
So this is a weird example, but a good example is there’s a movie called Candyman, which is a horror movie, a thriller slasher from the 1990s, the early 1990s. It’s also deeply political. It’s about a former slave, and it’s about how the Cabrini-Green Projects in Chicago had been facing neglect, et cetera. It’s also about how the highway was intentionally used in Chicago and in other places to divide the Black from white communities./ I really like the movie. I love how political it is, but every time I read about it online, people say, “Oh, that movie’s about gentrification.” If there’s one place in the world that I’m absolutely certain was not gentrified, it was the Cabrini-Green Projects in the early 1990s.
The thing is, they just don’t have a vocabulary for talking about housing and race that is not the language of gentrification, and I think that it’s important to be clear about these things. So I’ve done—I think this is my 15th podcast in 11 days at this point. And I’m going to do a lot more in the months to come. I had somebody on one of them said, like, “So, you wrote a book about cancel culture.” I don’t think—I’m not sure if the words “cancel culture” appeared in the book at all. I just isn’t what I’m attacking. I’m looking at how the social justice movement in the United States in the 21st century is operating, what its goals are, what its tactics and organizational strategies are, and if it’s working and with particular interest in the 2020 social unrest.
SEAN SPEER: I promise we’ll come to 2020 in a minute, but before we do, I want to stay on the topic of so-called “wokeism,” because you’ve written in my mind one of the definitive essays on the topic. In March 2023, you wrote, “It’s absurd that so many people pretend not to know what woke means, and the problem could be easily solved if people who support woke politics would adopt a name for others to use. No to woke, no to identity politics, no to political correctness—fine. Pick something.” Freddie, help our listeners understand how you’ve come to think of what it means to be woke.
FREDDIE DEBOER: Sure. So I think woke is a catchall term that’s used to refer to developments in what I would refer to as social liberalism in, let’s say, the last 15 year—certainly since the turn of the millennium but particularly starting in the 2010s—really picked up steam, was a new approach to the way that social liberalism talked about structural injustices such as racism, sexism, et cetera. These perspectives are deeply influenced by work that comes out of humanities departments at elite universities. I often think it’s funny that the humanities are referred to as ineffectual and not having any real-world consequences when they defined a vocabulary that took over American institutions in the course of a decade or two. These approaches tend to centre very much on talking about structural problems, the structural nature of these problems.
So looking at, for example, the problem of racism as fundamentally being a problem of racial inequality, meaning that there are structural forces in our society that change the outcomes or separate the outcomes of Black and white, et cetera. That’s the good part.
The bad part is that it is married to a profoundly individualistic ethos of how you confront these problems. So, to me, microaggression is the platonic ideal of this form of contemporary social justice, the “woke” approach to politics. The microaggression is the idea that you don’t just act racist towards someone by saying the “N” word. You ask racist towards someone by the way that you do or do not use eye contact. The terminology that you might use that is on its face innocuous, but that other people can be offended by. The idea that in our day-to-day interactions, we have all manner of loaded things that we do that perpetuate supposedly inequality. Robin D’Angelo, who is a white woman who wrote the biggest bestseller of 2020, White Fragility, is someone who has advanced this theory of racial inequality where white people oppress Black people when they interact with them, and they do so in a way that’s linguistic, that’s social, and that’s symbolic.
And that’s, I think, deeply misguided because I think racism is in the racial wealth gap. I think racism is in, for example, that Black children’s environments tend to have significantly higher levels of lead and other contaminants than white. Finally, you would’ve to say that this is all married to a structural illiberalism. So an attempt not merely to defeat ideas that are seen as being offensive, but to silence them pre-emptively to use the powers of law of administration of any given institution who tried to shut down behaviour or talk that they see as offensive.
SEAN SPEER: Let me just take up that point as a final contextual question, Freddie, before we delve into the book. Part of your critique of so-called wokeism is the emphasis on the individual and then, as you said, also, its tendency to head in certain illiberal directions. In a profile in the New Statesman, you go some length to establish yourself as a liberal. Talk about how your own personal liberalism colours the way you think about the limits of modern woke politics on the Left.
FREDDIE DEBOER: Yeah, so I should be careful to say I am a Marxist and a liberal, right? In the sense that liberalism is a word that unfortunately has very many different meanings depending on context. Today, if you announce yourself as a liberal in American society, you are likely saying that you are someone who’s a Democrat who believes in a further Left vision of American politics. You may very well be quite illiberal in your views on hate speech, so-called, on speech codes at universities, et cetera, et cetera. But I establish myself as a liberal in that piece. I’m saying that I believe in the liberal ideals of individual freedom and of the guaranteeing of those ideals by society and by the state. So, I complain about liberals of the other variety all the time. I’m not a Kamala Harris liberal, but I am a liberal in the sense that I believe that the only way to get out of any of these problems is by arguing our way through them, and that in order to do so effectively, we need to have a certain degree of openness in debate and culture.
SEAN SPEER: Now, let’s go back to the summer of 2020. I was in New York City. Things were pretty intense. The COVID death count was high. George Floyd protests were occurring across the United States and even outside its borders. It was a pretty fraught time, but it also represented a moment for possible institutional and policy change. Yet you believe that the outcomes from that moment were ultimately underwhelming. We’ll come to that later, Freddie, but in the meantime, take us back to that time. What was going on in the world of left-wing and progressive activism? What were the strategies and tactics such that they were pursuing to achieve change?
FREDDIE DEBOER: Yeah, so I think that we have to look—I take a fair amount of time to do this in the book because I think it’s important. But you have to understand all this in the post-Obama, post-Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton sweep of what it meant to be a left-wing person. So when I started writing professionally in 2008, it was still the case that like the furthest Left voices that were prominent voices were like technocratic liberals, like Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein. That was the Left. If you talked about the Left, you were referring to people like that, because actual socialists, with some exceptions, but in general have been pushed so far out of the conversation that you couldn’t get a word in to the national conversation. You were arrived pre-mocked; you became pre-ridiculed for those beliefs.
Obama gets into office. For many people, the election of Barack Obama was a life-altering emotional event. George W. Bush, who’s by far the worst president of my lifetime, had eight years of just hellish mistakes on every level of policy that you could imagine. It’s been lost because we have the institutional and cultural memory of a goldfish. But George W. Bush’s administration was really, really bad. Barack Obama obviously was inspiring because he was the first real viable Black candidate for the presidency of the United States. And he spoke a language of hope and change. I mean, it’s been reported many times that he deliberately based his persona and his cadence on the religious civil rights leaders of the 1960s, who had a very sweeping or rhetorical style. And then Obama got into office, and very quickly, people realized the limits of that sort of thing. So he, it turned out, was himself a very technocratic, incrementalism kind of guy. He was not a revolutionary. He was someone who was very invested in appearing to be the more reasonable figure than the Republicans, not seeming to realize that being more reasonable doesn’t get you anything in politics. He also was explicitly pushing more of an austerity approach to the post-financial crisis recession that we had. It spoke often about needing to tighten our belts, et cetera, et cetera.
So there was a great deal of unhappiness about that, and Occupy Wall Street happens. Occupy didn’t amount to much, but it was an indication that there was such a thing as a left of Obama left that was coalescing in the country, and it came together in 2016 when Barack Obama—excuse me, when Bernie Sanders ran against Hillary Clinton and really surprised a lot of people with how viable he was. There’s a lot you could say about that race. I think it’s really important that people understand that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely unpopular politician in American politics. She was arguably the worst polling in terms of favourable and unfavourable presidential candidate ever, and was the only person who might have outdone her being her opponent, Donald Trump. So Bernie’s—what we can actually draw from the Bernie 2016 primary campaign might be limited, but it did show, like, “Look, here is a resurgence of people who want to do something very differently,” because you had a wave of young adults coming into the world whose context was the great recession, who had seen that the economy had been destroyed indisputably by the banking sector. I mean, nobody even pretended this time that it was somebody else’s fault. Nobody was even pretending, “Oh, it’s those union workers with their fat cat contracts.” Everybody knew that it was the bankers. We had a long, protracted recession with a terribly slack labour market for a long, long time.
And then Bernie lost, and the way that Hillary Clinton defeated him, I think, is monumentally important for how the American Left talked and continues to talk, which is she and her proxies accused Bernie and his followers of racism. Somewhat sexism but more racism. It’s as a historical curio given that she’s a white woman. But as someone who was in the trenches of arguing about Bernie and Hillary at the time, it was a reflexive thing for Hillary Clinton supporters, her proxies in the media, and to an extent herself, to say, “Well, Bernie’s fans are motivated by racism and sexism.” And I am, well, a heartless creature who can’t be hurt in that way, but lots of other people are not like me. For a ton of people, a lot of lefties and socialists, it was the first time they had ever been called racist or sexist in their lives, and it deeply, deeply scarred people.
And I do think that that experience set up and contributed to this environment where you have these abstruse academic theories coming into the language of the Left. You have this focus on microaggression. You have this sense that, like, what we need to do to solve sexism and racism and homophobia, et cetera, is to just constantly ratchet the tension up, just make everybody more and more tense and scared all the time. And then you destroy your enemies by calling them racist or sexist. And I think that deeply and directly contributed to where we are now.
SEAN SPEER: It’s a fascinating assessment. To what extent is that backstory responsible for the shift in the Sanders campaign’s energy and focus from class in 2016 to, for lack of a better term, wokeism in 2020? That is to say, Sanders, who for a long time had defined his politics through a traditional class-based lens, took on some of the memes of identity politics in the 2020 campaign.
FREDDIE DEBOER: Yeah, so I think that that is absolutely something that happened, i.e., without getting specific, having some knowledge of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign behind the scenes. I’m under the—I’ve been told that people within that apparatus were saying, “I can’t emerge from this, being part of the sexist and racist campaign again. I’m going to move on from this. If Bernie wins, maybe I’ll get a job in his administration, but if he doesn’t win, then I have to go get a job someplace else. And I just—I can’t do another year of going to war with people calling me sexist and racist, and I can’t have that association.” I think Bernie himself personally was stung by it. It’s important also to say though that Bernie was also not running against one of the least popular politicians in the history of public polling, right? I think that obviously, for obvious reasons, Hillary people are sensitive to this point and don’t want to hear it, but it’s easy to overestimate what Bernie accomplished in 2016 because the alternative was so hated by so many people that I think that some people over-learned the lesson of 2016 in terms of how ready we’re for socialism.
SEAN SPEER: To come back to the book’s assessment of what happened in the context of the summer of 2020, one of its most fascinating insights is about the institutional or establishment dynamics, even within the seemingly grassroots movements. Talk about that, Freddie. How is something like Black Lives Matter still a relatively top-down organization? And how does that, in your view, affect its ability or the ability of other progressive organizations to affect change?
FREDDIE DEBOER: Yeah, so I think maybe the chapter that was most important for me to put out into the world is the chapter on nonprofit organizations, because I think that they are a hugely influential element within American politics. And I think the average American probably could not name a single major political nonprofit or politically oriented nonprofit. But they play an enormous role. In Washington, they’re often referred to as “the groups,” which means interest groups that are represented by and made up by nonprofit organizations of various tax statuses because there are rules on which different kinds of nonprofits can do in terms of political campaigning based on their nonprofit status. But anyway, these organizations throw a ton of money at everything; they have lobbyists. They also just have the ear of the progressive leadership in the Democratic Party. I mean, look, this is true across the entire political system and spectrum.
SEAN SPEER: Some of these groups—sorry to interrupt—on the Right, of course, some of these groups are described as “Conservative Inc.” So there’s certainly a similar dynamic on the Right.
FREDDIE DEBOER: I mean, on the Right, you could look at something like AIPAC and the Israeli lobby, or you can look at the gun rights lobby, which has been, as everyone knows, extraordinarily successful. What’s the problem with these groups? Well, for one thing, I mean, they are a nexus of power that is fundamentally non-democratic, right? In other words, they are not beholden to voters in any direct way. They campaign and they raise money on promises that tend to be pretty broad and pretty vague. So an organization like Sunrise, which is one of the big environmental and global warming organizations but which like all of them, has become sort of this catchall lefty organization. They raise money saying, “Don’t you want to stop fight global warming?” And so people give their money, but then the organization actually has to be operating on all bits of major legislation.
I mean, one of the things that happens in Washington. If you have a big bill, something that’s not—other than the absolute most tightly focused bills—a lot of these organizations feel like they have to be involved because they want to stay relevant to the process. Okay? So one of the things I point out in the book is Planned Parenthood put out a “defund the police” statement in 2020. And you might say, “What has that got to do with reproductive rights?” Now, they can, of course, come up with some sort of tendentious explanation about why that is, but the real reason is because they want to be seen as being in the fight. It’s good for their fundraising if they weigh in on everything. And so everybody weighs in on everything all the time. And so you have real influence in these things because politicians don’t want to get yelled at, their staffers don’t want to get yelled at. And these people have an unusual level of access to these politicians—way more level of access than you or I have.
And then you have who makes up these organizations. So the pipeline to working at an elite nonprofit in general, with I’m sure plenty of exceptions, but in general, is just the American meritocratic pipeline. Meaning, in other words, you go to high school and you bust your ass like crazy in order to get into an insanely exclusive school, very often in one of what they call the Ivy Plus Schools. The Ivy League schools and Stanford and Duke, et cetera, University of Chicago. But if not that, then small liberal arts colleges like Amherst or Williams or Sarah Lawrence that let in like 15 percent of the applicants or whatever. This produces a certain kind of person, right? You have someone who is hyper-educated; you have someone who’s been enculturated into this sort of machine of appearing to be the right kind of person, right?
In other words, having the right attitudes, the right political opinions, demonstrating that you’re culturally savvy and you’re aware of things that are happening in the world and in pop culture, and you’re just almost inevitably someone who is a lefty in the sense that you favour the cultural and social positions of liberalism on issues like gender and sexuality and abortion and gun rights, et cetera. And you are, no doubt, someone who, for example, believes in universal healthcare, right? But because of your life experience because of the kinds of people who come up through this pipeline, you tend to be someone who is much closer to affluence than not. And so, how policies like the Child Tax Credit are just not viscerally real to you in the way that coming up through Sarah Lawrence makes race and gender viscerally real to you. So you just have unelected bodies that have a ton of influence who constrain what the vision of the American Left is and who represent this kind of person who has infiltrated almost all institutions of American life and are our unelected leadership class.
SEAN SPEER: You mentioned “defund the p1olice”, Freddie. Why don’t you talk a bit about that as, in some ways, a symbol of some of the issues that you were just outlining? Where did it come from, and in hindsight, what were its problems in your mind?
FREDDIE DEBOER: Sure. So I mean, the first problem that you have to hang on “defund the police” is just pure confusion, right? No one could agree what it was. No one would agree whether it was the demand, or a demand, or something that is just a distraction. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen a piece of “defund the police” arguments, an essay or a podcast or something that I’ve written in response to that specific thing, and then people say, “Oh, nobody believes that,” right? This is the constant frustration when we’re talking about police abolition. There are people who very much believe in police abolition. I’ve known people like that my whole life, right? Again, I grew up in a lefty activist atmosphere. So I’ve known people since way before Black Lives Matter who wanted to immediately abolish the police and the prisons.
But people will always just say, “Well, that’s extreme, and it’s extreme in a way that’s inconvenient for me as someone who’s arguing with you right now. So I’m going to say no one actually thinks that, and no one believes it.” And then, even within that world, what does defund the police mean? There’s this term called sane-washing, which is where someone who’s in your broad political milieu will make a really extreme and crazy claim or demand. You don’t want to be seen to oppose that because you’re on this guy’s side; you’re on this person’s side. So you accept it, but you do so by changing what the person said until it sounds sane, right? So “defund the police” was the most sane-washed thing I’ve ever heard of in my entire life, which is some people meant just really specifically actually police abolition, well, now, like no police. We just closed down the police departments. Prison abolition means we tear down the prisons and we let everybody go free.
Angela Davis is a good example of someone who is a giant in lefty circles. She wrote a prison abolition book. She’s absolutely 100 percent convinced that we could just end these things tomorrow. So when I hear that idea, I react to it and I take it seriously, and I say that it’s stupid and it won’t work, right? But other people say, “Oh, no, no. Defund the Police just means we’re going to draw down police resources. We’re going to put the money elsewhere. We’re going to re-appropriate police funds for things like mental health outreach,” stuff like that. So number one, you can’t have a demand where nobody knows what the demand is, right? Like, if the Voting Rights Act—which is the single most important piece of civil rights legislation in American history because it made keeping Black people from voting a federal crime, which helps to give Black people the political muscle to get what they needed—if some people had said, “Yeah, we want the federal police, federal agents to be in charge of making sure Black people can vote,” but some other people said, “Well, no. What we really want to do is just create an advisory board that looks to the future of potentially—” Then you would not have had to demand and nothing would’ve happened. And that’s what happened with Defund the Police.
And then, of course, there’s the substance, which is—it would just, I don’t know how society would function. There are a lot of claims that are observably untrue about getting rid of the police. In recent history, pretty recent history, like in the American frontier in the late 1800s, which is not that long ago at all in historical terms, we had settlements that had grown up before there was any organized police force there. Like the show Deadwood shows you one of these places. And we have historical records of those places. They were not places where spontaneously we had a brotherhood among men and everybody got along. No, what happened in places like that was the most powerful people dominated the least powerful. And that’s what happened, right? Or if you want a contemporary example, in Hong Kong, because of a weird work of the treaties between the English and the Chinese, there was this place called Kowloon Walled City, which operated as its own independent entity for many years. It was under the jurisdiction of no government, right? And in many ways, it was a functioning society, and they had an economy. But the way that law and order worked was the Chinese triad gangs ran it. Okay? So that’s what happens when you don’t have police, is a warlord will run the area. That’s what Defund the Police is. So I’m not a big fan of the idea.
SEAN SPEER: That’s a good segue to a question about your assessment of progressive accomplishments in the past decade or two. A lot of conservatives, Freddie, would argue that they’ve been significant. Not only have we seen some expansion in the size and scope of government, including under the Biden Administration, but as you said earlier, we’ve seen major developments on issues of identity, race, and sexuality. Yet 0you’re not overwhelmed by these political successes. Why not? How have progressives failed to make as much progress as you’d like?
FREDDIE DEBOER: Well, I mean, I think that there’s just like constitutionally, I would be opposed to the idea of being satisfied politically, right? It’s just foreign to my approach to politics. I just think like, unless I can look around in my society and say, “Everything seems moral here; I’m happy with everything, then I’m going to keep pressing.” Look, yes, there have been some gains. It’s hard to know how proud we should be of those gains because they’ve happened against the total intellectual collapse of American conservatism. So I think that if you look at like Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 and was the speaker of the house, he represented a very coherent form of conservative politics. It’s a form of politics that I find evil because it creates a ton of a human heartache by ending programs and kicking people off of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid who desperately need those things. But it is like a coherent vision of politics.
The problem is, Paul Ryan was an actual small government guy, and the average Republican voter is not a small government person, right? They’re someone who likes the rhetoric of small government, but don’t you dare touch their entitlements, right? It comes up in polling over and over again. You have people who call themselves conservatives who say that they want a small government, who say we should balance the budget. And then you say, “Okay, which of these would you cut?” And you name a ton of programs, and they say, “I wouldn’t cut any of them.” And then you say, “Okay, how much taxes would you raise?” And they say, “We wouldn’t raise any taxes.”
So they’re for small government, but not for ending any program. And they want a balanced budget and fiscal responsibility, but they don’t want any tax increases or spending cuts. So Paul Ryan conservatism just wasn’t that popular, and he always remained an alien figure within a Republican base. He was not a beloved figure. He was loved by conservative wonk types and the conservative media. Who they do love is Donald Trump, right? Because Trump’s fundamental political identity is “I’ll crush your enemies.” And what American conservatives—and look, I’m friends with several conservatives; a lot of them are really smart. I think there are people out there who write really intelligent things from a conservative perspective as a movement. There just is no coherent actual political identity to American conservatism anymore.
One of the things that’s happened in the last three years that I don’t think I would’ve ever seen happen is I would argue that Christianity has ceased to be the moral backbone of American conservatism so that—if you look at George W. Bush, whenever he got in trouble, in any speech, whenever he was in over his head, he would start invoking God, right? Because that was the through line of American conservatism going back to Barry Goldwater. Donald Trump barely pretends to be a Christian. He’s the most impious person I’ve ever seen in my life. And the candidates at this debate are not talking about evangelicals and stuff like that. So when you say, “Hasn’t the American Left gotten a lot accomplished?” There are definitely things that I like. Biden could be a lot worse, right? I’ve said it on several occasions. There are tons of things I don’t like about Biden but he could also be a lot worse. I’ve been impressed by how aggressively he’s been working to expand the role of government in his three years, or however long it’s been. But it’s easy to pick up some victories when your opponent just doesn’t know what they’re doing and when their champion has been indicted multiple times and is a barely coherent reality game show host. And so the question that every Left-leaning American person used to ask himself is, “What if a Ronald Reagan walked out onto the stage?” I think we’d get trounced. I mean, no one will be talking about running an 80-plus-year-old man with a 40 percent approval rating out for 2024 if he had a real opponent. And so everything takes place in that context.
SEAN SPEER: You call yourself a “class-first leftist”. What does that mean? And how would a class-first left-wing politics differ from the predominant politics on the Left today?
FREDDIE DEBOER: Sure. So to be class-first means that the organizing principle of politics is by reaching out to people based on shared economic need. So, like, real, real simple. The way that you practice politics. So not as much about policy, although of course it informs policy, but the political element of your platform is derived from looking at people and saying, “Hey, look, you over here; you’re very different from this person over here, but guess what? You’re both struggling to pay the rent. You have something in common cause with each other; we can devise programs that can help you both. And if you both vote together, then we become stronger and we can get things for you. Hey if you over here, let’s say, a college-educated Black voter in Memphis, Tennessee, and you over here, you laid-off iron worker in Cleveland, Ohio: culturally, there might be a great divide between you, but guess what? Both of you are struggling to be able to pay your health insurance premiums. We’ve got programs that will make that cheaper and easier for you. We’ll ensure that when you retire, Social Security will still be there waiting for you. We’ll ensure that when you retire, Medicare will be robust, and we’re going to force doctors to take it, and we’re going to make sure that our payments are strong enough.”
So you make an appeal to people in saying, “The pocketbook is how you can organize politics.” Where people get this wrong is they think saying that being class-first means that you don’t care about race, or that you don’t care about gender, or you don’t care about homophobia. It’s not at all true, right? The point is, the way you get people to form a coalition that’s large enough to do something about racism, to do something about homophobia, to do something about sexism, the way you build that coalition is by appealing to their economic interest. Because in poll after poll, research study after research study, and just common sense for 100-plus years, right? People base vote-based first on their economic and financial situation and who they perceive is going to do the most to fix those things.
So the Child Tax Credit, which I think should be on the lips of every progressive person in the country. We had it for one year because of COVID-era largesse, right? It’s a program that puts cash money into the pockets of families with children who earn below a certain amount. And it had an immediate and dramatic impact on child poverty in this country. And because of how poverty is distributed, it had a particularly dramatic effect on Black child poverty. That is a perfect program for the kind of thing that I’m talking about because it’s universal, meaning that we can say to everyone who’s poor and got kids, “Hey, we’re going to help you pay the bills and take care of your kid.” But it also has an undeniably anti-racist effect because, even if it does not specifically target Black people, it helps them disproportionately because of the rate of Black poverty. And that’s class-first politics.
SEAN SPEER: Let’s stay on this point for a minute, Freddie. You write in the book that there’s been a “drift from the material and the concrete to the immaterial and symbolic.” We’ve already discussed this a bit, but expand on your thoughts on the role of affluent white progressives in pushing modern left-wing activism from this focus on class that we’ve been talking about to one on identity.
FREDDIE DEBOER: Yeah. I mean, here’s the issue, right? It is undeniable that the Democratic Party has become a richer party than it was 25 or 50 years ago. It’s also just massively more highly educated than it was 50 years ago. For a long time, college completion was associated with being a Republican. Because people who went to college made more money. And traditionally, people who made more money voted for Republicans. Around 2000, or the year 2000, you have this flip where—and this is gradual, that’s just the point where it starts to shift in the other direction—you have a movement in the latter couple decades of the 20th century where college-educated people start to vote more and more for Democrats and less and less for Republicans. At around 2000, you meet at about the evening point out. And then, from there on, Democrats take a dramatic edge in college-educated voters. Now, most college-educated voters went to schools that are not at all competitive. So I think a big misconception among a lot of people is that, of college, they think of getting into an elite school. Most American high school students who apply to college never even apply to a single school that rejects more students than it accepts, okay?
So it’s rare to even apply to those schools let along get into them. However, liberalism has this sort of priest case, right? This priest class of people who are the movers and shakers of left-of-centre opinion. They are at universities. So they are in elite university education and cultural studies and English, and history departments. They’re in the staffs of the major parties and of their representatives. So even though within the Democratic Party there is a gradient of more less-lefty people within our representatives in Congress, the people who work for those representatives in the House or the Senate are almost always far to the Left where the party is as a whole.
So even the people who tend to work for the more conservative Democrats tend to be pretty strongly left-leaning relative to their candidate, relative to the person that they’re working for. You have the media, which—media “bias” is a long conversation, but it’s certainly the case that the overwhelming majority of people who work at places like the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the L.A. Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, et cetera—the overwhelming majority of those people voted for Obama and then Clinton, and then Biden, right? That’s just how it is, right? So you have this class of people who are overwhelmingly pulled from this rare track of applying to the most highly selective schools. And the people who apply to and get into the highly selective schools genuinely are more affluent. I quote some of this data in the book, but we know that people who are in, for example, the newsrooms of the most prestigious newspapers are not coming from median-income families. Most of them are coming from upper-income families. When you’re in that milieu, it’s just easy to forget about the Child Tax Credit.
And it’s easy to think about, “Okay, when I was at Yale, I took a great seminar on race, and I learned all about the concept of misogyny noir, which is like misogyny against Black women specifically. And I want to impress the people around me. I want to show everybody what a great ally I am. I want to be the smartest kid in class. So I’m going to use that, and I’m going to fixate on that. And I’m going to take—I’m going to look at a show that everybody loves, and I’m going to tell you why it’s racist,” right? Which is like a whole genre in our media economy now, which is, find a thing that everybody loves and call it racist. That sort of thing just becomes socially and professionally incentivized in a way that’s really focusing on stuff that never really applied to you because you were born, let’s just say, affluent, it becomes really hard to keep an eye on class first.
SEAN SPEER: Freddie, you’ve been so generous with your time. I just have a few more questions for you. You took on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a must-read article for New York Magazine in July as symptomatic of some of the issues that we’ve been discussing.
What strikes me most about her is that, while she’s arguably one of the most resolutely progressive legislators in the U.S. Congress, she’s still not in favour of raising taxes on households below something like 400,000 in income. So even she is reluctant to make the full-throated case for a larger yet properly funded government. What’s behind that? Is it just a worry about Republican attacks or is it donor politics, and whatever it is, how much does the willingness to make the case for higher taxes on a larger share of the population stand in the way of progressive goals?
FREDDIE DEBOER: Yeah, so I mean, look, I would argue that this is the real pain point for liberal people, progressive people, or Democrats moving forward, is that our definition of who is rich is not large enough and that it has to include more people. In my first book, I joined with those who say that like, “Look, yes, the 99 percent versus the 1 percent is important, but the real divide is between the bottom 80 percent and the top 20 percent.” I myself reside in the top 20 percent now, for the record. I think that it is donor politics. I think people like AOC, and look, she’s hardly alone in this in Congress, so I’m not hanging this on her specifically, but you just get a ton of donations from people who make 100 to $400,000, right? There’s the upper middle to lower upper class. This affluent class that is nevertheless not what we might call “rich, rich,” but they make a lot of donations. They’re very influential among the nonprofit groups that I’ve been talking about. But I also think that—yeah, number one, it’s just a fight that they don’t want to pick, right? They can’t get those tax raises right now anyway, so why put the idea into the world if it’s going to get you blowback? But also, AOC goes to the Met Gala Ball now. She just runs with a higher-income crowd.
And so her vision of what is rich has probably changed. If you’re someone who like is on a first-name basis with Beyonce, as I believe she’s, right? I’m sure someone who makes $350,000 does seem like, “Oh, it’s middle class to you.” But the reality is like, look, we’ve seen this runaway inflation, which we finally seem to have got put a stopper on. It remains the case that, like, there are legitimate disagreements about how much of government actually has to be funded, right? But like the United States is in a unique position as the world’s hegemon, as the currency of default with the dollar of the currency that oil is traded based on that we have such an immense country that’s so economically powerful that deficits just don’t matter that much. However, sooner or later, it would be best for liberalism, for Democrats, for people in the media who figure out the fact that people who make $140,000 a year are making twice the median household income in this country. And if the idea is that they should never be eligible for having their taxes raised for that reason, then yes, I think that does foreclose on a lot of progressive possibility. And it’s a mistake.
SEAN SPEER: A penultimate question: I’ve read that you believe that a publisher wouldn’t have touched the book in 2021. Why? And what’s changed? What might it tell us that it was published in 2023?
FREDDIE DEBOER: I think the original thing that I said was that this publisher wouldn’t have given me this dollar figure at this—could I have gotten this book published in 2021? Sure. I could have gone to a small imprint that wouldn’t have any ability to promote it to the degree that Simon and Schuster has, and they would’ve given me five grand for the advance. But in terms of putting out in 2021 a big-ticket book from the second-biggest publishing house in the world that has as its explicit purpose, critiquing and criticizing along sympathetically, but critiquing and criticizing the Black Lives Matter movement, I just think we were not ready for that in 2021. Look, there were repeated scandals following George Floyd’s death and everything that happened about employees at publishing houses not wanting to participate in the production of conservative books. And that just petered out over time. So, yeah, I think that my assessment there is accurate. It is remarkable, I mean, part of why I wanted to write the book is just, everybody was so wound up to just such an incredible degree. So everybody was scared for a long time and nobody was saying anything, and then it all just seemed to evaporate in the night, and now people can barely remember what it was like afterwards.
SEAN SPEER: That’s a good segue to my final question. Let’s wrap up by having you paint a picture of a different and better progressive politics. What do you think still has to change, and what would be the benefits from following your vision?
FREDDIE DEBOER: I mean, the first thing that would’ve to happen is that you would have to sit, get real, and say, “Look, 70 percent of the American electorate is white.” Okay? Despite the constant insistence that the demographics are going to just make this a permanently blue nation, the guys who wrote the book that popularized that theory have now repudiated it. Okay? Also, not only is 70 percent of the American electorate are white, only 59 percent of the population is, but 70 percent of the electorate is white. The way that our Senate works, and to a lesser extent, the electoral college, means that white rural voters have dramatically disproportionate amounts of power within the system. There are all number of people who have made some version of saying, “Well, we just want those voters who went to Trump.” There are millions of voters who voted for Barack Obama twice and then voted for Trump—millions of them, right? And people want to say, “Well, they’re just racists, and we need to wash our hands of them.”
There’s no doubt that there are incorrigible racists within Trump’s coalition that we will never reach. I don’t want to reach out to them. But if you’re just saying, “Well, we’re just not going to reach out to try to win Ohio anymore. If we’re just going to declare Florida to be a total loss.” If we’re going to make those decisions, you’re just saying you don’t want to win, right? What you can do is you can say, “Hey, look, I’d love it if everybody would come together across races and hold hands and sing kumbaya.” But that’s probably not going to happen in the short term. What we can do is say, “Hey, you guys from Ohio, voter from Ohio, voter from Florida. Voter from Texas: You guys are in states that are looking red, but that might potentially be flipped. You don’t have to love everybody in New York’s coastal cities. They don’t have to love you back, right? But you share something in common, which is you are losers in our economic game. You are the losers, and the winners are not like latte-swilling liberals who are putting their foot on your neck. They’re just the masters of the universe who own everything. We can come together and form a coalition to be able to implement progressive politics.”
If you look at the labour movement of the 20th century, it scored incredible victories in the first half of the 20th century, and maintained some of those victories for a long time following that, prior to de-industrialization. Look at the UAW, the Auto Workers Union. Very large union, very diverse. It was not at all the case that everyone within that union, like white and Black, were living without tension. Okay? Some people got along great, and sometimes there were serious racial tensions within the union. There were factions within the union that were based on race. There were a lot of arguments and fights that were based on race, but when it came time to negotiate with the big automakers. They set those issues aside and they said, “We share the same interests, so let’s improve our own economic wellbeing together.” And if we do that, maybe we can get to a world where Black people are in so much of a better economic position that they don’t have to worry anymore about the idiots out there who don’t like them.
SEAN SPEER: It’s a great way to wrap up the conversation. The book is How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement. Freddie deBoer, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.
FREDDIE DEBOER: Thanks for having me.