Sean Speer: The Left has a self-policing problem

Progressive elites who lament the rise of the far right need to reckon with the rise of the far left
Protestors attend a march in support of Palestine through downtown Hamilton, Ont. on Sunday, October 15, 2023. Peter Power/The Canadian Press.

A key feature of a political movement’s health is its ability to self-police against ideological excesses or reactionary forms of politics. It’s not easy to do. There are powerful incentives that tilt against it, including the risk of alienating prospective supporters, harming personal relationships, and granting political ammunition to one’s opponents. There are also practical limits in a distributive democracy where there are rarely points of authority that can plausibly claim to speak for a political movement as a whole. 

Yet just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that there isn’t some onus—particularly among elite actors—to call out and, where necessary, isolate radicalism within their ranks. 

At its apogee in the second half of the twentieth century, National Review magazine played this role on the American Right. Its founder, William F. Buckley Jr., famously wrote the John Birch Society out of the mainstream conservative movement that he was assiduously building. He similarly published a scathing review of Ayn Rand’s book, Atlas Shrugged, by one of the magazine’s editors, Whittaker Chambers, that signaled to the world that Rand’s objectivism didn’t have a home in it either.

In the ensuing decades, the American Right has ceased to self-police. At this point, not only are its political leaders merely trying to stay ahead of their most radical voices, but within the adjacent world of conservative ideas and thought, it can at times be hard to distinguish between the elites and the fringe. 

Canadian conservatism has generally had less of a reactionary problem. There are doubtless various factors including the Westminster model’s emphasis on top-down leadership and party discipline, the country’s more moderate political culture, and its lower racial salience. 

The Hub has nevertheless, in the two-and-a-half-years since its launch, taken seriously a sense of responsibility for calling out conservative excesses including the reactionary parts of the movement that disposed Jason Kenney as Alberta’s United Conservative Party leader, the conspiratorial impulses behind some of the conservative criticism of the World Economic Forum, and the growing trend of online ideas and voices radicalizing young men. 

We know that these instances have antagonized some conservatives who believe that it’s a tactical mistake to cede any ground to the Left. They’ve probably cost us some number of donors and subscribers. We also recognize that there are inherent limits to our ability to neutralize some of these excesses. No one is asking our permission before tweeting or driving their transport truck onto Parliament Hill for that matter. But we still think it’s ultimately healthy for The Hub as an institution and conservatism as a whole to speak out when we feel it’s called for. 

This notion of self-policing is something that I’ve thought a lot about in recent years. I wonder what I would have done if I had been a Republican in 2015 and 2016. I don’t know. It’s easy to look the other way or rationalize bad ideas on one’s own side. 

But the lesson of the past several years in the United States is that even if there are downsides for those who are prepared to be self-critical, there’s not a lot of upside for those who aren’t. Ask Republican congressional leaders like Kevin McCarthy or Jim Jordan. Do their choices in hindsight look better or shrewder than Liz Cheney’s? The answer is self-evidently no. 

I share this context because the reaction of the Canadian Left to Hamas’s terrorist attacks against Israel has revealed a self-policing problem. It’s become clear that the movement’s intellectual and political leaders have permitted radical ideas and voices to occupy an outsized place in today’s progressivism. The consequences have alarmingly played themselves out in recent weeks on university campuses, the streets of the country’s major cities, and even inside our mainstream politics. Put bluntly: the Left has an antisemitism problem. 

Even that however doesn’t seem to fully capture the magnitude and nature of the problem. It’s not merely the fringe expressions of outright Jew-hatred that we’ve witnessed. It’s actually something far deeper and more mainstream that may be the bigger cause for concern.

The Left’s strong attachment to radical ideas such as “decolonisation”, “oppressor versus oppressed” frameworks, and the so-called “right to resist” has created an intellectual context in which acts of terrorism and violence can find affirmation and support. 

There are different factors that have contributed to the problem. One is that progressives have so convinced themselves that the rise of the so-called “far right” represents an existential threat that they’ve been prepared to make alliances with radical political figures and organizations (“no enemies to the Left”) or opted to overlook the rise of radicalism within their movement. To the extent that they may acknowledge it, there’s been a tendency to minimize these intellectual trends as merely a form of campus politics or faculty lounge theorizing. 

Another is that the problem on the Left is essentially the opposite of the one on the Right. For conservatives, self-policing is mainly about conservative elites trying to constrain the excesses of the right-wing masses. For progressives, the excesses are among left-wing elites themselves. Radicalism finds its strongest expression among university faculty, law school students, and the panoply of non-profit organizations that comprise the modern Left. It’s not obvious therefore who’s supposed to be doing the policing. 

But it needs to happen. North American scenes of anti-Jewish rallies and full-throated defences of Hamas’s horrific terrorist attacks rooted in left-wing theories of anti-colonialism and anti-settler resistance are signs that radicalism has spilled out from university seminar rooms into the streets. 

These protests and rallies—including ones that have targeted Jewish restaurants and cultural centres—have exposed these problems for everyone to see. They’ve forced us to confront the interrelationship between these Manichean ideas about identity and power promulgated by left-wing voices and antisemitism. This should lead to a reassessment of the public good case for subsidizing various forms of critical theory education and scholarship which often seem like a thin veneer of academic rigour for what is otherwise a set of retrograde intellectual propositions about race, gender, sexuality, and society. 

But that’s probably a necessary yet insufficient response to what has played out in recent weeks. This is in large part a progressivism problem that progressives themselves must address. Progressive elites who lament the rise of the far right need to reckon with the rise of the far left and their own role in galvanizing it. Self-policing is hard—especially when it requires serious introspection—but it’s necessary. It’s time for the Left to police its own side. 

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