The Perils of Denialism on the Left




THIS MONTH the Oxford Dictionary chose “post-truth” as its word of the year, which it defines as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” In an article for The Guardian, Oxford Dictionary cited a huge spike in the usage of “post-truth,” especially in relation to Britain’s shocking Brexit decision as well as America’s no less shocking election, and noted that the ‘word of the year’ ultimately “reflect(s) the passing year in language.”

The prominence of the term “post-truth” is damning confirmation of the pervasiveness of denialism. As a progressive, I always associated deniers and denialism with ideologues on the far right. Deniers were zealots who refuted climate change, impervious against reams of scientific empirical data, or who denied evolution because it was not in synch with their literal interpretation of the Bible. However, over the course of this election, I’ve seen the rise of another, subtler form of denialism amongst the ranks of Democratic liberals.

This strain of denialism might not as be as nihilistic as the one afflicting the far right, but it still constitutes a refusal to accept reality. Unlike the denialism of the right, which employs crutches like religion, the denialism of the left is characterized by a type of hyper-rationalism, which relies on selectively curated facts. And this strain of denialism helped lose Democrats this election and is the cause of liberals’ shock over this loss.

One of the first realities liberal deniers refused to accept was that Trump posed a real and possible threat as a contender for the Republican presidential nominee not despite his status as a celebrity businessman, but because of it. Whatever the opinion of the manner in which he conducted his business, his hotels, golf courses, and apartment buildings are dotted around the country, real-life pillars to his business empire. And yet, his veracity as a businessman was doubted and debated in the media throughout the campaign.

Also, he had one of the most popular reality shows on television. Again, irrespective of whether it was tasteful or distasteful, the show was a hit for several years on network TV, whose executives clearly viewed him as the embodiment of the business world. Whether or not the elite business world regarded him as one of their own, mainstream Americans came to see him as an icon of American business. His New York Times best-selling book, The Art of the Deal, certainly helped imprint this into the popular American psyche.

A second reality that liberal deniers refused to accept was that there were real and substantive issues with Hillary Clinton as a candidate for President. These issues did not include her vast qualifications or her gender. They included her late arrival to acknowledging the Black Lives Matter movement and efforts to raise the minimum wage. They also included her having to walk back remarks about shutting down coal companies juxtaposed against the revelation that she had given talks to investment banks but would not release the transcripts of those talks. Meanwhile, during the Democratic primaries, Sanders had rejuvenated the party by squarely talking about economic inequity and the need for Washington to make this a priority, attracting disaffected millennials and lower middle class voters. He was also faster to engage in issues of race and his engagement was more credible, given his involvement in the Civil Rights struggle.

All of this does not necessarily mean that Cilnton should not have become the Democratic Presidential nominee but that her nomination should not have been presumptive. So many people, on the left and the right side of the spectrum, felt that Washington politics were completely dysfunctional and ineffective and they desperately sought change. Whether they blamed President Obama or his Republican obstructionists for the inability to create meaningful change on intractable issues, they wanted a bold candidate who would speak up against entrenched interests. On the right, people gravitated to Trump, who tapped into and stoked fears around American political and economic sovereignty by decrying immigration and demonizing Mexicans and Muslims. Meanwhile, on the left, Sanders forcefully decried the financial institutions, especially investment banks, and their role in fueling the recent recession and in perpetuating economic inequities.

While Trump is the embodiment of big business, and Sanders is a longtime socialist, which puts them at polar opposite, they were both regarded as not beholden to corporate special interests. The same could not be said of Clinton, and the greater her silence about her talks to the banks and her emails, the more the Trump campaign was able to foment speculation about her ties to special interests.  Clinton chose positions that were pragmatic and centrist, and in turn, the Democratic party, confident that Clinton provided a safe and predictable rival to bombastic and unpredictable Trump, the Republican nominee, chose Clinton. And in doing so, ignored the sentiments of millions of disaffected voters.

I witnessed this denialism close up. When Trump announced his candidacy and as his polling numbers began to soar way above his Republican contenders, liberals refused to take him or his invectives seriously. Instead of protesting his invitation to host Saturday Night Live, they saw it as part of their mockery of him, as if he was the joke not the joker. And when he emerged as the Republican nominee, some Clinton supporters even seemed jubilant, because his candidacy spelled a landslide victory for Clinton, given his many inadequacies and her extensive qualifications. And the mockery wasn’t just reserved for Trump and his supporters but also Sanders and his supporters who were labeled in monolithic terms, like “Bernie Bros.”

Knowing his candidacy was a longshot, I voted for Sanders in the Democratic primary, as a way of showing support for his ideals and hoping that even if he didn’t survive the primaries, his ideals would. When Clinton was chosen, I got behind her nomination as the Democratic candidate but didn’t necessarily espouse all that she stood for. But often any criticism or concern about Clinton’s words or actions was swiftly met with these three points of defense: 1) There should be no criticism of Clinton because we need to unify behind our candidate; 2) Any criticism of Clinton is just veiled misogyny because these criticisms would never be leveled at a male candidate; 3) Any criticism of Clinton is invalid in the face of the magnitude of Trump’s transgressions.

Weathering this defense a few times over the course of the election was reminiscent of my experience more than eight years ago when Barack Obama was running against Clinton in the Democratic primaries. The way Obama invigorated the Democratic party base, not unlike the ways Sanders had in this election, was ignored and instead met with questions of “what had he done as a senator” rather than what he stood for. One Clinton supporter went so far as to tell me it was more important for a woman to be president than a Black man. And now, in this election, as a woman of color, I was sometimes viewed as disloyal for not getting squarely behind the female candidate.

Denial is defined as either the “action of declaring something to be untrue,” or “the refusal of something requested or desired.” The Democratic presidential campaign, during this election, met both of these definitions. And in creating a grandiose liberal bubble, locking out those with bolder visions and expectations, they created the most perfect soundproof echochamber. Until they burst this bubble — which hopefully has been accomplished by this tragic defeat — they will not be able to hear and welcome differing and dissenting voices amongst their ranks, who are essential to charting their course towards the future.

¤

Kavita Das writes about culture, race, social change, feminism, and their intersections. She’s a contributor to NBC News Asian America, The Rumpus, and The Aerogram, and is at work on a biography of Grammy-nominated Hindustani singer Lakshmi Shankar, to be published by Harper Collins India.


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