When social activist Cori Bush defeated 20-year incumbent Missouri Rep. William Lacy Clay in his Congressional Democratic primary last year, it created an opportunity for progressive change. Bush hails from Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, which includes St. Louis, a city plagued by underdevelopment and violence (in 2020, its homicide rate hit a 50-year high).
Bush’s elevation to Congress gave her the opportunity to advocate for things like economic development and public safety for the people she represents, and she has certainly used her newfound media profile to raise those issues. But the very first bill she introduced in Congress called for an investigation into and possible expulsion of over 100 House Republicans who objected to the certification of electoral college votes on Jan. 6th, the same day as the Capitol riot. Doing so would effectively disenfranchise tens of millions of Americans who voted for these lawmakers; it would also demonstrate a glaring double standard: In 2001, 2005, and 2017, at least some Congressional Democrats voted to do the same thing. In many cases, these lawmakers across both parties were fulfilling their obligation to represent constituents who had concerns, founded or not, about election integrity.
Moreover, Bush’s resolution invokes the Fourteenth Amendment, which bars officeholders who have “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” against the government, conflating lawful protected speech by the Republican lawmakers with unlawful violence by the rioters. Here she gets into more difficulty. After all, if we were to hold everyone who holds a certain belief responsible for a small number of their ideological allies who resort to violence, then Bush herself would have to be expelled; she is after all an outspoken supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, whose protests have at times devolved into violent riots.
But you don’t get the sense that Democrats, or the wider progressive movement, really fear that the measures they are advocating will ever be turned against them. During the Trump years, left of center America slowly shed its old politics of social liberation—the one born in UC Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, sexual liberation, and the civil rights revolution—and have replaced it with something else: a politics of social control.
This new politics of social control means using public and private institutions, almost all of which are now controlled by left-leaning people, to coerce individuals into their preferred modes of being and even thinking.
Hundreds of colleges and universities have “bias response teams” aimed at regulating offensive utterances by students. Silicon Valley companies founded to connect the world in a new public square have been cajoled into becoming a 21st century speech police (although not an impartial one). The infrastructure those companies have built is being used by liberal activists as a sort of Panopticon, transforming what once would have been thought of as mild and unfortunate dust-ups between individuals into polarizing national scandals that ruin lives.
This is not to say that left is not walking this path—of surveilling, censoring, punishing, and expelling—out of cynicism. Rather, social media and partisan news channels have made the left much more fearful than they used to be. And the mainstream liberal media has been playing a big role, too.
A decade ago, the New York Times was not running Op-Eds validating the idea that it’s an open question whether Black or white people can even be friends. That it’s doing so today is part of a larger shift at elite media institutions. Political scientist Zach Goldberg studied news coverage at the Times and the Washington Post between 2011 and 2019, finding a 700% increase in the use of the terms racist/racists/racism at the former and a nearly 1000% increase in the latter. This, mind you, was coming at a time when America was growing more tolerant, not less. Along a wide range of measures, bias towards minority groups has been falling, not growing, during the 21st century. Yet if you fire up your social media channels or browse cable news, you’d think that the United States is just moments away from transforming into a white supremacist state.
In such a scenario, why shouldn’t we consider instituting a regime of strict social control? Maybe we should force every man, woman, and child in America to undergo mandatory anti-bias training. Sure, there’s no evidence these trainings even work, but when we’re in a climate of fear, the impulse to just do something is overwhelming.
We can see that in the way the aftermath of the Capitol riot is being covered. There is no doubt the event was a tragedy. Several people lost their lives, and over a hundred police officers were injured in the melee. But it’s worth noting that in a country where there are more guns than people, not a single rioter fired a gun at anyone.
Yet today, the Capitol is reinforced by massive fencing and thousands of National Guard soldiers, as if it is prepared to repel an actual military force. Meanwhile, the left has learned to love the national security expert industry as it compares a raucous melee to a sophisticated terror movement. The same New York Times that hosted an op-ed calling for us to just eliminate police altogether last year opened up room for a former CIA station chief to argue that “we may be witnessing the dawn of a sustained wave of violent insurgency within our own country, perpetrated by our own countrymen.” Elsewhere, former head of JSOC in Iraq Stanley McChrystal ominously warned following the riot that an Iraq-style insurgency is “happening in America.”
These are weak arguments. Most years, terrorism takes fewer lives in the United States than dog bites. That hasn’t changed. We can’t be compared to terror-plagued countries overseas.
That hasn’t stopped the left from drawing on this hyperbole—though importantly not in response to last year’s left-leaning riots, or the massive homicide wave that rocked the country over the same period of time. The left’s system of social control is focused squarely in one direction: at individuals, organizations, and ideologies perceived to be representing the excesses of the right. The left believes the only way to deal with this conflagration is with repression, ranging from classmates snitching on each other to a new domestic anti-terrorism law.
I’m sure there left-leaning readers who are poring over my words thinking: What’s the alternative, wise guy? I’m not saying social control is never necessary. We need police to arrest people who commit violence, political or otherwise. If someone is engaging in repeated and targeted harassment towards their colleagues, it’s probably appropriate to sanction them.
But the left should move away from a posture that sees social control as its primary function and remember its roots in social liberation. Bullying and repressing people backfires. The best way to fight hate is by building trust, even with those who dislike us.
“When my brothers try to draw a circle to exclude me, I shall draw a larger circle to include them,” Pauli Murray, the legendary civil rights lawyer once counseled.
The left has traditionally existed to liberate human beings, not take pleasure in controlling and punishing people it views as aberrant or evil. Social control should be a last resort, not a pastime. Only by realizing this can the left resume its mission of expanding human freedom by promoting the dignity of every person.
Zaid Jilani is a journalist who hails from Atlanta, Georgia. He has previously worked as a reporter-blogger for ThinkProgress, United Republic, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, and Alternet. He is the cohost of the podcast “Extremely Offline.”
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.