Critique of the Week: Jonathan Haidt

By Steve McIntosh

In this column I offer constructive critiques of public figures I admire by pointing out how they could benefit from a developmental perspective.

Jonathan Haidt is a national treasure. His courageous opposition to the mounting pressure for ideological conformity within American academia continues to serve as a light of liberalism for America’s embattled universities. And as Haidt points out, the strident demands of this new kind of progressive fundamentalism are now impacting institutions across the American landscape. I applaud Haidt’s cogent critiques, and I especially appreciate how he has managed to forward his advocacy for viewpoint diversity and ideological pluralism without embracing right-wing partisanship. I thus consider him to be “post-progressive” in many important respects.

Yet notwithstanding my admiration for his fair-minded defense of liberal values, I think his critiques of woke “power monomania,” as he terms it in a recent essay, do not adequately identify the problem he is attempting to solve. Building on the analysis in his 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind (coauthored with Greg Lukianoff), Haidt focuses on “a subset of students,” who insist “that everything that happens in our society happens because power is always and everywhere trying to maintain itself.” Inspired by the intensely critical philosophy of Michel Foucault and Ibram Kendi, these students have become militant activists who vociferously demand ideological conformity.

Like many commentators who are alarmed by progressivism’s increasing illiberalism, Haidt identifies antiracist ideology as the source of this new monomaniacal fundamentalism. As the events of 2020 demonstrated, antiracist ideology inspires a passionate commitment among its followers by advancing the higher cause of atoning for America’s racist past. Antiracism thus provides a quasi-religious sense of transcendence that many, especially the young, hunger for in our disenchanted age. Yet by identifying students and other young people as the primary perpetrators of the contemporary assault on liberal values, Haidt fails to correctly identify the key point of leverage where his argument might gain traction. There’s no point in arguing with fundamentalists. So rather than condemning “power monomania” among young wokesters as the problem, Haidt would do well to recognize how progressive culture as a whole is complicit in the rise of the new anti-democratic illiberalism. Antiracist ideology has gained millions of ardent adherents over the past few years, but the power of this militant creed ultimately depends on the support and encouragement of the larger “progressive postmodern worldview,” as I formally identify it.

This progressive postmodern worldview encompasses a much larger portion of the U.S. population than the current version of antiracist ideology, which only began to gain momentum in 2013 with the founding of the Black Lives Matter organization. The larger culture of contemporary progressivism, which has been emerging over the last sixty years, is more substantial and complex than a singular monolithic ideology. This larger progressive worldview can be most accurately understood as a historically significant frame of values—a coherent set of norms and ideals that spans multiple generations. This large-scale worldview can thus be compared and contrasted with the competing worldviews of modernity (or “modernism”) and traditionalism.

Examining, for example, the worldview of modernity, which first emerged in the Enlightenment, we can see how it now contains numerous ideologies, including globalism, neoliberalism, libertarianism, and scientism. While many modernists ascribe to one or more of these ideologies, the larger worldview of modernity as a whole cannot be conflated with any of them, and there are many modernists who affirm liberal values but who remain skeptical of all forms of ideology.

The progressive worldview likewise includes a variety of ideologies, not all of which are embraced by those who otherwise identify as progressive. Distinct ideologies that have emerged within the larger progressive worldview include environmentalism, democratic socialism, and contemporary feminism. While racial equality has also been a central concern of the progressive worldview since it origins in the 1960s, the current form of antiracist ideology is a relatively new addition. Recognizing how antiracist ideology is only a part of the larger progressive postmodern worldview is crucial because this distinction provides the key to reigning in the excesses of wokeism. In fact, moderating and constraining the illiberal aspects of antiracist ideology is necessary not only to preserve the liberal values of modernity, such moderation is also necessary to prevent progressivism’s other creditable political goals from being thwarted by the mounting backlash against antiracist ideology.

It is important to acknowledge that overall, the rise of the progressive worldview has improved American society by increasing our concern for those who have been marginalized and victimized, and by building our political will to achieve social and environmental justice. And despite its troubling illiberalism, when at its best antiracist ideology serves as a potent wake-up call to renew our collective efforts to overcome the racial inequality that continues to plague our nation. But as progressivism has gained extensive cultural power over the last few years, its adamant rejection of America’s basic moral legitimacy has significantly undermined the social solidarity necessary for a functional democracy.

As Ioannis Gatsiounis argues in an op-ed entitled, “Wake up, liberals, and fight woke culture,” the moral authority required to constrain antiracism’s illiberal zeal is held primarily by progressives who share woke concerns about equality and justice, but who can see that abandoning liberal values in the name of racial equality results in more injustice, not less. As Gatsiounis observes, “conservatives are not suited to lead a defense of American pluralism. They’ve abused wokeness for political expediency, leveling it as a catch-all to demonize Democrats and deflect self-accountability.” It thus falls on mature leaders within progressive culture itself to push back against the troubling illiberalism of antiracist ideology.

As an example of a prominent  progressive who fails to recognize the threat, Gatsiounis points to New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, who describes “objection to critical race theory as an ‘absurd and cynical’ ploy by Republicans.” However, “many of her liberal readers were quick to point out that they too are troubled by the new illiberalism.” As one parent whose public school veered radically leftward this year commented: “I can tell you this is not a liberal versus conservative issue. In highly educated circles, it’s become a liberal versus liberal issue. I’m tired of The Times implying that only Fox News conservatives object to their children being manipulated into seeing literally everything through the incredibly reductive and divisive lenses of race and gender.”

Another recent example of how progressive leaders are undermining their own political goals by turning a blind eye to the illiberalism of antiracist ideology can be seen in the extensive gaslighting surrounding the teaching of “critical race theory.” Progressive pundits have circled the wagons on this issue by repeating the talking point that critical race theory is a graduate-level subject that is not being taught in K-12 schools. These commentators claim that educators are merely teaching hard truths about America that make parents uncomfortable. However, abundant specific examples of recently introduced antiracist ideology within the curriculums of public schools nationwide demonstrate the legitimate concerns of both liberal and conservative parents about the ideological indoctrination of their kids. And this issue promises to provide a boon to Republicans in the 2022 midterm elections.

Although Jonathan Haidt certainly recognizes that antiracist ideology now extends well beyond the confines of higher education, as outlined in The Coddling of the American Mind, his recommended remedy amounts to a series of therapeutic interventions designed to raise “wiser kids.” But by essentially framing the problem as “students run amuck,” Haidt deflects our attention from the complicity of older progressives in positions of authority who are not monomaniacal woke fundamentalists, but who are nevertheless cowardly capitulating to the illiberal demands of antiracist ideology. In the same way that progressive parents can sometimes be overly permissive with their children, it is these progressive “adults” who bear the primary responsibility for the unchecked illiberal monomania that is corroding what’s left of America’s social solidarity.

From a post-progressive perspective, ideological strident young people are not the primary source of progressivism’s emerging pathologies. It is rather the leaders of the progressive worldview as whole—highly educated elites who are exhilarated by the energy behind wokeism’s rapid rise, but who seemingly fail to recognize the threat that this illiberal ideology poses to America’s fragile democracy. Therefore, if he wants to effectively fight back against the anti-modernism and reverse patriotism of progressivism in general, and antiracist ideology in particular, Haidt would do well to focus his critiques on the progressive clerisy—those who have the requisite influence and moral authority to prevent wokeism from further undermining both liberal values and the laudable goals of progressive politics.

Showing 14 comments
  • Jeanne
    Reply

    Where would be a good place for me to get information on why/how anti-racist ideology and/or wokeism is dangerous to our democracy? I’m not sure I quite understand that argument.

    • Lara
      Reply

      Jeanne, here is an article that might help in getting you started on looking into answers for your question: https://www.salon.com/2018/04/18/heres-why-some-progressives-are-tearing-each-other-apart_partner/

    • Steve McIntosh
      Reply

      Thanks for your excellent question Jeanne. It is challenging to answer in the space of the comment section but I’ll try.

      Ultimately, I think the challenge of antiracist ideology will strengthen our democracy. By threatening its foundations, it forces us to reaffirm the necessity of liberal values. But regarding the threat itself:

      First, antiracist ideology promotes tribalism by viewing people more as avatars of their racial group than as unique individuals. Tribalism corrodes the sense of national cultural belonging necessary for a healthy democratic polity wherein voters care about the common good of the whole.

      Second, this ideology repudiates liberal values and the freedoms they safeguard, such as freedom of speech and economic freedom, without which democracy cannot last long.

      Third, it significanly exacerbates the hyperpolarization that is stymieing our democratic process, as demonstrated by the current turmoil on many public school boards. If antiracist ideology were to gain further political power, this polarizing effect would be greatly magnified.

      And finally and most concretely, I can point to Ibram Kendi’s proposal for an antiracist constitutional amendment (unconstitutional on its face), which would establish a “Department of Antiracism responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas.” As Andrew Sullivan argues, this would be a form of tyranny:

      https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/11/andrew-sullivan-the-intersectional-lefts-political-endgame.html

      If you google around you will find many similar criticisms pointing out how antiracist ideology’s identity politics threaten democratic modernity.

      • Jeanne
        Reply

        Thank you, Steve, for the detailed and thoughtful reply. I do see all of your points. I find racism to be so ugly and terrible for our society, and at the same time I see that there is much disagreement in progressive circles as to what to do about it. While I appreciate Kendi’s voice in this conversation (and I would hope post-progressives wouldn’t want to “cancel” that perspective, but rather engage with it) I absolutely see the danger in his anti-racist constitutional amendment proposal which reminds me of Big Brother. Good discussion, thanks again.

    • Scott Kirby
      Reply
  • David Watkins
    Reply

    I’ve only read through this once, quickly, but expect that I will be referencing it in many of my debates going forward.

    • Kenneth
      Reply

      I’ll start by saying that I appreciate Steve’s nuancing of Haidt’s reductionistic critique of woke zeal, for lack of a better term. Steve makes several good points, and offers some helpful wisdom. Still, I think this article and comment section need some added nuance as well.

      I will focus on on just a few things.

      On the concerns about anti-democratic, illiberal, and authoritarian/tyrannical threats – I have personally seen this social movement, or overlapping movements, as fundamentally democratic. Many of the same movement leaders who are using “woke” lenses(anti-racism, critical deconstructions of gender, patriarchy, capitalism, colonialism, etc) are also some of the most ardent supporters of strengthening and expanding our democracy. They are calling for stronger voting rights, and democratic reforms to the less-than democratic aspects of our representative government. They are calling for structural adjustments to systems that have long been producing unequal and unjust outcomes. Why, for instance does Kendi want federal anti-racism oversight? Because he is acutely aware of all the ways that non-white people in this country are disenfranchised through seemingly benign policy, voter suppression bills for example that claim to require the same standards for all voters, yet disproportionately burden Black and poor and disabled voters. So we can call Kendi’s proposal tyrannical, but what’s the alternative? Because if we do nothing to address all the in equities hiding in plain sight in our policies, laws, district lines, etc, then racial wealth gaps remain, disparities in education remain, disparities in policing and incarceration remain. My guess is that Kendi’s desired outcome is not really what folks here disagree with, but his method and strategy to achieve the outcome. And if so, what alternative would you present him? And how could you convince him of the effectiveness of that alternative?

      • Kenneth
        Reply

        Sorry, didn’t mean to post this as a reply to a specific comment, but just a response to the whole discussion.

  • Walker Jeremy
    Reply

    I have the same question as Jeanne. I intuitively get it, but my mind struggles to ground the clear understanding of what the problem is with wokeism going to extremes that become illiberal. I have been hearing many references to this in integral circles but without concrete examples to illustrate exactly why this is a problem.

    I think it might really help more progressives to “awaken from wokeism” if there was more detail provided on what the problem is, with examples. With this foundation as a stronger shared understanding, I think what McIntosh writes about here might gain more traction. On that note, please share any articles that do a good job of explaining this as I would love to help further this cause!

  • Scott Kirby
    Reply

    Reading the comments reinforces my conviction that the information ecology is so polarized that it’s hard to move forward. So many well-intentioned progressives simply do not get news that forms the foundation of this review, and they are at a loss as to what to make of some of the its claims. I like Common Sense with Bari Weiss (https://bariweiss.substack.com) and Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism – F.A.I.R. (https://www.fairforall.org.) One thing that has confused me is the disconnect between the Woke and a fundamental understanding of the dangers of tyranny, such as that provided in what were then “standard” high school readings like “Brave New World” and “1984.” Case in point: informing on peers/teachers and using phones as “surveillance” have not only become the norm, they are not even questioned as the tools of authoritarianism that they are. These examples, combined with the countless examples of infringements on speech, speak to a generation that cannot see their complicity in a culture of fear and control that was warned about by Orwell and Huxley. If basic freedoms of expression and viewpoint diversity are not “shared values,” how do we attempt a conversation? I find my “dialogues” with the Woke now resemble those with evangelical preachers who camped out on the “Oval” at Ohio State University and shouted at students that we were sinners and irredeemable. Haidt surely had this part right: most Woke truly believe the world is divided into “good and evil” people. Thanks again, Steve!!

  • Gavin Mason
    Reply

    Excellent article. Senior liberals need to summon their courage and speak up against illiberal wokeness. That word “illiberal” is powerful.

  • Jeanne
    Reply

    Thanks, all, for the links. Still reading and digesting. I do understand the “mean green” aspect of “wokeness” and I’ve personally seen it play out and it’s just not at all effective or helpful. But I also wonder how we would each define wokeness—that would matter, I think. To me, it is being awake to the idea that not everyone has the same lived experience due to skin color. And then if that’s true, what can we as individuals and a society do to rectify that? I would also add that the way I understand it now, I don’t think *every* part of anti-racist thought is dangerous. As an aside, I think when we use single words to mean a whole movement it gets a little muddy as to exactly what we are talking about. 🙂 And I agree this is definitely a conversation that lends itself to real-time! Maybe on one of our calls? It’s such an important one to have, I think we’d all agree on that. Thanks so much, Steve and everyone. The post-progressive framework has been so helpful for me as well as a breath of fresh air.

  • Fred Clarke
    Reply

    Steve — “Coddling of the American Mind” does have major chapters on “Wiser Universities” and “Wider Societies”, as well on “Wiser Kids.” Haidt critique is not reductionist at all. The one major point of criticism that you make that is valid, I think, is I don’t remember Haidt & Lukianoff expressly addressing the need for progressive university and society leaders to embody personal courage.

    • Steve McIntosh
      Reply

      My critique is primarily based on Haidt’s analysis in “The Coddling of the American Mind,” wherein he and Lukianoff fail to adequately recognize progressive postmodernism as a historically significant worldview. While they do talk about “wiser societies,” they nevertheless frame the problem primarily as one of zealous young people and leave the older progressive clerisy mostly off the hook.

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