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In Defense of ‘Reactionary Liberalism’—A Reply to Osita Nwanevu

I am a liberal conservative, or as the New Republic‘s Osita Nwanevu would have it, a “reactionary liberal.” I lean right-of-center and, as I have argued before, I believe that many of the West’s most cherished values—individualism, due process, free speech and inquiry, and the rule of law—are imperiled by radical progressivism. So, I was delighted to be challenged by Nwanevu’s recent article entitled “The Willful Blindness of Reactionary Liberalism.” Although the piece is highly tendentious, it is a vigorous defense of progressive identity politics and an attack on liberals like me.

Nwanevu’s basic thesis is that progressives are actually the modern champions of the liberal tradition and that those who oppose and criticize them from the Left (Matt Taibbi and Jonathan Chait) or the Right (Andrew Sullivan) or both (the members of what was once known as the Intellectual Dark Web) are actually fighting a reactionary battle against an expansion of freedom. Therefore, Nwanevu argues, it is progressivism’s enemies who are illiberal. He describes liberalism—correctly, so far as it goes—as “an ideology of the individual⁠. Its first principle is that each and every person in society is possessed of a fundamental dignity and can claim certain ineradicable rights and freedoms. Liberals believe, too, in government by consent and the rule of law: The state cannot exercise wholly arbitrary power, and its statutes bind all equally.”

However, reactionary liberals, he argues, do not appear to understand or appropriately value an important liberal freedom: Association. “Controversial speakers,” he notes, “have no broad right to speak at private institutions” and senators such as Tom Cotton have no right to appear in whatever magazine or outlet they desire. Reactionary liberals, it seems, are confused about these issues, and that is why they (incorrectly) condemn universities for restricting the range of acceptable opinions on campus and deride newspaper staffers for protesting the publication of an op-ed with which they disagree.

It is of course true that universities are not legally obliged to invite controversial speakers; and it is also true that a newspaper’s staffers are legally allowed to complain about the publication of an op-ed. But a liberal society is not just sustained by fidelity to the law, it is also sustained by a commitment to broadly shared norms, and the behaviors Nwanevu describes do not particularly reflect a spirit of liberalism. Firing professors, cancelling speakers, and attacking the character and motives of those who promulgate controversial views only limits the range of acceptable discourse and ideas available to college students. Often, these supposedly “toxic” ideas are perfectly reasonable scientific hypotheses or borderline mainstream political positions. And contending that an op-ed written by a sitting senator that makes a popular if rhetorically caustic argument endangers people of color provides illiberal voices with a convenient way to quash free expression they don’t like.

If our goal is to encourage debate and discussion because that allows a competition between ideas and arguments, then reactionary liberals are right to worry about the declining spirit of debate at universities and in mainstream news outlets and organizations. Some of the most consequential issues of our day—transgenderism, changing demographics, racial disparities—are fiercely contested, and reasonable points of view are being culled from mainstream discourse by those who wish to declare that such debates have been settled in their own favor. If freedom of association is used to destroy other important freedoms, then it is reasonable to challenge it. This, of course, is what we do with laws that forbid discrimination on the basis of immutable characteristics. Similarly, reactionary liberals believe there should be a normative limit on free association if it leads to the disappearance of debate and wide-ranging discussion.

Resistance to identity politics is growing across the political spectrum, but Nwanevu thinks this is misguided because there is no evidence that “minorities and certain disadvantaged groups are to be given more rights than, and held as superior to, white people.” The goal of identity politics, he says, is “parity, not superiority.” Still, it shouldn’t be difficult to understand why many might see contemporary identity politics as hostile to whites, especially if those whites are also male and heterosexual. America’s paper of record employs writers of color who have their bigotry indulgently explained away, and carries columns earnestly wondering “Can My Children Be Friends with White People?” Meanwhile, a (white) author makes hundreds of thousands of dollars instructing her credulous readership that white people “hate blackness” and resist conversations about their racism on account of their “fragility.” Much of the intelligentsia appears to believe in a kind of prestige hierarchy of victimization, in which privileged groups (whites, men) languish at the bottom and victims’ groups (minorities, women) sit at the top. Collective guilt is then used to leverage support for policies that recompense one group of Americans for the sins of another’s ancestors.

Nwanevu is predictably coy about affirmative action, the most explicit form of institutional racism in the United States. He gestures irritably at reactionary liberals’ “grievances” against the policy, and says he will not “relitigate” the issue. That’s not especially surprising, since affirmative action is a remarkably illiberal way of judging candidates for college or employment. As Richard H. Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. argue in their book Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, black candidates to universities often receive huge advantages over comparable whites and Asians. It’s no small task to argue that institutional preferences for certain races over others somehow advance an agenda of individualism.

The reactionary liberal, then, is justified in lamenting the practise of modern identity politics because, at minimum, it corrodes the remarkable and once radical idea that individuals should be judged for their unique traits and talents, not for their demographic characteristics. Legitimate defenses of particular kinds of identity politics remain, especially when certain groups are denied (legally or normatively) the rights and liberties of other groups. But it is difficult to argue that this accurately describes modern America or the West more broadly. Jim Crow perished in the ’60s; The Cosby Show was the top-rated program across the ’80s; Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. This does not prove, and is not intended to prove, that there is no racism or and that there are no racists in the United States. But it does suggest that institutional obstacles to black success have largely disappeared.

Those who strongly oppose progressive identity politics, Nwanevu writes, are right-of-center on social issues and “incredibly reactive.” They catastrophize about trivial stories on social media and fret that every obscure incident augurs the impending collapse of Western civilization. In fact, “If Twitter were to shut down tomorrow,” he declares, “most of their political world and its concerns would simply vanish.” This is a provocative proposition and at least plausible enough to serve as a humorous caricature, but it’s also false.

First, Twitter is a relatively new and critically important social medium that merits concern even if it were the kind of hermetically sealed world Nwanevu suggests it is. Second, what begins on Twitter or is exacerbated by Twitter often spreads rapidly into the “real world.” In this sense, Twitter is almost like an incubator that hatches different kinds of progressive activities and strategies that eventually spread into the broader culture. And, third, Twitter grants people immediate access to what is happening in the world. The claim that reactionary liberals would have nothing to talk about if Twitter disappeared is, in this sense, like complaining that somebody in the 1880s would have nothing to talk about if newspapers and telegraphs disappeared. Twitter is where a lot of people get their news. It isn’t a sealed cocoon; it’s a medium, and one in which users enjoy an unprecedented degree of active participation.

Do reactionary liberals overreact to anecdotes (“anecdata”)? Almost certainly. Humans are often paranoid and they easily imagine that rare occurrences—a tornado, say, or a case of the bubonic plague—are evidence of the slow but inevitable march of doom. But, alarm is not irrational at this point. Only a few years ago, many blithely dismissed concerns about illiberalism on college campuses as misplaced and hyperbolic. If campus students promoted nonsensical theories, said the skeptics, what harm could that do? Students have always been zealous, ignorant, and idealistic. What happens on the campus stays on the campus. But that theory of campus sequestration is no longer tenable. The problem has been allowed to spread and now much of America resembles a campus. If anything, the early alarmists weren’t worried enough.

Activists are now able to get professors and editors fired (or removed from prestigious positions) with surprising efficiency and rapidity. Critical theory discourse, once isolated to hyper-educated professors and pundits, is now relatively commonplace on the comment pages of national newspapers. So is a deeply cynical and pessimistic view of the United States and the West, one that views our forebears not as flawed but brilliant contributors to a great civilization, but as sinners who deserve only shameful contempt. This is not without consequence. It leads to illiberal mob attacks on statues deemed offensive because of the legacies they commemorate, and it dramatically shrinks the range of topics that may be legitimately debated and discussed. For every professor terminated for broaching controversial subjects or forwarding taboo opinions, a hundred more are silenced by fear. The same goes for editors. And op-ed writers. This is a kind of intellectual terrorism, the goal of which is to destroy just enough enemies to terrify everyone else into silent submission.

A depressing side-effect of this phenomenon is the rise of intellectual hypocrisy and interpersonal distrust. Many people hold opinions privately which they are terrified to share in public. Sometimes, they even assist in tarnishing the reputations of others for expressing the very opinions they themselves secretly hold. Similarly, institutions that claim to be dedicated to free speech and inquiry ignore incendiary topics and refuse to defend those who discuss them. The upshot is that people who know other people’s true and taboo opinions often have leverage over them. Will they use it? It’s hard to know, but the unspoken threat or even just the possibility is itself intimidating.

As Nwanevu’s essay progresses, it loses steam as it strays from the more provocative and interesting arguments with which it opened. So I will conclude my response by briefly summarizing and stating the positive case for what he calls “reactionary liberalism.” Progressive identity politics and progressivism more broadly are an unambiguous and illiberal threat to the West. They undermine basic principles we should all cherish such as the rule of law, free speech and inquiry, and individualism, sometimes explicitly and sometimes more subtly. In my earlier essay on this topic, I argued that contemporary progressive dogma encouraged “at least six tendencies that are inimical to the West,” which I will recapitulate here.

  1. It encourages a misunderstanding of human nature that might best be described not as “blank slatism,” but as “flexibilism”—the view that humans are not entirely devoid of intrinsic characteristics, but flexible enough to create a utopian social order if they are molded in the right way. This encourages illiberal policies, because the individual is understood to be a creation of perfectible social forces. On this basis, flexibilism can justify temporary deviations from liberalism as unfortunate but necessary sacrifices on the way to paradise.

  2. It encourages people to see themselves not as agents, but as the hapless victims of impersonal systemic forces. Any and all disparate outcomes are therefore necessarily evidence of societal bigotry. But liberalism will inevitably lead to inequality because individuals and groups differ from one another (is this not what people mean by diversity?). This is why manufacturing equality of outcome requires a concerted attack on freedom. Any dogma that desires equality of outcomes and encourages victimhood will inevitably corrode liberalism.

  3. It encourages the suppression of free speech and inquiry. Like all doctrines, progressivism has a set of sacred values or articles of faith, one of the most important of which is that all demographic groups are roughly the same on most socially valued traits. To protect beliefs like this, progressives are willing to suppress any scientific argument or hypothesis that appears to violate them. This is not just an elevation of freedom of association, as Nwanevu might argue, but also a positive attack on professors and intellectuals who promote undesirable views. Science is one of the great achievements of the West. But the idea that our greatest fidelity should be to the truth, not to an unfalsifiable narrative or ideology, is a fragile one indeed. Deviation from a foundational commitment to truth is dangerous to liberalism.

  4. Its preoccupation with what Bertrand Russell described as “the superior virtue of the oppressed” erodes due process and the presumption of innocence. This is especially noticeable in discussions of sexual assault and hate crimes. The highly dubious allegations of sexual assault made against presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden have caused some progressives to reconsider the wisdom of this heuristic, but an uncritical acceptance of an alleged victim’s account remains widespread on the progressive Left, and pressure remains to reinstitute the illiberal “Dear Colleague” interpretation of Title IX, which the Atlantic‘s Emily Yoffe has described as a disconcerting divergence from liberal criminal justice tradition.

  5. It encourages mobocracy and disproportionate punishment. Righteous anger is a powerful and intoxicating emotion and hard to constrain. Liberalism works to defuse it with recourse to a rational and impartial criminal justice system. Like the populists of the French Revolution, however, progressive activists increasingly rely upon the justness of the mob to punish the iniquitous, and have popularized the use of open letters to condemn or potentially ruin designated sinners.

  6. It encourages contempt for the West and its icons and regards the civilization that created modern liberalism with disdain. This leads to ignorant, ungrateful, and anachronistic attacks on the great ancestors of the modern world. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Winston Churchill are all seen as nothing more than racists, slavers, or colonialists. The West itself is seen as a rapacious and exploitative civilization whose only fruits are poisonous: slavery, imperialism, destruction, and woe. It is not possible to preserve and promote liberalism with an ideology that despises its forebears.

For all these reasons, I believe that those Nwanevu derides as “reactionary liberals” are quite right to dislike progressivism and progressive identity politics and to see them as serious threats to Western liberalism. Nevertheless, his provocative essay deserves our attention and consideration—it is important that liberals take the time to understand the arguments of their political opponents if those arguments are to be effectively resisted. He concludes by noting that reactionary liberals have largely failed to slow the cultural ascent of progressivism, a development which will only deepen “their sense of themselves as martyrs.” And with this observation, I am in complete agreement. Liberals are failing and failing badly. And their only recompense⁠, if they do not push back more effectively, may be the smug self-satisfaction of martyrdom.


Bo Winegard is an essayist and former assistant professor at Marietta College. You can follow him on Twitter @EPoe187.


  1. “progressive activists increasingly rely upon the justness of the mob to punish the iniquitous, and have popularized the use of open letters to condemn or potentially ruin designated sinners.”


    The arguments in the TNR piece about how controversial speakers don’t have the right to speak at a particular venue, or Sen. Cotton does not have the right to have his Op-Ed published in a particular news organ seem kind of strawmannish. Has anyone serious actually argued that they have such rights?

  2. Censoring the views of half the population, smearing them and persecuting them via cancel culture does not expand freedom, it oppresses people.

    Progressive leftism worships at the altar of collectivism, not individualism.

    Nwanevu is conflating. There is a difference between the New York Times denying someone an opportunity to present an opposing view and universities doing so. Universities have a duty to open up debate and expand the minds of their students.

    In my opinion Senator Cotton was correct to call for sending troops into cities where violent mobs had taken over the streets. That wasn’t “endangering people of colour,” that was endangering violent criminals of all colours.

    Pardon me as I go all limbic here but identity politics is patently, axiomatically hostile to whites. It is so anti-white it problematizes us as living, breathing human beings. It denigrates whites and tries to vanish our “evil and racist” history, science, culture and art. It is viscerally anti-white. I’ve never seen anything like it.

    It makes me feel like a Jew living in Germany in the 1930s.

    Thank you for a very good article!

  3. While there is a tendency to believe in compromise, on some issues there should be none. Osita Nwanevu’s argument is that while progressivism has some flaws, it is, in the mean, on the correct path. It is not, it is not perfecting concepts, but erasing them. It does not want more free speech, it wants speech that only propels a single narrative. It does not want better science, it wants science that promotes an ideology. It does not want better journalism, it wants a journalism suited to people like Osita Nwanevu, who don’t want to verify facts, or go outside, or investigate, but sit on their royal arse and preach self-serving doctrine.

  4. “Controversial speakers,” he notes, “have no broad right to speak at private institutions”

    A priori of an invitation this is true. However, the problem I generally see raised is what happens after the invitation has been extended and then a mob renders such speech impossible; and that is an illiberal act.

  5. Osita Nwanevu is an extremist and a racist. His circular reasoning is typical of those on the fascist left.

    You can’t beat fanatics with reasoned argument.

    To stop reacting, we have to draw a line in the sand and declare what we stand for. If they don’t like it, who cares? They don’t give a second thought to what liberal conservatives think. They just plough on with their own agenda. They mock liberal conservative tears.

    Liberal Conservatives, we have to plough on with our own agenda, and it will lead to where it will lead. No more appeasing, no more reacting.

  6. “Its first principle is that each and every person in society is possessed of a fundamental dignity and can claim certain ineradicable rights and freedoms.”

    True, in theory. The first principle did not drop from a Platonic ether populated by abstractions. It evolved organically from the tradition and experience of flesh and blood humans. Of the Christian faith, and of metaphysical vitality.

    In practice, the first principle has been conceded every time, in the face of aggression upon incremental aggression. Such that principled liberals have abandoned the word altogether, in favor of libertarian----I have abandoned even this latter, albeit not entirely. One cannot draw a line where one happens to be standing at the moment, and call it the line of first principle. I am a liberal, except in the following cases: except with regard to property, in the following particulars; except with regard to association, in the following particulars; except with regard to speech; in the following particulars; except with regard to religion, in the following particulars, and so on it goes. Otherwise, I am a thorough liberal. I may, however, change my mind in regard of some particulars, and I may change it again later in regard of some others. This is liberalism today.

    The conservatism of process and procedure, is this the hill liberals have chosen to die on? :slight_smile:

    Jordan Peterson is the only one of the public liberals who is cultured in the metaphysics. He evades the question of faith, yet he is Christian adjacent culturally. He gets it, as much as one can without faith. He is trying, it seems to me, to model a bridge between… let’s say, the Platonists and the Aristotelians, to use a familiar, intelligible frame. There is no bridge, I’m afraid, between liberty and equality. One has to decide which is one’s cardinal value. Only one of them is liberal, and it includes the equality of liberty.

    There is also no bridge, I’m afraid, between liberty and democracy. The people must be armed—to the teeth! if they so wish. They must be free to arrange their local affairs in a variety of ways, by mutual consent. There must be means and methods for the people to remove, without delay or difficulty, wicked officials of government. Yet democracy as is worshiped today is a death cult----it is weaponized stupidity. I understand, this will fry the brain of today’s average liberal, so I’ll leave it there. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.

  7. I can picture a world where an article like this would never appear on the Internet. In this world no server would dare host any site that would print such an article. Instead, the few who dare to resist will have secret printing presses in a concealed basement room, and pass their pamphlets around to like-minded acquaintances at risk of imprisonment or death.

    100 years from now the memoirs of Bo Winegard will be read like the Kolyma Tales.

    I would like my unfamous name counted for posterity as one who said no to the insanity.

  8. Well, while the modern Left has no ally in me, I also think the “them” is more fractured than they realize. Had they not “us” as for an adversary, they would turn on each other in a heartbeat. For example, BLM is really about protecting black criminals’ lives, and it attracts bona fide gangsters to the movement. Gangsters don’t care for women, especially feminists, or gays or trans. If woke keeps “progressing” as it has, the movement will belong to those most capable of violence. Antifa, while they like to hurt people, are primarily pussies (in anything involving a fair fight, they always lose). BLM would steamroll over them. Also, while you get a whole lot of women shouting rape now, and a lot of trans people throwing hissy fits in stores, BLM is the one that gets full-scale riots going, riots that cause billions of dollars in damage and a slew of murders. Here is something Frantz Fanon-style pseudo intellectuals like Osita Nwanevu might consider: yes, sometimes (very rarely) a white cop kills an unarmed black guy during an arrest. However, they usually don’t blow off the heads of kids.

    Funny how the death of George Floyd triggers people, but not the murder of children.
  9. An example would be: your one-year-old calls you “mummy” and you tell that little shit “Did you just assume my gender?”

  10. The term is ‘classical liberal’.

    We really need to make an effort to reclaim this.

    The thing that ‘conservatives’ are trying to conserve IS classical liberalism.

    Collectivists, of all stripes, have attached themselves, like the parasites they are, to the term ‘liberal’ with the intent of destroying it.

    Because they fervently believe that by destroying a word, they destroy the concept. This idea is something they pursue with rigor–so that now we have a concept, ‘racism’ that is defined without any need to refer to race–only nebulous power and opinion. Something objective has been made subjective.

    We need to stop ceding the very vocabulary to them.

  11. No. BLM is about promoting and expanding Marxist control. Antifa is about promoting and expanding Marxist control. The DNC is about promoting and expanding Marxist control.

    The easiest institutions to march through are the ones that are half in the tank for you from the get-go.

    They are not ‘fractured’. The incessant attacks on members of their own faction is endemic to the ideology, which always pursues a purity of thought that all fail at because none actually believe it.

    Every single adherent of the various strains of Marxist thinks that, in the new order, theirs will be the hand that holds the whip, they will live like kings on the riches they believe the wealthy horde while keeping the proles in line.

  12. Does anyone else find the photograph at the top of Osita Nwanevu’s TNR article in defense of progressive identity politics (as he describes it) as grimly amusing as I do?

  13. I think we should learn more about slavery, colonialism and Jim Crow- because only by studying these things can we truly understand that Enlightenment Liberal Western values are the only thing which has allowed the world to escape from history’s horror show. It’s why every single nation which has managed to achieve a modicum of material success has assimilated these values, in whole or in part, and as much as their political systems will tolerate.

    After all, we should always ask ‘compared to what?’ when people categorise the West as an Oppressive White Patriarchy, when we’re talking about the most egalitarian and fair societies in the history of the world. After, it’s not as though the progressives want to do anything stupid like end capitalism or institute socialism, do they? Quite apart that Karl Marx was a racist even by the sordid standards of his time, most of the world’s socialist regimes have been some of the most deeply racist and homophobic societies in the history of the world- minorities have always been branded as reactionaries in need of sweeping off to the gulags…

    Remember, the Nazis were Socialists AND Ethnonationalists- the clue is in the name…

    Socialist systems were also amongst the world’s worst on climate, pollution and environment- so bang goes any chance of implementing a Green New Deal which does any good, quite apart from the fact that the market is the only thing capable of delivering the changes we need.

  14. America is only 8% progressive and 30% of them secretly admit that the Left often goes too far. Meanwhile, around 80% of Americans express a dislike of political correctness which, if they knew enough about it, is basically intersectional theory. And that percentage is unlikely to grow given that the zoomers are largely rejecting the habits of the preceeding generation and the indoctrination of their teachers. Bizarrely, this aggressive form of activism has even had the effect of decreasing sympathy for the LGBT community by 8% amongst the young.

    If you really want to hit back against the criticisms you hear here on Quillette, you should really watch some YouTube content featuring Mark Blythe, a Left-wing political economist from Brown University. I may not necessarily agree with his prescriptions, but his diagnosis of the 2008 financial crisis is bang on the money.

    He takes the view that Capitalism is a coupled system which works best when there is a rough balance between Capital and Labour. It’s his argument that Keynesian economics failed because it was inevitable that labour would eventually gain the upper hand and the system would collapse as a result. In his analysis, the same thing happened in 2008 with Capital gaining too much power over labour, but in this instance the software which runs our current version of capitalism was not allowed to fail, and we didn’t do a very necessary upgrade to a newer version, because the neoliberals were too friendly towards finance. In other words, socialism for rich people.

    It’s interesting many millennials express a favourable reaction to Socialism, but what they really mean, when questioned further, is the Social Democracies of the Scandinavian states. This is funny because the Social Democracies are in no way Socialist- perhaps a consequence of twenty years of Republicans calling anything Socialist if it involves the Government. What the Social Democracies actually are is ultra-lean, low regulatory, free market economies, with higher taxes and larger social safety nets. Where they do have some regulations though, is with stronger worker protections- in every other substantial way they score highly on the index of economic liberty.

    Contrary to the beliefs of many, they do not tax the rich to pay for it all. Although they have a higher rate of income tax, corporation tax is low and inheritance tax non-existent. The reason behind this is because they worked out that it was better to have some tax from CGT and corporation tax with that money invested at home, rather than to enact tax policies which guaranteed capital flight. Where they do raise their taxes is from a 60% to 70% income tax on anything more than 60% more than average income, and a 25% VAT tax on many goods and services.
    -The Danish Prime Minister at Harvard talking about the Scandinavian model.

    There are plenty of ways you could raise revenue and perhaps give tax breaks to the middle classes. A Tobin tax on financial transactions might raise as much as $60 billion a year. A land value tax on the 10% most expensive homes in America is something the rich could not avoid, unless they moved homes. Taxing subsidies and State and Local tax giveaways as a taxable benefit in kind, at the standard rate of corporation tax would effectively be a tax on Crony Capitalism. And the way America encourages investors to invest in land and property is tantamount to reclassifying housing as a Wasting Product, when this policy, meant to stimulate house-building, only really increases the value of the land and doesn’t stimulate construction one whit.

    You should also really read a book by a Telegraph journalist and economist, Liam Halligan, called Home Truths. It details how the Europeans successfully use a tax called a Planning Uplift Tax to stimulate growth in the housing market, reduce the burden on general taxation and achieve infrastructure stimulus at just over 3% a year, instead of the anaemic 1.2% more common in America and the UK. It also shows how an Iron Triangle of Interest has been operating against Millennials since before many of you were born. Other than in relation to the cost of your education, it’s the primary way your generation really has been shafted.

    Although these guys usually create content of which you would probably disapprove, this one is right up your alley:

    “The Housing Crisis is a Grotesque Distortion of Capitalism.”

    It’s interesting the former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid was probably forced to resign over his support of this tax, and his disagreement with Dominic Cummings over the matter. So there may be some support on the Right for a policy like this…

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