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How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement

Progressives can still succeed if they call out nonsense, focus on class, and start to talk like human beings again, argues Freddie deBoer in an excerpt from his new book.

As well as being a brilliant essayist, Freddie deBoer is a Marxist and a left-wing organizer. He is, in other words, a proper lefty—someone who understands progressivism from the inside. 

That familiarity is exactly what makes Freddie—whose name perhaps you’ll remember from his appearance on Honestly—one of the most incisive critics of the contemporary left in America today. He thinks the movement has drifted too far from its core values, focusing on elite preoccupations like identity politics rather than the well-being of working-class Americans. 

In his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement, Freddie tackles a riddle: why, given the seeming popularity of left-wing causes like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, has the American left achieved so little? How have the goals and ideals that made Freddie a progressive become so far removed from today’s mainstream left? 

As well as diagnosing the problem, Freddie also offers some solutions. In this essay, adapted from his book, he offers his fellow progressives some advice. —BW

I’m a Marxist. Though I’m a fairly unorthodox one at this point, I would still love to see a Marxist revolution. You know, an international movement of workers rising up and taking control of political and economic systems, and distributing resources and labor based on need, while organized under the principle of shared ownership of the productive apparatus of society. 

But with American progressivism focused on identity politics, not class interests, forever wandering from the righteous to the ridiculous, this appears to be an unrealistic dream. So I’m left to settle for a set of lefty policy preferences that I can live with—a child tax credit, far more muscular laws protecting labor organizing, single-payer health insurance, reparations for slavery, and so on.

Anyone can put together their list of preferred policies. But there is little point in doing so given the ways in which the left has lost its way. Before we can debate the merits of specific proposals, progressives must break some of the bad habits that have got us into this mess. Here’s where to start. 

Take Opportunities for Solidarity Where You Find Them

Lately, it’s become the fashion to declare that cisgender white gay men are not part of the LGBTQ+ community. They are, apparently, too laden with privilege to be considered part of the coalition of the noble suffering. 

That sort of thinking is permanently alien to me, so I can’t comment on the moral logic at play. But politically it’s suicidal; there are millions of cisgender white gay men, they’re disproportionately well-connected in politics (yes, thanks to racism and sexism), and they played an outsize role in the fight for gay marriage, one of the most stunningly successful progressive movements in our country’s history. 

And yet, take this 2017 piece titled “White Gay Men Are Hindering Our Progress as a Queer Community” by Gabriel Arana, with its subhead “You had your time—now, we have other things to fight for.” To which I ask, if that’s true, and the LGBTQ+ movement should no longer fight for white gay men, why would white gay men fight for the LGBTQ+ movement?

If your interest lies in sniping at people on Twitter, then sure, go ahead and chop up the pool of potential supporters for progressive change into smaller and smaller pieces, and tell most people within it that their problems aren’t problems. If you want to actually change things, then you need to make sure everyone within your movement is taken seriously and treated well. 

The problem with identity politics is that any given identity is always going to be smaller than the broader possible coalition you could assemble, and almost always smaller than you need to create change. 

Consider police violence. Annually, a majority of people killed by the police are white. During the days of greatest public anger about George Floyd’s murder in May 2020, pointing out this fact came to be seen as wicked and racist; we weren’t worrying about white people in that moment, the story went. But white people have a large numerical majority in the United States, an even larger numerical majority among voters, and (as the anti-racist set will tell you) enjoy disproportionate power in our political system. 

So, what’s the more effective message?

Police violence is a black people problem that only black people suffer from, a message that will convince a lot of white people that it’s not their problem? 


Police violence falls especially hard on the black community, but it hurts all of us, and, in fact, a majority of the victims are white? 

We need a national reckoning with this problem to stop the violence and save innocent people of all races. It’s in the best interest of all of us. 

The second message avoids defining the problem as a “black problem.” We can still recognize, as a community of the like-minded, that police violence against black Americans is vastly disproportionate and an expression of racism. But when we engage in politics, in the work of trying to build the biggest coalition possible for making change, we should not pretend that police violence is only a black problem. We also shouldn’t compromise on the actual policies that we demand. But we must work to build the biggest possible coalition, which always entails appealing to people’s sense of self-interest, not to their abstract sense of justice for others. 

I say that as a big fan of caring about the justice of others. 

Is that “fair”? Who cares? If you want change, you have to enlist the help of the powerful. That’s life. Do you want to lose pure, or win by compromising? Not even compromising on goals, just on messaging! The question answers itself. 

The Gap offers ambiguous social justice messaging in a display window in 2020. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Class Matters

Labor unions have long been one of the best counterweights to corporate influence in politics. They are also traditionally a means of organizing that cuts across racial and ethnic lines. Obviously, shared participation in a union does not eradicate bigotry, and there is an ignominious history of unions perpetuating racial inequality. But it’s also true that, at their best, labor unions have helped workers (mostly men) of different racial backgrounds see their shared interest as workers. This solidarity could never fully erase racial division, but it could convince people that their similar needs could unite them around common purpose. 

Too often, the left today seems determined to take the opposite approach. Many people on the left seem so dedicated to dividing up the world into smaller and smaller constituencies. You might consider the narrowing of “people of color” to “BIPOC,” black and indigenous people of color. The purpose of that distinction is to underline the greater oppression that black and indigenous Americans have endured than other people of color. And they probably have. The operative question, though, is: What is the political value of dividing up progressive constituencies into smaller and smaller groups? How does that help anyone achieve any of their specific aims, including BIPOC people? 

Organizing along class lines does not mean we should stop messaging about race, gender, or sexual identity. When the problem is racism, call it racism. Never shy away from confronting racial or gender inequality in explicit and frank terms. But orienting around class lines means we create the majorities necessary to actually do something about racism, about sexism, et cetera. 

Younger generations of Democratic activists and staffers tend to insist that we ostentatiously put identity issues first. That, after all, was the story of the 2016 Democratic primary, where the old-school class politics of Bernie Sanders were pitted against the purposefully complex intersectionality of Hillary Clinton. Joe Biden’s messaging around economic issues suggests the muscle memory for addressing pocketbook issues exists within the Democratic Party. What approach wins the day will help determine the future success of the left.

Talk Like Human Beings Again

I’m not a professor, but I’ll always be an academic. I grew up in an academic household, I have a PhD, and I read academic publications regularly. I’ll always be an academic at heart. 

But it’s not anti-intellectual to say that the left desperately needs to lose its academic vocabulary, which is overwhelmingly influenced by trends in humanities departments at elite universities. 

That’s because it is incomprehensible to ordinary Americans. 

Students go through those programs and absorb a certain vocabulary, they graduate and go to work at nonprofits and in media and in Hollywood, and from there they spread the terminology. Social media, especially Tumblr and Twitter, helps ensure that this fancy vocabulary colonizes left-leaning spaces. Nobody wants to sound unsophisticated, so everyone adopts these terms even if they’re not particularly comfortable with them. Like seemingly everything in the internet age, it’s mimetic. And that’s how you get people talking about the role of Latinx intersectionality in queering BIPOC spaces in the Global South. 

This isn’t merely a matter of using esoteric terms either, but of using ordinary language in ways many people find bizarre. Look at the use of the word bodies, most often heard in relation to black bodies. At some point in the past half decade or so, it became the fashion in left discursive spaces to speak about black bodies instead of black people—“this protest was marked by the presence of black bodies, the white gaze fetishizes black bodies, academia is inhospitable to black bodies.”

If I squint hard enough, I can sort of understand the rationale here; emphasizing bodies emphasizes corporeality, the physical reality of having a body, and in doing so underlines the threat black people are often under. I could, I suppose, see the utility of saying, “The police’s actions put black bodies in danger.” But too often, black bodies is just an awkward and exclusionary euphemism for people, and a term used to show that someone is a savvy, progressive person with the correct attitudes toward race. 

We should always keep an eye toward explaining our values and our policies in simple terms about who they help and how. This doesn’t have to be complicated. In 1948, the British government distributed a pamphlet about its recently implemented national healthcare system. It began: 


It will provide you with all medical, dental and nursing care. Everyone—rich or poor, man, woman or child—can use it or any part of it. There are no charges, except for a few special items. There are no insurance qualifications. But it is not a “charity.” You are all paying for it, mainly as tax payers, and it will relieve your money worries in time of illness. 

This is a model of clear language that explains the value of an essential public service, and a demonstration of how the left should talk about its policies. 

All conversations should be as complicated as necessary; as simple as possible.

Protesters take a knee in the summer of 2020. (MI News & Sport /Alamy Live News)

I Promise It’s Okay to Call Nonsense Nonsense

We live in culture war hell. The internet ensures that many of us spend all day, every day surrounded by the opinions of people we can’t stand. In the scrum of the day-to-day turf war for the American soul, even minor skirmishes can seem to take on world-historical purpose. And in a relentlessly binary political culture, people frequently feel that to give any ground to “the other side” at all is to admit defeat. Which means that progressive culture warriors will often go to the wall for positions they see as broadly on their side, even if they’re so extreme as to be ridiculous. They’ll throw their full weight behind ideas and statements and arguments that they secretly feel to be stupid, so as not to tacitly lend support to the right. 

I promise: you don’t have to do that.

For example, there are people who earnestly believe that the phrase I see what you mean is ableist—that is, disrespectful and oppressive toward people with disabilities—because some people can’t see. This is—and I choose the word carefully—nuts. 

It’s nuts in several different dimensions all at once. This prohibition insults blind people, pretends to misunderstand the way language works, and is fundamentally unserious. It insults blind people and those with reduced vision because it assumes that they are incredibly sensitive and fragile, that if they come into contact with a perfectly common turn of phrase they’ve encountered all of their lives, they will be broken by it. As is true of so many contemporary progressive norms, this prohibition belittles and condescends to the very people it ostensibly honors. I have a disability myself, a mental illness. I am not hurt or offended by people using the word crazy, because I’m not so fragile as that and because I know how language works. 

As I write this, a minor controversy has erupted of just the kind that I’m talking about here: the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work has recently banned the use of the word field to refer to an academic discipline, as in the field of history. This is ostensibly because the word field might make black students and staff think of slavery. What black person could ever avoid hearing talk about fields, real or metaphorical? 

When nonsense goes unchallenged because it’s perceived to be “on our side,” it metastasizes and spreads until suddenly, the majority of left-leaning people feel compelled to defend it. And ordinary people (that is, people not marinating in Twitter every day) will rightfully recognize the absurdity when they see it. 

I’m not interested in spending a lot of time chewing through social justice language or norms. But I do want to say this: It’s okay to call nonsense nonsense, even if you feel it’s on your side. I promise. You can defend your values, be a soldier for social justice, and be merciless toward conservatives while still admitting when feckless people take liberal ideology to bizarre ends. 

No One Is Coming to Save Us

The foment of 2020 was transformative to many people. There was the palpable feeling that this time is different. You’d go out to the BLM protests, feel the energy, hear the slogans, see the righteous rage, and feel like something had to give. For a brief moment, it felt like the glass was breaking. 

And then time went on, and nothing much changed, and it turned out that it’s hard to get out of the well-worn grooves of contemporary politics. 

This can seem dispiriting to young leftists. But to them, I say, you need to stop expecting politics to fundamentally and dramatically change. Stop waiting for the revolution. 

Things change, and sometimes they change quickly. Gay marriage is a fundamentally different issue than, say, single-payer healthcare—in particular, because gay marriage did not threaten an immense private industry the way single-payer does—but it’s still worth considering just what a remarkable transformation was seen in this country regarding that issue. 

In 2004, Republican strategist Karl Rove used gay marriage as a wedge issue, utilizing it to bludgeon John Kerry in his failed campaign to replace George W. Bush in the White House. Not twenty years later, even most Republicans don’t attempt to run against gay marriage in elections, because that right is now so deeply established. (And, as of 2022, it is enshrined in federal law, rather than merely required by Supreme Court precedent.) Something like that could happen with healthcare too. 

But if single-payer were passed tomorrow, we would have to start defending it tomorrow. We’d have to fight over how generous the benefits were. We would have to ensure that dental and vision benefits were covered. We would have to prevent the inevitable attempts by conservatives to tear down the system entirely or to make it considerably less generous, as they already do with Medicare and Social Security. There would be no rest. 

This is, I concede, a depressing condition, an exhausting one. But there’s no alternative. And perhaps there shouldn’t be. I still yearn for revolution, but I now recognize that any revolution must be a permanent one, in the sense meant by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels—that a perpetual revolutionary class must exist, remaining independent from the political machinery of its day and constantly pressing for a more radical future, even after great victory. This is the only way to truly secure the best good for the most people. We must see political success as an ever-receding horizon. 

The steady and unromantic work of making the world a little better, one day at a time, has its own rewards. Wherever you are, there are likely organizations whose work is consonant with your values. Research them. Go to a meeting. See if they’re the kind of people you would be happy to work with. Then picket, or protest, or persuade, or stuff envelopes, or hand out leaflets, or bug your state legislator, or hold a sign by the side of the highway, or organize a tenants’ association, or raise money, or boycott, or what you will. You will not be able to see the change you make. But you will feel it anyway. 

Freddie deBoer writes a daily newsletter on Substack. This essay is an edited excerpt from his new book, How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement

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Copyright © 2023 by Fredrik deBoer. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.