Political upheaval produces strange bedfellows. In periods of crisis, liberals and conservatives, who might be bitter foes in normal times, find they have a shared set of predispositions against radicals. During the 1960s, many liberals and even socialists found themselves making common cause with conservatives in fending off the New Left. Cold War liberals like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz turned to the right, and even stalwart social democrats like Irving Howe expended most of their energy criticizing the alleged excesses of the anti-war, Black Power and feminist movements.
The ideological earthquake of the Trump era, when both the white nationalist right and the socialist left are enjoying a prominence in national politics they haven’t seen in decades, is producing a similar fluidity of political alliances. The eagerness of reputedly liberal publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post to showcase Never Trump voices, and the recent vogue of writers’ extolling classical liberalism or Enlightenment values, is symptomatic of a wider tendency of elite institutions and thinkers to seek a new centrism bringing together the center-right and center-left against supposedly destabilizing forces in politics.
As new ad hoc alliances form between conservatives and liberals, one area of shared disgust is victim politics, especially as practiced by campus agitators. Jonathan Chait, for instance, is a liberal technocrat, nostalgic for the certitude of Cold War liberalism and adept at writing forcefully wonkish briefs for Democratic Party policies on health care and economic policy. Michael Brendan Dougherty is a Catholic traditionalist with paleo-conservative leanings, but appalled by the personal degeneracy of President Donald Trump. Yet this unlikely odd couple both bemoan the putatively dire impact of left-wing victim politics.
“On the left, victimhood is a prime source of authority, and discourse revolves around establishing one’s intersectional credentials and detailing stories of mistreatment that reinforce them,” Chait wrote last month in New York magazine. “Within the ecosystem of the left, demonstrating that you have suffered harassment or microaggressions is a big win.” Chait’s main worry was that these leftist narratives of victimhood would hinder female Democratic politicians, who would be regarded as weak by voters.
In a recent cover story in National Review, Dougherty makes a much more far-reaching claim that a victim mentality fostered by the radical left creates utopian longings that threaten to upend the political system. Acknowledging that victim politics has been around for a long time, and is also sometimes practiced by the right (as with the Trump administration’s trumpeting of the victims of immigrant crime), Dougherty still finds something uniquely dangerous about contemporary identity politics as found among college students.
“The young activists whom conservatives call ‘social-justice warriors’ practice politics in a form that looks spiritual, and their Marxoid political theories are effulgent with longings and aspirations that point far beyond what we normally think of as politics,” Dougherty wrote.
Chait and Dougherty make valuable observations about the danger of overemphasizing victimhood, but ultimately misdiagnose the problem. Victim politics is neither primarily a force on the left, nor is it pernicious. In fact, victim politics has always been an inescapable part of democratic politics—a way for oppressed groups not only to be recognized for their suffering, but also to gain the agency needed to overcome that suffering.
Where does victim politics come from? At various points in his essay, Dougherty traces it back to a secularization of the Christian ethos of extolling suffering and sacrifice, to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political theory, to the utilitarian priority given to pain, to the alleged search by cultural Marxism for a new agent of revolution to replace the proletariat. This is a motley list of parents, some of which are mutually exclusive or at least very hard to square. The utilitarian impulse to minimize pain, for example, is very much at odds with the Christian conviction that suffering brings nobility.
Moreover, these sources are too large to explain modern victim politics. After all, Christian exaltation of the suffering of Christ and the martyrs has permeated Western culture for nearly two thousand years, long before the latest campus dust-ups about no-platforming conservative speakers.
Victim politics is coterminous with the rise of democracy in the eighteenth century. What is the Declaration of Independence but a document where the embryonic American polity casts itself as a victim of George III, listing grievances that can only be satisfied by the formation of a new state? Subsequently, in both the United States and in other emerging democracies, political agitation took the form of activists crafting narratives designed to make long-tolerated victimhood visible and worthy of challenge. Abolitionism, woman’s suffrage, anti-colonialism, and labor rights were all, in essence, calls for attention to suffering.
The arts played a major role making private suffering political. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, along with numerous autobiographical accounts by former slaves like Frederick Douglass were instrumental in mobilizing abolitionist sentiments. Charles Dickens’s Hard Times and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle had the same effect in awakening knowledge of industrial unrest and dangerous workplace conditions. The Civil Rights movement gained recruits and moral authority from shocking photos of lynchings and its aftermath, such as the famous tableau of Emmett Till’s mother gazing at his defaced body.
The case against this type of agitation is the same as the arguments now made against victim politics. In his 1855 novel The Warden, Anthony Trollope mocked Dickens as “Mr. Popular Sentiment,” a demagogic novelist whose melodramas featured villains who victimized the innocent. In today’s parlance, Trollope saw Dickens as a Social Justice Warrior.
Chait warns that if we talk about a female politician suffering from sexism and harassment, then we run the risk of destroying her “agency” and reducing “her to the status of victim.” But seeing agency and victimhood as antithetical is a false dichotomy.
In political activism, victimhood and agency reinforce each other: Someone becomes aware of their suffering, articulates it, then works with others to overcome it. Did Frederick Douglass become disempowered by discussing his suffering as a slave? No, that suffering was the root of his activism, both as a motive and a source of his authenticity. Similarly, Gloria Steinem was not disempowered by talking about the sexism she experienced by going undercover as a Playboy Bunny in her famous 1963 article. Rather, by describing the experience of victimhood, Steinem energized countless other women who had similar experiences. The current #MeToo movement also shows how speaking out about victimhood brings people together and creates the conditions for political change.
The dynamic between victimhood and agency can be seen in less overtly political activities. The organization Mother’s Against Drunk Driving was formed by women who had experienced trauma and used it as the basis for activism. Similarly, the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence was started by White House Press Secretary Jim Brady after he was wounded in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America began after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. In such cases, taking on the overt identity of victimhood is a way to gain power over trauma, to fight back against the cause of suffering.
The only thing that separates the new surge in left-wing activism from these earlier social movements is their novelty. But in terms of tactics, they are doing exactly what activists of all stripe have been doing for the last two centuries: using narratives of suffering to create new political identities that can effect material change.
To be sure, like all forms of political activism, victim politics can succumb to excess from time to time. But some of the starkest examples are found among conservatives, who often portray socially powerful groups as besieged even as they deny the suffering of the genuinely marginalized:
One of the chief goals of democratic politics is to achieve justice, restituting wrongs not just for particular people but also injured groups and classes. Victim politics are thus not an incidental byproduct of a cultural awakening in the country today, but an essential feature of U.S. democracy. Rather than fretting about victim politics, Chait and Dougherty could more usefully focus on a pernicious phenomenon: the self-pity of some of the most privileged members of society, and the cottage industry of performative suffering it fosters.