Political Correctness Again/ Suddenly; It’s 1990, Sort Of

A good way to sit through the final GOP candidates “debate” of 2015 was to block out all the vileness and stupidity and to focus instead just on how frequently the candidates leveled charges of “political correctness” – not only at Democrats, but at each other.

It was hardly an edifying exercise, but at least it was engaging – in part because, for anyone who was politically aware a quarter century ago, it brought on a profound sense of dejá vu.

It would be tempting – and not entirely wrong — to say that the first time was tragedy, the second farce.   But it wasn’t quite The Eighteenth Brumaire that Republicans were reenacting in that over-the-top Sheldon Adelson Las Vegas pleasure dome.  It would be more apt to say that the first time was farcical already, and the second just plain silly.


When did “political correctness” enter the political lexicon?  No one seems quite sure.

Most likely, it happened in the 1930s, though only in far left circles.  It was Communist doctrine, back then, that the Communist Party’s official ideology, Marxism-Leninism, included what amounted to a science of Revolution.  Communists also thought that their Party alone knew how to tease out and apply its insights.

There were therefore right and wrong ways for Communists to do politics — just as, based on physics, there are right and wrong ways to build bridges.  The right ways, the ways that accord with the party line, are “politically correct.”

Under Josef Stalin, Marxism Leninism became transformed from what had been, or purported to be, a science like any other, open to transformation and change, into a secular religion in which the Party, functioning as a clerisy, enforced doctrinal orthodoxy.  This raised the importance of political correctness to a higher level.

Inasmuch as the idea was in circulation some seven or eight decades ago, it is likely that the expression was too.  But this is hard to establish beyond a reasonable doubt; people don’t remember — probably because nobody bothered to notice.

It was not until decades later that anybody cared enough to investigate. The evidence that has been found suggests that most, if not all, occurrences of “political correctness” were ironical.   To the extent that the expression was used at all, it was by leftwing critics of Communism; not by Communist themselves.

Non-Communists on the left – from Trotskyists to socialists and New Deal liberals – faulted Communists for their sanctimonious adherence to their Party’s general line.

Saying that Communists were, or wanted to be, “politically correct” was a way of disparaging them.

There is a Wikipedia entry in which the author claims that the expression was revived by New Left activists in the sixties to criticize the Old Left.  This is not impossible, but, to the best of my recollection and the recollections of others I’ve consulted, this never happened.

In any case, it couldn’t have happened for very long: there was 1968 and the two or three years leading up to it; after that, the spirit of sectarianism – and therefore political correctness — took hold with a vengeance in what had been New Left circles.  The pot became too dirty to call the kettle black.

Therefore, if there was talk back then of “political correctness,” there was not a lot of it, it never entered into general circulation, and it didn’t last long.   Everyone agrees that the expression fell into almost total disuse by the time that the New Left effectively expired.

A decade and a half later, with all significant leftwing political currents in crisis and the Soviet Union headed towards its demise, and with the neoliberal world order taking hold, culture wars happened.  The instigators were well-funded rightwing think tanks, but the battlegrounds were universities and colleges, and a few media outlets.

Liberalism suffered most; by the time the culture wars subsided, cultural liberalism was all that was left of that once proud tradition.

This didn’t come about because the Right had better arguments; not by any means.  Liberals did themselves in.  Academic charlatans, beguiled by Paris fashions, and opportunistic politicians led by the Clintons and their ilk, undermined liberalism from within; they are still at it.

From that point on, liberals stopped doing much of anything constructive for late capitalism’s main victims – including women and, as they say in PC-ese, “people of color.”   But liberals did take it upon themselves to police the way that they and others talk.  1930s Communists were doctrinaire, but at least they had a vision they were determined to implement – ruthlessly, if need be.  Social liberals are merely prissy.

Meanwhile Republicans — intent on taking over the Solid (and racist) South and eliminating the last strains of progressivism from the Prairie states and large swathes of the Mountain West — were plowing full speed ahead.

The Clintonite turn was a godsend for them.  What red-blooded American could fail to detest the kinds of people Spiro Agnew called “effete, intellectual snobs?”   After all, it is not as if liberals had done anything for them lately.

Even now, with Hillary promoting perpetual war as avidly and as dangerously as any Republican, the impression lingers – powerfully enough to draw red-blooded (and lily white) Americans onto the voting rolls of the GOP.



And so, in the late eighties and early nineties, “political correctness” again became a reproach – no longer wielded by Old Left non-Communists or by New Leftists, but by the political Right.

How odd!  But we shouldn’t be surprised.  In Gore Vidal’s United States of Amnesia, these bozos also color themselves red.

Irony-impaired broadcast and cable news “journalists” started it.   But it was rightwing politicians that picked up the ball and ran with it.  How unseemly!  On the plus side, though, they made Democrats blue, a color that suits them.

Eager to take advantage of the ways that liberals make themselves vulnerable to ridicule, Republican strategist decided to make an issue of their ostentatious niceness – not to the “folks” in the Republican base (they are not nice to them at all), but to non-whites of all genders, to homosexuals, and to uppity white females, regardless of sexual orientation.

It was all so easy: take the militant anti-intellectualism of large swathes of the American public, add some self-righteous drivel from otherwise apolitical Humanities and Social Science students and professors, wait awhile while the mixture stews — and voilà.

For the Right, this was a sure winner – especially with the PC crowd supplying them with more fodder than they could ever use.

Even so, we should not exaggerate the importance of the culture wars of the late eighties and early nineties; what they mainly generated was indifference.

Among those who cared, there were some who were neither anti-PC (and usually also rightwing) nor (implicitly) pro-PC and supposedly on the Left.

There were also a few brave souls genuinely on the Left who were, let us say, anti-anti-PC.  They kept leftwing politics and common sense alive as the culture wars waxed and waned.  Unfortunately, this current never attracted much public attention.

By the time it was over, the PC-types had more or less won – in the sense that the anti-PC Right never managed to knock the goody-goodies off their perches.

And so it has been for some twenty years – until now.   It isn’t exactly 1990 all over again; though it sometimes seems that way.  Back then, it was all about troglodytes bashing liberals.   It is still about that; but something else, more debilitating, is going on as well.

Political correctness talk is now being used by Republicans to relieve themselves of the need to concoct plausible arguments for the positions they take.  As long as they can bandy “political correctness” about, they don’t even have to try.

This doesn’t work on literally everything, but it works just fine, by their lights, on anything that touches, no matter how obliquely, on issues that matter to social liberals. Since there isn’t much else these days on which our two semi-established parties disagree, this might as well be everything — even if, strictly speaking, it is not.

And so, when Republicans “debate,” they don’t bother even to try to defend their views.  What they do instead, to undercut the arguments (if any) of those who disagree, is invoke those magic words – “politically correct.”  For hardcore GOP voters, this is like waving a red cape in front of a bull.

Donald Trump is the worst offender, but this only shows that the words work with his target audience.

Trump may or may not be the vile racist-fascist that the liberal commentariat, in league with establishment Republicans, is presently working 24/7 to make him out to be.  But he is, without doubt, a consummate opportunist.  Were there a measure for that, he would put even the Clintons to shame.

Therefore, he says what he has to say in order to get what he wants.  What he wants, for now, is to defeat and humiliate his Republican rivals.  For as long as political correctness talk helps with that, we can expect it to flow copiously out of his mouth.

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio use the term promiscuously too.  But, with them, it is probably not entirely snake oil salesman bluster.  Those two gusanos actually seem to believe their own nonsense, just as surely as they deem the Cuban Revolution the work of the Devil himself.

One of the great mysteries of this electoral season is why liberal pundits and their Republican country club counterparts think that those two are at least minimally acceptable, while Trump is not.  Could it be because Trump has exposed the corruption of the system itself and therefore their own essential hypocrisy?

Republicans and the rightwing think tank pseudo-intellectuals that paved the way for them strike a chord with their political correctness prattle because, in the final analysis, there is an important truth behind it.

That truth is not exactly news.  Even so, it never hurts to point out, yet again, that in our politics, there are some things that are just not said.

There is a universe of acceptable discourse, protected by a virtual “separation wall,” that is very seldom breached; and there is everything else.  In America, everything – or nearly everything – else wallows in the margins.

Social liberals do have taboos, and there is no denying that they are often ridiculous.  For the most part, though, they are harmless and well intentioned.   The social illiberals that the GOP courts have taboos too; they reflect retrograde attitudes and do considerable harm.

Democrats are generally too nice to make an issue of this; Republicans are mean-spirited enough to point it out over and over.

These are surface phenomena, however.  Our political culture is afflicted by deeper taboos than those over which Democrat and Republicans obsess.

Trump is the only candidate in either party who has actually said the unsayable about any of them.

Mainstream media don’t like to focus on that, however; they prefer to dwell on transgressions that they think might affect the horse race.  Trump gives them plenty to work with.

When Hispanic immigrants were on his marks’ minds, he went politically incorrect on them, saying that many of them are rapists; he was amply rewarded for his troubles.   After Paris and San Bernardino, Islamophobia became Topic A.   Therefore Trump crossed the line on Muslims.  That boosted his poll numbers too.

He has gone so far over that line  — for example, by saying that all Muslims should be banned from entering the country – that, by now, more than a few confirmed Republican wingnuts are worried.   It is not that they have somehow discovered a sense of decency; they are just concerned about what Trump is doing to the Party that has served them so well.

Whether or not Trump intends to bring the GOP down, his campaign could have that effect.  If it does, he will have done the country and the world more good than all the liberal goody-goodies in all the blue states combined.

It is a dangerous game he is playing, however: rattling the cages of monsters.  But, there is no denying: it has its good side.  At least somebody is willing, even eager, not only to speak truth to power, but also to speak truth about power.

Trump has gone where no other candidate dares venture, but, even so, he has barely scratched the surface.  Nevertheless, he has said that plutocrats buy political influence; and he has suggested, in countless ways, that the American empire has squandered vast wealth that could have been put to constructive uses.

Trump’s militaristic bluster and emphasis on “strength” blur the message, but he has also made plain what ought to be perfectly obvious: that the wars that George Bush and Dick Cheney launched, and that Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and neocons in the foreign policy establishment continued and intensified, have diminished, not enhanced, “homeland security” — notwithstanding the PC view in Washington and other Western capitals.

Meanwhile, while Hillary Clinton flaunts her neocon side, he has pointed out the dangers inherent in provoking Russia and China.  He has even had a few good words to say about all the other candidates’ demon du jour, Vladimir Putin.

For this, unlike Cruz, Rubio, Bush and the others, he can almost be forgiven for blathering on about liberal “political correctness” and otherwise tapping into the Know Nothing cesspool in the nether regions of the political scene.

Trump is, after all, the only aspirant to the Republican nomination who is putting truly damaging kinds of political correctness in peril.

The situation is not much better on the Democratic side, because, good liberal that he is, Bernie Sanders is too intent on making nice to the malefactors in the party he has chosen to align himself with.

For a Democrat or anyone running as a Democrat, Sanders’ positions on domestic politics are as good as it gets.  It is therefore tempting to overlook his Clintonesque views on foreign policy.  This would be a lot easier, though, if only he would, for example, tear into Democrats, like DNC Chairwoman Debbie WTF Schultz, who cross him — the way that Trump would.  Don’t hold your breath!

The Donald is more likely than Bernie to make the points that Bernie ought to make because, where it really counts, Bernie is, in the larger sense of the word, too PC.

Nine times out of ten Trump will out-Cruz Cruz or out-Rubio Rubio, but so what!  If the polls are even remotely on track, we know that preposterousness Trump-style appeals to no more than a third of the electorate.  That might be enough to secure the nomination for that egomaniacal blowhard — especially inasmuch as the alternatives are every bit as awful and quite a bit less colorful.  However, it also guarantees that, come November, we can count on Trump getting shlonged.

Until then, we can look forward to that one time in ten or a hundred or a thousand when, by design or inadvertence, Trump again penetrates the separation wall that disables our democracy with enough truth to make Democrats and Republicans tremble.

Let Sanders bewail inequality and denounce capitalism’s evils; perhaps some good will come of it.  But good has already come from Trump’s assault on America’s irredeemably rotten political class.

Liberal pundits would have us think that all he has done is call up the Dark Side.  They are not wrong; he has done that for sure.  But he has also shined a light on “what’s going on,” as he would put it – a light that even the most benighted among us cannot fail to see.


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).