Jonathan Chait

Book author and columnist Jonathan Chait appearing on C-SPAN's BookTV.

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I Don't Think Jonathan Chait Read the Book on 'Solidarity' He Reviewed

The New York Magazine pundit spent 2,900 words criticizing a book with no resemblance to the one which prompted his piece.

Earlier this year, progressive philanthropist Leah Hunt-Hendrix and organizer Astra Taylor published Solidarity: The Past, Present, and Future of a World-Changing Idea. I’ve admired both Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor for years now (full disclosure: I’m a fellow at Revolving Door Project, and Hunt-Hendrix’s organization Way to Win has been among its many funders), but hadn’t gotten around to reading their book. That is, until last Friday, when New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait suddenly wrote an impassioned critique of it. Chait’s piece, titled “In Defense of Punching Left,” fervently pushes back against censorious groupthink dressed up as political strategy, a dangerous conflation which he attributes to Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor.

Solidarity provides the lengthiest and most serious case I’ve seen for why liberals should withhold criticism of the left,” Chait claims. He argues that “while they urge liberals not to criticize the left, they do not make any similar demand that leftists withhold criticism of liberalism. The requirements of factional quietude run one way.” Chait claims that Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor “misunderstand my job description” with their critiques of his brand of punditry, before solemnly declaring that “Liberals have serious differences with leftists over both strategy and first principles, and those distinctions shouldn’t be subsumed into a popular front.”

Chait’s piece confused me. This didn’t sound like either Hunt-Hendrix or Taylor, both of whom I know to have worked in coalition with center-left liberals on multiple issues. Out of curiosity, and with a rare block of free time, I bought a copy of Solidarity and read it over the weekend. Then I reread Chait’s 2,900-word piece and compared.

To put it simply, Chait is arguing against a book that doesn’t exist. He either didn’t read Solidarity or is too self-centered to take in any information which he cannot relate back to himself (or perhaps both). In any case, it’s a disservice to his readers, New York Magazine, and the quality of our public discourse.

To put it simply, Chait is arguing against a book that doesn’t exist.

According to Chait, “‘Don’t punch left’ is the core tenet of Solidarity,” a maxim which he calls “a growing, if not yet universal, norm of movement discipline. [...] when disagreement arises within the progressive family, the liberal’s role is to accept critique from the left without returning it.” There’s really no other way of saying this: “Don’t punch left” is not “the core tenet” of Solidarity. It’s just not what the book is about. At all. Instead, the book is an attempt to coherently define the titular concept and theorize what a society built around it would look like. Structurally, it’s one-part intellectual and movement history, one-part sociology, and one-part philosophy.

Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor trace the origins of “solidarity” to the Latin “obligatum in solidum,” a form of communal debt in the Roman empire. (Taylor, notably, is a co-founder and lead organizer of the Debt Collective, the United States’ largest and most militant debtors’ union.) They discuss the French solidarist movement of the 1850s, which helped formulate our modern understanding of the word, before analyzing contemporary sociopolitical movements. The book then critiques elite philanthropy, while arguing how to make the best of a bad system; envisions a reformulated welfare state built firstly around listening to the public’s demands; applies similar principles to global trade policy, emphasizing a lens of decolonization; and finally touches on the spiritual and soul-feeding aspects of building a solidaristic community.

Virtually none of it is about how liberals need to pipe down and praise leftists more. I don’t think intra-elite discursive norms come up at all, except in passing. As far as I can tell, Chait only got the idea that the book’s “core tenet” is liberal-policing from one-half of one paragraph of a Washington Post feature about the book, in which Hunt-Hendrix mentions Chait and his contemporary Matt Yglesias as examples of public figures whom she hopes read the book’s fourth chapter on conservatives’ “divide-and-conquer strategy.” That chapter mostly discusses organized right-wing efforts like the Southern Strategy, not the topic preferences of contemporary pundits.

This may come as a shock to Chait, but I don’t think that Hunt-Hendrix or Taylor think about him—or figures like him—very much at all. Their book’s actual argument is that individuals, and even groups of individuals cohered around a common identity, are not the protagonists of history. To Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor, it’s only when dedicated groups of people stand up, sacrifice, and risk blood and teeth for other dedicated groups of people, who then return the favor, that society advances and complex problems can be solved. The point is mutual interdependence, in all its messiness and beauty. By contrast, Chait’s singular focus on the nobility of liberals standing up to leftists not only has nothing to do with the book’s argument, it’s self-centered in a way directly opposed to the real thesis of Solidarity. Chait doesn’t seem to realize this.

This may come as a shock to Chait, but I don’t think that Hunt-Hendrix or Taylor think about him—or figures like him—very much at all.

So what does Chait have to say about Solidarity? Well, he hinges plenty of analysis on one quote, in which Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor write “Too often, liberals seek to legitimize their positions by punching left, distancing themselves from social movements to make themselves appear reasonable by comparison, which only strengthens the hands of conservatives and pulls the political center to the right.” This quote is from page XXXIII of the introduction. Yes, this quote is before the title page of the book! It’s also the only entry in the book’s index for “liberals/the Left, danger of popular passions of.”

He likewise claims that Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor “have no apparent sense of what liberals believe” because they contrasted, in their words, Democrats’ “growing progressive flank pushing to redistribute wealth, tackle climate change, and further racial and gender justice” with “a corporate wing clinging to the increasingly unequal status quo.” This quote is on page XVII of the introduction. Notably, Chait says it’s wrong to imply liberals hate change and love corporations…but Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor never said they were talking about liberals. The fact that Chait self-selects into the “corporate wing clinging to the increasingly unequal status quo” says much more about his view of where he is within the party than the authors.

His final characterizing quote from Solidarity is “If conservatives wield a scythe, demonizing different groups with sinister and destabilizing abandon, their liberal counterparts prefer to use garden shears, perpetually trimming solidarity back to manageable, and certainly not transformative, proportions.” That’s from page 94, which is the second page of chapter four, the chapter which Hunt-Hendrix specifically said Chait should read in her WaPo interview. To reiterate: it’s a chapter about racist violence, regressive laws, and industrial deregulation, not about pundits criticizing non-profit organizations.

The only other part of Solidarity which Chait addresses directly is one quote about education reform. By “one quote,” I do not mean that he focuses on something Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor wrote themselves. No, instead he spends five paragraphs lambasting the authors for themselves quoting one sentence of a 504-page Rand Corporation report (Chait doesn’t name the highly pedigreed source) about an old Gates Foundation initiative called the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching (IPET).

In Solidarity, Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor use the quote to help illustrate Gates’ failed education initiatives, which are just one example in a wider chapter about the chauvinism of philanthropy. Rand wrote that IPET—essentially a standardized testing regime—failed because “the near-exclusive focus on TE [teacher effectiveness] might be insufficient to dramatically improve student outcomes.”

Chait stretches this example within an example into five paragraphs, castigating an apparent conspiracy of teacher’s unions for scaring “some of the experts” (which ones?!) away from “breaking ranks with the left.” To his credit, he notes that his wife works “at a nonprofit firm whose clients include both traditional and charter schools." According to her online bio, she "led policy for a D.C. charter school group."

I can’t tell you how strange it is that the most sustained policy discussion in Chait’s piece is about his own policy preferences, which are completely tangential to any of the ones in Solidarity, a book which argues for the total reorganization of American domestic spending and trade policy. There is truly so much to talk about with this book — and, if one disagreed, so much to criticize! I thought the book was good, but Chait might not have. It’s a shame that his own intellectual laziness foreclosed the kind of high-minded, nuanced debate which Chait claims the left won’t allow these days.

It’s also hard not to see this, at least to some extent, as a male intelligentsia dismissing out of hand the work of two women writers. And that fits a broader theme, since what they are writing about, Chait misunderstands at a pretty basic level.

Chait advises Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor to spend less time organizing protests—“the primary form of political activity” for leftists, according to Chait—and more time persuading moderate or cross-pressured voters. “Persuasion, though, plays little role in their understanding of politics,” Chait writes. Apparently Bernie Sanders won multiple presidential primaries, and Squad members knocked off establishment Democrats, primarily via protests.

If Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor didn’t want to persuade people, then I don’t know why they wrote a 300-page book in the first place. Solidarity argues that everyone benefits from movements that uplift everyone—for example, Hunt-Hendrix writes about being a wealthy heiress-turned-class traitor, and argues that ending economic inequality would actually help the (currently) rich too. In other words, Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor are saying that anyone, including current moderate and cross-pressured voters, would benefit from joining progressive movements. Chait’s advice only makes sense if he takes the labels “moderate” and “cross-pressured” as static fixtures, rather than political orientations that can be changed through (gasp!) persuasion.

He also warns that “when conservatives use well-organized factions to steamroll over the preferences of a majority, we call that ‘minority rule.’ Electoral politics, for all its shortcomings, is a more democratic method for resolving differences than bringing bodies into the streets.” Protests can also “create legitimacy problems even within the progressive movement itself,” Chait claims, because “every cause is framed as a matter of absolute moral urgency.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. First of all, the “well-organized factions” in conservatism are located in Congress, C-Suites, and national media outlets, to say nothing of terrorist militias. They can “steamroll over the preferences of a majority” because they already have institutional power, and are willing to kill people if they lose it. Progressives don’t and aren’t, which is why they turn to protest, as Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor painstakingly reiterate multiple times: “regular voters have virtually no impact over public policy in the United States, largely because they lack the economic resources required to sway elected officials accustomed to pandering to big donors,” they write, citing a classic Cambridge political science study. All of this is before one factors in the electoral college, gerrymandering, Senate disproportionality, and all the other parts of the American system that lock the preferences of numerical majorities out of power.

Moreover, Chait’s argument about intra-progressive prioritization again makes me wonder if he actually read the book. Through countless examples, Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor show that across American history, movements which challenge established hierarchies either succeed together or fail together. This is, again, what the word ‘solidarity’ means. It’s when one cause double-crosses their would-be allies that the betrayed movement crumbles, followed shortly by the betrayer.

In this respect, Chait’s column is helpfully clarifying. He is straightforwardly declaring that he will willingly and gladly break ranks whenever it is convenient for his personal pet causes—that he does not believe in the virtues of solidarity. I’d warn the good people of the NYMag Union that Chait is a scab through and through, but well, they already know.

It’s clear that Hunt-Hendrix and Taylor believe in solidarity because they care deeply about other people. They want all of humanity to flourish, and they don’t need any credit or kudos to act toward that goal—improving the world is its own reward. It’s hard to come away from “In Defense of Punching The Left” thinking the same is true of Chait.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the publication date of the book. That error has been corrected.

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