Esemplare ’18: The failure of progressivism

Staff Columnist
Thursday, December 1, 2016

In the aftermath of a historic and surprising election outcome, Americans have come forth with a plethora of explanations for the seemingly inexplicable, many of which focus on the electorate’s latent sexism or former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s perceived shortcomings. But while these issues likely played a role in her ultimate defeat, there is another seldom-discussed factor that I find particularly interesting here at Brown. While many on our campus have used the election result as an excuse to further denigrate President-Elect Donald Trump’s voter base, it is necessary to acknowledge the culpability of the progressive movement as it currently stands.

In the election’s wake, there has been much talk of “Trump’s America.” One apparent consensus among pundits is that Trump’s core demographic — white, working-class Americans — rallied around him because of a belief that traditional politicians had forgotten about them. As Dan Hopkins of FiveThirtyEight poignantly put it, people felt “like strangers in their own country.” Many students on Brown’s campus dismiss such sentiments as standard xenophobia or bigotry. I think we’re smarter than that.

Students at Brown and other elite universities across the country have forgotten that progressivism is about changing minds. At its best, it represents the slow and steady march toward a set of ideals. Social change is never sweeping, nor dramatic; it is incremental almost by rule because changing the closely held beliefs of others is never easy. But on Brown’s campus and in similar communities across the country, this is not what progressivism looks like. Instead, it has devolved into a self-righteous and unaccepting movement with little regard for the people it purportedly seeks to convert.

We have forgotten that changing minds is hard. Ivy League students preach of binaries and spectrums that many Americans can’t even begin to understand. Instead of a spoonful of sugar, we accompany our message with a judgmental glare. Progressivism failed in this election because it has become not only unpalatable but incomprehensible to many Americans.

A far cry from any ideal of tolerance, social justice activism on Brown’s campus often looks more like the venting of pent-up anger than any real attempt to persuade the other side. Yelling “check your privilege” may feel good, but it inspires strikingly few to engage in the desired action. Anger is certainly warranted in the face of the many injustices students on this campus see, but that doesn’t make it strategic. The phrase “check your privilege” calls for deep and difficult introspection, but it is so often accompanied by disdain and judgment that it is more likely to alienate than convince. This form of activism predictably fails to cause change. At the extreme, progressivism can devolve into an elite and exclusive movement that rarely stoops so low as to engage with the other side. It is a trap that anyone seeking to effect change would do well to avoid.

In challenging the efficacy of judgmental progressivism, I call heavily on my own experience. When I came to Brown, I possessed an incomplete knowledge of many social issues discussed on campus. I did not oppose them; I was simply unaware of them. When I attempted to engage in conversation on these issues to improve my understanding, I was frequently lambasted for my ignorance. In circles of ‘tolerance,’ my inexperience made me complicit.

Brown students, with our disdainful and insulated brand of progressivism, are among those culpable for the rise of Trump. We have given up trying to teach others about our message because judging is easier than educating. We fight with each other over the moral high ground without acknowledging that our tolerance has become intolerance and that our fights don’t make sense to those outside of our own community. We insulate ourselves on campuses in which almost everyone agrees with us and then begin to disagree with each other. Students at elite universities so often squabble about inaccessible theories while coal workers in Middle America worry about buying groceries. It’s no wonder they felt forgotten. We forgot them. We found an Ivy League bubble and got lost within it; we directed our message at 6,000 students instead of 320 million Americans.

Nicholas Esemplare ’18 can be reached at

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  1. Man with Axe says:

    I agree with the central thrust of your argument. You are right that you don’t convince people by insulting them or by yelling slogans at them. But I have a couple of bones to pick.

    You wrote: “We have forgotten that changing minds is hard. Ivy League students preach of binaries and spectrums that many Americans can’t even begin to understand.” Can you see how condescending that is? Perhaps these Americans of whom you speak understand very well what a binary is and what a spectrum is, but they disagree with you that a persons’s sex can be put on a spectrum. When they see a man in a dress, they see a man with mental problems, where you see a transwoman, whom you claim is, in fact, a woman without a vagina. And when you cancel “The Vagina Monologues” because it offends these women without vaginas, they shake their damn heads. People can disagree with you without necessarily being ignorant. Keep in mind that they might not have read the deconstructionists, but they have lived lives, raised children, met payrolls, and buried their dead.

    You wrote: “The phrase “check your privilege” calls for deep and difficult introspection, but it is so often accompanied by disdain and judgment that it is more likely to alienate than convince.” There are few things that occur on campuses today that receive as much scorn from the real world as this notion of “check your privilege.” (“Cultural appropriation” is a close second.) Regular people think that a person’s ideas sink or swim on their own, without regard to the speaker’s race, sex, ethnicity, condition of still having his original genitals, whether he likes to wear dresses, what sort of person he prefers to have sex with, or whether he is legally present in the country. If my ideas are only valid because I’m marginalized (and I still don’t know what the hell that means) then no one’s ideas are valid. When I hear a college kid say, as I recently did, “Aristotle doesn’t speak to me because he was a white male and I’m a black female,” I think, “Yeah, and not a very bright one.”

    • TheRationale says:

      Imagine the horror that would sweep the campus if they ever learned about the ad hominem fallacy!

  2. Flyover Guy says:

    Dear Brown Students:

    I was sitting right where you were, 20 years ago. I can guarantee that the next two decades will give you a wealth of experience and perspective, and may well cause you to have a little more understanding and sympathy for those you now disagree with.

    Until then, perhaps it is worth remembering that at age 18-22, you know literally nothing about how the world works. (It’s not your fault – neither did anyone else at that age.)

    John H. Snyder ’99

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