The Powers of negative thinking about the rise of America's 'illiberal left'

It’s important to know right from the start that Kirsten Powers is a cradle liberal who has never once voted for a Republican.

She was a Clinton-Gore operative in 1992, a Clinton administration appointee, press secretary for Andrew Cuomo’s first New York governor race and held other partisan posts. She then shifted into opinion journalism, currently as a USA Today columnist and token liberal commentator on Fox News.

Powers’s credentials as a card-carrying political liberal have helped create buzz about her iconoclastic new “The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech” (Regnery). It’s proclaimed “an important book” by no less than Ron Fournier, National Journal’s editorial director and former Washington bureau chief of The AP. More predictable praise comes from conservatives like Pulitzer Prize winners Charles Krauthammer and George Will, her fellow Fox pundits.

What possessed Powers to issue a broadside against what she calls “the illiberal left”?  Mainly two things. First, after a “cocooned” existence among New York City liberals, involvement with Fox News put her in touch with conservatives she disagreed with but came to appreciate as colleagues worthy of respect.

Then a bigger surprise. As she wrote in Christianity Today magazine the “flimsy” Episcopalianism  of her childhood had turned to fierce adult skepticism. But then came visits to New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, open-minded reconsideration and an uncanny personal experience of Jesus, culminating in what was initially an “unwelcome” turn to a rather robust Christian faith.

Her new book asserts that “liberals are supposed to believe in diversity” but have developed “an alarming level of intolerance” and “an aggressive, illiberal impulse to silence people” that threatens conservatives, moderate Democrats and “those who hold orthodox religious beliefs” -- that is "unorthodox" to the cultural powers that be -- making them afraid to openly express their views. 

Faced with “being shunned by their peers or losing their job,” most such dissenters will keep silent, she observes. Political and religious conservatives “have told me chilling stories of intimidation, harassment, discrimination, denial of tenure, and more” that don’t appear in the book because “all were too fearful to go on the record” and endanger their professional futures.

Strong stuff. Though “Silencing” is mainly about secular politics, Powers contends that the militant Left “reserves a special strain of strident wrath for manifestations or protections of Christian belief.” Since current disputes often  involve gay marriage, note that Powers herself is a longtime and vocal supporter of that cause. But she sees fellow Christians who resist not as “bigots” but people following conscience and tradition. Her examples will be familiar to GetReligion readers:

* Mayors and universities seek to bar Chick-fil-A restaurants after the chain’s president opposes gay marriage, even though the chain does not discriminate against gay employees or customers.

* University professors are shunned for saying gay marriage foes have the right to speak.

* Religious adoption agencies are forced to shut down.

* California State University expels InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapters from its 23 campuses because it insists that student leaders affirm conservative Christian beliefs. Similar feuds erupt at 22 other colleges.

* Radical Islam is shielded and its critics subjected to derision.

Against that climate, Powers contends that a free society should always defend the right to express beliefs “without fear of official or unofficial retribution.” Unpopular ideas should be confronted by persuasion, not silencing. This is fair, just, and the American way, she believes. “No society can flourish without the clash of ideas.”

In other words, Powers is an old-fashioned liberal.

Footnote: Since George Stephanopoulos was a fellow Clinton staffer who made a similar career switch, here’s Powers’ similar columnizing on the ABC anchor’s current troubles:

“Like a fish doesn’t notice the water, today’s mainstream journalists are impervious to their bias in favor of Democratic candidates or liberal issues. They believe they are being objective because they have mistaken their ideological belief system for truth. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has noted repeatedly, ‘The facts have a liberal bias.’ This view has fertile ground in which to flourish, as the ideological and intellectual diversity of the nation’s newsrooms decreases.”
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