Decades back, the right managed to turn the venerable term “liberal” into a slur. In recent years, however, a new, more vulgar variant has emerged from liberalism’s critics on the left: “shitlib.” As one entry on the crowdsourced Urban Dictionary defines it, a shitlib is a “privileged, ‘performative-progressive,’ well-off class-snob.” The term gained momentum from the Bernie Sanders campaign’s failed challenges to the Democratic establishment. Those who deploy it seem to mostly come from the downwardly mobile sector that had something concrete to gain from proposals like Medicare for All, as opposed to more affluent party loyalists whose employer-sponsored health coverage insulates them from such concerns.
“Shitlib,” then, is an expression of political resentment: class resentment of downscale portions of the left for more affluent cultural progressives—but also resentment toward a type of liberal partisan who lays claim to the progressive vanguard while remaining complacently invested in the economic status quo. The shitlib is motivated by the fear of Republicans winning, rather than any deeper discontent with prevailing material conditions. However, this isn’t to say shitlibs are incapable of, or lack the desire to effect, a cultural revolution. On the contrary, when confronted with the populism of Sanders on the left and Donald Trump on the right in the late 2010s, they did just that. Instead of Medicare for All, they offered “femaleness for all”; instead of a higher minimum wage, they offered anti-racism trainings. It was a killer move, if ever there was one. The shitlibs might be shitty, but they aren’t idiots. The shitlib cultural revolution mobilized the cultural power of highly educated social progressives against the populists of both left and right.
Right-wing populism withstood the onslaught slightly better, because its total opposition to liberalism was clear from the outset. Left-wing populists, in contrast, viewed themselves as socially progressive, and thus struggled to stand at a distance from the shitlib cultural revolution, which they regarded as a defense of the status quo, while still maintaining a progressive posture on an array of social issues. Whenever left populists tried to make a nuanced point on gender politics, defend free speech, or propose a different way to address racism, the shitlib simply rejected all nuance and branded every proposed modification of the full-spectrum cultural agenda as “right-wing.”