What I Got Wrong About Gamergate: A Political Analysis

I think that on the whole my analysis of Gamergate holds up pretty well. Certainly better than most, though that's saying very little (endless "Gamergate is dead/over" pieces weren't ever candidates for the next Cassandra). But I did significantly overestimate the extent to which the right would coopt Gamergate, and I want to take a look at why I got that wrong. Though Dems had attempted to use Gamergate as part of a midterm "war on women" narrative, this was not particularly effective, and so after the election I expected the Republicans and conservative press to jump in and talk about a war on white male nerds or somesuch. Certainly, the left-wing press is talking about Gamergate far less now than it did before the election, while the mainstream press is ignoring it because it is simply not worth the trouble. But while assorted small fringe right groups have tried to coopt Gamergate without much success, the mainstream right didn't take up the mantle of Gamergate in any significant way.

So the question is why right-wing cooptation has not happened anywhere near the extent that I thought it would. The demonization that greeted any resistance to the manufactured Gamergate narrative (Hi!) made me think that we might see a breed of "Rand Paul Democrats" in the same way that you got Reagan Democrats as a result of the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act--except this time liberals achieved far less in the bargain. As I wrote in my column this week, this may well still happen, but it won't be because of Gamergate. While Gamergate displays widespread alienation from the loudest and most irritating parts of online left culture, Gamergate has not become the "conservative/reactionary"-identified movement that its detractors insist it was/is, and which I feared it would become. I attribute this to three factors:

1. Gamergate consists primarily of secular, vaguely liberalish types, alongside a mix of moderates, libertarians, and heterodox conservatives. None of them are particularly keen on right-wing dogma. It's a sign of just how sheerly toxic right-wing press is that none of these people are keen on touching Fox, Rush, Hannity, etc. Rather, you get Breitbart UK (the "UK" is important), Reason, Spiked, and a few bloggers at the Daily Caller. But that's as far as Gamergate will generally go. They do not want Fox to become their standard bearer. They trust the rest of the press less than they used to, but Fox is still a dirty word to them.

2. Contrariwise, orthodox right-wingers see Gamergate's mixed political leanings as unreliable and unpredictable, and so weren't hugely eager to bring them into the fold, lest they foment more right-wing civil war with their crazy views. You don't see Cathy Young too often on Fox News either (or Milo Yiannopoulos for that matter). The right is uneasy about Chuck Johnson for this reason; they like it when he goes after people they hate, but then he goes after Allen West. Independent, loosely affiliated actors make dangerous icons.

3. Most significantly, the right was able to adopt Gamergate's playbook without coopting Gamergate. The reactions you see to incidents like Bahar Mustafa and Sad/Rabid Puppies fall far more into the traditional left/right divide than GG vs. anti-GG. (And no, Sad/Rabid Puppies and Gamergate are not the same. Pay attention.) This suggests that while the right was hesitant to get engaged with Gamergate because of its associations with harassment, 4chan, hardcore libertarianism, trans* issues, and all sorts of godless heathen degenerate behavior (as you can see from that list, some of it approved by the left, some of it not), they were paying close attention to the strategies and tactics, and made sure to keep them in store for the *next* time that Oberlin nuttiness or identity politics or "social justice" or whatever coughs up an embarrassing story that the right could hang around the neck of "Democrats" or "feminism" or "liberalism." There was no need to invoke the name of Gamergate. Gamergate had too much moral baggage and ideological confusion for them--something I should have realized--but the content and tactics of Gamergate's critique of "social justice warriors" resonated with them loud and clear.

In some ways, this is a better outcome than what I expected. It gave the US left (including the Dems) time to mount their own counterargument to the social justice movement and thereby not appear beholden to it--the quick adoption of "social justice warrior" as a negative stereotype speaks to this. I'm sure Hillary will have her "Sister Souljah" movement sometime next year just as her husband did in 1992--instead of Sister Souljah, I imagine it will be some radical feminist.

The right, in fact, missed an opportunity last year to establish the "SJW" as a stereotype of all Dems and manufacture a narrative out of it. I'm sure they will still try to do this, but the Dems have some time to prepare for it and tamp down the endless outrage emanating from the most doctrinaire of the left-wing outlets. Hence the current raft of "Students are so emotional and scary!" articles from Laura Kipnis and TPM and Vox and the like, and Michelle Obama telling Oberlin students to STFU. Some lefties are starting to run out of the burning social justice house, claiming they didn't set fire to it: "I was abused by these social justice maniacs! I wasn't one of them!" Disingenuousness aside, that will make it harder for the social justice movement to be turned into an icon of All That is Wrong with the Democrats. There was a moment of opportunity where, had the right taken the risk of embracing Gamergate, they could have attracted a lot of left-leaning people by taking on an ideology that was peaking at that very time. This was, I believe, precisely Christina Hoff Sommers' thinking. It's too late to do that now. It might not have worked anyway (it was a risky strategy because of factors 1 and 2), but I was scared that it would.

My mistake, then, was thinking that because the Dems saw Gamergate as a short-term political football, the Repubs did as well. They didn't, because the timing was wrong for them. The Repubs were concerned with their base, just as the Dems were concerned with theirs, but Gamergate was only a relevant issue (pro AND con) for the Dem base. Had Gamergate rolled around a year or two later, I believe the right would have tried to take up the Gamergate mantle more aggressively to peel off support from Hillary, but 2014 was too early for it to seem like a good idea. The long-term outlook was too unpredictable.

Instead, you are seeing a slower movement to peel off anti-social justice Dems through less orthodox right-wing venues like the Washington Examiner (keep an eye on Ashe Schow, Dems; hopefully the right is too dumb to allow her to be effective), Breitbart UK, and possibly the Daily Caller. It provides the best opportunity for Republicans to make inroads among the millennials that they have totally lost on social issues. They can't come out loudly for gay marriage or anything, but they can inveigh against the anti-tolerance of certain obnoxious leftist factions, and I'm sure they will. But the left now seems to be trying to rein in those excesses well ahead of Hillary's candidacy, to prevent the Repubs from capitalizing on it too heavily. Who will win the race?

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