At some point over the last several years, Bill Maher became the most powerful voice critiquing the excesses of the progressive left and defending liberal democracy.
This evolution was shocking to me. Maher had established a hard-earned reputation for being a smug, profane, Godless liberal who (a decade ago) called Sarah Palin the c-word and made a derogatory joke about her son. Next, he made a $1 million donation to a super PAC supporting Barack Obama’s re-election. But times have changed, and the same irreverence that made Maher a frustrating adversary has made him a uniquely brave ally.
No, Maher hasn’t become a conservative Republican. Not yet, anyway—and probably, not ever. "I'm an old-school liberal,” he said again this week. But he has serious problems with today’s illiberal, intolerant left. And as a conservative, I think he’s right.
In a sense, though, Maher is a conservative—in the sense that he wants to conserve what used to be known as liberalism. But whereas most liberals and conservatives come across boring and antiquated in these radical, post-liberal, times, Maher reminds us that liberalism is the real revolutionary act.
While other powerful celebs might think twice before challenging woke orthodoxy, Maher has already been canceled once—ironically, for making politically incorrect comments (he said the 9/11 terrorists weren’t “cowards”), only to rise again stronger at HBO.
In recent years, Maher has become more of an equal-opportunity offender. This is because social issues that once divided the right and the left and animated Maher have become less relevant. Gay marriage is the law of the land, and states continue to legalize marijuana. Abortion seems to have (for now, at least) receded from being the defining hot-button issue. Meanwhile, the pious finger-wagging puritans have shifted from the Christian right to the woke left. What is left is Bill Maher, standing athwart history, yelling “Fuck!”
Now, with his plum perch as host of HBO’s Real Time (disclosure: I have been a guest on several episodes), Maher is a more effective contrarian critic of the progressive left than most actual conservatives could or would be. For one thing, his sincere advice to Democrats cannot be easily dismissed as “concern trolling.”
Consider, for example, his message to Dems this week: “The median voter is a white person in their fifties who didn’t go to college, their favorite TV show is NCIS, and their pronouns are, ‘What? I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, and get away from me,’” he said.
“I haven’t worked up an official campaign slogan for 2024 yet,” Maher continued, “but I tell you what I have ruled out is, ‘Vote Democrat Because White People Suck.’ It’s like trying to get laid by saying, ‘You’re ugly, you want to dance?’... You’re alienating a whole lot of people...I’d say do the math, but math is still a form of white supremacy.”
Maher next took some shots at Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, comparing her dismissive criticism of oldster James Carville to Mean Girls. In response to AOC’s contention that nobody cool uses the term “woke” anymore, Maher asked: “What word would you like us to use for the plainly insane excesses of the left that are not liberalism but something completely different? Because you can’t have that word ‘liberal' from us and think it should cover things like canceling [Abraham] Lincoln and teaching third-graders they’re oppressors.”
He also said AOC should come on “this show,” but that “probably won’t happen, because Democrats don’t go anywhere these days that they’re not pre-adored.”
On this point, I can’t blame AOC for declining the invitation. Since it’s his show, Maher controls the turf. The crowd in the audience are his fans. The guests are invited by his team. He has a week to work with producers and writers on jokes and punchlines. This, along with the quick wit that most good comedians (and too few politicians) possess, helps explain why he’s so formidable.
Then again, Maher is sometimes willing to play road games. Such was the case last week, when, appearing on Cuomo Prime Time, Maher made the commonsense point that schools should teach about the horrors of slavery and racism, but “that’s different than teaching that racism is the essence of America.” He also made the obvious point that America is a work in progress, and that we have, in fact, improved dramatically during his lifetime. “Somehow, liberals got afraid to acknowledge progress,” he told host Chris Cuomo. “You can acknowledge that we have made great progress on all the social issues, and yet, there is still more work to be done.”
And just like that, Maher was able to make a commonsense point to an audience that few conservatives would have entrée to. On top of that, people were voting with their remotes: Cuomo got a ratings boost.
It’s too pat to declare that conservatism is the new “punk rock,” but the left has surrendered any pretence of being a dangerous, intellectually honest home for free-thinkers, and has instead become a safe space for screeching conformists.
There’s an audience for old-school liberals, and Democrats should be asking themselves how it’s possible they have antagonized, if not alienated, the Bill Mahers of the world.
Bill Maher didn’t leave the left; they left him.