No society can survive if its people cannot achieve general consensus on certain fundamental understandings regarding the nature of the person and of society itself…
It may seem too much to say that our country has never been as divided as it is today. Anti-war protests, race riots, and especially a bloody Civil War would appear to be more extreme forms of disagreement than Hollywood meltdowns and Twitter tantrums, even when one takes note of skyrocketing racial and ideological violence, campus crybullies, and the heinous targeting of police. But it seems fair to wonder whether a society as divided as ours on such foundational questions as the possibility of equal protection under law and whether our traditional, Judeo-Christian culture is to be treated as a form of hatred subject to sanctions, disabilities, and potential prosecution can long survive.
Progressive scholars for decades have claimed that liberal democracy by its very nature seeks to bring peace and reason to societies facing moral and intellectual disagreement. But no society can survive if its people cannot achieve general consensus on certain fundamental understandings regarding the nature of the person and of society itself. Moreover, while we do not have open war, it seems clear that America is divided between two groups operating on two sets of fundamentally hostile preconceptions. On one side are those who see America as a fundamentally decent country founded on moral principles and dedicated to protecting religiously-grounded communities. On the other are those who see our nation as fatally flawed and in need of replacement by a new society devoted to radically different principles, replacing traditional norms and institutions with an abstract code valuing the pursuit of individual interests and pleasures and using the state to achieve substantive “justice,” defined in terms of perceived grievances. Moreover, one party in this struggle has declared itself opposed to principles of civility and decorum, even in public deliberative bodies such as the U.S. Senate, seeing its enemies as unworthy of toleration, its goals as mandatory and holy, and its tactics as intrinsically justified, however much damage they may do to persons, processes, political structures, and personal lives.
In one sense I have merely restated the grounds of the “culture war” that has been raging in this country since the 1960s, with its antecedents in the Progressive movement going back to the nineteenth century. But in recent years this “war” has changed in its tone, character, and potential consequences. It has grown, taken on deeply disturbing characteristics in geography and, especially, status and profession that indicate a fracturing of society itself into irreconcilable camps. Often overlooked, it has destroyed any “liberal” consensus devoted to an “open society” in favor of Progressive campaigns of transformation within major cultural institutions and, from them, politics itself.
It is fitting that the same heavy-handed political correctness that produced the Presidency of Donald Trump has metastasized into declarations of perpetual cultural warfare. Most obvious are the demands that we not “normalize” or recognize the legitimacy of a Trump Presidency on account of his putative “racism, sexism, and homophobia.” As to policy differences, Attorney-General designee Senator Jeff Sessions, for example, has had his record prosecuting white supremacists mischaracterized and his twenty years of service in the Senate maligned, along with his character, by colleagues who only recently were “proud” to work with him. Why? Because he holds conservative positions on issues such as immigration and the need to protect the integrity of our voting system.
What we are seeing, here, is the culmination of decades of development of a Progressive culture radically different from, and hostile toward, the mores, institutions, and understandings once dominant in the United States. Progressivism’s roots are intellectual. It began as a critique of traditional culture, and also of that culture’s traditional critics among old liberals, who valued an “open society,” a toleration that amounted to indifference toward culture, and a concern to achieve material well-being. What this old liberalism maintained was a connection (if sometimes quite loose) to our Constitution and the rule of law.
To Progressives, however, the central fact of our Constitution is its allowance for slavery and inequality; all else is unimportant as these betrayals of an abstract ideal of equality renders the entire edifice rotten at its foundation. This attitude came to dominate academe and education more generally beginning in the 1960s, and strangled dissent through “diversity” policies and other mechanisms in ensuing decades. It underlies much of the anti-Trump hysteria, which is motivated by fear that America might go back to a more traditional understanding on issues of human morality and equal protection of the laws. The charge is that such a return necessarily entails regression to the most abusive, morally repellent attitudes and actions regarding minorities in particular. The reality is that such a return would undermine our grievance culture and its power structures.
The irony of Mr. Trump’s rise lies in the fact that his personal and even much of his political life is more in keeping with liberal than conservative principles. What makes Mr. Trump different from, and hated by, Progressives, is that he has failed to move on, as have most liberals, from relative indifference to theological issues and traditional mores to Progressivism’s neo-puritanism of “affirmative consent,” political correctness, and other policies enshrining a culture of grievance and political action against “privileged” groups. As important, in refusing to lose gracefully (as Republican candidates have sought to do in recent elections) he has fought back against key institutional powers within the Progressive structure. What makes Mr. Trump different and infuriating is that he is a traitor to the coastal, monied elites who have wielded power for decades by going along with the most radical elements of our grievance culture so that they might continue controlling the machinery of government and positions of prestige and privilege.
Often overlooked, especially by Progressives, is the role played in the rise of Mr. Trump by eight years of rule by the most radical President in American history. Mr. Obama unleashed administrators, aided academics, and wielded an unconstitutional power by decree (especially executive orders and signing statements) to transform America according to a Progressive vision untethered by Constitution, traditional culture, or even properly promulgated law. Given the results of the 2016 elections, it should be news to no one that America is further divided than ever between Progressive coastal areas and the vast bulk of interior America.
On our coasts, hi-tech and finance have entrenched an overclass of the super-rich presiding over a small coterie of wealthy hangers-on and a dependent class of immigrants and service workers. “Flyover country” is inhabited by downwardly-mobile workers in more traditional professions and communities. In addition, of course, the heights of prestige in our “culture” now are occupied by univocally radical academics and persons (journalists, athletes, and “show-people”) in previous generations looked down on as disreputable sellers of mere sensation. But the elimination of any meaningful level of dissent on campus, where an increasing proportion of America’s youth now are indoctrinated into Progressive ideology, and the promotion of a celebrity culture in which the ability to play pretend in a convincing manner or to throw a ball are now taken as signs of moral and political superiority, have changed the very character of American public life.
Displacing statesmen, ministers, and historically rooted educators from places of influence, ideologues and entertainers have sought to destroy these persons as independent forces in public life. All must become purveyors of the same Progressive message, or be denounced as “on the wrong side of history.” It would be easy to despair in such times of any possible renewal of our culture. This is particularly true given the fact that the new President is not, in personal demeanor or conviction, any kind of conservative cultural warrior. But, as we witness the continuing hysteria of Progressive extremists at the idea of a peaceful transfer of power, we should consider why they are so hysterical. No doubt a lack of reason and fortitude is part of their problem. But so too is their understanding that only vast support from the state makes possible their continued dominance of our society. Administrative decrees, tax subsidies, and especially a determination to enforce, interpret, and apply the law in arbitrary fashion to promote their interests all underlie Progressive power. In particular the power of political correctness has come to pervade politics and even business, as well as its spawning ground in leftist academe. It has empowered unprincipled ideological mobs to destroy those who oppose them and silence potential opposition.
It is possible, if far from certain, that a determined campaign to eliminate Progressives’ use of police powers in the form of intentionally misconstrued civil rights law and various radical bullying tactics can defang Progressivism. The result would not be a sudden return to America’s traditions of self-government under law. But renewal through reconversion to religious and moral habits and beliefs would then be possible through the kinds of voluntary actions and persuasion on which ordered liberty must rely.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.