Is the leftist dream now within reach? If President Trump loses, we will find out.
When it comes to progressive ambitions, nothing is off the table.
The Claremont Institute’s DC Center for the American Way of Life is a new initiative for actively counteracting the Left’s ceaseless attacks on America. Founded earlier this year with Arthur Milikh at the helm, the DC center is focused on taking legal and cultural steps to fight the full onset of the woke regime. This series of articles puts into perspective what the Left is doing and intends to do to traditional American mores and customs.
Many thinkers and activists on the American Left call their philosophy progressivism, but no one uses the term changeism. The belief that change is necessary does not mean that all change is progress.
Progressives have done little to explicate which goals they want to progress to. By making a process its central idea, progressivism alerts us that we can neither hope nor expect to reach a state of affairs where progress would no longer be necessary, possible, or desirable. At the same time, it insists that moral flexibility is the defining characteristic of moral sanity. Philosopher Richard Rorty, highly influential within the American Left, wrote in 1999 that “no sharp break divides the unjust from the imprudent, the evil from the inexpedient.”
Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America helps delineate the criteria latent in progressive thinking. Tocqueville argues that the “democratic revolution” has gone from strength to strength for a millennium, making ever-greater equality the engine of modern life. The –ism of progressivism is the belief that progress in the direction of ever-greater equality has been unacceptably slow. Too many of those inequalities established in a more hierarchical, less enlightened past remain to be dismantled or at least reduced.
The identity politics that has grown increasingly prominent and assertive in the 21st century is a particular instance of the general demand for equality. Identity politics goes beyond rectifying social, political, and economic disparities—inequalities—between groups, especially disparities disadvantageous to groups that once were or still are victims of discrimination. Identitarianism, as it is also called, aspires further to “an ideal in which members of minority groups can maintain their distinctive collective identities and practices,” in the words of political theorist Sarah Song. Modern egalitarianism turns assimilating into a form of subjugating or, if done voluntarily by members of oppressed groups, self-abasement.
This elevation of group identity and group rights leads to the denigration of individual rights. Imagining the world after a century of progressive advances, Rorty anticipates that the prevention of “gross economic and social inequality” will take precedence over guaranteeing equal protection under the law. Similarly, “talk of fraternity and unselfishness” will displace an older, inexpedient seriousness about rights.
Progressivism, then, embraces egalitarianism as a method as well as an objective. The American Left’s battle cry of “by any means necessary,” taken from Malcolm X, posits that the ends justify the means and also that the ends justify themselves. For those devoted to being “on the right side of history” (an inanity invoked as a profundity), allegedly timeless principles like inalienable rights or equality before the law must yield whenever they constitute impediments to the creation of a better future. Unfalsifiable claims about the particular features of our society that future generations will approve or condemn become the basis for determining which omelets are to be cooked, and which eggs broken.
Democracy with American Characteristics
The common formulation of “liberal democracy” clearly implies that democracy might or might not end up being liberal. Constitutional guarantees of rights, and structures that include an independent judiciary, are meant to be guardrails that prevent democracy from going off the road into majority tyranny. Such parchment barriers, however, can do no more than postpone illiberal democracy, if a durable, determined majority ultimately wishes to revise the constitution or change the judiciary in ways that jeopardize minorities’ rights.
This is why James Madison argued that the survival and decency of democracy depended less on how government is constituted than on how society is constituted. Where society consists of “many parts, interests, and classes of citizens,” majorities would consist of transient coalitions rather than durable, homogenous factions. Majorities of that sort will restrain themselves out of self-interest, rather than some benevolent concern for the minority or devotion to abstractions like inviolable rights or the rule of law. Each group constituting any particular ad hoc majority, knowing how easily it could find itself outside some future majority coalition, will have practical but powerful reasons to avoid using democratically secured powers in ways that impair minorities’ rights, interests, or dignity. Doing so establishes habits and norms likely to be any group’s best defense when it finds itself in the minority.
There is no reason to think that the progress progressives work for will preserve or respect the modifications meant to render democracy less threatening to its own survival: inalienable rights, equality before the law, constitutionalism, or an “extended republic” that moderates democratic zeal and audacity. All these measures are solutions to a problem that progressives do not regard as a problem: the possibility that popular government will become bad government. If “the cure for the ailments of democracy is more democracy,” as Rorty’s hero John Dewey wrote in 1927, then bad governance can only be the result of insufficiently democratic governance.
One might suppose that a demand for ever more democracy would fortify the political structures once taught in civics classes. But progressivism entails an evolving understanding of democracy, one that leaves open—indeed, looks forward to—the prospect that democracy may someday neither require nor even tolerate free and fair elections, accountable elected officials, an independent judiciary, or the recognition of inviolable rights. As Dewey wrote in 1937:
Universal suffrage, recurring elections, responsibility of those who are in power to the voters, and the other factors of democratic government are means that have been found expedient for realizing democracy as the truly human way of living. They are not a final end and a final value. They are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to [that] end (emphasis added).
Dewey’s admiring biographer Alan Ryan attempted to expand on “the truly human way of living” by arguing that, for Dewey, democracy meant far more than “a political system in which governments elected by majority vote made such decisions as they could.” The greater goal was “a society permeated by a certain kind of character, by a mutual regard of all citizens for all other citizens, and by an ambition to make society both a greater unity and one that reflected the full diversity of its members’ talents and aptitudes.”
This exposition renders Dewey and progressivism’s understanding of democracy somewhat less vaporous but no less ominous. The preference for more democracy, in Dewey’s nebulous sense of the term, over mere democracy argues that the use of the descriptor in the names of Communist countries, such as the German Democratic Republic or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, is fanatical rather than cynical. The “democratic” goal of greater unity and cultivation of citizens’ talents rendered quotidian democracy unnecessary and turned violating individuals’ rights, often with extreme prejudice, into a democratic imperative.
As a result, it is impossible to say what the American Left will do if voters give it as much power as Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats wielded in the 1930s, because it is impossible to say what it won’t do. “Nothing is off the table,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said before the 2020 elections. He was alluding to: ending the Senate filibuster; adding new, Democratic-leaning states to the Union; and expanding the Supreme Court to negate recent Republican appointments. As it turned out, the election results fell short of progressives’ hopes. Liberal journalist Eric Levitz described the defeat of Donald Trump, combined with unexpectedly numerous Democratic losses in congressional and state elections, as a “devastating victory” for the Left.
Despite these disappointments, Nothing Is Off the Table remains operative. “Rust Never Sleeps,” warned the old Rust-Oleum ads. In the same way, progressives never renounce, they just regroup. Those who believe that their political project is ordained to be on the right side of history cannot permit election results to cow them into betraying the future. Even if imminent victory is denied them, patience and determination will secure ultimate victory.
Can the Center Hold?
The somethings that remain on the table include startling options. Consider the matter-of-fact totalitarianism of historian Ibram X. Kendi’s proposed Department of Anti-racism (DOA, in his irony-free acronym). Permanently funded and staffed by “formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees,” the agency would operate beyond the bounds of democratic consent, neither checked nor balanced by any other government body. Equipped with limitless power, answering only to itself,
The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.
It is one thing to say that Kendi’s DOA is on the table, another to say that it will be implemented. The latter question will turn on the internal dynamics of an ascendant left-of-center coalition. What is the strength, relative to identitarian zealots like Kendi, of liberals who retain a principled or sentimental attachment to constitutionalism and pluralism? Will the leftist coalition be large and stable enough that it constitutes a majority faction lacking any self-interested basis for concern about minority rights? Or will it be diverse and tenuous, so that its constituent parts have good reason to restrain themselves for fear of being left outside the coalition in the future? The answer to these questions will determine whether some future defeat of the Republican Party will prove fatal to the republican cause.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.