Features
09.01.2020
5 minutes

America must own its founding principles, or be destroyed.

For this summer’s protesters and their allies, the present moment marks a great awakening of America on race. In their view, the emergent “anti-racism” regime of the woke Left, with a well-heeled BLM network as its vanguard, signifies the advent of a new civil rights movement, broadening and completing the work of the now-revered movement of the mid-20th century.

Would that it were so. The present ascendancy of the woke Left on race is no triumph for civil rights, nor for social justice or any sort of justice, nor for democratic government. Least of all is it a victory for the sort of government America’s founders envisioned—a government by reflection and choice.

What sort of regard for reason, justice, or democracy are we to observe in the monument-topplings, the armed usurpation of power in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, the firings and cancellations of those who dissent from the dogmas of the day, the screaming mobs, and the arson, vandalism, looting, and violence, still the subjects of daily headlines, in numerous major cities?

Still worse, what sort of concern for the lives of the truly disadvantaged may we infer from the resounding silence by BLM and the Left about the sharp spikes in shootings and homicides perpetrated in cities across America against black victims by civilian offenders in the wake of the rioting? Or about the thousands of black lives lost year after year in such homicides, as compared with the very small number taken by actual abusive policing?

Let us consider well the fact that this frightening wave of lawlessness rises amid a chorus of calls for the defunding and dismantling of municipal police departments. Is this a movement to which American voters should entrust the responsibilities of government?

The woke Left and its allies take themselves and their cause to be a law higher than law. But to all with eyes to see, what seethes behind the specious mask of social justice is an enraged, illiberal mob, far more dangerous to black American and all American lives and well-being than the police it sweepingly castigates.

In the present moral fog, the most urgent imperative is to see clearly. The illiberalism and violence are not mere momentary excesses. They signify the core, not the periphery, of the “anti-racist” Left. They proceed from its vision of America.

This vision is expressed on one level by BLM’s founders when they claim that, 155 years after Emancipation and 55 years after the civil rights triumphs of the 1960s, America remains a vast, malevolent conspiracy in which “Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.” It is small wonder that a sentiment of nihilistic destructiveness should develop among those taught to believe this.

But at a deeper level, the source of the trouble lies well beyond such incendiary rhetoric. Among partisans of the woke Left, the disorder is rooted in their vision not only of the America they hate but also of the America they want.

What we are witnessing is the enthronement of a dogma, zealously propagated by its true believers and cynically or unthinkingly endorsed by institutional and cultural leaders across America. Not only does race matter, according to this ascendant dogma, but race, along with a train of subsidiary identity-focused grievances, is virtually all that matters. The America the woke Left envisions is a confederation of identity groups—especially of racialized identity groups—where moral authority and its ensuing social advantages are apportioned according to the relative strength of group claims to past and present aggrievement.

This vision is being propagated among America’s youth via the BLM-in-school curriculum emergent over the past several years, now to be joined by the reparations-oriented history lessons in The New York Times’s “1619 Project.” But in a broader scope, the reduction of politics in America to a struggle for power among racial identity groups is the common yield of several modes of racial thinking ascendant over the past half-century.

The doctrine of multiculturalism, predominant in the nation’s schools and universities for decades, teaches that the racial and ethnic identities of aggrieved groups are to be cultivated as goods in themselves—and thus in perpetuity. The Critical Race Theory school, increasingly influential in law schools, reduces law at least in the U.S. to a bare assertion of power by the dominant racial group.

The disparate-impact theory of racism, long inscribed in federal policy and lately maximized in the work of Ibram X. Kendi, effectively rules out attention to non-racist causes of outcomes disadvantageous to historically aggrieved racial groups, and therefore entails a permanent commitment to race-based redistributive measures.

The result of all this can only be an intensifying of racial loyalties and interracial conflicts.

In the spreading and deepening influence of these converging modes of racialized thinking, we are witnessing the demolition of the moral cornerstones of the American polity, foremost including its dedication to natural rights and color-blind justice. We now confront a faction that stands for the banishment of the spirit of 1776, the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and the coronation of a transmigrated spirit of George Wallace, demanding race division today, tomorrow, and forever.

Those who are confused or reticent on the Right, and any genuine liberals remaining on the Left, need to understand what BLM and its allies really stand for. For the woke Left, the ruling principle is disintegration, not integration; discord, not harmony; war, not peace. To enable its ascendancy is to push the republic ever closer to either dissolution or despotism.

In the present contest, the principles of 1776 are grossly overmatched in institutional power. But as Douglass maintained in in his justly renowned Fourth of July oration, those principles remain saving principles. They are the true principles of integration, of equal rights irrespective of color or ancestry, of constitutional republicanism, of a more perfect union.

For an American conservatism and, no less, an American liberalism worthy of their names, there is no choice but to honor our common heritage. The original patriot’s party, the party of 1776, must rise anew.

is Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Origin of this feature