The American illness
Americans on both sides of the Kulturkampf no longer pray to the same God, but instead all appeal to freedom. But as Sam Goldman writes, freedom is confusing and complicated. Liberalism has apparently brought great goods to the West – an end to religious wars, authoritarian government, and bad behavior regarding race and sex. Goldman’s essay may force us to ask uncomfortable questions: Is there an alternative to liberalism? Is our liberal settlement collapsing into something worse?
It is difficult to diagnose an ongoing political situation. Partisan considerations distort our perception. Short-term problems can mask long-term trends. The transition from texts and theory to practice is precarious. Still we have to ask: where are we? How did we get here? How are things going
Goldman seems to be describing how we got to where we are. His description of our present discontent is of the “neither this nor that” type.
Conservatives have spoken out against “increased administration in private life” without recognizing that people want an administration that “protects against risk”. Such a popular desire encourages an “increase in administrative constraint” and has “spawned a new generation of moralizing busybodies, the experts and planners, the bullies and fanatics who always know better than you”. We must ask ourselves: is the administration good, popular and necessary, or bad and tyrannical?
Conservatives advocated the free market economy after the New Deal to support prosperity, the virtues of thrift and industriousness, and (until recently) financial responsibility, but free market methods may no longer promote these goals. But maybe also. It is not clear to Goldman that “the results of libertarian politics have been as disastrous as they are sometimes [is] asserts. “Are free markets good or bad?
Things keep getting better and worse! Some stress the decline of our country and its political system, while others see things getting better. Both declinism and optimism are problematic: one leads to despair, the other to unjustified confidence in the future. Is the country on the way up or down?
People criticize our freedoms. From the left, freedom seems to be just a cover for “exploitation and oppression”. From the right, Goldman seems to believe that some are against free trade and open borders in the name of an ethno-nationalist, self-sufficient future. Who is right? Is a country a good thing or not?
What about the academy? On the one hand, “the most dramatic excesses of language police and public shame still do not define science as a whole.” That is good. On the flip side, he writes, “An intrusive style of administrative oversight and stifling moralism has shifted from science to social media, the press, the charitable complex and big business.” This is bad. The triumph of the lively ideology is “easy to imagine,” but to say that we all live on campus now (or that campuses are thoroughly bad) is an exaggeration. Are universities redeemable or not?
Goldman answered “yes” to all of these questions, or at least “it depends”. And it depends. There are trenches on both sides of these streets. Statesmen and political scientists must watch out for the rifts while correcting the drift of a particular political community. Goldman’s analysis of the American situation ignores the main question of where things are actually going.
Take the third theme I mentioned above, a philosophical one borrowed from the late Peter Lawler: Things get better and worse at the same time. True enough. But also not universally true. The idea of mixed blessings has some limitations. When everyone dies in a nuclear holocaust, no one interferes and says, “Things are getting better and worse at the same time.” Nobody looks at the good side of Chernobyl! Lawler’s dictum can only be used with great discernment – as an invitation to reflection. Respects the idea that things are getting better and worse at the same time, for example borders? America could get worse, while China or Iran, for example, could get better. How do the goods and bads affect the interests of the nation?
Orientation towards American disease
As Goldman suggests, we cannot properly diagnose America’s situation by comparing it today to a mythical past. Nor can we diagnose it simply by comparing America to other Western European countries. Nothing prevents America from being the Least Sick Man, largely European. We have to orientate ourselves.
Promoting the American way of life and maintaining our regime or political form are primary concerns of our policies. Free markets ensure prosperous countries. Most citizens live longer and more pain-free. Most have access to economic opportunities and education. These goods are not nothing.
However, none of them speak for the deep human need for political community. Political health requires a public consensus that the laws are fair and deserve obedience. People have to believe that the legislative processes are legitimate and aimed at the common good. Healthy political communities also generally need a majority – even a large majority – to believe that this policy is in their best interests. That is where the friction lies.
America is rich, full, and healthy. Americans can (still!) Worship and homeschool. Yet many Americans find our political settlement difficult or inadmissible. For example, trust in important institutions has increased in recent generations. Factions have emerged within our political settlement that respect their basic principles in order to hide racial animation and other mendaciousness. There are also serious arguments about who should be honored and whose concept of justice will prevail. Such sources of conflict can be more violent than conflicts over the allocation of goods and services. People may be rich but feel more unhappy. The country remains prosperous but has been torn apart by the faction.
This new business and government elite seem to reject their country and hope to reshape it along the lines of the lively ideology. They seize the public honor and through this ideology occupy the moral height of our politics.
What is happening in America is, at the very least, an impending regime change that has been going on for generations and in which our basic notions of justice and the legitimacy of our institutions are on the table.
We are two generations in this challenge. Alliances between anti-discrimination ideologues, big media, corporate capital and the initially young administrative state are cemented. The first point won for this regime change was to ensure the approval of the constitution and corporations for positive action. This happened during the time between Bakke and the Reagan administration, which could not find any business support for the reversal of racial recruitment practices. A second point was the triumph of the same-sex marriage debate, in which almost the entire Fortune 500 establishment, aligned with our courts, flexed its muscles against Christian Central America and our constitutional order. Many seemingly minor revolutions – for example, the destruction of core college curricula and our elite climate change hysteria – fuel these political changes by building a class that is isolated from market forces and whose interests are tied to the revolution.
Since Obergefell and with the resistance to the election of President Trump, the floodgates have opened for regime change. America’s ruling class has been handling the coronavirus through the institutions of unelected, unaccountable administrative agencies that disregard citizens’ judgments about an acceptable risk. The riots in Black Lives Matter marked the triumph of identity politics – along with its fundamental rejection of the American way of life as being systematically racist. Technology giants, operating here and there by censoring conservative opinion, exercised control over the flow of information and access to advertising in ways that a generation ago no one would have believed legitimate or even possible.
Many see this. Those who raised morale see themselves as an end to the American tradition of personal freedom, republican government, and equality before the law. Those who speak out against it and gather behind the President and the flag believe that a victorious, bright ideology enforced by corporations and government agencies would represent a new regime hostile to the American way of life.
I might be wrong. Claims that America will never have free elections again are not uncommon among those who believe regime change is complete. Some think that the bright ideology is just a cover for an expanding, greedy, ever-tightening global oligarchy. Perhaps. I’m a simple country boy who sees the truth of things on the surface. Our tech oligarchs seem more slaves to conventional academic opinion than masterminds of a global conspiracy to concentrate wealth. This new business and government elite seem to reject their country and hope to reshape it along the lines of the lively ideology. They seize the public honor and through this ideology occupy the moral height of our politics.
There is still broad opposition to this regime change. The case must be pursued with vigor and courage. It is a fight that is worth it. President Trump received many votes: his supporters think the stake is very high indeed. Someone will use the political opportunity to maintain and complement this new coalition.
The 2020 elections did not decide once and for all the future of freedom in America. Everything that has happened in the past four years has brought clarity to those who are ready to see.