Growing up in the secular liberal paradigm requires you to take lots of assumptions both as a priori truth and unquestionable articles of faith. First and foremost being an ironclad assumption that society must progress. There is an unswerving belief that we remain shackled by social values that are both antiquated and deeply ingrained. These attitudes are a consequence of ossified institutions which perpetuate outmoded ways of thinking underpinning a vast array of pernicious, omnipresent structures of “oppression”. The only way forward is to demand change and remake the system. Smash it and rebuild if you fancy yourself a radical. Following closely behind these beliefs are three corollary beliefs; true progressivism is the ideology of the underdog, the system is fearful of change, and that all progressive political advocacy is good, true, pure and right. Anyone who stands in the way is just motivated by hate, ignorance, fear or bigotry. Probably all of the above.
In 2020, Progressivism is the ideology of the ruling class. Once effectively able to affect a pretense of working class legitimacy, the modern liberal establishment is unabashedly global, cosmopolitan, and aristocratic in temperament. Most importantly, they’ve gotten filthy rich. Once comprised of labor unions, blue collar workers, and various bleeding heart middle income urbanites who could convincingly exploit grievances against the 1%, the modern liberal establishment is clearly the plutocracy it once opposed. Comprised of pretentious academics, judicial activists, NGO’S, non-profit sector denizens, media elites, effete celebrities, sports tycoons and their overpaid, preening athletes, Silicon Valley moguls, hedge fund and private equity barons, Wall Street titans, intelligence professionals, bureaucrats who inhabit every level of power from the municipality up to the UN, IMF and World Bank, and legions of annoying professional activists in every corner of cultural influence, the progressive establishment is anything but an embattled underdog.
Needless to say, if you subscribe to this worldview, you aren’t likely to question the success or failure of yesterday’s policy victory nor the underlying belief that today’s cause célèbre is anything less than a moral imperative. Christopher Caldwell’s new book, The Age of Entitlement, is a look back on the entire spectrum of legislative and cultural reforms of the 60s and the ways in which they ushered in an entirely new social compact and subverted constitutional precedent. What’s fascinating about his analysis is that he reveals that these changes were so sweeping, they continued their inexorable march through every power structure regardless of who occupied the White House or which party held a Congressional majority. While conservatives may feel a sense of vindication and triumphalism by the Trump presidency, The Age of Entitlement should make anyone with traditional sensibilities deeply concerned.
At the center of his critique is a sweeping indictment of the Civil Rights movement. Specifically, the Civil Rights Act of ’64 and its subsidiary revolutions, feminism and the so-called “counterculture“. While Caldwell isn’t the first to go after these sacred cows, he is taking a different tack than Thomas Sowell and Paul Gottfried did in their analyses. The Age of Entitlement is useful in the sense that it provides a serviceable narrative to describe the massive cultural and institutional transformation ushered in under the banner of civil rights. What’s less useful about the book is that it offers no remedy nor any refuge for anyone who claims the mantle of conservatism of any kind.
Not only does it shed a light on the origins of today’s demagoguery disguised as activism, it exposes these reforms as simultaneously the most sweeping in the history of the republic and the biggest failures in terms of creating a more harmonious relationship between blacks and whites and men and women. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 created a bureaucracy of judicial activists, academics, and compliance apparatchiks so vast, the net effect was nothing less than a complete disassembly of constitutional norms of free association in favor of a police state mentality which looked for bigotry and discrimination even if there was none to be found.
Even if Trump secures a second term, the Right must contend with the cultural reality that the outworking of the liberal worldview has wrought. As Seraphim Rose argues in Nihilism, the underlying presuppositions of liberalism have become unraveled and its hollow core is exposed as never before. Caldwell argues that the new Civil Rights compact set the old constitutional norms in opposition to the new ones. It might be tempting to say that all that’s required is a reset of old fashioned constitutional principles, but who really believes that this is a tenable proposition at this juncture?
The country would therefore become an economic part rather than an economic whole, rendering nonsensical, at least for a while, all kinds of inherited cultural and political beliefs about sovereignty, national independence, and social cohesion.p. 173
Political conservativism is built on the liberal operating system. It can only work for a while as long as the assumptions of the premodern mindset remain intact. In other words, it assumes that there are objective moral principles and that there are transcendent truths to which we and our leaders are bound through the nation state. However, at this point in time, nothing can be taken as a given nor can any inherited tradition be considered exempt from the bonfires of revolution. If a society can no longer agree on what is shared or held to be sacred, then you’ve got a social malady that extends far beyond the purview of any legislative remedy. Christopher Caldwell has done a fantastic job chronicling the unraveling of 20th century democratic capitalism, but it does not answer the question of where to place your ultimate faith in the tumultuous years that lie ahead. And I daresay that may require an appeal to a higher power.