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Complicity and Complacency: American Liberalism’s Radical Turn

Complicity and Complacency: American Liberalism’s Radical Turn

What will it take to bring politics back down to earth? We must stop lifting it to heaven! In this age of political religions, all ideologies are best seen as Christian heresies. Since man is made in the image of God, all imitate, covet, even worship this image. Idolatry in its countless forms is at the root of their power and popular appeal.

Liberalism is the political philosophy of the autonomous individual or masterless man. Its multiple points of origin – the School of Salamanca, Hugo Grotius, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke – were shaped and sustained by the faith and customs of a Christian civilization. Larry Siedentop traces it back to the Apostle Paul’s understanding of moral equality. The liberal tradition is at the core of Western identity.[1]

In America, however, liberalism and democracy have long modified each other, leading Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn to warn: 

There are certain totalitarian and monolithic tendencies inherent in democracy that are not even present in the “absolute” monarchy, and less so in mixed government which, without exaggeration, can be called the great Western political tradition. De Tocqueville saw only too clearly that while democracy could founder into chaos, the greater danger was its gradual evolution into oppressive totalitarianism, a type of tyranny the world had never seen before and for which it was partly conditioned by modern administrative methods and technological inventions.”.[2] 

American liberalism: an unstable mixture 

Kuehnelt-Leddihn distinguished real liberalism – several schools of which he identified – from a false liberalism which draws on leftist influences already found in Anglo-American thought, notably Fabian socialism. “In the United States today the word ‘liberalism’ has a content diametrically opposed to its etymology.”[3] False liberalism is utopian in character. Premised on the perfectibility of human nature and, by extension, society under the guidance of an intellectual elite, this illiberal version favors social engineering, centralization, standardization, and statism. It tends to be hostile to religion, free enterprise, and the family. Its natural impulses are identitarian (tribal), intolerant, messianic, and interventionist. It is recognizable in the General Will of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the reformist zeal of the Utilitarian philosophers: “the greatest good for the greatest number.”[4]

America’s reform liberalism as it emerged in the 1920s is a mixture of these various strands. According to Fred Siegel: 

“The aim of liberalism’s founding writers and thinkers – such as Herbert Croly, H. G. Wells, Sinclair Lewis, and H. L. Mencken – was to create an American aristocracy of sorts, to provide the same sense of hierarchy and order long associated with European statism. Like communism, Fabianism, and fascism, modern liberalism was a vanguard movement born of politically self-conscious intellectuals.”[5] 

Some of its exponents – like the young Walter Lippmann, Clarence Darrow, John Dewey, Jack London, and Richard Ely – espoused some form of socialism.[6]

In Authority and the Liberal Tradition (1984, 1994), Robert Heineman noted “the inability of American politicians to make hard decisions” and sought to account for the drift of American policy: "Contemporary American liberalism is incapable of supporting for any sustained period of time a government that acts with firmness and coherent direction." He observed, furthermore, “the tremendous expansion of government within the past several decades does not chart a rise in public regard for political authority.”[7]

A “limited time horizon” such as Heineman describes, is neither a uniquely American nor liberal problem. Thomas Sowell refers to it as “one-day-at-a-time rationalism” and cites, as an example, the appeasement of Hitler in the lead up to the Second World War.[8] Efforts to appease various constituencies of voters may help account for the tremendous expansion of government as a default way of resolving problems – or harnessing them.

Some prominent liberals, such as Mark Lilla, acknowledge that liberalism has taken a wrong turn. Since the 1970s, Democrats have been exchanging a politics of solidarity for a politics of group identity: “American liberalism in the twenty-first century is in crisis: a crisis of imagination and ambition on our side, a crisis of attachment and trust on the side of the public.”[9] What Lilla and the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. have found objectionable is the disuniting of America through an identity politics that atomizes society and debases citizenship.[10]

James Piereson later summarized a growing illiberalism: “In the years after Kennedy’s death, liberals recast their understanding of reform from an instrument of progress to an instrument of punishment."[11] 

“They began to argue that the purpose of national policy was to punish the nation for its sins than to build a brighter and more secure future for all. The focus of reform was to find a way of compensating those groups that had suffered as a consequence of the cruel policies and customs of the past. In terms of policy, such a vision pointed in the direction of employment and educational preferences for women and designated minority groups, and toward programs that would promote the expression of their distinctive interests and points of view in government, journalism, textbooks, and educational institutions.”[12] 

More recently, Mark T. Mitchell analyzed this radical turn in Power and Purity (2020). Patrick Deneen described it as a “caustic wedding of Nietzsche’s “will to power” and a Puritanism without Christian grace.”[13] It resembles Michael Polanyi’s moral inversion and Kenneth Minogue’s political moralism, which are despotic in character.[14]

In a 1975 report to the Trilateral Commission, Samuel P. Huntington regarded a “democratic surge” in the 1960s as being responsible for the discrepancy between government growth and its loss of authority: “The vitality of American democracy in the United States in the 1960s produced a substantial increase in governmental activity and a substantial decrease in governmental authority.[15] Yet, four decades after Huntington made his assessment for the Trilateral Report, Frank Furedi concluded: 

“The weakening of intellectual and cultural authority meant that the authors of the Trilateral Report were intensely insecure about the capacity of Western governments to guide and manage the expectations of a democratic electorate. One of the most fascinating features of The Crisis of Democracy was its open acknowledgement of a lack of confidence about the ability of the political elites to make democracy work. This apprehension was based on an intuitive grasp of a historically significant development, which was the depletion of cultural and moral capital of the political elites.”[16] 

Harmon Zeigler argued that the problem is much deeper that any single cause: “there is an incongruence between what the government does and what ‘the people’ want.” Zeigler concluded: “Governments do a deplorable job of inventing ‘the people’; they do not do what ‘the people’ want more than about 40 percent of the time. In the remainder of examples, they do what ‘the people’ do not want.”[17]

In America, this incongruence may be due in part to the replacement of what Edward S. Corwin called the Constitution of Rights with a Constitution of Powers. Wartime emergencies repeatedly led to a change of focus from liberty to security. An atmosphere of crisis lingered after the Civil War and subsequent conflicts.[18] American Progressive and early German-educated political scientists played a crucial role in the creation and evolution of a constitutional overlay of administrative law.[19] A cocoon-like new layer of administrative law – which threatens to choke off some constitutional protections – was introduced as new regulatory agencies were created. Over time, 

“much of the formalism and many of the powers contained in the Constitution have been undermined by the distinctly American phenomenon of “sub-governments” which “develop from the policy relationships growing out of the needs of interest groups and their related executive agencies and congressional committees. The multiplication of these sub-government relationships at the national level has made it increasingly difficult for a President or a congressional majority to provide policy direction.”[20] 

Given the failure of American liberalism to project authority and command respect – indeed, in the absence of a clearly articulated mission or mandate – its desultory record as a governing philosophy reflects “the degree to which government must turn to coercion and material inducement to achieve its ends.” 

“These ends are as diffuse and varied as the opinions coloring the social fabric, for the expansion of governmental activity is a direct consequence of the inability of public officials to withstand the demands made of them. Because the welfare liberal ideology dominant since the New Deal provides no conceptual resources for effective governmental direction, public officials are left hastening to satisfy the immediate wants of their politically articulate publics. Effective government must be able to exercise restraint as well as be able to act firmly and directively, and to this end its officials must possess sufficient authoritative status in the public mind to allow them the choice of rejecting the demands made of them. But today’s government is little more than a dart board on which competing interests record their various scores. The result has been that contemporary American government is seriously limited in its capacity to act for the national good as defined by it.”[21] 

The problem is not so much government’s lack of responsiveness to public wishes as a “sensitivity to public whims” – especially to the demands of highly organized and well-financed interest groups – which leads to a “diffuseness of policy focus that has bordered on impotence during a period when crises engendered by such objective factors as resource scarcity, technological advance, and population growth have loomed larger and larger.” These challenges continue to mount and reach “threatening proportions” due to the inability of American governments to “act more efficiently and imaginatively.”[22]

Attempts to correct these deficiencies encounter two obstacles. First, political power in America has become so concentrated by political centralization as to exclude any effective principle of subsidiarity which would encourage policy adjustments to fit local needs and expectations. The growth of a massive national bureaucracy has led to the large-scale organization of interest groups in the place of local determination. The omnipresence of the news media favors distilling complex issues into headlines and soundbites. This system is ill-equipped to give the people what they want rather than what elites prefer.[23] As a consequence, the public is treated with an arrogant utilitarianism rather than as citizens to be consulted.

Second, the radicalization of the reform liberal ideology in response to demands by key Democratic Party constituencies similarly places it at odds with the preferences of large portions of the general public. They have long shown great “success in using courts to influence the policy process.” The leftist green and red Progressive wing of the Party is forcing reductions in domestic production of petroleum even while the Ukraine War is making both the country and the world more vulnerable to major reductions of supplies and manipulation of prices.

The sociologist Robert Nisbet wrote that “three aspects of the present age in America would surely draw [the] immediate, concerned, and perhaps incredulous attention” of the country’s founders. These peculiarities include, first, “the prominence of war in American life since 1914,” a fact which makes the deindustrialization of the economy and the decline of Defense Department sponsored research and development doubly ironic.[24]

Second, another legacy of the First World War is “the Leviathan-like presence of national government in the affairs of states, towns, and cities, and in the lives, cradle to grave, of individuals,” creating conditions favorable to increasing electronic surveillance and social regulation.[25] During the recent pandemic, national and global elites have been thinking in authoritarian and manipulative terms: 

“Governments led by enlightened leaders will make their stimulus packages conditional upon green commitments. They will, for example, provide more generous financial conditions for companies with low-carbon business models.”[26] 

Nisbet singled out public dislike of a bureaucracy which distributes and redistributes the largess of the government treasury, noting that “each incoming president dutifully vows to reduce the size of the bureaucracy and the awful total of indebtedness caused by it” and, just as dutifully, leaves office “having increased the size of the bureaucracy, the national debt, and budget deficits.”[27]

Third, “the number of Americans who seem only loosely attached to groups and values such as kinship, community, and property, and whose lives are so plainly governed by the cash nexus” has aroused much social commentary about the breakdown of face-to-face institutions. It is hard to gauge with any precision the downstream consequences of the traumas of war, dislocation, and discrimination. After the Second World War a generation of American men returned from an experience of war that few could share with loved ones Even so, the stresses and traumas of worked their way through the culture in numberless ways.

The costs of wartime mobilization were unsustainable in peacetime. Unwisely, industries failed to update their technologies and physical plants. As high-paying blue-collar jobs disappeared, lower-paying service sector jobs took their place. Minimum-wage laws had the effect of drying up job opportunities. The “off-shoring” of large sectors of the American economy to Mexico and Asia did not bode well for the future. Productivity and innovation declined. Entertainment, social media, and sports franchises came to dominate social, economic, and financial niches once filled by an industrial base that was second to none.

The political scientist and management consultant Peter F. Drucker took similar notice of public disenchantment with government – “primarily because it does not perform” – at the height of resistance against the Vietnam War and even called for a “new political theory” and “new constitutional law.”[28] Decades earlier, during the Second World War, he had cautioned: “Nothing could be more fatal than to rely on improvisation – which in a situation like ours is only another word for inertia.” He understood that so-called temporary emergency measures would become permanent. On the other hand, the “planning” then being touted was “the abolition of all limitations on government power.” He argued, instead, for local and decentralized self-government, including industry.[29]

A major reason for the liberal failure to act “with firmness and coherent direction” lies in the ad hoc, ameliorative character of the ill-defined social and structural changes its leaders have imposed across the country by means of centralized political power. Another may be a waning of the restraining influence of Christianity. Several generations of liberal leaders have left as their legacy a great and growing system of entitlements and regulations which reaches into every area of life. What needs explaining is not a failure but the peculiar measure of liberalism’s success.  

The peculiar measure of liberalism’s success 

The deeper causes of the ability of the Progressive and reform liberal movement to reshape the life and character of the country are at least fivefold and have little to do with any intrinsic merits it may or may not have. First, the discovery and settlement of America drew upon the vast treasury of Christendom which, as a frontier civilization, rebuilt the foundations of its classical predecessors, launched a series of technological and political revolutions, and then extended trade routes that eventually embraced the entire world. Second, the American states, many of which began as refuges for religious and political dissenters, became a great experimental laboratory in political and constitutional practice even as, like the Swiss cantons and Dutch provinces, they fought for and won independence from the great imperial power of the day. Third, America’s industrial revolution spread across the continent as the new nation extended the frontiers of its own common market and, by a “release of energy” through legal innovation, became a lucrative investment market and financial powerhouse. Fourth, the ferment of religious and social reform – both evangelical and humanitarian – wrought far-reaching social and cultural changes even as democratic expectations rose, transcontinental rail lines were completed, westward settlement intensified, and the frontier itself closed. Finally, the Progressive movement itself spun away from classical liberalism into something more akin to the utilitarianism of John Start Mill. This “reform liberalism” was the product of post-Civil War nationalism, the influence of Darwinism, the rise of the administrative state, theological modernism, and a variety of socialist movements which flourished under the wartime mobilization and collectivism.[30] The key to liberalism’s success, however, was America’s earlier growth into great power status.

America’s entry into the First World War – following a quick succession of Progressive political victories which included a national income tax, direct election of senators, and creation of a central banking system – gave Woodrow Wilson’s political messianism an ample opportunity and a larger stage to act upon in his professed desire to “make good [the] redemption of the world.”[31] Yet, as James Kurth notes, Wilson’s democratization projects in Latin America and Eastern Europe all ended in failure.[32]

This pattern continued among many of the administrations that followed. Colin Dueck contends that American foreign policy is characterized by two, almost contradictory, values that illustrate the lack of firmness and coherent direction which Heineman criticizes. Dueck contends that American foreign policy is characterized by a tension between a liberal political culture and a “limited liability” attitude toward prolonged commitments,[33] which leads decision makers to ignore sunk costs, cut their losses, and move on. Even worse, Angelo Codevilla detected a social engineering attitude at work: “while the early progressives expected the rest of the world to follow peacefully, today’s Ruling Class makes decisions about war and peace at least as much to forcefully tinker with the innards of foreign bodies politic as to protect America.”[34] The scope of such tinkering promiscuously links foreign and domestic policy into a continuum.

As Robert Nisbet put it: “The federal government, justified and encouraged by war pressure, was able to do what would have been impossible in time of peace: directly encourage and even help finance new, entrepreneurial ventures such as the airplane and radio, each to revolutionize American life after the war.”[35] The rise of the liberal welfare state cannot be separated from the wartime preparations and precedents which enabled its creation. The political scientist, Theda Skocpol, contends that the current system of social policy grew out of the reaction by Progressives against the patronage system that arose out of the Civil War veterans’ pensions and was promoted in part by women’s civic action organizations following the war.

The transition to reform liberalism in America also began as a reaction directed against the use by Progressives of domestic repression – the Prohibition of liquor, the Red Scare, the Palmer Raids – which accompanied the economic and military mobilization for the First World War.[36] Then, after tipping the balance of power in Europe during that war, America’s industrial and commercial dynamism built the country into the “arsenal of democracy” by the Second World War.

For the greater part of a century, the liberal ideology has drawn on America’s industrial might in order to mobilize public opinion to promote a "tremendous expansion of government” – the New Deal, Fair Deal, New Frontier, Great Society – without, at the same time, offering either a clear-eyed, realistic vision of what Walter Lippmann called “the Good Society” or a public philosophy designed to bind it together and discipline public desires. To a considerable degree its growth of the welfare state was opportunistic and personality-driven. It should be understood that, despite their rhetorical claims to the contrary, American presidents have, at best, a very limited mandate to “fundamentally transform” either the country or the world.

In response to the Great Depression, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, both of whom had served in the Wilson Administration, revived much of the domestic agenda of the earlier Progressive movement, including the temporary agencies that Woodrow Wilson had used in the economic and military mobilization for the First World War. A contemporary liberal critic of Franklin Roosevelt, who served in the Wilson Administration, observed: “He is essentially a play-boy and not a serious leader. His work is that of improvisation, not of statesmanship.”[37]

Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s New Deal was far more than an emergency program for the poor during the Great Depression. Kevin Williamson summarized the original objective: “What was intended to be permanent about the New Deal was not the creation of government jobs for unemployed Americans but the extension of federal power over large swaths of the economy.”[38] This tied the administrative state to the world’s most dynamic economy. Despite some boosting of public morale, Charles Kesler concluded: 

“The welfare and regulatory state plunged our politics into an amoral scramble for power, benefits, and influence that looked all the more tawdry next to the high hopes Roosevelt had raised. The interest-group or social-welfare Darwinism proved a lasting part of liberalism, and helped spur the greater disillusionment to come in the 1960s.”[39] 

A strategy of subversion by consensus 

Every new initiative – each solution to any given problem – adheres to the formula of “one size fits all” and must be made to appear inevitable. The object is always to implicate the public directly in the program. Complicity ensures submission. We may summarize some of these tactics by reference to the radical organizer Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, beginning with the first: Power is not only what you have but what your enemy thinks you have.[40]

As a recipe for political dominion, the liberal ideology has proven remarkably effective in promoting a cultural revolution in a country which, within living memory, has such a strong Christian religious tradition. Even before an invasive new program is introduced, the political and cultural ground must be prepared to mitigate against expected resistance. The public’s attention is then fixed on some “cognitive dissonance” in the form of a perceived dilemma, inequity, or concern for victims – a sense of justice is a powerful holdover of Biblical morality. This segues naturally into Saul Alinsky’s fourth rule: Make your enemy live up to their own rule book.[41]

This is where mass entertainment plays a central role. Alinsky’s fifth rule: Ridicule is man’s most potent weapon.[42] Applause lines in television sitcoms are probably a better predictor of the direction of social attitudes and public policy than a stack of policy papers published by partisan think tanks. The high-toned phase of Michael Oakeshott’s “rationalism in politics” has been degenerating into caricature and ad hominem attacks, as if to illustrate Alinsky’s thirteenth and final rule: Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.

Similarly, Dante Germino’s analysis of Antonio Gramsci’s prison notebooks reveals the ingredients of a larger strategy at work: “What must be done is to bring the large majority of the people who have lived at society’s periphery to a consciousness of their potential for living a life of full and meaningful participation. This change of sentiments about themselves can come about only through creating a new popular literature, new styles of art, and even a new attitude toward sarcasm.”[43] Language welcomes but also excludes; it “creates human realities.” Rod Dreher argues: “SJW’s [social justice warriors] police the spoken and written word, condemning speech that offends them as a form of violence.”[44]

Budziszewski summarized this cultural process with regard to the secularization of moral standards: “you can tell from the change in language, just as you can tell the approach of winter from the change in the color of leaves. As any sin passes through its stages from temptation, to toleration, to approval, its name is first euphemized, then avoided, then forgotten.”[45] He added that “the sheer dynamism of wickedness” requires a different understanding how our consciences work: 

“Conscience is not a passive barrier but an active force; though it can hold us back, it can also drive us on, it can also drive us on. Moreover, conscience comes not from without but from within: though culture can trim the fringes, the core cannot be changed. The reasons things get worse so fast must lie not in the weakness of conscience but in its strength, not in its shapelessness but in its shape.”[46] 

Consensus empowers. When legislation is designed to finalize one side’s victory over another, liberalism’s long-time reliance on highly publicized and intrusive legislative initiatives must be regarded as a recruiting tool. As the saying goes: “Nothing succeeds like success.” It puts wind in the sails. Its pattern of policy development is path-dependent: predictable, usually complacent, and often self-destructive. 

Clientelism 

For more than half a century, liberal politicians have paid off political debts to their chief clientele groups through a strategy of divide and rule – a politics of distraction. Rather than institute temporary programs to address specific problems or injustices, they make sweeping commitments, create new cabinet level departments, or draft massive legislative packages filled with privileges and subsidies to specific groups. When Lyndon Baines Johnson signed legislation, he used several pens which he then distributed to those in attendance. Like his use of the initials LBJ, the strategic use of political favors was yet another way of stamping his brand on everything.

President Johnson, in fact, was a master of political arm-twisting and deal-making as Senate Majority Leader and then as President. Decades after the New Deal, Johnson promoted Medicare, the Job Corps, and the War on Poverty despite the absence of a national emergency and at a time when unemployment levels and poverty rates were reaching historic lows. As a result, “general welfare programs quickly grew into a tool for building political constituencies.”[47] 

“Those constituencies are more easily counteracted, contained, and policed at the local level. At the federal level, they become nearly insurmountable obstacles to reform and sources of financial improbity – which is why today’s Democrats prefer Washington-based programs.”[48] 

What Kevin Williamson calls “the dependency agenda” seems well-designed to substitute various administrative agencies for the traditional mediating structures – families, churches, service clubs – which the Progressive/liberal welfare state has contributed to weakening. William Voegeli quotes Sidney Milkis to this same effect: 

“The ultimate goal of these reorganizations [of the executive branch] was to maximize the political space needed by enlightened administrators to pursue the experiments that would deliver economic security to all. The way to do this was to expand the people’s reverence for the goals of the American founding until the circle encompassed the New Deal’s goals, treating them as political objectives to be exalted with Jefferson’s and Madison’s, equally above and equally beyond partisan politics. Roosevelt’s ‘political genius, according to Milkis, was ‘to comprehend how the New Deal could transform American political culture without seeming to do so.’ The intended, and largely achieved, result of this transformation was ‘an administrative constitution that would protect reforms and reformers from future contests of opinion.’”[49] 

Today it is worth noting that Roosevelt’s scaffolding of ancestral piety is currently being dismantled even as the still-evolving liberal ideology adopts, chameleon-like, the red-green leftist coloring preferred by a younger generation of Democratic Party activists. The Founding generation is in bad odor with today’s social justice warriors who, like William Lloyd Garrison prior to the Civil War, reject what they regard as a slaveholder’s constitution.

In recent years, liberals tend to ensure compliance with controversial measures by compelling active complicity – through fear, conformity, or complacency – from the general public. Massive COVID-19 lockdowns, vaccination requirements, subsidization of global social engineering projects,[50] and deficit financing illustrate this dynamic at work. Similarly, liberal states boycott official travel to other states, cities, or countries whose policies offend current sensibilities. Woe to those who run afoul the thought police.

Negotiated realities and non-negotiable demands are the very embodiment of Rousseau’s “General Will” and examples of winning through intimidation. They are quite predictable applications of what the Behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner, who wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity, called “operant conditioning.” They also illustrate a point made by the historian James Hitchcock forty years ago: “Perhaps the greatest irony of Humanism is the fact that, in the end, it can no longer support the human freedom and dignity which it extols... Strangely, although not all Humanists are Behaviorists, they seem impervious to Behaviorism’s assaults on humanity.”[51]

Indeed, as citizens, Americans are made "implicitly" complicit in more than we can possibly know. How, for example, could the average American have known that the Supreme Court’s contraception and abortion cases (1965, 1973) would spawn terrible yet lucrative new medical industries under the color of law? Or that these industries would be protected under a Court-created right to privacy? Or that parents could be kept in the dark if their children were persuaded to seek out these services, which now include “transgender surgeries?”[52]

The English philosopher Roger Scruton wrote about the advantages of being members of a Personal State where citizens carry their citizenship rights everywhere. Yet he also understood that the 9/11 attacks were a retort against that same corporate personality which, in the role of an international actor, has a global reach and the ability – at times – to intervene with impunity in other countries’ affairs.[53] We may lament the extremes of expressive individualism that divide – even polarize – but the reality is far more complicated. Do we understand how we are morally and politically implicated in the resultant group and institutional dynamics?[54] The limited liability protections accorded these now vested interests – providers and clientele alike – mean we must all pay the bill.

Crucial wrong turns were taken over a period of decades and became deeply entrenched – through inertia – within the system during two world wars and a Great Depression. Given the resultant overlay of administrative law and social engineering promoted a century ago by Progressive politicians and social scientists, serious political and legal reform would require an unprecedented ability and willingness to break the grip of the vested interests which long ago captured the lion’s share of political influence. This remains true to this day because of the interlocking power blocs that have bent the system for mutual benefit. Their operative principle is what Frederic Bastiat called legal plunder. [55]

As Drucker understood, the default tendency of the liberal establishment is reactive rather than truly innovative. By replacing the old patronage system with a new mandarinate of professionals, the bias of the Progressive reformers and the New Deal administrative programs has shifted the country from a decentralized federal division of power toward a greater concentration of power in the hands of a national ruling elite. “The main attack of the Planners is directed not against improvisation and unpreparedness but against the separation of political government from rule in the social sphere.”[56] The subsequent leftward turn to identity politics is advancing what Joshua Mitchell calls “group scapegoating.”[57] Whether in education, marriage, family planning, or gender identity, the drift of liberal policy undermines all the traditional institutions which built the modern world. It is a French Revolution in slow motion which allows society’s institutional memory – the older generations – simply to pass away through Abraham Lincoln’s “silent artillery of time.”

C. S. Lewis made the human stakes very clear in a series of lectures, The Abolition of Man (1944), and later in his novel That Hideous Strength (1946).[58] 

“Each generation exercises power over its successors: and each, in so far as it modifies the environment bequeathed to it and rebels against tradition, resists and limits the power of its predecessors. This modifies the picture which is sometimes painted of a progressive emancipation from tradition and a progressive control of natural processes resulting in a continual increase of human power. In reality, of course, if any one age really attains, by eugenics and scientific education, the power to make its descendants what it pleases, all men who live after it are the patients of that power. They are weaker, not stronger; for though we may have put wonderful machines in their hands we have pre-ordained how they are to use them. And if, as is almost certain, the age which had thus attained maximum power over posterity were also the age most emancipated from tradition, it would be engaged in reducing the power of its predecessors almost as drastically as that of its successors...

Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well. Each advance leaves him weaker as well as stronger. In every victory, besides being the general who triumphs, he is also the prisoner who follows the triumphal car...”[59] 

Conclusion 

Woodrow Wilson’s Progressivism, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society all began with great fanfare but culminated in mobilizations that threatened fundamental freedoms, concentrated power in the national government, and squandered the fruits of victory at the conference table.[60] One implication is that government will naturally overstep its bounds in the absence of a guiding and constraining purpose. This practical deficiency has given rise to what Theodore Lowi called “Interest-group liberalism.” In practice, programs, budgets, the electorate, and even government agencies are held hostage by rent-seekers – political entrepreneurs and shakedown artists – until one side or another achieves its ends, whether these be greater power or more largesse.

Another implication is that government may not act with firmness and coherent direction when it has been retooled simply to promote the ad hoc purposes of the distributors and the recipients of its bounties. Instead of a narrowly focused, consistent, firm guiding political vision, the ends of government activity are diffuse and chiefly revolve around the distribution of the spoils. Given the waste and mismanagement associated with political empire-building, as public respect declines, the central government turns to coercion and material inducement to achieve its ends, perpetuating a vicious circle. The national treasury assumes some of the character of a political slush fund as it is used to underwrite a mounting national debt while serving whatever interests are successfully able to divert its resources to their own purposes.[61] Frederic Bastiat’s concept of legal plunder in the form of subsidies, immunities, tax incentives, and regulations illustrates the resulting corruption.

History is not kind to leaders, ruling classes, and ideologies that lose their grip. It is well to recall that, by the late 1970s, Soviet leadership had degenerated into a self-serving, sclerotic gerontocracy. In America, liberalism’s radical turn into identity politics and clientelism testifies to a similar decadence, loss of center, and corruption of its original vision.

As Heineman observes: “Ironically, the relative success of the state interventionists in disposing of laissez faire in the economic sphere has been accompanied by an increase in subjective social and philosophical positions that have seriously undermined government authority and at the same time made the need for such authority more pressing.”[62] This, it must be said, is a description of political weakness rather than strength. Such weakness is rendered even more dangerous by the sophisticated array of the means available to enforce ruling elites’ ever-less accountable will. The great irony here is that these technological refinements are the product of the same dynamic release of energy which originally set into motion the development of Christendom and later elevated the United States to great power status. They have now enabled the growth of a parasitical, oligarchic overlay of clientelism and rent-seeking. The sheer stasis of this system cannot last but, in the meantime, it repels any meaningful attempts at reform. 

Notes:

[1]Larry Siedentop, Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), 4.

[2]Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leftism: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Marcuse (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1974), 34, 35. https://mises.org/library/leftism-de-sade-and-marx-hitler-and-marcuse

[3]Ibid., 183.

[4]Ibid., 183-224.

[5]Fred Siegel, The Revolt Against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class (New York: Encounter, 2013), ix.

[6]See, e.g., Dorothy Ross, The Origins of American Social Science (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 98-140; on Fabianism, see Philip M. Crane, The Democrat’s Dilemma: How the Liberal Left Captured the Democratic Party (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1964).

[7]Robert Heineman, Authority and the Liberal Tradition: From Hobbes to Rorty, 2nd ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994), 1. The same has been said of France before the deluge: “On the threshold of the Revolution France was a civilized and reasonable prosperous country but hopelessly weak in her fibers.” Thomas Molnar, The Counter-Revolution (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1969), 22.

[8]Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic, 2009), 31.

[9]Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (New York: Harper Collins, 2017), 5.

[10]Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. The Disuniting of America (Whittle, 1991); Kuehnelt-Leddihn, op. cit., 15-20.

[11]James Piereson, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism (New York: Encounter, 2007), 207.

[12]Ibid., 208-09.

[13]Mark T. Mitchell, Power and Purity: The Unholy Marriage That Spawned America’s Social Justice Warriors (Washington: Regnery Gateway, 2020). Allan Bloom recognized this trend in The Closing of the American Mind (1987). On the influence of the Frankfurt School, see Ralph de Toledano, Cry Havoc! The Great American Bring-down and How it Happened (Washington, DC: Anthem, 2006).

[14]Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (New York: Harper, 1964 [1958]), 231-35; Kenneth Minogue, Politics: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford, 1995), 112.

[15]Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, and Joji Watanuki, The Crisis of Democracy. Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission (New York: New York University Press, 1975), 64.

[16]Frank Furedi, First World War – Still No End in Sight (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 181.

[17]Harmon Zeigler, Political Parties in Industrial Democracies: Imaging the Masses (Itasca, IL: F. E. Pea cock, 1993), 287.

[18]Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

[19]Philip Hamburger, The Administrative Threat (New York_ Encounter, 2017);

[20]Heineman, op. cit., 2-3.

[21]Ibid. 1.

[22]Ibid. 1.

[23]Zeigler, op. cit., 287.

[24]Robert Nisbet, The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), xi.

[25]Nisbet, op. cit., xi.

[26]Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret, COVID-19: The Great Reset (Cologny, Switz.: Forum, 2020), 145.

[27]Nisbet, op. cit., 133.

[28]Peter F. Drucker, The Age of Discontinuity (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994 [1969]), 241-42; cited in Kuehnelt-Leddihn, op. cit., 421.

[29]Peter F. Drucker, The Future of Industrial Man (New York: Mentor, 1965 [1942]), 199, 204, 208.

[30]Higgs, op. cit.

[31]Ernest Lee Tuveson, Redeemer Nation: The Idea of America’s Millennial Role (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968), 211.

[32]James Kurth, The American Way of Empire: How America Won the World – But Lost Her Way ((Washington, DC: Washington Books, 2019), 99.

[33]Colin Dueck, Reluctant Crusaders Crusaders: Power, Culture, and Change in American Grand Strategy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006).

[34]Angelo Codevilla, The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It (New York: Beaufort, 2010), 23.

[35]Nisbet, op cit., 8.

[36]Siegel, op. cit., 28-29.

[37]Arthur A. Ekirch Jr., Ideologies and Utopia: The Impact of the New Deal on American Thought (Chicago: Quadrangle, 1969), 195.

[38]Kevin D. Williamson, The Dependency Agenda. Encounter Broadside no. 29 (New York: Encounter, 2012), 16.

[39]Charles R. Kesler, I Am the Change: Barack Obama and the Crisis of Liberalism (New York: Broadside, 2012), 145.

[40]Saul Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Random House, 1971), 127.

[41]Ibid., 128.

[42]Ibid., 128

[43]Dante Germino, Antonio Gramsci: Architect of a New Politics (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), 256.

[44]Rod Dreher, Live Not by Lies: A Manual for Christian Dissidents (New York: Sentinel, 2020), 62.

[45]J. Budziszewski, The Revenge of Conscience: Politics and the Fall of Man (Dallas: Spence, 1999), 20.

[46]Ibid., 22.

[47]Williamson, op. cit., 36.

[48]Ibid., 41

[49]William Voegeli, Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State (New York: Encounter, 2012), 100.

[50]See Stephen Baskerville, The New Politics of Sex: The Sexual Revolution, Civil Liberties, and the Growth of Governmental Power ((Kettering, OH: Angelico Press, 2017).

[51]James Hitchcock, What Is Secular Humanism? Why Humanism Became Secular and How It Is Changing Our World (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant,1982), 147.

[52]See Charles E. Rice, Contraception and Persecution (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2014. See also https://www.touchstonemag.com/archives/article.php?id=25-01-024-f&readcode=2898&fbclid=IwAR1KME43yyouSHssyZDnCX9VbBVat2_h5T3j-qaYc6_PGSIQhQ0q-bExAkE

[53]Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002), 134-44.

[54]See Karl Jaspers, The Question of German Guilt, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Capricorn, 1961 [1947]) on the criminal, political, moral, and metaphysical dimensions of complicity and guilt.

[55]https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/gov_fac_pubs/110/

[56]Drucker, op. cit., 199.

[57]Joshua Mitchell, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time (New York: Encounter, 2020), 127-31.

[58]C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-Ups (New York: Macmillan, 1965 [1946]).

[59]C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 70, 71, 72.

[60]Kuehnelt-Leddihn, op. cit., 233.

[61]Heineman, op. cit., 177.

[62]Ibid., 12.

 
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