The last century: What the heck was that?

If an intellectual from 1900 could be bodily transported to the end of the milennium, top-hat, monocle, and all, he would explode in puzzlement.

  • Why aren't we all communists and atheists?
  • Liberalism won all its battles-- so why is it retreating?
  • Where did all these conservatives come from?
  • Where are the flying cars and moon bases?

If the thinker you picked was G.K. Chesterton, he might advise you that he was right all along: "In eighty years, London will be almost exactly as it is today," he wrote in 1904.  But he was a contrarian, and underneath that poise, he'd be just as shocked as the rest of them.

All-purpose apology

I'm going to go into more detail and provide more balance than the typical op-ed piece; but it's not a dissertation.  Consider the whole thing to be preceded by a big "In my opinion" and all the generalizations to be preceded by "In most cases".  I could qualify and nuance everything, but... in my opinion, and in most cases... that leads to wishy-washy, unreadable prose.

This essay is also available in Irish, thanks to Panu Höglund.

Destroy it all!  ..or not

Disdain for the organic

The intellectual fashion at the turn of the century (and well beyond) was for the artificial, the planned, and the scientific at the expense of the natural. 

George Bernard Shaw

  • Capitalism was messy and evil and would be replaced by planned utopia.  Or at least there would be scientific management, with technocratic experts telling brute labor what to do.

  • Cities were disgusting organic agglomerations, to be replaced by massive monoliths in geometric parks.

  • Languages were sinks of irregularity, to be replaced by Esperanto or something even more rigorous and analytical, a sort of voiced Dewey Decimal System.

  • Art, for at least the first half of the century, recoiled against the depiction of nature, preferring abstraction and itself as subjects.

  • There was nothing good to say about religion.

  • There was even less good to say about non-European cultures.  If they could not Europeanize, it was better that they simply disappear.

  • History was a long rise upward; before agriculture, men were simply brutes, dominated by violence, hunger, and fear.

  • One even found (in science fiction, here as so often the manifestation of contemporary wishes and fears) the expectation that organic life itself was a sort of rot, a corruption to be superseded by intelligent machines.

  • Even democracy, the triumph of 19C (= "19th century") liberalism, was on the defensive.  As William Shirer memorably related, people who believed in democracy in interwar Germany were an embattled and discredited minority; one form or another of absolutism waited in the wings.  As late as the '40s, C.S. Lewis (in Mere Christianity) found it necessary to depict democratic liberalism as merely one alternative for a Christian, beside socialism and fascism.

So what happened?

Well, communism failed, of course

Mao Zedong

By this time, it's such a commonplace that communism doesn't work that it's hard-- especially for Americans-- to understand why anyone ever thought it would.  But remember the '30s, when the capitalist nations had all knocked themselves into grinding poverty, and Soviet industry, unaffected by the collapse, was burgeoning.  Soon fascist industry added to the shame; liberal capitalism looked like it was running a distant third.  And in the '50s, analysts worried themselves silly over the Soviet growth rate, which by some measures was three times that of the U.S.

What wasn't realized at the time was that this growth differential said nothing about capitalism vs. communism.  It wasn't that the Soviets were good at running an economy; it was that dirt-poor countries can achieve massive gains in production by increasing, educating, and urbanizing the labor force, and by plowing a huge proportion of industrial output back into increased production (as opposed to, say, more consumer goods).  Russia did this after the Revolution; Singapore and the other Asian Tigers did it in the '60s and '70s; China is undergoing the process today.

But it's a finite change that can only be done once.  You can double your workforce participation from 27% to 51% of the population, as Singapore did; you can't double it again.  Further gains depend on increasing productivity.  Americans (and Japanese) are good at this; the Soviets never got the hang of it.  Once they reached modern levels of production, they ground to a halt. 

This not-yet-familiar story is told in more detail in Paul Krugman's Nov. 1994 Foreign Affairs article; see also his recent The Return of Depression Economics.

It's down, but is it out?

Noam Chomsky These days even Noam Chomsky's rag Z concedes that socialism is "undemocratic, often uncoordinated, and wasteful"; and a reissue of Rius's Marx for Beginners has to reassure readers that the Soviet Union wasn't what Marx had in mind. 

I wouldn't write socialism off quite so fast, for several reasons.

  • Socialism is like Christianity: it might work if anyone tried it.  Rius's backtracking is not entirely foolish: people are normally taken in by labels, and consider the Soviet system to be socialistic because it said it was.  But to say that the workers controlled the means of production in the USSR is to make a bad joke. It was basically a state monopoly with control firmly in the hands of a small managerial class.

    Not that you should trust those backtracking socialists: back when the USSR was a going concern, they or their predecessors were happy to claim it as a model, rejoicing that the evils of "property" had been eliminated for a quarter of the globe.  People who can't say "We goofed" are the last folks you want to put in power. 

  • Socialism means many things, some of them untried, some of them tried with great success under capitalism.  The open-source movement doesn't deserve its messianic pretensions, but exists as a living rebuke to property and profit.  (For an intro see Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning was the Command Line.)

  • And for that matter it's fascinating how many of our institutions, from families to faculties to churches to law firms to condo associations, are organized internally along socialist lines (relying on common ownership, and making decisions based on the common good).

  • Extreme forms of socialism are a disease of capitalism, and become stronger whenever capitalism indulges its penchant for mistreating the poor.  Is it really such a a hot idea to keep twenty percent of the population struggling, suspicious, and well-armed?  How long will emerging markets be content to make outside investors happy by following economic prescriptions (e.g. raising interest rates and reducing government spending during a recession) that are the opposite of those used by rich countries and that send their economies into a tailspin?

Still, I only point this out because I'm a contrarian myself, and distrust things that "everybody knows".  For the purposes of politics, it doesn't much matter whether socialism really failed, or is simply perceived to have done so.

The revenge of the organic

Our present-day suspicion of communism is only part of a larger trend.  In almost every area, the hubris of the early 20th century has been punished.  The natural and the unplanned have triumphed.

  • It turns out that market economies-- once liberalism has smoothed out their rough edges-- are mighty fine distributors of goods.  Markets do a better job of reconciling the differing goals and capacities of millions of people than central planning. 

  • Jane Jacobs Architects have rediscovered the virtues of human-scaled, miscellaneous, quirky, vital cities.  The skyscraper in a park-- instantiated as many a low-income housing project-- turns out to be a nightmare. Only French presidents still prefer la ville radieuse to downtown Paris.  The classic readings here are Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities) and Christopher Alexander (A Pattern Language).

  • People, by the billions, are not learning Esperanto.  I'll save my opinions on why this is for another time, but for now let's just note that languages turn out to be more complicated and more finely tuned to human needs than language tinkerers realize.  Even among conlangs, the most popular recent invention is Klingon, which is a sort of linguistic celebration of the ornery.

  • We know far more than we did in 1900... and we talk far more about limits on knowledge.  Quantum mechanics puts limits on what we can find out about the physical universe, and destroys Leibnizian determinism.  Gödel diminished our faith in pure mathematics.  Evolutionary psychology and cultural materialism (to say nothing of the pseudo-science of memetics) tell us that many of our cherished beliefs are the results of natural selection.  Deconstructionists maintain that everybody's ideas but their own are merely the result of social conditioning.

  • The ancestral environment gets a lot more respect these days-- after all, it's what we evolved to fit, and the evidence is that it was a fairly pleasant environment for hundreds of thousands of years.  Hunter-gatherers were healthier, less violent, more relaxed, and less hierarchical than agriculturalists-- only in this century have societies emerged where the average person is better off.

  • Non-Western cultures have been rediscovered, and the idea that they might have something to teach us is no longer radical. (Of course, one may wonder how deep this openness goes: many people seem to display their feng shui consultant or their shaman in much the spirit as they used to decorate with Japanese lacquerware or African masks.  Still, if you doubt that change has occurred, go back a century and read what people said about non-Western cultures; the sense of absolute superiority will hit you like a mugger.)

  • Artificial intelligence turned out to be a lot harder than expected.  After easy triumphs in chess and algebra, it bogged down in the morass of everyday intelligence human beings master by the age of four (including language). 

  • W. Edwards DemingThe Frederick Winslow Taylor style of 'scientific' management is being outperformed by more humanistic approaches.  It turns out that the workers, not the managers, know how to do their jobs; management is there to give them the tools to do it.  For more on this see Robert Levering's A Great Place to Work, or W. Edwards Deming (best known for his work on quality, but a severe critic of American management as well).

The paradox of liberalism

The response to the 19C pundit is, then: it turns out communism doesn't work so well-- it's outperformed by liberal capitalism.

However, this just reintroduces the mystery on a deeper level.  If liberalism won out over both laissez-faire capitalism and communism, why aren't we all liberals?  Why doesn't anyone admit to being one?  Why is liberalism in embattled retreat?  Who are all these conservatives anyway?

What is this, how you say, liberalism?

What is liberalism?  Scholars often amuse themselves in their first chapters writing gerrymandered definitions of things; if you like that sort of thing, I'd say that liberals believe in equality of opportunity but not of results.

In other words, in the game of life we should all start out at about the same place, but there's no maximum level of attainment.  That neatly divides us from leftists, who would prefer some sort of ceiling, and from rightists, who don't believe in the level floor.

As a linguist, though, I consider definitions to be artificial constructions; most words are really generalizations from prototypes.  So I'd rather talk about the quintessential causes and coalitions of liberalism; and those have evolved over time.

  • The New Deal core: the use of government to mitigate the excesses of capitalism: regulation, middle class welfare, and management of the business cycle. 

    FDR Regulation, conservation, and anti-trust law were originally Republican and Progressive causes.  They were co-opted by the Democrats (especially under Wilson), but it was Franklin D. Roosevelt who extended them into virtually a new form of society.  Rather as in SimCity, government would lay down the foundations of society and work to keep it prosperous, while leaving actual production to the citizens.

    The New Deal was the basis for a grand coalition that dominated American political life from the '30s till the '80s.  Mainstream Republicans didn't even attempt to challenge it, and Eisenhower and Nixon even added to it. 

  • The civil rights movement.  Once the New Deal became mainstream, civil rights took its place as the defining focus of liberalism, and the prototype for political action.  You could define a liberal as someone who thinks that legal and economic disenfranchisement backed up by vigilante terrorism is no way to treat people.

    Again, protection of the rights of blacks was once a Republican issue, but as the party that won the war, the Republicans became the party of the establishment, and slowly abandoned their 19C radicalism. 

    The modern civil rights movement began in the '40s and '50s-- among blacks, of course.  Why then?  One common answer is industrialization, and the need for black labor; but the civil rights movement began in the South, not the North, and was nurtured in the churches, not the factories.  Perhaps a better reason is the maturation of black education: black colleges founded in Reconstruction days were now producing educated black pastors and lawyers.  The 1954 school desegration case could not have been won by 1870s sharecroppers. 

    More to the point, perhaps, a war against fascism had necessarily depended on appeals to egalitarianism and the common good, and after helping to win the war, blacks were understandably enraged to be invited down into their old inferiority.

    Martin Luther King Jr. The key figure in the movement is Martin Luther King Jr.  His non-violent methods kept the movement on the moral high ground and attracted Northern sympathy; while his oratorical skills and rooting in the black church mobilized a large proportion of the black population.  (His book on the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, is a good read, and shows how much grassroots involvement the movement required.  All most modern movements can get out of their members is a yearly check-- which is perhaps why no one is changing American attitudes like King did.)

    It was by no means preordained that blacks end up with the Democrats rather than the Republicans, who were after all their original sponsors.  Eisenhower sent federal troops to enforce desegregation; and well into the '60s, the core of the Democrats' support was Southern whites.  But Kennedy tentatively, and Johnson definitively, embraced the cause of civil rights.  Aided by New Deal egalitarianism and statism, the Democrats moved away from being the party of the South and toward being the party of Northern liberals.

  • Modern liberalism, which has defined itself with issues such as these:
    • Feminism
    • Environmentalism
    • More social than defense spending
    • Gun control and rehabilitation as responses to crime
    • Campaign finance reform
    • Freedom of expression
    • Gay rights
    • Multiculturalism

    The models and methods for all of these come from either the New Deal or the Civil Rights movement.  The liberal impulse is a) to solve problems, and b) to solve them using the state. 

  • Bill Clinton The latest layer is the New Democrats-- people, like Bill Clinton, who got tired of watching the Democrats lose elections, and thought that winning required a move to the center.  So, curiously, 'lawnorder' is now a Democratic issue, and the Republicans find themselves fighting against putting more police on the streets.  Similarly, Clinton defused the most crowd-pleasing Republican issues-- a balanced budget, free trade, welfare reduction-- by adopting them as his own.

I distinguish liberals from progressives, who can be recognized theoretically by their belief that The Man is as oppressive as ever, and operationally by their low-circulation magazines, their Volvos, and their Third World jewelry.  Of course, all liberal ideas started as progressive or downright revolutionary, but liberalism has always sought to reform the system; progressives want to replace it.  (The contrast is social as well; I always find it amusing that the uptight, conventional guy in The Return of the Secaucus Seven is the Democrat.)  If you want to see which faction each of the attendees at the wine and cheese party belong to, start a discussion on socialism, or on Bill Clinton.

Liberalism rules, dude

Liberalism has spent the last twenty years under constant attack... which is puzzling, since it has been right in all its principles and has won all its battles.

  • Government regulation. People flirt with lunatic libertarianism... but the Fed, the FDIC, and the FDA are still in business. Laissez-faire capitalism is great for making a few people rich and the rest of the country miserable; if 1890s America is hazy in your mind, you can see the results today in Russia.

    Liberal capitalism-- with government regulation of banks, financial markets, and product safety, and social nets and progressive taxation to prevent excessive concentration of wealth-- is simply the most successful economic system yet invented.

    Conservatives feel most comfortable in an aristocracy.  But aristocratic nations are poor nations.  (The conservatives who realize this don't mind it, because they are or feel they should be part of the elite.)

    A luminous exception: Henry Ford, who doubled the wages of his assembly-line workers-- earning the scorn of the 1920s business community.  Ford, however, saw the potential of a huge class of consumers rich enough to buy automobiles.  Liberal capitalism thrives because a huge middle class, as in the U.S., is a better market than a small wealthy elite, as in Brazil.

  • Middle-class welfare. Republicans have belatedly learned that people love their Social Security.  Now instead of attacking this little sweetmeat of socialism, they argue with the Democrats over who holds it dearer to their hearts.

  • Civil rights.  Almost everyone today accepts the ideal of a color-blind society-- even conservatives, who enjoy sporting a few blacks among their number.  "Racist" is one of the few political terms that anyone on the political spectrum can use as an insult.  But conservatives fought the civil rights movement every step of the way.  They still hate affirmative action, but their very grounds for opposing it-- that it favors particular segments of society and that color should not be a factor-- is borrowed from '50s liberalism. 

  • Feminism. Gender equality is not quite as accepted; but women are in the workforce to stay, and today's young women grow up expecting to be treated equally in school, at work, and increasingly in relationships; and the sight of women in positions of power and prestige is becoming unremarkable.  Again, conservatives opposed everything from giving the vote to women to letting them into "male" jobs to giving them equal pay for equal work.

  • The environment.  In order to discredit environmentalism, conservatives are now reduced to finding the dippiest activists they can dig up (PETA is a good source); they can no longer directly defend belching smokestacks, dead lakes, and toxic waste dumps.  The need to protect the planet is one of those things that almost everyone agrees on.

  • Gay rightsAudre Lorde Here no consensus has been reached, but it's another area where conservatives are simply wrong, and what was formerly considered troublingly radical-- acceptance of homosexuality-- now seems like mere human decency. You don't have to like gays and lesbians, but that's no reason to jail them, fire them, beat them up, or deny their civil rights.  This battle is not yet won, but it's too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube.  We're not going back to classifying homosexuality as a mental illness or a crime.

The left, as opposed to liberalism per se, has happily extended the civil rights model, and found oppressed groups in the elderly, in children, Native Americans, illegal aliens, the handicapped, consumers, bisexuals, the transgendered, sex workers, people with fragrance allergies, people without good looks, people with various diseases, nudists, fetishists, various ethnic groups, various non-Western nations, linguistic or religious minorities, believers in alternative medicine, pagans, atheists, pets, and farm animals.  You could probably map out how far to the left someone is by finding out which of these groups they consider to be oppressed.  I'd maintain that none of these are core parts of liberalism, however.

But not for long

So, liberalism has been right in every one of its battles, and conservatives wrong.  Shouldn't we then expect liberals to be fęted gurus, and conservatives laughed out of intellectual life, at least till they had apologized for their errors and revamped their philosophy accordingly?

Well, no-- that's not how human nature works.  Movements don't acknowledge error; they quietly adapt to the new intellectual ecosystem and hope that no one notices.  They thrive by staking out strong positions and claiming absolute truth; this is simply incompatible with an attitude of thoughtful repentance.  (No one in Russia admired Gorbachev for re-evaluating Stalinism.)

Moreover, successful movements don't stick around, reaping the plaudits of a grateful citizenry... they disappear or marginalize.  You can't get voters excited about battles that are already won, or principles that are already universal. 

We've seen this story before, in fact, with the original Liberal Party in Britain.  It presided over the successful transfer of power from the landed aristocracy to the newly prosperous middle class-- and then, its major battles won, found itself superseded and outvoted by the Labour Party, which had new, strong ideas for workers to rally round.

By contrast, conservativism never dies.  Whatever the economic or social changes going on, there is always someone to oppose them-- generally those whose wealth and attitudes were formed by the old system.  Society always looks like it's going to the dogs; simple solutions and an appeal to old rustic or military virtues always have an appeal.

Where did all these conservatives come from?

Ronald Reagan

I think I wasn't alone in being surprised at the '80s.  Hadn't liberal capitalism produced general prosperity?  Was anyone really against civil rights and unions, or for pollution and robber-baron economics?  I knew, of course, of dinosaurs like Goldwater and McCarthy; but the emphasis was on the past tense.  Richard Nixon, if you put aside the little matter of the war, was no Reaganite; indeed, he helped build the welfare state that Reagan attacked.  We used to have flip-a-coin choices like Ford vs. Carter, for heaven's sake.

Well, I was young.  The consies were there all along, but they were divided and marginal and hadn't taken over the Republican Party yet.  In fact, they were hardly a 'they' yet; the present coalition hadn't yet been assembled.

Did the '60s beget the '90s?

Conservatives usually talk as if the '60s were the decade when Western Civilization went to hell.  However, a case can be made that the Right learned its essential strategies from the Left.

  • If there's an essence to the '60s, it's Question authority.  Radicals despised bourgeois sensibility and routinely called the republican US a fascist regime.  This attitude has been taken up lock, stock and barrel by conservatives, right down to the accusations of fascism (remember the NRA's "jack-booted government thugs").
  • The conservatives obviously learned much from the near-impeachment of Richard Nixon-- not about his abuses of power, but about how a presidency can be derailed by insistent congressional investigation. 
  • Likewise, though they decried the "high-tech lynching" of Clarence Thomas, they learned the use of a powerful political tool: seamy sexual allegations irrelevant to any rational qualifications for office. 
  • Conservatives opposed measures pioneered by liberals to clean up government, such as independent prosecutors and strengthened sexual harrassment laws-- and protested fiercely when they were the targets-- but were happy to use them against the Clinton administration.
  • Liberals like to take the side of victims, and the standard political move for the last couple of decades has been to assume the status of a victim.  (Perhaps that seems eternal, but it's not.  Contrast it with the strategy of (say) Booker T. Washington: to assume the status of a human being, out-virtuing one's oppressors.)  Conservatives learned to talk like victims as well, decrying prejudice against Christians or conservatives or white males.
  • After years of complaining about the "liberal media", conservatives figured out what the hippies learned in the sixties: you can only get media you like by creating it yourselves.  There is now a well-funded industry cranking out right-wing magazines, newspapers, think tank pieces, websites, and radio shows.  You used to have to live in Reaganesque denial to swallow whoppers like the "fact" that the US has spent trillions of dollars on the poor with no result.  Now you can read it in the (right) papers.

For more similarities between right and left, see my page on Left and Right: Birds of a feather?

In short, the sixties shattered the American social compact that dated from the New Deal-- a near-consensus on the goodness of our bedrock institutions: benign government, tireless industry, a prospering middle class, strong but apolitical churches; political parties that increasingly resembled each other. 

The '60s radicals scorned all of these, talked of revolution and spiritual transformation, and spotlighted the dark side of traditional wisdom.  The '80s conservatives continued this rejection of the common good, denying any connection to the poor, feeling no need to share the wealth generated by industry, and pressing their own vision of a morally bankrupt nation.

Not that the left invented a distrust of the state, of course.  Anti-statism is a long tradition in American politics-- see Garry Wills's A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government (1999)-- but since the Civil War it had been relegated to the fringe.  The '60s made it fashionable, and the '80s made it part of the mainstream.

Field guide to the North American politico

There's several ways to think about the political divide in this country.

  • Left vs. right.  If you're left-wing, this means "progressives vs. reactionaries"; if you're right-wing, it means "reasonable decent people vs. socialists". 
  • The four-way analysis from the Libertarian Party website.  They posit two dimensions, social and economic.  You can be laissez-faire or statist on the economy; and you can be permissive or restrictive socially.  That makes for four combinations:
    • Statist + permissive = left-liberal
    • Statist + restrictive = authoritarian
    • Laissez-faire + permissive = libertarian
    • Laissez-faire + restrictive = right conservative
  • George Lakoff's analysis (in Moral Politics) of liberalism and conservativism as two extended metaphors based on differing views on family life: the Strict Father and the Nurturant Parent moralities.
  • Pro- vs. anti-government-- the set of values Garry Wills explicates in his book.
  • Michael Lind's regional analysis, as explained at Salon.
  • The orthodox Christian view, in which political movements are judged based on their seeming compatibility with Christian morality.
  • The Marxist view, whose goals derive from a 19C German tailor's idea of what industrial workers want.  More charitably, this view divides people into haves and have-nots.  Applied to 20C America, it turns out that most people, including Democrats, are haves... and left-leaning haves are if anything despised more than out-and-out reactionaries.
  • Administration vs. opposition. Some things are best explained by considering who's in power and who's not.

These views overlap in some ways, contradict in others.  They're all simplifying metaphors, imposing some order on a complex reality, and each has its pluses and minuses.

A metaphor from the French Revolution well past its sell-by date

Not Richard Nixon Left/right is absurdly reductionist.  It's fashionable today for conservatives to affect difficulty in distinguishing Lloyd Bentsen from Noam Chomsky from Josef Stalin... just as it was fashionable in the '60s for progressives to confound Richard Nixon and Mussolini.  The danger is that one can come to believe one's own rhetoric.  Not making distinctions is a sign of insanity.

You will  not understand such phenomena as the alliance of feminist and religious anti-porn crusaders, or progressives' hatred of Bill Clinton, or the fight over free trade, if you cling to a left/right dichotomy.  And any analyses you attempt will be vitiated by misunderstandings.  A correspondent, for instance, informed me that Republicans value "the individual" while Democrats prefer "the collective".  That's right-- except where it's completely wrong, as with the Democrats' support of the ACLU, which champions individual rights.  And it's conservatives, not liberals, who want communities to be able to force the local atheists to pray with them and pay for their religious schools.

And yet, because we have a two-party system, positions do tend to polarize in a binary fashion.  So there are bundles of ideas that come to be labelled Democratic and Republican.  But much of the time the particular views in the bundle are more to be explained by a spirit of contentiousness than by principle.

  • Republicans decried special prosecutors when Reagan was being investigated, loved them when Clinton was under the gun. 
  • Democrats were all for pursuing sexual allegations against Clarence Thomas, but grew suspicious of the tactic when it came to Clinton.
  • Progressives lambasted the Gulf War, but found themselves gunning for a fight in Bosnia.  Republicans found no need to fight there, but were all for projecting our presence in Grenada (pop. 100,000) and Somalia.
  • Republicans lambasted Hillary Clinton for suggesting that children could have legal rights opposed to those of their parents… until Elián González came along.

These flip-flops are reminders that many a political battle is nothing but that.  People who insist on interpreting everything ideologically inevitably dance between contradictory positions, following motions of their leaders which are not ideological at all.

The libertarian square

The four-way libertarian analysis could be used to predict the existence of two branches in each of the major parties:

  • Republicans are divided into libertarians (e.g. Newt Gingrich) and social conservatives (e.g. the Religious Right)
  • Democrats are divided into liberals (e.g. Hillary Clinton) and authoritarians (e.g., er... Jesse Jackson? Joe Lieberman?)

This is a good first step toward understanding the Republican coalition... but it's less helpful with the Democrats.  It doesn't capture, for instance, the divide between moderates (what I've called liberal capitalists above) and progressives (people who want extreme reforms of an exploitative system).

And it seems to miss the point to talk about an "authoritarian" wing of the party; this faction is usually just called "blacks".  Blacks tend to be fairly conservative socially, but they throw their lot in with the Dems because it's the only way to get more pie.

This view also does not explain why Republican libertarians ally themselves with the religious right-- doesn't it bother them to have allies that would support government intrusion into personal life?  And shouldn't they feel as close to left-liberals (who share their dedication to personal liberty) as to right-conservatives (who differ with them on this)?

Lakoff maintains that the libertarians are simply a close variant of conservatives, who emphasize pragmatism and noninterference by government more than other conservatives.  Thus libertarians support civil liberties, but for very different reasons than liberals: out of a conservative concern with self-reliance and adult  independence from the parent/government, not from a liberal concern with equality and fairness.

Lakoff's metaphors

I can't do justice to Lind, Lakoff, or Wills in a paragraph or two... and reconciling them would take a long essay in itself.  Suffice to say that all three of them are worth reading.

George Lakoff I think Lakoff does an excellent job explaining to liberals how such seemingly disaparate elements as opposition to abortion, support for gun ownership, 'family values', and opposition to pro-family legislation, all fit together into one metaphorical package.

In particular, he's good at explaining why conservatives just don't get worked up about suffering, at least if it's not their own.  They're like Calvin's dad: they think suffering builds character.  It's a dog-eat-dog world out there, son, and if the bleeding hearts really succeeded in making it as safe and nice as a kindergarten, what would become of the manly virtues?

(As a corollary, if you want bipartisan support, don't talk about feelings.  Leftists love to delve into psychology, and worry about the psychological trauma of racism, or how patriarchy is encoded in texts.  This just infuriates consies, who are not simply 'not in touch with their feelings', but take pride in rising above them-- that is, ignoring them.)

Tellingly, the best research shows that the 'strict father' metaphor actually makes for lousy parenting.  The root problem: it produces children with an external conscience-- in other works, people who behave only when other people are watching.  To this we might add Robert Levering's finding, that workplaces that promote fair treatment of workers are also the most profitable businesses, as well as the fact that liberal democracies work better than Pinochet-style oligarchy.    The hierarchical alpha male worldview fails on its own hardheaded terms.  (Not that there's any arguing with its proponents; it's too central to their sense of self-worth.)

Wills on the anti-government complex

Garry Wills Wills is not trying to explain everything in politics, but only the peculiarly American notion that government per se is evil.  Wills traces it back to Revolutionary times-- and shows that much modern conservative palaver about the minutemen and the Constitution is romantic balderdash.  The minutemen did not win the war, and the Constitution was not intended to create a divided, small, inefficient government-- quite the reverse. 

But the anti-government meme is not about facts, it's about myth.  It's part of a complex of values that have exerted a powerful hold over the American mind-- a preference for the provincial over the cosmopolitan, the amateur over the expert, the voluntary over the mandatory, the organic over the mechanical, the authentic over the authoritarian, rights over duties, religion over secularism, spontaneity over efficiency.

The most curious element of this story is that these oppositions are orthogonal to "left vs. right" or "conservative vs. liberal", and indeed the left and right have flip-flopped on these issues more than once in this century.  In the sixties, it was the left that celebrated anarchy, spontaneity, authenticity, the organic, the local, the spiritual-- to say nothing of the desirability of armed rebellion-- and it was the right that demanded (as Pogo had it) "lawnorder".  Today we find leftists defending the use of force by NATO or the Attorney General, and right-wingers blowing up civil servants.

Lind's regional tribes

Lind has a fascinating story to tell.  What he addresses straight on is the odd political reversal that occurred a generation ago: the Republican and Democratic parties switched consituencies.  The Republicans used to be the party of Northerners, of blacks, and even of progressives.  The Democrats were the Southern party.  The South shifted from Democratic to Republican, starting in the '60s

However, Lind suffers from a disease shared by too many political thinkers: an urge to fit everyone into snug little boxes-- "Yankee", "Southron", "New Dealer", "Left-liberal", etc.  At least he has more than two boxes.  But I think each of his categories is each more complex than he recognizes.  And there seems to be no place in his story for religion or for historical change... is the political behavior of an Atlanta systems analyst of 2000 really exactly the same as that of a Georgia planter of 1840?  And some of his  'rules' for making alliances are questionable... that blacks and 'Southrons' can't be in the same party, for instance.  They were for a generation, from the New Deal till the '60s.

Good (= us) vs. evil (= them)

The Christian morality play is as unsatisfactory as any of the other binary models; but at least it has the virtue of placing religion, which has been of primary importance in many an American political movement, at center stageIf you're irreligious and know only of the Religious Right, by the way, you're as willfully stupid as those right-wingers who see commies wherever they look.  The civil rights movement, for instance, was based in the black churches; it's not an accident that Dr. King was a pastor.  And to this day there is a religious left, which would be a natural ally of progressives if they knew where to look.


The Marxist view... and its mirror-image, Randism... are tedious, not to mention dangerous; but it can be bracing and informative to look for the power relationships in any political situation.  Who benefits from a proposal?  Whose point of view is easily predicted from their financial interests?  Who runs an institution, and how can it go wrong?  These are essential questions that are invaluable for intelligent thinkers of any political point of view.

Who's on first?

A party isn't just a constituency or an ideology-- it's also a party in power or out of power, and that affects political discourse more than we usually think.  The party in power, no matter what its beliefs, tends to defend state power and specific governmental actions.  The opposition, no matter what it believes, tends to criticize the state.  After all, it's not going to get back in power by praising the administration.  Some cases in point (besides the flip-flops mentioned earlier):

  • The U.S.'s China policy: perenially the administration, Democratic or Republican, defends its rapprochement with the regime, while the opposition criticizes this appeasement of the communists. 
  • Half the "politics" stories on CNN consist of the Republicans nit-picking something the administration's done.  Of course it was the other way around when Reagan and Bush were in power.
  • The fact that Republican Governors are, as a whole, more pragmatic and moderate than Republicans in Congress.  For the most part they try to deliver and improve state services... rather than undermine or eliminate them like good anti-government libertarians should.

Long-term power (such as the Democrats enjoyed for a generation) makes a party fat and lazy, and makes the opposition cranky, reckless... and occasionally reflective.  They have to be open to new ideas to get back in power, since their old thoughts landed them in minority status.

There's an inertia effect here as well.  The Republicans have controlled Congress for six years, but they still seem to think like an aggrieved minority, and do reckless things like impeaching the President or shutting down the government. 

Meet the Rightists

Let me try to put some of this together in an analysis of who makes up the Republican party, and how they got there.

I'd better stick in another general apology: these are the ruminations of a bemused outsider (except for the bits on religion, which I do know something about).  Insiders could explain things better, avoid some mistakes, tell what it's really like to be there.  On the other hand, insiders can be lousy at analyzing their own group.  They want to expatiate on principle instead of admitting the human tensions and frailties which are more relevant and more interesting to outsiders; they can't set aside their assumptions even to explain what they are; what they say about their opponents is vitiated by tedious bias.  I mean, just look at this screed on liberalism.  So, an outsider's view can be worth looking at.


John D. Rockefeller First, there was big money, which didn't have to come to the party because it was already there.  The Republicans have been the Money Party since the civil war-- and that's no coincidence; after the war they were the Northern Party, the people who won the war, the people who were creating the modern industrial economy. 

If you look at the rhetoric of the Republicans, you'd think the party is the playground of the fundies and/or libertarians.  But the Reps in power don't do what they say they will (thank God).  If you look at what they actually do, it's pretty much dictated by what big business thinks will be good for it: free trade, except where foreigners can do things better than us; subsidies for business, reducing taxes on the rich, bailing out failed S&Ls, opposing minor impediments to business like universal health care, unions, and regulation.

The rich control this country; the richest 5% of families own 40% of the national wealth.  Its only problem, really, is that to win elections you need not only money but masses of warm (or at least registered) bodies.  So they need allies. 

It's not written in stone that those allies must be the religious right.  There are Democratic rich people, after all, and if the rich go in for religion they generally prefer something a little more subdued, like Anglicanism or Reform Judaism.  The Democrats are pro-business, but their power base includes unions, disenfranchised minorities, and statist academics-- all of whom are going to want to push the government's nose into business.  The rich can work with these people if they have to-- e.g. back when the Dems controlled Congress-- but it's no surprise that they find the social conservatives more congenial.  Those folks are fervent and numerous, and since their main concerns are social they won't stand in the way of business. 

The religious right

There's the Religious Right, of course.  This can be more narrowly divided into fundamentalists, evangelicals, and Catholics, each of which has slightly different understandings of religion and the state.

From complacent to outraged

Jesus Fundies were not always Republicans.  For theological reasons they tend to distrust all worldly institutions, and arguably their natural state is to shun politics and keep to their little enclaves, getting right with God and watching the world go to hell.  Historically, they've erupted into the political scene several times (last time, they were for William Jennings Bryan in a big way), and they ended up leaving in disgust when things didn't go their way.

The father of a friend of mine is typical, I think, of a certain type of old-time fundie.  He's socially conservative-- very-- but politically his roots are Chicago Democrat.  He's a union man, and distrustful of big business... and the British, for some reason.  He's a strong father, in Lakoff's sense, and a Nordic in Lind's.  He's always voted more in line with his union principles than his religious views.

Fundies have always found something to despise in society; but I think the '60s snapped them out of their complacency.  Jazz and cigarettes were bad enough, but for God's sake, these hippies were getting naked, taking drugs, and questioning authority.  Riots and bombings, increased crime, and lawsuits against school prayer showed that things were truly spiralling out of control.  Feminism seemed like an attack on the way things should be.  And above all there was abortion, which was not just perverse but truly evil.

How they got into politics

Hard as it is to picture now, it was a Democrat, Jimmy Carter, who first attracted conservative Christians as a bloc.  He was one of them, after all; and his party was the traditional home of social conservatives.  But Carter was discredited by Iranians and economic doldrums, and his "malaise" couldn't hold a candle to Ronald Reagan's sunny certainties. 

How did a divorced second-tier actor who didn't even attend church win the support of legions of Christians?  And maintain it, despite twenty years' evidence that Reagan and his successors were paying mainly lip service to their concerns, taking action only on items of concern to libertarians and businessmen?

Jerry Falwell Part of it was Carter's talk of "malaise".  Fundies don't want to hear people dissing America; the American Way is as much a part of their theology as the King James Version.  Another important factor was abortion, which only the Republicans promised to roll back.

There was also disaffection in the air.  Economically, there was stagflation and the energy crisis.  People were feeling pinched, and bad times make people more conservative.  And the sixties were widely perceived to have produced social chaos.

And again, liberalism had gone mainstream, and therefore (as with the British Liberals) run out of steam.  No one fights hard for mainstream ideas.  The people who cared about the Democrats in the '70s were progressives, and they managed to alienate the ethnics and Southerners who had previously been important parts of the coalition; most spectacularly in the unseating of the Daley delegation at the 1972 convention. 

Their noisy but unsuccesful tenure

Back in the '80s, it seemed like the fundies were going to take over everything; and the feeling returned in 1994 when the Repubs took control of Congress.  Yet somehow, in six years, they haven't got around to recriminalizing abortion, or legalizing organized school prayer, or subsidizing religious schools, or censoring Hollywood.  These would have been huge fights; but parties will fight for what they really believe in.

The impeachment and trial of Clinton made things even clearer: though there is a solid core of Clinton-haters in the country, they are simply a minority, no more than 25% of the electorate, and it turns out to be a bad, bad move to let that 25% dictate policy.  It's no accident that the top Republican candidates in 2000, Bush and McCain, tried to put across a softer, more widely appealing image.


Then there's the libertarians.  These come in several flavors.  You could describe big money as libertarian, since it likes laissez-faire and courts fundies but ignores their demands.  But big money is a good deal more pragmatic and socially traditional than hard-core libertarians.  Businessmen are not clamoring to repeal the drug laws, privatize the interstates, or allow gays to marry.  And frankly, they don't need libertarianism to prosper.  The system already works for them.

Billionaires don't need extra stroking.  When you have power, that's satisfying in itself; if anything, you think about endowing a charity.  As well, people with real power are not likely to have an adversarial relationship with government.  Cabinet officers, after all, return their phone calls, and Congressmen listen closely when they speak.  Why fix what isn't broken?

Ayn Rand A more typical libertarian, I suspect, is one of my recent correspondents, who earnestly explained that prosperity was not based on "brute labor", but on "clever thinking".  That's pure Randism; but the guy makes $14,000 a year.  What's the story here?  Randism seems to be built for billionaires.  It's a transparent reponse to socialism: When people are calling for your blood as exploiters, it's mighty comforting to be told that your place at the top of the heap is heroic and even moral.

I suspect Randian rhetoric appeals most to folks like my $14K/year correspondent-- basically, smart whites who have a grudge against the system.  They're not doing as well as they'd like, but they're not in enough difficulty that liberals pay them any heed.  Rand crystalizes for them their suspicion of socialism and the welfare state, and assures them that their ambition and hard work are the marks of future Nietzschean overlords.  There's also a particular pleasure in being contrarian, in not merely opposing but scornfully rejecting the liberal idea that one should resist misery and injustice.  It's a miserable and unjust world, baby!  We are winners, and damn the losers!  Only they're not exactly winning yet.  Something must be holding them back.  Ah, the government!

I can't take Rand seriously, because I've worked for some of those "clever thinkers", and they were no Randian heroes.  The founder of the first firm I worked for, for instance.  I salute the clever idea that started the company.  Problem was, he never had any more.  He went off on one failed scheme after another, while brute labor such as myself kept the company making money to pay for his play.  Eventually he was kicked out, and the money brought in another clever thinker, who proceeded, over five years, to halve the size of the company and leave the stock worthless in a booming economy. 

Libertarians, like French intellectuals, are also too fond of argumentation so abstract that it has no particular relationship to reality.  They like to justify property, for instance, as compact between some undefined primitives at some epoch when it was clear that fencing off land couldn't harm anyone else.  This is dubious enough at the theoretical level-- even if it didn't harm the non-owners in 4500 BC, who says it doesn't today?-- but it's criminally absurd as history.  Just as a starter, after all, virtually every piece of property in the United States was ultimately stolen from the Indians, who've suffered greatly for it (those who survived the massacres and the relocations and the diseases).  Anyone who owns some of that property-- such as myself-- has to come up with some specious bit of special pleading in order to live with themselves; but let's not insult our own intelligence by pretending that the process was completely moral.


A difficult category is people who just don't like liberalism.  These are the people who (say) send me e-mail contesting my editorials.  I've never seen a good analysis that explains these people.  They're generally  not fundamentalists, or businessmen, or  Southerners, or even (say) white ethnics competing with blacks for jobs.  They may be libertarians, but not extremely so-- they generally don't vote Libertarian, and don't seem to advocate simply tossing out the government.  I'm not sure if they buy into Lakoff's "strict father" metaphor, though it's likely that they don't accept the opposing "nurturing parent" metaphor.  They're not generally rich; some of the most fervent consies I know make substantially less than the median salary.

Some elements of a tentative explanation:

  • The Democratic Party is still run by moderate liberals; but the more radical wing is louder and gets more press-- especially in the rightist media.  And the progressives' agenda (gay rights, suspicion of big business, affirmative action, PETA-style environmentalism, multi-culturalism, lower defense spending) and their anti-white, anti-male, anti-Christian rhetoric works like sodium on water for some people.  They are unable to dismiss it as a fringe phenomenon; they find it outrageous and frightening, and it taints the whole Democratic Party for them.

  • Many people's views are formed in college, and progressives and radicals are not only more prominent there, but are in positions of authority.  This may be the first exposure many young suburbanites have to progressive ideas, and they become allergic to it.  They fail to realize, however, that academia is a small, strange subculture, and that progressives' presence there is an anomaly.

  • The country is too rich for progressive causes to be understood, much less championed.  When prosperity moved people into the middle class, they took up middle class politics-- liberalism.  A substantial number of people, however, have moved into the upper class, and they've adopted upper-class politics-- conservativism. 

  • As a corollary of the last two points: the people we're talking about just don't know anything about what it's like to live in the ghetto, or to be gay-bashed, or to have no health insurance.  They judge liberal sentiments based on their own experience, and of course condemn them... hey, I don't need state assistance, why should Joe Black in downtown Detroit?  And, frankly, these folks are not very good at empathy.  Lakoff comes closest to an explanation for this-- empathy is a central part of the "nurturing parent" model; it has a place in the "strict father" model, but subjugated to such virtues as self-reliance and order.

  • I wonder if Frank Sullivan's theories about firstborns and laterborns fits in here.  Firstborns tend to be more conservative; they easily adopt adult values and feel comfortable in the world as it is.  Laterborns are more rebellious (they have to be to get any attention; they can never outcompete the older brother in maturity).  I suspect that firstborns are going to feel ill at ease with liberalism.

Several reasons arise out of liberalism's long tenure: the Democrats ran Congress for nearly forty years, and liberals-- counting Nixon and Ford as social centrists-- controlled the Adminstration for half a century. 

  • Liberalism has succeeded too well, in that it's no longer perceived as fighting for things that most people need or want.  Social security, unemployment insurance, the FDIC, the FDA, a fair amount of freedom for minorities and women-- these were popular battles, because they benefitted the middle class which still makes up the majority of Americans.  The progressive agenda is now perceived as fighting for minorities only.  And a political movement cannot survive based solely on empathy.

  • Decades-long tenure is bad in itself.  It's not good for a political party to hold power for a long time; it becomes complacent, stops examining its methods, and even dips into corruption. 

  • It also stops explaining itself with any eloquence or passion.  Many noisy consies, such as Salon's David Horowitz, were once liberals; their descriptions of what liberalism is are usually unrecognizable, and their reasons for leaving it are adolescent.  (E.g. one recent apostate decided that conservativism was more 'sensible'; his example was that the homeless weren't disadvantaged people, but street lunatics.  So, it was just 'sensible' to keep blacks from voting or holding good jobs?  And the 'sensible' way to treat lunatics is to keep them as filthy, drunken vagrants?)

    Similarly, many people abandon the Christianity of their childhood without ever achieving an adult understanding of their religion.  They think they've left the religion for rational reasons, when all they've defeated is the Sunday-school simplification of it.

  • Finally, there's post hoc propter hoc.  Long-term liberal rule gets blamed for everything that went wrong in the world during its tenure, from hippie excesses to the drug epidemic to rising crime to communism.


Another (overlapping) category is hierarchs-- people who believe that some people are superior to others.  Of course, this describes everyone, in some fashion.  But liberalism as a whole denies many traditional claims of superiority, such as those based on religion, race, gender, orientation, and culture, and promotes equality of all persons (at least) under the law.  Many people, to put it mildly, feel out of sympathy with this view. 

This particularly hits certain groups:

  • Christianity thinks hierarchically: there is a scale of value from brute matter, to living things, to humans, to angels, to God; and Christians traditionally and unapologetically made sharp divisions of value within the 'human' category, too. 
  • The military depends on hierarchy-- it can hardly do its job if obedience to superiors hasn't become second nature. 
  • And the successful in life-- or those who identify with them-- find hierarchy congenial.  It's human nature to assume that you are and should be on top because you're a superior being.

The hierarch in extreme form is of course the bigot.  Liberals should not think that every conservative is an unreconstructed redneck who viscerally hates blacks, gays, Jews, and immigrants.  But they're out there, and there's enough of them for their vote to matter.  They put Republican leaders into an uncomfortable bind.  If they pander to the bigots, they'll be severely criticized, and may even lose the respect of moderate members of their party.  But if they attack them, it's bye-bye to their votes.  Not surprisingly, the usual solution is weasel-speak and code words. 

Democrats have the opposite problem. There are anti-white bigots, of course, but also various radicals and progressives whose agenda is completely impossible in today's political climate.  Bill Clinton has an amazing ability to walk this tightrope. In 1992 he gained moderate cred by attacking Sister Souljah; and he's pursued a largely center-right program. Yet he projects compassion and listening ability, especially in person, to the extent that Toni Morrison called him "our first Black president".

(Gore, who doesn't share this ability, has decided to simply fight Bush for the center, a tactic which leaves his left wing dangerously weak.)

H.L. Mencken A genteel subcategory of hierarchs is the antidemocrat-- generally a cultivated man of leisure, who does not scruple to disparage the "mass-man" and lament that he can vote.  Wills's book provides a brief tour, highlighting Thoreau, H.L. Mencken, and Albert Jay Nock, an early inspiration for William F. Buckley (and thus an influence on American conservativism).

It's hard not to smile at the educated misanthrope, so toad-fatuous in his own self-congratulation, so gleefully vicious toward his fellow humans.  One smiles less at (say) Nock's expressions of sympathy for the Final Solution ("Thinking over Hitler's antisemitism, one is forced to admit... that the Nazis could not have carried their program through... without clearing the Jews out of Germany."), or at Mencken's insistance that "the Negro, no matter how much he is educated, must remain, as a race, in a condition of subservience [to] the stronger and more intelligent white man".  What keeps these people from real evil is not much more than fastidiousness: they don't like to dirty themselves with mere politics.

Nonetheless, they're some of the few people we've met in our survey who can mount a substantial and consistent, if unattractive, case against liberalism.  The usual consie has to argue against liberal solutions on liberal grounds: e.g. affirmative action is bad because it doesn't treat all races equally; gays are really demanding "special rights".  The antidemocrat can argue more directly: he doesn't believe in equality.

Looking forward (with a glance back to Luther)

Can we learn anything from the Right?


  • Getting past victimhood.  Liberals believe in fairness, and the surest way to get our attention is to point out someone who's getting screwed.  But if only victims get help, everybody acts like a victim-- and the standard of hurt drops to absurdity.  Here's a rough test: if someone is getting beat up or killed or fired, they're a victim.  If they're getting called names or seeing pictures they don't like, they're not.

  • Jimmy Carter at work Help should always be coupled with responsibility. That's why one of my favorite assistance programs is Habitat for Humanity, which requires its benefactees to work on their own and others' houses; and why I think welfare should be replaced with workfare. 

    'Responsibility' isn't a justification for neglecting social problems, it's a complement to them.  It's a cruel farce to urge the unemployed to find jobs that aren't there.  The jobs need to be there, and it may even be necessary to train people in how to get and keep a job... you can't assume that people already know this unless they're brought up middle class.

  • Keep government lean.  We need government for many things; but it can be intrusive, and reforms can go awry. Prosecutors in sexual harrassment cases, for instance, have been given too much power-- if you're not sure about that, read the testimony of Julie Hiatt Steele on Kenneth Starr's police state tactics.  And our government's obsession with secrecy has done great harm (and only to ourselves; most of what the government kept from us the Russians already knew).

  • Ally with other institutions.  Liberals tend to be too happy with their influence on government, the academy, and the media.  They tend to forget (or are actively hostile toward) the church, the military, business, the family.  All of these can be allies for progressive causes.  Examples:
    • The EPA's EnergyStar program, which rewards energy-saving products.  It turns out that manufacturers are willing to cooperate when asked, and it sure beats trying to get everything done with lawsuits.
    • The military has ended up as one of the few institutions with real racial integration.
    • The church was instrumental in the civil rights movement; churches are also (in these anti-statist times) one of the only reliable funding sources for social work in the Third World.
    • When the Boy Scouts won the right to exclude gays, many businesses started withdrawing funding. Intolerance is no longer a good corporate value.

  • Find out America is saying.  Pundits scorn "poll-driven" politics; but arguably the Left has gone very wrong when it's indulged its own hobbyhorses instead of concentrating on problems and remedies relevant to the average American.  (I put this recommendation here because the conservatives have taught this lesson by bad example.)

  • Increasing the wealth beats redistributing it.  Some people don't get enough of the pie.  Reslicing it just makes enemies; better to make a bigger pie.  If we don't know how to make the economy grow, shouldn't we find out?

  • Defend the principle, not the program.  Conservatives criticized welfare for rewarding irresponsibility and encouraging people to stay out of the job market.  You can argue all day long about their callousness and about whether the system really has the results they describe.  But they do have a point; and what's more important anyway, helping people, or defending the particular solutions that could get past Congress in 1969?

    Why not come up with other solutions to the problem that address (or defuse, if you like) conservative concerns?  Workfare is my personal favorite.  Don't give able-bodied workers money; give them jobs. 

    I think we went way wrong with public housing, too.  One thing that impressed me in visits to the shantytowns in Peru: the houses may be ugly, but they belong to the inhabitants, who therefore keep improving them.  In a couple of generations they go from straw shelters to brick multistorey buildings.  People aren't going to do the same with rental units, whether they rent them from slumlords or from HUD.

  • Bad attitudes are not removed by censorship.  Leftists tend to be outraged when people express illiberal sentiments, ranging from ethnic jokes and putdowns to 'hate speech', and all too often they've tried to prohibit this, whether it's university administrations policing students' speech, or radicals disrupting the showings of films they disapprove of.  But you do not produce civility by limiting free speech; that just drives it underground and produces resentment.

    (The Right could learn this lesson too, of course.  But it rightly points out when the Left violates its own principles here. )

  • Multiculturalism begins at home.  Leftists tend to be more accepting of Buddhists than of Christians; readier to insist on the right to live as they like for the Yanomama than for the redneck. 

    This is a tricky bag of roaches, really; but it's the key to the future.  Do we really believe in a non-homogenized future, where communities as well as individuals have a right to pursue their chosen lifestyle?  Then we have to accept communities whose values and rules we don't wholly approve of.

    Amish woman A good subculture to practice your tolerance on is the Amish.  Everybody loves the Amish; and yet they're basically fundamentalists who reject modern society.  If they have a right to raise their children in a way that allows them to preserve their extremely photogenic culture, don't NRA members, creationists, stay-at-home moms, and Southern Baptists have the same right?

    Of course, the Amish are canny: they don't require teenagers to follow all their rules until they (voluntarily) join the church, and they don't tell the rest of us how to live.  This reminds us that the subculture has responsibilities to the larger society, too.  Communities should not be able to harrass outsiders, nor should it be impossible for their own misfits to leave.

What happened to religion?

Nothing, really.  Religion is just fine. 

The 19C pundits misanalyzed the situation.  They thought that religion was disappearing.  It wasn't; it was just being toppled from its position of social supremacy.  It was no longer the acknowledged sovereign of society; no longer a property of the government or the culture, only of its practitioners.

Because they got the process wrong, they got the causes wrong too.  They thought that 'science' had superseded 'superstition.'  The real process was the dethronement of religion, and the real cause was political, going back to the Reformation and the ensuing holy wars.  What dethroned the One Holy Church was not science, but the multiplicity of claimants to the throne.  Since their claims were divine, they could not be negotiated or compromised; since they were multiple, the only practical solution was to deny them all. 

Arguably the pundits got cause and effect backwards.  Science didn't cause the dethronement of religion.  Rather, the dethronement liberated science to question everything.  The One Church could arrest Galileo; the disestablished church could only rant at Newton or Darwin.

Martin Luther Some Christians have bemoaned their loss of influence ever since, but arguably the effects on religion have been nothing but good.  Tie religion to power, and ambitious hypocrites will join the church in search of it.  (Boccaccio slyly suggested that God must really exist, because only a religion with God behind it could continue to grow despite the evident depravity of its leaders.)  Today, people are more likely to join a church because they actually believe its doctrines.  Worse yet, state power tempts religion (and irreligion) to turn morality into law-- generally a fairly bloody operation. 

Since the pundits got the process wrong, they also of course got the dénouement wrong.  Religion didn't disappear; it simply completed a centuries-long process of moving from the universal center of society, to the private conviction of believers.  Not that it doesn't still hope to prescribe universal truths and behaviors, but without state authority it can't enforce any of them.

This isn't to say that things like evolution or Biblical criticism had no effect, just that they had a different effect than usually understood.  They impelled a few key thinkers to avail themselves of their new freedom not to believe.  I wouldn't even say that this tempest in the intellectual teapot played a role in religion moving from majority to minority status.  I think that process was an inevitable result of the dethronement.  The natural state of any religion is not zeal but moderate acceptance on the part of the majority.  If no one can force you to conform any more, then the people who didn't take it that seriously anyway end up drifting away from organized religion entirely.

Communism seemed, when it was strong, to fit into the picture of the death of religion-- Russia used to appear on maps of religions as "atheist"-- but of course where communism has retreated, religion has made a spectactular return.  It's now clear that communism was simply a competing state ideology, which persecuted religion because it was a rival.  International Space Station

To infinity... and beyond!

We have seen how the 19C pundits were wrong about this century.  It wouldn't be fair to close without making some equally imprudent predictions about America in the next century.

  • The Republicans will find that they like governing; as a result their anti-government rhetoric will fade away, to be revived only on ceremonial occasions (in much the same way that you only hear "these United States" at political conventions).

  • Religion is here to stay; but the fundies, frustrated with their inability to impose theocracy, will lose interest for a generation.  The next time they pop up, they'll be as likely to ally with the left as with the right (especially because abortion will, I suspect, be largely eliminated by improved methods of contraception).

  • Liberalism will disappear-- at least in its incarnations as described above; the new movements and causes that replace it may keep the name.  The political fights of 2100 will center largely around ideas that are considered impossibly idealistic or perverse today.

  • Conservativism will remain, of course; though it will end up implicitly accepting everything that 20C liberalism stood for.

  • By the end of the century, racial tensions will have been largely defused; those that remain will be a matter more of class than race.  There will still be resentment of whatever group most recently immigrated, however.

  • Acceptance of gays and lesbians will be mainstream in a generation, and will spread to the conservative churches by the end of the century.

  • Collectivism will come back in a big way... but not for another generation, and Americans won't be the ones to develop it.

  • New forms of democratic government will be devised (again, not here; probably in Europe) that prevent the tyranny of the majority

  • The important units of society will be, increasingly, not geographical units but what we might call tribes: diffuse collections of like-minded individuals who want to live life in a certain way and have broad rights and powers to do so.

  • When the oil runs out, mid-century, we'll finally make some progress on sustainable development.

  • Corporations will be run quite differently, though if I knew exactly how I'd be a business consultant, not a writer.  I suspect that by present standards they'll be much more efficient, much less autonomous, and more democratically run.

  • Half the economy will be bit production and consumption-- an amalgam of entertainment, news and business analysis, science, education, religion, and the increasingly abstract support industries that these require.  Manufacturing will be like agriculture is today: a tiny though essential sector of the economy.

  • The scientific study of government will make present-day political fights seem like pure foolishness.  Once we actually know how to grow an economy, 20C moralisms of all political flavors will sound like leeches and electroshock therapy do today.

  • English won't take over the world; localism will lead to a resurgence of local languages, whose inconvenience will be mitigated by technology.

  • Artificial intelligence will be a significant factor, past midcentury.  I suspect that human-level intelligences won't turn out to be useful-- or politically viable.  Rather, we'll see lots of low-level AI in appliances, software, mechanical translators, etc.; as well as massive systems that can contemplate the affairs of an entire corporation or government.

  • Still no flying cars.  Dammit.

  • A few hundred thousand people will live in space... the largest space industry being tourism.  But Alpha Centauri will have to wait for the next century, at least.

The list sounds a bit utopian; but some of these changes will be accompanied by massive upheaval, violence and destruction.  How pleasant a society we'll have in 2100 largely depends on how creatively we meet some of the challenges discussed above.

If there's any overarching theme here, I think it's this: historically, as we move from a world based on resource exploitation and physical power to one based on bit manipulation and intellectual power, liberalism is unstoppable.  But it proceeds in half-century fits and starts.  We've seen the cycle several times now: the Revolution, Romanticism, Reconstruction, the Roaring Twenties, the Radical Sixties.  We surge forward, right some wrongs, indulge in various excesses, and burn out.  The conservatives then come in; but the reaction doesn't last forever.  Underneath the surface, the gains of the last period of exuberance are consolidated, and the next one prepares itself.

© 2000 by Mark Rosenfelder

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