Joseph Bottom’s An Anxious Age has stirred up quite a debate over his thesis that progressivism has recently switched from setting reason and science as first principles toward eradicating prejudicial beliefs as its prime ideological imperative. The left has always had an attraction to both, however. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s romanticism has always challenged Rene Descartes’ rationalism, but after the bureaucratization and failures of the rationalized welfare state in recent times, the former’s aesthetic critique has become the more attractive argument for modern progressives.
What both strains of leftism had in common was repulsion against tradition. A typical dictionary defines prejudice as “a preconceived opinion that is not based upon reason or actual experience.” Descartes and the rationalists objected to tradition’s irrationality, and Rousseau and the romantics objected to tradition’s experience. It is curious that both rationalist and emotive progressivism first validated prejudice in the movement’s early eugenicist days. The progress in progressivism was from traditional prejudicial socialization to future reason, or social accord, or hopefully to both. So it is not surprising that prejudice became their common political target.
In the postwar United States, legal segregation in public schools and accommodations was outlawed, and the civil rights acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964 promoted equal treatment and voting. Antidiscrimination regulations were extended to sex and ethnicity. Feminism won the right to vote in 1920, an Equal Pay Act in 1963, no-fault divorce in the 1970s, sexual harassment protection in 1986, and guaranteed free contraception in 2010. With the 2013 Supreme Court decisions, same sex marriages were granted equal federal benefits with traditional marriages and it appeared that the same thinking would also void traditional state marriage laws. The Violent Crime Control Act of 1994 set criminal penalties for hate crimes committed on the basis of the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, or gender of any person.
This year’s 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act illuminates the value of shifting to a focus on the elimination of prejudice. Yes, the left itself questions these laws’ success, complaining that racism, sexism, and gender discrimination are still rampant—but that is efficacious for the cause. Certainly, access to voting is now universally available and overt discrimination has decreased, although formal discrimination complaints have actually increased. There is a large African-American middle class. Women lag male average income but, when wages are controlled for time and type of work, they have mostly achieved equality of income. Never-married women actually out-earn single men.
But there is another side to the story. The ratio of black to white income in 1947 before the civil rights laws was 52 percent; this increased to 60 percent in 1969 by the end of legal segregation—but before the mass government antipoverty and affirmative action programs had effect. By 2012 the ratio was only 57 percent, no improvement in 40 years. Worse, black unemployment has been twice as high as that of whites ever since data has been collected. Racial workforce participation rates are equally dramatic. Some of these disparities were offset by government welfare programs, though in absolute numbers whites received more funds.
As Robert Rector has noted the greatest differences are in education and marriage, both of which are important social supports for earned income and employment. Most black urban education is dysfunctional, but marriage makes the biggest difference in poverty levels: the poverty rate for married blacks is only 7 percent compared to 36 percent for unmarried blacks and 22 percent for unmarried whites. Yet, to the left traditional marriage seems part of the problem. Indeed, fighting prejudice against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered citizens by traditionalists is at the top of progressivism’s present agenda.
Indeed ever since Rousseau, the left has considered religion as the real front of social prejudice, ever since Christianity undermined Rome’s unifying secular order.
It was in these circumstances that Jesus came to set up on earth a spiritual kingdom, which, by separating the theological from the political system, made the State no longer one and brought about the internal divisions that have never ceased to trouble Christian peoples. As the new idea of a kingdom of the other world could never have occurred to pagans, they always looked on the Christians as rebels who, while feigning to submit, were only waiting for the chance to make themselves independent and masters, and to usurp by guile the authority they pretended in their weakness to respect. This was the cause of the persecutions. What the pagans had feared took place. Then everything changed its aspect: the humble Christians changed their language, and soon this so-called kingdom of the other world turned, under a visible leader, into the most violent of earthly despotisms. However, as there have always been a prince and civil laws, this double power and conflict of jurisdiction have made all good polity impossible in Christian States. (The Social Contract, IV.8)
Rousseau’s project for the left was to unite power once again and recreate a common secular religion for modern society, to be set by the state “not exactly as religious dogmas, but as social sentiments without which a man cannot be a good citizen or a faithful subject.” Within the bounds of these sentiments all will be tolerated except for any who “behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death.”
So here we are today with the left’s goal finally nearing completion in the U.S. Antidiscrimination laws passed to right the wrong of slavery are extended to all of the social sentiments held by the left. Today traditionalists opposing gay marriage can be convicted for refusing to photograph gay weddings or bake gay wedding cakes. National healthcare insurance mandates can force religious traditionalists to pay for abortifacients and other procedures they consider morally objectionable. This is a demanding project. Almost 90 percent of Americans believe in God, 80 percent say they are Christian, 70 percent pray, 59 percent say religion is important in their lives, and 40 percent say they attend religious services over a month’s time. There is also large support for many traditional religious beliefs, although not so much in matters of sexual preference or practice.
Why was eliminating racial prejudice so successful? A traditionalist entertainment industry (under a moral code from 1930-1968) changed popular conceptions beginning as early as 1936’s “Show Boat” and its revival in 1951. From Gregory Peck’s 1947 “Gentleman’s Agreement” and later his “To Kill a Mockingbird” in 1962, to Sidney Poitier’s 1950 “No Way Out,” 1958 “The Defiant Ones,” 1962 “A Raisin in the Sun,” and 1967 “Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner” and “In The Heat of the Night,” among many others, Hollywood continued the push. World War II movies and news showing African-Americans fighting for their country were even more effective. The change in racial beliefs preceded the force of law. According to National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago polls, by 1946 a majority of Americans said Negroes were as intelligent as whites. Gallup polls found that by 1963 a plurality of Americans said they would vote for an equally qualified Negro for president, well before antidiscrimination laws would have had much effect.
Television and public education today have been as favorable to LGBT Americans as entertainment was to blacks in the past, and they have undoubtedly affected current opinion and law. But there is one enormous difference. Religious leaders and symbols were in the forefront of the struggle for racial equality, but the current battles are fought across these lines. America has so far been the great exception to the decline of religion in the wider West, but we shall soon see whether Rousseau proves the more powerful force for the United States too.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies, the author of America’s Way Back: Reconciling Freedom, Tradition and Constitution, and was Ronald Reagan’s director of the Office of Personnel Management during his first term.