Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

‘Civil Rights’ And Totalitarianism

Christopher Caldwell and the constitutionalization of identity politics
Supreme Court

Let the word go forth:

This is the most conservative of all the Democratic presidential candidates, note well.

So, as the man says, let’s be clear: if you think it might be a bad idea for biological males to compete against your daughter in the high school women’s sports league, or that biological males do not belong in your daughter’s or wife’s locker room, or even if you dissent from gender ideology at all, as the left-wing feminist J.K. Rowling did publicly late last year — then you are on the same side as Bull Connor and the Ku Klux Klan, and will deserve the hatred you receive.

This is how left-wing identity politics works today. The Age of Entitlement, Christopher Caldwell’s dark, provocative new book illuminates how the concept of “civil rights” has been weaponized to demolish constitutional principles. If you’ve heard anything about the book, it’s probably something along the lines of this Jonathan Rauch review in the NYT. Excerpts:

In Caldwell’s telling, the Civil Rights Act, which banned many forms of discrimination, was a swindle. Billed as a one-time correction that would end segregation and consign race consciousness to the past, it actually started an endless and escalating campaign of race-conscious social engineering. Imperialistically, civil rights expanded to include “people of color” and immigrants and gays and, in short, anyone who was not native-born, white and straight — all in service of “the task that civil rights laws were meant to carry out — the top-down management of various ethnic, regional and social groups.”

With civil rights as their bulldozer, in Caldwell’s view, progressive movements ran amok. They “could now, through the authority of civil rights law, override every barrier that democracy might seek to erect against them”; the law and rhetoric of civil rights “gave them an iron grip on the levers of state power.”


Perhaps the author should have come up for oxygen when he found himself suggesting that the Southern segregationists were right all along. Reading this overwrought and strangely airless book, one would never imagine a different way of viewing things, one that rejects Caldwell’s ultimatum to “choose between these two orders.” In that view — my own — America has seen multiple refoundings, among them the Jackson era’s populism, the Civil War era’s abolition of slavery, the Progressive era’s governmental reforms and the New Deal era’s economic and welfare interventions. All of them, like the civil rights revolution, sparked tense and sometimes violent clashes between competing views of the Constitution and basic rights, but in my version of history, those tensions proved not only survivable but fruitful, and working through them has been an engine of dynamism and renewal, not destruction and oppression. I worry about the illiberal excesses of identity politics and political correctness, but I think excesses is what they are, and I think they, too, can be worked through. Being a homosexual American now miraculously married to my husband for almost a decade, I can’t help feeling astonished by a history of America since 1964 that finds space for only one paragraph briefly acknowledging the civil rights movement’s social and moral achievements — before hastening back to “But the costs of civil rights were high.”

Perhaps most depressingly, Caldwell’s account, even if one accepts its cramped view of the Constitution and its one-eyed moral bookkeeping, leads nowhere. It proffers no constructive alternative, no plausible policy or path. The author knows perfectly well that there will be no “repeal of the civil rights laws.” He foresees only endless, grinding, negative-sum cultural and political warfare between two intractably opposed “constitutions.” His vision is a dead end. Unfortunately, it also seems to be where American conservatism is going.

Rauch is not wrong in his description of the most controversial part of Caldwell’s book. Caldwell really does see the Civil Rights regime as where things went badly wrong. But Rauch, in my view, doesn’t take on Caldwell’s actual argument, but only asserts that these conflicts “can be worked through.” Boy, is that ever whistling past the graveyard. However, I have to admit that I never would have read a book that claimed the Civil Rights movement went wrong had it not been written by someone I respect as much as I do Christopher Caldwell. I read the book last week, and I’m glad I did, though I doubt I will read a more unsettling book all year.

Why? Because I can’t see where Caldwell’s reasoning is wrong, and with the Democrats and other progressives sacralizing left-wing identity politics by vesting them in the sacred mantle of the Civil Rights movement — kryptonite in US politics — I see no way out of this. Rauch is right: civil rights laws will not be repealed. They are being used now to dispossess anyone and everyone who stands in the way of the progressive juggernaut.

I strongly urge you to read Caldwell’s book, and not to assume that you understand it from reviews. Let me get one thing out of the way now: Caldwell does NOT say that segregation was right. For example, he denounces the Jim Crow South as a confederacy of “sham democracies,” and agrees that its apartheid system had to change. Yet the manner in which the state demolished segregation had dramatic unintended consequences. Caldwell’s argument is more like that of Sir Thomas More in this famous exchange from the Robert Bolt play A Man For All Seasons:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law?

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And, when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you – where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and, if you cut them down – and you’re just the man to do it – d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

Caldwell argues that to get at the devil of segregation, we cut down constitutional principles that are now destroying constitutional principles that few people in 1964 imagined would one day be at risk.

Just half a decade into the civil rights revolution, America had something it had never had at the federal level, something the overwhelming majority of its citizens would never have approved: an explicit system of racial preference. Plainly the civil rights acts had wrought a change in the country’s constitutional culture. The innovations of the 1960s had given progressives control over the most important levers of government, control that would endure for as long as the public was afraid of being called racist.

Not just excluded and exploited Southern blacks but all aggrieved minorities now sought to press their claims under this new model of progressive governance. The civil rights model of executive orders, litigation, and court-ordered redress eventually became the basis for resolving every question pitting a newly emergent idea of fairness against old traditions: the persistence of different roles for men and women, the moral standing of homosexuality, the welcome that is due to immigrants, the consideration befitting wheelchair-bound people. Civil rights gradually turned into a license for government to do what the Constitution would not previously have permitted. It moved beyond the context of Jim Crow laws almost immediately, winning what its apostles saw as liberation after liberation.

The civil rights movement was a template. The new system for overthrowing the traditions that hindered black people became the model for overthrowing every tradition in American life, starting with the roles of men and women.

Here’s the core of his argument:

The goal of the civil rights laws, at least as they were understood by a sentimental public, was to short-circuit the sham democracies of the American South, to bring them into conformity with the Constitution. But it turned out to be harder than anticipated to distinguish between the South’s democracy and everybody else’s. If the spirit of the law was to humiliate Southern bigots, the letter of the law put the entire country—all its institutions— under the threat of lawsuits and prosecutions for discrimination.

Not just in law, but in culture too. More:

In the quarter-century after Reagan, conservatives lost every battle against the substance of political correctness. … Political correctness was not a joke after all. It was the most comprehensive ideological capture of institutional power in the history of the United States.

… This language of “-bashing” and “-phobia” and “bigotry” and “lies” was new. No longer was the irreconcilability of individuals’ and society’s sexual priorities a tragedy or a disagreement. Recast in the categories of civil rights law, it was a crime, a crime that was being committed against a whole class of people. The customs and traditions in the name of which it was being committed were mere alibis.

… Once social issues could be cast as battles over civil rights, Republicans would lose 100 percent of the time. The agenda of “diversity” advanced when its proponents won elections and when they lost them. Voters had not yet figured that out. As soon as they did, the old style of democratic politics would be dead.

He’s talking about Trump as what happens when conservative voters finally realize that this “heads liberals win, tails conservatives lose” dynamic is unstoppable.

Here, finally, is why this is such a depressing (but important!) book to read:

Republicans and others who may have been uneasy that the constitutional baby had been thrown out with the segregationist bathwater consoled themselves with a myth: The “good” civil rights movement that the martyred Martin Luther King, Jr., had pursued in the 1960s had, they said, been “hijacked” in the 1970s by a “radical” one of affirmative action, with its quotas and diktats. Once the country came to its senses and rejected this optional, radical regime, it could have the good civil rights regime back. None of that was true. Affirmative action and political correctness were the twin pillars of the second constitution. They were what civil rights was. They were not temporary.

That right there is the conclusion that I was hoping to avoid. How can you not want to avoid it? The Rauch response is an understandable one. It’s based on the logic that:

  1. Segregation was a terrible evil.
  2. Civil Rights laws destroyed segregation.
  3. Therefore, they are unquestionably good.

Segregation really was a terrible evil. And the Civil Rights Act, and subsequent legislation, really did destroy that devil. But now we see the cost of unintended consequences. As I said earlier, Rauch, who as a gay man benefited from the construal of ever-expanding areas of social conflict as a civil rights conflict, does not deal with Caldwell’s core point. I don’t blame him, in a way; if Caldwell is right, then how would we have dispatched segregation? Perhaps if the courts had limited its interpretations of the Civil Rights Act to race alone, and/or they had limited them to destroying laws that discriminated against racial minorities in their statutory language (as opposed to their effect, e.g., “disparate impact”), we would have no problem. But that’s not what happened. So we find ourselves in a situation in which Joe Biden — and, let’s face it, the Democratic Party — claims that transgendered people are the contemporary equivalent of Rosa Parks, and that masculinity and femininity are of no more matter than the color of one’s skin.

One reason this is especially alarming to me is that I’ve spent the past ten days working on a chapter in my forthcoming book about soft totalitarianism that has to do with how liberals have weaponized the Myth of Progress, and a subsequent chapter about left-wing identity politics. Here is an excerpt from my draft manuscript:

In one sense, all politics is identity politics. Individuals come together because they identify with a certain set of ideals or interests, and want to advocate for them in the political arena. To identify as a nationalist, a conservative, a liberal, or a socialist, is to affirm the principles of those philosophies.

That’s not what we mean by identity politics today. In current use, identity politics is a term used to describe the act of forming political alliances around a group that shares a particular characteristic – race, ethnicity, sex, religion, and so forth – and advocating exclusively for that political tribe’s interests, to the exclusion of others. In contemporary academic leftism, the concept of “intersectionality” confederates groups of varied social identities called to unite to fight what they regard as oppression. Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, the originator of the term, defines intersectionality as “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects.”

Behind that anodyne description lies an acidic claim, one that is dissolving classical liberal politics, which are based on universal ideals: that the Great Oppressor who must be demonized and defeated for the sake of justice is the White Christian Male. The final solution to the problem of injustice and oppression lies in the overthrow of institutions, practices, and narratives through which White Christian Males exercise domination of all others.

This is straight-up Marxism, resurrected for the dying liberal order of the twenty-first century West. As the late Roger Scruton explained, communism did not inflame the minds of intellectuals and those who followed their lead because the masses rallied to Marx’s economic theories. It drew them because it told them who was to blame for their suffering, and promised them that all their troubles would end once the scapegoat had been sacrificed. Said Scruton, “Marxism owes its remarkable power to survive every criticism to the fact that it is not a truth-directed but a power-directed system of thought.”

At the core of every totalitarian system is resentment, said Scruton:

Totalitarian ideologies are adopted because they rationalize resentment, and also unite the resentful around a common cause. Totalitarian systems arise when the resentful, having seized power, proceed to abolish the institutions that have conferred power on others: institutions like law, property, and religion which create hierarchies, authorities, and privileges, and which enable individuals to assert sovereignty over their own lives.

To the resentful these institutions are the cause of inequality and therefore of their own humiliations and failures. In fact, they are the channels through which resentment is drained away. Once institutions of law, property and religion are destroyed – and their destruction is the normal result of totalitarian government – resentment takes up its place immovably, as the ruling principle of the state.

The totalitarian ideology – whether communist or Nazi – identifies members of a certain class as the enemies of justice, and stokes hatred among the masses for members of that group. Jews, bourgeois people, Catholics, racial minorities – all have been stigmatized and targeted by totalitarians and would-be totalitarians as collectively guilty of crimes against the people. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell created a totalitarian state in which the masses were kept in a constant state of rage and terror over imaginary enemies kept at bay only by the vigilance of authorities.

“Nothing is more comforting to the resentful than the thought that those who possess what they envy possess it unjustly,” Scruton said. “In the worldview of the resentful, success is not a proof of virtue, but on the contrary, a call to retribution. That explains why totalitarian ideologies invariably divide human beings into innocent and guilty groups.”

Resentment is a characteristic found in every society, and within every person’s heart. Resentment rarely comes from nowhere. The grievous suffering of the peasant masses in pre-revolutionary Russia at the hands of imperial elites was not an invention of Lenin. Nor, in our own time and place, is the fact of racism a fiction. Every polity has some who are more powerful than others; this is an ineradicable fact of human nature. Liberal democracy, as a secular working-out of Christianity, established a political framework that attempts to solve conflicts justly, with a respect for both individual dignity and fundamental human equality.

The danger is that the passion of resentment overwhelms all reason, filling one with an overwhelming conviction that justice can and must be achieved — by any means necessary. This is how the totalitarian temptation manifests itself. For those who believe that achieving justice is nothing more than distributing power –Lenin, with his “who, whom” – among social groups, not individuals, then the state’s mission is to take power from the malefactors, and reassign it to the virtuous.

To the communists (and to the Nazis), the qualities and character of individuals were insignificant. The only thing that mattered was their identity as a member of a group. Once this is established, there is no point in reasoning with the wicked in defense of the good. The wicked are presumed guilty not because of what they believe, say, or do; they are guilty because of who they are.

As we saw in the last chapter, the left applies the concept of “civil rights” to cover any and all minorities within its coalition of the virtuous. In this way, raw, power-seeking identity politics veils itself in the sacred shroud of the Sixties movement.

Here’s one more line from Caldwell’s book, one that directly raises the specter of totalitarianism:

Once bias is held to be part of the “unconscious,” of human nature, there are no areas of human life in which the state’s vigilance is not called for.

This is why, absent strong political and judicial action to protect individual rights, totalitarian mechanisms — government and private — for demolishing resistance to “civil rights,” as defined by progressives, are inevitable. 

You can see why this is so grim and pessimistic. Caldwell deserves credit for courageously forcing us to confront these terrible truths. I sincerely hope that someone can persuasively explain why Christopher Caldwell’s logic and analysis about the rival constitutional regimes (see this excellent City Journal summary) are incorrect. Claiming that he’s wrong because his conclusion is shocking and unpleasant will not suffice. Read The Age of Entitlement for yourself and see what you think.

UPDATE: One thing that is still not widely understood by conservatives — Tucker Carlson being a spectacular and vital exception — is the role that woke capitalism is playing in building and defending this bigoted tyranny. Did you hear about Goldman Sachs’s newest diversity policy? From the NYT, reporting from Davos:

Goldman Sachs’s C.E.O., David Solomon, prompted chatter on Wall Street yesterday about his plan to require I.P.O. clients to have at least one “diverse” board candidate before the bank helped them list in the public markets.

• “We’re not going to take a company public unless there’s at least one diverse board candidate, with a focus on women,” Mr. Solomon told CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

• The mandate starts July 1 for U.S. and European clients, and starting next year, Goldman will require two diverse board members.

• “We might miss some business, but in the long run, this I think is the best advice for companies that want to drive premium returns for their shareholders over time,” Mr. Solomon added.

It’s a big deal in the I.P.O. world, given that Goldman was the top underwriter of U.S. offerings last year.

And it’s the latest push for diversity within Corporate America, Jeff Green of Bloomberg notes. The money-management firms BlackRock and State Street plan to vote against directors at companies without a female director. And California-based public companies with all-male boards face a $100,000 fine.

As Tucker Carlson pointed out on his show the other night, Goldman excepts itself from this rule, and Goldman is also not applying the rule to China. Watch this three-minute clip. The hypocrisy and bigotry is outrageous:

I have long observed in my own career that when woke white corporate hierarchs push “diversity,” they never, ever offer to resign from their jobs and give them over to minorities. They only want to experience the endorphin rush of virtue while keeping some poor white, cishet, male SOB from getting a fair shot at a job.

The point to take away here is that the coming soft totalitarianism will be driven as much by woke corporate oligarchs as it will be by institutions and officials of the state.