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Notes On Angelo Codevilla’s Revolution

The Old Republic is dead, says the geopolitical strategist. The best we can hope for is fighting to a draw
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Here’s a provocative essay by Angelo Codevilla, the distinguished professor of geopolitics, in which he offers an analysis of the “revolution” underway in America.  I find parts of it more plausible than others, but the whole thing is worth reading and discussing. It’s too long and varied for me to analyze piece by piece; I’m only going to make some general comments, and focus on what jumps out to me.

Here’s how it begins:

Prior to the 2016 election I explained how America had already “stepped over the threshold of a revolution,” that it was “difficult to imagine how we might step back, and futile to speculate how it might end.” Regardless of who won the election, its sentiments’ growing “volume and intensity” would empower politicians on all sides sure to make us nostalgic for Donald Trump’s and Hilary Clinton’s moderation. Having begun, this revolution would follow its own logic.

What follows dissects that logic. It has unfolded faster than foreseen. Its sentiments’ spiraling volume and intensity have eliminated any possibility of “stepping back.”

Regardless of what else Codevilla says, can’t most of us agree that this general sentiment is likely true? Don’t most of us, whether our sympathies lie with the left or the right, share a sense that some important lines have been crossed in our politics and culture. Trump is not the cause, but the result, though it’s also true that Trump, in the way he has governed, has advanced the disintegration of the country. In that he has had help: I’m thinking of the Democrats’ mega-borking of Brett Kavanaugh. The point is, whether you think Trump is an agent of decadence, or perhaps the last chance the nation has to resist decadence, his presidency represents a hinge point of American history.

Codevilla clearly sympathizes with the forces Trump embodies, though he is critical of Trump himself — as we will see. Codevilla believes that Progressives (he capitalizes the word) are responsible for breaking the Republic, but that said, I suspect he could find no small measure of agreement on the left with this view:

This is our revolution: Because a majority of Americans now no longer share basic sympathies and trust, because they no longer regard each other as worthy of equal consideration, the public and private practices that once had made our Republic are now beyond reasonable hope of restoration. Strife can only mount until some new equilibrium among us arises.


The logic that drives each turn of our revolutionary spiral is Progressive Americans’ inherently insatiable desire to exercise their superiority over those they deem inferior.

Is that true? It’s an oversimplification. The logic that drives each turn of our revolutionary spiral is fragmentation driven by cultural, economic, technological, and political forces. Codevilla’s model posits a virtuous People who are pushed around by Progressive Elites, who hate them. That’s too black-and-white.

But he’s not all wrong. It’s a small thing, but a telling thing: the white progressive professor who writes about how she came to disdain Dolly Parton, whom she had loved in her youth, because Dolly is insufficiently woke. The mode of thinking in that essay well represents the dominant discourse and categories of thought among progressives. It’s essentially a godless religious discourse carried out by secular Puritans who remorselessly sift society to identify and condemn sinners, according to collective categories. It is they who are frog-marching us to utopia. As Czech novelist Milan Kundera wrote:

The fantasy of the Grand March … is the political kitsch joining leftists of all times and tendencies. The Grand March is the splendid march on the road to brotherhood, equality, justice, happiness; it goes on and on, obstacles not withstanding, for obstacles there must be if the march is to be the Grand March. What makes a leftist a leftist is not this or that theory but his ability to integrate any theory into the kitsch called the Grand March.

The Kavanaugh hearings were the Grand March of the Secular Puritans brought to bear directly onto our politics. Brett Kavanaugh was the witch who must be burned to protect the collective from Evil White Men. What made that event so revealing is not that Democrats opposed Kavanaugh (that is to be expected), but their eagerness to destroy him on flimsy personal grounds. A lot of us saw that, and concluded that if they’ll do that to him, they’ll do it to us.

Writing in Quillette, Matthew Blackwell analyzes “the psychology of progressive hostility.” Excerpt:

In his remarkable book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Haidt recalls a telling experiment. He and his colleagues Brian Nosek and Jesse Graham sought to discover how well conservative and what Haidt terms ‘liberal’ (ie: progressive) students understood one another by having them answer moral questions as they thought their political opponents would answer them. “The results were clear and consistent,” remarks Haidt. “In all analyses, conservatives were more accurate than liberals.” Asked to think the way a liberal thinks, conservatives answered moral questions just as the liberal would answer them, but liberal students were unable to do the reverse. Rather, they seemed to put moral ideas into the mouths of conservatives that they don’t hold. To put it bluntly, Haidt and his colleagues found that progressives don’t understand conservatives the way conservatives understand progressives. This he calls the ‘conservative advantage,’ and it goes a long way in explaining the different ways each side deals with opinions unlike their own. People get angry at what they don’t understand, and an all-progressive education ensures that they don’t understand.

Haidt’s research echoes arguments made by Thomas Sowell in A Conflict of Visions and Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate. Both Sowell and Pinker contend that conservatives see an unfortunate world of moral trade-offs in which every moral judgment comes with costs that must be properly balanced. Progressives, on the other hand, seem to be blind to, or in denial about, these trade-offs, whether economic and social; theirs is a utopian or unconstrained vision, in which every moral grievance must be immediately extinguished until we have perfected society. This is why conservatives don’t tend to express the same emotional hostility as the Left; a deeper grasp of the world’s complexity has the effect of encouraging intellectual humility. The conservative hears the progressive’s latest demands and says, “I can see how you might come to that conclusion, but I think you’ve overlooked the following…” In contrast, the progressive hears the conservative and thinks, “I have no idea why you would believe that. You’re probably a racist.”

Conservative: “Kavanaugh is accused of sexually assaulting a teenager when he was himself a teenager? Let’s investigate that. But let’s also keep in mind the faultiness of memory, and recognize that we may never be able to know with certainty what happened, if anything happened at all. We have to recognize that due process might mean that a person who is actually guilty gets away with it for lack of evidence — but due process is the best thing we have in this imperfect world, and we need to guard it carefully.”

Progressive: “Stop Kavanaugh now or white male conservative rapists will continue to get away with it, and continue oppressing all the intersected groups of the virtuous!”

This is why Kavanaugh is a condensed symbol of the left-right division in the country now. Back in 2015, the reader Raskolnik offered this comment as a way to explain to a progressive reader why religious conservatives “freaked out” over homosexuality. Raskolnik denied that there was a “freakout” in the first place, but also explained why homosexuality as a political and cultural issue has such salience. Excerpt:

Back in the 60’s, the sociologist Mary Douglas came up with the idea of a “condensed symbol.” The idea is that certain practices or ideas can become a kind of shorthand for a whole worldview. She used the example of fasting on Fridays, which the Bog Irish (generally lowerclass Irish Catholics living in England) persisted in doing, despite the fact that their better-educated, generally-upperclass clergy kept telling them to give to the poor or do something else that better fit with secular humanist mores instead. Her point was that the Bog Irish kept fasting, not due to obdurate traditionalism, or some misplaced faith in the “magical” effectiveness of the practice, but because it functioned as a “condensed symbol”: fasting on Fridays was a shorthand way of signifying connection to the past, to one’s identity as Irish, as well as to a less secularized (or completely non-secular) vision of what religious practice was all about. It acquired an outsized importance because it connected systems of meaning.

I bring up the notion of “condensed symbol” because I think that’s the best way to understand what’s going in (what you perceive to be) the “freakout” about homosexuality. The freakout isn’t about homosexuality per se, it’s about the secular world shoving its idea of sexual morality down the throats of orthodox Christians. If you haven’t read Rod’s piece Sex After Christianity, you really should, and if you haven’t, I think you should be able to connect the dots between the Christian cosmology of sex and the Christian opposition to same-sex marriage as a “condensed symbol” of Christian resistance to secularism writ large.

Yes. And again, Kavanaugh is a condensed symbol of the convergence of racial, sexual, and class politics among progressives, and the urgent need among conservatives to fight them. Remember, prior to these accusations, conservatives weren’t exactly hooting and hollering for Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, given that he’s a Bush Republican straight out of central casting. It was only when Progressives made him into a condensed symbol and charged him with their loathing that the right was stirred.

Note well that politically speaking, the left-wing train is being driven by what that much-discussed new study calls “Progressive Activists” — a relatively small group that are disproportionately rich, urban, white, educated, and angry. And, because they are vastly overrepresented in academia and the media, they are disproportionately powerful. Most Americans of both the left and the right are not as ideological as extreme minorities are. But they are not directing the troops.

Well, sorry, I’ve deviated far from the Codevilla essay. Codevilla identifies progressivism and its demands as the driving force behind the revolution, but he doesn’t limit progressivism to the Democratic Party and its constituencies:

The 2008 financial crisis sparked an incipient revolution. Previously, Americans dissatisfied with their Progressive rulers had imagined that voting for Republicans might counter them. But then, as three-fourths of Americans opposed bailing out big banks with nearly a trillion dollars, the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates joined; most Republican legislators joined all Democrats; The Wall Street Journal joined The New York Times, and National Review joined The Nation; in telling Americans that doing this was essential, and that their disapproval counted for nothing. And then, just as high-handedly, all these bipartisan rulers dropped that bailout scheme, and adopted another—just as unaccountably. They showed “government by the people, for the people” to be a fable.

This forced the recognition that there exists a remarkably uniform, bipartisan, Progressive ruling class; that it includes, most of the bureaucracies of federal and state governments, the judiciary, the educational establishment, the media, as well as major corporate officials; that it had separated itself socially, morally, and politically from the rest of society, whose commanding heights it monopolized; above all that it has contempt for the rest of America, and that ordinary Americans have no means of persuading this class of anything, because they don’t count.

As the majority of Americans have become conscious of the differences between this class and themselves they have sought ever more passionately to shake it off. That is the ground of our revolution.

If the government of George W. Bush is called “progressive,” what does that word mean? I get what he’s saying: that there is a bipartisan establishment that is above all loyal to itself. I’m just not sure that we get very far by labeling it “progressive,” though one thing not widely understood on the right is that Big Business is a culturally progressive juggernaut. Maybe a better word is “institutionalist.”

Here is where I think Codevilla goes wide off the mark:

In our time, the most widespread of differences between rulers and ruled is also the deepest: The ruled go to church and synagogue. The rulers are militantly irreligious and contemptuous of those who are not.

He’s generally right that the ruling class being “militantly irreligious and contemptuous of those who are not,” but I’m sorry, the “ruled” do not go to church and synagogue.  Would that they did! In fact, according to Gallup, at the peak of American religiosity (the mid-1950s), only 49 percent of Americans went to church regularly. Despite the fact that most religious conservatives ended up voting for Trump, Donald Trump did best among conservatives who never go to church. 

As I’ve written about many times — at greatest length in The Benedict Option — Americans are losing our religion. The secular militancy of progressives, especially in the media and leading US institutions, strikes many of us — not only conservatives! — as out of touch with lived reality. But the unhappy truth is that Americans in general are drifting away from religion. Fewer and fewer go to church, and fewer and fewer have even a basic understanding of what traditional religion teaches. Their religious instincts express themselves as a vague, consumerist-oriented spirituality. As Ross Douthat has written, Christians may have voted for Trump, but the Trumpiest conservatives are post-Christian, and Trump is doing nothing to halt the de-Christianization of America. If you don’t like the Religious Right, oh boy, wait till you see the Post-Religious Right.

Codevilla’s framing is unsatisfactory in its specifics. He also, for instance, fails to discuss the role of race and demographics. Whenever he writes “ordinary Americans,” he’s talking about non-elite white people. Though not all black, Hispanic, or Asian voters agree with the Progressive Activists driving Democratic politics and leading institutions, they still vote with them, and do not see Donald Trump as their champion. Trump is not a true populist, but a racialized one. It’s galling to hear liberals complain about Trump’s dependence on identity politics, given that contemporary liberalism is primarily built on galvanizing non-white, anti-white white, and queer identities against the so-called white heteronormative establishment. The left brought this onto themselves. Still, Trump does not represent “ordinary people,” but rather disfavored white people.

Even so, Codevilla is onto something here:

In short, the “resistance” has begun to radicalize middle America. It redoubled millions of Americans’ sense of siege, their fear of unbridled rule by unaccountable powers, of being accused of “hate speech,” of normal life made impossible by Progressive socio-political demands. It confirmed the sense that Donald Trump and such as he, whatever their faults, are all that stands between themselves and having an alien way of life imposed upon them.

The voters who, over four election cycles, stripped the Democratic Party of the U.S. Presidency, left it in the minority in both Houses of Congress, without Governors in two-thirds of the States, and in the minority in two-thirds of the state legislatures did so not out of love for the Republican Party. They were being insulted and made to feel strangers in their own country, and wanted that to stop. But elections did not stop the ruling class’s assaults on their supposed inferiors. Instead, the “resistance” increased pressures on them. Political correctness is more virulent than ever, speech is more restricted than ever. Being on the wrong side of the right people is more dangerous than ever.

The thing is, he is not impressed by Trump. He says that Trump has been feeding Americans “empty calories” — that he’s more talk than action. Codevilla believes that the best we can hope for is that the forces Trump has marshalled will be able to fight Progressives to a draw — and then we can find peace by reaching a settlement that imposes a much stronger federalism. Let the blue states be blue, and the red states be red, and everybody else leaves everybody else alone.

I don’t see how that is possible, but I hope it is possible, because the alternative is extremely unpleasant. Codevilla concludes:

Unattainable, and gone forever, is the whole American Republic that had existed for some 200 years after 1776.

Read the whole thing. 

What do you think? As much of Codevilla’s hostility to progressivism that I share, it still frustrates me that he totally ignores the role of capitalism and technology in eliminating the conditions under which the old Republic existed, and thrived. There is a certain kind of conservative American who believes that unbridled free markets are wholly compatible with cultural and social conservatism. You don’t have to be a socialist to understand that this is simply not true. Their counterparts on the left are those Americans who believe that a sexual market unbridled by restraint is wholly compatible with the maintenance of liberalism. But I’ve said enough this morning. Your turn.