Conservatives are right to become alarmed when any new socialist variant appears to be gaining political traction and to do their best to expose the intellectual errors underlying its deceptive appeal. Modern progressivism is certainly no exception, but responding to the challenge it presents becomes a lot easier when we remember the adage that every cloud—even a socialist one—has a silver lining.
Or, in today’s case, three.
First, think of all those parents across the country who have been inspired to stand up against critical race theory and related progressive efforts to indoctrinate schoolchildren. Their initial reaction to learning that a son or daughter has been instructed to compensate for one’s social privilege or to be less achievement-oriented was understandably stumbling, shrill, even inarticulate. After all, the traditional American values of individual worth and personal responsibility was so much a part of their own upbringings that they never imagined needing to defend them.
But as it became clear that someone had to remind left-wing educators of what a truly democratic school system should teach, parents of all races and backgrounds have found themselves increasingly eloquent on the subject. Showing, as Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo recently put it, that “the American people still have the instinct for self-rule.”
How does the larger society not benefit from average citizens being required every now and then to thoughtfully reaffirm their country’s founding principles? Even better, from having the Justice Department stupidly use the FBI to pressure parents into forsaking the ideals represented by the names still etched on the buildings they subsidize—Jefferson Elementary, Madison Middle School, Martin Luther King High.
“A Republic, madam, if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin replied when asked what kind of government the delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention had just created. Nothing like a little collectivist push on the family to keep today’s citizenry on its toes.
Second, think of how successfully progressivism has enticed society’s worst performing institutions into openly identifying themselves as such, usually by elevating some clichéd left-wing policy prescription over a serious mission. Whether it is a big-city welfare agency asking to be congratulated, not for the lives it has turned around, but for its crusade to end cash bail, or a college that markets itself on the basis of gender equity programs and safe spaces, or an art museum which proudly polices every new collection to eliminate “offensive” painting titles, groups that have gone the most woke are at least letting the larger world know how little they have to offer it.
Already there are many creative examples of people using evidence of progressivism as a “damaged institution” label. The National Association of Scholars, for example, has been researching the best indicators of woke thinking on campus to help high school students avoid applying to the worst colleges. “Take a look at the last five or six commencement speakers,” advises NAS President Peter Wood. “That will tell you more about what the college really values than any website or college brochure.” And if student applicants want to go deeper, he adds, “look also at the lists of individuals who were awarded honorary degrees at commencement.”
For over a year we have been hearing about how companies like Coca-Cola and American Express have surrendered corporate policy to the influence of their younger woke employees, but other businesses have cleverly used the woke reputations of different schools to improve their hiring. As First Things magazine editor R.R. Reno explained in a June op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, he never takes on a recent Ivy League graduate, because even the moderate-to-conservative survivors of those universities have been poorly guided by bad role models, conditioned to dramatize the trivial, and encouraged to deal with problems by “keeping their heads down.”
Other prominent executives, such as Shopify CEO Tobi Lutke, appear to engage in a similar kind of resume screening. “Shopify is a team, not a family,” he says. “Shopify is also not the government. We cannot solve every societal problem here…We also can’t take care of all of [our employee] needs.”
Third and finally, today’s resurgent socialism provides us with a valuable reminder of something too easily forgotten. Namely, how the ugliest of motives—jealousy, resentment, and the urge to control others—can for a time persuasively masquerade as a legitimate moral crusade.
Because we are blessed with a form of government which tends to slow up the legislative process, today’s self-righteous progressives have become impatient enough to gradually reveal their true characters, through cancel culture prosecutions, vicious attacks on more moderate liberals, a stubborn indifference to the devastating social consequences of an open border, and the not-so-subtle sanctioning of political violence in American cities.
And the more the public recoils from what has been revealed, the more today’s socialists seem incapable of disguising their underlying totalitarianism. Witness both the recent bathroom bullying of moderate Democrat Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and the later disruption of the wedding she officiated, as well as the inability of progressive politicians to condemn either.
Such progressive self-disclosure is welcome evidence of the fact that the truly good society is based not on the enactment of some sweeping utopian program but on the willingness of everyday citizens to resist the character lapses which are only apparent to oneself. That, of course, is what John Adams meant when he said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” He, like the other founders, knew the one thing would-be dictators of every age will never admit, except through their counterexample: It is in the collective struggles of the inner men and women that the world is truly improved.
Lewis M. Andrews was executive director of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy from 1999 to 2009. He is author of the new book Living Spiritually in the Material World (Fidelis Books).