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The Storm Before The Storm

Liberalism is exhausted, but illiberalism is still taboo. What's next for Weimar America?

Here’s a must-read piece by Jacob Siegel, reflecting on how dissatisfying he found a public debate last weekend between editors from Dissent and American Affairs. Siegel says that for the past 10 years he has been moving both right and left politically, as the center has become hollowed out. He didn’t like the debate because “the left pandered and the right was coy.”

In Siegel’s account, the two Dissent editors, Tim Shenk and Sarah Leonard, carried on as if the Left were obviously correct, had nothing to talk to the new Right about, and simply had to wait for the Left’s inevitable triumph. Siegel says that is a pretty incredible position to hold when Republicans are winning all over. And:

“As someone who considers myself a leftist,” one audience member said during the Q&A, “I did feel sometimes a little bit uncomfortable with the only calls for building broad solidarity coming from the right.”

What the questioner was getting at I think, was Shenk and Leonard’s refusal to even acknowledge any conflict between identity politics and the formation of broad class-based coalitions. An especially notable omission given how commonly this issue comes up in intra-left debate.

At various points both Dissent editors dismissed concern over political correctness and campus radicalism as petty preoccupations of the right. This at the same moment, while “the Left turned on its own”  that videos of the Evergreen college protests were going viral. Broadcast—forget about just on cable TV—in millions of youtube clips that are played, refracted, remixed and replayed to a vast audience of Americans who are still, as Shenk rightly noted, deeply invested in the culture war.

Siegel says that the Left makes a huge mistake in minimizing this stuff. He’s correct in that. Political correctness may be extreme on certain campuses, but it will inevitably be mainstreamed by institutions run by graduates of these colleges.

A small but telling example: the announcement that the US men’s and women’s national soccer teams will be wearing pro-gay jerseys:

And notice how the Fox Sports journalist described this move:

U.S. Soccer has dropped some spiffy new rainbow kits to raise money for a good cause, coinciding with LGBTQ Pride month in June.

What if you are a US Soccer player who is Catholic, Evangelical, Muslim, or otherwise religious, and objects morally to celebrating gay pride (even if you have no problem at all with gays and lesbians playing professional soccer)? Too bad for you. If you objected publicly by refusing to wear the jersey, you would put your career at risk. So: violate your conscience or suffer professional consequences. This is one example of how coercive political correctness moves throughout the system.

There are others. Progressives have a bad habit of dismissing or minimizing them (see, for example, this dishonest and inaccurate Snopes.com piece explaining away the violent anti-white radicalism of Texas A&M philosophy professor Tommy Curry), but people outside the bubble notice this stuff.  [Side note: I used to trust Snopes as a source of debunking, but after having had personal interaction with the Snopes reporter, and seeing what she wrote about a controversy I was a part of, I will not trust Snopes again. — RD]

Turning to the Right, Siegel criticizes Gladden Pappin and Julius Krein of American Affairs. He says they talked about building “working-class solidarity,” but left it vague as to what the glue of that solidarity would be. They were clear about what it would not be, however:

Krein and Pappin went out of their way to disassociate themselves not only from ethno and white nationalism but with anything resembling, as Schmitz puts it, “the chthonic forces of blood and soil.” No surprise then that Krein dismissed the alt right as something marginal and unimportant.

Which leaves the question, which I put to them at the debate: If not race or ethnicity or romantic nationalism, what is the force that will keep the civic and legal procedures undergirding this renewed nationalism from coming apart as happened not very long ago, to the last version of civic nationalism in this country?

What, I was asking, will hold the laws and procedures together? Laws and procedures, they answered.

 To be clear, Siegel says that the American Affairs guys share much of the critique of liberalism that the Alt-Right does, but they reject the racial and ethnic politics of the Alt-Right. But the Alt-Right, he says, is more honest:

The difference is that in the alt right it’s clear what holds their concept of politics together: racism, white identity, ethno-nationalism or some combination of the same.

Given all the premises they share, either the white nationalists of the alt right are American Affairs secret allies or they are the competition. Dismissing them as marginal figures and figments of the opposition’s imagination as the left does with its problematic radicals won’t make them go away. If it did they wouldn’t be here to begin with.

Siegel quotes “someone close” to American Affairs explaining this as “probably dancing around religion.” Siegel adds:

That’s certainly plausible, and an understandable apprehension given the presumed secularism of the crowd. But it doesn’t really matter. Whether it’s a cross up your sleeve or a knife, people see you hiding something up there they think you’re a sneak. That is not a feeling that attracts people to new ideas.

Siegel concludes in part by saying this:

I don’t think the country can survive the way it’s going. That doesn’t mean it will fall apart tomorrow. But if society continues to balkanize—now with more street fighting—if the Federal government keeps expanding its power while failing at its most basic duties, as Amazon, Google and the like keep moving towards quasi omniscient information monopolies that add wealth at the top while shrinking jobs, wages and the middle class….well, I don’t know exactly, and I don’t counsel despair, but it doesn’t end well.

I agree with him. “[T]he stakes are high, so say what you mean,” Siegel said. Read the whole thing. 

I advise you to read Matthew Schmitz’s account of the evening here.  Here’s Schmitz expressing puzzlement with the inability of the Dissent editors don’t see how sexual liberation and market capitalism go hand in hand (a question that I have been putting to my fellow social conservatives for a long time):

But what makes today’s left so sure that economic justice and sexual liberation coincide in the way, say, that truth, beauty, and goodness do in the schemes of theologians? Granting that culture and economics intersect, isn’t it a bit odd that the social views of the average leftwing editor are indistinguishable from those of the CEO of Apple? Men like Eric Schmidt think that free markets and free love are by no means irreconcilable. In this judgment they are joined by every pope since Leo XIII. Any left unable to see the way we are enslaved by lust will end up the unwitting handmaiden of those who exploit.

Ross Douthat sums up the meaning of Siegel’s piece succinctly:


This is exactly right. Siegel calls for us to say what we mean, so let me say what I mean.

  1. I agree with Siegel that we can’t go on like this. Something has to give. It might not give next year, or ten years from now, but we can’t muddle through forever.
  2. The rising Left is bound and determined to crush or at least permanently sideline people it deems heretics — in particular, whites, males, orthodox Christians, and skeptics of the LGBT project. It does not want a pluralistic modus vivendi; it wants total domination. The establishment Left lacks the will to stop them. Its members are terrified of appearing un-woke. All a major corporation has to do to buy off the Left is declare itself in favor of Pride, and so forth.
  3. The establishment Right lacks the will to stop them either, for fear of being called bigots. And it lacks the will or the imagination to stand in any way against corporate interests. It tried to stop Donald Trump, but failed.
  4. Neither Republicans nor Democrats know how to address the conditions that gave rise to the Trump presidency. It would offend too many interests within their respective coalitions.
  5. Trump is a reckless man whose presidency is going to end badly for America. It will also end badly for the people who voted for him; he has no principles except self-promotion, and will sell them out. He also will not be able to get anything serious done, in part because of his total lack of discipline. Trump is a symptom of our political crisis, not a solution.
  6. The real glue holding the dynamic Left together is hatred of the Other. You can see this in part from the Dissent editors’ unwillingness to explore any kind of alliance around economic issues with the right-wing dissidents of American Affairs. For them, the culture war is of such paramount importance that it precludes economic-based alliances.
  7. The real glue holding the dynamic Right together is hatred of the Other. The American Affairs guys would like to suspend the culture war and make common cause with the economic Left, but the Left is not interested.
  8. Christianity, in whatever diluted form, was for most of America’s history the ties that bound us together (whether or not we were Christians). Those days are gone.  Liberalism, in the broadest historical sense, is secularized Christianity, and as such is parasitic on Christianity. When Christianity disappears, as it has largely done in Europe and is well on its way to doing in the United States, it takes with it the basis on which liberalism operates. Laws and procedures alone do not hold a people together.
  9. In a post-Christian nation like ours, there is no realistic hope that religion is going to hold the nation together, or even the forces of the Right. The faith that the old Religious Right (= politicized white Evangelicals) has placed in Donald Trump is self-deceptive, to put it mildly.
  10. As American politics becomes more extreme on both sides, serious Christians will be squeezed out. A significant number of conservative Christians will give themselves over to a Christianized version of blood-and-soil politics. The uncritical embrace of Trumpism by many conservative Christians today opens the door to this.
  11. The future of American politics is highly uncertain. Christians have to do the best they can to fight for moral values in our politics, and in particular for religious liberty. But the “imperium” — meaning the American political order — is probably beyond saving at this point.
  12. The most important thing by far to be conserved is the orthodox Christian faith — and that entails a particular set of moral beliefs and customs, including the traditional family.
  13. Contemporary American life is corrosive to this end in many ways, not all of which are understood by the Christian Right at the moment, mostly because they still confuse Christianity with The American Way Of Life™.
  14. Those orthodox Christians who understand the radical nature of the crisis before us will devote themselves to building up their faith, communities, institutions, and ways of life to be resilient and resolute in the face of American decline. I call this the Benedict Option. The politics of the future may be more left-wing or right-wing, but they will be increasingly anti-Christian. Keeping our heads clear and our hearts stout during this long time of trial will be the most important task facing Christians in this new Dark Age. We too will have to bind ourselves together more tightly to Jesus Christ and to each other in his church.

Bottom line: Identity politics will dissolve the traditional bonds that have held Americans together, and re-bind forces of the Left and forces on the Right to each other. Absent Christianity as a meaningful force in American life, liberalism will continue to fade into exhaustion and senescence. Illiberalism of the Left and of the Right is not yet fully mainstream, but that day is coming. The only thing that can save us from it is a rebirth of Christian consciousness, which at this stage would require a miracle.

Miracles can happen. But I wouldn’t bet the future on them. Read the signs of the times, and prepare.



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