Stepping Back from the Brink: Searching for a Hidden Consensus in American Political Life

As we all know, political polarization has reached a boiling point in the United States, with headlines warning of civil war. Although fears of a bloody conflict between Blue and Red America are overblown, the crisis is desperate enough. In such a frenzy, the most responsible option is surely to step back, dial down the rhetoric, and seek common ground on which the country might be preserved. But while calls for unity are being voiced, most are disingenuous, falling along the lines of “Unity is absent because the other party is intentionally dividing us.” Even if this excuse is valid – pick your side – it only compounds the problem. The overt consensus seems to be that unity can be achieved only if the opposing party admits to being hopelessly misguided and gives up the fight, or if one’s own side manages to crush it, whether at the polls or in the civil unrest that could follow. This is not how de-escalation works.

for the majority, our true political colors run to some shade of purple rather than crimson red or saturated blue. But the commonalities that do remain are obscured, perhaps because stalwarts on both sides find them threatening.

To lower the temperature, we might need to consider an alternative perspective. Could it be that the political commons is missing not so much because of the nefarious nature of the opposing side or its conniving leaders, but rather because of the dynamics of run-away polarization itself? Polls show that there is a great deal that ties the American people together; for the majority, our true political colors run to some shade of purple rather than crimson red or saturated blue. But the commonalities that do remain are obscured, perhaps because stalwarts on both sides find them threatening.

One firm place of accord concerns tenor and tone. However intensively Democrats loath Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell, and irrespective of how insistently Republicans detest any number of Democratic leaders, most Americans find the new spitefulness distasteful, detecting the foul smell of a dumpster fire. The insults, rudeness, grotesque exaggerations, outright mendacity, and double standards that characterize politics today are not popular, even among many who occasionally descend to that level themselves. Nor are shouting matches based on the pretense that one can read the minds of one’s opponents and discern their deepest motivations. Most Americans, by my reading, would prefer a regime of fact-based reporting, reasoned deliberation, and respectful debate. By the same token, most find the transformation of almost everything into political theater exhausting and demoralizing. Within a few years, I suspect that a solid consensus will emerge about COVID-19: politicizing the pandemic, which both parties reveled in, was a massively costly mistake.    

It is widely understood that hyper-polarization is linked to the rise of social media and especially the descent of journalism into partisan cheerleading. The segregation of the two warring communities, each siloed in its own mediascape, prevents most Americans from grasping the bipartisan nature of the problem. The media, be it Fox and Breitbart on the right or CNN, the New York Times and others on the left, relentlessly collate, curate, and spin the news, ensuring that their audience see only one side of most stories. Happily, housed among our own kind, we can now avoid the unpleasant jolt of finding facts or opinions that challenge our preconceptions. Understandably, many of us have now assumed that whereas our side may occasionally sidestep the truth, the other lies continuously. Quite a few have apparently concluded that everyone in the opposing camp must be either stupid, ignorant, or evil.

I live in such a bubble myself. At the most, I have three Republican acquaintances. Almost everyone I know is convinced that Donald Trump is abhorrent – and I can’t disagree. He is, to use one of his favorite terms, nasty, and I view civility as the foundational virtue of civic life. But I have long since lost the taste for the ritual denunciations that come at every gathering of family and friends, and I now leave the room when the wrath moves from the president to his tens of millions of supporters. Surely every wisdom tradition in the world warns against returning hatred with hatred or demonizing entire populations, yet here we are. If we hope to return to a regime of political decency, should not we hold our own side to standards at least as high as those we hold for the opposition?

It is widely understood that hyper-polarization is linked to the rise of social media and especially the descent of journalism into partisan cheerleading.

We may be entering an environment so heated that even overwhelming evidence of outrageous malfeasance would make little impression on members of the guilty party. In the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s, the Republican leadership and rank-and-file alike quickly turned against Richard Nixon once his crimes had been confirmed. Could that happen today? Put more concretely, if the investigations of the Trump administration had found substantial Russian collusion, would the President have been abandoned by his supporters? By the same token, would Democrats engage in any critical self-reflection if this particular scandal turned out to be something of a hoax, cooked up by Hilary Clinton and her allies, abetted by the FBI? Although the evidence apparently points in that direction, the main response by the Democrats has been the closing of eyes and the plugging of ears. Meanwhile, evidence of major corruption in the Biden family has mostly prompted outright censorship from Big Tech. Such suppression of the news is apparently of no concern to the Democratic establishment, which has bizarrely responded by adopting a standard right-wing talking point: private corporations, even those with effective communications monopolies, have no free-speech obligations and no responsibility to act in the public interest. Watching this tragic farce play out has convinced me that focusing solely on Trump, real though his flaws and failings may be, avoids the core issue. The real menace is the foul tango of hyper-polarization itself.

Finding Common Ground

If reviving political decency is necessary, it is hardly sufficient grounds for unity. Key issues must be found on which there is some degree of consensus across the mainstreams of each party. I believe this can be done. Most Americans are fed up with our economy’s failure to generate the gains in average well-being that were, until recently, the norm. Internationally, concord is widespread in regard to the swelling authoritarianism of China. And if polling questions are framed neutrally, most American report intermediate positions even on some of the country’s most divisive issues. Abortion is one example. Most voters would allow the termination of pregnancies in the earliest stages (rejecting the fundamentalist perspective that a human being emerges the instant that a cell is fertilized), but view late-term and especially partial-birth abortion as little removed from infanticide (rejecting the equally radical idea that human life does not start until birth). If we step away from the partisan orthodoxies, reasonable accommodations sometimes don’t seem so far off.

Most voters would allow the termination of pregnancies in the earliest stages (rejecting the fundamentalist perspective that a human being emerges the instant that a cell is fertilized), but view late-term and especially partial-birth abortion as little removed from infanticide (rejecting the equally radical idea that human life does not start until birth). If we step away from the partisan orthodoxies, reasonable accommodations sometimes don’t seem so far off.

In surveying the terrain of cohesion, polls find broad agreement on many issues that are conventionally framed as belonging to the right or the left. Consider patriotism, law-and-order, and market economics, three signature values associated with the right. All three have broad support among the American electorate. Some degree of patriotic pride has long been considered an essential ingredient of national solidarity, yet love of country is now viewed in many quarters as an exclusively Republican trait. This is a shame. Surely the anti-nationalism of the left-fringe of the Democratic Party polls poorly. “The United States is a wicked country, but if we come to power, we might be able to turn it into something decent” is not exactly a winning slogan. Republicans also gain the edge when it comes to respecting the law. Basic law and order, as long as it is not pursued in an authoritarian manner, has always commanded majority support. Americans consistently defend non-violent demonstrations, but a sizable majority draws the line at looting and burning. Finally, most Americans embrace market economics rooted in a vibrant private sector, shunning the socialism that is now championed by leftist Democrats. This is not to argue that there is any sort of consensus for unrestrained capitalism, nor is it to contend that most Americans reject the strong social measures of such firmly capitalistic countries as Denmark and Sweden. Economies do not transition from capitalism to socialism once a certain social-spending threshold has been passed; it is rather a matter of how they are fundamentally organized. On this score, mainstream Democrats still look at the history of actual socialism and see little but well-intentioned failure. Republicans are more likely to see a poorly intentioned catastrophe.  

But if some of the core commonalities of American political thought are found on the right side of the divide, others are historically associated with the left. The key word here is “historically.” Consider liberalism itself, including its hallmark value of free speech. In recent years, the Democratic Party has shown a surprising degree of ambivalence about this element of its own historical core. Democrats in 2020 may defend liberal doctrines when they encounter illiberal threats from the right, but they are usually silent when the assault comes from the far left. Other ideas associated with the left get at least rhetorical support, with assurances that the social and economic theories that Democrats favor will naturally bring them to fruition once put into practice. Reducing the surging economic inequality that is undermining the middle class is a prime case in point. The empirical evidence, however, makes one wonder. A host of policies embraced by the Democratic establishment – and carried out in such essentially one-party states as California – have a well-established track record of actually exacerbating inequality.

None of this is to suggest that liberalism, economic equity, or other values of the traditional left are now better served on the Republican side of the divide. Quite the contrary. Where I most reliably find them is in a political no-one’s land, neglected by both parties. I have become convinced that only a new centrist movement – based on broadly liberal principles, but committed to pursuing them in a pragmatic manner – has a real chance of pulling us back from the brink and restoring decency to political life. I am convinced that such a center ground does exist. The question is whether anyone can lay claim to it.

Thus far I have invoked key political concepts without defining them. It is time now to dig deeper. Beginning with liberalism and ending with anti-racism, the remainder of this essay will explore how a series of ostensibly “left” ideas might be used to bring the American electorate together – so long as they are honestly defined, and so long as the polices designed to achieve them are subjected to rigorous and unbiased scrutiny. Because these ideals are associated with the traditional left (my own political home until recently), my remaining critiques are mostly leveled at the Democratic Party.

A host of policies embraced by the Democratic establishment – and carried out in such essentially one-party states as California – have a well-established track record of actually exacerbating inequality.

How Real Liberalism Unites Us

Liberalism is the most crucial concept for establishing concord, as it sets the ground rules for a functional civil order. But it is also one of the most vexed and slippery terms in the political lexicon. Depending on how it is defined, “liberalism” can be claimed by both ends of the ideological spectrum. There is little that ardent liberals despise more than new liberals – proponents of so-called neoliberalism, that is. I would argue that the “neo” prefix is ill-chosen; this set of ideas is more properly labeled “paleoliberalism,” based as it is on a free-market stance that the liberal mainstream abandoned decades age. But it is also true that neoliberalism retains the core principles of the liberal tradition and is thus still liberal in the broader sense of the term.

So, what is liberalism at its heart? Wikipedia tells us that it is “a political and moral philosophy based on liberty, consent of the governed, and equality before the law.” This seems as good a definition as any. As originally formulated, liberalism guarded against threats to freedom stemming from the authoritarian power of the state, advocating free markets and limited government. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century liberals saw new dangers arising from powerful and increasingly monopolistic corporations, as well as from the vast personal fortunes amassed in the Gilded Age. As a result, they advocated a new role for the state, that of shielding society from powerful companies and their owners. Over time, the liberal mainstream also came to link the original principle of equality before the law to that of equality of opportunity, seeking to provide conditions that would allow all individuals the chance to flourish. Over time, the classical (small-government) liberalism of the nineteenth century would be embraced by the Republican party, while their Democratic counterparts would increasingly turn to a post-classical, activist-state version.

Although these two forms of liberalism have contrasting takes on state power, they do share a set of common ideas. Tweaking the Wikipedia definition slightly, these might be boiled down to three basic principles: freedom of speech, due process under the law, and individual rights. The last may be the most important. In any genuinely liberal order, persons are assessed for who they are rather than as reflections of any group or groups that they belong to. Collective punishment is anathema to the liberal spirit. In a healthy democratic environment, political competition between the two versions of liberalism can help society steer a complicated course between different threats to liberty. When corporations abuse their power or gain an undue monopolistic edge, post-classical liberals seek to rein in the market; if the resulting governmental oversight becomes so onerous as to undermine liberty and inhibit economic growth, classical liberals seek to rein in the state. And in every election year, the electorate gets to decide which correction is needed most at the moment.   

For nearly a century after the establishment of the modern two-party system in the mid 1800s, broadly liberal and illiberal sentiments were relatively evenly distributed across the Democratic and Republican parties. In some instances, the Republicans helped carry the liberal banner. The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, survived a filibuster attempt led by 18 Democrats and one Republican. After a bipartisan push, it finally passed the Senate by the healthy margin of 73 to 27 with Republican support still more marked than that of the Democrats. In the aftermath of this legislation, however, illiberal – and racist – Democrats began to desert their party in favor of the more federally inclined (“states-rights”) Republicans. For a few decades, that made the Democratic Party clearly the more liberal of the two. That situation, however, was not to last.

Beginning as early as the late 1960s, the post-classical liberalism of the Democratic Party began gradually to morph into post-liberalism. The process began with young activists turning to Marxism and other ideologies of the far left. The radical left never concealed its disdain for liberalism, which it views as a fig-leaf for capitalist brutality. Mainstream Democrats remained wary of the new left’s extremism but admired its zeal. Enamored of young radicals’ resolute rhetorical support for the underdog, the party tended to ignore the erosion of liberalism on its left flank, remaining focused on threats from the right. Feeling besieged during the 1980s by the Reagan-Thatcher ascendancy, the Democratic Party inadvertently left its illiberal left wing free to create a new playing field, one where victimhood became a trump card.

Beginning as early as the late 1960s, the post-classical liberalism of the Democratic Party began gradually to morph into post-liberalism. The process began with young activists turning to Marxism and other ideologies of the far left. The radical left never concealed its disdain for liberalism, which it views as a fig-leaf for capitalist brutality.

Another force behind the waning commitment to liberalism on the left has been the continuing transformation of the meaning of equality, which has gradually come to mean equal outcomes. Unlike equality of opportunity, which respects personal autonomy and choice, equality of results has historically only been achieved by continuous and forceful intervention on the part of the state. When it becomes habitual, such intervention erodes not only individualism but liberty itself, for it requires imposing outcomes on entire populations regardless of what individuals might choose. In the name of equality, individual freedom – the core of liberalism –is now repudiated across the left wing of the Democratic Party. Viewed through the lens of identity politics, individualism can look like little more than a cover for white supremacy.   

As many commentators have pointed out, the left’s repudiation of liberalism is most stark in academia. Academic Marxists have long poured scorn on their liberal colleagues, most of whom return meek silence, whether because they have little faith in the liberal project or simply because they have no stomach for the fight. Free speech is now routinely nullified if its content is deemed unacceptable by campus radicals. Conservative speakers have been repeatedly cancelled, ruling out any possibility of debate. Fear of hurting feelings can trump any number of liberal principles. And campus liberals know that if they stand their ground they will be roundly attacked, perhaps ostracized, or even stripped of their positions. Few have the courage to take that risk. I for one do not, or I would not be writing under a penname. 

To be sure, a few universities have stood up to leftist anti-liberalism, the University of Chicago most notably. But the inclination to self-censorship on campus is now deeply ingrained. More troubling is the diffusion of an illiberal spirit out of academia and into the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, high-tech hubs, and other bastions of the supposedly moderate left. Here too, outspoken critics of the new orthodoxy can see their careers upended and livelihoods destroyed. Totalitarianism creeps in on cat’s feet, ignored or denied by most self-proclaimed liberals. And when the center does not hold, as Yeats darkly warned, mere anarchy is loosed across the world. Or at least the streets of Portland, Oregon.  

Another force behind the waning commitment to liberalism on the left has been the continuing transformation of the meaning of equality, which has gradually come to mean equal outcomes. Unlike equality of opportunity, which respects personal autonomy and choice, equality of results has historically only been achieved by continuous and forceful intervention on the part of the state. When it becomes habitual, such intervention erodes not only individualism but liberty itself

Given these developments, it is no longer clear to me which party is now the more liberal. As Democrats ignore left-wing assaults on the freedom of speech, Republicans take up its defense. Much of this may be self-interested posturing, but concerted defenses of the larger liberal tradition are found in some conservative intellectual circles, such as that of the National Review. The seeming paradox of their “liberal conservatism” is easily resolved by realizing that the opposite of liberalism is not conservatism but authoritarianism. Upholding the first amendment, which dates back the founding of the United States, is as much a conservative cause as a liberal one.

Given these developments, it is no longer clear to me which party is now the more liberal.

Like liberalism, authoritarianism too cannot readily be associated with one party more than the other. Donald Trump surely has strong authoritarian leanings, but he has not exactly been able to exercise them to the full. And while the current president stands out for lavishing praise on foreign dictators, Democrats make their own accommodations with authoritarian states, as the Obama administration’s Iran deal made clear. In regard to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Democratic response has been more authoritarian than the Republican one. It may well be that a measure of temporary authoritarianism is necessary in this particular circumstance, but it would be disingenuous to call it a liberal approach.

In its most general sense, liberalism is still embraced by a sizable majority of the American electorate. Most Republicans and Democrats can easily come together in upholding liberty, consent of the governed, and equality before the law. I also suspect that the post-classical version of liberalism that was until recently the mainstay of the Democratic Party is the favored variant of the creed. Although mainstream Republicans, at least since the defection of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912, have been skeptical of state efforts to rein in the power of the private sector, the situation may be changing. As Twitter, Google, Facebook, and other influential companies use their monopolistic might to guide the public conversation in directions that they favor, conservatives are becoming alarmed. Days before the 2020 presidential election, these companies became the target of the latest round of anti-trust legislation – led by the same party that spearheaded the first. 

How Genuine Progressivism Unites Us

When the trust-busting former president Theodore Roosevelt jumped the Republican ship in 1912, he formed his own party, colloquially called the Bull Moose Party but formally named the Progressive Party. The progressive movement of Roosevelt’s time was by no means wholly liberal, harboring as it did a number of authoritarian tendencies and ideas. It was also wholly committed to eugenics, something that most Americans today shun as a potential tool of genocide. It is thus a curious maneuver that the left wing of the Democratic Party has recently revived the progressive label.    

As many commentators have pointed out, the left’s repudiation of liberalism is most stark in academia. Academic Marxists have long poured scorn on their liberal colleagues, most of whom return meek silence, whether because they have little faith in the liberal project or simply because they have no stomach for the fight. Free speech is now routinely nullified if its content is deemed unacceptable by campus radicals.

Is their vision actually progressive in the full sense of the word? I wonder. Self-proclaimed progressives today typically sidestep or actively reject much of what the rest of the world associates with progress, selectively highlighting just two elements of the traditional progressive agenda: moral progress (expansion of ethical concerns and their codification into law), and economic equality (discussed more fully below). Moral progress, embodied in the transcendence of prejudice – racial, sexual, and otherwise – is strongly valued by most Americans. The progress made in this arena over the past few decades has been spectacular. Whether the tactics endorsed by the self-proclaimed progressive movement will successfully further this agenda is another question.

More importantly, though, is what this narrow vision of progressivism leaves out. On the one hand, contemporary progressives sometimes seem to deny that any real social progress has occurred, suggesting that the standing of African Americans is hardly better than it was under Jim Crow. The most disillusioned among them reject the idea that any genuine social progress could occur within our existing political system, calling instead for wholesale revolution. More fundamentally, though, the twenty-first-century progressive movement sounds a note of despair about the kind of economic and technological progress that has historically underwritten social progress in the first place. An increasingly vocal dystopian contingent of the coalition seems to believe that almost any form of advanced technological development and economic growth will destroy the Earth and kill us all. 

That is one view. My reading of human history suggests another: an open-ended story in which the varied aspects of progress have – at least to date – largely reinforced each other. Again and again, as societies have become more prosperous and technologically sophisticated, newly educated groups have been empowered to make moral claims, and ethical protections have been fitfully pushed outward to encompass more and different “others,” ultimately including non-human beings. Economic security is crucial for allowing a more expansive sense of moral obligation to take root. Under conditions of precarity, which was the norm throughout most of history, defensive survival values take center stage. As threats fall away and opportunities open, values of toleration, cosmopolitanism, and self-expression have room to arise. As human potential is more easily reached, societies flourish and economies batten. A self-perpetuating upward cycle can be set into motion. To be sure, none of this is foreordained. Demagogues can and do stir up hatred even in the most prosperous societies. But they thrive most in conditions of insecurity and fear, whether brought on by economic collapse or foreign threats.    

Oddly, the general thrust of leftist thought since the end of World War II is to deny this linkage. In sophisticated circles, one is made to feel naïve for expressing any kind of technological optimism. The unparalleled prosperity that we see all around us is taken to be a mere mirage, as the industrial economy on which it rests will only enable us to kill each other more effectively. When the end of the Cold War put off nuclear Armageddon, climate change provided a new wellspring of existential dread. Global pandemics offer another. Having concluded that we are living on borrowed time, my friends on the left seem to feel that it is a sign of wisdom to remain in a state of perpetual anxiety, especially where children are concerned. Many have chosen to avoid having children altogether. The results of this dreary cultural turn are clearly evident, and not a little ironic, putting at risk the moral and social progress that progressives ostensibly champion.

In sophisticated circles, one is made to feel naïve for expressing any kind of technological optimism. The unparalleled prosperity that we see all around us is taken to be a mere mirage, as the industrial economy on which it rests will only enable us to kill each other more effectively.

Those leading the modern progressive movement apparently see the march of ethical and social progress in different terms. Their actions suggest they see suasion and sanction as the drivers of social change; if gentle persuasion fails, hectoring and denunciation are the next resort. To judge from academic and corporate policies, one might think that subjecting suspected reprobates to self-shaming sessions has been proven to work. To anyone familiar with the track-record of religion (or more prosaically, to any parent), this comes as a surprise. If such tactics were truly effective, Bible-thumping ministers and shame-invoking parents should have put us on a sure path to moral perfectionism centuries ago. Yet to judge by the Twittersphere, punishing those who fail – or even failed in the past – to meet one’s moral expectations is an effective way to change hearts and minds. Whether these are realistic expectations is for the reader to decide. Based on my own reading in psychology and history, it is a sure recipe for failure.

This is not to discount moral suasion, or to deny that we face massive threats to our existing prosperity. But moralizing gets you only so far, and broad-based progress remains necessary if we are to confront the threats the planet faces. The technological breakthroughs we need cannot be taken for granted; innovation needs a supportive environment. To the extent that the policies favored by the progressive movement end up forestalling economic growth and derailing technological development, its dire prognostications may become self-fulfilling.

Despite our many global vulnerabilities today, I find reasons for optimism in modern history. Progress in the economic, technological, and scientific realms has been rapid and real over the past 150 years, and all three strands have been deeply entwined. The resulting great advance, in turn, rests on liberal policies and attitudes. Before the enshrinement of free inquiry and the open exchange of ideas, scientific and technological advances were slow, fitful, and subject to prolonged periods of reversal. Lasting economic progress for ordinary people was essentially unknown. Up to the late nineteenth century, the average person even in the most affluent societies was poorly fed, miserably housed, and subject to an array of debilitating maladies. Deadly famines and epidemics were unavoidable. In many ways, tribal peoples in technologically primitive societies lived much more enviable lives. In civilized societies, elites benefitted greatly, commoners not so much.

By the late 1800s, the marriage of science and technology at long last brought about sustained development in the more advanced economies, steadily reducing the most dire forms of poverty and allowing the middle class to expand. According to leftist critics, such benefits derived from European imperialism and the exploitation of foreign lands. This is partly true. Industrialization might never have occurred without the steady flow of colonial riches. But history provides examples aplenty of brutal conquests that never translated into sustained progress. Even the administrative stability and internal peace of successful empires – the Pax Romana and Pax Sinica – did not generate lasting advances for the majority of subjects. To be sure, Sung China in the eleventh century saw a brilliant burst of innovation and economic growth, but the resulting prosperity was not widely diffused. By 1800, the vast majority of Chinese peasants lived in grinding penury.

To read the past this way has an old-fashioned ring, and most historians today would disagree. But having spent much of my life reading world history, I find that the preponderance of evidence suggests the breakthrough to sustained economic development came only when the principles of liberalism had been institutionalized far enough to prevent vested interests from shutting down promising ventures that threatened their own standing. Allowing some measure of creative destruction – or, better, creative displacement – was needed before the hundred flowers of modern life could bloom. Once it had matured, the industrial package could be exported to illiberal and even autocratic countries. But it remains to be seen whether societies that limit the freedom to think outside of official norms can maintain the creativity that ultimately underwrites advances in the STEM fields. Here the evidence remains unclear; some reputable experts place their bets on China. I am not convinced. What little liberty exists in China is being stripped away, and even in the United States and Europe free inquiry is under assault. If the past is any predictor, the unwillingness of liberals to defend liberalism may be risking the future of human prosperity, and of the natural world on which it depends.

How Real Environmentalism Unites Us

Regardless of how one interprets such threats, the desire for continuing broad-based progress profoundly unifies the majority of the American populace. So too does concern for the environment. But as with progressivism, so with environmentalism: those who style themselves as nature’s prime defenders often endorse policies that (in my view) undermine their own aims.   

The most ardent Green thinkers reject the narrative of progress sketched out above, viewing economic growth as a cruel charade that will soon collapse under the weight of its own externalities. Continued expansion, they contend, demands ever more resources, which will eventually be consumed away. It also requires vast expenditures of energy, the production of which is heating the planet and spawning meteorological calamities. Unconstrained global population growth, they further argue, makes it all the worse. Their preferred solution is to abandon growth-dependent capitalism for some version of steady-state socialism. Many champion “de-growth” to reduce consumption. As the old adage put it, “Less is more.”  

The most ardent Green thinkers reject the narrative of progress sketched out above, viewing economic growth as a cruel charade that will soon collapse under the weight of its own externalities.

This critique of economic development misses the mark in crucial ways. For one thing, the much-feared population bomb has fizzled out in recent decades in one country after another, thanks primarily to economic opportunity, education for girls, and exposure to small-family norms through television. By 2020, Thailand, Iran, Brazil, and many other so-called Third World countries were actually heading into negative population rates. Only in the least-served parts of the planet, mostly located in tropical Africa, do birthrates remain well above replacement level. In other words, the population problem is perpetuated, not solved, by forestalling economic growth. As for resource consumption, there too the evidence does not comport with conventional Green thinking. Although economic expansion has historically relied on the ever-mounting consumption of resources, a case can be made that this is not an intrinsic feature of the system. Economic growth is measured by the expansion of value, not of resource use. Technological progress allows the substitution of abundant resources for rare ones, just as it can facilitate recycling, miniaturization, and efficiency. Thanks to substitution, the peak-extraction point for a number of resources has been passed without crashing our economy.

When it comes to climate change, the environmental left is on its firmest ground. The issues are pressing and demand large-scale change. To my mind, popular eco-apocalyptic fears are over-blown. The planet is not heating into unlivability. We will not perish as a species unless we immediately mend our ways. But the problems ahead are severe, both for humankind and the natural world. Those on the political right who deny the dangers are indeed failing to face reality and thus jeopardizing everything. The problem is that the left’s proposed solution to the crisis will almost certainly exacerbate it.

Dealing with the inevitable dislocations and adjustments of climate change will be expensive, requiring a vibrant economy to finance transformation on the scale we need. If the Green New Deal were to be enacted immediately, whole economic sectors could collapse, threatening millions of jobs. Abandoning fossil fuels tomorrow, in favor of more expensive and much less reliable renewable energy, will not replace those lost jobs at a comparable wage any more than the mass breaking of windows will generate an economic boomlet as glaziers gather orders for replacement panes. Although Frédéric Bastiat disproved the “broken windows theory” of economic growth almost two centuries ago, the lesson has yet to sink in. 

The unfortunate reality is that climate change is already baked into our planetary future; at this point, even precipitous actions taken by the United States will have relatively minor effect on this global problem. Across most of the world, fossil-fuel development continues unabated. Hundreds of new coal-burning power plants are currently under construction, and many more are planned. This surge is not even limited to underdeveloped countries, as Japan has been vigorously replacing its nuclear power with coal and natural gas. As carbon dioxide emissions correspondingly mount, adjustment expenses will be unavoidable. Again, these costs will have to be paid somehow even if fossil fuels are banned tomorrow in the United States and Europe.

The unfortunate reality is that climate change is already baked into our planetary future; at this point, even precipitous actions taken by the United States will have relatively minor effect on this global problem. Across most of the world, fossil-fuel development continues unabated.

In what is perhaps the world’s ultimate irony, the global climate crisis itself is to some degree a product of the environmental movement. Had it not been for Green activists, the world economy today would probably rely heavily on nuclear power, which produces negligible carbon emissions. Environmentalists turned against the nuclear option over fears of catastrophic meltdowns and concerns about nuclear waste storage. They also convinced the public that almost any level of radioactivity could have devastating health consequences. Stunningly, careful research suggests that none of these fears was scientifically supportable. Nuclear power can be safely deployed, and even taking its history of accidents into account, has resulted in far fewer deaths than most other forms of power generation. Nuclear waste is small in mass and can be easily encapsulated in concrete and safely stored for eons in geologically isolated environments such as salt domes. Radioactivity is an intrinsic feature of the natural world to which all forms of life are adapted. (Some controversial evidence even suggests that modest levels of radioactivity exposure can actually have health benefits.)

It has been suggested that the leaders of the environmental movement knew full well they were exaggerating the dangers, yet carried out their anti-nuclear crusade nonetheless. The reason? To forestall economic growth, which they viewed as the ultimate threat. What they failed to anticipate was that their campaign would litter the world with coal-burning powerplants. Needless to say, a growing number of thoughtful environmentalists have taken note. As renewable energy is failing to keep pace with demand, some environmental thinkers are re-contemplating nuclear power. But most committed Green activists, along with most other leftists, remain bitterly hostile.

The typical rejoinder to the arguments spelled out above might argue that, whatever its hypothetical benefits might be, nuclear power is simply too expensive. But if the question “why is it so costly” were to be given an honest answer, it would have to be, “because we have made it so.” As France demonstrates, the costs of nuclear power need not be prohibitive. More importantly, new designs and procedures promise major efficiency gains.

In what is perhaps the world’s ultimate irony, the global climate crisis itself is to some degree a product of the environmental movement. Had it not been for Green activists, the world economy today would probably rely heavily on nuclear power, which produces negligible carbon emissions. Environmentalists turned against the nuclear option over fears of catastrophic meltdowns and concerns about nuclear waste storage. They also convinced the public that almost any level of radioactivity could have devastating health consequences. Stunningly, careful research suggests that none of these fears was scientifically supportable.

None of this is to argue that fission-based power will ever be as clean, cheap, and abundant as we would like it to be. Fusion is another matter. The refrain that “fusion is always 30 years in the future” does hit home; this technology faces much larger technological hurdles than first anticipated. But steady if slow progress is being made. Unless our economy collapses, a threshold will probably be reached at some point, after which fusion will become the energy of the future. It will almost certainly deliver vast economic and environmental benefits.

One cannot say the same about the soft energy pathway of solar and wind technology. Certainly, renewable energy has an important role to play, but its future looks like it will be one of diminishing returns rather than impending breakthroughs. There is only so much energy that can be wrung out of the sun and wind and it does not seem that it will be adequate for our needs. For half a century, we have been assured that just a few years of subsidies would allow the blossoming of cheap and reliable renewable energy, fully competitive with fossil fuels. Time and again, such promises have failed. The problem of power intermittency, which is stalling out Germany’s much-hailed energy transformation, is similarly waved away, in this case through assurances about battery development. Here we encounter yet more paradoxical thinking. In mainstream environmental discourse, those who think that our economy can continue to expand based on the development of a vast array of new techniques are dismissed as naïve technological optimists, head-in-the-sand cornucopians. But those who think that energy salvation will assuredly come from a single technology spearheaded by the genius of Elon Musk are hailed as progressive visionaries.

As is at last coming to public attention, renewable energy has its own environmental costs, and they are not small. Batteries entail the extensive mining of rare materials, and  disposing of them when they wear out is turning into something of a nightmare. Nor is it ecologically friendly to build photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines, or to dispose of them once they are exhausted. Wind power could actually turn out to be among the most environmentally destructive forms of energy generation. The mills themselves are a visual blight, and they slaughter bats, raptors, and other birds by the millions. An energy system reliant on wind would require the wholesale industrialization of vast swaths of the rural landscape, blanketing it with powerlines. The Great Plains could become little more than an environmental sacrifice area. (And where would the copper needed for the new transmission lines come from? Not the United States, if opponents of the planned Pebble Mine in Alaska have their way. By default, it would have to be imported from poorer countries with more lax environmental regulations.) But as bad as wind power is, biomass – still favored by some renewable enthusiasts – is even worse. In Europe, a woefully misguided policy of burning wood pellets is deforesting landscapes and devastating wildlife habitats, both locally and abroad. 

The problem of power intermittency, which is stalling out Germany’s much-hailed energy transformation, is similarly waved away, in this case through assurances about battery development. Here we encounter yet more paradoxical thinking.

Everywhere one looks one encounters the same disconnection between environmental rhetoric and ecological realities. Green activists decry the loss of wildlife and warn of an impending mass extinction event – and for good reason. But such losses are occurring almost entirely in poor countries. In the wealthy and industrialized realm, land is returning to nature, many species are on the rebound, and rewilding is marching ahead, with or without human assistance. Although one would hardly know it from the Green literature, there is news worth celebrating. More is possible – yet environmental policies sometimes actually stand in the way. The generation of reliable, grid-based electricity across tropical Africa, for example, would benefit both humankind and wildlife, yet it is actively opposed by the Green lobby. Lacking power, people have no choice but to turn to charcoal or wood for cooking, taking a terrible toll on both local landscapes and human health. The rooftop solar alternative favored by many activists is a fine supplement, but at present is able to support little more than a few lights and a phone-charging station. For the health benefits to really start kicking in, power adequate for refrigeration is necessary. Although environmental publications often tout the world’s poorest countries for their low per-capital carbon footprints, those numbers are misleading. It is poverty rather that prosperity that is not environmentally sustainable.

The ecomodernist perspective advocated here accepts that we will never return to Eden. It leans slightly left, inasmuch as it takes the elimination of dire poverty as both a moral and practical necessity. It is grounded in post-classical liberalism, regarding markets as indispensable even while acknowledging that they must be regulated by the state. It is progressive in the traditional sense, hailing technological and economic as well as social and ethical advance. It stands firmly on the grounds of disinterested science, respecting rigorous investigations even when they produce inconvenient results. It also acknowledges that scientific truths – unlike those of mathematics – always remain provisional to some degree. “The science,” in other words, is never ultimately “settled.” Perhaps most important, it celebrates evidence-based debate, welcoming iconoclastic views. Dismayingly, the eco-orthodoxy that has captured a sizable segment of the Democratic Party is the opposite of all these things.

What strikes with increasing force are the parallels between environmentalism and religion. Longing for a lost Eden, mainstream environmentalism invokes ecologically inflected ideas of grace, sin, and redemption. As a matter of private faith, this would be of no consequence. But by bringing the uncompromising fervor of a quasi-religious movement to bear on matters of public policy, the do-or-die tenor of Green activism thwarts its ability to engage a sometimes-skeptical public.

Abundant evidence indicates that most Americans care deeply about environmental quality, and most are concerned about anthropogenic climate change. Wildlife is valued almost everywhere – certainly among hunters in the Red states. Love of nature might even be said to be a core component of the hidden American political consensus. Agreement breaks down, however, when we try to move from values and concerns to proposals aimed at addressing them. Although an eco-romantic perspective has a dedicated following and emotionally appeals to most Democrats, it is rejected by a majority of the populace for reasons that deserve a fair hearing.

The ecomodernist perspective advocated here accepts that we will never return to Eden. It leans slightly left, inasmuch as it takes the elimination of dire poverty as both a moral and practical necessity. It is grounded in post-classical liberalism, regarding markets as indispensable even while acknowledging that they must be regulated by the state.

How a Moderate Leftism Unites Us

Thus far I have argued that self-described Progressives are leading the Democratic Party away from liberalism, away from the much broader progressive tradition, and into a non-viable environmental platform. At the same time, on certain basic economic issues, the party establishment has not moved to the left in any appreciable way. It has certainly allied with the far left, and it insistently deploys left-wing rhetoric and defers to left-wing-theories; but the policies that it has supported have not had left-wing results. Judged solely on policy outcomes (bracketing for a moment the motivations behind them), the modern Democratic Party has increasingly betrayed its original working-class base to serve the interests of the elite.

At its heart, the left-right split has traditionally been based on differences about the distribution of wealth. Simply put, those on the left have sought a more egalitarian society while those on the right have defended hierarchy. Because the difference is one of emphasis rather than absolutes, many of the disagreements between left and right take the form of debate over how best to achieve common goals. Plenty of conservatives would like to see a more even distribution of income and wealth, for instance, but reject the use of government mandates (much less violence or looting) to bring it about.

Abundant evidence indicates that most Americans do want a less skewed distribution of wealth than what we currently have, and I am convinced that the majority would like to see some state action on this front. Reading across the spectrum on a daily basis has persuaded me that the majority on both left and right deem poverty in the US today too widespread, and wealth too concentrated. The latter sentiment is not merely the result of envy, as those on the right often argue, but stems more fundamentally from the belief that mega-fortunes give too much power to those who possess them, threatening democracy itself. And while most Americans want to see inventors and entrepreneurs rewarded, the majority are wary of letting the super-rich pass huge fortunes down through the generations. Disdain for aristocracy runs deep in American veins. We have historically tended to view societies with extreme levels of inequality as dysfunctional, crime-ridden, and prone to crisis – for good reason. Many Republicans long for the halcyon days of the Eisenhower administration, when the country’s GINI coefficient was far lower than it is today, and when economic growth primarily benefitted the middle class. Democrats typically respond to such nostalgia by noting that not everyone enjoyed the fruits of the 1950’s prosperity, and that African-Americans suffered exclusion through deliberate discrimination. But it is not coincidental that the same era saw the rise of the Civil Rights movement that would culminate in a series of bipartisan landmark Congressional bills in the mid-1960s.

Any such consensus, however, breaks down when it comes to tackling the underlying problem. Democrats openly argue for the Robin Hood option – taking from the rich and giving to the poor. But their preferred tool of redistribution, the income tax, hardly touches the hyper-elite, whose wealth derives from ownership rather than income. The people it ends up hitting the hardest are aspiring members of the upper-middle class. It is as if Robin Hood took from local merchants and yeoman farmers but left lords and prelates alone.

Democrats might retort that they would love to tax wealth but are prevented from doing so by greedy right-wingers. Undoubtedly the left wing of the party would be delighted to see a massive redistribution of assets across the board. But what is the likelihood of this happening, considering the political affiliations of the richest Americans? A surprising number of the top 25 members of the Forbes 400 list are Democrats: roughly sixty percent of the wealth owned by these super-rich, a whopping $825.4 billion, is controlled by individuals who identify with the left.[1] But where do they really stand on redistribution? To stand with the left would mean supporting policies that would hit their treasure houses hard. Are we really meant to think that this new breed of magnates wants to make such a sacrifice? Have any in the past? Psychologists tell us that most humans act in their own self-interest (as they understand it),[2] regardless of how wealthy they are. I see little evidence to the contrary in this particular crowd.  

A surprising number of the top 25 members of the Forbes 400 list are Democrats: roughly sixty percent of the wealth owned by these super-rich, a whopping $825.4 billion, is controlled by individuals who identify with the left.

It is not merely the super-wealthy who have moved into the ranks of the Democratic Party, but also the elite class more generally. The richest states, the richest cities within those states, and the richest neighborhoods within those cities now shine bright blue. In the tony suburbs of Silicon Valley, in Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and in Beverly Hills, Republicans are becoming rare. But do the voters in these areas actually support policies that help the working class? After years of living in one of these enclaves, I have concluded that the honest answer is “no.” Abundant empirical evidence shows that governments run by Democrats have ended up helping their elite supporters at the expense of their less affluent constituents.

One way to assess the socio-economic consequences of the Democratic platform is to compare the GINI coefficients of red and blue states.[3] Utah – the most reliably Republican state in the union – has the lowest level of income inequality. Other low GINI states include Alaska, Wyoming, Nebraska, and South Dakota. New York is at the opposite end of the spectrum; other high GINI states include Connecticut and California. To be sure, some blue states (Hawaii) have a relatively even distribution of income, and quite a few red states in the south show the opposite pattern. But outside of the South, to a striking degree, Republican-voting states have a more equitable distribution of income than Democratic-voting states. Hypothetically, the gross inequality in the blue states could reflect patterns that predate Democratic power. The historical data, however, indicates otherwise. In 1970, as a purple state noted for its economic opportunities, California ranked as the 17th most income-equal state in the country. Only after it morphed into a virtual one-party state did its GINI coefficient surge; by 2010, California had the 48th least-equal distribution of income of all 50 states. A 2017 survey further found that California’s already alarmingly high inequality was rising at a rate faster than that of 48 other states, while inequality in Wyoming and South Dakota was rising much more slowly.[4]

Nor do simple measures of income inequality fully capture the extent to which the blue model of governance perfected in California has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. An array of policies drive up the cost of essential goods and services, squeezing ordinary workers. Sharp restrictions on new housing – enacted in the name of environmental protection and neighborhood preservation – fatten the portfolios of the propertied while putting home ownership out of reach of most young families. Zealous regulation thwarts small businesses while large corporations manage to shield themselves from competition. High taxes on gas, along with other well-meaning restrictions on energy, hammers both rural residents and those forced to commute long distances. And as workers of modest means are forced to flee, the cost of services skyrockets. In San Francisco, full-time infant day-care in a dedicated facility costs roughly $23,000 a year;[5] in Idaho, where many frustrated Californians are relocating, the average cost is $7,300 (in 2018).[6]

Nor do simple measures of income inequality fully capture the extent to which the blue model of governance perfected in California has widened the gap between the haves and the have-nots. An array of policies drive up the cost of essential goods and services, squeezing ordinary workers.

The consequences of such policies are tragically predictable and deeply ironic: the bluest cities in these states have effectively priced themselves out of the market for the working class. Even young professionals have begun fleeing San Francisco and New York, increasingly moving out of the bicoastal zone altogether. Meanwhile the homeless crisis has worsened by the year, and gentrification has inspired prize-winning films (most recently The Last Black Man in San Francisco). Yet the main policy response by leftist elites, it seems, is to call for open borders. Compassion for poor migrants is undoubtedly at play here, but is there not also a possibility that the self-interest of the party’s affluent supporters is served by this combination of policies? Without a steady supply of undocumented immigrants willing to cram multiple families into small units, who would cook the meals, clean the houses, clip the yards, and care for the children of affluent blue voters? Leftwing activists also welcome impoverished migrants because they assume they will vote for Democratic candidates when they become citizens, and perhaps even before.

Immigration, especially of undocumented workers, presents a wicked moral dilemma, one to which there are no easy answers. A sizable majority of the American electorate values immigrants. Most Americans are also sympathetic to the plight of the undocumented, and they certainly do not want to see families torn apart and children locked up in cages. But most Americans also want immigration to be regulated and restricted, rejecting open-border proposals. They are also wary of immigration that fails to flow through legal channels, in part because they know that undocumented workers are highly vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. Working class Americans in particular tend to oppose high levels of migration by much poorer workers because they understand economics well enough to know that it depresses their wages. Many are also concerned that unrestricted movement across open borders cannot select migrants who have skills that this country needs. Elite Democrats, however, talk as if racism is the only possible reason why anyone would want to limit movement across the border. Are they unaware that the celebrated Latino labor leader Caesar Chavez, convinced that unrestricted illegal immigration made it impossible to organize farm workers, lobbied to harden the U.S./Mexico border?

If the crisis of surging economic inequality is to be taken in hand, it will require the concerted efforts of a broad-based coalition. The emergence of such a movement is not inconceivable. Even many conservatives are ready to put a brake on the ever-fattening portfolios of the hyper-rich, if only to reduce their outsized political leverage. But Democratic opinion leaders effectively (if unwittingly) act in ways that block consensus on this score. Although they offer grudging toleration to traditional conservatives and are willing to fete Wall Street plutocrats who sign on to the never-Trump movement, populist conservatives like Tucker Carlson earn their scorn. For championing the working class, most of whose members are of European background, Carlson has been damned by Democrats as a racist. And therein lies the nub of the problem.

I do not deny that white privilege exists, nor that it is a problem. But white privilege is complexly entangled with, and sometimes overshadowed by, class privilege – something that the present Democratic party does not always acknowledge. The doctrine that all whites are automatically advantaged by the color of their skin and should renounce their privilege does not match up very well with the day to day experience of many working-class whites. White members of the American under-class number in the millions, and many lead lives of desperation. Ridiculed in Hollywood, exploited by Big Pharma, and often harassed by their hometown cops, poor whites suffer shockingly high rates of addiction and depression. For a beaten-down white man from a meth- and opioid-ravaged community in Appalachia to accept the notion that he is heir to vast unearned advantages – advantages that count for more than those that a Black professor at Harvard or a Latinx journalist at the New York Times enjoy – is likely to be a hard sell. Is this really the best appeal for a broad-based, cross-color coalition?

For a brief spell in the late 1800s, that coalition existed. Black and white working-class populists in the South banded together after the Civil War for mutual advantage. But the aristocratic planters in the Democratic Party found the alliance threatening and undermined it by nurturing anti-Black racism among poor whites. Could a similar dynamic be playing out today? However noble their motives, are not leftist progressives effectively splitting working-class Blacks and whites into separate camps? And does this in turn not neutralize the possibility of a populist challenge to scale back the power of the ultra-wealthy in this country?

As this line of reasoning suggests, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that one of the reasons the American dream is now burning out is that both major parties, wittingly or not, have become tools of the hyper-rich. Both parties work hard to conceal this. Donald Trump touts his populist leanings at every opportunity, but there is little doubt where his true allegiance lies. Likewise, Democratic politicians loudly champion the poor and malign the rich, but their policies belie their rhetoric. Rank-and-file Democrats understand this situation fully well, and rightfully scoff at Republican allegations that their party is edging into socialism. To be sure, most Democrats are willing to tax high incomes at an elevated level in order to increase transfers to the less well-off, and the latest cutting-edge idea is universal basic income. But such propositions no more threaten the billionaire class – or address the underlying problem of run-away class stratification – than did bread and circuses for the proles in ancient Rome.

As this line of reasoning suggests, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that one of the reasons the American dream is now burning out is that both major parties, wittingly or not, have become tools of the hyper-rich.

I respect Andrew Yang and appreciate his calmly reasoned arguments about the employment crisis that may well be looming. But his signature plan will not solve our core problems. A job is more than a paycheck. Most adults also need gainful employment to maintain a positive outlook and know that they are valued as productive members of society. Receiving a substantial stipend merely for existing would be stultifying for many and debilitating for some. I would rather try to build meaningful jobs. In an internet-facilitated economy, it does not take much to start an enterprise. Relaxing zoning codes, reducing licensing burdens, and easing regulations could go a long way to nurture micro-entrepreneurialism. If such businesses cannot generate adequate returns for livelihood, negative taxation would be appropriate. Such a tactic would certainly entail the redistribution of wealth, as would Yang’s scheme, but in a way designed to bolster the integrity of the recipients.

Encouraging small-scale entrepreneurialism would also have broad political purchase. Support for small business is another of the hidden common grounds of American political life. Aware of this, the Democratic mainstream rhetorically champions mom-and-pop firms (although its policies often make it impossible for Main Street to compete against Wall Street). But the left wing of the Party seems at times to have a visceral disdain even for the small independent operator. Such distaste has deep roots in Marxist thinking. Family-owned businesses are after all the cradle of the petty bourgeoisie, a class long decried as the enemy of revolution – which is an excellent reason for those on the center-left to lend them their support. But the ultimate question for me is a practical one: should moderate left-liberals continue to support those whose calls to reduce economic stratification sound good in theory but fail again and again in practice? Or would they be better off considering pragmatic alternatives that might be empirically shown to reduce the gross and growing inequities in our society? If the latter, they should be fighting for major changes in the Democratic Party. But considering the direction that the party is currently moving, it might be time to try something else.         

How Real Opposition to Racism Unites Us

The disconnect between desired ends and achieved results is equally evident in the anti-racist movement. Groups such as Black Lives Matter begin with unimpeachable propositions. Systemic racism has historically been a profoundly destructive force in American society, and it has not disappeared. Like many liberals, I am persuaded that the U.S. still needs to address this issue. 

But in one of the most painful ironies of left-wing discourse, anti-racist activists not infrequently engage in rhetoric that parallels racism: vilifying all whites for the abuses of any. Although this is a text-book example of racist thinking, activists insist otherwise. Their theories tell them only whites can be racist. More ironic is the latent anti-Black racism of the movement, when it insists that Black people (unlike Whites, Asians, or others) must share certain core tenets in order to claim Black identity. In recent months, a handful of African American intellectuals who have dared to voice conservative views have been called out as not Black. Worse, early this year the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History began informing its visitors that assumptions of whiteness and white culture can be found in such activities as emphasizing the scientific method, advocating a work ethic, valuing individual independence and autonomy, being polite, and avoiding conflict. The implication was that such traits are linked to white supremacy, and that authentically Black people must decolonize their minds by spurning all such cultural impositions. The uproar over such posturing was severe enough to force the museum to remove the materials in question and apologize.[7] But on the increasingly powerful left-flank of the Democratic party, guided by so-called Critical Theory, such ideas are accepted with little if any reservation.

But in one of the most painful ironies of left-wing discourse, anti-racist activists not infrequently engage in rhetoric that parallels racism: vilifying all whites for the abuses of any. Although this is a text-book example of racist thinking, activists insist otherwise. Their theories tell them only whites can be racist.

To tell museum-goers that values like diligence and responsibility derive uniquely from European culture – or that exercising those values somehow supports white supremacy – is to engage in fake history. It simply isn’t true. To the extent that such traits can be measured, Asian Americans would outscore Euro-Americans on just about every item on this list. Recent immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean generally do so as well. Nigerian-Americans earn more money on average that their Euro-Americans counterparts.[8] Writing a hundred years ago, Max Weber could argue that European Protestantism had incubated the spirit of capitalism. But sociologists today find that across the world, a highly developed work ethic is closely correlated with economic gains, social stability, and general success in life. By denouncing so-called bourgeois values, activists may be inadvertently perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Affluent white Americans understand very well the connection between a healthy work ethic and life success. No matter how much anti-racism training they receive, it seems highly unlikely that middle-class parents of any color will abandon bourgeois values in their own families. If anything, the tide seems to be moving in the opposite direction, with “Tiger mother” proclivities of success-oriented Asians being picked up by middle-class whites. Could they truly believe that the same traits they view as beneficial for their own children are harmful for Black children? Or is it possible that fear of challenging anti-racist rhetoric creates a peculiar situation where white allies feel uncomfortable preaching what they practice?

Well-educated Blacks benefit from the current anti-racism campaign. Universities are hiring more Black professors and corporate boards are eager to add more accomplished Black members. Such changes are all to the good. But what benefits are accruing to the less educated members of the African American community? When businesses in their neighborhoods are looted, their opportunities to purchase essential goods are reduced. If police are defunded as crime rates surge, their communities will be disproportionally victimized. Professionals of all races are fleeing urban environments, threatening many cities with disinvestment and lagging tax returns. From the Marxist perspective that informs the more radical fringe, such developments can be framed as positive, inasmuch as they deepen the contradictions of capitalism and hasten the revolution that alone can bring true equality. This kind of thinking does not have traction within the Democratic mainstream, of course. How then do party leaders square the contradictions between the aims and ends of anti-racist street politics? By refusing to think about them, it seems – and, if necessary, by not allowing them to be discussed.   

Affluent white Americans understand very well the connection between a healthy work ethic and life success. No matter how much anti-racism training they receive, it seems highly unlikely that middle-class parents of any color will abandon bourgeois values in their own families.

From a purely class-based perspective, the most dubious message of the movement is “Defund the police.” Police reform is supported by a decisive majority of the American public; eliminating the police entirely is not. And defenders of the force are not all white. One of the most consistent complaints that Black communities have voiced over the years about policing is that they don’t get enough protection. Curtailing law enforcement would not make violence go away; instead, it would create a precarious situation in which impoverished communities could be further preyed upon by violent criminals. Since this spring, in some urban cores where police have come under repeated public attack, street violence has surged. And should the Defund campaign succeed, one predictable result is the privatization of policing. Trained officers dismissed from the public payroll would surely be snapped up by private security companies, who in turn would offer well-off families and firms protection for themselves and their assets for a hefty fee. This is not a happy scenario. While the wealthiest Americans could afford to remain secure in their gated communities, the poor might face a terrible choice between victimhood and vigilantes. Both possibilities would be anathema to the left. Yet both are predictable outcomes of defunding the police.

Considering the deep contradictions within the movement sketched out above, it is tempting to conclude that its embrace by left-wing elites has something of an instrumental edge. Focusing on race has the effect of deflecting attention from class; could it be that advocating for anti-racism is (among other things, of course) a way to compensate for or conceal one’s own class advantages – even from oneself?  In such a manner, critical race theory can serve as a cudgel for elite Democrats. Confessing to the sin of racism, and accepting rhetorical flagellation for one’s white privilege, may well be less painful than surrendering one’s class advantages.

What Comes Next?

Leftist discourse on African-American poverty understandably focuses on a search for “root causes.” Its consensus is that white racism has been, and continues to be, the prime obstacle preventing Black advancement. This idea certainly has support in regard to earlier periods of time. But as is the case for all complex social phenomena, a number of deep-seated causes are at play. As such, differentiating mere rhizomes from any actual tap-root is probably an impossible project. But is it necessary? A more productive approach might be to abandon the focus on the supposedly ultimate cause and instead seek out feasible solutions. Doing so requires an open-minded and flexible approach, one based on trying different paths and then assessing their results.

Focusing on race has the effect of deflecting attention from class; could it be that advocating for anti-racism is (among other things, of course) a way to compensate for or conceal one’s own class advantages – even from oneself? In such a manner, critical race theory can serve as a cudgel for elite Democrats.

In the United States, such an experimental approach to social problems is facilitated by the country’s federalist mode of governance. As Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis famously argued in 1932, federalism provides a “laboratory for democracy,” as different states can test different techniques. Unfortunately, federalism got a bad reputation after WWII when it was used by state’s right advocates to deny civil rights to African Americans. From a liberal perspective, essential human rights override state sovereignty at every turn. But for practical quandaries in which no unassailable rights are involved, the diversity of approaches allowed by America’s federal structure is a blessing. Equally important, federalism allows a country as large and diverse as the United States to function relatively smoothly, as different states can pursue the policies favored by their own electorates.

For the country as a whole, a unifying political message that can appeal to the broad but little-served center is desperately needed. I can only hope that leaders of both parties will seek such common grounds in the up-coming election cycles. I am not optimistic, however, especially in regard to the Democrats. In both major parties, centrism is often denigrated as the terrain of the mushy-minded political coward. But today the Democrats are especially scornful. In these pages I have crafted an argument that I hope will appeal to as many Americans as possible by taking as central a path as possible. But I anticipate very different reactions from the two main political camps (to the extent that this essay receives any attention). Many Republican thinkers will probably be intrigued, and a few might be supportive. Mainstream Democrats, on the other hand, are unlikely to be impressed. Leftists will probably respond with accusations of fascism.

To the extent that such predictions are accurate, it does not bode well for the future of the Democratic Party. In the post-Trump era, which will come either in a few months or a few years, the Republicans will be more easily able to appeal to the abiding electoral center. The Democrats will be prevented from doing so owing to the extremism of their large and growing leftwing contingent. Many years ago, party leaders decided that they should have no enemies on the left, as the radical fringe was an important component of their coalition. Today the party is beholden to the far left on all social and cultural issues, and it has nothing but contempt for the center. Eventually, a reckoning will be due.       


[1] Hartmann (2020). The Forbes 400: Conservatives and conservative philanthropy.

[2] Democratic theorists like Thomas Frank imagine that working-class Republicans vote consistently against their economic self-interests, but, as I argue later, they are largely mistaken.

[3] List of U.S. States by GIGI coefficient.

[4] Slottie (1990). Change in the U.S. Income Distribution from 1970 to 1980: Assessing State and Regional Impacts.

[5] Lucile Packard Foundation (2020). Annual Cost of Child Care, by Age Group and Facility Type.

[6] Wootton-Greener (2018). Report: Idaho’s average cost of infant care ranges from $6,264 to nearly $7,300 per year.

[7] Koop (2020). Smithsonian museum apologizes for saying hard work, rational thought is ‘white culture’.

[8] Fosco (2018). The most successful ethnic group in the United States might surprise you.

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