A Clear and Present Danger
American Purpose was founded to defend classical liberalism. The latter has been under attack in recent years from both the right and the left. On the right, the threat comes from the populist-nationalist Right, no more so than in the United States itself at the hands of Donald Trump and his MAGA movement. On the left, the threat is posed by an intolerant progressive Left that demands orthodoxy on a host of issues, particularly those related to race, ethnicity, gender, and gender identity. Among those of us in the center, there has been an ongoing debate as to which of these forces constitutes the greater threat to the liberal order. The center-right tends to think it comes from woke progressivism, and the center-left locates it at the opposite pole.
At the present moment, I don’t think there is any question that the biggest and most immediate threat by far comes from a conservative Right that has turned increasingly authoritarian. After Joe Biden’s victory in the November 2020 election, it appeared that American check-and-balance institutions had held, and that Donald Trump would gradually slip into irrelevance. Instead, the threat has morphed in bizarre and unpredictable ways. Bob Kagan has written a much-discussed article explaining that we are already in the midst of the most serious constitutional crisis since the Civil War, and that Democrats are being complacent in face of it. Trump himself did not come to accept his loss, and has succeeded in convincing a large majority of Republicans that he was the victim of major fraud in the election.
What it means to be a Republican and a conservative has shifted from any real policy principle to the most lost of all lost causes, opposition to vaccines. Republican lawmakers across the country are changing state-level voting rules to both limit access to likely Democratic voters, but more importantly to award themselves the right to determine the final slates of electors regardless of the outcome of the popular vote. Those few brave Republicans who stood up to Trump like Liz Cheney or Adam Kinzinger are one by one being purged from the party. Republicans continue to try to delegitimize the 2020 election through stunts like the Arizona so-called audit. The latter, as you probably know, showed that Biden actually won more votes than Trump than the official count had indicated. And yet, in our crazy house political world, the ex-President asserted that black was actually white, to enthusiastic cheers from the Georgia rally he was addressing.
Kagan is right that the Democrats are fiddling while Rome burns. They have spent their time over the past weeks fighting among themselves over the size of the human infrastructure bill. The progressive wing acts as if it had won a popular mandate comparable to the supermajorities possessed by the Democrats in 1932 or 1964. They seem not to have noticed that their party has gotten little credit for the massive Covid-relief package they already passed, or that they could hand Joe Biden a substantial victory by moving ahead quickly with the bipartisan infrastructure bill and de-linking it from reconciliation. Protecting the electoral process itself should be today’s number one priority, but that does not seem to be high on the party’s present agenda.
The threat to liberalism coming from the woke progressive Left is real, but of a very different character. By and large, the Left’s power is exercised culturally rather than politically. Most of the cancellations that have received so much attention, like the forced resignations of James Bennet or Donald McNeil at the New York Times, were not state actions but ones undertaken by private companies. A conservative friend of mine asserts that there is no freedom of speech left on American campuses. This is a huge exaggeration: left-wing illiberalism is largely confined to issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and gender-identity; on or off campus, Americans, unlike their Chinese or Russian counterparts, remain free to criticize their leaders on virtually any issue they choose. Political power has been used to enforce progressive orthodoxy by local school boards and through federal actions like Title IX enforcement, but these are a far cry from Republic legislators actively seeking to subvert the next election. Cultural power is real power: as suggested by the Netflix series The Chair, orthodoxy on campuses is often enforced by students who have absorbed progressive ideas, and who will go on to positions of power and influence later in their lives. But this is not a flashing red light signaling the demise of the U.S. constitutional order at the next election.
The two forms of illiberalism, right and left, do, however, interact. There are significant numbers of Republican voters—enough to determine swing-state elections—who are not full-on MAGA supporters, but who dislike and fear left-wing progressivism more than the right-wing variety, and will vote against the Democrats for that reason. Extremism thus reinforces itself in both wings. Ideas like distrust of scientific objectivity as a cloak for elite dominance and of the state as an elite conspiracy were prevalent on the left, and have gradually migrated over to the populist right.
We who want to defend the liberal order can debate Kagan’s piece and argue about the ultimate size of the threat to our institutions. But this is not one of those ordinary policy discussions we are used to having, like whether reconciliation should be $1.5 trillion or $3.5 trillion. Even if we think that the threat level has been somewhat exaggerated, the stakes here concern the American constitutional order itself and the future of liberal democracy globally, given the importance of the United States to that cause. This defense requires an all-hands-on-deck mobilization and singular focus on it in the coming weeks and months.
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