‘Moderates’ are Extremists, ‘Centrists’ are Right-Wingers

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the… great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Councilor or the Klu Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

We are used to a certain kind of cynical rhetoric from reactionaries. And we typically associate the reactionary mind with the right-wing, specifically those who identify as far right, such as militias, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. Or else right-libertarians who pretend to exist outside of or above the mainstream political spectrum. As such, there are authoritarian libertarians like Friedrich Hayek and Peter Thiel who claim to be ‘liberals’ while decrying democracy as mobocracy, claiming that they must use authoritarianism to protect against authoritarianism. This is the self-appointed ruling elite, the self-perceived enlightened aristocracy, our aspiring paternalistic overlords.

Yet this reactionary phenomenon is not limited to those ascribing to obviously dogmatic ideologies, as some of them would assert to have no ideology at all or at least never to admit to it, never describe themselves by a particular ideological label. Instead, they might call themselves ‘centrists’ in assuming and proclaiming their views as the defining ‘center’ of society, of politics, and of opinion — that is to say, they see the world, and maybe reality itself, as revolving around themselves and their interests, values, and agendas; one could more simply describe this as narcissism, probably often malignant narcissism. They own and work in, control and influence the forums of public debate, political rhetoric, and media narrative. Many of them are the professional politicians, media stars, public intellectuals, thought leaders, and social influencers of the so-called ‘mainstream’.

Most important, they are of the respectable class and the last defense of respectability politics, the presumed lesser evil that will hold the line against authoritarians and reactionaries, ideologues and extremists seeking power at all costs. It turns out that supposed moderate centrists pushing fear of division and extremism are themselves among the most divisive extremists. The center cannot hold because self-identified moderates and centrists don’t want to hold to democracy and public opinion. That is because, self-identity aside, they aren’t actually moderate or centrist. Going by public polling, from PRRI to Fox News, the ruling elite (primarily neocons and neoliberals) who create a false narrative of a moderate centrism are often closer to the far right than they’d like to admit. But as some other data shows, in certain ways, they can be even more anti-democratic than right-wing exremists.

This confirms a point that recently came up with the MAGA riots when some of the media elite finally took notice that the rioters were largely middle class professionals: business owners, real estate agents, etc; even police officers and military officers or veterans. These are among the respectable as separate from those Hillary Clinton maligned as the “basket of deplorables.” Yet these people were spouting QAnon conspiracy theories, joining in with militant groups, attacking the Capitol police, and threatening the lives of democratically-elected leaders. They don’t fit the stereotype of ‘white trash’, gun-toting rednecks and cousin-marrying hillbillies, in that the main demographic of Donald Trump’s voters were assumed to have been poor whites and rural whites. Yet even before the 2016 election, all of the data showed the largest segment of Trump supporters was middle class. Sure, they were largely lower middle class, but nonetheless above average in education and income, many of them urbanites and with the strongest support in suburbia.

This shouldn’t surprise us, but the corporate media and political elites refused to acknowledge this for the longest time. This middle class, according to the ‘mainstream’ narrative, is supposed to be the middle of society — the great moderating force, what is considered the central pillar of a healthy and stable social order, in a social Darwinian economy where wealth and socioeconomic class is taken as a sign of moral character and social worth. Yet, when we look back at history, the middle class could be found behind many examples of authoritarian demagoguery or seizures of power, such as the Klan and the Nazis. The same pattern continues to be seen around the world, not only in the industrialized West. “Strongmen in the developing world have historically found support in the center,” writes David Adler. “From Brazil and Argentina to Singapore and Indonesia, middle-class moderates have encouraged authoritarian transitions to bring stability and deliver growth” (Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists).

Here is some advice. When you hear increasing numbers in the comortable classes defend a corrupt and failed political system, an undemocratic and oppressive status quo by declaring themselves ‘centrists’ and ‘moderates’ or, worse, non-ideological, run for the hills. We know where that leads and how it too often ends. Or rather, we know the beginning point from which it rarely departs. Such people aren’t in the center of anything other than maybe the center of the cyclone or the center of madness. According to the fish hook theory of politics, there are those defending egalitarianism and then there is everyone else, with the far right bending back toward the reactionary faux-center. There is no way to be moderate on egalitarianism and freedom, justice and fairness. One is either for democratic self-governance and the will of the people or against it. There is no third option.

* * *

When we say ‘moderate,’ what we really mean is ‘what corporations want.’

David Broockman

There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.

Jim Hightower

The rise of the anti-democratic ‘centrists’
by Phil Ebersole

If you call yourself a centrist, you mean that you’re reasonably satisfied with the status quo.

And the status quo is a government in which, according to the Princeton Study, legislators respond to the wishes of the economic elite and organized interest groups, but not at all to public opinion.

It is not surprising that so many self-described centrists feel threatened by the rise of populism and want to create gatekeepers to keep the voting public from getting out of hand.

Epilogue: In defense of disruptive democracy—A critique of anti-populism
by Robert Howse

“Populism” is usually and pejoratively defined by the anti-populist elites to imply nativism, anti-liberalism, and anti-pluralism. This has little to do with many of today’s powerful critiques of and challenges to elite liberal democratic politics. Defenders of elite or “centrist” liberal democratic politics present a false choice between restoration or renewal of elite politics and a populist slide into authoritarianism and xenophobia. There is an important agenda of democratic reform disrupting elite liberal democratic politics, and anti-populism is not an authentic response to it. Radical democrats and democratic reformers, such as US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, are not apostles of mob rule, contrary to the frequent caricature proposed by centrist liberal democrats in their “anti-populist” pose. They see an appropriate role for institutions such as independent courts as well as for experts in a stronger democracy.

On campus censorship: it looks like we’ve been deceived
by Aleph Skoteinos

While we’re still here, I’ve also discovered some research conducted by a political scientist named Justin Murphy, specifically an article titled “Who Is Afraid of Free Speech in the United States?”, and it turns out that the far-left are nowhere near as averse to freedom of speech as you would be lead to believe nowadays. His research showed that “extreme liberals” (possibly referring to hard-leftists given America’s bastardized political lexicon) are actually the most supportive of freedom of speech within the broad political spectrum, and that the centre-left (or slightly left) and the far-right, not the far-left, are the groups most opposed to freedom of speech. In a way this finding kind of dovetails with a recent New York Times article which showed that centrists, rather than extremists, are statistically the least supportive towards democracy (which is ironic considering the New York Times is one of the archetypal liberal centrist outlets).

No one’s less moderate than moderates
by Ezra Klein

“When we say moderate what we really mean is what corporations want,” Broockman says. “Within both parties there is this tension between what the politicians who get more corporate money and tend to be part of the establishment want — that’s what we tend to call moderate — versus what the Tea Party and more liberal members want.”

That’s the problem with using a term that doesn’t describe either an identifiable group of voters or a clearly defined ideology to describe policies. “Moderate” is simultaneously one of the most powerful and least meaningful descriptions in politics — and it’s become little more than a tool the establishment uses to set limits on the range of acceptable debate. It’s time to get rid of it.

“Centrism” is an ideology, too
by Bill Knight

Writing about Schultz, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman said, “Despite his demonstrable policy ignorance, his delusions follow conventional centrist doctrine … furiously opposed to any proposal that would ease the lives of ordinary Americans. The most disruptive, dangerous extremists are on the Right. But there’s another faction whose obsessions and refusal to face reality have also done a great deal of harm: fanatical centrists. The hallmark of fanatical centrism is the determination to see America’s Left and Right as equally extreme, no matter what they actually propose.” […]

Locally, centrism may be found in hesitating to become a “sanctuary city,” a municipality where local resources aren’t spent to enforce controversial federal immigration laws. Statewide, centrism seeks to avoid “rocking the boat” over redistricting by the political party in control to favor that party or discourage opposition.

Nationally, centrists on domestic issues put their faith in the “free market,” Federal Reserve or corporations to stabilize an economy instead of recognizing economic classes and people’s needs. Internationally, centrists see other nations supporting terrorism or destabilizing regions; views U.S. military or diplomatic interference as justified; considers interventions in Iraq, Yemen, Venezuela and dozens of other countries as in the national interest; and labels some foreign leaders as allies or tyrants (or both, at different times), depending on their usefulness to multinationals’ financial interests.

Centrists may blast Russian oligarchs or Canadian health-care providers, but they’re reluctant to address the U.S. elite or to criticize the commercial approach to treating and healing Americans.

Again, being middle-of-the-road doesn’t mean civility or bipartisanship as much as protecting the way things are, claiming that “the system works” or seeing foreign affairs exclusively through red-white-and-blue glasses.

(For its part, the mainstream press so easily falls into the centrist line that they uncritically repeat government propaganda, almost like state-run media.)

One Big Thing the Dems Get Wrong About Warren
by John F. Harris

The most consequential history is usually not driven by the center.

As Bill Clinton began his second term, before the eruption of the sex scandal, he spoke frequently of his desire to be a national unifier, and, quoting Scripture, a “repairer of the breach.”

One skeptic was the great 20th century historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who knew and liked Clinton, but was deeply wary of middle-of-the-road politics. “Great presidents,” he told me, “are unifiers mostly in retrospect.”

In their own times, he noted, they divide the country over large questions—slavery, civil rights, the proper role of government versus the private sector—and only later “unite the country at a new level of understanding.”

How ‘Centrist Bias’ Hurts Sanders and Warren
by David Leonhardt
[with slight corrections added]

Centrist bias, as I see it, confuses the idea of centrism (which is very much an ideology) with objectivity and fairness. It’s an understandable confusion, because American politics is dominated by the two major parties, one on the left [center right] and one on the right [far right] [with no main party representing the American majority on the left]. And the overwhelming majority of journalists at so-called mainstream outlets — national magazines, newspapers, public radio, the non-Fox television networks — really are doing their best to treat both parties fairly.

In doing so, however, they often make an honest mistake [that conveniently and consistently operates as the propaganda mode of the news]: They equate balance with the midpoint between the two parties’ ideologies [in holding to the ‘center’ of the political right of the transpartisan ruling elite]. Over the years, many press critics have pointed out one weakness of this approach: false equivalence, the refusal to consider the possibility that one side of an argument is simply (or mostly) right.

But that’s not the only problem. There’s also the possibility that both political parties have been wrong about something and that the solution, rather than being roughly halfway between their answers, is different from what either has been proposing.

This seemingly radical possibility turns out to be quite common, as the historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. — author of the classic book, “The Vital Center,” no less — pointed out. The abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights, the New Deal, civil rights for black Americans, Reagan’s laissez-faire revolution and same-sex marriage all started outside the boundaries of what either party favored [except that Reagan’s corporatism was simply an extension, if more extreme, of the prior corporatism in both parties; more of the same but worse]. “The most consequential history,” Harris wrote, “is usually not driven by the center.”

Political and economic journalism too often assumes otherwise and treats the center as inherently sensible. This year’s Democratic presidential campaign has been a good case study. The skeptical questions posed to the more moderate Democrats are frequently about style or tactics: Are you too old? Too young? Too rich? Too far behind in the polls? […]

Once you start thinking about centrist bias, you recognize a lot of it. It helps explain why the 2016 presidential debates focused more on the budget deficit, a topic of centrist zealotry, than climate change, almost certainly a bigger threat. (Well-funded deficit advocacy plays a role too.) Centrist bias also helps explain the credulousness of early coverage during the Iraq and Vietnam wars. Both Democrats and Republicans, after all, largely supported each war.

The world is more surprising and complicated than centrist bias imagines it to be.

People worry that ‘moderate’ Democrats like Joe Biden are the same as Republicans. Our study suggests they may be right
by Kevin Singer and Alyssa Rockenbach

Strikingly, in almost every case, the responses of moderate men are very similar to conservative men and women. Their level of agreement with the statements above is as much as 14 percent lower than moderate women, who are more likely than men to lean Democratic, or liberal men and women.

This IDEALS finding is on par with a recent Gallup study encompassing over 29,000 interviews with American adults, which revealed that moderates and conservatives remain closely aligned in their ideological preferences.

This raises important questions heading into the election: Is a moderate male candidate a bait-and-switch for Democratic voters? Are they actually casting their votes for a conservative?×

That moderate men most resemble Republicans has been confirmed, of all places, on dating apps. Brittany Wong of HuffPost writes, “It’s almost become a coastal cliche at this point: If someone lists their political views as ‘moderate’ on a dating app, the thinking goes, go ahead and assume the person is a conservative.” One interviewee noted, “It’s just in my experience, even ‘moderate’ guys tend to have extremely different views on topics that matter to me, like gun control, women’s reproductive rights and immigration.” Sometimes, moderate men who appear to bend liberal turn out to be “faux woke,” according to one interviewee who was initially attracted to someone whose profile featured photos at a women’s march. Eventually “he slowly started to drop his facade,” revealing behaviors inconsistent with his professed political beliefs.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has grown increasingly frustrated with moderate Democrats during her tenure, saying at a recent event, “The Democratic Party is not a left party. The Democratic Party is a center or a center-conservative party.” Her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, recently deleted a tweet comparing two moderate Democrat coalitions — consisting mostly of men — to Southern Democrats who favored segregation and opposed civil rights. During this election cycle, a recurring criticism of Vice President Biden has been his record on school desegregation.

Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists
By Davd Adler

The warning signs are flashing red: Democracy is under threat. Across Europe and North America, candidates are more authoritarian, party systems are more volatile, and citizens are more hostile to the norms and institutions of liberal democracy.

These trends have prompted a major debate between those who view political discontent as economic, cultural or generational in origin. But all of these explanations share one basic assumption: The threat is coming from the political extremes.

On the right, ethno-nationalists and libertarians are accused of supporting fascist politics; on the left, campus radicals and the so-called antifa movement are accused of betraying liberal principles. Across the board, the assumption is that radical views go hand in hand with support for authoritarianism, while moderation suggests a more committed approach to the democratic process.

Is it true?

Maybe not. My research suggests that across Europe and North America, centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism. […]

What Does It Mean?

Across Europe and North America, support for democracy is in decline. To explain this trend, conventional wisdom points to the political extremes. Both the far left and the far right are, according to this view, willing to ride roughshod over democratic institutions to achieve radical change. Moderates, by contrast, are assumed to defend liberal democracy, its principles and institutions.

The numbers indicate that this isn’t the case. As Western democracies descend into dysfunction, no group is immune to the allure of authoritarianism — least of all centrists, who seem to prefer strong and efficient government over messy democratic politics.

Strongmen in the developing world have historically found support in the center: From Brazil and Argentina to Singapore and Indonesia, middle-class moderates have encouraged authoritarian transitions to bring stability and deliver growth. Could the same thing happen in mature democracies like Britain, France and the United States?

We Are All Egalitarians, and Always Have Been

Man is not man as yet,
Nor shall I deem his object served, his end
Attained, his genuine strength put fairly forth,
While only here and there a star dispels
The darkness. Here and there a towering mind
O’erlooks its prostrate fellows: when the host
Is out at once to the despair of night,
When all mankind alike is perfected,
Equal and full-blown powers – then, not till then,
I say, begins man’s general infancy.

Robert Browning, Paracelsus, 1835

What is egalitarianism?

It was suggested, half joking and half serious, that we are all white liberals now. There has been a radicalizing force within post-Enlightenment humanity that has manifested a particular strain of human potential, such that it has transformed our society and come to define the modern West, American society most of all in being founded on a liberal aspiration of revolutionary idealism. This has been previously explored in what kind of shared identity we are becoming in fulfilling an ancient moral vision, not initially even a promise but a mere whisper of a small voice of conscience first felt at the foundation of modern civilization as it was laid down during the Axial Age. That whisper was a tremor that became an earthquake that overturned society and now is settling back down into an unforeseen societal order clothed in new robes of moral imagination.

The beating heart of this inspiring, if tumultuous, moral vision is a profound and unshakeable sense of egalitarianism. It remains as radical today as it was in centuries and millennia past. But what does it mean and where does it come from? The conflict we are experiencing today in protests and revolt, even minor insurrection threatening far worse to come, is essentially the same conflict that arose in the Axial Age following the collapse of Bronze Age civilization and the breakdown of the bicameral mind. Archaic authorization was lost and a new kind of rule-based and brutally violent authoritarianism first emerged. That was what the Axial Age prophets were responding to, with Jesus arriving shortly after that period of the revolutionizing of the human psyche and identity.

Jesus Christ, like many Axial Age prophets before him, preached an egalitarianism that would come to rock the world starting as early as the Peasants’ Revolt in the Middle Ages when the Black Death disrupted the social order, kinship networks were being dismantled by the Catholic Church, and the enclosure movement began the erosion of feudalism (the clearest point of origin for the WEIRD culture of individualism; see Joseph Henrich’s The WEIRDest People in the World). The Peasants’ Revolt is what some consider the first modern revolution and class war. It presaged the far more radically transformative English Civil War that was the model of conflict from which the American revolutionaries took inspiration (see Kevin Phillips’ The Cousins’ Wars), and an early expression of proto-liberalism, proto-socialism, and proto-Marxism.

Looking back on the ancient world, what stands out is that Jesus didn’t passively resist, much less peacefully submit to worldly power. At one point, he even went so far as to have commited the greatest sin in the capitalist mind, in having committed property damage with his terrorizing the moneylenders by overthrowing their tables in the temple, a direct threat to the entrenched authority of the established social order and moral order. To the respectable elite and loyal citizens of the time, such an act was unimaginable and unacceptable, a defiance of all that was good and worthy. Jesus’ violence against property, within the ruling system of wealth and power, was as bad or worse than the regular violence of Roman authority in killing and torturing untold numbers of innocent people, a fate that would later befall Jesus as well; and so established the Christian tradition of martyrdom as inherited from the Stoics’ egalitarian re-envisioning of liberty as spiritual emancipation.

The elite response to Jesus at the time probably sounded a lot like Edmund Burke’s fear-ridden condemnation of the French revolutionaries in their daring to rise up against the nobility of robed power, in their having sought to disrobe monarchical authority so as to show it as the naked power it always was (or as the infamous Thomas Paine put it: “He pities the plumage, but forgets the dying bird”). Surely, many in first century Rome repeated the exact same false equivalency we hear today, that Jesus was a violent terrorist like those Jewish zealots called the Sicarii who sought to overthrow the Roman Empire with revolt and killings, equating property damage to deadly violence. This claim of false equivalency is based on an ancient claim of hierarchical power in its attempt to discredit and dismiss those who challenge it from below. That is because the same fundamental conflict remains unresolved not only in society at large but, more importantly, within the human psyche.

It’s a deep and profound sense of divide within us that gets expressed in our social relations and the social order. That is why, even after all these millennia later, it still feels like a raw wound. We’ve never recovered from what was lost with the archaic bicameral mind. One can sense what that earlier mindset must have been like by looking at some simpler societies. The Piraha exemplify this with their radical sense of communal solidarity and egalitarianism, along with their more fluid sense of identity. They express none of the oppressive anxiety and violent authoritarianism that defines the modern world. They are far from the only example of this expression of human nature. It maybe should teach us something fundamental about our shared humanity. Egalitarianism isn’t juat another modern ideal invented by intellectuals. It is the core principle of human nature that we’ve forgotten. But in our rigidly hierarchical and hyper-individualistic society, we don’t know how to healthily express this egalitarian impulse.

In denying our own nature, what results is endless conflict. The answer some offer is to further suppress the impulse and to project it onto radicals as scapegoats, as if egalitarianism itself could be cast out from respectable society, something inconvenient and unecessary as with the surgical removal of a vestigial organ. This is a way of disidentifying from the egalitarianism that is so threatening not because it’s imposed from the outside by radical totalitarian dogmatism but because this primal force of moral truth keeps emerging from within. This conflict gets expressed as violence all around. How can we imagine a peaceful society when we refuse to accept the very essence of our own human nature? The first and greatest violence is the disconnection from and denial of this most fundamental moral command of spiritual authorization. We are at war with ourselves and our whole society is built on this anxiety-inducing conflict.

Egalitarianism isn’t and never was simply about modern left-wing ideology as formed out of the revolutionary philosophies of post-Enlightenment thinkers, dreamers, and activists. Egalitarianism isn’t an abstract ideal for it is rooted within us. To attempt to remove it would be to destroy our collective soul, an act akin to ripping out our heart. We don’t hold egalitarianism as a value and principle, as a vision and worldview. Egalitarianism, rather, is who we are. There is no ‘left’ and ‘right’, no division between a set of egalitarian political ideologies and what supposedly opposes them. To oppose egalitarianism would be insanity because it would be to oppose ourselves. Egalitarianism can’t be denied. Rather than a ‘left’ and ‘right’, there is simply and fundamentaly the egalitarian center of our being. To embrace this revolutionary radicialism (i.e., to return to the root) would mean to become fully human. That is the only centrism, moderate or otherwise, that has any meaning.

We need to become fiercely passionate and compassionate, to know with absolute certainty and hold with unswerving conviction the truth of who we are and who we have always been, in speaking to who we may yet become. Egalitarianism isn’t to be forced onto the world by mere social change, protest movements, and political action but, first and foremost, to be remembered and resurrected as our birthright, a gnostic unforgetting of ultimate reality (anamnesis), the awakening to the source of our humanity like a thirst-quenching spring bursting forth from a crack in ancient stone. This moral vision of faith and truth, of freedom and fairness can never be denied or destroyed. No matter how many are killed by authoritarian power, no matter how much oppression is enforced, egalitarianism itself cannot be defeated as long as there is a single human left breathing.

The proof of egalitarianism is in our heart and soul, in each of us and in all of us, irrefutably verified and proven in our own direct experience, felt in the solid ground of our shared being. The echo of archaic authorization is heard in our longing for freedom, a piercing ache that can cripple us with fear, anxiety and nostalgia or inspire us with hope and promise. No matter how lost we can feel in our shared struggles against those who seek to divide and isolate us, may we choose hope again and again; and, however difficult to grasp, may we never forget the promise of egalitarianism, of fairness and freedom, the solidarity of fellow-feeling and spiritual kinship that lifts us out of darkness into the open light of moral vision.

We are all egalitarians. We are a truly free people, the very expression of the egalitarian, a living faith. Let our actions be our prayer, the embodiment of hope’s fulfilment. This is not an endpoint but a beginning, a neverending revolution of the mind, an eternal return of what was never lost, the kingdom all around us. What is true within human nature is the truth of humanity as part of nature, as part of the world out of which we formed. We are not wandering alone in the unknown, not refugees in a foreign land. In listening to this voice of moral authorization, it tells us that we belong, that we are at home in the world, that we are welcome among friends. It is a simple assurance and sense of trust, a faith in humanity.

This is egalitarianism.

For you are all children of God in the Spirit.
There is no Jew or Greek;
There is no slave or free;
There is no male and female.
For you are all one in the Spirit.

Based on Galations 3:28, Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

John Ball, 1381 sermon at Blackheath, after his release from prison during the Peasants’ Revolt

We Are All White Liberals Now

“Before asking who should speak for liberalism, we should note that liberalism is doing very well on its own account. Almost everyone is a liberal, although nobody likes the label. This is largely because no matter what sort of liberal you are, there is another sort of liberal that you are not. . . In political terms, liberals are citizens of anywhere and therefore citizens of nowhere. They are the Ishmaels of political life, the wandering spirits, an influence in all tribes but a dominant force in none.”

Philip Collins, How did the word “liberal” become a political insult?

I previously criticized Zach Goldberg’s article on white liberals. He wanted to make them out to seem like not only extremist ideologues but also psychologically abnormal. At times, it comes across as a soft-pedalled conservative diatribe, but some of his analysis brings up some good points.

It’s even more interesting when we ignore his conclusion and, instead, acknowledge that the average American is in general agreement with white liberals. White liberals may be a minority in the strict sense, particularly limiting ourselves to self-identified liberals, but “white liberalism” apparently has become the majority position. We are all white liberals now or most of us are, including an increasing number of non-whites and non-liberals. Embrace your inner white liberal!

Anyway, the relevant takeway is that a real change is happening. I don’t know that white liberals are the canary in the coal mine or otherwise deserving of special treatment. But because the mainstream is so obsessed with them, they get all the credit and blame for so much that is happening. So, looking at this one demographic might tell us something about Americans in general and where American society is heading.

Considering most Americans are further left than the mainstream would like to admit, this really isn’t fundamentally an issue of white liberalism at all, of course. It’s just a way of distracting from the decades-long leftward lurch of public opinion and a shifting psychological profile of personality traits and moral values. That is all the more reason to look at what is happening among white liberals, if we take them as representative of something far broader. For all the condemnation they get, and some of it deserved, they are fascinating creatures.

Supposedly, for the first time in history, there is a demographic that has a pro-outgroup bias. White liberals state a more positive view of those not like them than those like them. What is not mentioned are other demographics like non-white liberals and leftists who might show this tendency even more strongly. There isn’t necessarily anything special about white liberals. It’s simply liberal-mindedness taking ever stronger hold in the American psyche and this showing up clearly first in particular demographics.

Goldberg speculates that the cause is the internet. White liberals are leading the way in embracing the new media, although that is probably true of social liberals in general (black liberals, Asian-American libertarians, Latinx social democrats, etc). Social liberals tend to be the most liberal-minded in being open to new experiences (FFM Openness, MBTI Intuition, etc). That openness, in this age of media proliferation, contributes to greater exposure to different views and ideas. For all our fear that social media feeds into echo chambers of disinfo and extremism, so far the internet has also been a powerful force of liberalization.

It’s easy to forget how radically liberal our society has become. Most American conservatives today are more liberal or even leftist than the average liberal was maybe only a century ago. So much of what we’ve come to regularly question, doubt, and challenge was simply accepted as normal reality and undeniable truth not that long ago. The American majority, white and non-white, is now far to the left of John Locke, the prototype of Anglo-American white liberalism. In place of that earliest and most respectable expression of Enlightenment thought, we are ever more embracing the radical and rabblerousing liberal vision of Thomas Paine, the most important American founder now forgotten.

We can be transformed by this revolutionary liberal-mindedness or we can be shaped in reaction to it. But in either case, it has come to define our entire society. Indeed, we have all become white liberals, whatever that means. The white liberal is the symbolic force and totemic spirit of American society. Let us not forget, though, that the underlying moral potency of this white liberalism was always built around the radical other, slowly but surely brought into the fold in redefining not only what it means to be American but, more importantly, what it means to be human.

The threat and promise of a more inclusive empathy and more expansive identity was always the seed of irritation around which the pearl of idealism grew, from the Axial Age to the modern revolutionary era. In the egalitarian conviction of Thomas Paine, maybe we are coming closer to the time when we can all declare that we are citizens of the world. Imagine a global society where nearly everyone had a pro-outgroup bias, where a compassionate sense of the other was the moral mirror that we held up to ourselves, where we finally lived up to Jesus’ radical teaching that we are judged by the treatment of the least among us. Imagine…

* * *

America’s White Saviors
by Zach Goldberg

The Moral Foundations of the Modern White Liberal

A large body of work in this field consistently finds that liberals score significantly higher than conservatives on the personality trait “agreeableness” and more specifically on its sub-dimension of “compassion.” In social science studies like these, agreeableness represents the tendency to be altruistic, tender-minded, cooperative, trusting, forgiving, warm, helpful, and sympathetic. The trait is closely linked with empathy and compassion toward the suffering of others. […]

A substantial line of research reveals that, out of these moral considerations, liberals generally attach the most importance to the foundations of harm/care and fairness. While conservatives also tend to rate these foundations as important, their moral compass is broader and includes a greater concern for violations of purity (e.g., “whether or not someone was able to control his or her desires”), loyalty (e.g., “whether or not someone did something to betray his or her group”), and authority (e.g., “whether or not someone respected the traditions of society”). As with empathy, the liberal concern for harm/care and fairness relates to a larger set of targets (e.g., animals, the needy in other countries) than it does for conservatives, who are generally more concerned with threats to the in-group. The liberal conception of ‘harm’ is also far broader, which lowers the threshold at which their moral alarms are triggered.

[…] white liberals—especially the self-identified “very liberal”—are significantly more likely to report intense or extremely frequent feelings of tenderheartedness, protectiveness, and sensitivity when considering the circumstances of racial and ethnic out-group members. A related graph below displays the average differences in feelings of warmth (measured along a 0-100 scale) toward whites vs. nonwhites (i.e., Asians, Hispanics, and blacks) across different subgroups.

Remarkably, white liberals were the only subgroup exhibiting a pro-outgroup bias—meaning white liberals were more favorable toward nonwhites and are the only group to show this preference for group other than their own. Indeed, on average, white liberals rated ethnic and racial minority groups 13 points (or half a standard deviation) warmer than whites. As is depicted in the graph below, this disparity in feelings of warmth toward ingroup vs. outgroup is even more pronounced among whites who consider themselves “very liberal” where it widens to just under 20 points. Notably, while white liberals have consistently evinced weaker pro-ingroup biases than conservatives across time, the emergence and growth of a pro-outgroup bias is actually a very recent, and unprecedented, phenomenon.

Not surprisingly, data from the American National Elections Studies (ANES) shows white liberals scoring significantly higher on measures of ‘white privilege awareness’ (e.g., ‘how much does being white grant you unearned privileges in today’s society?’) and ‘white guilt’ (e.g., ‘how guilty do you feel about the privileges and benefits you receive as a white American?’). Both of these variables are strongly correlated with measures of liberal racial sympathy (or what is more traditionally referred to as ‘low racial resentment’)–the white liberal scores on which reached an ANES-high in 2016. Previous research has shown that these collective moral emotions, triggered by historical wrongdoing and perceptions that an in-group’s advantages and privileges are illegitimate, can can increase support for reparative and humanitarian social policies. That is exactly what has happened in recent years as white liberals have become increasingly supportive of affirmative actionreparations, and increased immigration.

The Social Media Accelerant

[…] Data from the General Social Survey reveals a roughly 170% increase in the number of weekly hours, from 5 to 13.6, that people reported spending on the internet between 2000-2018. Between 2006 and 2018, the percentage of respondents listing the internet as their primary news source jumped roughly 33 percentage points from 14.2% to 47.6%. Turning to social media, data I pooled from the Pew Research Center shows a similar increase in the percentage of people reporting social media use between 2008-2016, from 34.8% to 73%. These increases have occurred among all whites, regardless of political affiliation, but not to the same degree. White liberals place ahead of conservatives on every one of these measures of internet use and social media exposure. They spend significantly more weekly hours on the internet; are significantly more likely to list the internet as their primary news source; and significantly more likely to consume news from and be politically active on social media. A 2016 Pew Racial Attitudes survey further shows that of the 74% of white liberals (vs. 55% of white conservatives) reporting social media use, roughly 44% (vs. 30% of white conservatives) say that at least some of the posts are about race or race relations. And, more generally, 70% of white liberals (vs. 51% of white conservatives) report discussing race relations or racial inequality with others either “sometimes” (39%) or “often” (31%).

An analysis of GoogleTrends data, graphed below, shows that the frequency of searches for race-related and “woke” terms has grown substantially since the beginning of the decade—a period that happens to coincide with the social media boom and the emergence of so-called hashtag activism (e.g., Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter). This period also saw the rise of the Huffington Post—an online progressive blog and news site that prolifically opines on race-related issues. Whereas just 13% of white liberals reported regularly visiting the site in 2012, over 30% did in 2016. A similar pattern is observed for digital readership of The New York Times (NYT), which grew from 16% to 31% among white liberals between 2012 and 2016—during this same period, according to a recent content analysis I conducted—the percentage of Times articles mentioning race-related and woke terms saw unprecedented growth. For instance, whereas just 0.4% (or 334) of articles referred to racism in 2012, this figure had doubled by 2015 (to 0.87% or 813) and reached over 2% (or 2,353) by 2018. Interestingly, the number of monthly NYT articles mentioning racism also closely tracks Google search interest in the term.

Cultural Freedom, Legal Liberty

The following is more thoughts on the contrast between Germanic ‘freedom’ and Latin ‘liberty’ (see previous post: Libertarian Authoritarianism). The one is a non-legal construct of a more general culture, whereas the other is specifically a legal construct that was adapted to other ends, from philosophical ideal to spiritual otherworldliness as salvific emancipation. One important point is that liberty is specifically defined as not being a slave according to the law, but freedom is not directly or necessarily about slavery since freedom is more about what you are than what you are not. Though Germanic tribes had slaves, they weren’t fundamentally slave-based societies in the legal sense and economic structure of the Roman Empire.

Furthermore, the distinction is partly that ‘freedom’, as a word and a concept, developed in a pre-literate society of Germanic tribes, from which it was imported into England and carried to the American colonies. This freedom was expressed in informal practices of proto-democracy such as out-of-doors politics where people met on the commons to discuss important matters, a tradition that originated in northern Europe. Latin, on the other hand, was a language of literacy and the Roman Empire was one of the most literate societies in the ancient world. Our understanding of ‘liberty’ is strongly influenced by surviving ancient texts written by the literate elite, but the more common sense of ‘freedom’ was, in the past, mostly passed on by the custom of spoken language.

On a related note, Hanna Arendt was on the mind recently. She spent her early life in Germany, but, as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, she had strong opinions about certain issues. By the time Arendt was growing up in 20th century Germany, I’m not sure how much of the premodern Germanic notion of freedom remained, but maybe the underlying culture persisted. It meant, as noted, belonging to a free people; and that was part of the problem, as the Jews were perceived as not belonging. The old cultural meaning of freedom was not part of formal laws of a large centralized nation-state with a court system. One was either free as being a member or not, as it was defined more by sociocultural relationships and identity.

What was lacking was the complex legalistic and political hierachy of the Roman Empire where there were all kinds of nuances, variations, and complexities involving one’s sociopolitical position. Being a Roman slave or a Roman citizen (or something in between), as a legal status, primarily was defined by one’s relationship to the state. Liberty was also an economic matter that signified one owned oneself, as opposed to being owned by another. The metaphor of ownership was not a defining feature of Germanic freedom.

The problem the Jewish people had with the Nazis was a legal issue. The civil rights they once possessed as German citizens suddenly were gone. The civil rights, Arendt argued, that the government gives could likewise be taken away by the government. Something else was required to guarantee and protect human value and dignity. Maybe that has to do with a culture of trust, what she felt was lacking or something related to it. The Nazis, though, were maybe all about a culture of trust, even if Jews were not in their circle of trust. Mere legalities such as civil rights were secondary as expressions of culture, rather than culture being shaped by a law system as part of legalistic traditions and mindset.

Arendt may never have considered the difference between liberty and freedom. It would’ve been interesting if she could have drawn upon the cultural history of the ancient Germanic tradition of freedom as community membership, which resonates with the older worldview of a commons. Liberty, as originating within a legalistic mindset, has no greater authority to proclaim outside of law, be it actual law (the state) or law as metaphor (natural law). Even invoking natural law, as Stoics did, can be of limited power; but it was used with greater force when wielded by radical-minded revolutionaries to challenge human law.

A deeper understanding of culture is what is missing, both the benefits and the harms. Maybe the Nazis were going by that culture of freedom and the Jews, as a perceived different culture, simply did not belong and so were deemed a threat. In a culture demanding a sense of belonging to a shared identity, difference could not be tolerated and diversity not allowed. Certain kinds of legalistic systems, on the other hand, can incorporate multiculturalism as seen with the Roman Empire and Napoleon’s French Empire, the military of the latter having consisted of soldiers that were primarily non-French. One can legally have citizenship and civil rights without having to share culture.

Also, it might be similar to how different ethnic groups can belong to the same larger Catholic Church, while Protestant traditions have more often been ethnic or nation specific. Catholicism, after all, developed directly out of Roman imperialism. It is true that Catholicism does have more of a legalistic structure to its hierarchy and practices. It was the legalistic view of buying indulgences as an economic contract with the Church as representative of a law-making God that was a major complaint in the Protestant Reformation. Protestants, concentrated in Northwestern Europe, preferred religion to have a more personal and communal expression that was concretely embodied in the congregation, not in a churchly institution of rules and rituals.

Like the Germans, the Scandinavians (and Japanese) have also emphasized the cultural approach. This common culture can allow for effective social democracies but also effective totalitarian regimes. Maybe that is why the American Midwest of Germanic and Scandinavian ancestry was the birthplace of the American Melting Pot, sometimes a cultural assimilation enforced by violent threat and punishment (English only laws, Second Klan, etc); and indeed some early Midwestern literature portrayed the homogenizing force of oppressive conformity. To the Midwestern mind, American identity too often became a hegemony (even making claims upon Standard American English), but at the same time anyone who assimilated (in being allowed to assimilate) was treated as equal. Some have noted that American-style assimilation has allowed immigration to be less of a problem than seen with the more common practice of housing segregation in Europe.

So, it might not be an accident that Southerners always were the most resistant to assimilate to mainstream American culture, while also being resistant to Northerner’s notions of equality. The hierarchical society of the South does to an extent allow populations to maintain their separate cultures and identities, but does so through a long history of enforced segregation and discrimination of racial laws. That is why there is still a separate black culture and Scots-Irish culture of the lower classes, as separate from the Cavalier culture of the ruling class — it’s separate and unequal; i.e. liberty. Assimilation is not an option, even if one wanted to, but the nature of the overall culture disinclines people from wanting it, as seen in how Southerners have continued to self-segregate themselves long after segregation laws ended.

The Southern emphasis on individual liberty is because it’s generally the individual who relates to the state and it’s laws. The communal aspect of life, in the South, is not found in governance so much as in kinship and church. That is the difference in how, particularly in the Midwest, the Northern attitude tends to more closely mix community and governance, as communal is more seen as cutting across all groups that are perceived as belonging (maybe why kinship and church is less central in the Midwest; and related to the emphasis on the nuclear family first promoted by the Quakers from the Scandinavian-settled English Midlands). Ethnic culture in the Midwest has disappeared more quickly than in the South. But this greater communal identity also defines individuality as more cultural than legal.

Legalistic individuality, in the modern world, is very capitalist in nature or otherwise expressed in material forms. Liberty-minded individualism is about self-ownership and the propertied self. To own oneself means to not be owned by another. That is why Thomas Jefferson saw individual freedom in terms of yeoman farming where an individual owned land, as property defined freedom. The more property one has, the more liberty one has as an individual; because one is independent by not being a dependent on others but rather to make others dependent. This relates to how, during the colonial era, the Southern governments gave more land based on their number of dependents (family, indentured servants, and slaves).

That is why a business owner and others in the propertied class have greater individuality in having the resources to act with less constraint, specifically in legal terms as money and power have always gone hand in hand, particularly in the South. A factory owner with hundreds of employees has more liberty-minded individuality, in the way did a plantation aristocrat with hundreds of slaves. Inequality before the legal system of power and privilege is what defines liberty. That explains how liberty has taken on such potent significance, as it has been tightly controlled as a rare commodity. Yet the state of dependence is more closely connected to liberty in general, as even aristocrats were trapped within societal expectations and obligations of social role. Liberty is primarily about one’s legal status and formal position, which can be a highly structured individuality — maybe why Stoics associated the ideal of liberty with the love of fate in denying free will.

As African-American culture was shaped in the South, this legalistic mentality might be why the black movement for freedom emphasized legal changes of civil rights, initially fighting for the negative freedom (i.e., liberty) of not being actively oppressed. They wanted equality before the law, not equality as assimilated cultural membership — besides, whites were more willing to assent to the former than the latter. This same legalistic mentality might go the heart of why Southerners are so offended by what they describe as illegal immigrants, whereas Northerners are more likely to speak of undocumented immigrants. This is typically described as being ideological, conservatism versus liberalism, but maybe it’s more having to do with the regional divide between the legalistic mind and the cultural mind where ideological identities have become shaped by regional cultures.

There is also a divide in the ideological perception of protest culture, a democratic phenomenon more common in the North than the South. To the Southern mind, there is an old fear about totalizing ideologies of the North, whereas their own way of life is thought of as a non-ideological tradition. Liberal rhetoric is more grounded in the culture of freedom as more all-encompassing ideological worldview than coherent ideological system as embodied in Southern legalism. This makes it more acceptable to challenge laws in the North because culture informs the legal system more than the other way around; that is to say, law is secondary (consider the living, as opposed to legalistic, interpretation of the Constitution that has it’s origins in Quaker constitutionalism; a constitution is a living agreement of a living generation, not the dead hand of law). That is maybe why there is the conservative pushback against a perceived cultural force that threatens their sense of liberty, as the culture of freedom is more vague and pervasive in its influence. The conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism is maybe the conservative’s attempt to grasp this liberal-minded culture that feels alien to them.

Liberty and freedom is part of an old Anglo-American dialogue, a creative flux of ideas.To lop off one side would be to cripple American society, and yet the two remain uneasy and unresolved in their relationship. Sadly, it’s typically freedom (i.e., positive freedom and sociocultural freedom) that gets the short shrift in how both the left and right too often became caught up in political battles of legalistic conflicts over civil rights and court cases, even to the point that the democratic process becomes legalistic in design; with the culture of freedom and democracy being cast aside. Consider the power that has grown within the Supreme Court to decide not only political but also economic and social issues, cultural and moral issues (e.g., abortion). As democracy has weakened and legalism further taken hold, we’ve forgotten about how freedom and democracy always were first and foremost about culture with politics being the result, not the cause. The gut-level sense of freedom remains in the larger culture, but the liberty-minded legalism has come to rule the government, as well as the economy. That is why there can be such clashes between police and protesters, as each embodies a separate vision of America; and this is why property damage is always featured in the corporate media’s narrative about protests.

The ideal of freedom has such power over the mind. It harkens back to an earlier way of living, a simpler form of society. Freedom as culture is a shared experience of shared identity, maybe drawing upon faint memories of what Julian Jaynes called the bicameral mind. When the Bronze Age was coming to an end, a new kind of rule-based legalism emerged, including laws literally etched into stone as never before seen. But the mentality that preceded it didn’t entirely disappear. We know of it in ourselves from a sense of loss and nostalgia we have a hard time pinpointing. That is why freedom is such a vague concept, as opposed to liberty’s straightforward definition. We are haunted by the promise of freedom, but without quite knowing what it would mean to be free. Our heavy reliance on systems of liberty is, in a sense, a failure to protect and express some deep longing within us, the simple but undeniable need to belong.

MSM Spin On White Liberals

From Tablet Magazine, Zach Goldberg writes about white liberals, what he calls America’s White Saviors. This is an example of how corporate media slants their reporting on public opinion. In this case, the author focuses on one narrow demograpic of race and ideology, so as to isolate it and make it seem far left, while ignoring that the majority of Americans agree with white liberals on most major issues. I’ll break it down and respond to it piece by piece.

“In one especially telling example of the broader trend, white liberals recently became the only demographic group in America to display a pro-outgroup bias—meaning that among all the different groups surveyed white liberals were the only one that expressed a preference for other racial and ethnic communities above their own.”

This isn’t surprising. Going back many years, I’ve seen data like this. In social science research from earlier last century, it was well known that liberals had stronger pro-outgroup bias. From some years back, one survey showed liberals had greater empathy for foreign noncombatants killed by US soldiers than for US soldiers.

There has always been a subset of people with a strong pro-outgroup bias, although Goldberg is correct to point out that this is growing. But in a way that is the whole history of the United States. Thomas Paine, in arguing for Independence from the British Empire, made an outgroup argument that a large part of American colonists weren’t English, including the majority in his adopted home of Pennsylvania.

“In the past five years, white liberals have moved so far to the left on questions of race and racism that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.”

That is not entirely meaningful. Why compare an ideological demographic with a purely racial demographic? The fact of the matter is black liberals would, generally speaking, be further to the left of white liberals on most issues and particularly on issues of race and racism. This framing feels manipulative, an exercise in sophistry.

“They are also tied to a significant decrease in support for Israel and—perhaps more surprisingly—a rise in the number of white liberals who express negative attitudes about the perceived political power of American Jews.”

I doubt most white liberals have any issue with “perceived political power of American Jews” in and of itself. Rather, it’s probably an opposition to the colonial Apartheid of Zionism. As far as that goes, Jewish liberals tend to oppose Zionism as well and probably are even more critical than white liberals. Once again, why isolate white liberals in the way others isolate rural whites to scapegoat them?

Later in the artcle, the author points out that white liberals retain a strong favorability toward Jews. In fact, their favorability is stronger than that of white moderates and white conservatives toward Jews. As for ranking of advantage and disadvantage, all whites (liberal, moderate, and conservative) put Jews about smack dab in the middle. And the white liberal ranking of Jews relative to other demographic groups is about the same as white moderates, the two combined being the view of most whites in general.

“As white liberals have come to place far greater emphasis on racial injustice, they have also endorsed reparative race-related social policies in greater numbers.”

That is about right. As a white liberal, I’ve personally followed this trend. I was raised by white conservatives in the racist Deep South. I didn’t understand racism when I was younger and probably expressed unconscious racism all the time. But I educated myself and expanded my social experience. Any informed person is forced to admit that there will never be justice until there is some form of compensation for the harm done and continuing to be done, whatever that might mean. That doesn’t particularly radical to me, just common sense, as Thomas Paine thought the theft of the Commons should be compensated with a land tax.

“The woke elite act like white saviors who must lead the rest of the country, including the racial minorities whose interests they claim to represent, to a vision of justice the less enlightened groups would not choose for themselves.”

That comes across as bullshit. The author points out that minorities, even minority Democrats and liberals, are not as strongly supportive of certain issues about immigration. Sure, there is variation depending on the particular issue, but that ignores the general agreement. On immigration, the majority of every racial demographic of Democrats and liberals supports the same positions on immigration, if some support it stronger than others. Also, the vast majority of Democrats and liberals of all races agree that diversity makes the US a better place to live.

One area of divergence was on whether one sympathizes more with Israelis or Palestinians. Minorities in general seem to sympathize more with Israelis. But this sympathy has been dropping for minorities as well. And by 2018, most minority Democrats and liberals had no opinion at all in sympathizing with either side. Another issue of even less disagreement is abortion. The majority of white and Hispanic Democrats think women should be able to get an abortion under any condition, but only about half of black Democrats think so. Then again, most Americans in general, including most blacks, do support abortion in all or most cases. So, why show the most extreme scenario to portray a false division?

As for freedom to choose gender identity, the majority of Hispanic and Asian Democrats are in line wiith the majority of white Democrats in being all in favor. Even generally conservative black Democrats support this at 42% and probably quickly rising, maybe already being a majority position among young blacks. On a related issue, across all racial groups, Democrats and liberals are in agreement that there needs to be more attention given sexual harassment in the workplace.

“White liberals make up 20-24% of the general population but, for a multitude of reasons, exert an outsize political and cultural influence. […] The danger is that “woke” white activists acting on behalf of voiceless minorities have had their perceptions distorted by social media-tinted caricatures that obscure more objective measures of reality and end up silencing or ignoring what the voiceless groups, themselves, have to say about what policies are in their best interest.”

I’m not sure this is a problem, considering the vast majority of Americans support liberal views, causes, and policies. The self-identified liberal demographic might be smaller but those who are liberal without identifying as such is now the moral majority. The main problem is that, in using ‘liberal’ as a slur, most liberal-minded Americans are still afraid to identify as liberal. Demonstrating this problem, the author of that article is creating more confusion in portraying liberalism as extremism, and I’m sure that is intentional

“In fact, multiple recent studies find no racial disparities in police use of deadly force. The odds of an unarmed black person being shot by police appear to approximate his/her chance of being struck by lightning. The probability of being killed by a right-wing extremist is equally low, if not lower.”

That is such a fundamentally dishonest portrayal of the racial issue. I’m not sure about those specific claims of data, but why cherry pick what confirms the author’s beliefs. A ton of other data does show racial biases in policing and the criminal system. And, sure, rigth-wing extremism is low in a general sense, but to be honest we have to admit that most terrorism is right-wing. So, right-wingers only occasionally blow up buildings and kill lots of people. Well, occasionally is too often. Left-wingers in recent history don’t generally commit that kind of violence at all. Consider that in the past quarter of a century, no anti-fascist has ever assassinated anyone or committed terrorism.

“Due at least in part to digital media, white liberal attitudes that more or less endured for decades have been drastically overturned in the space of months or single years. In contrast, the attitudes of white conservatives—and conservatives in general—have moved at a more glacial pace, if at all. For liberals, the lack of awareness of how fast and far their attitudes have shifted fosters an illusion of conservative extremism. In reality, the conservatives of today are not all that different from the conservatives of years past.”

That deceptive argument is morally indefensible. Most Americans in general, not only white liberals, have grown increasingly leftist over the decades. Conservatives may not be any more political evil than in the past, may not be any more racist and misogynist, bigoted and xenophobic, theocratic and fascist. But pointing out that they are as extremist as they ever were is hardly a defense that they aren’t extremists and that such extremism is not problematic in being outside the moral norm of most Americans at this point.

“Resentment of those seen as standing in the way of necessary social and cultural change may inspire a commitment to what political scientist Eric Kaufman calls “multicultural millenarianism”: the belief that the demise of a white majority will pave the way for a more racially progressive and just society. Perhaps this is why white support for increasing immigration coincides with more negative feelings toward whites.”

Demise? WTF! Only a reactionary conservative would fearfully portray growing diversity as a demise. The difference for white liberals is that there simply is not a fear of the other. It’s largely irrelevant, anyway. All that is likely to happen won’t conform to the paranoid fantasy of the decline of the white race but simply a shift in how whiteness is culturally defined and so who identifies as white. Increased immigration will simply hasten this process, such that a large number of Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans will adapt to white identity, as did Jews and Italians in the past. It is the expansion of whiteness, not the disappearance, that is so fearful to white conservatives. As for white liberals, I doubt they care, one way or another about the future prospects of white identity politics. I doubt most other Americans care either.

Abstract Symbols of the Reactionary Mind

The reactionary mind is obsessed with reified abstractions translated into symbolic visions and causes. This is seen with Edmund Burke’s moral imagining of the overthrow of the French monarchy (nearly a rape fantasy of the queen), to which Thomas Paine noted his lack of concern for the actual people harmed by that monarchy (more concern for the plumage than the dying bird). The reality was irrelevant. The whole point of the wardrobe of moral imagination is to dress ideology in fancy attire, to cover up the ugly truths of power that otherwise would not be palatable.

This reactonary affliction can be found among most modern people to varying degrees. One can see this among partisans in both parties and viewers of corporate media, as shown in how constructed narratives dominate nearly all public debate, in the process of silencing majority opinion and real concerns. But the greatest comorbidity is conservative-mindedness and so the strongest symptoms are found among the conservative persuasion.

Conservatism is inherently reactionary as it is entirely defined by its reaction to liberalism, in having been born out of counter-revolution. It’s never been able to shake its origins. Even when liberals turn reactionary, they tend to do so by becoming more conservative-minded — think of the Clinton Democrats with their police state law-and-order, neocon war-mongering, etc. Political correctness too, whether of the liberal or conservative variety, is reactionary. Still, it’s not equal levels of the reactionary.

In one sense, the primary meaning of conservatism is the state of being more or less permanently stuck in reaction. For liberals, it is more often a temporary or partial state, more often in reacting to something particular. But American conservatives find themselves reacting to the entire liberal order upon which the country was founded. They sometimes even call themselves classical liberals as a reactionary throwback to a prior era, whereas conservatism by itself has no specific meaning, other than a general sense of loss and nostalgia that can be applied variously as circumstances require.

Part of the reactionary mind is an anti-intellectual bent. After all, right from the start, it was a complaint against Enlightenment thought. Yet it’s been forced to jerry-rig it’s ideological agenda out of the scraps left over from the Enlightenment project. So, conservatives will typically praise modern economics, technology, etc while acting suspect of the very scientific thought and institutions of learning that made it all possible.

This kind of anti-intellectualism is not found to the same degree on the American left, as the evidence shows (see: Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science). There is no Democratic equivalent to the proudly anti-intellectual President Donald Trump, no left-wing equivalent to the anti-intellectual Evangelical movement. It simply does not exist. No one is immune from the reactionary contagion, but neither is everyone equally vulnerable to it.

That is the reason conservatives, not liberals, have most strongly taken up Burke’s moral imagination. It’s the reason for the incessant pounding of culture war issues going back centuries. Culture itself becomes an abstract ideology, contrary to the traditional view of culture, what distinguishes reactionary conservatism from non-reactionary traditionalism. The one thing that the reactionary right borrows from traditionalism is some of its symbolism, such as their love of religious pomp, military display, etc; although, in chameleon-like fashion, the reactionary will just as likely borrow from the left as needed.

This reactionary ideology of culture gave birth to ethnonationalism and the nation-state, a modern invention that helped destroy and replace the ancien regime, even as it made claims on being its heir. Up until the world war era, most Europeans and Americans still didn’t identify primarily with the nation-state but rather with local communities and regional populations. It was a much more grounded experience of culture, as opposed to the Platonic ideal of European culture, white culture, etc sold by reactionary conservatives — their own brand of identity politics.

For example, conservatives will argue that social democracy is possible in Scandinavia only because of some vague concept of culture, as if culture is an unrooted and unchanging reality that forces itself upon us like an archonic power. Yet they can’t explain why much of Scandinavia, in being so successful now, was economically impoverished and culturally backwards in the 18th and 19th centuries. Northwestern Europeans who are presently among the tallest people in the world once were among the shortest because of poverty and malnutrition.

Scandinavians, compared to many other areas of the West like France and Britain, were slow to end feudalism, urbanize, industrialize, and democratize. The 20th century social democracy we argue about appeared rather late and abruptly. It would’ve been completely unpredictable based on observations of Scandinavian culture in the centuries prior. Cultural fatalism, as some fossilized essence of national character, is an abstract ideology detached from historical and human realities.

This focus on abstract cultural ideology is specifically to distract from concrete actions of political organizing and economic restructuring, policy reforms and political interventions. Some of those Scandinavian countries came to social democracy through large-scale labor movements, nation-wide strikes, and workers parties. Some conservatives counter by pointing out that Scandinavian-Americans have also done well with lower rates of poverty and inequality. What they leave out is those Scandinavian-Americans, like their kinfolk back in the homeland, enforced their culture of fairness and trust through concrete actions: populist revolt, farmer-labor parties, farmer co-ops, Progressive reforms, sewer socialism, etc.

The US states with larger populations of Scandinavian ancestry, nonetheless, never had a majority Scandinavian culture, as the majority tended to be German-Americans. Even then, the individual US states could only accomplish so much because they didn’t have the full power and autonomy of actual nation-states. This made it harder for them to establish the kind of social demcracies that took hold in Scandinavian countries. It was more complex and challenging to implement a nationwide strike within dozens of states across the entire continent of the United States, as compared to a nationwide strike in a country smaller than many US states.

Still, it’s impressive how far these Scandinavian-Americans, with the help of German-Americans, were able to get with leftist organizing and democratic reforms. Declaring their moral and political authority in 1873, the Minnesota Grangers stated: “We, the farmers, mechanics and laborers of Minnesota, deem the triumph of the people in this contest with monopolies essential to the perpetuation of our free institutions and the promotion of our private and national prosperity.” Like their brethren across the Atlantic Ocean, these ethnic Scandinavians meant business. No wonder they made sure to create societies with low poverty and inequality whereever they went. It isn’t some mysterious cultural quality detached from politics.

As with cultural fetishism, this same pattern of reified abstractions turned into symbolic fantasizing is seen with many other right-wing reactionary views, particularly when the reactionary goes full conspiratorial. So much of the anti-leftist Cold War propaganda was dependent on conspiracy theory because it’s effective as both narrative and distraction. It maintains its hold for many Americans. Think of the paranoid obsession with postmodernism and leftism, such as with Cultural Marxism and QAnon, often combined with antisemitism (e.g., Jewish space lazers causing wildfires) as was the case with Nazi Cultural Bolshevism and Jewish Bolshevism.

A conservative we are familiar with is always ranting about this kind of thing, but we know that he has never talked to or read anything by someone who advocates postmodernism or Marxism. We pointed this out to him and his response was that he knows what he sees with his own eyes. That is an odd claim. Nearly all of his views come from secondhand information as gained from Fox News, Wall Street Journal, Imprimis, The Epoch Times, etc. Mediated reality has replaced his directly experienced reality, to such extent that the corporate media has come to feel like “his own eyes.”

A new favorite of this particular conservative is the reactionary Jordan Peterson who, as a member of the Intellectual Dark Web, is one of the popular ‘critics’ of (neo-)Marxism. Keep in mind that, at his debate with Slavoj Zizek from a year and a half ago, Peterson admitted to having never read anything by Karl Marx. So, his knowledge was also secondhand or maybe further distant. That means maybe millions of Americans who got their anti-Marxist views from him and his larger influence are several times removed from any knowledge of actual Marxism.

But to the reactionary mind, all of that is irrelevant. They already ‘know’ Marxism without actually having to know any facts about Marxism or to personally know anyone who is a Marxist. What matters is the symbolism and, to the reactionary mind, all of the culture wars is a battle of symbols. This is the power of what I call symbolic conflation. The real issues under debate are something else entirely. The point is to use the wardrobe of moral imagination to hide the real issues behind symbolic issues, to protect the moral order as a sociopolitical force.

It’s also why conservatives latch onto AIDS and abortion as symbolic issues, since a disease or pregnancy can be portrayed as carrying its own moral symbolism as punishment. This supports their ideological realism for the punishment is made to appear like a natural and inevitable consequence of the moral sin to be punished. For a liberal to support the cure of the disease and to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place, that would untangle the knot of symbolic conflation in showing that the ideological realism was merely yet another social construction of social conditions, not divine reality or natural law.

This is demonstrated most clearly by the abortion debate, the first nut cracked in revealing the tender pulp of symbolic conflation. It quicky became obvious that the debate was never about facts or about lives, much less the facts about lives. Conservatives, when confronted by the data showing abortion bans on average increase the abortion rate, will unsurprisingly dismiss the data. But if one keeps pushing the issue, some conservatives will reveal their more honest opinion in baldly stating that, rhetoric of baby-killing aside, the moral concern is not actually about the lives of babies. Rather, it’s about the principle.

Listen to that. It’s about the principle, a principle abstracted from not only lived experience but abstracted from actual lives. It’s similar to the abstract nature of cultural ideology and culture wars in general. What makes this possible is the lack of concrete experience. Most of what conservatives know about Scandinavian social democracy, Marxism, postmodernism, etc is from right-wing media, not lived experience and personal relationships. That is the key component, in how right-wing media repeatedly hammers the very issues that are the most disconnected from the experience of their audience.

Theoretically, conservatives could simply seek out liberals and leftists in order to hear their views firsthand or maybe pick up a book written by such people. For example, an anti-choice activist could visit a family planning center to learn how preventing unwanted pregnancies prevents abortions and improves lives; or they could look at the data that, rather than being black-and-white, most Americans support both women’s choice in most situations while also wanting strong regulations of certain areas of the abortion issue.

But then, in the issue becoming concretely and personally real, the symbolic conflation would lose all symbolic power. The conservative realizes this Achilles’ heel and so, in keeping issues as abstract symbols, protect against this threat. This is why undeniably concrete issues like climate change and police shootings cause particular fear and anxiety to the conservative mind. It’s much more challenging to counter these with symbolic conflations, and hence a greater tendency to simple denialism.

That is partly what makes the American left different. Leftists criticize American-style inequality and poverty, class war and plutocracy, corporatism and neo-fascism because they experience it in their everyday lives and see it in the world around them, as leftists criticize the corruption and oppression of this banana republic because it is forced upon their experience, or as leftist criticize Christianity from the perspective of having been raised in it and surrounded by it in this Christian society. Because of this, leftists know capitalism and Christianity better than rightists know communism and atheism. In fact, the average American atheist has more knowledge about the Bible and Christian history than do most Christians.

So, for the left-winger, these problems of the right-wing social order aren’t symbolic issues, abstract concepts, and distant realities. They can’t be avoided, as long as one remains in this country. Such concrete experience and factual knowledge is less prone to reactionary fantasizing and symbolic conflation. That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of reaction on the left, more than is desirable, but not to the same extent, not even remotely close to being equivalent. Partly, this is because the American left-wing mostly overlaps with liberalism, specifically liberal-minded traits that are pretty much defined by not being reactionary. Left-wing ideologies are fundamentaly about egalitarianism and it’s difficult to be for egalitarianism while against liberal values of freedom, openess, compassion, tolerance, and fairness.

That said, the liberal-minded might find it harder and harder to hold out against the reactionary over time. Mediated reality might quickly become the norm and the rise of deep fakes might rock the world. It’s not clear that liberalism will survive this onslaught on reality. All of American society could become ever more reactionary. The symbolic style could become more of a force on the political left. Consider how the Black Lives Matter movement gained majority support of Americans, including white Americans, through social media where videos of police brutality was shared. That is an example of mediated experience changing perception and public opinion.

The resuts may be positive in this case if it eventually does lead to police reform. But once we come to rely on media in this fashion for collective action, and as media technology advances, we could become ripe for reactionary fear-mongering and manipulations. Unless we find a way to democratize media, particularly the internet, but also democratize the larger society and economy, it might be a rough time ahead. If we become more divided and isolated, unmediated reality could become a rarity.

At present, it’s hard to imagine our plutocratic society even further dominated by corporate media and tech companies that would not become full-on reactionary, with liberal-minded leftism disappearing or becoming so distorted as to be dysfunctional. The craziness of media-fomented QAnon movement, already having infiltrtated Congress (in more than one way, legally and illegally), might be a sign of the future to come for the entire political system and society. Cultural experience, abstracted from concrete experience, might come to look more like a media echo chamber. Never before seen group identities will be constructed and we might become ever more dissociated and dislocated.

Libertarian Authoritarianism

Libertarianism is a strange creature. It originated as part of the European workers movement, alongside Marxism, communism, and anarchism. But in mainstream American thought, this history has been forgotten and, in the public mind, it’s become entirely associated with right-wing ideology. Most American libertarians, sadly, don’t know this history either.

Typically, this idealized socipolitical order, too often entwined within the neo-feudalism of social Darwinian pseudo-meritocracy and plutocratic capitalist realism, is portrayed as being the polar opposite of authoritarianism, such as shown on the popular political compass. And many right-libertarians like to portray progressive-minded liberals as among the worst and most dangerous of authoritarians, in the accusation of their being covert fellow-travelers of communists and Marxists, Stalinists and Maoists. This is the propaganda of the Cold War and the conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism, with its origins in ant-leftist (and anti-semitic) fascism.

In any meaningful sense, is that distinction true, the proclaimed opposition between libertarianism and authoritarianism, as either theory or practice? It depends on how one defines libertarianism, and also if it is libertarianism as means or end, the reason many leading libertarian thinkers and advocates can be accused of hypocrsy in sometimes appearing to be inconsistent between their principles and the application or rather enforcement of their principles. A shocking number of right-libertarians openly oppose democracy, sometimes even when it seems to mean betraying the moral standard of liberty itself. Yet, without democracy or some other egalitarian system akin to democracy, authoritarianism would be inevitable. It often comes down do libertarian rhetoric as another way of talking about power and privilege, that is rights for me but not for thee.

Some libertarians claim to be fine with this, as they see it as a necessary evil. For example, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek supported Augusto Pinochet’s regime that killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands. Likewise, Ludwig von Mises praised Benito Mussolini as the savior of European civilization. Why? Because these self-identified libertarians argued that it was necessary to temporarily and violently force liberty in defense against oppressive majoritarian democracy and and public mandate, popular will and populist demand. The people must be saved from themselves — only a paternalistic ruling elite and enlightened aristocracy could step in to establish freedom, specifically the freedom of markets and capitalists, not necessarily anyone else’s freedom.

That demonstrates a key difference and division. Liberty can be forced. Freedom cannot. So, what kind of libertarianism is it that, temporarily or permanently, results in authoritarianism and other forms of oppression and unfreedom? And, if we are to give legitimacy to this ideological ideal of libertarianism, upon what basis is it portrayed as inherently, fundamentally, and absolutely opposite of and opposed to authoritarianism when, in the repeated actions of numerous self-avowed libertarians, this obviously is not always true? What is the relationship or distinction between freedom and liberty? How did our political tradition of ideological rhetoric develop?

In American thought, going back to the colonial era, freedom and liberty became mixed and sometimes conflated, allowing for a slippage of meaning. This is because the English language and Anglo-American politics was shaped by two separate linguistic cultures. Knowing the details of history and etymology would help. The word ‘liberty’ comes from Latin, whereas the world ‘freedom’ comes from German, with the same root as ‘friend’. The latter means to be a free member of a free society, but the former does not require this larger social context of meaning. In the Roman Empire built on slavery, to have liberty simply meant the legal status of not being a slave while others were enslaved. So, freedom is about the relationship between people (i.e., a free people) while liberty is about the relationship of the individual to the state (i.e., civil liberties).

The Romans upheld liberty but not freedom or democracy and so Roman Emperors could be described as libertarian dictators. Libertarianism simply requires the bare minimum potential or maybe just the theoretical possibility of not being a slave and of having full rights protected by the state, though not guaranteeing it. So, by that definition, many dictators like Pinochet could be called libertarian in this broad sense. There is no doubt that there have been many infamous examples of leading libertarians supporting or praising dictators. There are also some that make the case for libertarian monarchism, which would mean an anti-republican libertarianism, although a constitutional monarchy could be democratic like the United Kingdom.

All of this seeming strangeness can make sense within the conventional discourse of American right-libertarianism. There is the typical distinction between freedom and liberty, although the terms get conflated in American English. So, right-libertarians will often condemn the positive freedom (real world results of lived experience, civil rights, political power, and economic freedom) of progressive liberalism and the radical’s rebellion to gain it, while praising the supposed negative ‘freedom’ (theoretical opportunity as abstract ideal) of classical liberalism, as first articulated in Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.”

Of course, there were early progressive and egalitarian liberals like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine or even Adam Smith, all of whom criticized high inequality as being contradictory and destructive to a free society, all of whom opposed slavery (although by law, because Jefferson was in debt, he could not free his slaves even if he wanted to for any attempt to do so would have meant his slaves would have been immediately seized as payment to his debtors; maybe part of the reason Jefferson worked so hard to legally dismantle the binding and oppressive aristocratic order that he, along with the slaves he inherited, was born into). But that is not the kind of person right-wing libertarians are referring to. Instead, they mean those like John Locke who obsessed over property rights, to the point of defending the ownership of humans in formulating a justification for slavery in writing the Carolina constitution.

That brings us back to the origins of liberty in Roman slave society. There is a reason slaveholding aristocrats looked back to Rome for inspiration in declaring liberty. This sense of narrow and selective legalistic liberty was emphasized in contrast to the British Empire, in their fight against the American colonists, having promised freedom to slaves. The slaveholders were advocating negative freedom, the potential of freedom in that slaves theoretically could be released or buy their freedom, as was also true in the Roman Empire. The British Empire, on the other hand, was offering American slaves a guarantee of positive freedom in the living present, not merely a theoretical opportunity of a future possibility of freedom, although it would take a while for abolition to be enacted in British politics.

At the same time the British Empire threatened freedom for all in the colonies, while radicalism and revolution was in the air, the American slaveholders wrote beautiful words of liberty in defense of their way of life. But liberty had long been an inspiraton of high-minded rhetoric. In Rome, the Stoics reinterpreted libertas as a spiritual state, that one could be enslaved in body but that, in mind and soul, one could never be chained and oppressed, forced and commanded. The Christians inherited this understanding, which rationalized their acceptance of outward forms of enslavement because of spiritual promises.

This might relate to why Friedrich Nietzsche called Christianity a slave religion. Indeed, Christian tradition, theology, and text formed a strong wall buttressing the institution of slavery in early America. There was never a contradiction, in principle or in practice, between liberty and slavery — they were two sides of the same coin. In the rhetoric of Stoicism and Christianity, such spiritual liberty, disembodied as it was ungrounded and unworldly, is basically the same as the secularized abstract liberty modern libertarians have since proclaimed as negative freedom, a strange freedom that never has to prove itself by the evidence of results, never has to guarantee that all are actually free in practice.

Liberty always has been just another noble ideal, as pretense and fantasy, to be trotted out by the the comfortable classes of the privileged and respectable. There is a reason that libertarians are the wealthiest ideological demographic in the country. It’s a belief system of the monied elite and those who aspire to elitism, along with the temporarily embarassed millionaires, as true today as it was in the past. Libertarianism, like Stoicism, was never constructed for the poor and oppressed, the landless peasants and the slaves, the dirty masses and the working poor, the proletariat and the permanent underclass.

Unlike freedom that is a right of all, liberty is a privilege of the few for, otherwise, it would lose it’s value within the libertarian worldview, within the moral imagination of capitalist realism. Within the rigid hierarchy of power and privilege, liberty is a precious comodity because of its violently enforced scarcity, constrained and delimited by a faith-based ideological determinism. There is no such thing as a universal promise and guarantee, full enactment and implementation of liberty. Without slavery or other forms of unfreedom, liberty would not hold such value in the eyes of those who exclusively possess it in being able to deny it to others.

Consider the great Stoic Marcus Aurelius who wrote of “true liberty.” His words on life and society have inspired many libertarians and similar thinkers, not to mention having been a favorite philosopher of many an American slaveholder. As emperor, Aurelius had the power to end slavery but chose not to do so. He did protect the rights of slaves, for whatever that’s worth, but not the right to not to be a slave. To be fair, the Stoic Epictetus, having gained his own liberty from his former enslavement, did recommend against enslaving others and yet never argued for manumission of all slaves.

That is largely because, in the philosopy of Stoicism, liberty as a spiritual state was not a birthright but something individually earned or achieved, such that the Stoic’s liberty was assumed to be the result and expression of spiritual worthiness, not entirely unlike how outward good fortune proved and demonstrated one was of the Calvinist elect or enlightened aristocracy, not to be obtained by most because of their presumed low moral character and weakness of mind. That is to say, only good and wise men, a spiritual elite, could be spiritually free in holding to a harsh, narrow, and demanding vision of liberty that few could ever hope for. This rarified state was a prize to be won through hardship and struggle, not something to be freely given as civil right, much less birthright.

This was a view that would resonate with Christian original sin that justified submission to a divine-mandated social hierarchy of clergy and theocracy, even as it posed the blind faith in the otheworldly principle and delayed promise of equality before God in the afterlife. Later in the Middle Ages, following the Black Death and the beginning of the enclosure movement, some peasants and serfs began to question this theology for, if they were truly born equal in the sight of the Creator of the world, why was inequality of power and wealth enforced by a worldy ruling elite whose behavior contradicted any moral justification. This led to the English Peasants’ Revolt, what some consider the first modern political revolution and class war, although it would require later Enlightenment thought to bring this moral impulse to its fullest form.

The ancient Stoics, obviously, did not envision that a free and democratic society was possible; as their view on slavery was philosophical, not political. Choosing for or against slavery, even in Epictetus’ slightly more generous version of liberty that morally condemned the enslaver to be wrong and unjustified, was still left to the personal choice of the enslaver with the enslaved having no legal right or moral standing to an effective opinion and empowered action on behalf of himself or herself, beyond the confines of his or her own isolated mind. The slave-based order itself, as legal system and social institution, remained safely in place without any principled position and moral claim to challenge it. Natural law, as such, would remain impotent as a rhetorical and political force to threaten unjust power until being reinvisioned by post-Enlightenment radicals and revolutionaries who articulated an entirely new deistic natural law of secular self-governance that opposed and undermined the traditional theocratic divine law of the Church and state.

To the Stoics, liberty went hand in hand with fatalistic resignation and acceptance, not to fight for freedom or against oppression but to find peace of mind and contentment of soul by not resisting, like a possum playing dead in the hope that the predatory class and the powers that be would leave one alone. As opposed to invoking the archetype of the rebel and radical, Stoicism was the origin of the tradition of martyrdom as romanticized victimization and noble victimhood, a mythologized narrative of victory in defeat and liberty in oppression only later adopted and popularied by early Christians. The supposed freedom from oppression, as in negative freedom, is in reality a freedom within oppressive order in that, according to ancient Stoics and right-wing libertarians, one has no presumed freedom toward any actionable guarantee, socially supported and legally defended, of freedom’s result in lived experience of private rights and collective expression of public good as part of a free and democratic society as upheld by social norms and culture of trust, mutual respect and common vision.

The inner liberty that was articulated did not even include free will but instead a love of fate and so there was no point in hope of progress and betterment, much less personal freedom as member of a free people in a free society. The physical and legal, economic and political condition of slavery was taken as an irrefutable ideological realism of the social order, if not a natural state by natural law, such that liberty as a rare privilege meant acceptance of enslavement for the masses, although theoretically any individual might gain the wise libertas of the Stoic philosopher in the way the hope of ending bondage and servitude was dangled before the slave as a solace for their suffering, a salve for the chafing wounds of their chains. For all of its vaunted idealism and noble wisdom, the Stoic’s individualistic liberty has never inspired a slave revolt and universal suffrage, a civil rights movement or democratic reform.

There are those on the right that declare the United States is a republic, not a democracy. This is ideological trolling, of course, and can be dismissed on that level. On the other hand, there is a genuine point that can be made along these lines. Although many Americans have sought democracy since the American Revolution, it’s questionable if we actually have a democracy even now. Full suffrage only happened about a half century ago and yet voting rights remain constantly under attack. Combined with an anti-democratic ruling elite that controls the electoral process, it’s easy to conclude we now live in a banana republic.

Yet, going by the original meaning of liberty, this country could fairly be called libertarian. It may be true that some have more liberties than others based on wealth, but anyone might get rich and gain such privileges. That has long been the argument of meritocracy in its social Darwinian form. American right-wing libertarianism has never promised equal rights and freedom in practice and in results. This kind of liberty, as with wealth in capitalism, has to be earned. No one is born deserving it. That is what distinguishes libertarianism from democracy, and liberty from freedom. They are two very different worldviews that sit uncomfortably together within American thought.

Autism and Lead Toxicity

There has been much debate about the causes of autism, from genetics to diet. Many have suspected a link to heavy metals. According to a 2017 NIH study, strong evidence of this link has been found in the baby teeth of children with autism, indicating early life lead exposure (see below).

The question is why would autism rates be increasing if lead toxicity rates are not increasing. One thing to keep in mind that, though lead pollution has declined, the environment remains filled with lead and other heavy metals — in the soil, paint, and pipes. Lead exposure still is extremely common and even low doses can be damaging.

That brings us to a recent congressional investigation released a couple of days ago (see below). Most of us may not be breathing more lead pollution and paint dust, or drinking more lead in our water. But we might still be getting excessive levels of lead in our food. The congressional investigation specifically found toxic levels in nearly all baby food.

What is uncertain is if this represents some kind of change. Has there been a change in farming practices or a change somewhere else in the food supply that is increasing heavy metal concentration? Or is it some combination of other factors that is somehow worsening the effect of already present heavy metals accumulated in the soil?

Basically, why does the autism rate appear to be on the rise? That is a mystery, if we invoke lead toxicity as the central cause. Overall, lead toxicity rates have been on a decline, compared to the heavy toll of lead toxicity that spiked with the childhood of GenXers and young Boomers during the 1960s and 1970s, prior to environmental regulations.

Looking at baby teeth and baby food might help to grasp the key factor. It’s not about lead exposure in general but at a specific period of development. What we need to be looking at is the lead toxicity rates of babies and pregnant mothers, but such testing is not standard. Children typically are only tested after, not before, they show health and developmental problems.

So, it’s possible that, even though there is less lead exposure on average across childhood and adulthood, lead exposure in infancy might have gone up. This could be caused, for example, by increasing import of baby food from countries with weak environmental regulations and more heavy chemical use in farming.

This is concerning, as the long-term affects of heavy metal toxicity are diverse and sometimes devastating — besides autism: behavioral issues, impulse control issues, aggression, lowered IQ, etc; along with physical health problems. We might be seeing another generation or two of lead toxicity damage, exacerbated by the poor communities still struggling with already high rates of lead toxicity from old housing and industrial residue.

* * *

Baby teeth link autism and heavy metals, NIH study suggests
from National Institutes of Health

Baby teeth from children with autism contain more toxic lead and less of the essential nutrients zinc and manganese, compared to teeth from children without autism, according to an innovative study funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the National Institutes of Health. The researchers studied twins to control genetic influences and focus on possible environmental contributors to the disease. The findings, published June 1 in the journal Nature Communications, suggest that differences in early-life exposure to metals, or more importantly how a child’s body processes them, may affect the risk of autism.

The differences in metal uptake between children with and without autism were especially notable during the months just before and after the children were born. The scientists determined this by using lasers to map the growth rings in baby teeth generated during different developmental periods.

The researchers observed higher levels of lead in children with autism throughout development, with the greatest disparity observed during the period following birth.

Leading baby food manufacturers knowingly sold products with high levels of toxic metals, a congressional investigation found
by Sandee LaMotte, CNN

Four leading baby food manufacturers knowingly sold baby food that contained high levels of toxic heavy metals, according to internal company documents included in a congressional investigation released Thursday.

“Dangerous levels of toxic metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury exist in baby foods at levels that exceed what experts and governing bodies say are permissible,” said Democratic Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, chair of the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, which conducted the investigation, signed by the Democratic members.

Krishnamoorthi said the spreadsheets provided by manufacturers are “shocking” because they show evidence that some baby foods contain hundreds of parts per billion of dangerous metals. “Yet we know that in a lot of cases, we should not have anything more than single digit parts per billion of any of these metals in any of our foods,” he told CNN.

Chemicals of concern for children

Arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury are in the World Health Organization’s top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children.

As natural elements, they are in the soil in which crops are grown and thus can’t be avoided. Some crop fields and regions, however, contain more toxic levels than others, partly due to the overuse of metal-containing pesticides and ongoing industrial pollution.

“There was a time where we used metals as the predominant pesticide for many years, assuming it was safe,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, chief of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone.

All of these heavy metals have been linked to cancer, chronic disease and neurotoxic effects, but it’s the devastating damage that can be done to a developing baby’s brain that makes baby food toxicity so critical.

The US Food and Drug Administration has not yet set minimum levels for heavy metals in most infant food. The agency did set a standard of 100 parts per billion inorganic arsenic for infant rice cereal, but even that level is considered much too high for baby’s safety, critics say, especially since the FDA has already set a much lower standard of 10 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic for bottled water.

From the time of conception through the age of 2, babies have an extremely high sensitivity to neurotoxic chemicals, said Jane Houlihan, the national director of science and health for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of advocates committed to reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.

“Their brain is forming rapidly, and so when they’re exposed to metals that can interrupt those natural processes, the impacts range from behavioral problems to aggression to IQ loss and all kinds of cognitive and behavioral deficits that can persist throughout life,” Houlihan said.

“Pound for pound, babies get the highest dose of these heavy metals compared to other parts of the population,” she said. “So the consequences are serious.”

Healthy Babies Bright Futures published a report in 2019 that found toxic metals in 95% of the baby foods randomly pulled off supermarket shelves and tested — that exposé was the “inspiration” for the subcommittee’s work, Krishnamoorthi told CNN.

The Fate of the GOP

“In no partisan spirit I contend that the Progressive movement began within the Republican Party. It rapidly advanced its control, shaping policies of state administrations, and stamping its impress upon national legislation as a distinctly Progressive Republican movement. And upon this fact in recent political history I appeal to Progressive Republicans everywhere to maintain their ogranization within the Republican party.”

Robert M. La Follette, La Follette’s Weekly Magazine, Volume 4 (1912)

Here are some thoughts on the historical origins, present state, and future potential of the Republican Party. Besides those like Cindy McCain and Mitt Romney, there have been waves of moderates, conservatives, and traditionalists (not to mention neoliberals and neocons) leaving the Republican Party or otherwise pulling away from partisanship (along with big biz taking its money elsewhere, at least for the time being). It most clearly began with Donald Trump’s nomination and first presidential campaign. The news media, at the time, reported on many Republican leaders who spoke out against Trump or even spoke in favor of the Democrats. Trump, as a demagogic opportunist, was able to takeover precisely because the GOP was the weakest it had been in more than a century; and Trump would only weaken it further.

It was a dissolution that, in Republicans gaining victory and wielding power, would worsen. The previous fractures in the party broke wide open and have become a gulf, such that a large number of former officials from the Bush administration are now disavowing their ties to the party: “Kristopher Purcell, who worked in the Bush White House’s communications office for six years, said roughly 60 to 70 former Bush officials have decided to leave the party or are cutting ties with it, from conversations he has been having. “The number is growing every day,” Purcell said” (Tim Reid, Exclusive: Dozens of former Bush officials leave Republican Party, calling it ‘Trump cult’). Others like Reagan Republican Joe Scarborough had left a couple of decades ago, presumably already having seen George W. Bush taking the party in an undesirable direction, maybe in having set the stage for the right-wing reactionary takeover of the party that was completed with Trump’s reign.

With the attack on the Capitol, QANON conspiracists in Congress, and GOP’s continued defense of Trump, yet more Republicans have been disgusted and demoralized, some finding appeal in Biden’s nostalgic call for the norms of established institutions and the normalcy of respectablty politics (no matter that this rhetoric seems hollow to many others). This is how the GOP might fully become Trump’s party, as the last of the anti-Trumpists leave and so cause further concentration of the extremists within an ideological homogeneity and insular echo chamber. And it’s not limited to GOP leadership abandoning ship. Recently, tens of thousands of voters have changed their Republican Party affiliaton — over 10,000 in some individual swing states like Arizona (Reid Wilson, Tens of thousands of voters drop Republican affiliation after Capitol riot), possibly causing them to swing toward the Blue for a long time to come.

Consider the Mormons who, according to a 2010 Gallup survey, “are both the most Republican and the most conservative of any of the major religious groups in the U.S. today” (Frank Newport, Mormons Most Conservative Major Religious Group in U.S.) — more Republican and conservative than white Evangelicals? Dang! Yet Mormon partisanship was already weakening by then: “Mormon support for the Republican ticket dropped from 80 percent in 2004 and 78 percent in 2012, to 61 percent in 2016, even as most other Christians moved further to the right, according to Pew” (Alex Thompson & Laura Barrón-López, Mormons rejected Trump as blasphemous. Now he likely can’t win without them.), although not entirely true as many Christian groups have moved left in recent years, the main exception being white Evangelicals — the latter being a key element of the ‘Ferengi’ minority demographic (Polarization Between the Majority and Minority). By the way, the Mormon vote has played a pivotal role in swing states like Arizona that lost more 10,000 Republicans, which might be why Joe Biden flipped that once stalwart Republican state.

So, the Republican base becomes smaller and narrower, louder and more threatening — the ‘Ferengi’ fringe. That is combined with the realignment that happened over the past half century, with the GOP now having taken the rightward path to its furthest endpoint, over a cliff. In living memory, there once was a large wing involving a combination of black Republicans and log cabin Republicans, progressive Republicans and liberal Republicans; even pro-choice Republicans. The last remnants of this held on into the ’80s, until they were squeezed out by the changes of media deregulation, ideological polarization, and rabid partisanship. Before that happened, the Republican Party of Eisenhower and Reagan used to include the likes of Hillary Clinton, Arriana Huffington, Thomas Frank, Cenk Uygur, etc — major names now in the Democratic Party or in leftist alternative media.

The religious right ‘moral majority’ always was a myth — even limiting it to the religious, such demographics have always been mixed and often holding views different from the religious minority of white Evangelcals. This is the reason for the necessity of the Wirthlin effect and symbolic conservatism, specifically the powerful wedge of the culture wars, as Americans are operationally liberal (i.e., actual positions and policies supported). Republicans couldn’t win elections without this rhetorical con game. The very people promoting the claim of a right-wing ‘moral majority’ knew they were lying. Rather than being a majority, it was explicitly anti-majoritarian. That was the whole point, to use empty rhetoric and political power to force a false narrative, to win by havng declared that they’d already won and then having convinced the media and political elites to repeat this spin — with some help from FBI’s COINELPRO that silenced opposition in the decimation of the political left, such as the assassination of Fred Hampton (combined with the string of other assassinations: MLK and Malcolm X, JFK and RFK).

Bill Moyers, in discussng how the Republicans took over through anti-democratic tactics like gerrymandering, gives a bit of historical background to the “founding of the Moral Majority” (as part of an interview of Davd Daley, Republicans Admit They Lose When Elections Are Fair and Free). “Thousands of religious conservatives gathered in Dallas, Texas, to launch what is now the most influential base of the Republican party. Ronald Reagan running for the Republican nomination, spoke to them. And one of the most influential Republicans of the past 60 years was there. Paul Weyrich was his name — right-wing Catholic, brilliant strategist, outspoken partisan [who] founded the Heritage Foundation, founded the Moral Majority, on and on and on. He really was an architect of the Republican domination today.”

Moyers then shared “a brief excerpt” of his speech and added that, “It brought cheers from those religious conservatives.” Weyrich, without shame or a sense of hypocrisy, stated: “Now many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome — good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.” This was part of the Republican rhetorical attack on government in order to take over government, based on a demented ideology that democratic governance, public good, and the social compact were irrelevant or worse than irrelevant, a threat to their ambitions for unrepresentative power.

To put it in historical context, consider the original moral majority, the religiously-motivated American Revolutionaries. In having “read only the Bible, the Catechism, Watts’s Psalms and Hymns, and the Almanack,” according to 86 year old Captain Levi Preston (as interviewed by Mellen Chamberlain in 1843), “what we meant in going for those redcoats was this: we always had governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should” (Spirit of ’76). This may have been an unlearned populism, but it was bluntly democratic. Those rough-hewn working class radicals, carrying on the old tradition of religious dissent from the English Peasants’ Revolt and English Civil War, knew how to deal with aspiring tyrants like Weyrich. Keep in mind, that was old school evangelicalism. The mention of Watts’s Psalms and Hymns refers to the popular preacher who articulated the conflict between church and state, in challenging religious monopoly and religious tests, a public debate that earlier had enlivened Oliver Cromwell’s army (J. F. Maclear, Isaac Watts and the Idea of Public Religion).

As for Weyrich’s theocratic machinations, Trump’s personality cult, in gaining the zealous support of white Evangelicals, is the culmination of this dark faith; and it may seem to be going down in flames. Nonetheless, this might not mean the GOP is in terminal decline; but it guarantees that, if it survives, it will be radicially and permanently transformed — that brief period of a coherent conservative movement (or rather it’s rhetorical narrative as portrayed in corporate media) won’t be coming back anytime soon, if ever. Republican Senator Ben Sasse, under threat of censure by some Nebraskan Republicans, stated that, “The anger has always been simply about me not bendng the knee to one guy. Personality cults aren’t conservative. Conspiracy theories aren’t conservative. Lying that an electon has been stolen, it’s not conservative. Acting like politics is a religion, it isn’t conservative” (Former GOP Lawmaker Now Dedicated To Fighting Misinformation).

Others, in having left the GOP, have also had harsh words. “The Republican Party as I knew it no longer exists. I’d call it the cult of Trump,” said Jimmy Gurulé, one of those former Bush officials who could accept blatant lies, illegal wars of aggression, mass innocents deaths, and torture prisons but Trump’s Twitter tirades went too far (Tim Reid, Exclusive: Dozens of former Bush officials leave Republican Party, calling it ‘Trump cult’). “If it continues to be the party of Trump, many of us are not going back,” threatened Rosario Marin, yet another one of these respectable Bush cronies. “Unless the Senate convicts him, and rids themselves of the Trump cancer, many of us will not be going back to vote for Republican leaders.” These Republicans hold to a nostalgic image of respectability, real or false, that once was taken seriously in the mainstream but has now been entirely discredited. Was there ever a time when American conservatism was not at least a bit crazy and dangerous? That is questionable from a leftist perspective, but it’s understandable why many conservatives long for a return to what they perceive as pre-insanity Golden Age, a time when they weren’t mocked and ridiculed.

One could debate what is or is not conservative or what it should be, but this isn’t the first time that conservatism found itself in the dumps, as likewise happened in the early 20th century. Then, following World War II, conservatism became respectable again (or at least put on a good act) because of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley Jr., and that was carefully achieved by ruthlessly banishing the right-wing fringe and conspiracy nuts, even if that simply meant pushing a cleaned up version of Bircherism, racism, and fascism. The point is conservatism was once solidly part of the mainstream, and it wasn’t that long ago. Some argue that an honorable conservatism is essential, whereas when dishonor sets in it becomes perilous to all of society.

“I don’t think conservatism can do its job in a free society in opposition to the institutions of that society,” said conservative Yuval Levin, “I think it can only function in defense of them. And a conservatism that becomes anti-institutional looks like a mob attacking the Capitol, which I don’t think is where anybody wants to end up” (interview by Ezra Klein, An Appalled Republican Considers the Future of the G.O.P.). It is never conservative to tear down institutions, not even liberal (or pseudo-liberal) institutions like universities, and especially not public institutions. [Actually, an argument could be made that conservatives have always attacked institutions, in that conservatism orginated as a modern ideology and reactionary backlash in opposition to the failing traditional institutions of the ancien regime that proved their unworthiness by having allowed liberalism and leftism to take hold; and so conservatives sought to eliminate and replace traditional institutions, an inherently destructive act and, in creating something entirely new, quite radical at that; but we’ll avoid that complication for our purposes here — for more on this view, see posts on the reactionary mind and reactionary conservatism.]

In the prelude to Klein’s talk with Levin, a book is briefly mentioned — Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy. It was written by a Harvard Political Scientist, Daniel Ziblatt, who “shows […] that democracies live or die based on how responsible their conservative parties are.” Klein says that, “In particular, the question is whether the center right quarantines the anti-democratic far right, in which case democracies tend to live and thrive, or it allies with them, in which case, the far right often takes over and democracies often fall. We are in that kind of moment right now.” If that is true, we are in trouble. Conservatism is inherently a reaction to liberalism — always has been — and so it acts as the shadow to liberal society. And so conservatives are closer to this darkness in either holding it in check or becoming possessed by it. The latter seems to be the case for the United States in this demagogic hour at the dawn of a new millennia. The burning flame of moral imagination as dark fantasy and ideological realism is powerful and, for that reason, potentially dangerous and destructive — as attested, again and again, by history (consider the Nazi conspiracy theory of Cultural Bolshevism and Jewish Bolshevism resurrected as the American conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism).

If the GOP is no longer able to pretend to be a respectable conservative party and can no longer uphold a mainstream conservative movement, then what is it or where is it heading? It could become even more of a right-wing reactionary party, maybe devolving to a third party, where its platform would be entirely defined by conspiracy, xenophobia, ethnonationalism, etc; maybe things much worse like fascism and eugenics. Or it could reverse course toward the progressvism of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower (or even Richard Nixon); before the GOP became exclusively anti-liberal. This might be more of a conservative, capitalist-friendly, and paternalistic progressivism as seen previously, but one that made room for liberal tendencies and democratic proceduralism. Progressivism originally was understood as democratic reform from within the system to defend against leftists, partly by stealing the thunder of leftist demands and promises, which was TR’s strategy (Capitalists Learning From Socialists).

That was at a time when liberalism was clearly distinguished from leftism, as reactionary rhetoric hadn’t yet fully conflated the two as a singular slur. “Many of the men who call themselves Socialists to-day,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in his autobiography, “are in reality merely radical social reformers, with whom on many points good citizens can and ought to work in hearty general agreement, and whom in many practical matters of government good citizens well afford to follow” (see other TR quotes in Capitalists Learning From Socialists). His brand of progressivism was as conservative as it came, quite nationalistic and imperialistic, but he drew inspiration from the political left. To put this in context, the progressive era saw many Klansmen, Evangelicals, and Mormons supporting child labor laws, universal public education, Social Security, and much else — social conservatives and Republicans having helped pave the way for Teddy’s fifth cousin, progressive Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to create the New Deal and, following it, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society. One can’t help but be reminded that Donald Trump won election to the presidency through explicitly progressive rhetoric that was in certain ways to the left of Hillary Clinton’s platform (Old School Progressivism).

Also, don’t forget that it was the Republican Party that introduced progressive taxation and defended it for a long time, at a time of extremely high tax rates on the rich. Also, Eisenhower said that liberalism was the way to run government, although he believed conservatism was the way to run the private economy; while Nixon spoke positively about liberalism, passed the EPA, and pushed for a basic income. We are presently experiencing a right-wing populist backlash with weak leadership that has splintered the political right, but we might return to that prior era of early-to-mid 20th century when strong progressivism and moderate liberalism was considered the framework for both parties, the center of the politcal spectrum, and the moral majorty of public opinion. Conservatism existed back then as well, but it was chastened and moderate, forced into a secondary role in public debate and forced into making alliances. This allowed conservatives to do serious and frutiful soul-searching, the kind of soul-searching that many conservatives find themselves returning to as they’ve become homeless and out of power.

The Republicans will likely be out of power for a generation, assuming they ever regain power. That was the prediction of William Strauss and Neil Howe, in their generations theory about the Fourth Turning. Back in the 1990s, they foresaw a period of crisis, as they theorized typically happens every 80 years (in a cycle of 4 generations). Through destabilization or destruction, the crisis shows the weaknesses and failures of institutions. That was effectively demonstrated, symbolically and practically, in the insurrectionist attack on the Capitol building; an event that, if the overruning of the Capitol police had happened mere minutes earlier, numerous Congressional leaders could have been held hostage, injured, and killed (Vice President Mike Pence was being targeted as well); and it turns out that individuals within the institutions created to prevent such a dangerous situation may have been complicit in instigating, planning, and/or allowing the attack. That is a crisis that would’ve been hard to have imagined decades ago. What Strauss and Howe argued would follow the period of crisis would be a period of institutional rebuilding within society. That will be an opportunity for the political right to rebuild itself as well, maybe from the ground up.

* * *

Further Reading:

  • To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party
    by Heather Cox Richardson
  • When Republicans Were Progressive
    by David Durenberger & Lori Sturdevant
  • Unreasonable Men: Theodore Roosevelt and the Republican Rebels Who Created Progressive Politics
    by Michael Wolraich
  • Turning Right in the Sixties: The Conservative Capture of the GOP
    by Mary C. Brennan