Catharine Savage Brosman has crafted a volume of epigrammatic verse dedicated to landscape and stone, monument and mountain,...
Dead End for the Left
Progressivism is a dying ideology. This is so despite its hegemonic position in the nation’s media and on most college campuses. The Democratic takeover of the White House and Senate, far from being a triumph, is an illustration of just how politically feeble the left has become. It has no leaders more appealing than a seventy-eight-year-old Joe Biden. Who will replace him? There is no second Obama. No youthful leader in the House or Senate stands out. The next-generation figures who have been most touted by the media, such as Beto O’Rourke—the man who was supposed to turn Texas blue—have proved to have little actual support. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is certainly popular with the left, but she and her brand of politics hardly seem prepared to repeat the ballot-box feats of Obama or Biden, both of whom won by concealing the radicalism of their party.
In 2020, Democrats had every advantage: a pandemic and an economic downturn they could pin on the Republican president, who was already a polarizing figure and had been painted by the media for four years as an out-and-out authoritarian and worse. Yet with so much wind at their backs, the Democrats still lost seats in the House, failed to secure a simple majority in the Senate, and elected as president a man who is in every respect a fossil of the political past. The Republicans, by contrast, expanded the coalition that elected Donald Trump in 2016. The expansion may not have been enough to secure President Trump his reelection, but with the decisive margin in the battleground states amounting only to some seventy thousand votes, it is not hard to imagine that absent COVID and the recession, the incumbent would have prevailed. The clearest lesson of all was that without the demonic caricature of President Trump to drive Democratic turnout in 2018 and last year, the Democrats would have no magnetic pull at all. The fateful question for the Republicans, of course, is whether they can continue to attract the Trump coalition without Trump himself on the ballot.
But that political uncertainty must be understood in the context of deeper intellectual trends. Progressivism is exhausted. The radical ideas it promotes today were hatched in gender-studies programs and other arcane precincts of the academy thirty or more years ago. Its economic nostrums are even hoarier, or else, like Modern Monetary Theory, they are the mere reductio ad absurdum of Keynesianism and socialism past. The universal basic income is a crackpot panacea with roots extending as far back as Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice pamphlet of 1797. Novelty is not a criterion by which conservatives judge the worth of an idea, of course. But thinkers who consider themselves “progressive” are under pressure to show that there are new vistas toward which they wish to lead the country. Instead, progressivism today is an attempt to turn the racial injustices of the past into a political religion of the future—and forevermore. Can blaming the Americans alive today for the evils that their ancestors overcame (as well as perpetrated) really be the basis for a sound psychology, let alone politics, in the twenty-first century? No—but it can, for a time, be a shortcut to prominence in the media and in those parts of the business world less moored to reality. As long as interest rates are low and new technologies provide some cover for the dwindling of traditional forms of productivity, the game can go on in corporate America. But when those conditions change, as they already are beginning to, woke capitalism will awake to a far less indulgent competitive environment.
Marxism and even Marxism-Leninism was once a powerfully creative ideology, inspiring intellectuals and activists and generating new views of history and culture as well as economics and politics. The cultural radicalism of today was once highly creative, in its own perverse way, as well. But Marxism remained an official dogma of the Soviet state—and too much of American higher education—long after it had ceased to be a living idea. Its power was its tomb. And so, too, is the hegemony that progressivism commands today in our country and throughout the West. If power were wealth, progressivism would be a billionaire miser, wealthy beyond the dreams of avarice, but without heir or legacy.
Daniel McCarthy is editor of Modern Age.
Founded in 1957 by the great Russell Kirk, Modern Age is the forum for stimulating debate and discussion of the most important ideas of concern to conservatives of all stripes. It plays a vital role in these contentious, confusing times by applying timeless principles to the specific conditions and crises of our age—to what Kirk, in the inaugural issue, called “the great moral and social and political and economic and literary questions of the hour.”
Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For
Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.
Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles
Join the ISI community. Membership is free.