Following the end of World War II, it appeared that America had achieved a more or less satisfactory equilibrium of social forces under the watch of post-war political centrism. Before that, the imminent demise of the First American Republic at the hands of a radical coalition of the working and agricultural classes and the mass of desperate unemployed men—all caused to march under the banner of this or that “totalitarian” ideology, against capital in an apocalyptic final showdown—had been confidently forecasted by both friends and foes of the established order.
After the war, there was an uptick in wages and standards of living. Urban unemployment was down, and a social safety net prevented the unemployed from becoming absolutely pauperized. In the country, regimes of subsidies and price controls intended to stabilize agricultural production were in place. Technocratic central planners succeeded in forestalling acute economic crises by sublimating economic crisis tendencies into a chronic, but more sustainably low-level, permanent crisis. The experience of World War II and the ongoing Cold War, respectively, gave the two great “totalitarian” rivals to liberalism—fascism and Soviet Communism—bad names from which they never recovered. The far-left was quarantined within the university and the Bohemian demi-monde of hipsters; the far-right, within the secretive John Birch Society, the detritus of the once-formidable Ku Klux Klan and offshoots, and the social world of back-alley brawlers. Class conflict settled into the unspectacular and predictable routine of collective bargaining.
By the 1960s, the far-left began to re-invent itself in the intersection of two axes. The first, concluding that the white working classes had lost their revolutionary potential, looked to black militants at home and anti-colonial insurgents abroad for new standard-bearers of revolution. The second was the cultural turn in leftist academia which, much more interested in the latest French literary theories than in the grey details of socialist economic planning, also looked for new champions in the struggle to bring down bourgeois society, and found them in the romanticized picaresque figures of various socially marginalized inhabitants of urban Bohemia, particularly sexual deviants. A new leftist strategy emerged. This strategy would assemble a heterogeneous bloc coalition of identities grounded in various social, as opposed to economic, categories (race, sexual orientation, etc.); and it would deploy these identities as shock troops on a specifically cultural as opposed to economic terrain of battle.
Bourgeois cultural norms—now redefined as specifically white, male, heterosexual, and Christian—were to be flouted as publicly and flamboyantly as possible, and the status order turned upside-down in a Nietzschean transvaluation. The coalition of “oppressed” minorities avowedly would not petition the majority for equal rights, but force the majority to trade places with it in a “decentering” of majority “privilege,” and constantly remind the majority of its new place by means of theatrically ostentatious and intentionally humiliating “transgressive” provocations against majority values, norms, and institutions, especially those pertaining to sexual propriety. Freedom of speech and objective impartial inquiry were to be abolished as both the instrument and ideological mask of white male privilege, supplanted respectively by speech codes and hate-crime laws wherever decision-makers could be talked into enacting them.
The new Left strategy, from the late 1960s onward, was a runaway success. Indifferent to economics at first, it continued to recite socialist platitudes on a pro forma basis, but never seriously threatened big business and, by the late 1990s, was more or less fully integrated into the neoliberal globalist synthesis. Much of the public was more than happy to take advantage of the promise to relax sexual and other norms of public decorum, and the good-faith readiness of the public at large to believe the things it read made it easy prey for the unparalleled cynicism and brazenly shameless duplicity of advocacy journalism and academic research.
However, the constant and ever-escalating series of provocations and transgressions—intended to shock and offend the opposition when out of power, and to humiliate it when in power—could not help but produce blowback. The socially disruptive tactics of the old Left in the form of strike actions, sit-ins, etc. were tactical means to a strategic goal, such as securing higher wages or civil rights; but for the new Left, the tactic of social disruption was the strategic goal. The Left’s street theatrics and legislative successes alike became little more than victory dances in a politics which assumed the character of sport, a game of capture-the-flag on a national scale. This new politics of provocation was viciously divisive by design. It started getting the pushback transgression always secretly longs for by the end of the 1970s in the form of a new populism, initially manifested in enthusiastic support for Reagan and the Republican Party, and in the rise of intentionally coarse-mannered and obnoxiously opinionated populist talk radio—a genre made possible by the new Left’s normalization of vulgarity, provocation, and polemic.
The present decade has seen the emergence of a radical turn within populism, and the politics of the Right more generally, away from the “movement Conservatism” of the Republican Party mainstream, which has proven itself absolutely ineffectual against a Left that now dominates the corporate workplace and civil society in general in addition to its traditional home bases of education, media, and the public and non-profit sectors. This Left also leverages its dominance to threaten anyone who objects in the slightest way to its recent, escalating spiral of provocations—each one more exquisite and more extreme than the last—with loss of employment and expulsion from society. The movement away from the GOP mainstream has also been driven by disgust with the latter’s one-plank platform of unconditional support for neoliberalism and free trade at a time when wage stagnation, structural employment, and uncontrolled migration are seen as menacing much of the white population.
This all culminated in the (to some) unexpected 2016 election of President Donald Trump, and in the rise of an underground of renegade young rightists that successfully exploited social and other new media in order to wage some counter-provocations of its own against the Left, as crassly transgressive and methodically offensive in their own right as anything the Left ever came up with, in a tit-for-tat game, which saw the “alt-right” make use of methods that, ironically, were originally elaborated by postmodernist media theorists of the Left such as Guy Debord.
The response on the part of the Left to these counter-provocations has been an unrelenting and obsessive effort to contest the legitimacy of Trump’s election, an amping-up of already amped-up partisan rhetoric, and an extremely aggressive campaign, above all on campus, of censorship (“deplatforming”) of not only rightists, but anyone of any political stripe accused of deviating in any way from a nebulous and ever-shifting Leftist orthodoxy. This effort is carried out by means ranging from the use of weaponized administrative rules to shaming campaigns, boycotts, and finally, violent mob actions. Partisans of the Left are exhorted to immediately disavow and shun any friend or relative known to support Trump, and to try to have suspected members of the Outer Right fired from their jobs and/or (in Canada and the UK) arrested—or, failing that, assault them physically. The populists, for their part, ominously muse aloud in comments sections about exercising their Second Amendment rights and taking to arms. The response of the Left has been an attempt to revive the gun control movement—a favorite tactic of the politics of provocation from the late 1960s through to the end of the millennium, and one whose revival seems driven less by any calculus of the military formidability of the opposition than by pure spite. Where the gun-control movement of old would affect a technocratic stance, with public-health officials in white coats touting gun control as a scientific revolution in crime-prevention, the new one is fronted by sullen-looking teenagers who hurl obscenities and accuse shooting-sports associations of being terrorists and child-killers.
Can all the multifarious factions of American politics be reconciled to one another, and civic unity restored to the Republic? If so, how? Michael Shermer, in a brief but exceptionally suggestive recent article, one full of all sorts of interesting implications that merit being unpacked at greater length than the article itself, thinks he knows the answer. Shermer asserts that: