Taking stick figures way too seriously
I wonder whether the secularization of America has robbed the left of a critical mass of people like Jeff and me, who grew up in conservative religious households, and so have a learned distaste for hypocrisy and sanctimony.
The "In This House We Believe" yard signs generate in me the same queasy feeling I had about the "Heaven Bound" T-shirts my youth group wore to the annual Christian youth conference in Nashville.
(It's a somewhat different kind of queasy feeling than I the one I still get when I think about listening to Amy Grant and Stryper.)
I take a different perspective on the liberal/progressive divide. Namely, modern "progressivism" has never been "liberal" in the classical sense, and instead has its roots in the movement of the same name from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This movement supported some good things (women's suffrage, treatment of juveniles as different from adults) and some bad things (prohibition, WWI, eugenics). Here I recommend: Thomas C. Leonard. (2016). Illiberal reformers: Race, eugenics, and American economics in the Progressive era. Princeton University Press.
I think it is too narrow to say that progressivism's "defining trait" is "distributing resources towards the disadvantaged." (Admittedly, helping the poor has always been one of their goals for reshaping society, beginning with their understandable horror at deplorable urban conditions in the late 19th century.) Progressivism's defining feature is more like "directing society toward 'utopia' through social reform [engineering] guided by 'science'." In contrast to liberals, progressives thought "individual rights" often got in the way of this mission. (In 1913, Dean of Harvard Law School Roscoe Pound argued that the Bill of Rights “were not needed in their own day, [and] they are not desired in our own"; later, (Progressive) President Woodrow Wilson would refer to inalienable rights as “nonsense" [Leonard, 2016, p. 25].) As Jeff points out, Progressivism has always been very "religious" as well: "The progressives’ urge to reform American sprang from an evangelical compulsion to set the world to rights, and they unabashedly described their purposes as a Christian mission to build a Kingdom of Heaven on earth” (Leonard, 2016, p. 12). So, 100 years ago Progressivism was actually religious. Today, it's the secular religion of the Left.
In terms of philosophical legacies, I think you see the roots of conservatism in Hobbes/Locke/Burke, the roots of liberalism in Locke/Hume/Smith/Mill, and the roots of Progressivism in Rousseau/Mill/Dewey. As noted there is overlap!
“To my eternal regret, I think that late night political comedy shows played a role in the change.”
Don’t be so hard on yourself. The Bush-era late night comedy scene was absolutely brilliant and very necessary. The scene during that era was first and foremost pro-civil liberties, anti-war, anti-mega corporations, and generally anti-establishment. So long as those principles remain in place, I don’t care how scathing, partisan, mocking, elitist, etc., a show is. I’m all for it.
The problem now is that those core principles have been thrown down a very deep well. Now the “comedians,” if you can even call them that anymore (yeah, I’m looking at you, Noah, Oliver, and Stewart) are complete establishment sycophants, who have redirected their ire towards white people who didn’t go to college instead of at the fucking psychopaths who run our country’s institutions. In fact, they love the psychopaths, as long as they bleed blue. The problem is not the tone of late night comedy bleeding into newsrooms. The problem is it turns out these people have no souls and no principles, at least none that could withstand the onslaught of the relentless “Orange Man Bad” campaign.
"this movement is not defined by finding solutions to problems; it’s defined by performative flailing against perceived enemies"
Succinct, perfect description. I hope and believe that you're correct that a lot of people feel the same way. Thank you for this.
Man, the last couple of paragraphs really hit home. It’s tough struggling to reconcile the fact that people who you considered your friends and allies have started espousing opinions that you feel are actively bad for society. You just feel adrift, not sure who you can talk to anymore about your concerns. So it’s nice to read pieces by you and others who feel similarly to remind myself there are others who feel the same way.
Great post. I agree that the zombies are not “on the left.” Left means class-based politics, a focus on the material needs of poor people of all races. The zombies are elitist and obsessed with symbolic nonsense, and openly hostile toward the working class.
"Conservative media took a different approach: What if you decided what the world was like before you gathered the news, and then just reported the bits that fit that narrative?"
"I consider the Republican Party to be totally incapable of solving problems. I think they’ve become that way because conservative media has distorted their worldview so badly that they’ve lost the ability to even recognize problems."
If this isn't the pot calling the kettle black idk what is
I appreciate you writing this post. You are significantly younger than me (I'll be 49 this summer), but much of this echoes my experience, albeit I was not part of the late-night comedy scene. Rather I was a high school teacher, lawyer (corporate litigation), Army officer, and finally a small business owner. My wife is younger and went to a NESCAC school - I've watched as a some of her friends became warrior-priests in the new religion.
The naming of the new leftish movement seems less important than understanding what it is. I like Fundamentalist Wokism, but I can understand that not catching on. I think understanding the movement as quasi-religious is incredibly important. There are new heresies and new heretic hunters, and they mirror the roles these participants have had in various religions in the past. Fundamentalist Wokism should be thought of as an off-shoot/mutation of Christianity. Primarily the puritan/Lutheran variety that had its roots in the country's founding. This is the reason the new religion is primarily an American thing and the epicenters of thought emanate from the academic institutions founded by the devoutly religious centuries before. The new zealots are direct descendants of the Temperance movement - they know for certain that there are evils that must be purged and they'll be damned if a good portion of the country doesn't care for the new language/ideology/ways. They are certain they are right and will push that certainty - breaking friendships and sabotaging a political party along the way.
I give the new heresy hunters the benefit of the doubt that they think they are doing the right thing. Scratch that, they don't "think" it - they "BELIEVE" it, with all their hearts. Much the way religious zealots of any ilk have KNOWN they are the inheritors of the one true God's will and teachings. It is the sanctimony that is most off-putting to non-believers, many of whom are/would be allies in the various causes of the new religion. This is also why many people who likely agreed in principle with much of the "family values" being promulgated by the religious right in the 90's-00's - couldn't get on board because of the smugness of those spreading the message.
This article feels similar to how I felt when I was a younger conservatarian type. I watched the people who called themselves conservatives get crazier and crazier and would watch liberal/centrist pundits talk about how the right believes all these crazy things. It felt like my actual views as a right leaning individual were always strawmanned, cherry picked and poorly represented. I didn't consider the crazies to be actual conservatives who were consistent with those values. But they became the brand of the right anyways. It's happening to the left now, which is unfortunate.
Now that I'm an independent, I wonder if it is unfair to describe these changes as "not conservative" or "not liberal/progressive." If woke-ism isn't on the left than where is it? If Trumpism isn't on the right, than where is it? I know the left/right thing misses a lot of context, but at the moment it's the only system we have as voters. As a result, I've seen both sides avoid condemning their own brand of crazy, which only allows the crazy to grow.
It all feels like a convenient way to say, "OUR crazy people aren't actually part of the party, but YOUR crazy people are integral to yours."
“MSNBC is neither as popular nor as terrible as Fox News...”
That’s just pure bias. While this was true pre-Trump, it isn’t anymore. MSNBC has spent the past 6 years frothing at the mouth over things about Trump that are demonstrably untrue (e.g., Russiagate, Bountygate, Lafayette Park, Charlottesville, kids in cages, etc.). Which is weird because there are plenty of true things about Trump that they could have focused on to advance their core thesis that he is a turd. I see no objective place to stand to assert MSNBC>Fox News. You just identify more with (or at least are less put off by) left-leaning mounds of bullshit.
Good work Jeff, I’m so pleased to read people like you and Jonah Goldberg, people capable of criticising their own “side”.
in my country I am what you would call a moderate republican. We don’t have an equivalent to your Trumpian GOP, probably because we don’t have a Fox or evangelical church equivalent (a counter factual which supports your argument).
Our government is very progressive on your scale, but not zombie. And they’re likely to lose the next election because they’re too extreme and out of touch with the centre. The hopeful sign is Australia where teal conservatives (blue green) have made real advances (In the British commonwealth, red is left, blue is right. You Americans also drive on the “wrong” side of the road). These people stand for individual enterprise coupled with a deep commitment to action on climate change - real issues, nothing to do with “identity”.
Keep speaking to this centre Jeff. I hope that in time the US finds its way back to liberal democracy. The world so needs American leadership from a place of values, not vindictiveness.
"I’ve depicted it as a zombie to convey that I think this is something coming from outside; this isn’t 'what was there before, only moreso'. This is something foreign — more on that in a bit."
I think you're engaging in a fair bit of either "no true scotsman" here, or at the very least being much more charitable to "your" side. There *is* a decent argument to be made that the "successor ideology" is something foreign to liberalism proper - but I don't think you can really make that argument while also calling whatever the GOP is doing these days "conservative". The populist nonsense infesting the GOP these days is every bit a foreign invader to conservatism as the woke nonsense infesting the Democratic party.
Almost every fellow "liberal" I know is making $90k a year working permanently remote writing Instagram screeds on capitalism. "Us" Democrats have become a totally unserious party.
I don't think it's so much ideological as it is attitudinal. It's so hard to take Democrats seriously right now, probably because they hold a mirror to us: a society that would increasingly rather have nothing than accept a compromise solution.
Schumer advances abortion bills to the Senate floor that wouldn't pass even if they blew up the filibuster. The Squad derails domestic terror legislation for weeks, then a month later all vote to pass the exact same bill they rejected - https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/350/actions.
It's not politics for me, it's the wholly unserious attitude I'm disenchanted with.
Fair points but if I have to cast a vote for a brain-eating zombie or the guy dead of a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, I’m voting for the dead guy because at least he won’t bite me.
You should change the name of your substack to “not even wrong”.
In these pieces, you have squarely hit points and points of view which I have identified, but haven't found the means to articulate with your tempered rage and all too justified despair. I am humbled. And, of course, fucking terrified.