When I predicted back in January of 2016 that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States, I suggested that his candidacy would mark a sea change in American politics and public life. That’s turned out to be even more true than I’d expected. It’s not just that Trump’s presidency challenges the bipartisan consensus that’s ruled this country since the 1980s—neoliberal economics, neoconservative foreign policy, and the rest of it. It’s also turned out that his presidency has pushed one of our country’s most influential political movements into the kind of self-defeating tailspin that usually ends in a one-way trip down history’s disposal chute.
The reaction of Trump’s foes to the resignation of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy is a case in point. The right to nominate Supreme Court justices is one of the perks the Constitution gives to the president; the right to confirm or reject any such nomination is one of the perks the Constitution gives to the Senate. Since Trump’s the president and the Republican Party has a majority in the Senate, they get to pick Kennedy’s replacement, full stop, end of sentence.
This, however, a vocal minority among Democrats refuses to accept. The media and the leftward end of the blogosphere have accordingly filled up with loud demands that Trump be somehow stopped from carrying out his Constitutional duty, so that the party that lost the 2014 and 2016 national elections nonetheless gets to pick the next Supreme Court justice. The people making these demands apparently think that we live in a tantrumocracy, where whoever shrieks the loudest about their hurt feelings gets to tell the rest of us what to do. Fortunately, they’re wrong.
It’s only fair to point out that this sort of grandstanding isn’t universal among liberals. Quite the contrary, I’ve heard in recent weeks from quite a few liberals who are at their wits’ end at this point, having tried for the last year and a half to get their fellow liberals to do the things that might win them elections in the future—that is to say, first, figure out what they did that lost them the 2016 election and stop doing it, and thereafter, get out there and do some old-fashioned grassroots organizing to win back the voters that the Democratic Party establishment ignored once too often. These are the thing political parties and political movements do when they want to win, and the furious denunciations fielded by my liberal correspondents when they point this out do not bode well for the future of the vocal minority in question.
That minority deserves a name of its own, and for reasons we’ll discuss in a bit, I’m going to reuse the same habit of computer-keyboard slang that gave us the term “Alt-Right.” With a tip of the hat to regular reader LeGrand Cinq-Mars, who introduced me to the phrase, we’ll call the people I’m discussing the Ctrl-Left.
The Crtl-Left, as the name suggests, is the authoritarian wing of liberalism. Plenty of hardline conservatives like to claim that all liberals fall into this category, but they’re quite wrong; there are plenty of liberals out there who value individual liberty even when it means that some people do things they don’t like, which is of course the touchstone of real commitment to liberty. The Ctrl-Left doesn’t share that commitment. At the heart of the Ctrl-Left is the insistence that everybody ought to be forced to do what’s right—and “right,” of course, means what the Ctrl-Left says it does. No others need apply.
The recent Supreme Court decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission makes a good demonstration of this. The majority opinion pointed out correctly that the conflict between the gay couple who wanted a wedding cake and the baker whose religious convictions oppose gay marriage was a classic collision of individual liberties in which the rights of both sides need to be safeguarded. The Ctrl-Left, by contrast, insisted at the top of its lungs that the gay couple were right and the baker was wrong, pure and simple, and the baker should be forced by government edict to ignore his own conscience and conform to theirs.
We live in a world in which it’s possible, and in fact quite common, for good people to wrestle with complicated moral issues and come to diametrically opposed conclusions. Over the last two and a quarter centuries here in the United States, we’ve stumbled our way slowly to the recognition that individual liberty is the best solution to these conundrums, so long as the exercise of liberty by one person doesn’t cause significant harm to another—and being offended by someone else’s choices, by the way, does not amount to significant harm; there are no Purple Hearts issued for being butthurt. Nor, it probably has to be spelled out, does it cause significant harm to anyone if they have to get their wedding cake from a different baker.
In exactly the same way, and for exactly the same reason, the only people who have any business deciding whether a same-sex couple should marry are the two people who are considering marrying each other. Since no one suffers significant harm because two men or two women fall in love with each other and decide to get married—here again, being horribly offended by someone else’s decision emphatically does not count—the Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage was in the best traditions of American democracy.
So, equally, was the decision in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which prohibited government from forcing people to participate in celebrating such marriages if that goes against their conscience. Liberty means that people get to do things you disapprove of. It means that same-sex couples get to tie the knot, and it also means that bakers get to choose what kind of cakes they will and won’t bake. Doesn’t that mean that people exercising their liberty will come into conflict? Of course, and that’s why courts and legislatures have been tasked with trying cases and passing laws to deal with those conflicts. It’s a slow, messy, fallible way of doing things, and the only thing that can be said in its favor is that it really does seem to work better than any other way of handling the irreducible cussedness of human beings.
This, in turn, is what the Ctrl-Left refuses to accept. Those of my readers who frequent liberal forums online, as I do occasionally, will already be familiar with the savage bullying that people on the Ctrl-Left unleash on anyone who dares to challenge their exclusive right to define what virtue is and force everyone else to conform to it. It’s classic authoritarian behavior, indistinguishable from the sort you see from hardcore religious fundamentalists on the other end of the political spectrum. It would be a serious cause for worry to anybody who values liberty, except for the factor I referred to earlier—the one that’s got the Ctrl-Left sliding down the chute toward the compost bin of American history.
You know that a political movement is on its way out when it loses track of the fact that it has to convince people who don’t already agree with it. That’s what has happened to the Ctrl-Left since Trump’s inauguration. An embarrassingly large sector of the Democratic party since then has taken to insisting that it’s totally unreasonable for anyone to suggest that they reach out to the people who’d voted for Trump and try to convince them to vote Democratic next time. Why? Because everyone who voted for Trump must by definition be a card-carrying Nazi. That’s why. With that in mind, they’ve gone on to act as though wearing pink hats, shrieking insults on the internet, and behaving in other ways reminiscent of a spoiled two-year-old’s tantrums would force the election results to be overturned. Of course that hasn’t happened; what’s more, it won’t happen—and yet they’re still at it, as Trump’s approval ratings mount upwards and the prospects of Democratic candidates in the 2018 elections slide just as steadily down.
There’s a complex and sordid history behind that stunningly counterproductive strategy, but that’s a theme for a different post. What I want to discuss here is the contrast between the cascading failures of the Ctrl-Left and the rather different results garnered by that movement’s opposite number, the Alt-Right.
Though the term “Ctrl-Left” is modeled on “Alt-Right,” the historical relationship between these two movements runs the other direction. The Alt-Right emerged after the Ctrl-Left, and modeled itself on the Ctrl-Left in a way very familiar to the student of the history of ideas. Just as old-fashioned Satanists accept all the presuppositions of Christianity but reverse the value signs, and Ayn Rand’s Objectivism enthusiastically embraces as good all the qualities that Marxism attributes to evil capitalists, the Alt-Right is what you get when you take the social-justice ideology of the Ctrl-Left and say with Milton’s Satan, “Evil, be thou my good.”
Thus, for example, the Ctrl-Left hates racism, having carefully defined that word so that it only includes those ethnic bigotries they don’t embrace. In response, the Alt-Right accepts the Ctrl-Left definition of racism, and then enthusiastically embraces racism as so defined. That the entire concept of race is nothing more than a scrap of obsolete 19th-century ethnology with no basis in biology or genetics; that claiming that all people with light-colored skin and no epicanthic fold belong to a “white race” is just as absurd as claiming that all white-haired dogs from St. Pyrenees to teacup poodles belong to a “white breed;” that the Crtl-Left uses talk about race to avoid facing up to its own pervasive problems with class bigotry and its own complicity in the exploitation of working class Americans—ideas such as these get little traction in Alt-Right circles, even though they’re far more dangerous to the Ctrl-Left’s project than the kind of simplistic opposition that just affirms everything the other side rejects.
There’s one crucial way in which the Alt-Right has failed to mimic the Ctrl-Left, though. Where the Ctrl-Left has lost track of the fact that it has to convince people who don’t already agree with it, the Alt-Right suffers from no such handicap. What’s more, the Alt-Right has learned the same lesson that Donald Trump figured out very early on in the election campaign, which is that the Ctrl-Left can very easily be goaded into self-defeating overreactions.
One example out of many is the exquisitely clever Alt-Right strategy of posting signs saying IT’S OKAY TO BE WHITE all over college campuses. The standard Ctrl-Left reaction to this is a fine spluttering meltdown, insisting that this inoffensive utterance counts as hate speech and must be punished. From within the Ctrl-Left, no doubt such meltdowns look like a proper display of moral virtue. From any other perspective, they look like an admission that the social justice movement central to Ctrl-Left ideology is motivated by nothing better than bigotry against white people, and that the Ctrl-Left is therefore no better than the people it denounces.
Clever strategy, to be sure, does not make up for the many other problems with Alt-Right ideology. For that matter, movements like the Alt-Right never get far. Just as Satanism and Objectivism never became more than fringe movements attracting those disaffected by Christianity and Communism respectively, the Alt-Right will never be much more than a place where people offended by Ctrl-Left ideology can nurse their grievances. The opposite of one bad idea, as I’ve had occasion to point out here more than once, is usually another bad idea.
And the alternative? We do actually have a political tradition here in America that avoids the twinned follies of the Alt-Right and the Ctrl-Left, and arguably offers the best way out of the bitter and brittle polarization that has turned so much of American society into one vast ongoing shouting match. It’s been around for a good long time, and it has tolerably widespread support from ordinary Americans, though it’s suffered neglect in recent years. To continue the computer-keyboard metaphor, we can call it the Esc-Center.
(Those readers who would like a soundtrack for the following discussion, with a nod to the date and also to the spirit of what I’d like to communicate, may want to click here.)
What constitutes the core of the Esc-Center? I’d suggest these as starting points for discussion:
Individual Liberty. A country as vast and diverse as the United States will never be able to find a consensus on most social issues. It’s a waste of time to try to make one, and a source of useless conflict to try to impose one by government edict. That’s why the American tradition has, however clumsily and incompletely, embraced the principle of individual liberty in any situation where one person’s actions do not cause significant harm to another. Would-be social reformers, whether their motivation be religious or secular, are free to advance their agendas by trying to persuade others, but when they try to make their ideologies mandatory via the machinery of government, that act is an intolerable usurpation and should be stopped in its tracks.
Representative Democracy. We have a system to allow citizens to seek redress of grievances. It’s called politics, and it’s open to anyone who wants to get involved in it. The election of Donald Trump in the teeth of the united opposition of the political establishment shows that the political system in this country is far less broken than radicals on either side like to claim it is. (The way that so many of Trump’s opponents denounce him and his followers as “populists” shows that they know perfectly well what the score is. What’s the opposite of populism? Why, elitism, of course.) If you want to change the way things are done, there are plenty of ways to find an audience for your ideas, build a constituency, and make things happen. If you’d rather just show up once every two or four years to vote for prechewed candidates, on the other hand, you can expect to get the government you deserve.
Political Federalism. Our Constitution, as revised by the Ninth and Tenth Amendments, assigns the federal government certain duties and responsibilities, and leaves everything else to the states and the people. That’s been ignored time and again over the last two thirds of a century, but it remains very nearly the only way that a country this diverse can manage its internal affairs. There isn’t a single item of social policy that will be equally acceptable to the people of Massachusetts and Oklahoma, and rather than trying to ram Massachusetts law down Oklahoman throats, or Oklahoma law down Massachusetts throats, it really does work better to allow the people of each state to manage their own affairs through their elected officials. Does that mean that people in Massachusetts and Oklahoma will be horribly offended by the laws passed in each other’s states? Of course it does. Deal.
Equality of Opportunity. The word equality can mean two things—equality of opportunity or equality of outcome—and you can have one or the other but you can’t have both. Equality of opportunity means that every person has the same chance in life as every other, irrespective of gender, ethnicity, social class, and so on. Equality of outcome means that every subgroup of society gets assigned an equal share in life, irrespective of talent or effort. The former is as essential as the latter is unjust. If gender, ethnicity, social class, or membership in other categories are used to exclude American citizens unfairly from education, housing, jobs, political representation, and the like, that’s a wrong that should be redressed—but people vary in their talents, their interests, and their willingness to work, and it’s not the business of government to override those differences in pursuit of an ideological goal.
Individual Responsibility. You are not responsible for who your great-grandparents were or what they did. You are responsible only for your own words and deeds—and no, you don’t get a free pass because of who your great-grandparents were, either. The doctrine of collective guilt, by which all the members of a given group are blamed forever for the actions of some members of that group in the past, was invented by theologians in the Middle Ages to justify pogroms against the Jews, and every time the same notion has been deployed since then, the results have been comparable. If historical causes result in injustices in the present, those injustices need to be addressed, but the past can’t be changed retroactively, and once government has guaranteed equality of opportunity to every citizen and made such redress as may be voted into law, its responsibility toward the past is over.
Civil Society. Government action isn’t the best solution to every problem; in many cases, voluntary private organizations do a much better job. When Alexis de Tocqueville toured the young United States in the very early 19th century, one of the things he found that set the new republic apart from other nations was the enthusiasm with which Americans founded voluntary organizations to address social problems. That habit faded with the metastatic expansion of the federal government after the Second World War, but the framework remains in place and deserves much more use than it received during America’s misguided age of empire.
An End to Empire. The United States has no business being the world’s policeman, much less the world’s jailer. We’re currently wasting billions of dollars every year maintaining military bases in more than a hundred countries around the world while our domestic infrastructure collapses from decades of malign neglect. Most countries with empires—and yes, let’s be honest with ourselves, that’s what we have—end up collapsing economically once the cost of maintaining the empire outstrips the benefits. We’re perilously close to that, and need to follow the example of Britain and stand down from our global empire before it drags us down with it. Yes, that means that our allies overseas are going to have to pay the cost of their own defense or go under, and they’re free to choose which of those they want to do.
A Politics of Realism. The world will never be without suffering and injustice, nor can all social problems be solved. It’s incumbent on political leaders and citizens alike to redress grievances and correct injustices as best they can, but insisting that a political system is intolerably evil because it isn’t perfect is the logic of a spoiled child. Nor does it count as injustice when some subset of the citizenry can’t convince the rest of the population to give it everything it wants. We live in a world of limits, where tradeoffs are necessary and individual liberties inevitably come into conflict; the job of government is to broker compromises that share as many of the burdens and benefits of life in community as fairly as possible.
That’s a very rough first approximation of the Esc-Center as I see it: a set of approaches to social and political questions that’s worked tolerably well in the past—better, certainly, than the grand schemes that have replaced it in the political mainstream—and still has a great deal of support among Americans generally. It seems to me that getting these ideas back out in circulation now, as an alternative to the paired vagaries of the Ctrl-Left and the Alt-Right, is one way to help further the values some of us here in the US are celebrating this Fourth of July.
And if, dear reader, your response to the above is to accuse me of being a fascist—the standard response of the Ctrl-Left these days to even the mildest disagreement—let me ask you this. We both know what the word “fascist” means, and it doesn’t mean individual liberty, representative democracy, and a lack of enthusiasm for invading other countries. That being the case, do you really think that flinging an obviously false accusation at me is going to encourage me to vote for the candidates you support in the next election? And if you don’t care about winning votes for the candidates you support in the next election, then just what exactly do you care about?