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When Democratic Socialists Were Against David Frenchism


The vexing question of how the American liberal left was transformed from what appeared to be a principled critique, on behalf of the values of a free society, of the neoconservative project of the George W. Bush administration, into largely adopting that very project as their own beginning in opposition to Donald Trump, was first, and in many ways still best answered at the peak of that increasingly forgotten liberal moment by a man taken before his time. On the eve of the 2006 midterm election, the most searing indictment of the prestige media class and its academic fellow travelers as “Bush’s Useful Idiots” was published in the London Review of Books by Tony Judt:

Why have American liberals acquiesced in President Bush’s catastrophic foreign policy? Why have they so little to say about Iraq, about Lebanon, or about reports of a planned attack on Iran? Why has the administration’s sustained attack on civil liberties and international law aroused so little opposition or anger from those who used to care most about these things? . . . For what distinguishes the worldview of Bush’s liberal supporters from that of his neoconservative allies is that they don’t look on the “War on Terror,” or the war in Iraq, or the war in Lebanon and eventually Iran, as mere serial exercises in the re-establishment of American martial dominance. They see them as skirmishes in a new global confrontation: a Good Fight, reassuringly comparable to their grandparents’ war against Fascism and their Cold War liberal parents’ stand against international Communism. Once again, they assert, things are clear. The world is ideologically divided; and – as before – we must take our stand on the issue of the age. Long nostalgic for the comforting verities of a simpler time, today’s liberal intellectuals have at last discovered a sense of purpose: they are at war with “Islamofascism.” . . . It is particularly ironic that the “Clinton generation” of American liberal intellectuals take special pride in their “tough-mindedness,” in their success in casting aside the illusions and myths of the old left, for these same “tough” new liberals reproduce some of that old left’s worst characteristics. They may see themselves as having migrated to the opposite shore; but they display precisely the same mixture of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism, not to mention the exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformation at other people’s expense, that marked their fellow-traveling predecessors across the Cold War ideological divide. The use value of such persons to ambitious, radical regimes is an old story. Indeed, intellectual camp followers of this kind were first identified by Lenin himself, who coined the term that still describes them best. Today, America’s liberal armchair warriors are the “useful idiots” of the War on Terror.

By keeping Tony Judt’s shrewd characterization of these “liberals” a full decade before the 2016 election, we can today clearly see how the project of the class of intellectuals, policy-makers, and media professionals that spent a decade staking their fortunes on an eventual Hillary Clinton presidency can best be understood as an attempt by Bush’s liberal useful idiots to occupy the heights from which his neoconservative cadre fell during the Obama years.

Indeed “precisely the same mixture of dogmatic faith and cultural provincialism, not to mention the exuberant enthusiasm for violent political transformation at other people’s expense” evident in the Iraq debate led the Democratic establishment and its court intellectuals to embrace the mainstreaming of the doctrine of intersectionality, the “successor ideology” to Enlightenment liberalism – i.e., what is increasingly crudely called wokeism. Precisely the same irony of the “tough-mindedness” of the Clinton generation that led them to embrace the foreign policy Jacobinism of George W. Bush would lead them, after politically coming of age in the 1992 Clinton campaign and its so-called “Sister Souljah moment,” to embrace the cultural Jacobinism of Obama-Trump era prestige media.

In his early 1960s study The Protestant Establishment, Digby Baltzell offered an analysis of the rise and fall of Joe McCarthy that applies equally well to  Donald Trump. Baltzell began his study  by describing a 1950s work of pop sociology, The Celebrity Register, which argued that “it is impossible to be accurate in listing a man’s social standing – even if anyone cared . . . . but you can judge a man as a celebrity – all you have to do is weigh his press clippings.”

Senator McCarthy was able to produce the heaviest pile of “press clippings” of them all. He was able to dominate and intimidate the atomized leadership of the supposedly most powerful nation on earth for almost half a decade precisely because he was an amoral master of publicity in a manipulative society. [emphasis added] Apparently, moreover, the “indiscriminate objectivity” of a free press, one of the major means of public relations in a manipulative society, proved to be no more of a protection against McCarthyism than the power of the popular will. In fact, though most of the owners and reporters were opposed to McCarthy, the faith of the American press, in fact rather than truth, actually contributed to his rise to power. No wonder that even the staid and conservative New York Times looked back upon its own coverage of the McCarthy era and admitted that it had done its readers a great, if unavoidable, disservice through its objective reporting of fact. Unfortunately, the manipulative society which made McCarthyism possible, if not inevitable, was a tragic symptom of the schizophrenia which first split the establishment during the New Deal years and which widened during the age of conspiracy after the war. For McCarthy was only carrying out to its logical conclusion a theory of conspiracy which many respectable members of the old-stock establishment had held ever since Al Smith had been cheered by his millionaire audience at the Mayflower Dinner in Washington in 1936, when he told them that the followers of “Moscow” were in control of the federal government.

Indeed, the trajectory of the embattled declining elite who gathered at that 1936 dinner as the “Liberty League” in bitter opposition to the New Deal – distinguishing themselves in their postwar dotage as the hysterical defenders of Soviet spy Alger Hiss – could not be a more perfect analogy to such quintessential cases as Joe Scarborough, who went from young firebrand of the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress to a leading personality of Trump-era MSNBC, or Norm Ornstein, who went from leading figure of the Clinton-Bush era neocon think tank milieu to unhinged avatar of woke Twitter.

Tony Judt saw it coming in “Bush’s Useful Idiots,” in the yearning of a whole class and generation for “a Good Fight, reassuringly comparable to their grandparents’ war against Fascism and their Cold War liberal parents’ stand against international Communism. . . . Long nostalgic for the comforting verities of a simpler time, today’s liberal intellectuals have at last discovered a sense of purpose: they are at war with ‘Islamofascism.’” Eager to forget how that turned out, in their dotage they found their final, apocalyptic sense of purpose in an armchair war footing against Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and their imagined conspiracy to build a new Fascist International. It was but a short distance from George W. Bush’s “fire in the minds of men” to celebrating the re-enactment of The Possessed on the streets of America in 2020.

The Trump-McCarthy parallel, fully recognizing all the disturbing ramifications about their respective opponents, was no less memorably captured on the eve of Trump’s election in the concluding words of an essay in The American Conservative by Scott McConnell, who perhaps came closest of anyone to a writerly voice of that much pondered-over creature, the Obama-Trump voter:

There is, of course, much racism in American history, and there are enormous crimes for which Europe continues to strive to atone. But neither anti-racism nor respect for other cultures should be turned into a national or civilizational suicide pact. Here, what Irving Kristol famously wrote about Senator Joseph McCarthy comes to mind: “There is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.” . . . Kristol’s words describe with uncanny accuracy the dichotomy between Donald Trump and his supporters on one hand and those most feverishly denouncing him on the other. Among the former, for all their faults, are those who want, unequivocally, for Western civilization to survive. About the latter, no such thing is certain.

The truth, however, is that neither McCarthy nor Trump was really ever what they were said to be. What they most had in common was that they were too neurotic, self-absorbed, and anti-intellectual to meaningfully understand or appreciate what they tapped into. Though his enemies bear far greater responsibility for the violence done to belief in the Bill of Rights and American Creed in the last generation, Donald Trump was anything but a champion or redeemer of the values whose abandonment by the political class provoked the backlash he rode to power.

This past low dishonest decade is best understood as what would have happened had McCarthy come on to the scene much earlier, when the Communist Party and Popular Front were still relevant. It was a cardinal principle of Cold War liberalism that the problem with McCarthy was not his ends but his means, and the extension of that principle to Trump and all his works can effectively draw the line between the former “resistance” and those meaningfully committed to addressing the mutually dependent causes behind his rise, to meet the national crisis of social and economic inequality and save the liberal and libertarian values of the American Creed. Doing so requires no less thorough a purge of the successor ideology from American life as of Communist influence at the dawn of the Cold War – a process that in fact was mostly complete before McCarthy’s rise, with the conviction of Alger Hiss, investigations of Hollywood, and expulsions from the labor movement.

In The Test of Freedom, his look back around the time of McCarthy’s downfall, Norman Thomas, the interwar standard-bearer of the historic Socialist Party of America, wrote in uncanny anticipation of the dichotomy between the threats to the survival of liberalism from “Trumpism” on the one hand and intersectionality on the other:

We cannot defend liberty by denying the danger of the organized Communist conspiracy even if at the moment it is weak within the United States. It was a serious liberal error, contributing to the rise of McCarthyism, that so many liberals so long minimized the Communist evil. Communism is a monstrous threat to any valid theory or practice of freedom and fellowship among men. . . . In this double struggle, there are unfortunately some avowed liberals who aid both McCarthyism and Communism by persistently minimizing the danger of Communism in America and by assuming that because the complex of ideas and actions which we sometimes call McCarthyism is bad on the whole, therefore none of its elements is necessary or even defensible; and because the McCarthys, big and little, have given the wrong answer to Communism, there is no need for any answer except a touching faith that truth is mighty and must prevail. Not so can our freedom be preserved or expanded. In our effort to meet the challenge which Communism (and other conspiratorial movements) present to the Jeffersonian ideal, I think that we shall get further by ignoring McCarthyism for the time being and asking ourselves what action rational citizens should have commended – what they should now commend – to their government in the face of the Communist war on freedom. Under democracy, to what liberties are men and women entitled who, in power, would deny all freedom? The Jeffersonian faith in the power of truth was postulated on its ability to prevail over error, openly advocated in the marketplace of ideas.

Many readers will no doubt be shocked to learn that there was a time when the author of these words, rather than the likes of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, was elevated by the national media as the leading American voice of democratic socialism. Indeed, one hardly need share the political or religious commitments of Sohrab Ahmari to recognize that the target of his ire he memorably (if questionably) identified with David French is precisely the conceit Thomas identified with the anti-anti-Communist liberals of the McCarthy years – “no need for any answer except a touching faith that truth is mighty and must prevail.”

To be sure, it is always a bedeviling problem to draw careful lines around relatively illiberal measures to combat illiberalism, but Norman Thomas’ guiding principle remains closest to the letter and spirit of the Bill of Rights: “Heresy Yes, Conspiracy No” – first articulated by the revered NYU philosophy professor Sidney Hook. While the freedom of individuals and movements that violently oppose the principles of the Bill of Rights and would eagerly deny that same freedom to others (heresy) is an essential feature of a free society, they cannot be indulged in the freedom to employ coercion or duplicity (conspiracy) in order to capture the means of mass indoctrination and dominate either public or private institutions.

Because the sweeping advance of a new type of “communist conspiracy” over the last generation has principally been committed through institutions of corporate capitalism while those who struggle to restore the American Creed are inextricably bound to a struggle for economic and social equality, the only solution for these struggling Americans must be political.

The social phenomenon that must be the principal target of such a political and policy solution is elite overproduction, the common phenomenon of dying empires that lies at the heart of the rise of the successor ideology. Enhanced authority over accreditation can go far toward demolishing the increasingly scandalous bureaucracies and endowments of American higher education, including a refusal to accredit those academic disciplines that function as tax-supported seminaries for the intersectionalist clergy.

Among the handful of guarantees that made it into the Constitution before the adoption of the Bill of Rights was that no religious test could be required to hold “any office of public trust.” It should therefore already be possible to hold that neither the American Bar Association nor any accredited law school may require courses in critical race theory or formal commitments to “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” since an officer of the court should easily qualify as an office of public trust. This principle must be extended much furtherfarther: that all cultural institutions established or subsidized by the state, accredited institutions of higher learning, professional associations with licensing powers, and any public utility responsible for maintaining a free and open internet, are institutions of public trust, and therefore cannot be allowed to impose any religious or ideological test, oath, or affirmation whatsoever (accommodating, of course, the continued accreditation of religious schools, hospitals, and other agencies of good works).

The problem of “woke capitalism” that further implicates the old leftist hobbyhorse of “corporate personhood” can easily be arrested by this principle as well. If exchanges of public securities are held to be institutions of public trust, it should logically follow that all publicly traded corporations would be as well. Thus, private and family-owned corporations would continue to enjoy the same First Amendment rights as any other voluntary association of individual persons, but publicly traded corporations would be bound by the obligations enjoining institutions of public trust.

Under this constitutional regime, along with restoring the Glass-Steagall Act in the financial sector, a new antitrust regime would be less concerned with preventing “bigness” than the strict separation of the technology, retail, and media and entertainment sectors in a 21st century internet economy. To these would be added a fourth strictly separate sector – social media, with competing networks on the current ad-supported business model serving as the major platforms for both syndicated and local media, federally licensed along the same lines as broadcast networks to guarantee freedom of speech and political nondiscrimination.

The inevitable backlash to the astonishing advance of the successor ideology in so short a window of time, and its haunting by the specter of something like the foregoing political solution, has led progressives to bewail the imminent demise of a so-called “rights revolution” as labeled by Ron Brownstein of The Atlantic. In his last book before his death, the revered political scientist and lifelong liberal Democrat Samuel Huntington described that revolution damningly:

For over two hundred years the creedal principle of equal rights for all without regard to race had been ignored and flouted in practice in American society, politics, and law. In the 1940s, the president, federal courts, and then Congress began to make federal and state law color-blind and used whatever powers they had to eliminate racial discrimination in America, culminating in the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. Yet nonelected officials immediately launched a counter-reform . . . . This replacement of individual rights by group rights and of color-blind law by color-conscious law was never approved by the American people and received only intermittent, passive, and partial acceptance by American legislators. “What is extraordinary about this change,” the distinguished sociologist Daniel Bell commented, “is that, without public debate, an entirely new principle of rights has been introduced into the polity.”

Indeed, powerfully seconding the celebrated liberal Daniel Bell are Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s published misgivings over the sustainability of Roe v. Wade, both old enough to remember how the civil rights movement achieved its greatest victories through the legistlative branch rather than the judicial.

If it is an indictment of our decayed democracy that the entire post-Vietnam culture war became the province of the judicial branch instead of the legislative, it is no small irony that the principal task before a triumphant conservative judicial revolution is to preserve and defend the liberal legacy of the postwar Supreme Court it rose up against. Beginning indeed with restoring civil rights, as Ginsburg herself successfully established as a young plaintiff attorney, on the basis of sex as opposed to “gender,” the list goes on to include free speech and due process on America’s campuses, civil rights law against the dystopian principle of “equity,” and indeed the earlier liberal court’s whole expansive view of the letter and spirit of the First Amendment.

The idea of freedom underlying the narrative of a threatened “rights revolution” is a strange one. Shortly before his death during the 1990s “end of history” zeitgeist, the New Left maverick Christopher Lasch wrote that “when we speak of democracy today, we refer, more often than not, to the democratization of ‘self-esteem,’” the first principle of a ruling elite that had largely “ceased to think of themselves as Americans in any important sense.” Norman Thomas anticipated Lasch in his 1950s lament that “with the single and important exception of the growth of a better conscience on race relations, the years through which I have lived have been years of moral retrogression.”

The subjects of Lasch’s wrath were notably identified in 1970 by the sociologist David Bazelon, describing the rise of what he called the “New Class” (sometimes in more recent literature called the “professional managerial class”), arguing that “corporate capitalism has created a New Class of non-property owning managers, bureaucrats, and intellectuals whose life conditions are determined by their position within or in relations to the corporate order.” In their core value system, the mutually dependent principles of meritocracy and diversity of race, gender, and later sexual identity evolved into an absolute that would overshadow and eventually displace the liberal and libertarian values of the American Creed; in great measure the tragic consequence of the discrediting of Cold War liberalism’s better half by the Vietnam War.

To understand how this metastasized into the cultural revolution of the last decade, we turn again to Samuel Huntington, whose theory of “creedal passion” emerged as the result of his efforts to understand the upheavals of the 1960s in historical context. In his 1981 book American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony, Huntington defined the years from 1960 to 1975 as the most recent of recurring periods of creedal passion roughly every six decades – preceded by the Great Awakening and American Revolution; the Second Awakening, abolitionism, and the Civil War; and the Progressive Era – when broad social movements emerge in reaction to an increasingly untenable gap between the ideals of American society and the practices of American institutions. Huntington identified those ideals across all four of his creedal passion periods in the value system he named the American Creed (following the landmark work that foreshadowed the civil rights movement in the 1940s, An American Dilemma, by the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal). Yet the phenomenon most commonly known as “wokeness” is best understood as creedal passion for the value system of the New Class.

The most outspoken voices on the radical left against the authoritarian turn of the post-Obama Democratic Party such as Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and many more, were long reluctant to become identified with the nominally centrist intellectual milieu formerly known as the “intellectual dark web” that formed the basis of a flourishing intellectual opposition. But the May-June Days of 2020 – when nationwide mob violence was celebrated by the American establishment as the occasion to accelerate a full-blown national re-education project – finally compelled them to unambiguously choose freedom over totalitarianism.

Well before then, nothing could have been more extraordinary than the rise of Joe Rogan, a mixed martial arts announcer and former sitcom actor, as their most unlikely curator for a mass audience. With his earnest everyman demeanor and a podcast reaching millions, his audience has been, as George Orwell might have said, the common people who still vaguely subscribe to the American Creed and pre-2016 liberalism and will act on it. In the fall of 2020, the conservative online magazine The Federalist described the whole milieu as the “Contras” (as in contrarian) taking on and offering an alternative to an ever more depraved national media class.

This is a most apropos tribute to their Central American namesake, since the state-run union sabotage of the widely supported Contra newspaper La Prensa may be the strongest historical precedent for the ideological intimidation and enforcement that young ideologue employees have come to wield over major national platforms from the New York Times to Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, just how far gone were any and all institutions that had once represented what was best in 20th century American liberalism and democratic socialism was perhaps most starkly illustrated when after the AFL-CIO national office was set ablaze at the beginning of the May-June Days, they responded by hanging an oversized declaration of the perpetrators’ slogan “black lives matter” from its roof. No one would have been more appalled and horrified by this than Bayard Rustin, the revered civil rights leader long employed by the AFL-CIO, who in the 1970s prophetically went so far as to oppose the creation of university departments in black studies.

In short, the 21st century has presented two distinct yet irrevocably intertwined challenges to the survival of our republic. The first, the rise of the internet and its new concentrations of arbitrary private power, can be met using largely the same tools that took on the Progressive Era challenge from the trusts. But the second, the extensive ideological capture of virtually all institutions of culture and civil society by a movement profoundly menacing to the values of a free society, is at a scale like nothing in the history of the English-speaking world since the original Puritan phenomenon within the Church of England. The familiar challenge from the trusts of Silicon Valley must therefore include entirely new mechanisms to thwart their power over society, and preserve and extend the principles of the Bill of Rights.

The principles thus laid out in the foregoing reflect a growing consensus of the opposition to our depraved political class and its enabling of the successor ideology. But it is time for them to finally know from whence they came, and the lessons it can impart.