Politics is an arena of conflict. I want a certain set of policies and laws. You want something different. We fight it out in public debate and in the electoral process. Welcome to the rough-and-tumble world of sound bites, negative advertising, and hardball tactics.
It’s wrong to wring our hands over the shrill and intensely competitive nature of politics. The alternatives are so much worse: tyranny or indifference. But there also needs to be something that prevents significant political disputes from turning into civil wars. Today, the red state vs. blue state divide has people anxious. Are we careening toward an ever-deeper split, one that threatens the underlying unity of our nation?
My short answer is yes. We are entering a time of ever increasing cultural tension, and the cause should be plain to see. As Edmund Burke observed, “A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper, and confined views.”
In the main, we don’t see the obvious fact that progressives are socially divisive. We forget that revolutionaries seek revolutions, because we tend to think of progressives as idealists, people who just want to make the world a better place. That’s why communism, unlike fascism, never becomes the emblem of evil. Tens of millions may have been killed by commissars, but we continue to give the left credit. They’re morally serious folks. Communism was just idealism gone astray.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke helps us see beyond our usual moral sentimentalism. He recognized the way in which abstract principles can become objects of devotion. The great patrons of liberty and equality in revolutionary France loved their ideas of justice, so much so that they would willingly destroy the actual goods of their imperfect society in order to implement an imagined state of perfection. Nothing is so selfish as to attack reality—and to do so on the basis of one’s own ideals.
Burke had an epithet for these selfish idealists. They were “men of theory,” and they so often seem to have the rhetorical advantage. The imagined world is shiny and spotless, unlike the real world and its hopelessly compromised institutions. It’s easy to compliment your moral insights when you juxtapose the ideal with the real.
“The pretended rights of these theorists are all extreme,” he wrote, “and in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.” And more than false. Reflections on the Revolution in France is a very passionate book, urgent and strident in tone, because Burke thought the “men of theory” wicked.
The wickedness comes from a crucial fact about progressive politics: Our social world needs to be destroyed in order for moral and political ideals to be realized, unsullied by the past. It is a simple fact that every real society gives men and women social roles, and these roles fit into a hierarchy, a preconceived order justifying social arrangements. We can ascribe specific rights equally. We can say that every adult has a right to vote, or that every citizen has a right to trial by jury. But we can’t say that everyone has a right to be equal—unless we’re prepared to destroy the cultural forms that give people their diverse roles and identities.
Of course, that was exactly what the progressives tried to do in France after 1789. With increasing violence, the revolutionaries used the power of the state to destroy the old system of society. The destruction was not just a matter of abolishing aristocratic titles, confiscating church property, and executing the monarch. The revolutionary project in France, like every modern revolutionary project, sought to destroy the sentiments that give inward form to the outward system. It’s not enough to throw down the mighty and lift up the lowly. One must drive out all thoughts of inequality, extirpate the arrogant sense of superiority, reverse every cowering feeling of inferiority.
Enlightenment philosophy played a crucial role in achieving the ideals of the French Revolutions. “All the pleasing illusions,” Burke wrote, “which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments that beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason.” Thus the pattern was set: For every progressive political agenda, a culture of critique must replace a culture of loyalty.
The conquering culture of critique works with cold determination: “All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of the moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature. . . , are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.” Unmask, disenchant, critique—these are important, foundational political acts, as our university professors now openly champion. They undermine the sentiments and convictions that make men feel old moral sentiments, even after the old system is swept away.
Burke’s insight in the imperialism of theory helps explain why culture wars seem to be escalating. Economic progressives are not terribly influential, as Obama’s cabinet appointments demonstrate. But the cultural progressives are very much in ascendancy. Every desire has an equal right to its fulfillment. And this ideal can only be realized if every desire feels free to speak its name.
Therefore, establishing an empire of desire requires more than political triumph, more than legal protection. Like all progressive ideals, it requires the destruction of the sentiments and pieties that lead people to think otherwise. This ideological project takes on the familiar distortions of all modern propaganda. “Words take on new meanings,” James Kalb writes in The Tyranny of Liberalism, “hatred comes to include opposition to liberal initiatives, while inclusiveness requires non-liberals to abandon their principles and even their identity. Tolerance treats objections to liberalism as attacks on neutrality that are oppressive simply by being made.”
Recently, I wrote that Barack Obama won in November largely because he convincingly represents stability in economic affairs and foreign policy. On questions of culture, however, he will have a very difficult time. The progressive ideal of liberated desire—like all progressive ideals—requires us to fundamentally remake culture. This means aggressively intervening into education and the family in order to destroy the sources of traditional sentiments about sex, gender, and religion.
Social conservatism is different. It wishes to use the power of the state to prohibit certain forms of vice. Criminalizing abortion is an obvious example. I’d also like to see a reassessment of no-fault divorce. This political agenda is not surprising. It’s the nature of laws to embody moral principles (such as the protection of innocent life).
Yet, because conservatism is based in traditional realities rather than progressive ideals, it need not revolutionize culture and suppress dissent. Put concretely, nobody who wants to change our laws about abortion needs to censor the pro-choice idea. Nobody who wishes to prohibit gay marriage wants to prevent anyone from feeling offended or oppressed by the opinions of those who think otherwise.
Because conservative political goals are limited, they don’t require trying to take control of the San Francisco school system. A conservative would like for everyone to adopt his outlook. That follows from believing that something is true. But the conservative is not selfish in the sense Burke identifies. He does not love broad, abstract ideals at the expense of actual social realities. Instead, he draws his strength from real, living traditions, encouraging focused, lasting reforms that fulfill and purify rather than critique and erase. The conservative has no need to gain control of the state in order to remake culture—a shockingly arrogant, willful, and invariably tyrannical project. He already has one.
I’m not naive. There are obviously social conservatives who have a modern cast of mind—conservative revolutionaries with Stalinist tendencies. And there are certainly many American liberals with a deep commitment to our traditional constitutional constraints on the use of governmental power. People do not exist to represent “isms.”
Nonetheless, conservatism and progressivism have fundamentally different tendencies as ruling principles. Conservatism wants to protect, nurture, and perfect aspects of the social norms we already have. Drawing its strength from what exists, it has room for dissent. Progressivism pours Agent Orange on the cultural landscape to make space for something new, something it imagines to be better. Seeking what is ideal, it often excludes dissent as a matter of moral principle.
I hope my moderate liberal friends will concede that social conservatism has the capacity to create social and political stability in our pluralistic society. It wishes to win the culture war, but unlike the progressive cultural politics of the present day it does not demand unconditional surrender and complete submission. But I’m not holding my breath. One principle seems to be a constant for American liberals: no enemies on the left.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.