Standing Athwart History
Five Things You Need to Read Today
1. Unpopular Populism
Over the past two years, the US government has already spent $5 trillion of money we don't have on supposed pandemic "stimulus"—the first $3 trillion under a Republican president. Given that lack of resistance, President Biden has decided to follow up with a $2 trillion infrastructure bill.
It will not surprise you to learn that, just as the pandemic spending bills devoted relatively money to anything directly related to the pandemic, so this bill has relatively little to do with infrastructure, with only $115 billion, less than 6%, going to build roads and bridges.
But the story here is the lack of effective resistance. After all, Biden is merely attempting to deliver on the massive infrastructure spending that Donald Trump kept promising. So Republicans don't have a leg to stand on when it comes to big spending.
Let's stipulate that Republicans have always postured as the party of small government while still keeping the federal gravy train running. But the difference in recent years is that they are starting to give up talking about small government. The impetus for this is described by Stephanie Slade.
According to the new conventional wisdom within the conservative movement, Donald Trump's shocking electoral victory four years ago represented a blue-collar economic revolt against GOP elites, who had lost touch with their base. Rural and small-town Americans, disillusioned with the globally integrated modern economy, were desperate for a hand up. Trump alone noticed, and they rewarded him with their energetic support....
The post-liberals take great satisfaction in labeling the libertarian economic agenda of open trade, low taxes, and deregulation with sneering epithets like "zombie Reaganis" and "market fundamentalism." They are persuaded that voters overwhelmingly share their disdain for the free market economic regime.
When it comes to the illusion of free money raining down on us from the government, they may have a point—until the day comes when we finally have to pay the bill. But Slade points out that this new conservative economic populism, like other parts of conservative populism, may not be all that popular.
[P]ublic polling suggests that America is still a country of people who broadly support free enterprise. In the fall of 2019, Gallup found that just 28 percent of Americans (and just 7 percent of GOPers) think there is too little government regulation of business and industry. But a desire for greater oversight of market actors—stronger fetters, if you will—is at the core of the nationalist alternative that people like [Oren] Cass are articulating.
Pollsters also found support for foreign trade increasing over the course of the Trump presidency. According to Pew Research Center, the proportion of Americans who thought free trade agreements have been a good thing for the country jumped from 45 percent in 2016 to 65 percent in 2019. According to Gallup, 58 percent of Americans said in February 2016 that free trade represented an opportunity for increased economic growth, compared to 34 percent who saw it as a threat to the American economy. Three years later, 74 percent said it was an opportunity (a 16-percentage-point increase), compared to 21 percent who saw it as a threat (a 13-percentage-point decline).
So if Americans are not, in fact, broadly disaffected with a free economy or with the economic disruptions of free trade—the preferred narrative of the nationalist conservatives—then what is the actual impetus behind Trumpism? I general agree with Slade: "To the extent that the Trump coalition was unified and energized by anything, survey data suggest that it was cultural issues, not economic ones," particularly the "dual threats of runaway political correctness and legal assaults on religious liberty."
While a mere 2 percent of Trump voters thought the federal government was too small, 89 percent said "Christianity is under attack in America today"; 90 percent said "Americans are losing faith in the ideas that make our country great"; and 92 percent said "the mainstream media today is just a part of the Democratic Party." Only 20 percent agreed that "white people have an advantage in today's America because of their skin color," while a staggering 87 percent were worried that "discrimination against whites will increase a lot in the next few years."
Here, not on economic questions, is the overwhelming consensus.
I think she is sugar-coating this a bit by describing the issue as "legal assaults on religious liberty." Yes, that's an issue, but the nationalist conservatives have been using this as an excuse for a counter-offensive in which they assault intellectual freedom in favor of religion.
Yes, part of the impetus for Trumpism is the repulsiveness of the "woke" orthodoxy and its Puritanical enforcement. But the next item suggests a deeper motive: the fear that religion is already dying from within.
2. Standing Athwart History
One of the big under-appreciated trends of the past few decades is the precipitous decline in religious belief in America. Gallup just released a startling poll result.
Americans' membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup's eight-decade trend. In 2020, 47% of Americans said they belonged to a church, synagogue, or mosque, down from 50% in 2018 and 70% in 1999.
US church membership was 73% when Gallup first measured it in 1937 and remained near 70% for the next six decades, before beginning a steady decline around the turn of the 21st century.
To be sure, a decline in church membership does not necessarily imply a decline in actual religious belief—but the evidence indicates that this is in fact the main driver of the decline.
The decline in church membership is primarily a function of the increasing number of Americans who express no religious preference. Over the past two decades, the percentage of Americans who do not identify with any religion has grown from 8% in 1998-2000 to 13% in 2008-2010 and 21% over the past three years.
As would be expected, Americans without a religious preference are highly unlikely to belong to a church, synagogue, or mosque, although a small proportion—4% in the 2018-2020 data—say they do. That figure is down from 10% between 1998 and 2000.
Given the nearly perfect alignment between not having a religious preference and not belonging to a church, the 13-percentage-point increase in no religious affiliation since 1998-2000 appears to account for more than half of the 20-point decline in church membership over the same time.
But wait, there is even worse news for religion: they have lost the youth.
Church membership is strongly correlated with age, as 66% of traditionalists—US adults born before 1946—belong to a church, compared with 58% of baby boomers, 50% of those in Generation X and 36% of millennials. The limited data Gallup has on church membership among the portion of Generation Z that has reached adulthood are so far showing church membership rates similar to those for millennials.
America is on a path to become, within the next few decades, a predominantly secular nation. As to the causes of that trend, I can think of a few.
It doesn't help that in response to the decline in religious belief, conservatives have made religion a partisan issue, which makes it even less appealing to anyone not already committed to right-leaning politics. (Back in the day, Jimmy Carter competed with Ronald Reagan for the Evangelical vote—a contest that seems inconceivable now.) But this is largely a response to a pre-existing decline in religion.
Certainly, American religion has sabotaged itself with a series of scandals in which they displayed their failure to serve in their putative role as guardians of morality. After decades of pedophile priest scandals, it's no surprise the Catholic Church has lost the most members, but David and Nancy French just published a long investigative report on a similar scandal at a massive and influential Evangelical youth camp.
But immoral behavior among church officials goes back millennia. What is more important, in my view, is that religion faces more competition.
The modern conservative movement was launched with William F. Buckley's book God and Man at Yale, which railed against secularism among the elites at the universities. Well, with increasing levels of education and access to knowledge, secularism has propagated down from the elites to the average person. And as secularism has spread, the moral pressure to believe—I can still remember how shocked people used to be when you told them you were an atheist—has faded. That's why I think we see such a sharp change in just two decades. It's not just that there are more unbelievers, it's that there are more people who are willing to admit it.
But most of all, it's the fact that there are now, more than ever, multiple alternative secular sources of meaning. There are more ways for people to gain a sense of having a coherent worldview that offers them moral goals to strive for and a sense of personal meaning in their lives. Not all of these sources of meaning are good, mind you, and too many merely substitute politics for religion. Wokeness is one example, and Trumpism (though dressed up as a defense of traditional religion) is another.
But if religion is fading, this implies that the most urgent priority is to provide a viable, reasonable, life-affirming alternative secular source of meaning. Instead of fashioning such a message for a secular future, conservatives are consuming themselves in a futile rage against it. It's not that surprising, really, for a movement that launched itself by declaring its intention to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop."
This explains a lot of what is happening right now in the conservative movement. The people who once fashioned themselves the "Moral Majority" are quickly becoming a minority, and their panic and rage at that prospect is causing them to cast about for a new political ideology and strategy—and to indulge in dangerous fantasies that the support of the state can rescue religion from its decline.
3. Rockefeller and Morgan and Beethoven and Shakespeare
I recently wrote about the trend toward "woke" attacks on classical music. In response, I got a lot of people telling me I was making this all up, that it wasn't really a trend, that it's just a few crackpots and I'm "nutpicking."
You will get this a lot any time you talk about Political Correctness or "cancel culture," because if this sort of thing is actually happening, then it would require a lot of people to take a stand and show some courage and maybe even expose themselves to some small amount of personal risk, and a lot of people really don't want to do that.
But we've had enough experience by now to know what to expect from the latest bit of PC insanity. It tends to go from "crazy thing said by an obscure academic" to "central part of the employee training manual at Fortune 500 companies" in a shockingly brief period of time.
So the latest on the attack on classical music is that it has gone from being dismissed as "the harmonic style of 18th century European musicians" to being smeared as "white European music from the slave period."
This is from a leaked proposal for reform of the music department at Oxford.
The University of Oxford is considering changes to the music curriculum, including alternative titles for courses, after certain staff raised concerns about the "complicity in white supremacy" in the teaching of the subject.
Professors are set to reform their music courses to move beyond the classic repertoire, which includes the likes of Beethoven and Mozart, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. University staff have argued that the current curriculum focuses on "white European music from the slave period," according to The Telegraph....
It claimed that teaching musical notation had "not shaken off its connection to its colonial past" and would be "a slap in the face" to some students.
And it added that musical skills should no longer be compulsory because the current repertoire's focus on "white European music" causes "students of color great distress."
You'll notice that this is the Daily Mail recycling a piece from the Telegraph (which is behind a paywall; I can't be bothered to pay for the Telegraph, and neither can you, so we'll go with other people's summaries).
Now, the Daily Mail has a certain reputation for exaggerating stories for shock value. This led an AP fact-checker to demonstrate why fact-checkers have so little credibility by ruling this story "false" by presenting it only in its most distorted form—then proceeding to acknowledge that all of the actual facts being circulated are true. See also a public radio report that tries to present the anti-classical claims in a more sympathetic way but basically confirms all the key details.
And the basic facts have also been re-reported elsewhere. The New York Post adds this detail: the description of "the historic use of musical notation" as a "colonialist representational system." So sheet music is racist. Fox News adds this: "The professors further suggested that certain classical music skills—like playing the piano and conducting orchestral arrangements—ought not to be required because they structurally center 'white European music.'"
Long ago, the Modernists in the visual arts realized that the way to foreclose the possibility of a return to the prior schools of representational art was to stop teaching basic skills of drawing and rendering. Artists can't decide to take inspiration from Michelangelo if they've been discourage from learning any of the skills necessary to sculpt like him. The modernists have conspicuously failed to do the same for classical music—but now they're going to give it a try.
What are they going to do in music departments instead? "The faculty members said the curriculum should broaden its music offerings with studies like 'African and African Diasporic Musics,' 'Global Musics,' and"—here's what I knew was coming—"'Popular Musics.'" Beyoncé 101, here we come. Like I've been saying: the death of the highbrow.
Ayn Rand warned that the uncontested absurdities of today become the accepted slogans of tomorrow. We're just at the beginning of that process, so we would do well to contest these absurdities as soon and as strenuously as possible.
4. How the ACLU Went AWOL
As part of this same pattern, you might have noticed that over recent years that the ACLU has made a transformation from civil rights organization to enforcer of wokeness.
Check out this long article, ostensibly a review of a documentary on former ACLU chief Ira Glasser, which describes that transformation.
Partly, this confirms for me that the moment that finally broke the ACLU was the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. The ACLU had supported the neo-Nazis' right to get a protest permit—then got widely criticized by the left for doing so. After that, they folded and officially gave up being a neutral defender of the principle of free speech.
"My successor, and the board of directors that have supported him, have basically tried to transform the organization from a politically neutral, nonpartisan civil liberties organization into a progressive liberal organization," Glasser says about Anthony Romero, an ex-Ford Foundation executive who continues to serve as the ACLU's executive director....
Of course, no discussion of the ACLU can ignore Donald Trump, whose role in its degeneration, like that of so many other people and institutions opposed to him, was seismic. It was entirely appropriate that the ACLU would be one of Trump's loudest antagonists; he made violating the letter and spirit of the Constitution an all but explicit plank of his campaign, and his upset victory subsequently led to a dramatic spike in the ACLU's membership rolls. Accompanying this influx of new members and money, however, were pressures for the group to become another run-of-the-mill #Resistance outfit. In 2017, the ACLU of Virginia had supported the right of white nationalists to rally in Charlottesville. But once the rally turned violent, the national ACLU circulated an internal document with new "case selection guidelines," stipulating, "Speech that denigrates such [marginalized] groups can inflict serious harms and is intended to and often will impede progress toward equality." Before agreeing to take a free speech case, the document continued, the ACLU would now consider "the potential effect on marginalized communities," whether the speech advances the goals of speakers whose "views are contrary to our values," and the "structural and power inequalities in the community in which the speech will occur."...
Were the ACLU today confronted with a lawsuit similar to National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, Glasser doubts the group would take it. (Tellingly, in an essay collection celebrating its most important cases published on the occasion of the group's 100th anniversary last year, the ACLU neglected to include that seminal litigation). And when other constitutional rights have come into conflict with a First Amendment freedom even more unpopular with progressives than speech—that of religion—the ACLU has made it all but official policy to consider claims of religious conscience as smokescreens for discrimination, arguing that an evangelical Christian baker must make cakes for same-sex weddings against his will (a violation of both expressive and religious freedom), and that Catholic hospitals must perform abortions.
The embrace of political partisanship, the dropping of standards, the buckling to donor demands at the expense of long-held principles—Glasser says all of these developments have rendered the ACLU unrecognizable from the group he once led.
Liberals are now discovering their own version of Conquest's Second Law, in which any organization that is not explicitly anti-woke will eventually be taken over by wokeness.
5. An Idea Whose Time Has Come
I've been following the rise of both the woke left and the nationalist right, not merely to alarm you, and certainly not to induce a sense of hopelessness and despair, but to rally you for the effort that is required to push back—an effort that is already gathering strength.
We will look back on the last five years as a period that saw the rapid rise of these illiberal doctrines, but I suspect we will look back on the next five years as a profoundly creative period in which new movements and institutions arose to fight for a free society.
In one of those new institutions, Persuasion, Jonathan Rauch hails this awakening.
Princetonians for Free Speech is not alone. The Academic Freedom Alliance launched in March to come to the moral and legal defense of professors whose free speech or scholarly independence is infringed. Also launched that month was the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, or FAIR, which promotes a liberal, pluralistic vision of antiracism while encouraging parents and other citizens to push back against the intolerant and divisive varieties.
And so on.
It seems that hardly a day passes that I don't see some other example, like this one from a liberal with fairly far-left economic views, who nevertheless calls for a rebuilding of the intellectual infrastructure of liberalism.
Older liberals once fought for laws and regulations to overcome racial and gender discrimination and increase individual rights, while modern progressives increasingly fight over language, representation, group-based accusations, and who is allowed to say or think what.
A young person looking for a solid reform-based liberal education and philosophical training today would be hard pressed to find it anywhere in the billion-dollar progressive infrastructure of contemporary politics. They could however find lots of "conversations" about structural oppression and extended Twitter threads and digital media trainings to combat "white privilege" and advance abstract notions of "equity."
The first order of business for liberals is to recognize the depth of the problem. Identity-based politics, on the left or the right, will not just disappear on its own. The incentives for this kind of politics have grown immensely in recent years, and it will have to be counterbalanced by an equally well-supported effort from liberals on both the center-left and center-right.
The second order of business is for those with resources to increase their support for strategies to uphold genuinely liberal values—such as freedom, equality, pluralism, tolerance, rationality, and a commitment to the common good—and help rebuild liberal education and political work in America. Lots of self-funded groups are doing yeoman's work along these lines. But if liberals really want to push back against the cultural extremism ascendant on the left or right, they will need to build their own institutions and programs to develop new leaders, grow new social movements, create new policies, and influence political parties based on genuinely liberal principles....
If not, then culturally radical ideas will continue to dominate and shape our politics for years to come while liberal values will continue their retreat.
I have already told you about my own efforts in this direction, which will be launching very soon. But it is becoming increasingly clear that this is an idea whose time has come.