By Mark Bauerlein
In the featured photo, activists march and rally against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Trump administration’s immigration policies, outside of the ICE offices in Federal Plaza, June 29, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Why is it that more Americans don’t bristle when they hear leading Democrats advocate profound changes in our system of government? Why do reporters and news anchors convey radical revisions in longstanding forms and procedures put forward by liberal politicians without batting an eye?
These aren’t just policy adjustments. They are concrete, specific plans to carry out then-President Barack Obama’s aim of “fundamentally transforming the United States.”
They include: abolishing the Electoral College, packing the Supreme Court, removing tax-exempt status from churches, eliminating national borders, and suspending basic rules of due process in personnel decisions (many Democrat senators declared Judge Brett Kavanaugh guilty before he even spoke in his own defense).
Reading over these exhortations, one would think that the government is so broken that only wholesale restructuring can fix it. The alarm verges on hysteria, as we saw in reactions to the election of Trump and the confirmation of Kavanaugh.
The Democrats don’t do ordinary politics, not at this point. The “Squad” are proudly revolutionary, and they have a compliant media and a potent bloc of voters backing them up (Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has 5.7 million Twitter followers; Sen. Bernie Sanders has 9.9 million).
The more bold and far-reaching the idea, the more it gets amplified. You can hear the excitement in liberal circles when municipalities refuse to cooperate with federal authorities on immigration enforcement. How daring, edgy, confrontational! Making churches pay property taxes, a 13-member Supreme Court with four justices quickly installed by the next Democrat president, and a Democrat-controlled Senate … can you feel the thrill of insurgency?
Ask a young leftist about overturning capitalism and a tone of religious fervor enters his voice. Why not do it? Let’s have no more tinkering with policy. We must “think big.”
You see them on MSNBC, on Twitter, and in campus protests. And way too many Americans nod their heads, as we can see from the number of young Americans who favor socialism. Why? Why would a good portion of the populace accept radical proposals to alter the form and function of the greatest national success in modern times?
Because they don’t believe the old America is worth preserving. Fifty years of revisionist history, multiculturalist literature and art classes, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” Women’s Studies, Ethnic Studies, Black Studies, Native American Studies, Critical Race Theory, and Queer Theory have done their job. They have created a different America, a wicked one.
They don’t speak of the “Miracle at Philadelphia,” as the Constitutional Convention was once labeled. They don’t appreciate the fact that in 1800 and in 1900, the United States was the most diverse country in the world, nor do they honor the United States for fighting Germany and Japan, the most venomously ethnocentric nations at that time.
The American past is, instead, a ledger of national crimes. America itself began in 1619 with an act of enslavement, and Wounded Knee and Manzanar were characteristic acts of U.S. policy; Vietnam was just the culmination of a rising imperialism that victimized Mexico, the Philippines, Cuba, Argentina … In that case, who would say no to progressive visionaries who want to end this unjust empire?
One more example: Remember the Great American Novel? It used to signify a national lineage from Hawthorne and Melville through Twain and James and Cather, to Fitzgerald and Faulkner and Ellison. You read those works in school as a lineup of American Greatness in the literary vein. No more. In the holy name of diversity, the educators have diversified the syllabus to the point that the American literary tradition doesn’t mean anything anymore.
Today, in the public high school English classroom, Melville is no more significant than any number of contemporary novelists of color. Besides, Hawthorne didn’t like female competitors (he called them a “damned mob of scribbling women”), “Huckleberry Finn” has the N-word, and Laura Ingalls Wilder was insufficiently sensitive to the plight of the Indians. You want to defend them?
This was the kind of cultural groundwork leftists began to lay more than a half-century ago. The strategy wasn’t complicated. If schools and teachers ignore a country’s traditions, the students grow up not realizing there is any tradition to maintain. Or, better, if you can make your country guilty, people will accept that it needs a do-over. If you can make citizens feel guilty, they will submit to re-education. This was the plan, and it came to final fruition with the presidency of Barack Obama.
It’s a mistake, then, to judge the most brash “transformers” on the left as beyond the pale. Conservatives look at Ocasio-Cortez as a bizarre character, but that’s a misjudgment. They make fun of her wacky sense of history and her promiscuous judgment, for instance, claiming the U.S. government is running “concentration camps” at the border. (Note the story in Newsweek on how academics defended her remarks.)
But it isn’t her role to be knowledgeable and circumspect. She is a product of post-1990 higher education, exactly the outcome progressive educators envision. No longstanding civic norms for her, and no cultural inheritance, either. She wasn’t trained to respect them. She was trained to disrespect them.
The phenomenon of trampling old-school assumptions is now a regular feature of liberal politics. The Democrat senators who turned the Kavanaugh hearings into a circus felt no need to observe restraints on politicizing the judicial branch, which, in the past, prompted the Senate to confirm certified leftist Ruth Bader Ginsburg by a vote of 96–3.
And all the people who march under the current banner “RESIST” don’t seem to care that they violate the most basic practical element of democracy: the willingness to accept election results.
Again, all of this passes muster with a notable segment of the population because decades of schooling, movies, books, scholarship, art, and news coverage have undercut their patriotism. The final goal of the transformers wasn’t to alter citizens’ understanding of the past, to make them less naïve and more critical and enlightened. It was, instead, to make them more receptive and pliable. A proud people is too loyal to the nation to listen very long to adversarial teachers and intellectuals tear it down.
In the 1980s, when I was a graduate student in English and a committed liberal, too, I looked at the hard leftists on the faculty and among the doctoral candidates as harmless and a bit clownish. They were obnoxious and righteous, but there weren’t that many of them. It looked as if they would never become a real force in academia. They couldn’t get past the contradiction of talking radical this and egalitarian that, while occupying one of the most hierarchical spaces on earth.
Boy, was I wrong. Their outlook is now the heart of the Democratic Party. Worse, it grips enough Americans to put this country in peril for the foreseeable future. They may win.
Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory College. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, TLS, and Chronicle of Higher Education.
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