Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a Law & Liberty symposium on Joshua Mitchell’s American Awakening.
Joshua Mitchell, a Tocquevillean political philosopher with an impressive grounding in theology, has written a penetrating analysis of identity politics in the modern age. Like John McWhorter and Andrew Sullivan, he correctly views today’s dominant ideology of left-modernism—what Wesley Yang terms the “successor ideology”—to be a form of political religion.
He uses the biblical categories of innocence and transgression to powerful effect to dissect the crusading left-liberal ideology that underpins America’s current malaise. In the left-modernist belief system, the innocent victims—members of historically-disadvantaged groups—are hallowed. On the other side of the sacred-profane divide are straight white men, the transgressors. The responsibility of transgressors is to serve as allies to the innocents, helping tear down “the civilizational temple they say the transgressors have built over the centuries… with the unearned suffering of the innocents.” Whites who scapegoat other whites prove their moral worth as “good” whites who have forsaken their bad old ways. Indeed, as Mitchell observes, what we often call virtue signaling is actually innocence signaling that never quite succeeds.
No wonder some white left-modernist fundamentalists have engaged in the public ritual of bending the knee and bowing before People of Color while wearing symbolic shackles. Unfortunately they will never receive absolution, but must exist in a state of permanent penance. Meanwhile historically disadvantaged groups—the innocents—can never move on, but are supposed to exist in a state of permanent rage over past wrongs.
The Bible teaches that there are innocents and sinners, but that the fallen can achieve redemption. The settling of accounts takes place in the cosmic realm, rather than through a quest for retribution and reparations in the present. By contrast, the religion of social justice posits fixed, group-based, categories of sinners and saints, with no possible route to salvation for the fallen white man, and a demand for scores be settled in the here and now. It is, as Mitchell writes, a “ghastly and unworkable manifestation of Christianity.”
The result is that many among the white and/or male scapegoats rebel, driving polarization. Resentment at the unequal treatment of their group identity in culture and politics is tinder for the flame of populists like Trump willing to transgress left-modernist “PC” speech restrictions which prevent mainstream politicians from articulating these sentiments. Meanwhile minorities’ agency and achievement, such as black Americans’ history of mutual aid, social respectability and entrepreneurship between Emancipation and the mid twentieth century, is airbrushed from memory. There is an analogous attempt to rip American slavery out of context, ignoring the ubiquity of slavery in world history, where black people were also perpetrators and whites victims. The result is a highly skewed totalizing narrative which pits the omnipotent white man against hapless black victims. This strips away black pride and disempowers contemporary African-Americans, priming them for a grievance-based story of failure that harms their ability to acquire the self-help mindset required to achieve economic equality.
Mitchell goes on to do a superb job of diagnosing the political dynamics of wokeness. The Democratic Party “shamelessly exploits” the “wound” of slavery, with Democratic politicians like Elizabeth Warren leveraging the moral authority of black America to advance other leftist causes. Warren thereby decries “environmental racism, economic racism, criminal justice racism, health care racism.” The moral force that accrues to those who wield this original sin can then be translated across a wider set of innocents such as Hispanics, gays and even women. Older white Democrats serve as brokers, intermediating between minorities and the party system. Their aim is to perpetuate a narrative of weakness among minorities in order to wed them to government dependency rather than self-help. The catch, remarks Mitchell, is that the rise of minority politicians like Obama renders white brokers such as Hilary Clinton or Joe Biden redundant—the opportunity to play this role will soon be at an end.
While Democrats attempt to foreground the transgressor-victim narrative of American history to lock in minority votes, the Republicans have embarked on an equally deplorable strategy. Scared of being smeared with “the blood of the innocents,” they have scurried away in fear: “The nails that hammer them to the cross of humiliation are words like racist, misogynist, homophobe, Islamophobe, fascist, Nazi.” Taking refuge in the free market crusade and democracy promotion, they have abandoned the struggle to defend American traditions and the rule of law, including the border and rules of citizenship. Trump’s election in 2016 is a rebuke to the older establishment Republicanism, and attempts by Never Trumpers to restore the status quo ante “ring hollow.” Once Western post-Christian societies like America adopt the victim-based paradigm, they begin tearing themselves apart.
The book also advances a secondary thesis about America’s growing dependence on palliatives designed to meliorate the excesses of an undisciplined, individualistic society, such as debt, digital technology, fast food, globalism, singlehood, low fertility and even the use of plastic bottles. While there is merit to the Lasch-Bell-Bellah style claim that an impatience with boundaries to the imperial Self is a malign force in society, I worry that the argument is too sweeping. For instance, fertility rates are lowest in East Asia, with its intact families, and higher in Northern and Western Europe, where divorce and common-law relationships are more prevalent. Digital technology and consumerism are also fairly ubiquitous, and one could just as easily make the case that television, or, prior to that, radio, led to the erosion of community. Eastern Europe and East Asia have avoided the victim-transgressor ideology, but manifest many of the same patterns of digital substitutionism we see in the West. A more forensic approach could be to say that while all societies struggle to balance individualism with local community, it is at the macro level of dominant ideology that the West has a distinct pathology.
There is an interesting passage in the book that suggests that progressivism is an offshoot of Protestantism because both share an anti-traditional outlook. In America, Catholic conservatives went along with Reaganite neoliberalism despite cultural misgivings. This interpretation is, however, in tension with the fascinating discussion of how the Judeo-Christian tradition, with its ethic of sympathy for the weak, displaced the classical aristocratic sensibility in which the downtrodden masses were excluded from moral consideration. Nietzsche mounted a critique of Christian weakness and elevated the aristocratic superman ideal. Mitchell rightly dissents from Nietzsche, preferring to retain the notion of transgression and innocence, albeit in a cosmic register.
Yet it could be argued that Christianity in general rather than Protestantism in particular laid the foundations of today’s secular religion of wokeness. This is Pascal Bruckner’s argument in the Tyranny of Guilt. Writing as a Frenchman, he identified the Holocaust as Europe’s original sin, a “second Golgotha, as if Christ died there.” This perspective, from a Post-Catholic society, is important, because it reminds us that American developments are not as distinctive as they appear. Slavery in America becomes the Holocaust or Empire in Europe, while in Canada and Australia, conquest of the aboriginal population takes centre stage. While there may be a distinctly Protestant flavor to American guilt, Christianity itself provided the template. It’s also worth remarking that in Brazil and other Latin American countries, some elites are scrambling to burnish their Native or African lineage where they once tried to hide it. Even in Taiwan and Japan, small numbers of progressives exist, where they criticize their respective ethnic majorities.
This raises the question of whether the plotlines and emotions evoked by the progressive narrative are more universal. The success of the 1960s left-modernist vanguard in striking roots in western institutions like universities and the media during a time of population boom and institutional expansion may explain differences in the level of wokeness between countries. Clearly Christian societies are more susceptible, but it may be that the new religion could have, like Marxism, flourished in many types of society. Rather than religious culture, I would submit that post-1960s social history explains why the rot is far more advanced in the West than elsewhere. The cultural turn of the left from class to the identity categories long championed by liberals—race, gender, sexuality—stems from processes internal to the secular religions of socialism and post-abolitionist liberalism.
The idea of left-modernism as religion is sound. However, some claim that since the Enlightenment we have seen a plethora of political religions, from the nationalism of the French Revolution to August Comte’s Positivism, Marxism and, for John Gray, the teleological millenarianism of liberalism. Viewed from this wider angle, today’s left-modernism is less unique. What is distinctive is its zealotry, which locates it alongside Marxism and “hot” phases of other ideologies, such as the Jacobinism of the French Revolution.
This would also suggest that the decline of religion in America is not as important to the story as it seems. Like the Archbishop of Canterbury taking his cue from Black Lives Matter, those with a religious temperament may be as or more susceptible to left-modernist fundamentalism. Studies show that practicing Christians are actually more pro-immigration than nominal Christians, and less likely to vote for Trump or populist right parties. This is also true of religious leaders from the Pope to scholars at evangelical bible colleges, who differ from their rank-and-file. To the extent religious “nones” are more likely to be Democrats, they are also more likely to follow a woke message. But I am not persuaded that their irreligiousness per se, and the attendant psychological vacuum, is the proximate cause of their wokeness.
Rather, left-modernism is a meme that seeks to replicate itself and has captured culture-producing institutions like the education system, popular culture and large sections of the media and government agencies. Counteracting its influence is thus a structural problem requiring structural solutions. While Mitchell’s plea to build competence and a common nation together are praiseworthy, those who seek to rein in our woke madness need to develop targeted strategies, create new political frames, and build workable coalitions between sensible liberals and conservatives. Patient legislative and policy work is needed to stop the march of what John McWhorter terms the “religion of antiracism” through elite institutions, rebalancing them on an even, rational, keel. Here I agree with Mitchell that conservatives must downplay the distractions of economics and foreign policy to focus on remaking the culture. There is much ground to make up.