Keys to the Progressive Kingdom

Observers on the Right frequently say the Left is motivated by a singular drive for power. That’s not entirely correct, and the recent protests, some of which have descended into chaos and violence, provide a useful case study.

Power for the sake of power is not an adequate motivation for most. And it certainly is not an adequate public justification for the pursuit of power. While a few egomaniacs might seek it for its own sake, power is primarily a means and not an end. It makes possible the achievement of other goals. Political and social goals that motivate and inspire tend to have deep moral resonance. Consider the difference between striving to place a man on the moon (a purely technical achievement) and doing so to foil an evil opponent. Or consider the moral power that motivates a struggle for equality, human rights, or justice. The energy of these movements derives explicitly from the perceived moral significance of their goals.

This is an important point: some on the Right have long accused the Left of being morally vacuous, of embracing moral relativism whereby moral categories are merely subjective preferences more or less akin to preferring one flavor of ice cream over another. This is clearly not the case. The modern American Left is nothing if not morally assured. Leftists are moral absolutists when it comes to defending particular versions of equality, including, for instance, marriage equality, genderless restrooms, and the complete equality of sexual identities. They are absolutely convinced that certain rights must be preserved at all costs. The absolute access to abortion is an obvious example. The current protests against police violence aimed especially at people of color, is justified by the moral content of the cause. Protesters are so convinced of the moral rectitude of their demands—that they are on “the right side of history”—that they are quite willing to silence or destroy their opponents in order to achieve their goals.

Here we encounter the first of several curious tensions. The moral energy of the radical Left depends on the residue left over from a repudiated Christian past. How can that be? Consider: The language of human rights is only coherent if each human person possesses moral value ultimately rooted in a divine order. This intuition is expressed in the familiar words of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Humans possess rights because each human possesses God-given moral value. Decouple the language of rights from this theological foundation and rights become mere assertions, having the appearance of moral content but lacking any moral substance.

The same is true of the idea of equality, which is perhaps the most cherished value of the Left. The Declaration affirms that all are created equal, and thus equality and rights stand or fall together with a commitment to a divine order. From this we can develop a coherent account of justice, democracy, and even tolerance. Justice—and this includes racial justice—is, as thinkers from Augustine to Martin Luther King Jr. understood, rooted in a God-ordained moral order. In this sense, an unjust law is no law at all, for it runs counter to the moral order of creation. Modern democracy, which depends on the moral equality of each person, also has its roots in his same metaphysical structure. Even tolerance finds a home here, for tolerance assumes the existence of a hierarchy of moral goods. One only tolerates a position one disagrees with: “I find your position repugnant, but for the sake of peace, stability, friendship, etc. I will tolerate your position.” Of course, tolerance has turned out to be a transient virtue, for once the leftists gain power, the call for tolerance is replaced with an impulse to punish and purge.  

When equality, rights, justice, and tolerance are stripped of any metaphysical source and wed to raw power, they become parodies of the real thing.

Thus, the ideals at the heart of the radical Left—equality, rights, democracy, justice, tolerance—are derived from a Christian view of the human person. Dispense with orthodox Christianity, as most leftists have, and what remains are moral concepts deprived of any moral root. They are free-floating ideals carrying a moral echo but lacking a moral, and ultimately divine, source.

Once the connection with the Christian past was repudiated, power could advance without a check. Moral ideals once defined the limits of acceptable action. However, when moral categories were severed from a divine source, any and every means became permissible for securing the desired ends. Here we see the so-called will-to-power employed to advance ideals that are nothing other than the residue of a rejected Christian past.

In this strange scheme, power is wed to purity; Machiavelli to Christianity; Nietzschean will-to-power to Puritan moralism. This union, of course, shouldn’t work. It is fundamentally incoherent. To assert with absolute confidence that equality is a moral good that must be defended at all costs while denying any justification for equality other than, “because I say so” is a position resting only on power. To claim that human rights must be defended while rejecting an account of human nature that could plausibly justify those rights is an assertion of power in service of moral ideals that have been cut off from their source. The same is true when democracy, justice, or tolerance are asserted as morally good and defended with the intensity of the true believer armed with nothing but brute force.

The result is a sort of psychic turmoil that manifests itself socially and politically as self-righteous rage. This rage takes the appearance of a moral crusade whereby opponents must be silenced or destroyed. Power is employed against any who dissent, for a dissenting voice could tear away the façade of moral righteousness and expose the underlying incoherence. When put in these terms, the rage would seem to provide cover for a profound insecurity. This helps us grasp why reasoned debate seems so rare among radicals today. The tactic of the protest has replaced the art of persuasion that is at the heart of any legitimate democracy. Power and purity are all that remain.

Of course, this account does not describe everyone on the Left. There is a world of difference between the old-fashioned liberal who genuinely believes in the effectiveness of debate and the radicals who seek to silence their opponents with violence or threats thereof. Sadly, however, the Left is increasingly succumbing to its radical wing. It has been hijacked by ideologues who are both moral absolutists and willing to employ any power necessary to achieve their desired ends. This does not bode well for our beleaguered republic.

Neither does this bode well for the ideals the radicals cherish. Equality, rights, freedom, democracy, justice, tolerance—these are all noble ideals worth defending. However, when they are stripped of any metaphysical source and wed to raw power, they become parodies of the real thing. Equality is reduced to identity; rights are demanded for some and denied to others; justice becomes a weapon; tolerance becomes intolerant; freedom descends into tyranny. When power and purity are at the center, the center will not hold.

Ironically, in these times of cultural disintegration and political turmoil, the most radical option might be a return to the very things we abandoned, to the source of moral truth and human dignity, and to the only hope for racial reconciliation.