Richard Reinsch has done us a service in his review and podcast interview on Christopher Caldwell’s astonishing new book The Age of Entitlement. He shows that conservatives, indeed all Americans, need to wrestle with what Caldwell says about the transformation of post-War America, leading to what we see today: political conflicts that we seem unable to resolve and unwilling to give up.
Caldwell offers an historical analysis of both political and non-political events to further his thesis about America as a whole. He shows us America in 1945, like a Greek god trying to remake the world in accordance with its wishes. Then he shows us America in the ‘60s, shaken by conflicts that defied understanding, much less resolution—driven mad and having become self-destructive as punishment for its arrogance. Finally, he shows us America since 1981, united primarily in ignoring its core conflicts.
The Nature of Political Conflict
Caldwell offers a very sophisticated argument in service of a simple point. Despite the fact that we are all Americans, our nation has developed two very different constitutions, with partisans of both the new and the old constitution locked into enmity. Those on the Right want to return to an America defined by equality of citizenship and responsibility. Those on the Left want to establish absolute equality of human rights through the courts and administrative agencies.
Caldwell judges that the defenders of the old constitution have no capacity to restore America because we have no genuine elites. Hence, after a generation of unprecedented conservative political victories, the traditions we’re supposedly conserving are lost, and society revolutionized. Meanwhile, Progressive attempts to change who we the people are have been too limited for them to win, either. We are stuck, but cannot resign ourselves to our current deadlock—our very restlessness and sharply divergent moral convictions continually lead us into one crisis after another. Having failed to get what we want for so long, we must now examine not only what we want and why we desire it, but ask ourselves a deeper question: what is politics?
Our Founders were students of the great political philosophers—they organized government based on the opinion that all societies are divided against themselves—between the few and the many, the elites and the people. Therefore, to achieve any lasting domestic peace is difficult, and to make peace forever is impossible. Corruption, civil war, or anarchy eventually ruin a community, so in order to prevent and forestall catastrophe, we must in each generation learn about men and institutions, so that we may know what problems we’re facing.
Institutions add up to a Constitution, a political regime: in all our dealings with each other we design rules for behavior, so that rewards and punishments end up structuring our understanding of justice and decency. These things are hard, though not impossible, to understand, because they are public and rather theoretical. Men, on the other hand, are particularly hard to understand, since in studying them our own fears and desires are directly involved, and we have very little ethical education to go on when it comes to judging character; men also change more quickly than institutions.
The Power of Shame in Politics
Caldwell believes we need to understand political psychology as much as our regime, so he looks in every chapter to the beliefs and feelings of the Americans who tried hardest or were most influential in effecting the changes that have made our lives what they have been since the 60s. But profiting from his book requires that we grapple with the fact that people really only know their politics when they grasp their society’s pieties—and by extension, come to grips with those things of which we are ashamed.
Fear matters, of course, or else we wouldn’t have policemen. But shame matters more, since the people vastly outnumber policemen. We obey the laws freely or not at all. Further, you can fear an asteroid destroying America, but you’re not going to blush because cosmic events are not our fault—the asteroid doesn’t hate or despise you. Consider the pain of a slap versus the shame of being slapped, a sting less likely to be forgotten! The trouble is that America isn’t a shame-and-honor culture, and in America the only thing guaranteed to shame most of us is being called racist.
Our public figures often do contemptible things: legally, we try to rehabilitate murderers far more often than we try to execute them; our elite liberals constantly try to talk the nation into any number of sexual perversions as a matter of principle; even pagan cults and amateur Satanists are a fixture nowadays. But whatever madness elites practice in the name of freedom, they, like the rest of us, only face true shame when they find themselves accused of the ultimate shame—racism.
Monopoly over the sources of shame makes our elites superior to the rest of us, and Caldwell analyzes it in terms of the courts, administrative agencies, and business. This monopoly is why they can do anything and get away with it. No one will ask the Clintons or anyone around them or like them about their relationship to Harvey Weinstein or Jeffrey Epstein; it’s perfectly okay—because they are elite liberals who demonstrate their virtue by regularly calling the rest of us racist. In doing so, they remind us that it’s their privilege to slap us, the necessary punishment for our lack of enlightenment.
That is why Hollywood and academia can enjoy and squander obscene wealth and then humiliate the rest of us about our privilege. It’s why even vice pays off for them, while virtue is often insufficient for the rest of us to prosper. The supremely wealthy white liberals and Progressives in Silicon Valley and elsewhere look at you and me and say: White supremacy is the cause of our pain. If we are not equal with them in all the ways they scream about—income inequality—that’s because we don’t deserve what they have. Their class superiority as elites is justified by the accusation that the rest of us are racist.
From Plato and Aristotle to our Founders, the teaching is always the same: The conflict between the few and the many threatens to destroy the community. Our elites are doing just that.
Founding Fathers and Baby Boomers
Race is what our elites use to take control of our lives, our children, our homes, whatever they wish to change. But class is the power by which they act institutionally, the source of their identity sociologically, and the basis of the differences—of intellect and of taste—that separate us. Caldwell explains all this in a series of chapters that detail the rise of a cohort of Baby Boomers to take over so much of America and explain why they’ve never been stopped.
It’s not an accident that his book should come out now, when the domination of those Baby Boomers is over. America will have to deal with the consequences of this generational shift. But to do so, Caldwell implies, we must understand ourselves as defenders of our 1788 Constitution against that of 1964, when modern civil rights legislation, adjudication, and regulation emerged whereby everything elite liberals want is forced on the rest of us—trans-gender issues now, racial issues then.
But when it comes to our Founding, Caldwell is less surefooted. He never assesses whether our Founding was more like real democracy or what he calls sham democracy—the South before 1964. Well, slavery and other forms of discrimination were more important in 1788 than 1964! He hints that the key is the Founders’ liberalism, which distinguishes private and public. We want to restore public authority to the laws and to citizenship and our rights. Our elite liberalism is instead all about invading private life in every conceivable way.
Since these modern changes cannot be undone, how could we restore the Founders’ Constitution? We would have to defend unequivocally its original greatness and its justice, despite our shame about racism. Caldwell is so serious on this point that, as Reinsch indicates, he even judges Reagan an enemy of the Founders’ Constitution! His shocking judgment is that America’s Cold War victory and economic growth were less important than saving the Constitution and that Reagan’s priorities were misguided—he should have focused on restoring the freedoms that Progressives were hard at work to undermine, criminalize, or simply scare people out of exercising. Reagan’s peace and prosperity just ended up paying for more liberalism—for Clinton, Obama, and whatever’s next.
That we lack seriousness about the need for better elites is hard enough. For Caldwell then to criticize Reagan, however popular this has become on the Right, is harder still to bear. The only saving grace is that Caldwell’s intransigence leaves no doubt about the seriousness of the generational effort conservatives have to mount, lest they resign themselves to permanent defeat after the Boomers shuffle off the mortal coils, rendered infamous like all the other dead white males.
Caldwell also offers this hope. The single most neglected fact about our Founding is that our Founders wisely refused to allow elites to change the Constitution, but rested that most awesome power on the people, in the expectation that they would veto changes. This has been grossly vitiated, but perhaps not fundamentally. We are therefore not left at the tender mercies of elites who think we’re hardly human.
Further, the second most neglected concern about the Founding is what we may call political morality—what gives ideas their force? Why should people care? Our speeches, our opinions aren’t enough to change the world—only when our opinions are so dear to us that we organize and act on their basis do they really attain their importance. Ideas about rights and about justice are forgotten if we lose belief, and we lose belief if we lose our habits. The book’s focus on civil rights is impressive because it reveals the power of Progress—its democratic appeal, its elite appeal, its capacity to make and enforce rules, and how weak it makes its adversaries. Only by reversing all these things could we overcome Progress—only by making rich white liberals as ashamed of themselves as they have made us. Only by firmly tying anger to the violation of citizens’ rights can we stop the onslaught of undemocratic, elite decisions.
This, it seems to me, is how we can harmonize Reinsch’s forward-looking exhortation with Caldwell’s depressing history. Reinsch is stirring, but cannot give examples of great victories won by our great principles. Caldwell gives several examples of terrible defeats suffered, but cannot stir us to act on our own behalf. To put our moral outrage together with the ideas of rights we inherit from the Founding is to assert our dignity practically—not merely with speeches, but with deeds that follow from those speeches.
Political morality concerns public things. It is the public shame of being called racists when we all know privately we are not racists. Indeed, all who fear the Progressives, who want to exile us from the political mainstream because of white privilege, have to put up with Trump; many have even convinced themselves they love him, though they couldn’t bother with him before he had reached three score and ten. We are beginning to feel the importance of politics without quite understanding it.
Publicizing all the injustices created by courts, administrative agencies, and regulations—that is the path forward. Recruiting and rewarding elites who will attack liberal elites—that offers another path forward. We need not grifters or hysterical celebrities, but people dedicated to public concerns who will defend our rights to our private lives. The public-private distinction we have inherited as our birthright we should not sell now to liberal elites who hate us. It’s not enough to fight back; it’s necessary to fight the strength of Progress and to restore the strength of our original politics.
Caldwell has done us the great service of explaining why we cannot have peace with Progressives after more than 50 years of their rise to power—why is it never enough, however many victories they win? Why must they attack families and even our identities? How dare elites talk about being white or being a man as the most contemptible or wicked thing possible? Yet they do, all the time, because they do not respect the original constitutional rights of citizens.
The Republican Party is not without its victories—remember 2016, when the people gave them victory in all elections throughout the land? But Republicans almost never follow through by using their electoral victories to practice politics. They refuse to cripple the power of Progressives to ruin decent citizens’ private lives. Every year, conservatives become more scared about even voicing their opinions on college campuses or at work or on social media, living in fear of Progressives and ashamed of themselves for being so afraid—and you may imagine how they feel about the elites who don’t even seem to want to protect them. We will get Progressives to stop when more citizens act to stop them with support from their own institutions and their own elites. We will get citizens to act when we make them angry at the humiliations Progressives inflict on them, and we will generate that anger only if we force our own elites to act on our behalf with the wealth, offices, and honors that we have given to them.
This, then, is the first step—encouraging and compelling our own elites to act politically and publicly for our sake. That takes gradual replacement of elites, but urgent replacement of their beliefs: if they are more ashamed of Progressives than of us, they will never help us. If we are not ashamed to be disloyal to one other, we will not stand together. Evidence of that loyalty and common action, step by step, is what we now need to give each other.