The Resistance and Socrates

We have come to the end of this little series of observations and reflections on the Resistance. Perhaps a little retrospect is in order, before concluding with Socrates.

Every so often our politics produces something relatively new, something worth watching and thinking about.  Back in the day it was Ron Paul and the surprising rise of libertarianism to public salience.  Before that, 9/11 brought the Middle East forcefully to Americans’ attention, as well as the fact that we do not live in splendid isolation. Libertarianism’s star has waned in the public domain, but we still live in the post-9/11 era for good and for ill.

Donald Trump’s election merits inclusion in this category. So too does the response to him by his self-declared mortal enemies, the Resistance. Necessarily, and often out of ideological and institutional animus, President Trump gets most of the critical attention these days from the media. But it is worthwhile looking critically at his (again, self-declared) opponents and enemies. Trump will come and go, but the Resistance will continue in some form or another. Further organization and recruitment, and the disqualifying of his, and related points of view, are its agenda and will bear fruit in the next election cycle and beyond.

Of course, how to study the phenomenon of the Resistance is a real question. In my case, political philosophy is at hand, and what we could characterize as a classical (Aristotelian, Socratic) approach. Pay attention to salient, revealing phenomena, including the self-defining speeches of the subject; try to put them into a coherent view of things; articulate that mind’s basic take on God/world/man, on social/moral/and political order. And since I am not the first to attend to the subject, look for guides who can help. In short, one tries to combine a keen sense of the obvious with some more penetrating and capacious vistas.

The basic structure of the considerations was rather straightforward. We began with the Democratic Party, the most visible and organized component of the Resistance. To understand the core, or at least essential features, of its worldview, we turned to an authority, William Voegeli, who identified its identity as adherence to “identity politics.” A conservative, he quoted a liberal, Mark Lilla, echoing this judgment. Since the experts confirmed my observations, I followed their lead.

After some reflections on liberalism’s evolving view of race in America, I made use of two French thinkers, Alexis de Tocqueville and Emile Durkheim, to understand the secular trinity of race, sex, and gender to which the party is devoted. Tocqueville is a penetrating guide to liberal democracy’s essential nature and tendencies, while Durkheim, the father of French sociology, reminded rationalist modern societies that they would still be subject to old social strictures such as the distinction between the sacred and the profane.  Their categories can help make sense of the party’s starkly egalitarian, emancipatory views of sexuality and gender, as well as the tenacity with which they are held.  We are in the presence of radicalized “democratic dogma” (Tocqueville) and the secularly sacred (Durkheim).

In the face of this, I ventured the twin thoughts that such dogmatism is the enemy of reason and that this particular democratic dogmatism occludes rather than illumines its subject, human sexuality, with worrisome consequences for young people. I added the disconcerting recognition that in principle, and increasingly in practice, this secularist commitment is the implacable enemy of traditional sexual and marital views and their supports, traditional religions. Bernie Sanders and Julian Castro, Chai Feldblum and Tim Gill, were quoted to that effect. They also indicated that this commitment to sexual and gender equality seeks a dramatic recasting of democratic legitimacy and hence of democracy itself. Hillary Clinton candidly expressed this binary and exclusionary way of thinking in her famous (or infamous) “basket of deplorables” speech. So, a synthetic conclusion of my analysis would be that the Democratic Party, in these respects, is the enemy of reason, of traditional religious faith, and liberal democracy itself.

Since the Resistance comprehends more than registered Democrats, however, it was necessary to broaden the consideration. “Progressive(s)” is the self-assigned moniker of the next significant component of this broader cohort. Again, I turned to a guide, in this case, to one of the best sociologists in America today, James Davison Hunter. He has the merit of having early on made sense of America’s culture wars with his seminal 1991 book, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. Relevant to our concern was his analysis of “the Progressive impulse” or pole in American culture and politics.

He provided a key insight that Progressivism’s chief focus is upon Humanity, understood as its own “moral authority” (in contrast to transcendent instances). He likewise noted the Progressive view of History, its commitment to scientific rationality, and to human autonomy. All of these factors can be discerned in Resistance discourse and reaction, starting with the horror that History’s march has been arrested and threatens to be reversed. Hunter’s “cultural” focus, however, did not allow him to engage much with specifically political issues, from immigration to constitutionalism. The political philosopher Pierre Manent is more helpful in these regards.

His analysis of the happy-face humanitarianism at work in the construction of the European Union helps us understand the open-borders insouciance of the American port side, while alerting us to an understanding of human dignity that is a mask for intellectual complacency and moral nihilism. The European “religion of Humanity” believes, against massive evidence to the contrary, that humanity is all but unified. Differences there are, but they are not differences that make a difference—except for those who are judgmental, intolerant, and divisive. So a bit more broadly, the world is divided into those who join in singing “We are the world” and those in the grip of odium unitatis humani generis. Nations and borders, national citizenship and attendant civic privileges and responsibilities, are secondary, even tertiary, to humanitarian rights, needs, and interests. To be sure, this is the ideology of elites, not populations, and of Western elites more than central European. Hence the strictures of political correctness, hence the combination of moral hectoring and political machinations, emanating from the clerics of this secular humanism.

Manent, therefore, is helpful in understanding the deep normative and aspirational humanitarian vision informing the impassioned resistance to “bans” and “–phobias” and “–anti-X, Y, or Z rhetoric,” and, conversely, for “diversity,” but on the cheap, without intellectual investigation or political deliberation or compromise. A special sense of human dignity works that last magic trick, by having “dignity” characterize not just persons but “lifestyles.” John Fonte, however, reminds us that “diversity realized” requires law and policy, not just correct attitudes.

He joins with Manent in recognizing that transnational Progressivism is rather more an elite phenomenon than a mass one. It has an “intelligentsia,” with its “social bases” and “networks.” Trump’s election did not occur in a vacuum, and the extant organs seeking for “radical change” saw in the disaster both an urgent need and, upon reflection, a surprising opportunity. Rahm Emanuel expressed the general attitude well in the face of an earlier opportunity.

Reading Manent and Fonte thus suggests that the Resistance should not be seen merely as an aggregate of various individuals and complaints, nor its analysis only a matter of surveys and preponderance of opinions. It has governing minds that, to an imponderable extent, seek to shape and orient the whole.

Moreover, it is quite telling that the Resistance discourse employed against Trump and his supporters is remarkably similar across the board, consistently binary, excoriating, and delegitimating. It is a net cast far beyond Trump and his administration. There was a brief period after the election when some liberals and Progressives did some soul-searching and sought to discern what in previous left-liberal thought and rhetoric had contributed to the Trump victory. Mark Lilla continues on that lonely path. But in the Resistance, other voices are stronger, more dominant, and more significant, expressing other convictions and commitments.

Following the lead of the classical founders of political philosophy, who declared man a political animal because a logos-animal, and who therefore attended to men’s speeches about community and justice, we set out on something of our own “listening tour,” guided by common observations and assisted by accomplished guides.

One may agree or disagree with the particular path we followed, but, in any event, political philosophy also reminds us that every significant political judgment implies a good deal more than the fact under consideration and its proper characterization. Fully developed, it implies an anthropology, a view of what it is to be human, a view of humanity in our commonalities and differences (and their significance), and of justice or right order among citizens and with all our fellow human beings. The sins, real or imagined, of Donald Trump do not exempt the Resistance from a searching investigation on these, and related, matters. They too are obliged by the Socratic imperative of giving an account of themselves. Sometimes, though, they may need a little help from a gadfly.