Whether it’s the rise to national prominence of Vermont’s self-described democratic socialist senator Bernie Sanders, the election of a beyond-stereotypical 1970s sandal-wearing bearded-lefty, Jeremy Corbyn, as British Labour leader, polls estimating that 36 percent of Americans millennials have positive views of socialism, the breakthrough into mainstream politics by left-wing parties such as Syriza in Greece, the Scottish Nationalists in Britain, and Podemos in Spain, or New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s latest social engineering programs, it’s hard to deny that the left seems emboldened throughout much of the West today.
Less attention, however, has been directed to considering how this has all come to pass. Part of the answer concerns relatively recent events—but only part. Much of it also reflects long-term developments to which some conservatives are either inattentive or prefer to ignore.
One of the recent happenings is the 2008 Great Recession. Whatever the facts, many people associate it with capitalism rather than bad government policies. That’s inclined many people to negative views of free markets. Then there’s the related issue of economic insecurity. Millennials emerging from universities are not only loaded down with student-debt and increasingly uncompetitive degrees. In some cases, they confront unsettled job-markets, especially in Western Europe. Given that many have also been thoroughly immersed in liberal-left ideas for at least three years, we shouldn’t be perplexed that they start viewing socialist solutions as attractive alternatives.
These contemporary problems, however, mask the impact of deeper trends that are sustaining and bolstering the left over the long-term. And, as unwilling as some conservatives are to accept it, few of these are amenable to quick fixes, let alone another social media campaign. Here are just three of the more prominent forces at work.
One abiding cause of the left’s on-going ascendency, I’d suggest, is that the visible weakening of orthodox religion throughout the West. As the 20th century Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac observed, liberalized forms of Judaism and Christianity don’t involve abandonment of a desire for the transcendent. Man, he claimed, remains homo religiosus. The yearning for the eschaton subsequently gets channeled by liberal religion into the pursuit of this-worldly commitments.
The briefest of glances at the mission statements of many liberal synagogues, churches, and religious orders illustrates just how focused they are on endless activism for name-your-fashionable-cause. Equally revealing is how they gloss over important truths about the human condition repeatedly underscored in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, such as the folly of seeking heaven-on-earth.
But why settle for this halfway-house when you can opt for the real thing—full-blown secular utopianism—whether it’s socialism, transhumanism, neo-pagan environmentalism, or seeking virtual immortality by trying to find ways to upload yourself onto the internet? In this light, it’s hardly surprising that churches in countries like Germany are museums, while many secularized Jews and nominal Christians in America have invested all their religious instincts into a commitment to realizing social justice à la John Rawls.
Related to this is a second enduring dynamic that’s boosting the left’s forward-march, and which is perhaps even less curable by policy-changes. It is, in a word, democracy.
By this, I don’t mean the formal participation of increasing numbers of citizens in the process of decision-making. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Rather, I have in mind what the French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville identified as the force that underpins democracy’s emergence: the passion for equality.
It’s often said that the right takes the side of liberty while the left favors equality. That’s not quite right. Conservatives are—or should be—attached to the principle of the equality of all before the law, something many left-liberals disparage as merely formal equality that disguises deeper inequities. Likewise, the left can’t stop talking about autonomy when it comes to issues such as euthanasia. Generally, however, insistence upon greater equality—not just economic equality, but also genetic equality, marriage equality, species-equality, whatever-equality—is the left’s preserve.
In Democracy in America, Tocqueville stresses the difficulty of limiting democracy’s levelling effects to the widening of political participation. The quest for equality-as-sameness spills over, Tocqueville noted, into other spheres. This manifests itself in increasingly hostile attitudes towards the wealthy, but also negative views of genuine (i.e., non-de Blasio-mandated) pluralism.
For all their talk about diversity, the left isn’t generally interested in non-left opinions. In fact, they tend to demonize them. Try suggesting, for example, to a group of New York liberals that Paul Krugman’s policy-preferences are open to serious critique, or to San Francisco legislators that rent-control generally hurts the poor. I guarantee that it won’t be long before they start suggesting that your motives for claiming so are suspect.
In that sense, this desire for sameness-of-thought—a third powerful long-term influence—reflects the hermeneutics of suspicion that’s been part-and-parcel of left-wing thought at least since Marx. Tocqueville, however, claimed that he knew of no country with “less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion” than American democratic society.
This sounds strange to us. Isn’t freedom of speech treasured by many Americans? But Tocqueville’s point is that the democratic craving for equality-as-sameness can make “certain thoughts seem suddenly to disappear from the memory of men” and bolsters a “censorship a thousand times more powerful than that exercised by power.”
Consider, for instance, how many people keep insisting that global poverty is increasing when the evidence indicates it’s actually been diminishing for a long time. The problem highlighted by Tocqueville is that when a viewpoint comes to be held by large numbers of people in democratic societies, it inexorably leads to many concluding that this opinion ought to be accepted by everyone—no matter how wrong-headed it may be.
This trinity of (1) the powerful sway exerted by widely shared opinions in democratic societies, (2) ever-increasing demands for equalizing conditions in all spheres of the same societies, and (3) pervasive secular utopianism creates a potent force for the left’s pursuit of its various agendas. It’s also one that’s extremely difficult for conservatives to counter. Certainly, the historical record isn’t kind to left-wing economic policies. And we all know where dreams of heaven-on-earth take us. Nevertheless, the left continues its steady march across much of the body-politic in the West.
Today, many conservatives focus upon responding to the left by seeking to capture their language, make clever use of communications technologies, develop emotionally compelling appeals, and win elections. Yes, some of these things are important—sometimes very important. But they’re simply insufficient if conservatives are going to seriously counter some of the subterranean forces that, despite all the social and economic wreckage created by the left for decades, keep propelling left-wing priorities to the forefront of political discussion.
The long-term perspective always wins. The left knows this. They act accordingly. Why don’t conservatives?