The January 6 Committee’s hearings have been full of evidence of a deeply authoritarian streak within parts of the American Right. And far from a fringe, some Republicans have gone so far as paying homage to the lunatic Capitol stormers.
Many have looked to the progressive camp as the “Resistance” to Trump’s autocracy, yet the Left itself has become increasingly censorious, though this has not stopped it from being embraced by President Joe Biden and much of his party.
This has led many old style liberals to see conservatives as allies against the Left’s abandonment of America’s core values for a more Stalinist brand of politics—only to be greeted by the kind of revelations we’ve been getting from the hearings, to say nothing of the Right’s support for guns without restrictions, and using vigilantes to inform on those getting abortions.
Americans are getting squeezed. One side embraces political violence while the other side is widely supportive of government-sponsored censorship, defunding the police, indoctrination in schools and an apocalyptic environmental agenda that threatens to further immiserate the middle class, the working class, and the poor.
Yet this is precisely why it’s imperative for traditional liberals in the Truman to Clinton tradition to stand up to these two increasingly brutal worldviews.
The good news is that some liberals are pushing back against this awful dichotomy. Much of the noise comes from Substack, where long time center-Left writers like Andrew Sullivan and Matt Taibbi have taken on Biden for his embrace of the progressive culture war and the media for its preference for narrative over facts and rational discussion.
The ideological shift, shaped by a no longer responsible media, has turned into a screaming match between irreconcilables. The Left displays the growing tendency to seek control over information. The tech oligarchs have been willing to play handmaidens to government suppression, censoring or demeaning dissent even from mainstream scientists on issues like the pandemic, gender or climate. This is an enormous departure from what once constituted liberalism. “Liberals believe in Liberty, I tell myself,” Thomas Frank wrote despairingly in the Guardian, yet they have become the primary advocates for censorship and thought control.
Yet if the progressive Left has lost both their mooring and their minds, they have good company on the Right. Conservative politics increasingly resembles the flip side of progressive authoritarianism. Like among Democrats, inter-party dissent—for example, on the insistence on replaying Trump’s 2020 fantasy—has become the subject of sometimes murderous rhetoric, like that on display in the gun-toting ads put out by Missouri Senate aspirant Eric Greitens showing him “hunting for RINOs,” meaning those who reject Trump’s claim of a 2020 victory.
And while the desire to restrict indoctrination on sex, race and gender may be legitimate, red states are now increasingly banning curricula from above rather than in the localities, in violation of traditional federalist approaches.
On another front, Roe-related adjustments may be salable in many states, but bans on any abortion, such as the draconian Oklahoma law, would restrict people even before they know they are pregnant. In the diverse and increasingly sophisticated Texas, the GOP has adopted a fully reactionary social program, including a call for a secession vote, that seems more like Jefferson Davis than Ronald Reagan.
So why should liberals work to carve out a middle ground? In part because neither Right nor Left is about to abandon their autocratic goals. Yet most Americans want reasonable alternatives. Common sense turns out to be an under-appreciated brand.
Despite the cult around Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, barely 18 percent of Americans believe the federal government will do the right thing, a pattern reinforced by the poor response to COVID-19. Despite the media profile of the “Squad” and other outspoken Left-wing voices in the party, the majority of Democrats still consider themselves moderate or conservative, while barely one in four see themselves as “very liberal.” Another study found that traditional and “passive” liberals outnumber progressives by three to one. Overall, notes Gallup, 40 percent of Americans identify as independent, which is 8 percent more than those who identify as Democrats and 10 percent more than those who identify as Republicans.
Among Republicans, despite Trump’s vaunted popularity with them, we see similar patterns, with roughly 40 percent wanting their party to move closer to the center. The January 6 hearings seem likely to further the separation between Trump and the party. Meanwhile, traditional conservatives and moderates are more than five times more numerous that “devoted” Right-wingers.
The power of the center also may be far more geographically widespread than many suggest. Sarah Lawrence political scientist Sam Abrams found voters in the south are only slightly more conservative than those in the Northeast. “Self-described moderates control the balance of power in all regions,” Abrams suggests. This is also the case if you break down areas by rural, suburban, and urban designations.
A return to centrist liberalism, of course, faces many challenges, particularly as the Left has assumed control of much of the Democratic Party. But a 2022 defeat could lead some Democrats to move away from what former Clinton strategist James Carville scathingly labels “the politics of the faculty lounge.” Embraced at places like Harvard and at the highest echelons of corporate America, woke ideology is widely unpopular among working class Americans; most Americans, including most Democrats, fear crime. And the progressive educational agenda is so unpopular as to spark numerous parent revolts around the country.
Some on the Left seem to welcome a potential thrashing, including the loss of socially conservative minority voters as a purgative creating a more decisively progressive party. Yet the progressives have painted themselves into a corner. Their economic agenda would have appeal but for their insistence on intersectionality, which means forcing voters to swallow extreme environmentalism, cultural edginess, gender fluidity and race theory along with their neo-socialism.
There is a better way for Democrats, one that more accurately reflects the values and proven success of liberal policies, from the electrification of the hinterland to the space program, the GI Bill, the Civil Rights Act, and aid for home loans. By embracing not victimization but human achievement, liberals can craft a way forward that does not torch the Republic in the process.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter: @joelkotkin.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.