There has been a great deal of overblown talk about the alleged “libertarian moment” that the United States is experiencing just about now, and there is a reason that the Right, broadly speaking, has taken an intellectual turn in the libertarian direction. The first and most important is the ascendance of Barack Obama, whose vision of effectively unlimited government gives conservatives the willies. But there are deeper reasons, too: The Right believes, not without some reason, that the main reason we ended up with a disastrous Obama-Pelosi-Reid triumvirate government — the brief years of which imposed damage that will take much longer to undo — had to do with the foreign policy of George W. Bush and the fiscal incontinence of congressional Republicans during the Bush years. While the Obama administration has not yet produced a superior foreign-policy operating model, the Bush approach is not really looking any better in retrospect, at least in the sense that it would be difficult to say with a straight face that Iraq, Afghanistan, or the broader Middle East look today like more tractable problems than they did in 2001, or like they might become more tractable. On the domestic front, abortion has effectively calcified into a modus vivendi (more accurately, a horrifying modus mortis), and the new lion of the social issues, gay marriage, is a wet kitten by comparison, in that no sensible, non-fanatical person thinks of gay marriage as being as urgent an issue as abortion.
All of those are relevant, but consider one further, broader dynamic at work: The Right is finally coming around to the understanding that what mainly distinguishes it from the Left is not its general preference for muscular foreign policy, its not always convincing defense of the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even its relatively faithful reading of the Constitution, as important as those things are. Rather, the fight between Right and Left is about coercion.
That the Left has become much more intensively coercive in recent years has not gone unnoticed among conservatives. In Liberal Fascism and elsewhere, Jonah Goldberg has popularized a longstanding view of the left-wing philosophy that in the United States calls itself “liberalism” — though we cannot in good faith call it that — that connects it with the nakedly coercive, antidemocratic, and anti-constitutional tendency of Woodrow Wilson and the progressives of his era, and with the various nasty totalitarian movements that inspired them and were inspired by them in turn. It’s not that we expect Robert Reich to come marching up Fifth Avenue wearing jackboots (the Pride March ain’t what it used to be) but that managerial progressivism is fundamentally corporatist in the sense that Mussolini et al. used the term: It conceives of formal political power and economic production as a single unit to be kept working in harmony, like a well-tuned engine, by such experts as the state recognizes as suited to the task. In theory, these men are to be guided by evidence meeting scientific standards — they are to be the sort of disinterested and dispassionate pragmatists that exist mainly within the narrow confines of Ezra Klein’s cranium.
The problem, as various capital-”F” Fascists and National Socialists and Communist politburos and Vox readers all discovered in their turn, is that even if these dispassionate and disinterested managers existed — and they don’t — bureaucracies do not have the collective cognitive firepower to replace markets, or even to intelligently guide them. From the Soviet five-year plans to Obamacare, all central-planning exercises begin in hubris and end in chaos.
And when the chaos comes, the natural thing to do — the imperative thing — is: find someone to blame. The planners and schemers are intellectually incapable of dealing seriously with the fact that the project that they have set for themselves — substituting their own judgment for that of the billions of better-informed parties in the market and coming up with superior outcomes — is an impossible one. But once you’ve accepted real limits on what planning can do — on what government can do — then you have at some level essentially surrendered to conservatism.
And that means that somebody, somewhere, must be a racist.
Jonathan Chait, the sort of nice suburban liberal boy you’d want your daughter to marry if you hated your daughter, in his recent essay on the alleged renaissance of political correctness, bemoaned the emergence of racial- and gender-identity politics as an ultimate rhetorical trump card. Chait either misses or ignores the fact that this is not new; what’s new is that the wanton application of this juvenile mode of discourse now encompasses previously immune white liberals. But the tendency itself is ancient, and prominent on his end of the political spectrum.
“А у вас негров линчуют” is a bitter Soviet-era punch line meaning, roughly, “But in your country they lynch Negroes.” There were a million Cold War variations on the joke: The Soviet farm minister meets his U.S. counterpart, who inquires about whether the heroic Soviet farmers are meeting their five-year plans. Asked about each crop in turn, the Soviet minister is forced to sheepishly admit that they are woefully behind on every goal, and then demands: “But what about the blacks in the South?” A U.S. car salesman asks a Soviet counterpart how many months the typical Soviet citizen must work to purchase an entry-level car, and the Ruskie answers: “In your country, you lynch Negroes.”
When Matt Yglesias says he wants to “lay down a marker and say once again that Obamacare implementation is going to be a huge political success,” and that doesn’t happen, what happens next? Another chorus of “The Tea Party Is Racist!” from Ezra Klein, or from whomever.
The Wilsonian vision of domestic governance through expertise and fiat quickly devolved into a reality of goon squads, political persecution, crushing of dissent with formal and informal political violence, politicization of law enforcement, etc. The Occupy bomb-throwers and the imbecile hooligans committing arson to prove that “black lives matter” are not quite the American Protective League, but they’re of a piece with it. In the Wilson years, we had politicized police; in the Obama years, we have a weaponized IRS . . . and Justice Department, and police unions, and jailers’ unions. The Wilson-era progressives tried to use the Sedition Act to shut down critics of the great progressive. In our time, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Harry Reid want to throw people in prison for unpopular political activism of which they disapprove. The grand plans of 2009 are coming unraveled, as grand plans do, and so the Left grows ever more naked in its coercion. On the official side of the spectrum, you have Senate Democrats voting to repeal the First Amendment so that they can suppress political criticism. On the unofficial side — as the perpetually late-to-the-party Jonathan Chait has suddenly noticed — you have people such as Brendan Eich being run out of their jobs for holding unpopular political opinions, human-rights heroes such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali run off college campuses, and Trustafarians from suburban Boston shutting down emergency ambulance services because they are displeased about . . . something.
The fun part for the Left is that, in Mount Holyoke as in Pyongyang, totalitarianism is magnified by madness, and thus The Vagina Monologues must be suppressed on the grounds that not all women have vaginas. If you do not follow these sorts of things closely, you would not believe the vitriol — up to and including death threats — rained down on feminist groups who insist that while they sympathize with transsexuals they do not believe that a penis-and-testicle-bearing person counts as a woman simply on his own say-so.
The Left’s last big idea was Communism. When Lenin turned out to be the god who failed, the Left undertook wide exploration for another grand unifying idea: environmentalism, multiculturalism, economic inequality, atheism, feminism, etc. What it ended up with was an enemies’ list.
That and a taste for brute force.
The enthusiasm for coercion and the substitution of enemies for ideas — Christians, white men, Israel, “the 1 percent,” the Koch brothers, take your pick — together form the basis for understanding the Left’s current convulsions. The call to imprison people with unapproved ideas about global warming, the Senate Democrats’ vote to repeal the First Amendment, the Ferguson-inspired riots, the picayune political correctness and thought-policing that annoys Jonathan Chait, the IRS’s persecution of conservative political groups, Barack Obama’s White House enemies’ list, the casual violence against conservatives on college campuses and the Left’s instinctive defense of that violence — these are not separate phenomena but part of a single phenomenon.
The difference between Elizabeth Warren’s partisans and the Tontons Macoutes is very little more than testosterone and time.
— Kevin D. Williamson is the roving correspondent of National Review.