The conflict we call the culture war has neither a truly liberal nor a truly conservative side. Instead, we simply have two different flavors of illiberalism, both damaging the foundations of our Republic in turn.
As Lincoln once so aptly said, the American nation was “conceived in liberty.” But what is liberty? Philosophers, intellectuals, and political scientists have defined liberty in ways at odds with each other. Worse, the word liberty has been used rashly by politicians of all stripes who draw near to the founders with their lips but whose hearts are far from them.
It’s easy to see why present-day Americans find it hard to perceive the liberty Lincoln spoke of. It’s easy to understand why American’s fail to grasp their nation’s conception in liberty and how the framework of a constitutional republic preserves that liberty. In our present day, the American people are no longer conditioned to comprehend citizenship in a constitutional republic.
Instead, the political winds have conditioned them to think as citizens of a progressive (or social) democracy. And, in a progressive democracy, the prevailing function of government becomes championing ideas of culture instead of preserving the ideas of liberty. This, despite the resilience of the founders’ liberal order.
The liberty of the founders is one where the government thinks twice before meddling in personal affairs. It is a liberty crafted by those who aspired for human virtue yet believed such virtue is a chiefly personal venture. Virtue can only flourish as private citizens are left to their own designs, within the demands of justice.
For this purpose, the founders crafted a constitutionally limited republic. Such a government ably performs the basic duties of government while bridling itself through checks and balances. Virtue and culture, under the regime of the founding fathers, was not the concern of government. It was a matter for private society. Under the constitutional regime, the government’s only duty to virtue was to secure and maintain a sphere of liberty. Individuals, under the US Constitution, can pursue virtue and craft popular culture as they please.
Starting in the early 20th century, a challenge arose to the founders’ liberal order in the name of progressivism. It was a challenge that espoused a new liberty. This “new liberty” was one that progressives believed could only be possible through a state-driven collective effort. This would be an effort that treated culture as a centralized construct. The checks and balances of the constitutional order, designed to preserve individual liberty, hindered this new “progressive” idea of liberty.
The progressives of the early 20th Century democratized the American Republic and soiled the founders’ vision. While the workings of the constitutional framework were far from thwarted, the progressive era drastically turned the minds of America’s citizens. The view that government should be restrained in its vision, and that culture should be allowed to progress free of government interference, was largely cast aside in deed, if not in word.
Americans came to believe, and still believe, that the state should reflect the spirit of the age. They grew to expect the government to respond strongly to each of their needs. They abandoned the idea that the government should simply shield their natural liberties.
Progressivism’s chief tenet is the belief that a powerful state, in the hands of a just majority, can guide society and its prevalent culture to virtue as a collective effort. The progressives failed to thwart the founders’ checks and balances fully. But their lasting victory was to unleash the executive branch from its narrow definition as executor of the laws. The effect this has had on the body politic is not what the early progressives conceived. This is because there is no just majority.
The founders feared pure democracy because they feared the power factions could gain under majority rule. They crafted a government that struck a balance that permits factions to gain power yet restricts any one faction from wielding total power. The founders believed the proper way to govern was through coalition and compromise. The progressive mindset of America’s citizens has erased these civic virtues.
Today, progressives describe themselves as socially liberal and secular with a desire to use the state to promote social justice. When it comes to religion and culture, many progressives often espouse “freedom from religion” and revel in loosened social norms. However, these modern progressives differ from their forebears. Religion had been a vital plank in early progressive beliefs.
Woodrow Wilson was the very image of the “Christian” progressive. He believed God had placed him in the office of the president. He was convinced it was his duty as a Christian to use the wheels of the state to prod the nation towards Christian virtue and culture. It was chiefly Wilson’s religious zeal that provided the basis for the progressive re-founding of the American nation. These efforts matured into the Prohibition, the most forceful attempt at sweeping societal change embarked upon by early progressives. As law, it decreed legal conformity to the beliefs of religious temperance.
But there are even more stark facts about early progressivism. Today’s progressives stake out their position in the culture war as heirs of the civil rights era, champions of equality, and friends to the immigrant. Yet, early progressivism was easily the most ethnocentric and nativist faction to ever come to power in America.
Many modern progressives decry the founding of America’s constitutional republic as conceived in bondage and bigotry, instead of liberty. Yes, there were wretched realities that forced the founders to make hard choices. But given the progressive embrace of racialism and bigoted immigration law, the original founding was far more just in its vision than the progressive re-founding.
It is common to describe this struggle we call the culture war as a contest between liberals and conservatives. The Left believes it is a conflict between a hopeful view of the future and those who remain smitten with a tainted past. The Right believes it is a conflict between those who wish to preserve American greatness and those who want to snuff out Judeo-Christian cultural values. However, neither side is liberal or conservative in the traditional sense of American politics.
The culture war is a contest to control government and fight for cultural pre-eminence and victory. The rhetoric is so heightened because the stakes couldn’t be higher. Both sides are fighting to protect their way of life from government encroachment because each side intends to do so. This contest is decidedly illiberal and non-conservative.
The reality of the culture war is that it is a progressive civil war. It is a conflict between two divorced notions of progressivism. The Left is not espousing liberalism; it’s espousing secular progressivism. The Right is not espousing conservatism; it’s espousing Christian progressivism.
Both sides believe they have the correct notion of the good life. Both think they know the path towards a just and virtuous society. And, both sides believe this path lies in controlling the government. That is because both sides are fundamentally progressive. In the end, neither side has faith that the truths they believe in can flourish if the government is actually reeled back to its constitutional republic roots.
This is why the Left cheered Barack Obama when he said he would fundamentally transform America. This is why the Right cheers when Trump “fights” and declares he alone can fix America’s problems. These are not the actions of guardians of individual liberty. They are not republican leaders governing an impartial state under which we can live and believe as we choose.
Instead, these are the actions of culture warriors and statists whipping up populist unrest to propel them into control of a progressive democracy. Liberty be damned, they will wrest state authority to fight for their majority. They will transform America and America’s culture in the image of their ideal of virtue.
However, I believe this dual-sided attempt to gain cultural victory will fail. It will fail just as early progressivism ultimately failed to thwart the founding vision. Early progressives underestimated the resilience of the constitutional order. And, they discounted how firmly the ideals of liberty remain engraved in the hearts of America’s citizens.
In the end, most Americans simply want to be left alone to pursue the American dream as they see fit. True, many Americans think as citizens in a progressive democracy. But their hearts remain rooted in the traditions of their constitutional republic. As we have seen, would-be statists must whip the average American citizen into a fearful frenzy of their cultural opposites in order to wield power in their name. But in the end, it is a fear of losing liberty that provides the basis of their fear.
Barack Obama failed to fundamentally transform America. Donald Trump has failed at his attempt to “make America great again.” No one is going to win the culture war. It may not be today and it may not be in the near future. But one day Americans will shun progressivism as the failed pilfering of our constitutional republic that it truly is.