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The New New Left

We’re heading toward a meritocratic, libertarian-tilting consensus in America. That’s my reading of a large-scale survey of political and social views by the Pew Research Center, “Beyond Red vs. Blue: The Political Typology.” The report’s authors are more tentative. They play up the standard academic line: It’s more complicated than it looks, which in this case means that there’s more going on among voters than a simple left/right dichotomy. Well, yes, but there are clear trends. Although their politics are different, when it comes to deeper values, today’s younger liberals align with younger conservatives. Both cohorts marry free-market individualism with an affirmation of lifestyle freedom unhindered by and sometimes antagonistic toward older views of religion, morality, and social solidarity.

The study divides America up into eight groups (an always suspect but sometimes useful exercise in categorizing voters). Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives make up the base of the Republican party. Young Outsiders are anti-government but socially more liberal than other conservatives. They typically vote Republican as well, though not as reliably. Hard-Pressed Skeptics are what an old friend used to call “Lib-Necks” (among whom he proudly counted himself). They’re poor, conservative, and distrustful of the system, but the school of hard knocks has taught them the necessary role of government support. Their voting isn’t predictable. The Faith and Family Left is part of the Democratic party coalition, but their conservative social views don’t have any influence. The defining base of the Democratic party is the Solid Liberals. The Next Generation Left is the survey’s name for the rising cohort of liberals who will dominate the Democratic party in future decades. The eighth group is the Bystanders, the 10 percent of the population that gives little thought to politics.

The Steadfast and Business Conservatives, along with the Solid Liberals, are the most politically engaged Americans, constituting more than 50 percent of regular voters. They give money and staff campaigns, serve as conventional delegates, and vote in primaries. They’re opposed to each other on any number of issues and have very different basic attitudes toward our society. For example, more than 80 percent of Steadfast and Business Conservatives think that government regulation does more harm than good, while less than 10 percent of Solid Liberals think so. More than 80 percent of the same conservatives think the civil rights movement has done enough to guarantee equal rights for blacks. Less than 10 percent of Solid Liberals agree. A strong majority of conservatives think abortion should be illegal in most cases; less than 10 percent of the liberal base hold this view. A very substantial majority of conservatives think that marriage and family should be a priority; only 18 percent of liberals agree.

The divide is just as deep in foreign policy. Conservatives view military strength as the best way to ensure peace. Only 5 percent of liberals agree. They’re also profoundly at odds when it comes to the meaning of our country. More than 70 percent of conservatives agree with the proposition that America has flourished because we have relied on long-standing principles—something one would expect given the basic purpose of conservatism, which is to sustain the authority of long-standing principles. Meanwhile, nearly 80 percent of liberals say that our country has succeeded because of our ability to change, the attitude one would expect from progressives.

This we already know: When it comes to the bases of the Republican and Democratic parties, conservatives are from Mars and liberals from Venus. But among some of the other cohorts, especially among younger voters, an emerging trend closes that gap to some degree. This is especially true for liberals. The Next Generation Left will replace the Solid Liberals who currently dominate the Democratic party. They trend rightward on many economic issues in ways that foretell a realignment of the Democratic party.

The Next Generation Left is much more likely to judge our economic system fair (36 percent) than Solid Liberals (9 percent). They’re also less likely to have negative views of Wall Street—only Business Conservatives have a more positive view. Even more striking, the Next Generation Left is less likely to agree that the government should do more to help the needy than are the hard-core liberals (39 percent vs. 83 percent). They are much more likely to view lack of effort as an explanation for poverty and to say that hard work explains success. They also share with conservatives the view that America has pretty much done what needs to be done to ensure equal rights for African Americans and that black poverty today is not the result of ongoing discrimination.

Put simply, the rising generation of liberals is largely satisfied with our current system. They’re optimistic about the future and think things work pretty well. In their view, people can get ahead if they put in the effort. By and large, people get what they deserve. They’re not opposed to government regulation of the economy. But their zeal for intervention doesn’t reflect an overriding ideal of justice or equality. Instead, their pro-government impulses are based on their technocratic confidence that smart, talented people can make things better if they’re put in charge. Their vision of good government is the Federal Reserve.

The Next Generation Left is certainly liberal compared to conservative voters. In all the instances where they differ from their liberal elders, expressing more favorable views of our economic system, they’re still much less free-market oriented and anti-regulation than Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives. But their direction is nevertheless rightward. There’s no zeal for redistribution in this cohort, no rhetoric of social solidarity that speaks the language of empowerment. Some 32 percent of the Next Generation Left agree with the view that poor people have it easy because they can rely on government benefits—in contrast to only 6 percent of Solid Liberals. These younger liberals are Ivy League meritocrats and Silicon Valley dealmakers, not Great Society proponents and UAW organizers.

When it comes to social issues, however, the Next Generation Left is entirely in line with the cultural agenda of today’s Democratic party, which is one reason they’re loyal voters. They’re united with Solid Liberals in their affirmation of secularism, and these two cohorts are the least likely of all groups to attend church. When asked if society would be just as well-off if people had priorities other than marriage and children, the younger liberals and older liberals say “yes.” They affirm gay rights and support gay marriage. They share the view that abortion should be legal in all or most cases and favor the legalization of marijuana. They’re also united in an affirmation of environmentalism and the need to take action to prevent global warming, issues we should view as cultural because our political debates about them reflect deep intuitions about what it means to be human. However, again, a pro-business sentiment emerges among the young. Strong affirmations of environmentalism do not prevent members of the Next Generation Left from favoring the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The rise of the Next Generation Left will change the emphases of American liberalism. It will be more consistently individualistic, focused on justice as merit rightly rewarded rather than equality or solidarity, concerned to use government to manage and improve our free-enterprise system rather than transform it. This does not surprise me. The intellectual, political, and media leaders of the Next Generation Left, like their Solid Liberal parents, are well-to-do. Raised for the most part without religious affiliation, today’s secular educational establishment is their church. The official doctrines of that church may be defined by political correctness, but the reality is quite different. The universities they attend may preach to them about race, class, and gender. They may imbibe this rhetoric and use it themselves as the ritual language of public discourse. But they measure themselves and each other in terms of SAT scores, GPA, the ranking of the law schools they’re admitted to, and the prestige of their fellowships, internships, and eventual careers. For decades now, the mad meritocratic scramble for admission to elite universities has defined the life experience of the Next Generation Left (as well as young people on the right). They’ve had to make their way amid intense competition, and to a large extent they’ve succeeded.

That’s one reason we’re seeing a change on the left. The New Deal consensus and its ethic of economic solidarity are giving way to a meritocratic outlook that interprets inequalities as the result of talent, effort, and educational attainment rather than as injustices of “the system.” Younger liberals affirm the civil rights movement (as do nearly all Americans), but for them it has little in the way of living relevance. The same goes for today’s labor movement. They’re not opposed to government—far from it. Government should help when it can, of course, but in the end it’s up to the individual. It’s telling that one popular idea for dealing with the downward pressure put on working-class wages by economic globalization is to expand access to higher education, a forum for personal advancement even more individualistic than the marketplace.

This way of thinking dovetails with today’s progressive cultural politics and its war on traditional morality and the limitations it puts on personal choices about sex, family, and how we define who we are. Spirituality may be a good thing and younger liberals often express warm sentiments about “community,” but in the end it’s the individual who gets to decide about the meaning of life. This does not lead to a libertarian desire for minimal government. On the contrary, in their view it’s often necessary for government to intervene to protect our right to define our lives as we see fit. That’s why younger liberals who tilt in a libertarian direction when it comes to moral and cultural issues often paradoxically endorse state intervention to “reeducate” those who disagree with them. In this regard, they’re in full accord with the Solid Liberals, which is a reason why the Democratic coalition holds together. They’re united in their antipathy to older forms of moral authority, especially religious ones.

The Next Generation Left is far more likely to be outraged when they hear of two gay lawyers in Atlanta who can’t marry each other than when they encounter a homeless person pushing a shopping cart with all his worldly belongings. They’re more agitated by a supposedly oppressive morality than an economic and social system that doesn’t work well for everybody. This fundamental shift in political concerns is already transforming the Democratic party—and with it the parameters of national debate. There are and will continue to be divisions and debates circling around questions about the scope and purpose of government. But the left/right divide in America increasingly runs through a more individualistic consensus about what’s worth arguing about, a shift driven by the Next Generation Left. If First Things has any reason to exist, it’s to resist that trend.

The Meritocratic Machine

Educators have been penning jeremiads of late bemoaning the end of higher education. The New Republic published a lively one by ­William Deresiewicz, who has recently taught English at Yale. But, like so many, he can’t really face up to the problems and ends by contradicting himself. He starts by arguing that elite parents shouldn’t send their kids to elite places like Harvard, because the educational culture is soul-destroying, only to end by criticizing elite schools for failing to be more egalitarian, which means failing in their duty to bring poorer kids into the educational culture he’s already described as toxic.

At the outset, Deresiewicz zeroes in on the great competition for a place in the meritocracy, a process elite colleges and universities have encouraged. It’s a fierce competition that, as Mark Shiffman observes in a reflection we’ll soon publish, creates an atmosphere of fear. What if I don’t make it over the next hurdle? What if I, gulp, get a C? “Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment,” Deresiewicz tells us, “and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”

The narrow gate of admission—seen as the life-­defining moment by many young people (and their parents)—also encourages conformity and discourages risk-taking. Kids at fancy prep schools and public schools in well-off neighborhoods are surrounded by an industry devoted to credential-burnishing. There are college essay consultants and summer programs that promise to provide “special experiences” around which to build a winning college essay. All of this creates a carefully scripted life for elite teenagers. The right extracurriculars + stellar grades + eye-popping SAT scores = Harvard = success.

And do the kids ever perform! Like Deresiewicz, I’ve been impressed by the extraordinary talent, discipline, and skill of our new meritocrats. They’re thoroughbreds. But there’s a price: “Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

So it would seem that what we need to do is give 18- to 22-year-olds some ideas about why they’re investing so much of themselves in academic success. Which would entail clarity about what learning is for—the ends or goals of the life of the mind. But that’s exactly what Deresiewicz can’t provide. Instead, he gives us the usual empty phrases about critical thinking: “College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.” To this he adds empty abstractions about “building a self” and becoming an individual.

What’s missing here is truth, which is of course the proper end or goal of learning. Deresiewicz is vaguely aware of this, observing that religious colleges—“even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts”—do a better job of keeping the “higher” in higher education. But he can’t bring himself to use the T-word, which is why he ends up yet another would-be outsider who is in fact an insider. It’s one thing to posture as a critic of elite education. It’s another to sin against the spirit of secular liberal culture. For that culture, “truth”—soul-defining moral and metaphysical truth—is taboo, because truth enlivens the soul by commanding its allegiance. Truth demands assent. The self does not build “the self”—truth does, as St. Augustine says over and over again in many different ways in his Confessions.

Unable to speak of something so dangerous as truth, Deresiewicz does what progressives usually do, which is to turn to social justice. The new meritocracy is “partial,” made up mostly of children of the well-to-do. “Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself.” And “this system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”

Progressives are amazingly consistent. They always seek to solve problems of the soul by re-describing them as problems with society. Thus Deresiewicz’s call to action: We need “to plot our exit to another kind of society altogether.” His vision is fuzzy—affirmative action based on class, not race; no more legacy admissions; and so forth. But, no, that’s just an effort to make the meritocracy more meritocratic. Better to ditch that system altogether. We need true democracy. Free higher education for all!

William Deresiewicz gives us good reason to think higher education today has no resources to save itself. His jeremiad is little more than a well-written compilation of the usual faculty lounge talking points about critical thinking, the evils of elitism, and the redemptive ideals of social justice. In that sense, although posturing as an outsider, he complements the ideologies that dominate elite higher education. What higher education needs is something quite different. Not “another kind of society altogether,” but another sort of educational culture. The antidote to the soul-crushing (and entitlement-generating) meritocratic machine is clarity about what intellectual gifts are for—to seek and serve the truth.

Anti-Religious Nonsense

I’m not sure I’ve ever read such a blatant expression of rank bigotry. University of Pennsylvania English professor Peter Conn (emeritus) recently wrote about accreditation in higher education for the Chronicle of Higher Education, the establishment publication for folks who run the educational-industrial complex. Colleges and universities that wish to remain institutions in good standing regularly go through bureaucratic rituals to secure accreditation. It’s a big deal these days because it’s required if their students are to remain eligible for government grants and subsidized student loans.

Lots of educators worry that the accreditation process involves unnecessary and increasingly expensive paperwork, or that the accreditation agencies tend to be captive to the latest educational fashions (“outcomes assessment,” for example). But not Peter Conn. “I want to raise a different and, in my view, far more important objection to accreditation as codified and practiced now. By awarding accreditation to religious colleges, the process confers legitimacy on institutions that systematically undermine the most fundamental purposes of higher education.”

And what are those purposes? One is “skeptical and unfettered inquiry,” which Conn sees in obvious contradiction to the mission of a religious college. He gives the example of Wheaton College, “one of the colleges that oblige their faculty members to complete faith statements.” Another is “the primacy of reason,” which he views as antithetical to the requirements of religious orthodoxy. Therefore, “providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.”

Now, don’t get him wrong. “I have no particular objection to like-minded adherents of one or another religion banding together, calling their association a college, and charging students for the privilege of having their ­religious beliefs affirmed.” But his tolerance only goes so far. “I have a profound objection to legitimizing such an association through accreditation, and thereby conceding that the integrity of scholarship and teaching is merely negotiable. I also object to the expenditure of taxpayer dollars in support of religious ideology.” In sum: écrasez l’infâme.

This high dudgeon is almost entirely disconnected from reality. It is true that Wheaton asks its faculty to sign a faith statement. And Penn? I can guarantee you that Peter Conn has quite a long list of dogmas he applies when sitting on hiring committees, openly or not. It’s clear that no candidate who is openly religious could get past this secular Torquemada. And then there’s sex. Quite frankly, it’s impossible for anyone to get a job at Penn or any other self-proclaimed bastion of “skeptical and unfettered inquiry” if he has expressed the slightest reservations about gay marriage.

I taught for twenty years at a religious school, Creighton University. It did not require faculty to sign a faith statement, but nevertheless emphasized its Catholic mission, sometimes enraging secular faculty when insisting that job candidates write a statement explaining what they would contribute to the Catholic mission. But at Creighton I encountered far more diversity of opinion than I experienced at secular colleges and universities supposedly committed to “skeptical and unfettered inquiry.” Faculty taught classes on sexual ethics that took seriously a wide range of arguments, including those supporting the authoritative teachings of the Catholic Church. This can’t be done at Penn where politically correct dogmas dominate. At Creighton there were serious debates about pacifism and just war, about free enterprise and the proper role of the state to promote the common good. Again, in my experience this rarely happens at secular universities. They are so ideologically homogeneous that there’s little room for dissent on many issues.

Over time I came to realize that the authority of Christian dogma did far more to promote academic freedom at Creighton than the pious slogans of the American Association of University Professors, which never offers criticism of the stifling atmosphere of censorship that one finds at places like Penn. Unlike American liberalism, Christianity is not a parochial culture. A two-thousand-year tradition with transcendent ambitions and a global reach, it encourages free inquiry because it has texture, nuance, and depth: “In my father’s house there are many mansions.” When Wheaton requires its faculty to sign a statement of faith, the college is requiring its faculty to stand inside that culture and tradition, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stand still. By contrast, our academic culture today is thin and lacks an authoritative tradition, even an academic one. That’s why the latest academic fashions and political passions become so tyrannical. They meet with little resistance.

Why We’re Going to Win in the End

A twentysomething friend of mine sends this report from an upscale barbershop in Brooklyn: “Unpronounceable lotions, ointments, and creams were on sale alongside overpriced t-shirts, messenger bags, and vintage sunglasses. A gay couple flirted next to me on the waiting room bench. Obscure magazines that would probably reject my request for a subscription (quarterly, of course) were available for reading. The barber had two full sleeves of tattoos. I asked him about his family. He has a son. He’s married. We chat about fatherhood. He asks what I do for a living. Light banter. I’m getting drowsy.

“Then, unprompted he asks me: ‘Where do you think we should live? Isn’t there any place we can go where the taxes are lower, the housing is cheap, and the schools are better?’ Stunned silence from me before I finally blurt out: ‘You ever been to Texas?’

“‘Yea? A’ight. . . . I gotta check that out. We are drowning here in NYC and I make good money as a barber! My feet hurt at the end of the day, but that’s not bad. I’ll suffer that as long as we can save and put our family in the right spot.’”

Tattoos only mark the body. Marriage and family mark our souls. They’re powerful realities that reassert themselves, even in the citadels of hipsterdom. And as they reassert themselves, people sense the poverty of our secular culture. They have been deprived of a moral vocabulary to talk about fundamental human desires for permanence in marriage, for the opportunity to take responsibility for oneself and one’s family, for a place to stand, for a place to thrive. We have the words they’re struggling to utter—and the place to stand and thrive.