I can’t imagine a policy more irrelevant to the problems facing our society than bathroom privileges for transgender students. The bottom half of American society is collapsing. Voters are revolting against establishment candidates, casting doubt on the economic and cultural consensus that has predominated over the last generation. And the Obama administration presses for transgender rights? This is amazing, but not surprising given the history of post-sixties liberalism.
When I was a child, my home state, Maryland, was dominated by the postwar Democratic party: white ethnic working-class voters, educated progressives in Baltimore and its suburbs, and white segregationists who still saw the party of Woodrow Wilson as their natural home. In 1966, segregationist and gubernatorial candidate George Mahoney leveraged racial animus to triumph in a bitter Democratic party primary. But times were changing, and Republican Spiro Agnew won in the general election, attracting educated progressives and helped by more than 70 percent of the black vote.
That election was the beginning of major shifts in the electorate. Riots, protests, and the general atmosphere of collapse in the late sixties unsettled working-class white voters. White flight from Baltimore and other cities accelerated, and Richard Nixon’s “law and order” rhetoric resonated with the new suburbanites who had once been reliable voters in urban machines. Meanwhile, the Democratic party renounced its segregationist past and evolved into a coalition of African-American voters, white working-class voters who remained loyal to memories of FDR, white retirees dependent on Social Security, and college-educated liberals—a pattern repeated elsewhere throughout the country.
That coalition took a while to solidify, but it made sense. It retained the pro-labor emphasis of the old left, while giving play to some conservative social themes such as tough-on-crime stances that satisfied white working- and middle-class voters. It provided patronage to African Americans, whose leaders had superseded bosses of the old white ethnic urban political machine in cities like Baltimore. And it took up enough of the cultural causes and rhetoric of the new left to satisfy college-educated liberals.
But the wheels of change kept turning. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan moved the white working class into the Republican fold. But at the same time, the children of the white men who worked at places like Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point outside Baltimore were going to college. As a result, the pool of educated white liberals grew, adding votes to the Democratic coalition. And not just votes, but money and cultural power.
By the time we get to Obama, the Democratic party had become home to the richest and most well-educated Americans. Close to 70 percent of professionals voted for him in 2008, as did a majority of those making $200,000 or more per year. There are more Democrats than Republicans currently representing the hundred richest congressional districts. The successful people in today’s global economy, a mostly white cohort that makes up 20 to 25 percent of the population, are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. The party of FDR is no longer the little guy’s party. It now advances the economic and cultural interests of post-Protestant WASPs, a consolidated cultural identity that, although populated mostly by white Americans, includes others who share their elite status.
At the same time that the successful upper end of society was coming to lean Democratic, another dynamic was at work on the other end. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act dramatically increased immigration from Latin America and Asia, populating America with new vulnerable constituencies. Over time, this provided a ready population to slot into the role of the downtrodden, allowing the Democratic party to sustain a sense of itself as the defender of the weak.
These recent immigrants and children of immigrants have been replacing the Reagan Democrats, giving the Democratic party electoral muscle to support its post-Protestant WASP leadership. But there is a difference. The white working and middle class in the FDR and LBJ coalitions vied for control of American culture and politics. Immigrant populations, by contrast, enter the Democratic party coalition on the same terms as African Americans. They are clients in a millet system, benefiting from liberal patronage. Add gay people, single women, and anyone who feels himself an “outsider,” and the basic structure of today’s Democratic party comes into view. Its policy priorities are dominated by a large cohort of well-educated, well-off, mostly white liberals who justify their ascendancy with promises to promote and protect those who feel “excluded” or “marginalized.”
In this coalition, gay rights become particularly important. Environmentalism energizes upper middle-class liberals, for example, but can often run counter to the interests of those lower on the social ladder. Banning fracking won’t energize Latino or African-American voters. Gay rights, by contrast, function as an upper-middle-class liberal issue that nevertheless resonates throughout the Democratic coalition. Led by well-educated, mostly white liberals, LGBT organizations, like feminist ones and pro-abortion ones, are strongly tilted toward the problems facing successful and well-off gays and lesbians. But the civil rights rhetoric of ending discrimination and promoting inclusion matches concerns among African Americans, Hispanics, and other voter blocs that feel marginalized as well. This makes gay rights the perfect focal point for Democrats. The movement has a well-off, well-educated constituency whose goals pose no threat to the economic and cultural ascendancy of post-Protestant WASPs—and at the same time promotes a solidarity in marginality that keeps the Democratic coalition unified and motivated.
The problem, of course, is that a solidarity-in-marginality coalition capable of commanding electoral majorities has an increasingly hard time maintaining its plausibility. How long can a coalition that wins elections and exercises power pose as the party of the marginalized? At some point, political success undermines the urgency of a rainbow coalition. The tensions between the One Percent focus of feminism and the LGBT movements and the interests of immigrants and African Americans becomes more visible, to say nothing of the disconnect between the base of the Democratic party from the economic and cultural interests of those who fund and run it.
To motivate their voter base, liberals have invested a great deal in identifying ever-new patterns of discrimination. Notions such as “microaggression” and “intersectionality” reflect second-wave (or is it third-wave?) liberation politics. They gain currency because of the law of political supply and demand. The twenty-first-century Democratic solidarity-in-marginality coalition is held together by anxieties about exclusion and domination by the “other,” which is to say by Republican voters. This creates a strong political demand for narratives of oppression, which liberal intellectuals are happy to supply.
This dynamic operates most visibly at our universities, where well-off, mostly white liberals—the post-Protestant WASPs—rule. The legitimacy of this elite depends upon its commitment to “include” the “excluded.” It goes without saying that an Ivy League administrator must manage the optics very carefully to sustain “marginality” among the talented students who have gained admission. “Microaggression” and other key terms in the ever-evolving scholasticism of discrimination thus play very useful roles. They renew the threats of discrimination and exclusion, and this reinforces the power of liberal elites. Their institutional ascendancy is necessary to protect and provide patronage to the “excluded.” I’m quite certain that if political correctness succeeds in suppressing “microaggressions,” we’ll soon hear about “nano-aggressions.” The logic of solidarity in marginality requires oppression, and solidarity in marginality is necessary in order to sustain liberal power.
Outside our universities, life is less theoretical and the rhetoric more demotic. The standard approach has been to renew solidarity in marginality by demonizing conservatives as racists, xenophobes, and “haters.” To maintain loyalty, the Democratic party incites anxiety about discrimination and exclusion. A form of reverse race-baiting, perhaps best thought of as bigot-baiting, has become crucial for sustaining the Democratic coalition, which is why we hear so much about “hate” these days. At the recent gay pride parade in New York, a few weeks after the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, marchers held aloft an avenue-wide banner that read, “Republican Hate Kills!”
It’s important to remember a first law of politics for solidarity in marginality: Political success makes it harder and harder to sustain solidarity in marginality, and this leads to bigot-baiting. We’ve seen an increase of harsh denunciations, not in spite of progressive victories on issues like gay marriage, but because of them. When Obama became president, a superficial observer might have concluded that the election of a black man to the nation’s highest office would diminish the political currency of anti-racist rhetoric. But this ignores the symbolic needs of the Democratic party. Black Lives Matter and redoubled attacks on discrimination are demanded by racial progress. Solidarity in marginality needs to be renewed, especially when the marginal gain access to power.
This pattern of rhetorical escalation because of progress in the fight against discrimination is also evident in characterizations of Trump voters as racists and bigots. Leon Wieseltier says of them, “They kindle, in the myopia of their pain, to racism and nativism and xenophobia and misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism.” No mainstream figure talked this way when I was young—and when these descriptions were much more plausible. Incendiary, denunciatory rhetoric was characteristic of a marginal figure like George Wallace, who spoke of “sissy-britches welfare people” and called civil-rights protesters “anarchists.”
It’s commonplace now for liberals to talk this way. This is not because America has become more racially, ethnically, religiously, or sexually divided. All the indicators suggest otherwise. It’s because the Democratic party depends on a constant bombardment of denunciation to gin up fear. That someone as intelligent as Wieseltier participates in bigot-baiting in such blatant ways indicates how indispensable it has become for maintaining liberal power.
It’s in this context that transgender bathroom access becomes an issue of national import for the Obama administration. Progressives need “haters,” and flushing them out so they can be politically useful targets of denunciation requires advancing the front lines of the culture wars. The ideology of transgenderism provides a near perfect combination. It so completely contradicts common sense and any worldview tethered to reality that resistance is guaranteed. Moreover, the cause of transgender “rights” focuses on confused and troubled children and adults, individuals whose condition makes them by definition marginal. The disordered nature of their emotional lives makes them vulnerable as well. They’re ready-made victims of an oppressive conservatism, an ideal focus for another round of bigot-baiting. Denouncing the “haters” who resist transgender ideology plays to fears of exclusion and discrimination that keep the rainbow coalition together.
The Republican party establishment recognizes this dynamic, which is why many conservative leaders have been urging retreat from the culture war. In their view, religious conservatives should reposition themselves as victims of a progressive dogmatism that threatens religious liberty. This strategy makes some sense, drawing as it does on liberalism’s own rhetoric of oppression and victimhood. But it misjudges the political realities of our time. Today’s rich-oriented liberalism can only maintain power through the support of voters united in fear of discrimination and marginality—black Americans, Hispanics, Asian Americans, single women, gays and lesbians, and others who worry they don’t fit into what they imagine to be the “mainstream” (which hardly exists anymore). As a consequence, every retreat on the cultural front will be followed by renewed progressive attacks designed to generate politically useful “hate.” Religious liberty is redescribed as the “right to discriminate.” Here again the LGBT movement plays an especially important role. Its agenda collides with traditional religious convictions about God, creation, nature, and morality, guaranteeing the ongoing culture war that has become so essential for post-Protestant WASPs to maintain power.
Transgender activists zealously advance their cause, and they do so with the support of establishment liberals. Their activist zealotry is a political asset, not a liability. They provoke the resistance that can be described as “hate.” Even if the Republican party succeeds in organizing retreats from controversial cultural and moral issues, there’s always a Westboro Baptist Church or some other marginal group to become poster children for the enduring, supposedly powerful forces of discrimination and oppression. As we’ve seen in the aftermath of the Orlando atrocity, even a terrorist attack motivated by Islamist ideology can be transformed into an assault made possible by traditional Christianity, or even the mere existence of political conservatives. “Republican Hate Kills.” And the anti-establishment electorate that’s getting behind Donald Trump gets transformed into racists, xenophobes, homophobes, and anti-Semites.
Bigot-baiting. It’s not going to end soon, no matter what we say or do. The ever-shriller denunciations directed our way stem from the rhetorical needs of the Democratic party. Its leadership knows that its power, like the power of George Wallace and others in an earlier era, depends on an atmosphere of fear, in this case a fear of discrimination, exclusion, and oppression, a fear that Bull Connor has been resurrected. This need explains why the ideologies of multiculturalism postulate that Western culture itself is based on oppression. The threat must be infinite and everlasting.
The present crusade for transgender bathroom privileges in high schools, like so much of the progressive agenda in recent years, is not about civil rights. It’s about renewing the symbolism of oppression and finding the “haters” that rich, mostly white liberals need to sustain their political power.
Neuhaus, the Liberal
The most recent issue of National Affairs (summer 2016) features an essay about our founder, “The Liberalism of Richard John Neuhaus.” The author, Matthew Rose, currently director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute, was a junior fellow at First Things and worked with Neuhaus. Reading the essay, I was struck by the continuity of Neuhaus’s thought. I hope the same continuity characterizes First Things.
Rose cites a 1990 contribution Neuhaus made to a Christian Century series, “How My Mind Has Changed.” That was the year First Things got going. Already well known as a Christian neoconservative, Neuhaus had shifted from left to right in the 1970s and was active in bringing the newly powerful Christian right into conversation with a range of conservative intellectuals. But in that article, he denied any fundamental changes in his outlook. He recalled that while in seminary, he formed lasting convictions. He would be “in descending order of importance, religiously orthodox, culturally conservative, politically liberal, and economically pragmatic.” To this personal “quadrilateral” he remained loyal, even as the world around him changed, forcing him to change in order to stay true to his principles.
Does First Things remain loyal as well? It’s best to begin with the least important: economic pragmatism. Neuhaus didn’t treat free-market capitalism as the fundamental imperative. Like many of his generation, he came to see that socialism, while theoretically the morally superior option, at least in some accounts, in fact concentrates power in the hands of a few, suppresses freedom, and leads to economic stagnation. Without a free economy, it’s hard to sustain a free society, much less a prosperous one. But he didn’t suppose that market deregulation and the free flow of capital and labor would cure all social ills and automatically promote the well-being of most citizens.
By the time First Things was founded, Neuhaus belonged to the “two cheers for capitalism” camp. (Irving Kristol coined the phrase to describe Pope John Paul II’s endorsement of free markets in his encyclical most friendly to capitalism, Centesimus Annus.) In our first year of publication, Neuhaus ran an article by Paul Johnson on the moral inadequacy of capitalism as society’s sole organizing principle, another by Amy Sherman on why Christians concerned about the economic development of poor nations should acknowledge the success of market-oriented models, and still another by Christopher Lasch arguing that in contemporary American politics, cultural conservatives are mismatched with free-market proponents whose ideals of economic freedom undermine stable communities.
First Things remains economically pragmatic. When the magazine was launched, half the world was coming out from underneath the suffocating blanket of “actually existing socialism.” We were rightfully optimistic. Eastern Europe is today both prosperous and free. China and India have seen remarkable growth, lifting millions out of abject poverty. But it’s now 2016 and we face the problems of capitalism’s excesses, even its successes, not socialism’s deadening effects. Man is fallen, and our bondage to sin leads to a profoundly distorted ambition for wealth, not just for the luxury it brings, but the power as well. There are no self-regulating, self-correcting economic systems. Free enterprise may provide more safeguards against tyranny than any other system, but it too needs to be checked by our collective judgments about what best serves the common good. There was no party line on economics when First Things was founded, and that remains the case.
Which brings us to politics and Neuhaus’s liberalism. As Rose explains, Neuhaus was a great proponent of what he liked to call “the American experiment.” In his view, our free, democratic society is an open-ended project. We continue in an unbroken conversation—sometimes a bitter debate—about how to structure our common life, both formally with laws and informally through civic norms and a shared moral consensus. We don’t know the end point of this experiment in freedom. We can’t foretell what political arrangements or policies will best promote human dignity. This means we need to remain open to new ideas, new voices, and new possibilities.
I want to remain true to that kind of liberalism, one based in humility about our political judgments. When it comes to taxation, distribution of resources, campaign finance, constitutional interpretation, and many other matters of political importance, we’re conservative, by and large, as was Neuhaus during his years as editor-in-chief. But we know we hold our positions about matters of politics and public policy in a conversation rather than as non-negotiable principles. That makes First Things liberal in the very precise sense of enjoying a precious liberty. We enjoy the freedom to entertain different arguments about how to order public life, which is why we can be generally conservative (by today’s standards) while publishing Hadley Arkes against constitutional originalism, Patrick Deneen against corporate power, and David Bentley Hart against capitalism (among other things). Like the Church and synagogue, First Things can be ideologically diverse precisely because we don’t treat politics as the first thing.
Not everything, however, can be a matter of open-ended conversation. Rose reports that Neuhaus was influenced by Walter Lippmann’s 1955 book, The Public Philosophy. The great liberal commentator argued that core liberal commitments to majority rule, free speech, and private property require an underlying moral consensus. Without such a consensus, the free and open conversation about public life turns into a contest for power rather than a means to realize a higher vision. This marks the death of liberalism. Absent objective moral truths, rights become political and thus can be redefined—or defined away.
Here Neuhaus could be quite fierce, as I hope First Things remains. It is the very opposite of liberal to imagine that a court, however supreme, can suspend an innocent human being’s right to life. Neuhaus died before that same court got around to redefining marriage, but his response would be the same. When a court can take hold of a primordial institution and remake it at will, nothing is safe from the tyranny of those in power. They can just as well redefine what it means to be a father, mother, or child. Or what it means to be a man or woman.
What, exactly, are those indispensable moral truths that provide the stable basis for the ongoing conversation about public life that characterizes a genuinely liberal society? Lippmann argued for natural law, as do many who continue to play an important role in First Things. Neuhaus opted for a more rhetorical and less metaphysical approach. He liked to point to Martin Luther King’s winsome combination of a biblically inspired vision of justice and appeals to America’s founding ideals of equality. The moral consensus that grounds our liberal culture is covenantal, he argued. What this means, exactly, he never defined, but instead illustrated in the many efforts he made to connect his own Christian convictions to his political judgments, often in the pages he filled at the end of every issue. He was both sure that moral truth has objective reality and willing to entertain a variety of explanations of that reality.
We remain metaphysical realists without plunking down for any one approach. We know that our choices are not self-validating. A culture of freedom serves human dignity when freedom serves moral truth. But we’re aware that our philosophical and theological tradition is itself a debate about what moral truth is and how we know it. First Things reflects the ongoing effort by many authors to speak religiously, morally, and publically, not according to a specific formula or in accord with agreed-upon metaphysical and theological principles.
With his usual genius for quotable formulations, Neuhaus liked to reiterate a version of the following: “Politics is chiefly a function of culture, at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion.” He was convinced that an ideological secularism (as opposed to a political secularism) undermines liberalism and over the long haul cannot sustain a free society. True liberalism requires acknowledging the transcendent authority of God.
Whose God? That’s a theological debate Neuhaus thought worth having. What does God command? Another debate. How does one reason from divine imperatives to public philosophies? Again, Neuhaus ran a magazine in which we could offer different answers. With so many open questions, was Neuhaus a closet relativist? No, he was a modern man aware of the open-ended character of our most important arguments about transcendence, authority, and how to organize our common life in a pluralistic society—which is to say he was a genuine liberal. And he recognized that those open questions are fruitful rather than futile only insofar as we are united in our efforts to tether our answers to something greater, something higher.
The religious impulse acknowledges and serves the divine. Neuhaus’s intuition was that this impulse anchors liberalism’s greatest achievements. I’m from a younger generation. Irving Kristol said of his generation that a neoconservative was a liberal mugged by reality. I’m conservative because I was mugged by liberals rather than reality. Many of us have felt the illiberalism of secular liberalism. This can tempt us to adopt anti-liberal and anti-modern stances. I certainly am tempted. But when I’m honest with myself, I recognize that I too am a modern man. I recognize the fact that in our pluralistic society, many questions are open, and I cherish aspects of the culture of freedom our age has encouraged. All the more reason to emphasize the upward thrust of transcendence and its commanding power. True liberality in the conversation that is public life requires a spirit of humility before God, which is quite different from a humility that stems from relativism or the conviction that there are not moral truths to be loyal to. It also requires a willingness to be surprised, even to the point of being converted. There are surely some special people who come by these qualities naturally. But for most of us, they are nurtured by the life of faith.
We often hear of open-mindedness. It’s not a bad quality. But the more important quality is serious-mindedness. Neuhaus was right in his most important intuition as a cultural critic and political commentator. Depth of conviction sustains a free society, not diversity, pluralism, tolerance, and respect for rights. They are fruits of liberalism, not its source.