Why is our collective mood so sour? We are awash with material wealth, and technology provides us with unprecedented powers. But this veneer of well-being masks a deeper crisis. Voter discontent, expressed in populist rejections of establishment candidates and platforms in favor of rabble-rousers on both left and right, indicates that the once dominant consensus in the West has lost its authority. Our institutions are crumbling, leaving us vulnerable and aimless. It’s this general decay of authority, not fervent ideological passion, that makes our public culture seem so dysfunctional. True, there are earnest defenders of the neoliberal status quo, as well as challengers who theorize bold new paradigms. But for the most part the West is frustrated, cynical, angry—and hysterical. How have we come to this condition?
Let me begin with the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Among the few Englishmen of his day who had studied in Germany, Coleridge was influenced by the critical philosophy of Kant and Hegel. Toward the end of his life, he wrote a treatise of social philosophy, On the Constitution of the Church and State. Drawing on Hegel’s notion of culture as a system of antagonistic concepts engaged in fruitful tension, Coleridge identified two elements of modern society.
One element he called the Party of Permanency, which is dominated by the clerisy, a term Coleridge coined for those who uphold established norms and institutions. In his time, this cohort included the clergy, of course, who are spokesmen for orthodoxy. Lawyers and judges are part of the clerisy as well, along with intellectually-minded aristocrats and others invested in maintaining the status quo.
Opposed to the Party of Permanency is the Party of Change. Men of commerce, inventors, and others running the engines of economic transformation play leading roles. Political radicals and reformers are members of this side of politics, as are writers and artists who criticize, mock, or satirize the status quo.
By Coleridge’s reckoning, the body politic is kept in equilibrium by an ongoing tension between the Party of Permanency and the Party of Change. The former checks the rashness and impatience of the latter, and the latter challenges the complacency and indifference of the former.
In eighteenth-century English politics, this fruitful tension played out in the contests for power between Whigs and Tories. By the mid-nineteenth century, those political parties had taken on ideological names, Liberal and Conservative. That polarity likewise frames contemporary American politics. Liberals see themselves as agents of change in economics, politics, and morals. The moderates are reformist; the radicals are revolutionary. Meanwhile, conservatives use their power as pillars of the status quo to provide a brake, limiting change and ensuring continuity.
For most of American history, something like Coleridge’s fruitful tension obtained. American public life was shaped both by ardent proponents of change—constitutional change, economic change, and cultural change—and by those who impeded or moderated the heady ambitions of society’s self-appointed reformers.
In my lifetime, this system has broken down. I submit that this breakdown is one reason why we are experiencing so much political and social turmoil.
The Party of Permanency draws its power from established institutions that have an interest in sustaining their own authority. Modern universities may have long been hotbeds of scientific innovation, but until recently they were culturally conservative, preserving a cultural canon and passing down a literary, philosophical, and historical inherence to the next generation. Devoted to the transmission of the apostolic inheritance, the churches have been even more conservative. The same held true for judges and lawyers, who in the Anglo-Saxon tradition are guardians of a settled body of legal precedent.
I could go on. Parents pass down a familial inheritance; literary critics and museum curators maintain standards of judgment. None of these authorities are immobile. Traditions are living things. Something like John Henry Newman’s notion of the development of doctrine obtains in the Party of Permanency. As the young Tancredi says to his aristocratic uncle in The Leopard, Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel about the Italian Risorgimento: “Everything must change for everything to remain the same.” But adaptation has given way to wholesale capitulation. Over the last two generations, the Party of Permanency has lost control of the institutions that anchor society. Those institutions have been taken over by the Party of Change.
In my recent book, Return of the Strong Gods, I advance a historical thesis to explain the ascendancy of the Party of Change and the demise of the Party of Permanency. Put simply, the catastrophic decades of the early twentieth century destroyed the credibility of old authorities, thus undermining the legitimacy of the Party of Permanency. I document the way in which wartime intellectuals theorized a new start in the West after World War II, one that would promote an “open-society” consensus.
The book traces the evolution of the open-society consensus, which begins with a carefully calibrated balance between authority and “openness,” not unlike the system envisioned by Coleridge. The title of Arthur Schlesinger’s programmatic book for postwar America captures this ideal: The Vital Center. Openness made the old authorities more flexible without displacing them. But the prestige of openness foredoomed this balance, and a few short decades after the liberation of Auschwitz, the West was championing “openness” not as a way to maintain change within permanence, but as itself the supreme good. The neoliberal consensus of the 1990s went all in: open trade, open borders, and open minds. The upshot today is not just the fluid world of global commerce, but a liquefied moral imagination, symbolized by the rainbow flag and its promise that we can cross boundaries and create new ways of living, even to the point of traversing the biological difference between men and women.
American embassies fly the rainbow flag. This is a clear sign that the Party of Change has become the establishment party in the West. The same goes for the “Washington Consensus,” the program for bringing the entire world into a global free-market system. When very nearly all the powerful people in the West preach the virtue of diversity and inclusion, and sing hosannas to the benefits of innovation and “creative destruction,” we know that the Party of Permanency has become very nearly defunct.
Two consequences follow. First, as the Party of Change assumes control of foundational institutions, the anchoring realities of our lives become so flexible, porous, and open that they lose their authority. The redefinition of marriage offers an obvious example. A similar process has taken place in universities, museums, and certain religious communities. As the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo urges, we must embrace “the weakening of Being.” The upshot is a social environment of diminished institutions that are less capable of commanding assent and giving stability to our lives. In short, we see the disintegration of social forms and the atomization of individuals. Today, a young person is more likely to be formed within the fluid world of social media than by traditional institutions.
The second consequence of the ascendancy of the Party of Change is more narrowly political. Some segments of society continue to endorse old authorities: faith, family, and flag. But these people, the sort who read First Things, are no longer in charge of core institutions. Driven to the margins by the open-society consensus, those who draw upon metaphysical truths no longer wield establishment power. Media, universities, foundations, and other institutions denounce us as “fearful of change” at best, and more often as “haters,” “homophobes,” and other moral monstrosities.
One can anticipate, therefore, a paradoxical development, one that is unfolding before our eyes. Censured and sidelined, what remains of the Party of Permanency begins to regard the status quo as hostile. As Aaron Renn observes in “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” (February 2022), traditional Christians fall into this category. The “negative world” is one in which the Party of Change has colonized all the important cultural institutions. This development places those of us who believe in “permanent things” outside the establishment. Pressed to the margins, those who once anchored society at the Party of Permanency begin to adopt a “populist” stance, or even a counter-revolutionary one. (The popularity of the Traditional Latin Mass among young conservative Catholics in the United States illustrates this dynamic.)
The almost total triumph of the Party of Change has given revolutionaries and their fellow travelers possession of powerful institutions. They now use their institutional power to impose the “weakening of Being” on every aspect of society, including private life, where pronouns are policed. Those who retain metaphysical convictions, the members of the once formidable Party of Permanency, find themselves adversaries of the established authorities. Paradoxically, the Party of Permanency mirrors the Party of Change. It aims to overturn a regime that insists upon the “weakening of being,” and this project requires adopting the tactics of disruption used by the Party of Change. Meanwhile, against populist challenges, the Party of Change acts like the old Party of Permanency, deploying its ample institutional power to suppress dissent and maintain the status quo.
By my analysis, the demise of the fruitful tension Coleridge identified generates today’s polarization and encourages nihilistic politics. Anti-establishment populists talk about overthrowing elites, rhetoric not alien to these pages. Establishment-funded progressives talk about “abolishing the social order and building a new society” (from the mission statement of Education for Liberation Minnesota). Who speaks for preserving the status quo?
The Davos crowd and other elites certainly have an investment in the way things are. But nearly all of the establishment grandees in the West see themselves as members of the Party of Change. They want an “open society,” indeed an “open world.” As a result, even though these powerful people are at the helm, they find it very difficult to resist more radical “change agents.” The dominance of the Party of Change over every institution in the West aside from the Catholic Church (and some Protestant communities, as well as traditional Judaism and Islam) explains why the woke revolution has gained such sway. It also helps explain today’s paradoxical combination of radicalism and calm. The Party of Change has become an ersatz Party of Permanency, a very powerful establishment invested in permanent revolution.
A Case Study
The European Commission has initiated legal proceedings in the Court of Justice. It wishes to overturn a Hungarian child protection law that the LGBTQ magisterium has deemed illicit. The globalist elite in Brussels argues that the law is inadmissible under the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights, which protects free expression and prohibits discrimination.
The Hungarian law, passed in 2021, prohibits disseminating information to minors that can be viewed as promotion of homosexuality and gender reassignment. It applies to school curricula, and includes a ban on explicit LGBTQ content on daytime television. The legislation also prevents companies from running ad campaigns expressing support for LGBTQ issues. In effect, the law is a typical act of the Party of Permanency. It seeks to buttress the authority of a traditional cultural consensus.
The right of free expression always admits of limits, and most arguments concern the rationale for those limits. The British Human Rights Act allows that public authorities may restrict free expression for numerous reasons, including the protection of public health and morals. Many European countries have laws prohibiting hate speech. The German legal code criminalizes Holocaust denial, as well as the dissemination of Nazi ideology and the display of swastikas. More than a decade ago, the French legislature passed a law prohibiting face coverings in public. The law was challenged, but the European Court of Human Rights upheld the restriction in 2014.
All of this is to say that Europe is not a wide-open free speech zone. Public authorities impose restrictions when something deemed essential is at stake. And that, of course, is exactly what the Hungarian government has done. The leaders of that country see declining birthrates, as well as the general atmosphere of benumbed decadence, as an existential threat, and they have decided that LGBTQ ideology, the very epitome of today’s Party of Change, endangers the health of the Hungarian body politic. In view of that judgment (a sound one), the Hungarian law limits the influence of that ideology—the Party of Permanency in action.
One can understand the negative reaction of the LGBTQ magisterium and its mobilization of political power to defeat the Hungarian law. The ambition to reinforce traditional norms collides with the rainbow agenda. According to that movement, “normal” is discriminatory, and therefore must be dismantled. “Inclusive justice” requires “queering” everything, which is to say permanent revolution.
In Coleridge’s system, movements that aim to revolutionize social norms are moderated, even stymied, by social authority and institutional power. But this is not the case in 2023. The European Commission is the cynosure of the European establishment and the instrument by which it translates elite consensus into legal power. It has thrown its weight behind the rainbow agenda, which is why I call it the Rainbow Reich, a progressive project of social transformation that has access to tremendous economic, institutional, and political power. Resources formerly at the disposal of the Party of Permanency are now in the hands of the cutting edge of the sexual revolution.
It’s tempting to say that turnabout is fair play. In Coleridge’s era and for a good while longer, the Party of Permanency held institutional power, and it dictated terms to the Party of Change. Now, the roles are reversed. But this misjudges our situation. The Hungarian law does what the Party of Permanency has done throughout the modern era. It sets limits on change, telling corporate elites that they can say what they wish in the boardroom, give to LGBTQ causes out of their own pockets, and lobby legislators, but they cannot use the corporate resources they control to promote the LGBTQ cause. The Rainbow Reich operates quite differently. It makes it clear that anyone who deviates from LGBTQ orthodoxies in boardroom discussions will be sanctioned. Those who give money to unapproved causes will be attacked. The Hungarian law restricts expression in circumstances that bear upon the socialization of children; the Rainbow Reich engages in a much broader campaign of censorship that borders on thought control. It hunts down and silences all expressions of dissent.
This difference is endemic. The Party of Permanency defends that which obtains. This defense can be accomplished with a light touch, because the status quo has status. Traditional social norms enjoy an already existing authority. People do not need to be frog-marched into accepting them. The besetting sin of the Party of Permanency is therefore complacency, the smug indifference to injustices embedded in the status quo. By its very nature, the Party of Change has larger ambitions. It wishes to create a new society, a project that requires demolishing the authority of old norms, to which many people are naturally attached. In consequence, as it assumes plenary power as our society’s establishment, the characteristic sin of the Party of Change is its recourse to totalitarian methods. Paradoxically—but predictably—zeal for liberation ends up justifying regimes of coercion.
The Role of the Churches
In 1959, Philip Rieff published Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. Although Rieff did not cite Coleridge in this context, he found that Freud likewise proposed a mixed regime. It was a system of soulcraft, one made flexible by therapeutic intervention but backstopped by social and moral authority. Rieff was a celebrity in an era when sociology was thought to be the queen of the sciences. In the early 1960s, the National Council of Churches hired him to conduct a two-year study. This church organization represented liberal mainline Protestantism, which at that time was a very powerful force in American society. Rieff was shocked to discover that its clerical leaders were renouncing their role in this mixed regime. They wished to be agents of liberation rather than representatives of moral and religious authority.
The experience of clerical antinomianism deeply affected Rieff and shaped his most famous book, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966). “Freud,” he wrote in a summary of his book, “emphasized coercion and the renunciation of instinct as indispensable elements in all culture.” Rieff recognized that a sentiment against renunciation was now taking hold, even among those at the helm of authoritative institutions. This renunciation of renunciation filled him with dread:
That such large numbers of the cultivated and intelligent have identified themselves deliberately with those who are supposed to have no love for instinctual renunciation, suggests to me the most elaborate act of suicide that Western intellectuals have ever staged—those intellectuals, whether of the left or right, whose historic function it has been to assert the authority of a culture organized in terms of communal purpose, through the agency of congregations of the faithful.
The “elaborate act of suicide” was playing out in efforts by Christian thinkers and leaders to relax sexual discipline. (It’s important to recognize that these early stages of the sexual revolution came before the events of 1968 and prepared the way. See Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics, 1966.)
Rieff makes a straightforward observation: “In the classical Christian culture of commitment, one renunciatory mode of control referred to the sexual opportunism of individuals.” Put simply, Christianity disciplines our sexual desires. Yet a “new Christian apologetics” says otherwise. Rieff references the bestselling book Honest to God (1963), in which the Anglican bishop J. A. T. Robinson argued that Christianity, properly understood, requires neither moral rigorism nor belief in the Nicene Creed. Rieff marvels at the bishop’s performance, which his experiences at the National Council of Churches convinced him had become the norm in influential ecclesiastical circles. “Current apologetic efforts by religious professionals, in pretending that renunciation as a general mode of control was never dominant in the system, reflect the strange mixture of cowardice and courage with which they are participating in the dissolution of their cultural foundations.” The cowardice comes from capitulating to the therapeutic consensus; the courage comes from the audacity to redefine Christianity to suit the cowardice.
Rieff focused on the Christian churches because he was an astute sociologist. Those ordained to speak on God’s behalf have a great interest in sustaining the vertical axis of authority. Rieff recognized that the clerical embrace of worldly permissions over divinely instituted renunciations indicated a veritable sea change in the West.
Rieff was right about the general trend in the West. We have new doctrines, of course. Patriarchy, heteronormativity, and other concepts in critical theory command assent. The Rainbow Reich has a magisterium. But taken as a whole, these are disintegrating doctrines that make for the “dictatorship of relativism.”
The disintegration has played out in every domain of life. Does a nation have a distinct culture that rightly governs its common life? Can we say that male–female marriage is normative? In both cases, it seems not. Those who cross borders illegally are “undocumented.” Those who cross the border between male and female are “transitioning,” and we are told that we have a moral duty to affirm them.
The Catholic Church has not been immune. We have experienced what Rieff calls an “unremembering” of tradition and the disenchantment of once towering truths. I cannot count the number of times I have heard theologians refer to Bernard Lonergan’s opposition between “classical” consciousness and “historical” consciousness in order to make the apostolic inheritance more plastic and adaptable. Instead of boundary-marking concepts such as “right” and “wrong,” or “orthodox” and “heterodox,” we are trained to use plastic, open-ended words such as “healthy” or “affirming.” Everything is referred to the “internal forum,” where, as in therapy, each individual is urged to find his own way.
Three decades ago, St. John Paul II issued Veritatis Splendor. The encyclical affirmed the existence of intrinsically evil acts, and thus of prohibitions to which there are no exceptions. This traditional teaching stuck like a bone in the throats of Bernhard Häring and other moral theologians. They regarded moral rules as external and wished to reframe the moral life in terms of a deeper, internal commitment. The presumed antagonism between prohibition and genuine interior assent is still with us. Here is Rieff’s description: “The kind of man I see emerging, as our culture fades into the next, resembles the kind once called ‘spiritual’—because such a man desires to preserve the inherited morality freed from the external crust of institutional discipline.”
The ambition to make moral discipline a self-administered enterprise has proven to be utopian. Rieff agreed with Émile Durkheim: The human soul requires anchoring norms and authoritative institutions. Every society must have its Mount Sinai; otherwise, its members teeter on the edge of dissolution. In a liquid world, we are unbound and undefined, not free. Limitless possibilities produce spiritual vertigo. Rising rates of mental illness among the young indicate that we’re well along in this process.
And, of course, Mount Sinai must have a clerisy to interpret, adjust, and impose its demands. What happens when the clerisy abandons its role? We slide toward disintegration. Our lives become blurry around the edges; societies lose their coherence. Atomized, we are absorbed into the commercial and technocratic empire that grows apace, imposing its dominion under the sign of “choice.”
How do we fight against this fate? We need to cultivate gratitude, along with its even more powerful kin, love. The open-society ideology renounces metaphysical truth. It commands us to renounce the desires for knowledge of things above that will ravish our souls. This outcome is the spiritual aim of the dictatorship of relativism. We need to go in the opposite direction. As Christians, we must recover the metaphysical and speculative voice of our tradition. We need to be witnesses to the “strengthening of Being” in an era of weakening. We need to restore man to his primordial home as a creature with a divinely ordained nature. And we need to ask the Lord to stir in our hearts the fire of his love.
WHILE WE'RE AT IT
♦ An invitation to speak at the spring meeting of the Philadelphia Society took me to Indianapolis, providing an occasion to meet with a group of First Things–devoted Hoosiers. We gathered in the home of Brandon Brown, the Indianapolis ROFTERS leader. After wine and cheese, we got down to business. Our agenda was to discuss “The True Self,” a chapter from Carl Elliott’s Better Than Well, and “Toward a Theory of Culture” from Philip Rieff’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic. The stimulating evening provided material for this month’s Public Square. The quality of the discussion reminded me again that we are blessed with a readership that combines high intellectual standards with a deep commitment to the future of our society. Many thanks to Brandon for hosting.
♦ Adrian Wooldridge writing for Bloomberg about higher education: “Administrative bloat is rampant: Yale University now has the equivalent of one administrator for every undergraduate student.” It’s not just Yale: “Stanford’s army of managerial and professional staff leapt from 8,984 in 2019 to 11,336 in 2021.”
♦ Our own Mark Bauerlein was recently appointed to the New College of Florida’s board of trustees. Governor DeSantis put Mark and others on the governing body of the small state college in order to bring sanity to the school’s loony atmosphere. In early April, Gavin Newsom—who apparently does not have enough to do as governor of California—visited the New College to commiserate with progressive faculty and students who have been traumatized by a sudden invasion of those who don’t agree with everything they hold dear. “I’m crawling out of my skin for you,” the ambitious Democratic politician intoned. “I want you to know you’re not alone. You matter.” Speaking of the epidermis, talk like this makes my skin crawl.
♦ Cathleen Kaveny criticizes my support of Catholic Laity and Clergy for Renewal (CLCR), an organization that has used cell phone data to identify priests who are regular users of hook-up apps designed to facilitate immediate sexual encounters. I’ll set aside her claim that my support of such measures amounts to “consequentialism,” a claim that is as red as red herrings get. The question is whether analyzing data to find out who is a user of Grindr (the gay hook-up app) constitutes immoral surveillance that violates privacy and threatens the integrity of our personhood.
The measures taken by CLCR do neither. Grindr (and Tinder, its counterpart for straight people) are tech versions of the hook-up bars, sex clubs, and bathhouses of yesteryear. Imagine, therefore, a church in which a few clergy persistently solicit gay sex. Imagine, further, that it is 1993, not 2023, and the persistent minority must patronize gay clubs and bathhouses. Would it constitute morally suspect surveillance and a violation of privacy for concerned Catholic laity to observe the entrants to these establishments, and report to the bishop that Fr. X and Fr. Y go weekly? Does Kaveny believe that Fr. X and Fr. Y have a right to enter sex clubs unobserved?
Grindr, though not a physical place, is a virtual meat market that is not different in any morally meaningful way from the old Continental Baths in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel on the Upper West Side. That bathhouse was not a place one went to get a drink with friends, or to flirt in the hope of sparking a romance. (Some patrons bragged of more than 150 sexual encounters in a single visit.)In the heyday of the Continental Baths in the 1970s, Archbishop Terence Cardinal Cooke could have stationed someone at the entrance. That measure would not have been an “invasion of privacy.” In the event, he did not do so—either out naivete concerning what some of his priests were up to or, more likely, because he harbored a resigned desire not to know inconvenient truths about men under his leadership.
♦ Simone Weil on the debased currency of honor and praise: “To the dimmed understanding of our age there seems nothing odd in claiming an equal share of privilege for everybody—and equal share in things whose essence is privilege. This claim is both absurd & base; absurd because privilege is, by definition, inequality; base, because it is not worth claiming.”
♦ As I write, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington is set to sign legislation that permits transgender treatments of minors without parental consent and allows shelters to host youths without notifying parents. California is considering similar legislation. Easy divorce and the sexual revolution have debilitated the family; overriding parental authority in the service of ideology will be the measure that destroys it.
♦ The Notre Dame alumni magazine published an essay (“Putting an End to It”) that ends by commending a man’s doctor-assisted suicide as a good death, implying that it led to “the most beautiful, holy outcomes.” As “Putting an End to It” makes clear, the well-educated and successful are very concerned about controlling the time and manner of their deaths. This explains elite support for transgenderism, an ideology that likewise insists that we can and should dictate terms to our bodily existence. “Gender assigned at birth” is a concept very much in line with assisted suicide: “mortality assigned at death.”
♦ Roger Scruton on educating the young: “Young people need nothing so much as wit, allusion and style. They should be studying advocacy and argument; they should be reading poetry, criticism and authors who have said things clearly and well. Instead, between bouts of pop music and television, they are handed jargon-ridden drivel by out-dated Parisian gurus, impenetrable texts of sociology, the half-articulate leavings of the grievance trade.” Sir Roger’s list of the needed qualities describes First Things, the royal road to a well-formed mind. Consider providing a gift subscription for your college-age children and grandchildren.
♦ It is with regret that we note the passing of Keith L. Smith. A native of South Dakota, Keith served for twenty-five years as pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and Zoar Lutheran Church in Revillo, South Dakota. He was a long-time reader of First Things and an Editor’s Circle member since 2012. His brother Curtis told us that Keith never owned a computer and consented to the ownership of a cell phone (which he kept in his car’s glove box) strictly for emergencies, allowing plenty of undistracted time for the reading of theology. He was a member of the Richard John Neuhaus Society, and we are pleased to recognize—in print!—his generous bequest to First Things.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.