With the recent Tory triumph in the British parliamentary elections, it is clear that the old, predictable dynamics of politics and public life are gone, at least for the immediate future. As we approach the U.S. presidential election in 2020, it seems likely that, whoever wins, it will not be somebody of moderate views and mild personality.
One note repeatedly struck by pundits is that of the opposition between populists and liberal elites. Such an approach provides a partial explanation for what we see unfolding before us: The left’s failure to achieve popular appeal is surely connected to the fact that it has abandoned traditional economic concepts of oppression for the psychologized categories of identity politics. And so the left now finds itself out of step with traditional workers, for whom jobs are more important than gender-blind bathroom policies or drag queen reading hours. The concerns of the cocktail party set in Chelsea or Manhattan are not the concerns of workers in Huddersfield or West Virginia.
Yet I would suggest that the real division in the politics of the earthly city is not between populists and elites, or the New Left and Everybody Else. It is between those who believe that human nature is a given and those who believe it is merely a social construct. And that distinction cuts across the grain of traditional political taxonomy, given that the latter is as compatible with right-wing libertarianism as with critical theory.
The symptoms are all around us, most obviously in the arbitrary morality of the moment. The NBA boycotts North Carolina over its bathroom policy, yet plays the fawning sycophant to China, a nation with a catastrophic record on human rights. Money may be the key factor, but that rests on a deeper (anti)metaphysical point: It is not that the NBA hypocritically strains at a gnat while swallowing a camel; it is that there is no longer any objective scale beyond the immediate exigencies of the economy by which to judge which are the gnats and which the camels. And what we see on the world stage with corporations like the NBA and nations like China we can all observe in our own small worlds, from those who decry traditional use of pronouns yet glory in abortion rights, to those who vilify political correctness but who are perennially “outraged” at the smallest perceived linguistic slight directed at themselves.
Our culture is increasingly an anti-culture, marked only by relentless iconoclasm. That is why I write for, and support, First Things. For all of the differences among the writers, it remains committed to showing, by precept and example, that civil discourse and honest, open discussion of the most important issues in this earthly city are vital—because there is such a thing as human nature, and therefore there is such a thing as human flourishing, which is not for us simply to invent for ourselves.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College.