Features May 2021
On the erosion of American freedoms.
by Myron Magnet
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signs the Social Security Bill, August 14, 1935. Photo: Library of Congress.
To gauge how unbridgeable the gulf is that divides the American Left from the Right, rewind to February 19, 2009, when those who eventually elected Donald Trump first made their voices heard. As Washington jury-rigged fixes for the Great Financial Crisis, the CNBC broadcaster Rick Santelli shouted across the Chicago Mercantile Exchange floor, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?” The Merc traders roared their televised veto across the land.
Their cry was more visceral than a policy disagreement. The traders, self-made men, had worked hard for what they had and scorned having their taxes hiked to save homebuyers with imprudently high mortgages from foreclosure. “This is America!” Santelli urged, and what the new Obama administration was doing was un-American. Didn’t the Founding Fathers establish the federal government to guarantee one’s freedom to better one’s condition, and to protect the property one industriously earns—not to redistribute it?
That’s why Santelli added that he was planning a Chicago Tea Party, an update of Boston’s 1773 event. He and the traders felt the same outrage George Washington had felt about the Stamp Act and the tea tax: it was as lawless as Parliament picking his pocket. To the new-era Tea Partiers, taxation for redistribution, rather than for common purposes, is tyranny, not government by consent.
But, though the traders and Tea Partiers didn’t quite understand it, the federal government long ago had turned from the shield of individual liberty into a vast engine of redistribution. That transformation could occur because the Framers’ Constitution was body-snatched by the doctrine of the “living constitution,” which—as Woodrow Wilson first formulated it—saw the Supreme Court sitting as a permanent Constitutional Convention, making up laws as it went along, heedless of the 1787 scheme’s checks. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal used Wilson’s doctrine as a license to remake America’s economy and society. Once the Supreme Court buckled to FDR’s threat to pack it and started voting his way, the justices allowed an utterly foreign governmental structure to devour the Framers’ republic from within, until it broke out of the shell as something altogether different.
Not that FDR was entirely frank about his transformative enterprise. Where Wilson had dismissed the Framers as obsolete relics in a Darwinian age, Roosevelt claimed to extend their great work even as he undid it. In his second inaugural address of 1937, he hailed the 150th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, which had “created a strong government with powers of united action sufficient then and now to solve problems utterly beyond individual or local solution”—a wildly false characterization. Chastened by America’s near-loss in the Revolution, the Framers sought to create a government strong enough to protect national and individual independence but not so strong that, given mankind’s inherent power-hunger, it could become what they called an “elective despotism.” So they limited that power to such clearly enumerated tasks as raising an army, a navy, and taxes; coining and borrowing money; and regulating foreign and interstate commerce. All other matters they emphatically left to “individual or local solution.”
They certainly didn’t mean to put the whole U.S. economy under federal regulation. But as FDR later admitted, when he took the oath to defend the Constitution just before delivering the 1937 address, he had wanted to shout, “Yes, but it’s the Constitution as I understand it.” The New Deal’s main thrust, after all, was precisely to take total control of the economy, under the ruse of federal power to regulate interstate commerce.
For one who projected such jaunty optimism, FDR had a surprisingly gloomy view of America’s future. The nation’s great days of discovery and invention, when government needed only to keep out of the way, were behind it, he thought. Now, Depression-stunned America had produced more than its purportedly underpaid workers could afford to consume, as FDR inaccurately saw it. America’s task now, he said, “is the soberer, less dramatic business of administering resources and plants already in hand, . . . of distributing wealth and products more equitably, of adapting existing economic organizations to the service of the people. The day of enlightened administration has come.” The bureaucrat would take over from the business titan.
Not that old-money FDR ever had much respect for the titan. Believing most gains ill-gotten, he scorned captains of industry as “malefactors of great wealth” and perhaps agreed when his attorney general spluttered, “I cannot understand why it is immoral to stop people from becoming rich.” If he couldn’t prevent the accumulation of wealth, FDR could at least redistribute it. With relish, he raised the top income-tax rate to 79 percent in 1936 from 25 percent in the 1920s and the top death-tax rate to 70 percent, and he hiked corporate taxes and piled on new ones. The money paid farmers to leave land fallow, supported people on make-work government jobs, and built some actually useful public works.
On what was left of the private economy, Roosevelt laid iron-fisted control. The National Recovery Administration, for instance, in concert with the dominant companies in any industry, fixed wages and prices, while more efficient smaller producers lost their pricing edge and failed. When the NRA started jailing dry cleaners for charging a nickel less than the set price to press a suit, or prosecuting a Brooklyn kosher-chicken business for flouting NRA edicts, a unanimous Supreme Court struck down the NRA as both an unconstitutional delegation of congressional power and, when it meddled with only in-state commerce, as federal overreach.
A furious president, railing against the Court’s “horse-and-buggy definition of interstate commerce,” vowed to end its role as a check and balance by enlarging it and packing it with yes-men, an assault on the fundamental constitutional order that left even many Democratic congressmen aghast. The columnist Walter Lippmann judged that the president was “proposing to create the necessary precedent, and to establish the political framework for, and to destroy the safeguards against, a dictator.”
Though he didn’t carry out his Court-packing scheme, the president’s very threat cowed the Court into swallowing the ensuing New Deal shenanigans. The result was to blur the idea of private property, as if government’s purpose were not to protect property but to set the conditions under which it can be provisionally yours. By a wave of the “living-constitution” magic wand, a strike in just one plant owned by a national corporation fell under “interstate commerce.” From here it was a short step to the government claiming power over firms doing business only within a single state, and even over a farmer who fed grain he grew himself to his own livestock, neither interstate nor even commerce.
To exercise such control took legions of bureaucrats in such agencies as the National Labor Relations Board or the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, making rules like a legislature, administering them like an executive, and adjudicating and punishing infractions like a judiciary. So much, then, for the Constitution’s separation of powers and lawmaking only by the people’s elected representatives. Unelected officials swarmed across the land as thickly as those George III had “sent hither to harrass our People, and eat out their Substance,” as the Declaration of Independence had complained. James Madison had long struggled to define the limits of the implied powers “necessary and proper” for carrying out the legislative powers explicitly enumerated in Article I of the Constitution. After two terms as president, his best answer was that the enumerated powers should not be so stretched as “to convert a limited into an unlimited Govt.” But that is what the New Deal did.
Roosevelt’s revisionist account of the Constitutional Convention noted that the Framers had “established the Federal Government in order to promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to the American people.” True enough, if you understand “general welfare” as the Framers did: ensuring national security and a prosperity-enhancing national market and currency. But Roosevelt meant that the Framers intended to create a welfare state, giving him a warrant to build a permanent one, redistributing private property outright.
Outright, but stealthily—especially in the case of Social Security, the old-age pension plan that Roosevelt considered the “cornerstone of his administration,” said Labor Secretary Frances Perkins. FDR insisted that no general tax revenues should fund the program, so that it would look like an ordinary annuity, financed by the beneficiary and a matching contribution by his employer. But the larger redistribution occurred from one class of beneficiary to another, as low-earning retirees received about one third more than they’d paid in, financed by higher earners who got one third less than the larger amount they’d contributed. The scheme, purred Roosevelt, was “politics all the way through. We put those payroll contributions in there so as to give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.” No matter, then, that “the Constitution gave Congress no authority to go into the insurance business,” as the law’s chief draftsman fretted.
Roosevelt had at least paid lip-service to the blessings of liberty, and he recognized that “[c]ontinued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber.” It is “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” That’s why he structured such relief programs as the Works Progress Administration as workfare systems—simulacra of a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wages.
But one New Deal program lit the fuse of just the destruction he foresaw, though it took three decades to detonate. That was Aid to Dependent Children, the direct payments to indigent kids, imagined at first as those whose fathers had died in mine cave-ins and the like. By 1939, this program—what we now call “welfare”—numbered some 700,000 children on its rolls.
Of the three stages of America’s mutation into a redistributionist welfare state, the second was Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. With a New Deal true believer’s faith that, “far from crushing the individual, government at its best liberates him from the enslaving forces of his environment,” LBJ, who began his career running a New Deal training program, became, as a junior congressman, one of FDR’s trustiest henchmen. Inheriting the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson seized the moment to remake American society in order to right race relations—an ever-evolving project that left civil society in tatters by his presidency’s end and has continued its unraveling to this day.
The War on Poverty’s centerpiece, aimed to forge what LBJ dubbed the “Great Society,” was the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That law took up the work of Reconstruction, aborted by two bizarre 1870s Supreme Court decisions that shredded the protections of the Bill of Rights against state-government infringement with which the Fourteenth Amendment had aimed to protect freed blacks, protection further shredded by the Court’s 1892 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling that separate public facilities for the races were constitutional, if of equal quality. Thereafter, black Southerners had no legal shield against a century’s worth of Jim Crow oppression, or against state literacy tests that nullified the Fifteenth Amendment’s grant of black voting rights. Nearly 400,000 Union soldiers had died to fulfill the Founders’ promise of equality before the law for all Americans—and this was the result?
Riding a whirlwind of almost religious fervor to right these wrongs, the 1964 act set out to undo Jim Crow, safeguarding voting rights and banning discrimination in state facilities, public schools, public accommodation, and employment on account of “race, color, religion, or national origin”—a credo that Eleanor Roosevelt had invoked as early as 1941.
Though the act’s guarantee of equal access to tax-funded parks, libraries, and schools was but a long-overdue reassertion of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, other provisions lacked constitutional warrant. Even the schools edict soon sparked explosive social upheaval, as it converted what had been locally controlled neighborhood institutions into federal weapons.
The act ordered school districts to end official racial segregation—but not, said the law, to start “the assignment of students to public schools in order to overcome racial imbalance.” That meant no racial engineering and no quotas. Congress’s mere words, however, proved no bar to zealous agency bureaucrats. Within two years, they ruled that school districts had to “achieve substantial integration” by racial engineering—even, if necessary, by busing, they added in 1971, though in debating the act, Hubert Humphrey had promised fellow senators that could never happen. It can’t be sufficiently stressed that, for all the act’s constitutional overreach, its most destructive consequences came from the ever-multiplying bureaucrats and judges who made themselves legislators and dictators, defying the very law they claimed as their authority.
As became routine, the Supreme Court doubled down on the bureaucrats’ illegitimate edict, which had targeted school districts formerly segregated by law and still unofficially segregated even after the 1964 act. In 1973, the high court erased the distinction between racial separation that was a vestige of Jim Crow and that caused by residential patterns. Regardless of origin or intent, racial imbalance in schools demanded “affirmative action,” which materialized as a decade of police- and national guard–supervised busing, white flight that transformed northern cities, and disorderly schools more segregated than before and more focused on race than learning. What had been cohesive (if insular and often prejudiced) neighborhoods went under the government bulldozer to serve a pipe dream of a state-imposed racial harmony willing to crush all competing values in its way.
“But wait!” you might interject: “didn’t the Supreme Court outlaw school segregation a decade earlier in Brown v. Board of Education?” Yes it did. But Brown received little enforcement, and critics argued that the people’s elected representatives, not unelected judges, should decide such sweeping measures. The Civil Rights Act cured that flaw but left untouched a deeper one that bureaucrats and judges rode hard down the path paved with good intentions. Many commentators today maintain that Brown overturned Plessy v. Ferguson. It did not. Based on tendentious “social science” testimony given to a lower court, the Court ruled that, for psychological reasons, separate can never be equal in education, so school segregation is unlawful. The Court did not address other areas of segregation, and it did not rule separate-but-equal unconstitutional. So it did not address the fundamental issue in this matter, squarely faced by Justice John Marshall Harlan’s Plessy dissent, the most magisterial opinion in Supreme Court history. “Our Constitution is color-blind and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens,” Harlan wrote. “The law regards man as man and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.” Had the whole Court endorsed this principle, bureaucrats could not have tortured the Civil Rights Act into licensing the toxic medicine of affirmative action: racial discrimination to cure racial discrimination.
In higher education, experience soon disproved the fantasy that college enrollment would spark the instant rise of a successful black middle class. Colleges admitted black students with lower grades and admissions-test scores than their white or Asian counterparts, and many didn’t graduate and turned resentful, since it was less painful to blame “the system” than their own shortcomings. The real fault lay with affirmative action, though, which had set up students who would have thrived at less rigorous institutions for failure at more demanding ones. In addition, once the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke ruling changed affirmative action’s rationale from racial reparations to the educational benefits of “diversity,” discrimination against Asian applicants in favor of less qualified blacks stoked further social friction.
But more important: what are universities for? Surely racial justice is not their chief purpose, and surely the pursuit of knowledge is high on the list, for which the most gifted students (as measured, if roughly, by tests) are best suited. And an equally urgent consideration is one Tocqueville raised in The Old Regime and the French Revolution. Who runs these institutions? Who sets their goals and standards—and can decide that racial justice is the highest good of many ultimate goods? When the French monarchy grasped for absolutism, Tocqueville recounts, it co-opted by subsidies all the ancient, mediating institutions of civil society—the colleges, convents, hospitals, factories, village councils, and municipal corporations—which maintained their old forms but became dependents of the state. With the neutering of these bodies of local and professional self-government, through which people had once solved common problems and ordered their own communities, freedom evaporated, leaving only state power. So when the state reaches its armed hand into South Boston to seize your child and shove him on a bus to school in Roxbury, you have ceased to be self-governing and ceased to be free. There can be no remotely compensatory gain. And when colleges dance to the tune the central government pipes, they have lost the freedom to define higher education, however gaily they subsequently caper.
There’s at least the rationale of public funding for government control over state universities, and even private ones taking government grants, but how does the Civil Rights Act give Washington the legitimacy to tell private companies whom to hire? Here we’re back in the New Deal’s constitutional magic kingdom, with claims that any business that conceivably “affects” interstate commerce is subject to congress’s interstate commerce power, including businesses with more than two dozen full-time employees, or diners or motels whose ketchup or Clorox arrives through interstate commerce. Under the Civil Rights Act, can an employer screen job applicants through an aptitude test? Not if the test unintentionally excludes a disproportionate number of blacks, the Supreme Court answered in 1971, as if only racism could explain such statistical disparity. Can an employer use criminal background checks? Not if it disproportionately affects blacks, ruled a federal judge in 2015—though if blacks, 12 percent of the nation’s population, commit 60 percent of its robberies, could so basic a screen for trustworthiness not echo that disproportion? After all, according to a 2017 settlement agreement, a business—in this case, a restaurant chain—has to have a workforce that matches the racial makeup of each of the locales where it has branches. So it’s quotas all the way, with all tests for excellence and efficiency banned, as if all humans were interchangeable cogs in a vast, inhuman machine.
Do you wonder why a plague of human-resources busybodies has scourged the land, or why so many institutions have become bureaucracies staffed by apparatchiks, whereas until recently doctors still ran hospitals, professors ran universities, and entrepreneurs without MBAs ran many businesses? A New Deal and a Great Society have left us, as Tocqueville predicted such centralized power would, with “a fine mesh of uniform, minute, and complex rules” that “inhibits, represses, saps, stultifies, and in the end reduces each nation to nothing but a timid and industrious flock of animals, with the government as its shepherd.” More power to the Tea Partiers, then, for recalling the spirit of ’76.
Lyndon Johnson was an impatient man, and, when the Civil Rights Act didn’t produce instant magic, he abruptly changed focus in one of the most wrongheaded presidential speeches ever. “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ ” he declared in June 1965, oblivious to his words’ imputation of racial inferiority. If clearing away bars to black opportunity hadn’t sparked success, then—by God!— he’d give black Americans their Great Society by sheer federal force. He would provide “equality as a fact and equality as a result,” he vowed. They didn’t have medical insurance? Medicaid would lay it on free, at triple the estimated cost. Bad housing held them back? He’d raze the slums and build them new high-rises that, instead of uplifting their residents, soon became crime-ridden new slums. Aid to Dependent Children was stingy? He’d pay the National Welfare Rights Organization to agitate for richer payments, matching those of a minimum-wage job—and he’d fund legions of “public-interest” lawyers and “community activists” to press bureaucrats and judges to funnel yet more tax money to the minority poor. The outcome: starting in 1964, as the War on Poverty began, every index of social pathology among the minority poor—crime, drug use, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, and school dropout—streaked higher for three decades.
FDR was right: welfare proved “a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit.” It wasn’t mainly a question of economic incentives, though social thinkers since Tocqueville have observed that the more poor relief a society provides, the more paupers will proliferate, as the slothful choose handouts over work as the sums equalize. What’s more important is the spiritual dimension that FDR noted. Individuals forge their characters in the work they do, discovering and refining what skills and virtues lie within them, bettering their communities, supporting their families, and making a meaningful life even in the most humble job. It isn’t government that “liberates [man] from the enslaving forces of his environment,” as LBJ claimed. It is man himself who grapples with the conditions life sets and, in the process, molds an identity. To be fed like gerbils in a cage by the seemingly extraterrestrial hand of the state is to be cut off from humanity’s wellsprings.
LBJ had only five years in the White House. But the words FDR’s treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau used to sum up the New Deal apply just as aptly to the War on Poverty: “We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before and it does not work. . . . I say after eight years of this Administration we have just as much unemployment as when we started. . . . And an enormous debt to boot.”
I argued in a 1993 book that, more than the War on Poverty’s high welfare payments, a cultural change caused the minority underclass to swell after 1964—a change in views and values that began among the opinion elites in the 1960s and then flooded down into the ghettoes and devastated them. The universities and educational schools, the media and charitable foundations, the public-interest lawyers and social-justice clergy, the Great Society bureaucrats, and of course Hollywood and rock music uprooted the old American “habits of the heart,” as Tocqueville called them—our traditional culture of family, community, patriotism, and rugged individualism. As fervently as Woodrow Wilson embraced the living constitution after jilting the Framers’ one, the new worldview celebrated sexual liberation and destigmatized the ensuing illegitimacy and family breakup; it glamorized drug use, dropping out, and flouting authority; it redefined welfare as reparations for slavery and racism; and it rationalized crime as a manly protest against a racist regime, whose malevolence the Vietnam War underscored. Since beliefs and ideas are the chief shapers of action, when the “question authority” and “if it feels good, do it” attitudes reached the inner city, an epidemic of social pathology followed, and its victims had no safety net of family and skills that let the prosperous weather their fling with sex, drugs, and protest.
While the Sixties’ War on Poverty failed, its Culture War succeeded. Today, the bosses of America’s institutions are cultural-revolution veterans or their acolytes, and, as their own students and children survey the arid acres of housing projects, where generations of lives have improved not one whit as LBJ’s dream turned to ashes, and the dumbed-down campuses where affirmative action kids still struggle and complain, they are reviving all the mistaken 1960s notions and launching a renewed assault on America’s culture that marks the third stage of the dismantling of the Founders’ republic. As they don’t know that the original cultural revolution wreaked much of the inner-city damage that they deplore, they can’t foresee the further harm they will inflict on black Americans and the entire nation as well. Watching the goofily optimistic worldview of long ago now ossify into a party line that resembles Mao’s cultural revolution or Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Ministry of Truth is almost enough to make one believe that a malign god, with a vicious, Nietzschean heart, mockingly presides over history.
Race is the soul of Culture War II. It explains everything, say such bestselling Barnums as Ibram X. Kendi or Robin DiAngelo, since racism is “systemic,” infusing every institution and radiating from within every oblivious white heart a force-field of wounding aggressions that squelch black flourishing. But that has always been America’s essential nature, says Nikole Hannah-Jones in The New York Times’s mendacious 1619 Project, because the nation really began when the first slaves landed on its shores that year, and because slavery has been its mainspring ever since, even leading our slave-owning Founding Fathers to fight the Revolution expressly to preserve the institution. Moreover, their thinking goes, today’s racist regime empowers police to kill black people for sport and tolerates a legal system that disproportionately imprisons black people.
The wider culture fervently echoes this dogma as mobs topple statues even of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, since no vestige of our tainted past merits respect. Scarcely a single educational institution, art museum, or orchestra has failed to send anguished letters to its supporters confessing its complicity in racial insensitivity and reaffirming its commitment “to address racial bias, injustice and inequity in our community,” as the latest, wholly typical bleat from my old school puts it. Accordingly, the school, which already boasts a Director of Equity and Inclusion, an Office of Multicultural Affairs, and a required literature course in “racial identity,” promises to hire more “faculty of color” and to give student organizations an “ ‘Anti-Racist Starter Pack’ of resources to help understand the history of racism, intersectionality and anti-racism.” Online message boards let kids denounce teachers anonymously for party-line deviations, leading to a scolding from deans and possible “employment actions.”
More troubling is the governmental fanning of the cultural auto-da-fé. In states such as Oregon, school boards have already renamed their Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Herbert Hoover, and Woodrow Wilson Schools. Nationwide, some 4,500 public schools include the Times’s 1619 Project in their curricula, along with the again-trendy “critical race theory,” which holds that every American institution, law, custom, and white mind is steeped in racism—so that such concepts as race-neutrality, color-blindness, meritocracy, and the “belief that effort is always rewarded” are all ways for whites to keep blacks down by “refusing to acknowledge the impact of enduring racial stratification on students and their families,” as one professor puts it. An Oregon education department warns math teachers that “the focus on getting the ‘right’ answer” is another racist weapon of “the white supremacy culture,” since the “concept of mathematics being purely objective is unequivocally false”—just as, on Culture War II’s sexual liberation front, the idea that one’s sex is purely objective is also unequivocally false. American teachers are dumping Western literature’s greats as tools of “white supremacy and colonization.” Going further still, some New York State schools are asking pupils to “confront their whiteness,” as if it were a deformity, with one Manhattan principal sending parents a race-o-meter, helpfully showing the stages to move the needle from bad “white supremacist” to good “white abolitionist.”
Late in his term, President Trump, learning that critical race theory trainers were indoctrinating federal bureaucrats, ordered an instant stop. On Inauguration Day, President Biden rescinded that order and rededicated his government to radical racialism. Equal opportunity, he asserted—as if America for sixty years has not turned itself inside-out to make this equality ironclad in public and institutional life—does not exist because of “systemic racism.” Therefore, he declared, it’s time for a “whole-of-government equity agenda”—the opposite of race-neutral equality of opportunity and the return of LBJ’s “equality as a fact and equality as a result.” This means quotas, affirmative action, and discrimination-by-race in government hiring, contracting, spending, and (as Attorney General Merrick Garland promised in his confirmation hearings) administering justice.
The lie of systemic racism will become the official government line for the next four years. In the same Executive Order, Biden abolished Trump’s 1776 Commission of distinguished scholars, whose report politely trashed the 1619 Project and reminded Americans that our nation, unlike others, began by reflection and choice rather than by accident or force, as Alexander Hamilton wrote, and that it began with a magnificent assertion that all men are equal before the law and equally endowed with rights that government exists to protect and can’t infringe. But Biden’s executive order, “Advancing Racial Equity,” replaces the luminous truth that the American Founding was a signal triumph of the Western Enlightenment with the claptrap that our country was conceived in slavery and dedicated to the principle of systemic racism.
Lies have consequences. Because Biden’s order tells federal statisticians to collect all possible data about Americans by race, expect more “disparate impact” lawsuits and consent decrees, on the premise that any statistical disproportion reveals racism. So, for example, if blacks, 12 percent of the population, make up a third of the nation’s prisoners, the only explanation can be racist law enforcement, an idea that will lead to more federal hamstringing of local police and prosecutors and a consequent rise in crime. You can bet that Biden’s statisticians will not disclose, for instance, that the 23 percent of New Yorkers who are black commit 72 percent of the city’s shootings. Nor will his statisticians tell you that most shooting victims are black, and that to hinder police from stopping this violence is to ensure more murdered blacks and more dystopic inner cities where the law-abiding black majority will live in fear.
To tell black Americans that systemic racism is the cause of all their problems is to tell them that their fate is out of their hands, that they are passive victims rather than active shapers of their own lives. It is both discouragement and excuse. The reality is the opposite of what Biden’s order assumes. Despite instances of racism or insensitivity, black Americans do have equal opportunity, and, because so many can’t see that—because they are constantly told the disempowering opposite and have internalized that pessimism—they understandably don’t consider whether anything in their own behavior and mindset might account for their failure to rise.
I don’t underestimate how hard it is to learn to see outside one’s worldview or to change communal norms—above all, to replace the single-parent pattern with married families dedicated to imbuing children with virtue, ambition, and love of learning. But that’s the change needed for black America’s success, and all contrary messages from Culture War II only forge stronger mental manacles. At the least, we can all stop making the bondage worse by letting the lies pass unchallenged.
The Founding Fathers stressed that their republic rested not only on the Constitution’s political arrangements but also on the hearts and minds of the citizens, where the love of liberty and the truths of the Declaration of Independence are inscribed. Should Americans lose these habits of the heart, then the power-hungry men who cluster around politics like flies might impose the elective despotism the Founders feared. That’s why they cared so passionately about civic education: they had created something unique in history, and they wanted posterity to understand the high worth of that inheritance, to preserve and improve it. They believed that assent to the Founding’s culture of liberty, to its core truths of equality before the law and equality of rights, would be enough to forge a unified nation out of what was already an ethnically diverse people.
They weren’t naive about propaganda or its power. By George Washington’s presidency, America had a gutter press as partisan as The New York Times or The Washington Post. But the Founders didn’t foresee an all-out falsification of the fact of American exceptionalism such as now rages, and I think the success of the cultural subversion would have surprised them, like the octogenarian Jefferson, who had to remonstrate with the misbehaving students at his beloved University of Virginia, of which he was the founder and rector. He stepped onto the stage, opened his mouth to voice his disappointment with these unruly inheritors of republican liberty, and burst into tears.
Adam Smith tells us that there’s a great deal of ruin in a nation, and certainly civilizations that have lost faith in themselves have long staggered on. But the threat to America is not only its internal erosion of republican liberty. The nation also faces a relentless rival for world hegemony, and China’s fast-growing industrial and military might—its ruthlessness in everything from stealing technology to militarizing disputed territory to crushing Hong Kong’s freedom—suggests that America won’t enjoy a cozy, British-style decline. Part of Xi Jinping’s scheme of national development—explicitly premised on the idea that “the East is rising, and the West is declining,” as several of his high officials arrogantly crowed—includes patriotic education aimed at teaching children “to love the party, the country, socialism and the people,” and to instill a belief in the excellence of Chinese civilization, with the flaws airbrushed out. Meanwhile, America, instead of cherishing its genuine exceptionalism, pores over its every past blemish and imagines others that don’t exist, encouraging shame rather than justifiable pride. In international competition, it’s not just the best hardware that wins the day, but also inner conviction, which America is working hard to snuff out.
Here American conservatives are in a bind. Schooled by Edmund Burke, we view conservatism as a temperament that values longstanding traditions and institutions legitimated by the citizens’ affections. Yet today we are squeezed between the venerable Enlightenment principles of the Founding and the opposing, but now-established, institutions of the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Culture War. What to do?
When conservatism was revitalizing itself in middle of the twentieth century, neoconservatives around Irving Kristol asserted their comfort with the New Deal even as they were condemning the Great Society’s more radical redistributionism, its substitution of equality of outcomes for equality of opportunity. Despite the Great Society’s ultimate failure, its redistributionist programs and their rationale lived on. Neoconservatism never won the intellectual war.
Perhaps William F. Buckley, standing athwart history and yelling Stop! in his 1955 National Review mission statement, had the better tack, and you can hear Rick Santelli and the Tea Partiers echoing his exasperation. However far the march toward redistributionism has advanced, they are saying, it needs to be pushed back. As Santelli put it, America’s founding tradition is to “reward people that can carry the water rather than just drink the water,” and redistributing money from the productive to the unproductive “is promoting bad behavior.” The more elegant Buckley—speaking, he said, as one of the true conservatives “who have not made their peace with the New Deal” and its “gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy”—simply pointed out that the only legitimate peacetime task of the central government is to protect citizens’ life, liberty, and property. All the Big Brother governmental nostrums that the social engineers were promoting—confident, then as now, that they have “an inside track to History” and its supposedly predetermined direction—“diminish freedom and hamper progress.”
Today’s conservatives should start with Stop! Stop the lies about the Founding, which—with the Civil War, the Reconstruction Amendments, and the Nineteenth Amendment to complete the Founders’ vision—is the most luminously perfect governmental contrivance in imperfect human history. Stop the lies about systemic racism. There is no plot to keep blacks poor, no police pogrom against blacks. Black progress now depends on blacks, though the idea that it rests on continued government manipulation of the economy, society, and culture is the creed that legitimates Democratic Party power and keeps the salaries flowing for the mansion-dwelling congressfolk and the critical race theory trainers, ethnic-studies professors, diversity deans, human-resources apparatchiks, media scolds, social-justice bureaucrats, and business people ready to take any line that pleases—all of whom profit from intentions rather than results. The Trump administration never managed to drain this swamp, which the Biden administration adds to daily. Conservatism’s crucial first labor of the Herculean cleansing that lies ahead is to finish this task, mindful always of the grievance that sparked the Boston Tea Party, the American Revolution, and the modern Tea Party: the power to tax is the power to steal.