2 In his 2018 book The Revolt of the Public, Martin Gurri diagnoses the eruption of protest movements around the world in 2011—Occupy Wall Street, the indignados in Spain, and the violent street protests in London, to name a few—as a politics of pure negation, driven more by the romance of denunciation than by any positive program. These protests expressed distrust of institutional voices, and a wholesale collapse of social authority. On left and right alike, people feel the system is rigged, and indeed political leaders themselves have stoked this conviction, insisting that elections lost by their side were illegitimate, whether because of “voter suppression” or a phantom epidemic of voting by illegal immigrants. This is dangerous stuff.
3 It is therefore perhaps appropriate to consider Europe’s experiment in transferring political sovereignty to a technocratic, democratically unaccountable governing body (the European Union) for clues as to what sort of political reactions such a project might engender.
4 Richard Rorty celebrated the power of “redescription” to alter our moral outlook. He had in mind the genuinely liberal effect that literature sometimes has in shifting our gaze, for example the effect that reading Dickens or Uncle Tom’s Cabin had in enlarging the sympathies of people in the nineteenth century. But redescriptions can just as easily have an impoverishing effect on how we view ourselves and the world. As Iris Murdoch wrote, man is the animal who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble the pictures.
5 On campus, something like this is evident in the reduction of the entire miasma of teenage sexual incompetence, with its misplaced hopes and callow cruelties, to the legal concept of consent. Under the influence of this reduction, a young person is left with no other vocabulary for articulating her unhappiness and confusion over a sexual encounter. She must not have really consented.
6 In a related materialist vein, Reihan Salam ties “wokeness” to the political economy of precarity. Wokeness is a competitive status game played by aspirants to cultural capital. As one friend put it to me, “my PC status advancement seems to depend on my having a Perry Mason moment, in which I reveal that the defendant’s superficially unobjectionable speech actually hides a subtext of oppression only apparent to me.”
7 Whenever there is a whiff of regulatory concern about possible self-dealing by Google as it expands into services far afield from search, it asserts that if its search results presented anything but the disinterested, best possible match to what “customers” were looking for, they would go elsewhere. This incantation of the free market syllogism works like a magic spell in arresting criticism. But how does the logic of the market apply to a near-monopoly? Or to a firm that provides a free service? The reality, of course, is that the users of Google are not the customers. Customers are those who pay for a product. Advertisers gave Google $95 billion in 2017 for access to the product. The product consists of predictions about users’ susceptibility to a specific pitch.
8 Another difference stands out. The early Progressive program had avowedly nationalist elements (consider William James’s famous essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” promoting a program of universal national service and an ethic of hardness, to be achieved through manual labor). It sought to forge an American identity based on solidarity, whereas for today’s progressives the idea of a common good, defined as American, is more problematic. A version of it underlies the economic populism of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but the idea of a specifically American common good is also subject to constant challenge on the left, both by immigration maximalists and by intersectional entrepreneurs who must direct their claims against what is common. Relatedly, the perspective of today’s progressivism is global rather than national, and this sits easier with the “shareholder cosmopolitanism” of capital.
9 Woodrow Wilson complained that “the bulk of mankind is rigidly unphilosophical, and nowadays the bulk of mankind votes.” The reformer is bewildered by the need to influence “the mind, not of Americans of the older stocks only, but also of Irishmen, of Germans, of Negroes.” Hamburger argues that it was the expansion of voting rights early in the twentieth century that prompted Wilson to want to shift power from representative bodies to executive agencies.
10 Barbara Tuchman wrote, “Not before or since has so much careful and reasonable thinking been invested in the formation of a government system. . . . [T]he Founders remain a phenomenon to keep in mind to encourage our estimate of human possibilities, even if their example is too rare to be a basis of normal expectations” (The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, 1984).
11 Silicon Valley’s original intellectual affiliations lie deep in the California counterculture: the Human Potential Movement, Esalen, the Whole Earth Catalog, and all that. Like the generation of ’68 in its long march through the institutions, the Valley staked its early identity on an emancipatory mission, and it has had a hard time adjusting its self-image to reflect its sheer power. In the same vein, recall Obama striking the pose of community organizer in his second term, speaking truth to power from Air Force One.
12 BFMTV, Twitter post, February 20, 2019, 4:29 p.m.