The arc of the universe bends towards justice
You make a strong case that the US (and other Western democracies) have moved leftwards, by your definition. I'm not sure you even try to make the case either that the world has moved leftwards, or that it inevitably does so. Has China moved leftwards? Has Russia? Has India? If they haven't, what makes you think they will? In what sense does the small proportion of the world population living in developed countries adequately represent The World?
There is a sense (in Western democracies) in which the right is the brake, and the left the accelerator. It can seem more useful and exciting to identify with and press on the accelerator - that the right are just small men on the wrong side of history. But sometimes the brake stops the car from driving over a cliff. If the move leftwards was inevitable, and the role of the right futile, then a communist government in the US would have murdered millions of its own citizens, and its tyranny might well continue today. Tens of millions more of the disabled and disadvantaged would have been sterilised (on the grounds of fairness and justice, as so often argued by the left). In relation to which of the supposedly inevitable triumphs of the left in our own day, that you say the right are just pointlessly delaying for a few years, will the rearguard action of the right actually succeed, drive back the left, and save civilisation?
Fascinating essay. While I don’t dispute this theory, which probably holds for the last several hundred years of human history (probably longer), there does seem to be a major societal shift that could throw a major wrench in the trend: rapidly declining fertility.
If “right wing” Christians/Muslims/Jews continue having disproportionately more children than today’s leftists, might his trend reverse in the next 20-50 years?
Erik, I enjoyed your post. I was reminded throughout of the work of Michael Freeden, a political theorist at Oxford who’s done some really useful work analyzing political ideologies. Freeden’s take (which I largely co-sign) is that conservatism does in fact have a substantive philosophy–it’s just a fairly minimal one compared to liberalism, socialism, communism, and the rest. It’s the theoretical structure or “morphology” of conservatism, however, which really sets it apart from other ideologies. First I’ll try to recap some of his thoughts around conservatism’s principles, then address the issue of its structure.
Freeden argues that conservatism in almost all its countless contingent forms tends to rest on a couple of key principles (to which I’ll add one extra at the end of the list). The first and core principle is resistance to “inorganic” change in favor of natural/naturally restrained alternatives. The idea is that while the particulars of change may manifest in different ways throughout history and across cultures, conservatives are primarily concerned with managing change such that (allegedly) it reflects organic currents in the social or economic life of the community, rather than imposing fundamental changes to the social order. The second and closely related principle is about the nature of the social order–namely, that it’s in some important way(s) “ordained” by extra-human forces, whether those are metaphysical/religious, biological, evolutionary or rational-economic. If that’s the case, conservatives might argue, then we ought to tread lightly when tinkering with the social order according to our human wills and whims–and much of the time, we probably should steer clear of forcing change on such a scale entirely.
I’d add a third principle: that we don’t know what we don’t know. Given the sheer scale of uncertainty we face when setting policy about anything, conservatives would tend to argue, a certain degree of risk-aversion is prudent.
The interesting and distinctive feature of conservatism is how its substantive principles interact with its theoretical structure. The structure allows conservatives to defend their core priority of managed change while deploying other secondary concepts as needed in response to specific challenges from other ideologies. That’s why pretty much the entire kaleidoscope of conservative arguments throughout history are contingent on the claims of the opponent faced, whether liberal, fascist, communist, etc. It’s why we see conservatives leveling all kinds of different critiques over time of the rise of democracy, of welfare systems, of economic redistribution, etc. They’re not advancing an agenda in the same sense as their ideological rivals. Instead, they’re advocating a certain approach to change, which is naturally going to look different across issue contexts.
I think a lot of this dovetails pretty well with your analysis of the conservative end of the right/left dialectic. That said, Freeden gives us reason to doubt your view that a conservative Republican today is a “Democrat of 2004”, since comparing policy positions across snapshots in time arguably isn’t the right way to think about what actually distinguishes conservatives from liberals or socialists or whomever. In a way, I think Freeden also gives us an answer to your final question about the lack of checks on excessive leftism. That’s what the right is for!
Overall interesting and thought provoking piece. I like tying the idea between progressive and justice outside of “social justice”.
One thing that I don’t see, however, is this line, “The left sets the agenda, the right just tries to “stand athwart history, yelling ‘stop!’”. Sure, conservatives lean in the camp of let’s keep things how they are. The push and pull seems to be much more that progressives push the envelope forward while conservatives incorporate elements from the past that helped us to achieve the growth in the first place. More of a yin Yang relationship when it’s gone well.
What if the Christian ethic is supplanted by a Jesusonian one?
Instead of caring for the weak and vulnerable, we care for everyone, because they ARE our spiritual siblings in the grand human family?
You might find it helpful to think in terms of centralization vs decentralization, rather than left and right or progress and regression, which are both directional and fail to capture the fractal nature of these evolving frontiers of human interactions.
Decentralization and distribution is our species heritage, community vs. network or society.
Centralization and concentration is a byproduct of agriculture surplus and its consequences, ie. wealth and power aggregation.
Centralization is not inherent to civilization or innovation, although post-agriculture progress was exponentially faster as a result.
But it's the decentralization of networked humanity that has led to even faster invention, iteration, and abundance.
Once there were memelords who led small tribes to figure out how to live better, longer, safer. Those are the main genes we inherited from 10,000 generations of hunting and gathering.
With agriculture came the warlords and centralization around their power. The religion and intersexual relations condensed around monotheism and monogamy enforced by a priest class loyal to the big kahuna.
The morality of the memelord is clever, helpful, problem-solving iteration and tinkering-- both moral and tech innovation. Neanderthal had fire and weapons, but no dank memes.
The morality of the warlord is might makes right and loyalty to power. War and plunder were the drivers of innovation, not curious tinkering and invention. We assume that in the caves of Lascaux and in our slaughter of competing hominids there was chimp-like alpha rampaging.
Some attribute the cognitive evolution to lesser betas coordinating to check the alpha's dominion over mates and resources. But what if it were the memelords who dominated the environment with secret plans and clever tricks, the precursors to the good explanations that advance via experimentation?
With the internet we are getting regressing from the warlord aberration to the memelord mean via the decentralization of power, influence, opportunity, and coercion.
The arc of human history does not bend left or progressive or just or fair or equal or nice or equitable. The arc of human history bends as it always has toward the dankest memes that can create the most abundance for the memelords and everyone else by solving problems that they care about for a community they love.
Mimematis ergo sum humano.
Basically, the harder we meme, the further we go. We accelerate to #HIIS.
NB: the word meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and so the latin word is necessarily also a neologism.
The left-right dialectic reminds me of a kind of societal level conjecture-refutation or hypothesis-confirmation process. You always need elements of society pushing things in new directions, as well as various opposing forces seeking rebalance. It’s just the nature of things.
The question is what forms of society and political organization make this process as peaceful and conducive to human well-being as possible.
This was an interesting article but it includes digs that make it hard to take you as a good faith player. Ben Shapiro is not "extreme." This term is only used by leftists and left aligned people to tar anyone to the right of this current agenda. I wish writers could move beyond this toxic labeling. Interesting it's never applied to the left, like extreme progressives who support open borders, believe men can be pregnant and want to defund the police. Also, the left rehabilitates or redeems its own (e.g., Al Sharpton, Margaret Sanger) but it NEVER EVER permits the evil rightists to be redeemed (look at the coordinated hit against Hanania). The right is always playing defense. This is why they lose and their inability to set an agenda and pursue it without apology.
I agree the Western world has moved markedly left over the centuries. You and others make the mistake of seeing the world through centuries, rather than millennia. Was the early Medieval period was more progressive than the Roman world that it replaced? The fertility crisis may just plant the seeds that shifts the world to the right. Look at Israel for example. Admittedly I don't know the details of the political disagreement but the ultra-Orthodox fertility on their side and want the laws and policies to reflect their beliefs and desires. They have fertility on their side. Look at the Amish population growth in America. It'll be interesting to see how democracy fares when the majority of the population votes to change political norms and laws. The future will be about democracy v. human rights since the latter bypass the democratic process entirely. Human rights is the left's natural law.
I think this is correct, and there is a previous part of the cycle to consider:the multi-millennial process of constricting reproductive inequality among men. First society developed norms to ensure that men couldn’t have more wives. Then the competition moved to having more money. Eventually civilized men won’t be able to have too much wealth and we will compete on some other level.