Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Dangers Ahead

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Dangers Ahead

Article excerpt

I have been trying to ring the alarm bell for months now. The populist sentiment surging in Europe and America cannot be explained away as the epiphenomenon of globalization, nor should it be descried as "white identity politics" or some other pathology. It is true that people vote their interests. Jobs and economic prospects certainly matter. Moreover, public life is always perverted by social pathologies. The sin of Adam infects us all. But these same voters are rebelling against the metaphysical poverty of elites. A politics of meaning is reasserting its claim over public life.

In the aftermath of Trump's election, let me ring the alarm bell louder still. Put starkly, populism reveals growing desire for a return of the strong gods of nation and peoplehood, blood and soil. One must be innocent of any knowledge of the history of the first half of the twentieth century not to be worried. The strong gods have enflamed collective passions, passions that in living memory shook the settled order of things to its foundation. We are entering a dangerous time.

As populism beckons the strong gods to return, the impulse of our governing class is to employ the tried-and-true therapy of disenchantment. I described that therapy above. It depends upon a reductive materialism that promises to expose root causes and underlying interests. Thus we hear a great deal of talk about racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and homophobia. Or we listen to experts explain how economic globalization and immigration have affected the job prospects of less-educated Americans. No matter what the angle, however, the argument goes like this: The strong gods of nation, heritage, and peoplehood are not real. They are projections of lower human impulses such as economic self-interest, primitive group instincts, or phobias of various sorts.

A similar strategy has been used to disenchant strong moral claims, which are part of the traditional cultures some now want to renew, if only half-knowingly, which is why populism is seen by progressives as an enemy of the personal liberation projects of the last fifty years. The dictatorship of relativism serves as a therapy of weakening, a key element of the catechesis of our time that seeks to minimize loves and loyalties that impede further relaxation of social norms, as well as the frictionless circulation of capital, goods, and people in a globalized system that will make us both wealthier and freer, or so we are told.

Today's buzzwords give priority to weakening. Progressives favor terms such as "diversity" and "inclusion." These are softening words, meant to break down firm boundaries. Even words like "empowerment," which suggest strengthening, are equivocal, because they imply the need to remove impediments and open things up. The left encourages identity politics, but it too is equivocal. Our "identities" are always affirmed under the sign of choice. One is free to identify-or not. And identity politics gets promoted against the background assumption that all identities can be domesticated and managed by multiculturalism, another therapy of disenchantment.

Progressives do not have a monopoly on disenchantment. Conservatives gravitate toward market-oriented images such as "innovation," the deus ex machina that promises to deliver us from our present limitations without the bother of something as troublesome and demanding as politics. Social pathologies are going to be addressed by "social entrepreneurs." These instances illustrate how economics has colonized the social and political imaginations of twenty-first-century conservatives. …

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