Another epidemic is sweeping the land. Call it “Wokeness” or “Groupthink”. The virus of ideological conformity has spread so quickly as to unnerve even 24-carat Liberals toiling in the knowledge industry. 152 of them, including prominenti like Salman Rushdie, J. K. Rowling, and Michael Walzer, have now published a “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” that inveighs against the demolition of free speech and thought.
The symptoms of the outbreak are familiar enough. Suffice it to cite the core diagnosis: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the Letter intones. It lists “intolerance of opposing views,” “public shaming,” and the bane of “blinding moral certainty.” Daily, the reputations and careers of writers, teachers, editors, and CEOs are being destroyed.
“It Can’t Happen Here,” Sinclair Lewis assured us in his semi-satirical novel of 1935. And the fascist “Plot Against America,” as laid out in the eponymous book by Philip Roth, did fail in the end. Yet from today’s vantage point, these two greats were off the mark while dwelling on the depredations of the 20th century.
In today’s liberal-democratic West, the agent of repression is not the almighty state as embodied in Metternich’s secret police, the Soviet NKVD, or the German Gestapo. The better guide for the perplexed is the cartoon character Pogo (1948-75) who famously reported to his forest friends: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
The wise possum had never read Alexis de Tocqueville’s master work Democracy in America (1835). But whoever wants to understand what is afflicting Western postmodernity—with the U.S. going first and Europe following—should read the two chapters on the tyranny imposed not by an oppressive regime, but by a free society. 200 years ago, the young Frenchman praised America’s “extreme liberties” only to warn of a deadly downside: Nowhere else, he wrote, was there “less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America.” Today, he would not target the “tyranny of the majority,” but the hegemony of a minority that has scaled the “commanding heights,” as Lenin put it, of the culture: schools, universities, media, foundations, and even boardrooms. The word, it turns out, is mightier than the sword of yesteryear’s potentates. These, Tocqueville noted, relied on “chains and executioners,” on “crude instruments.” Today, heretics are not killed, but “canceled.”
Tocqueville’s foresight was eerie. Fingering “superior social power”—make that “superior cultural power”—he wrote about a “formidable circle around thought. Within these limits, the writer is free; but woe to him if he dares to go beyond them. It isn’t that he has to fear an auto-da-fé but he is exposed to . . . everyday persecutions. A political career is closed to him. . . . Everything is denied him. . . . Before publishing his opinions, he had some partisans”—no more. His censorious enemies “speak openly;” lacking courage, his friends “keep quiet and distance themselves. He gives in . . . and returns to silence, as though he felt remorse for having told the truth.”
Sounds familiar, though with a startling new twist on the game of “name and shame.” Back then, culprits were dragged off to the pillory. To escape canceling and professional extinction, culprits must now chain themselves in self-humiliation. Or bend their knees in penance. Moral cruelty subs for physical cruelty.
Tocqueville, to repeat, was castigating the “tyranny of the majority.” In our time, the hoi polloi deserve absolution. “Goodthink,” to recall Orwell, is the project of a passionate minority privileged not by birth and station, but by achievement, acquired status, and job security afforded by their place in the knowledge economy and the public sector. The task of “Goodthink,” Orwell explained, was “to make all other modes of thought impossible.”
Who are the democratic disciples of Goodthink? In a wide-ranging survey, The Hidden Tribes of America, the social research outfit More in Common found out that this group—“younger, secular, cosmopolitan, angry”—makes up just 8 percent of the population, the others filling up the “exhausted majority.” The opinions of these “Progressive Activists” diverge dramatically from the rest.
For instance, in a recent Pew poll, three-quarter majorities of Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics aver that “diversity is good for the country.” On the other hand, an equally large majority of all adults says that only qualification should matter in the hiring policies of firms and organizations, “even if it results in less diversity.” More than 7 out of 10 do not favor racial preferences in college admission. Does America want to defund the police, as the Progressive Activists demand? A 73 percent majority wants local spending to remain the same (42 percent) or increased (31 percent).
What follows from such numbers? Today, the Great Alexis would have to revise his dour take on the “tyranny of the majority.” He would zero in on a smallish subset determined to “re-educate” the rest so that they will never again commit thought crimes. Still, Tocqueville’s insight into the pernicious effects of Goodthink is more acute than ever. It does not matter who came first: Hillary Clinton with her “basket of (white) deplorables” or Donald Trump with his masked appeals to white resentment. It’s chickens and eggs.
But the country is beset by rampant polarization, right? Routinely blamed as driver of ideological civil war, polarization is actually a bugaboo. At least, data like those cited above do not prove the charge. Us-against-them does not reflect American reality beyond the outraged “8 percent.” Wokeness is an elite project, though it comes armed with disproportionate influence over minds and morals. As Tocqueville taught, this “social power” does not require the knout of an overpowering state. The problem is rather a lopsided order of battle where the articulate few are up against what Hidden Tribes calls the “Exhausted Majority.” Two thirds of the population belong to this last group, folks who are “often forgotten in the public discourse because their voices are seldom heard.” They are not united by a single ideology; indeed, they are “flexible” in their beliefs. They do believe that “we can find common ground.” So, unlike Tocqueville’s tyrannical mainstream, the “Exhausted Majority” is neither the threat, nor, alas, the solution.
Lacking cultural clout, the many are not equipped to turn the tide. Nor is this task their responsibility. The battle is within the “Liberal Class,” a term coined by Thomas Frank, an old-school progressivist, in his 2018 book Listen, Liberal. This is where the Letter of the 152 hits home. The manifesto may—just may—signify the launch of an intra-elite struggle over the country’s soul and fate. The incipient uprising marks a clash between terrified Liberals and their terrifying kin.
What are the stakes? The core of liberalism is an ever-expanding “safe space” free from intimidation and imposition. The enemy today is not an authoritarian state à la Putin or Xi, but “us,” as Pogo quipped decades ago. Though almost apologetically balanced between the claims of “freedom” and “social justice,” the Letter is the first timid sign of a Liberal revolt against Liberal illiberalism.
And make no mistake, this is not about ideals alone. Ideals are rarely enough when the battle is over the “commanding heights” of the culture. Victories over speech and thought come with palpable benefits denominated in power, position and entitlement. For this “Resistance 2.0” (as limned in the Letter) the fight is on two levels. On the one, this is a struggle for the indispensable ideal of a free commonwealth—a noble cause. But the other is grounded in the self-interest of a rattled subset of the intelligentsia threatened by marginalization unless its members bend to the New Orthodoxy. The signatories insist: “As writers, we need a culture that leaves us room.” For what? For “experimentation and risk-taking.” Precisely, that is what free thought is all about. But unless this space is in fact safe, risk-taking—let alone “wrongthink”—will slice into careers and emoluments.
“Shame to those who think evil of it,” say the French. The real and legitimate point is that self-interest is more reliable than idealism in the intra-Liberal culture war. The sub-elite that has raised the flag of resistance can thrive only in a free market for ideas unfettered by the ever-present charge of “thought crime.”
Three cheers, then, for the 152, though some have already bowed their heads and peeled off. Take heart. The particular interests of the signatories are those of the whole, now beset by the martinets of the True Faith. Indeed, even those who wield the whip today should allow themselves second thoughts. So often in history, ideological victory has devoured its own children. At any rate, the threat to the well-being of the apostates is the same as to the freedom of all the rest, including the vanguard.
Tocqueville beheld the threat ages ago. In spite of its “extreme liberties,” the country has so often succumbed to the assault on dissent ever since John Adams signed the Sedition Act of 1798, which penalized “false, scandalous, or malicious writing.” Two years later, the law was rescinded. The Senate censured Joe McCarthy after four years.
In the end, Tocqueville was always proven wrong; this is the best news. Epidemics do subside—whether they afflict the body or the mind. Antibodies form, vaccines come onstream. America’s liberal tradition is its own best cure.