As the blurb for my book The Reactionary Mind says, the reactionary “alone is free to imagine a new and better world.”
I like to imagine a world where the Progressive movement in this country remained true to its roots, which were laid down in the 1910s.
The true reactionary can’t help but love those old warhorses of the Progressive Era—guys like Theodore Roosevelt, Robert M. La Follette, and William Jennings Bryan. That’s not to say they were perfect, but no other movement in modern America embodies the reactionary ethos quite so well.
The old Progressives fought against the grand conspiracies between Big Business and Big Government. They defended the humble breadwinner against a cabal of politicians and corporations that sought to defraud him of his wages. As Bryan put it in one of his finest speeches: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
But their appeal is about more than politics. In retrospect, the old Progressives were last great American statesmen. Not only did they fight for the little guy: they were the little guy. Most, like La Follette, grew up on small farms in little towns across the Heartland. Others were born to a little more privilege, but they earned their stripes. Teddy couldn’t have led the Progressive movement in Washington had he not proven himself first as a cowboy in Dakota and a soldier at San Juan.
There was a vitality about the Progressives—a rugged individualism found in men like Washington and Lincoln, but which disappeared from our politics shortly after the Civil War. It was scarcely seen among the plutocrats who ruled throughout the Gilded Age, against whom the Progressives revolted; it’s nowhere to be found in this, the Silicon Age.
The old Progressives protested against corruption, yes. But they also rebelled against a new culture taking hold in America: a “morally illiterate culture of unhappy and untragic pleasure-seekers,” as Peter Viereck put it. Our Republic’s ailment was principally spiritual, not political; and so, at bottom, it required a spiritual remedy. Progressive politics could only exist alongside a strenuous spirit.
It’s impossible to trace any continuity between those old “Bull Moose” progressives like Teddy and the modern American Left. (Not that today’s conservatives are much better.) There are holdouts, of course. Earlier this year, Garrison Keillor wrote a first-rate column urging President Biden:
“Be a hunter, sir. Head for South Dakota with the dogs and spend the night in a cabin by a roaring fire and feast on pheasant, have a whiskey or two, enjoy immature jokes. Face it, we’ve let the Left go gentle, trapping us in the caregiver role, making us susceptible to defeat by tough-talking autocrats. Half of America sees us Democrats as the Party of Croquet, Crochet, and Croissants. You can change this, Joe, by simply picking up a shotgun.”
Everything about the article is excellent, but (like most of Mr. Keillor’s columns) it lights on a major contradiction in the modern progressive movement. As in the 1910s, progressives claim to stand for the Little Guy. But in the 2020s, progressives openly scorn everything the Little Guy holds dear.
I wish Mr. Biden the best, and I intend show him the respect due to his office. But I’ll say this: the thing about Joe is that you can’t imagine him going pheasant hunting in the Dakotas. We may as well ask Mitt Romney to make himself more “relatable” by challenging AOC to a game of beer pong. It’s not going to happen.
No, I can’t see the President going hunting in the Dakotas. But it came as no surprise whatsoever that he’s making gun control his first priority just a few months into office. That’s what progressives stand for today. The Little Guy likes guns, and he knows how to use them responsibly. It’s not the ranchers of Wyoming or farmers of Georgia who are shooting up schools and churches. Here in the country, our right to keep and bear arms is still integral to their way of life. It’s how we kill their game, protect their crops from predators, and defend their homes when the nearest police barracks is an hour away.
Joe Biden’s gun policies don’t speak to folks like us. They can’t. He’s not allowed.
Things might have been different back in 1988, when Mr. Biden first ran for president. He might’ve gotten away with it in 2008, even. But not in 2020.
Hell, look at Bernie Sanders. Before he ran for president in 2020, Bernie was seen as a moderate on guns. As a senator from Vermont, over half of his constituents are gun-owners. They’re progressives, yes—but, here in rural New England, guns aren’t as politicized as they might be in Boston. They’re just a way of life. Even a self-declared socialist like Sanders didn’t feel the need to tinker with that particular folkway… not until he had to win votes from folks in New York and Los Angeles, where guns call to mind three things: gang warfare, racist bubbas, and Columbine.
The fact is that the Democrats are the Party of Croquet, Crochet, and Croissants. That’s the path they’ve chosen, and Mr. Biden still asked to be their standard-bearer. And I agree with Mr. Keillor: it’s a shame. But if you want to be pope, you’ve got to wear the hat.
Speaking of popes, that’s one area where Mr. Biden has definitely made inroads with Middle America. The last four leaders of the Democratic Party—Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton—were not especially religious.
Now, the contents of their souls are none of my business. And while religious “nones” account for over 20 percent of the U.S. population, that’s not as much as it seems. The vast majority of Americans—over 70 percent—call themselves Christian. Throw in adherents of other traditional religions (Jews, Muslims, etc.) and you’re talking about well over three-quarters of Americans. The role of religion in public life may be declining, but we’re still a nation of believers.
During the 2020 election, Mr. Biden was very open about his Catholic faith. I know many of my fellow papists doubt the sincerity of his beliefs—but, again, I’m not going down that road. I think the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gave an appropriate response to the unique challenges Mr. Biden will pose to American Catholics.
But here’s the rub. Whatever Mr. Biden’s personal views on the supernatural, he supports policies that are indistinguishable from the rest of the American Left.
Abortion is the obvious example. Mr. Biden has vowed not to “impose my views on anyone else as to when life begins.”
Healthcare is another. I’m sure most Christians support some form of socialized medicine (myself included). Yet I’m sure most Christians are also wary of the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate. One would assume that a politician like Mr. Biden—who takes such pains to cast himself as a moderate—would double down on the ACA while rolling back the contraceptive mandate. But, no. He’s promised to drag the Little Sisters of the Poor back to court and force them to buy the Pill for their employees.
I can’t make heads or tales of it… unless, again, the American Left has become so radical that its leader can only ever be MINOs: moderates in name only.
This is what happens when our idea of “progress” is no longer about practical, nuts-and-bolts political reform—when it becomes a fetishization of the new, a prejudice against the old. How unlike the Progressives of yesteryear.
Think of William Jennings Bryan. The man spent most of his time in public life as the quintessential progressive of the Progressive Era, only to end his career as the prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial. Today, this seems like a contraction. In Bryan’s age, it was a matter of course.
Today’s progressives have taken “Believe Science” as their slogan, but in his closing speech at the Trial, Bryan took a very different tack:
“Science is a magnificent force, but it is not a teacher of morals. It can perfect machinery, but it adds no moral restraints to protect society from the misuse of the machine. It can also build gigantic intellectual ships, but it constructs no moral rudders for the control of storm tossed human vessel. It not only fails to supply the spiritual element needed but some of its unproven hypotheses rob the ship of its compass and thus endangers its cargo. In war, science has proven itself an evil genius; it has made war more terrible than it ever was before.”
Bryan concluded: “If civilization is to be saved from the wreckage threatened by intelligence not consecrated by love, it must be saved by the moral code of the meek and lowly Nazarene. His teachings, and His teachings, alone, can solve the problems that vex heart and perplex the world.”
This was the spirit of Bull Moose progressives like Bryan, Roosevelt, and La Follette. They were progressives, not despite their Christianity (like Mr. Biden) but because of their Christianity. They believed that the essence of progressivism was “imposing their views” on the State. Being followers of Jesus Christ, they figured their politics ought to reflect His teachings: love of God and neighbor, of caring for the poor and sick and imprisoned and widowed and orphaned.
This is why so many Christians today (myself included) can’t call themselves progressives. Modern progressivism is a rejection of Christianity. It demands that we choose between statesmanship and discipleship. And, if forced to choose, we’ll opt for God over the State every time.
I was turning these ideas over in my head when I came across an article in ThePrint, an Indian newspaper. It turns out that folks there are feeling the same sense of dejection with India’s anti-Hindu Left:
“The pseudo seculars wished to uplift Dalits [Untouchables], which was noble, but condescendingly looked down upon their religious beliefs; wanted Dalits to embrace the Leftist ideology but on condition that they abandons their ‘faith’, that is, stop worshipping their village deities if they want to be emancipated. The pseudo seculars were not only contemptuous about everything traditional and cultural among the poor and lower class but were also scornful of Hindus and their belief systems, even though there is so much else to be ashamed of in our society.”
Claiming to fight for the Little Guy, and yet openly scorning his sincere religious convictions. Rings a bell, don’t it?
It’s funny to think that, if Bryan were alive today, he wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance of winning office as a Democrat. Even Republicans would look askance at his Creationism—despite the fact that 40 percent of Americans today are Creationists. Bryan’s views can hardly be described as fringe, yet they’d disqualify him from public office.
Say what you want to say about the “populist moment” in American politics. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are phenomena, to be sure. But the United States is poised for a realignment the likes of which this country hasn’t seen since the dawn of the 19th century.
Very soon, a new William Jennings Bryan will appear—a statesman who not only champions the Little Guy, but respects and understands him. He won’t condescend to help Middle America, as Trump and Sanders have: he will be a Middle American. His idea of progress will be born, not from some grad school course on Marxism, but from a Christian desire to serve his fellow man.
I believe that day will come, and it will come soon. When it does, I’ll stop calling myself a reactionary and proudly embrace the mantle of progressivism. But not a moment sooner.