There was a striking moment in the focus group that consultant Frank Luntz recently held with a group of Roy Moore supporters in Alabama. One of the voters said that the women who are accusing Moore of harassment are being paid to do so. Luntz asked the group how many people thought the women are being paid. A bunch of hands shot up and voices called out that all of the women are being paid.
That moment captures the radicalism of the current moment – the loss of faith in institutions, the tendency to see corrupt conspiracies, the desire for total change, the belief that sometimes you’ve got to hire the biggest jerk available to get that change, and you’ve got to be willing to ignore facts to justify it.
That attitude is evident on the pro-Trump right, but also on the left. The woke activists, the angry Sanders socialists and social justice warriors are just as certain that the system is rigged, that rulers are corrupt and that the temple has to be torn down. The moderate left is being decimated across Europe and that will probably happen here.
We’re living in an age of radicalism.
But today’s radicalism is unusual. First, we have radical anger without radical policies.
Stylistically and culturally, Trumpian populism screams “blow it up” and “drain the swamp.” But Donald Trump’s actual policies are run-of-the-mill corporatist. The left-wing radicals talk a lot against the systems of oppression and an institutionalized injustice. But they are nothing like the radicals of the 1930s or the 1960s.
Today’s radicals do not want to upend the meritocracy, which is creating a caste system of inherited inequality. They don’t want to stop technical innovation, which is displacing millions of workers. They don’t have plans to reverse individualism, which atomizes society and destroys community. A $15 minimum wage may be left wing, but it’s not Marxist-Leninism.
Second, today’s radicalism is more about identity than social problems.
Both the Trumpian populists and the social justice warriors are more intent on denouncing the people they hate than on addressing the concrete problems before them. Consider the angry commentary you hear during a given day. How much of it is addressing a problem we face, and how much of it is denouncing people we dislike?
Third, today’s radicalism assumes that war is the inherent state of things.
The key influence here is Saul Alinsky. His 1971 book, “Rules for Radicals,” has always been popular on the left and recently it has become fashionable with the Tea Party and the alt-right. One of his first big assertions is that life is warfare. It is inevitably a battle between the people and the elites, the haves and the have-nots, or, as his heirs would add, between the whites and the blacks, the Republicans and the Democrats, Islam and the West. If you’re not willing to treat life as an endless war you’re a cuck.
Fourth, there is the low view of human nature.
Today’s radicals conduct themselves on the presumption that since life is battle, moral decency is mostly a hypocritical fraud. To get anything done the radical has to commit evil acts for good causes. “The ethics of means and ends is that in war the end justifies almost any means,” Alinsky writes. “Ethical standards must be elastic to stretch with the times,” he adds.
“Ethics are determined by whether one is losing or winning.” That sentence could have been uttered by Donald Trump, but it was really written by Saul Alinsky.
What can we conclude about the radicals?
Well, they are wrong that our institutions are fundamentally corrupt. Most of our actual social and economic problems are the bad byproducts of fundamentally good trends.
Technological innovation has created wonders but displaced millions of workers. The meritocracy has unleashed talent but widened inequality. Immigration has made America more dynamic but weakened national cohesion. Globalization has lifted billions out of poverty but pummeled the working classes in advanced nations.
What’s needed is reform of our core institutions to address the bad byproducts, not fundamental dismantling.
That sort of renewal means doing the opposite of everything the left/right radicals do. It means believing that life can be more like a conversation than a war if you open by starting a conversation. It means collectively focusing on problems and not divisively destroying people. It means believing that love is a genuine force in human affairs and that you can be effective by appealing to the better angels of human nature.
Today’s radicalism is fundamentally spiritual, even if it’s played out in the political sphere. It’s driven by the radicals’ need for more secure identity, to gain respect and dignity, to give life a sense of purpose and meaning.
The radicals are looking for meaning and purpose in the wrong way and in the wrong place, and they’re destroying our political world in the process. But you’ve got to give them one thing: They are way ahead of the rest of us. They are organized, self-confident, aggressive and driving history. The rest of us are dispersed, confused and in retreat.