An argument I have been making for a long time is that the reason the Left has gone from triumph to triumph is that they are not motivated by reason. Instead, they are powered by a quest for salvation. The social issues that they champion, regardless of any practical considerations, are always cast in moral terms. The issue itself is immaterial. It is being on the right side of the issue that matters. Politics is an endless series of tests they must pass in order to remain on the path of the righteous, leading to the promised land.
This story about Obama’s reaction to the election is a good example.
Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.
“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.
He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.
This is a recurring theme with the American Left. It is the reason they embraced the term “Progressive” as their preferred label. They start with the unspoken belief that the story of man is written. It is the duty of the righteous to live it out in order to reach salvation. It’s why “being on the right side of history” comes up so often. They think of the struggle as between those on the side of the great historical force and those who are standing in the way of it. The righteous are always looking forward and moving forward.
It is also why they think of the past as a dark age dominated by the sinners. There is no romanticism on the American Left, because the past is by definition further away from the glorious future. Instead, the past is filled with monsters that were either slain by the righteous, or locked away, but ready to return at any moment. For example, they remain forever vigilant about the return of Nazis, as if they are a real thing that still exist. In the mind of the American progressive “Nazi” is just another name for Old Scratch.
Notice in that Times piece that the Trump voters are described as “left behind” rather than unhappy or in disagreement. In other words, the people voting for Trump did so because they were sad for having been left behind by the righteous. Voting for Trump was a cry for help. It’s tempting to see this as part of Obama’s narcissism, but in reality his narcissism is also the result of this deep belief in the flow of history. He was chosen to lead the faithful, so of course he is a narcissist. What savior would not be a bit full of himself?
You’ll notice that Progressives are forever warning about some attempt to “turn back the clock” and return us to a former state of sin. It resonates with Progressives, because for them, the eternal quest for salvation means going forward, breaking away from the degraded past. Trump’s “turning the clock back” is viewed as the wages of sin. Obama thinks he tried too hard to deliver his people to the promised land. The result was the great leap backward into Trumpism. It is a lament and call to redouble the efforts of the faithful.
American Progressives are the purest form of true believers, because they have disconnected their beliefs from practical considerations. Therefore, they are immune to facts and reason. When you examine the language they use to describe politics and the culture, you see the extreme mysticism. Obama does not even really know what “left behind” means, but he is sure it is a bad thing. For him, it is a purely a spiritual issue to be thought of in those terms. Practical considerations simply have no salience for him.
The error the Right has made for generations is to think it is possible to prove the Left wrong, and therefore force them to abandon their agenda. That’s like thinking you can disprove sections of the Koran and cause the Muslims to abandon their faith. In fact, efforts to do so will always be met with a fierce defense of the faith. Practical arguments always embolden the righteous, as it confirms their belief in themselves as moral agents in a holy cause. Your irrational resistance is proof they are on the righteous path.
It’s why the Left have been so effective since the end of the Cold War, but also why it has become so extreme and bizarre. Defending socialism meant ceding authority to objective data like the unemployment rate or GDP growth. That served as a check on the more unhinged elements. Once free of these objective measures, it became a race to come up with the most extreme and bizarre identity group to champion. Lacking a limiting principle, and untethered from practical reality, the Left got increasingly extreme.
While it looks like the left is headed for some sort of crack up or possibly a dormant phase, it is important to remember that people have to believe in something. The reason conservatism was such a flop is it never tried to appeal to this aspect of man’s nature. It was the ideology of the bookkeeper. No matter how fat, dumb and happy, people will always yearn for the eternal. If there is to be an alternative to the prevailing orthodoxy, it is going to have to offer an alternative to those who desire to be on the side of angels.