Everyone likes to think they live in interesting times, but it is really hard to know as you can only really know your age. You can read about the past, but you really can’t know what it was like to be alive in a prior age. What we come to think of us great eras or important periods are usually when one period ends and another begins. That means the violent end of some portion of the established order and the noisy birth of its replacement. The French Revolution is an obvious example.
A decade ago, no one would have thought the West was entering an important moment. Most experts were still talking about the end of history and how the whole world was headed for that central collection point of democratic capitalism. No one talks like that now for obvious reasons. What we call capitalism is just global feudalism and democracy seems to be on the run, in one fashion or another, just about everywhere. Maybe it is temporary and unimportant, but it does feel like something important is happening.
In America, one thing that does appear to be true is the old ruling order is beginning to crumble. After the Civil War, the established order was that the nation would be ruled by the Yankee north or at least by people who accepted that world view. This made sense as the South was in ruins and the industrializing North was not only victorious, but prosperous. At the founding, the South and Tidewater dominated the new country. After the Civil War, it was the North that dominated the nation.
This arrangement probably should have faded away by the early 20th century, but the Industrial Revolution kept the South relatively backward. Instead, the two great industrial wars and then the Cold War locked things in place. The South slowly modernized, but the political culture of the country remained as it had been for a century. It is not an accident that the only Southerners to have success in national politics have been liberals or people who embraced Progressive causes.
That appears to be changing. Progressivism, the civic religion of the North, has degraded into a lunatic cult and marginalized itself. The leaders still control the high ground, but they are under assault. Buckley conservatism, which has served as the ideological enforcers for the Left, is imploding. These people may not be packing their bags, preparing for exile, but the 2016 election map makes clear that the old Yankee hegemony is coming to an end. The sensibilities of the rest of the country will have to be included in the political culture.
Now, it is possible that Progressivism is on its death bed. Unlike Europe, the American Left has never been about economic equality. It was always about spiritual equality. The radicals on the Continent were always obsessed with busting up the class structure. The radicals in American have always been focused on saving the immortal soul of the nation. Economic equality was never anything more than a a political tool for the reformers to use as a way to get control of the culture in order to impose their moral vision on the nation.
In order for this to work, the Left has always needed victims and oppressors, saints and sinners. In the 20th century, they could champion black civil rights and women’s issues. Then it was onto gays and now foreigners. The trouble is, they are running out of victims to champion. Black guys getting pushed around by rednecks at the polling booth make for sympathetic victims. Mentally unstable men in sundresses wanting access to the girl’s toilet are not good victims. They are ridiculous and championing them makes the champions look ridiculous.
There’s also a noticeable lack of villains. Donald Trump is supposed to be the 12th invisible Hitler, returning to impose a dictatorship on America. The trouble is, Trump sounds like a Jewish guy from Queens and his kids converted to Judaism when they got married. So far, his most enthusiastic supporter among world leaders is the Prime Minister of Israel. They ain’t making Hitlers like they used to. This comes after the nation twice elected a black guy president. The unhinged hatred of white people that has carried the Left for generations has descended into madness.
Something else that is working against the Yankee hegemony is the collapse of the blank slate. Progressivism rests on the assertion that people come into the world as an amorphous blob that can be shaped and trained to be anything. That means a just society has virtuous people at the top to make sure the citizens are properly shaped and trained. This imperative has always been the source of authority for the American Left and now it is unraveling as science unlocks the human genome.
It is impossible to overestimate the impact of genetics on moral philosophy as everything about Western culture depends on free will. Democracy assumes that all people are equally capable of participating in the civic life of a people. While most people have always sensed that this is not true, scientific proof that it is not true changes everything. You cannot have egalitarianism and multiculturalism without assuming humans come into the world as a blank slate. If people are not endlessly malleable, there’s no point in trying to mold them.
Long term trends like these do not change overnight so this great confluence of events may play out over generations. It could turn out that the natural order is for the North to dominate the political life of the nation. Genetics could find the “free will” gene and validate everything Progressives have claimed for generations. It is impossible to know, but it is not the way things are heading. Right now it feels like three great trends in American cultural life are coming to a conclusion at roughly the same point.