If you were going to put together a list of major mass movements in American history, a good list would look like this. Women’s suffrage, Social Gospel, Abolitionism, Temperance Movement, Efficiency Movement, The New Deal, Civil Rights Movement, New Left and maybe Neoliberalism. There are others, but that’s a pretty good list of the major ones. What’s remarkable, even looking at only the major ones, is the number. America is the land of reformers and proselytizers. It’s no wonder that Europeans think we are moralists.
The movements in the 20th century, starting with the Efficiency Movement, would usually be called Progressive. They usually get its own stall in the American mass movement bizarre, but Progressive is a good umbrella term for them. In fact, you can lump earlier movements in with the latter movements. All of them trace some of their roots to the Puritan founding of New England and all of them are spiritual movements. Unlike European mass movements, American movements are about communal salvation.
For the American Left, it always starts from some version of “a society is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members.” This is part of its inheritance from the Puritans. While the Puritans that settled in America believed in predestination, only God knew who was chosen. Clues about one’s fate could be found in good works, church attendance and prayer. Part of that was making sure others did the same things, as they sought to discover their destiny. It’s why church attendance was mandatory for Puritans.
Similarly, this individualized concept of grace, meant an individualized reading of and interpretation of Scripture. That led to tensions, even open hostility, within the church. The solution was a strict hierarchy and consensus. If one could only find clues to their own salvation in a thriving community of believers, maintaining the community becomes paramount. That resulted in a forced consensus within each community. Dissidents were persecuted and even banished. A Puritan community functioned like a single organism.
It’s a good example of how the practical application of belief can result in practices that appear at odds with the belief. The Puritans rejected the concept of free will, but they still judged one another’s action, because leading a righteous life might be an indication of God’s grace. The righteous, of course, would never tolerate an obvious sinner in the community of believers, so policing the ranks for sinners was a potential sign of God’s grace. Everyone, even Puritans, wants to hedge their bets when it comes to grace.
Of course, anyone paying attention to the modern Left understands that forced consensus is at the heart of their beliefs. The constant cries for “unity” and the railing against those who “divide” or “polarize” is an effort to enforce consensus. It’s also why northern conservatives, like the Buckley crowd, are so fond of purging people from their ranks. It is a purity test, but also a way of removing trouble makers from the community of the righteous. Instead of Quakers, it is racists getting run out of the community.
Another thing that you see in all Progressive movements, rooted in Puritan New England, is the hunt for Old Scratch. The Puritans, like all Christians of the age, believed that Satan was a real thing and played a role in human affairs. They saw Satan as a creation of God, that punished the wicked, but also gave purpose to the pious. After all, if your deeds had no impact on the disposition of your soul and there was no price to be paid for sin, what would be the point of virtue? Satan solved half that problem for Puritans.
The post hoc fallacy is not new to this age. If you believe that bad things happen because of a lack of piety, then the only reason for the bad things happening to the community is someone cavorting with Old Scratch. The Puritans were uniquely susceptible to the witch panics, because they saw a direct causal link between sinners in the community and bad things befalling the community. The hunt for those working with Satan makes obvious sense. Combined with the forced consensus, Puritans were unusually paranoid.
Even though modern Progressives no longer explicitly talk about God or Satan, they still carry with them a fear of supernatural influences. The endless search for racists, for example, is just the same old hunt for Satan. If the community is not unified, it must be due to those polarizing types, who are responsible for white privilege, the glass ceiling or the rape culture. Now, suburban white mothers are fretting that their sons may be cavorting with alt-right people on-line. Everywhere they look, dark forces are tempting the righteous
Communal salvation, forced consensus and the fear of Old Scratch inevitably means a sense of alienation to the outside world. Read any description of Puritan life and you see a hostility to outsiders. This is another thing you see with all Progressive mass movements and you certainly see it today. The modern Left is consumed with defining who is inside and who is outside their thing. The people inside are the righteous, while the people outside are all evil. In fact, maintaining the boundary is what defines the modern Left.
Like the Puritan communities of the past, Progressives are inward looking. Those outside the movement are assumed to be hostile others. It’s why they have so many words that simply mean “people outside the walls.” The phrase “right-winger” is used interchangeably with the word “Republican” even though they are almost opposites at this point. To the Progressives, they both mean outsider. Puritans did not waste a lot of time understanding the difference between Quakers and Episcopalians. They just had to be chased off.
This binary world view has another effect. For Progressives, there are only two possible answers to any question and they are mutually exclusive. There is the righteous answer and the false or evil answer. It’s why they spend all of their time “debunking” human science. If they can defeat the evil answer, it means the righteous answer triumphs and, by extension, they are the righteous. It’s also why the concept of casual indifference is alien to Progressives. In a world of good and evil, there can be no compromise.
This is a good place to note that a generation ago, Progressives smugly put Darwin fish on their Subaru. Today, they shake their fist at the “scientific racists” using new finding in genetics to reveal the origins of modern people. Because unity is the promised land, anything that divides people is the work of Satan. It’s why racism is the great bogeyman of the Left. The growing mountain of scientific data revealing the diversity of modern humans, is seen as a gathering storm, threatening the righteous. Science is now Mordor.
There are other Puritan aspects to modern Progressives, things like conformity and an affinity for black clothing, but the important influence is the spiritual one. The Puritans were utopians, when you strip away all of the mythology and lore. They came to the New World to build their ideal community. When Reagan spoke of the “city on the hill” he was speaking to a spiritual sensibility that started at Plymouth. It is a spiritual sensibility that is the animating force of northern conservatives and America Progressives.