For decades the American left has attempted to build a winning political coalition by convincing as many factions as possible that they have somehow been victimized by a white power structure — more particularly, by an American and European white male power structure. The goal has been to provide the Democratic Party with a large base of aggrieved voters while simultaneously giving its traditional allies in the media, academia and government a persuasive social justice (or more recently “anti-colonial”) narrative. But ever since Joe Biden’s inauguration as America’s forty-sixth president, when his promise to be the country’s conciliator quickly disappeared behind a sharp left turn, progressivism’s self-defeating internal contradictions have become increasingly apparent.
Of all these contradictions, the most obvious is the fact that extending special consideration to one supposedly oppressed group does not necessarily go down well with all the others. It turns out, for example, that the Biden administration’s willingness to let an estimated eight-million migrants enter the US illegally has not been very popular with naturalized Americans from the same countries. It is not a coincidence that the Spanish-language TV network Univision, which holds a large share of the US Spanish-speaking audience, recently ran an interview with Donald Trump, letting him go on for an hour about unrestricted immigration and how, if elected in 2024, he would immediately close the border.
Similarly, the tendency of illegal aliens to want to settle in Boston, Chicago, New York, Seattle and other large cities has not pleased the traditionally liberal voters in these areas. Not only has the cost of sheltering urban migrants forced deep cuts in local public-school budgets, but the coming of winter has prompted city mayors to begin trimming other basic services. In an attempt to deal with the growing backlash from his own constituents, New York’s Eric Adams is offering illegals one-way plane tickets to go as far away as Morocco.
The second self-defeating contradiction of progressivism, which has just recently been made clear to American Jews, is that when any left-wing faction achieves too much success relative to the others — or even dares to have a contrary opinion on foreign policy — it is automatically deemed an ally of the white power structure. And, as a result, is entitled to the same kind of discrimination, hostility and even violence that left had once promised to help shield it from. This is true even if the now demonized group has had a long record of generously supporting progressive causes.
And while such a sharp turnaround may be justified by the cold logic of anti-colonialism, it not only makes an enemy of a once valued ally, but undoubtedly causes at least some in other minority communities to wonder what happens if they too become too successful or independently minded. After all, could not the same intersectional thinking which identifies Jews as excessively privileged also be turned against the industrious Vietnamese in Orange County, California’s “Little Saigon” or even the prosperous black residents of wealthy Charles County, Maryland?
More profoundly, is not the unspoken definition of being a good progressive really a willingness to stay on the failing side of average?
The third fatal contradiction of progressivism is that its desire to have a long-term social impact requires changes to the American educational system which most parents will, in the end, not tolerate. Especially parents of young children, who do not want their offspring to be deprived of either the knowledge or optimism (with respect to what is achievable through character and hard work) needed to become a successful adult.
It is not a coincidence that in the few years since Covid, Florida, Ohio and ten other states have enacted universal school choice, a policy which funds families to educate their kids at private schools, church-based mini-schools, homeschool collaboratives and other non-public alternatives. Or that eight more states with partial school choice programs (Alabama, Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wyoming) are seen as likely to make them universal by the end of 2024.
It was during the pandemic lockdown, as internet broadcasts of students’ classes became visible to the whole world, that parents saw the extent to which progressive priorities, emphasizing social justice at the expense of academic rigor, had begun to invade the public-school classroom. “Parents were able to see what their children were being taught via Zoom videos,” as former Arizona governor Doug Ducey remembers. And this “changed everything in K-12 education.”
It also did not help that the same progressive educators preaching the need to tame white privilege fought as hard as they could to keep their own — namely, the right to full pay while relieved of any obligation for in-person instruction. According to polling from RealClearOpinion Research, which recently surveyed 1,000 registered voters, overall support for school choice has jumped dramatically ever since, with 71 percent of respondents now favoring it and only 13 percent opposing it. Even some Democratic governors, such as Pennsylvania’s Josh Shapiro, have sided against their party’s traditional teachers’ union allies on the subject of choice.
The fourth self-defeating aspect of progressivism is that its constituencies are bound in large part by the desire for some kind of public subsidy. The result is that whenever it comes to crafting major legislation, satisfying the economic demands of various factions often subverts whatever good the bill might otherwise have accomplished.
This flaw has become especially obvious since the August 2022 enactment of President Biden’s grossly misnamed Inflation Reduction Act, which was really intended to accelerate the transition from fossil fuels to electric power. But between the desire of bureaucrats to have a highly regulated energy system, of public unions to create millions of “Climate Corps” jobs, and of various aggrieved groups to ensure that less carbon also meant “a fair and equitable” economy, a number of fundamental questions were never adequately researched.
Did consumers really want electric cars, even with tax subsidies? Might they instead prefer hybrids, at least until the range of electric cars could be greatly improved? And what about Sweden’s more economical green strategy of powering cars and trucks with electrified roads (much the way cell phones can be wirelessly charged)?
Thus far, the left’s jury-rigged path to net zero emissions has led to multi-billion EV losses at both Ford and GM, plunging prices for EV charging stocks like Charge Point and Blink, and the cancelation of multiple offshore wind projects from Massachusetts all the way down the East Coast. The subsequent crash in prices for lithium, cobalt and other metals used in EV batteries has hit mining companies so hard that, in the words of Nickel 28 chief executive Anthony Milewski, “the mines aren’t going to get built.”
The final and increasingly problematic flaw of modern progressivism is that its belief in using government to remedy social inequities is on a collision course with the reality of U.S. debt, which over the last decade has skyrocketed from $15 trillion to $33.7 trillion. And even these frightening numbers do not include what Washington is obligated to pay for the underfunding of Social Security and Medicare.
It is only a matter of time, as former IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard notes, before hard decisions will have to be made to prevent the accumulating debt and related interest payments from exploding completely out of control. And given a choice between such left-wing priorities like forgiving student debt, paying reparations to the descendants of slaves and subsidizing sex change operations or having that much more for defense and existing entitlements, it is not hard to guess what the vast majority of Americans will pick.
Given the number of progressivism’s self-defeating contradictions, it is only natural to wonder why so many on the left appear incapable of seeing them. Part of the resistance undoubtedly stems from the fact that many who work for public agencies, universities and other institutions would benefit from bigger government, at least in the short term. As the novelist Upton Sinclair once famously observed, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
But it is also true that progressivism relies on a form of self-deception successfully employed for much of the last century by practitioners of Freudian psychoanalysis. Just as those early therapists summarily dismissed any criticism of their theories as an expression of the critic’s unwillingness to face his own unconscious emotional problems, so the modern progressive reflexively treats any skeptic as a victim of the white oppressor’s social conditioning.
The good news is that reality does have a way, sooner or later, of overcoming even the most cleverly devised ideological defenses. Psychoanalysis itself, despite once dominating every major US medical school and heavily influencing both social science and journalism, is hardly practiced anywhere today.