America and the Collapse of Politics

How Raw Power Became the New Politics, How Nihilism Became the New Progressivism, and How Progressivism Became the New Conservatism

In the March/April 2023 issue of Touchstone, Adam MacLeod described the ideological storm facing our nation today. The storm is made up of the various critical theories that travel in line together because, at root, they are the same ideology. In MacLeod’s article, titled “The Unreal Vortex: Critical Theories & the Rule of Law,” he suggested this assault is like a tornado.

Adam MacLeod

A tornado is a destructive void, a site of low pressure that sucks into itself everything standing in its path. As MacLeod observed, “At its center —at the core of what it is —a tornado is the absence of being, a localized low-pressure system whose essence is simply the lack of what it is trying to pull into itself.” What we think we see when we look at a tornado is not the tornado itself but the destruction it creates as it wreaks havoc on everything in its path. This is an apt metaphor for the condition facing our society today. Again from MacLeod:

All the critical theories —Critical Legal Studies, Critical Race Theory, Dominance Feminism, Intersectionality Theory, Queer Theory —all of them appear to have substance because they are full of the debris of the norms and institutions they are destroying. They seem to be real, but in fact they wield the detritus of Western civilization as weapons: the splinters of due process and the rule of law, the shards of virtue and beauty, the fragments of logic and Logos.

MacLeod, who is Professor of Law at Faulkner University and a Research Fellow of the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy, spoke at last year’s annual Touchstone Conference. In his talk (available on the Touchstone YouTube channel here) MacLeod added to the insights of his article by describing two dogmas that lend the critical theories (known on the street as simply “wokeism”) such destructive force.

The first dogma is that law has no essential connection to reason. There is no rational basis for law, and no binding reasons within the law. Law is not a result of reason but, rather, arbitrary regulations constructed out of cultural and economic power.

The second dogma is that language has no true meaning. Language does not refer to anything outside itself. Thus, language is not a vehicle by which legal meaning is conveyed and it cannot coordinate us toward a common good. Language, including legal language, is merely a means for asserting power.

Readers familiar with my earlier work on postmodernism will recognize how these dogmas fit within the larger matrix of French philosophy, German hermeneutics, and American social sciences. Postmodernism is, in one sense, the outworking of the anti-hierarchical uprisings that began with the French Revolution and culminated in the anti-monarchical revolutions of the 19th century (most notably the Revolutions of 1848). These revolutions, though conducted in the name of the people, did not lead to less state power but more—as seen by the simple fact that numerous small European nations were eradicated in favor of large nation states (a few of the small kingdom’s still exist, with Monaco, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Vatican City being notable examples). Ancient hierarchies of kings, queens, and nobles living in grand castles were replaced by the hierarchies of the modern bureaucratic state, with its own type of aristocracy and feudalism equally as oppressive. This process became complete in WWI, the birth pangs of modern Europe in which five nations lost their monarchies. None of this could have happened without the egalitarian and anti-hierarchical philosophy of the French revolution. Attempting to level the playing field, these revolutionary movements leveraged egalitarianism and social contract theory to overthrow monarchical and aristocratic forms of governance and achieve equality. Yet the liberal impulse for equality would ultimately seek to erode all distinctions, all borders, all hierarchies even epistemological ones (i.e. truth and reason), and set itself against discrimination in the original sense of being able to discriminate between what is true and false, beautiful and ugly, and to judge that some things or states of affairs really are better than others. That is how the French revolution, which sought to overthrow political hierarchies to achieve equality, is ultimately connected to post-structuralism, which seeks to overthrow epistemic hierarchies, including all judgments of objective value. And that brings us back to the anti-rational dogmas mentioned above: (1) law has no essential connection to reason, (2) language has no true meaning.

In his Touchstone talk, MacLeod showed that these two dogmas now dominate mainstream legal discourse and are taken for granted in law schools, law journals, legal advocacy, and amicus curiae briefs for the supreme court. 

The implications are frightening, for if law has no essential connection to reason, and if legal language is purely arbitrary, then our entire legal infrastructure must be renegotiated in terms of mere power. If there is ultimately no epistemic foundation for knowledge and language about essential reality, then law cannot reference anything outside itself (for example, justice) since it becomes a closed system. We cannot even appeal to truth. Instead, law collapses into a zero-sum contest between different factions, who merely use law instrumentally to assert power. And that is exactly what the new progressive orthodoxy, or Wokeism if you prefer, argues. 

It is important to realize how revolutionary such ideas actually are. According to the older tradition, going back to the laws of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian (who himself merely codified ancient traditions that pre-dated himself), laws can be just or unjust by how well they reflect reason, natural law, the common good, immemorial customary law, and of course, divine law. But under the new dogmas, the law merely reflects power relations. As MacLeod says in his talk,

Lawyers who adhere to these dogmas cannot uphold the law as something above the powerful, as we are sworn by oath to do, because lawyers who adhere to these dogmas cannot conceive of law as anything other than power.

And that is the paradox of progressivism. This ideology gives lip service to the underdog and minority groups, yet by hollowing out the rational basis for law, these ideologies in principle remove the only basis by which raw power can be restrained or human rights preserved. As I have pointed out in my Salvo column,

Once truth has been replaced by power and desire as the final arbiter for all disputes, then trust between the governed and governing collapses, creating space for the total unraveling of society. Once truth can no longer be appealed to as the basis for our legal system and governing norms, the processes by which order is maintained come to appear merely arbitrary, creating space for the collapse of political legitimacy and the unraveling of society.

For the progressive left, there is another reason why politics must finally be only about power all the way down. Human nature doesn’t actually exist; we are merely blank slates which are formed by society. Ergo, create the right society and you create the New Man. This is classic Rousseauesque anthropology. Man doesn’t create society; society creates man. This idea, once you grasp it, explains a lot about the leftist preoccupations from transgenderism to race. Here’s how Andrew Sullivan described it:

Literally everything you are is determined by “the social system,” and if the “social system” is “systemic racism,” then all racial gaps are due to race discrimination… This is as dumb and as crude as the idea that race differences are entirely a function of genes.

It’s the same leftist denial of nature and biology that fuels the trans debate, by the way. The “social system” of the gender binary is the only factor in human sex, and biology is irrelevant. That’s why you’ll never get a class on hormones in a Gender Studies course and why “trans women are women” is, for post-modern left ists, self-evident. Biology doesn’t exist as a factor in understanding human behavior. Everything is socialized.

If everything is socialized, then the way to create utopia is to just create the right social conditions. This is why progressives have generally favored big government over limited government. It isn’t really about the size of government that’s important; big government is just a tool to condition us into a certain type of people. According to classic progressivist dogma, we are the products only of nurture and not nature (again read Sullivan’s piece); hence, create the right external conditions and, boom, utopia will result.

All this explains where the political nihilism of identity politics and critical race theory come from. Both of these have shifted the civil rights discourse from the human rights paradigm to a paradigm which sees society as the battle ground in a zero-sum conflict for power. (I have discussed this in more detail in my Q&A, “Racism and Identity Politics in America Today” and in my Salvo article, “How the Woke Stole Tolerance.”) But in restructuring politics in terms of mere power, progressivism collapses into nihilism. Like a tornado, it seems to have substance, but that substance is parasitic on what it is destroying.

If, God-forbid, these enemies of reality were to be successful, they would not be capable of creating order, let alone sustaining a culture and country. Instead, we would be left with only groups fighting for resources with other groups in a recapitulation of ancient tribalism. This would likely go on indefinitely, leading to the balkanization of our nation into a series of tribal kingdoms, or else it would go on temporarily until the rise of a Napoleon-type figure who would, in the name of “the revolution,” introduce a statism along the lines of China or a globalism along the lines of the UN’s social aspirations. 

But if the poststructuralist account of political relations within progressivist discourse reduces society to mere power relations, right-wingers in the age of Trump do the same thing, although from quite a different ideological pedigree. (I use the term “right-wingers” deliberately to distinguish this movement from true conservatism. I have discussed the definition of true conservatism here and here and here.) Right-wing politics today is the product of three distinct streams that I will explain below—a genealogy distinct from progressivism, while sharing with liberal progressives they impulse to reduce society to a zero-sum contest of unchecked power. Indeed, right-wing politics is just as antithetical to the ordered liberty of conservative thinkers like Edmund Burke as the type of post-structuralist epistemology that now animates amicus curiae briefs.

The first of these streams, which I have described in more detail in my article, “Conservatism in Historical Perspectives,” is the successor ideology of the anti-Communist conservatism of the Cold War era. The short story is that as conservatism became institutionalized and professionalized during the Reagan-Bush era, it started being just another option in the beltway swamp, thus alienating much of its constituency. Add to this that after the Cold War conservatism lost its obvious rallying point (we forget that opposition to Communism is what largely created the 20th century conservative movement in America). After the fall of the Soviet Union, Conservatism gained some traction by aligning itself with issues like the war on terror, low taxes, entitlement reform, small government, the importation of democracy abroad, and various social issues of concern to the religious right. Yet gradually ordinary men and women with conservative impulses felt increasingly alienated from the new institutionalized, beltway conservatism. This has created a vacuum in which those with conservative impulses have been latching onto new narratives for a sense of cohesion, from the alt-right, to new types of tribalism, to conspiracy theories like QAnon, to us-vs-them narratives against immigrants and outsiders, to anti-expert popularism, to the cause of the forgotten middle class, to economic nationalism, and of course—though it sounds like an oxymoron—right-wing identity politics. The genius of Donald Trump has been his ability to subsume all these concerns into a movement around himself. And this movement is larger than just Trump: even many of his rivals, in order to have any clout with their constituents, must do lip-service to the concerns of Trump’s base.

Crucially, however, the type of right-wing ideology no longer shares the classic conservative hesitancy about authoritarianism and the power of the state. Classic conservative thinkers like Russell Kirk saw a powerful state as dangerous. President Reagan reflected this in his remark that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the Government and I’m here to help.'” But for the agitators on the radical right, power is a gift as long as it is leveraged by my side. We saw the distain for limited government, once a pillar of conservative philosophy, in the way Republicans responded to Trump’s draconian executive orders—power grabs that, under Obama, would have been vigorously opposed on the ground of separation of powers.

This new type of conservatism also reneges on much of the historical heritage of conservatism, such as the traditional political arts of consensus building and professionalism, or the notion of the common good (indeed, during the era of COVID, conservatives routinely eschewed the concept of common good). What emerges instead is a type of binary thinking coupled with a zero-sum approach to power that echoes the nihilism of progressivism. As I discussed in my article on the January 6th insurrection:

During the Trump presidency, political discourse has turned into a zero-sum game between winners and losers. He has introduced a new type of pseudo-conservative politics that eschews classic political virtues such as consensus building, professionalism, and compromise, in favor of a rhetoric of contempt in which politics becomes a tool for the assertion of dominance. Preserving the integrity of the system is less important than coming out on top. Every interaction then becomes transactional in the zero-sum contest between winners and losers.

Rod Dreher discussed zero-sum politics in his 2019 article “Learning From the Spanish Civil War.” The article includes a string of links to scholarship showing that, historically, zero-sum approaches to politics have spelled the end of political stability. Basically, when rival factions begin ping-ponging off each other’s excesses to justify the surrendering of fair play, then this delegitimizes the system in the minds of both citizens and lawmakers. Then, once the system becomes delegitimized, this paves the way for the collapse of order, and for the emergence of a raw power-struggle and even violence as the only remaining mode of conflict resolution. Meanwhile, public discourse collapses into a shouting match of mutual incomprehensibility.

This type of right-wing ideology may have a very different pedigree than the type of progressivism described by MacLeod, but it leads to the same place: the reduction of society to a zero-sum contest between competing forces, with power (not reason, truth, or appeals to justice) as the final arbiter. Significantly, when President Trump is asked questions about truth or falsehood, he answers from the playbook of Thrasymachus – Plato’s imaginary interlocutor (though based on a real historical character) who collapses political justice to power. That is increasingly becoming both the language and modus operandi of mainstream Republicans.

These right-wingers may use the language of free speech, peppering their writing and talks with tropes from the type of libertarianism I have diagnosed elsewhere (see here and here and here), yet in practice they cannot actually show how their ideology is distinct from progressives. Though this discourse still employs many of the standard tropes of post-Cold-War Conservatism, these tropes are no longer tied to a model sufficiently robust to explain why regulation against Big Tech is good but regulation against Hilldale College is bad. While thinkers like Patrick Deneen, John Milbank, Adrian Pabst, and some people associated with the “post-liberal right” are offering a conservative framework sufficiently coherent to rise to this challenge, most Republicans seem to content to ignore this discourse and merely colonize whatever forms of leftism suit their agenda, whether it be President Trump colonizing of identity politics for his own purposes, or Missouri Senator Josh Hawley using frameworks borrowed from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or Tucker Carlson’s appropriation of leftism, or Donald Trump’s politicizing of all of life.

This model of right-wing politics is deeply alienating and leads to massive loneliness. Consider how the reaction to the lockdowns among Republicans, from the John Macarthur followers to the MAGA-types, seemed to solidify the type of every-man-for-himself individualism that eschews the very concept of the common good. But without a notion of the common good, we can have no concept of community apart from community as a resource for expressive individualism, hedonism, and personal self-fulfillment, all of which merely intensify our loneliness. Here I keep coming back to the lockdowns, and with good reason, for while oppositions to the lockdowns were sometimes defended on common good ground, the prevailing narrative among the conservatives I spoke with was a narrative which actually questioned the coherence of a common-good conservatism. And again, the repudiation of the common good is no more constitutive of community than the power-hungry statism of Clinton and Biden. The 2020-21 controversies showed me, more than anything, that twenty-first century Republicans have never been about the true conservatism of Edmund Burke, but represent rival forms of liberalism forged in the fires of Thomas Paine’s atheism (a point I discuss here and here and here and here). But this is perhaps to be expected given that our nation was forged in the fires of secular liberalism (sorry fans of Peter Marshall  and David Barton). Thus, even among those Republicans who do want to strengthen community through making the government hands-off (which will indeed strengthen community through empowering mediating institutions), their collusion with atomized individualism and value-neutral secularism leaves them without a robust framework for offering a positive vision of social community and ordered liberty. The result is that Republicans are falling prey to the same type of statism, tribalism, and Groupthink that characterizes the left. And we have had ample evidence of this in the Trump madness that now grips so many conservatives with an idolatrous hysteria not unlike 1930s Germany.

The second stream of the current right-wing movement comes from the dynamism of the techno-utopians, many of them white professionals living in coastal cities. They see wokeism as a hedge against efficiency and boundless growth, given how it undercuts meritocracy. Think Elon Musk. This is the ideology diagnosed by N.S. Lyons in his Substack article last month, “The Rise of the Right-Wing Progressives.”

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Who/what is a Right-Wing Progressive (RWP)? Start by picturing a Silicon Valley elite who is by now well-and-truly fed up with the Woke left. But the causes for the RWP’s objection to the Woke mind-virus and its regnant regime differ significantly from those of a traditional conservative. The conservative loathes the Woke for their revolutionary assault on the moral, cultural, and social order, on foundational structures of civilization like the family, and on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful writ large. In contrast, the RWP is likely to consider these things to be at most tangential to his main concern. His anti-Wokeness is motivated mostly by an assessment that the ideology is degrading meritocracy, promoting irrational stupidity, inhibiting scientific innovation, diverting investment into worthless causes, and limiting long-term economic performance – in other words that it is holding back progress.

These right-wing progressives, like President Trump’s base, care little about limited government and ordered liberty. If prosperity and progress can be achieved by a Chinese-style statism, then so be it. Again from N.S. Lyons:

“State capacity” is a phrase one is quite liable to hear bandied about by an RWP. It refers to how capable a state (the government, but in a broader sense also society more widely) is at actually getting things done, whether containing crime and providing security, building infrastructure, or creating the conditions for a flourishing semiconductor industry. Until recently many RWPs often distinguished themselves, in my experience, by displaying a barely concealed admiration for China. China might be authoritarian, but at least it was a country that could build things – did you know they could replace a major urban bridge in under 48 hours? Did you know how much Chinese society valued education and technologists? That many of their leaders even have engineering degrees? That China’s universities are not filled with Woke gender studies harridans? That the streets of Shenzhen aren’t covered in feces and passed out drug addicts? Lately, after China’s disastrous “zero-Covid” lockdown policies and the dramatic slowing of its economy, RWP opinion of China and its leader Xi Jinping has waned considerably. But new international RWP heroes have since emerged, such as Nayib Bukele, the bitcoin loving president of El Salvador, whose iron-handed approach has managed to crater the country’s once murderously-high crime rate.

Read N.S. Lyons’s entire piece.

A third stream of right-wing conservatism comes from those who look to pre-Christian thought as a ressourcement for confronting secular liberalism. This movement, which I will call the pagan radical right, can range from the populist neo-Nietzscheanism of Costin Vlad Alamariu (the author of the publishing phenomenon Bronze Age Mindset), to the highly intellectual vision of the French intellectual Dominique Venner, to Michael Millerman’s resuscitation of the Heideggerian quest to dismantle all western philosophy as distortion and alienation in order to inaugurate a more primitive ground for being rooted in new gods. (Millerman gets this from Alexander Dugin, who I have addressed in my earlier article, “The Myth of Alexander Dugin.”) These visions are disparate and wide-ranging, yet share in common insightful critiques of modern liberalism combined with solutions that ultimately collapse into nihilism, cynicism, brutality, and despair.

The pagan radical right typically looks to prehistory for an older tradition rooted in ethnos and ancient folkways. They combine a type of Rousseauesque romanticism for the primitive with a Nietzschean glorification of aggression (hence the fixation on Bronze Age and the Homeric virtues that we find in authors like Alamariu ). As Matthew Rose showed when discussing the thought of the French Dominique Venner for the most recent First Things, the heroes of this movement are Faust and Prometheus—appropriate patrons for those who would return to the vitalism of the strongman and the creative role of human aggression.

For all their high-sounding rhetoric, the actual results of the radical right, should they ever gain power, would not be that different than the secular ideologies they seek to supplant. For Dugin, his sophisticated re-reading of Heidegger simply collapses into the military adventurism of Putin’s war machine and the associated spiritualized nationalism. For Costin Vlad Alamariu, who writes under the pseudonym “Bronze Age Pervert,” it collapses into the triviality of the manosphere and the slash-and-burn rhetoric not that different from the destructive furry of the 2020 riots (although in the former case, the aspirations of chaos tend to be limited to those in the online world, who merely talk about burning cities). For the more sophisticated Dominique Venner, it begins with the glorification of right-wing identity politics and ends in a bloody suicide stunt at the altar of Notre-Dame de Paris, a final act of protest against liberalism—a symbolic act that encapsulates both the despair of the radical right and their rejection of a polis based on sacramental ordering.

Should the pagan radical right ever gain real power, the lofty ideologies will likely be replaced by ethnic-motivated violence that will make the days of wokeism seem like a Sunday school picnic by comparison. How do I know this? Because their basic paradigm—from Alamariu’s appropriation of the Homeric warrior, to Venner’s appropriation of Faust and Prometheus, to Dugin bloodthirsty cheerleading of military adventurism—ultimately collapse politics into power.

Where does all of this leave us now? All these nihilistic streams (post-structuralist legal theory, wokeism, Trump-style right-wingism, the right-wing progressivism of Silicon Valley, the pagan radical right) are all flowing to the same place, namely the reduction of politics to pure power. Ultimately, it’s no longer about truth or justice, but simply power. 

Faced against such a tornado from all sides, what can we do? In my post, “The Myth of Alexander Dugin,” I offer the names of thinkers who have articulated an alternative political philosophy rooted in classical conservative thought. These thinkers offer what is truly a “fourth political theory” that is neither Liberalism, Fascism, nor Communism. But ultimately, as I argue in my section on political philosophy in Rediscovering the Goodness of Creation (see section “Is God’s Kingdom Political?” beginning on page 187), this is a vision for the world centered around the Eucharist. Dominique Venner killed himself on the altar of Notre Dame, a tragic empty sacrifice that rejects the True Sacrifice and the power of Eucharistic ordering. That Venner’s last gesture recognized— perhaps only instinctively—the power of the Mass, points to a larger problem of the pagan radical right: after the Incarnation, there can be no going back to the glories of paganism, whether the pre-Christian virtues of the old Roman statesmen like Cicero or the martial virtues romanticized by Homer. These are no more accessible to us now than is pre-Christian Judaism. David Bentley Hart makes this point so well in Christ and Nothing: with the death of the old mythos at the incarnation, everything was transformed, so that a resuscitation of pre-Christian religion, metaphysics, even politics, is more than merely anachronistic; it is nihilistic.

And that brings us back to MacLeod’s article. MacLeod suggests an answer to our predicament in the last paragraph of his article, “The Unreal Vortex.” Our tradition gives us the resources for mounting a defense, but we need to understand our heritage and the deep foundations it offers.

Legal justice is real, we can know it, and we have decisive reasons to achieve it. To hold fast to these convictions is the task at hand if we are to retain any hope of weathering the storms that are fast approaching. To know how legal justice was achieved in earlier generations is to have a blueprint for achieving it in our own. The best tornado shelters have deep foundations.

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