2015 will undoubtedly go down as the year the Left’s efforts to impose its absolutist ideology went well beyond targeting lecturers and graduation speakers invited to colleges.
In late spring, the University of California distributed a guide to forbidden classroom phrases, including “America is the land of opportunity” and “America is a melting pot,” to faculty at each of its 10 campuses. Later in the year, George Mason University professor Jagadish Shukla and 19 others went national with a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, demanding they criminally prosecute any company or organization that denies climate change.
Now, in 2016, we discover that even public officials directly responsible for the safety of millions—the police chief of Cologne, Germany, and the mayor of Philadelphia, for example—have been cowed into a stunning dereliction of duty by the apostles of political correctness.
Many on the Left will argue that prescience justifies their rigidly enforced opinions. Having twice elected a liberal black president, successfully promoted gay marriage, enabled women to serve in combat roles, and taken major steps toward legalizing marijuana—all in less than a decade—liberals like to see themselves as prodding a cautious public to go where it sooner or later will agreeably follow.
Yet a much stronger case can be made that the Left’s aggressive enforcement of its ideology stems, not from any victory-inspired confidence, but from the very opposite. It stems from recognizing that its most fundamental conviction—that a government of enlightened bureaucrats (like themselves) can best guide society—has never proved true in any country, be it communist, socialist, or social democratic.
Government By ‘Experts’ Is Failing Everywhere
Consider the fate of the two nations historically most identified with benevolent control from the top. One, the Soviet Union, nearly imploded at the end of the twentieth century while the other, China, has been privatizing its economy for more than 40 years.
Similarly, the so-called “mixed economies” of Western Europe have increasingly turned against centralized government, particularly about empowering an umbrella parliament to look after their shared interests. From London to Warsaw, Brussels technocrats are perceived, not as caring benefactors, but as a privileged caste, insulated from the intrusive regulations they are so eager to impose on ordinary citizens.
“Support for the EU is at record low,” notes demographer Joel Kotkin, a presidential fellow at Chapman University in Orange, California. “Increasingly Europeans want, at the very least, to dial down the centralization and bring back some control to the local level.” Even Jean Claude-Juncker, president of the European Commission, recently admitted that “the European Union is not going very well.” The “dream” of a unified continent is at risk from the “fissures and fractures” of popular disenchantment.
Here in America, respect for the country’s largest government-run institution, public education, has collapsed over the last decade. An astonishing 80 percent of respondents to the 2014 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup annual survey on education graded the nation’s schools with a C or less. In the most recent poll, two-thirds of all parents expressed support for charter schools, which operate independently of district and state control. At a broader level, Gallup’s surveys show that almost half of all Americans now consider the federal government “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.”
Social Science Has Moved On
Even the Left’s aforementioned victories on behalf of minority rights and reduced penalties for victimless crimes are more rightly attributable to the growing popularity of libertarian thought than progressives would care to admit. On social issues where liberals have been on their own, such as gun control, they have made little political headway.
Of course, the Left might still have grounds to feel optimistic, were there some plausible reason to believe its social engineering schemes could eventually work. Liberal activists in the 1920s and ’30s also suffered many setbacks, yet continually reassured themselves with then-popular academic theories.
The young social sciences of that time—psychology, sociology, and anthropology—had all been influenced by Johns Hopkins University professor John Watson. He famously bragged that, given a dozen healthy infants, he could “take any one at random and train him to become any type of [adult] … doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.” This so-called behavioristic view of human nature gave credence to the idea that enlightened bureaucrats, armed with the right formula for dispensing rewards and punishments, could shape a better and fairer society.
The serious, if widely under-appreciated, problem for modern progressives is that this “malleable clay” view of the mind, which provided academic support for so many left-wing policies at the beginning of the twentieth century, has significantly eroded in our own time. Beginning with the research of University of Pennsylvania psychiatrist Aaron Beck in the late 1960s, it has increasingly been shown that character, innate cognitive skills, freedom, and intuition have far more to do with the average person’s happiness than any kind of paternalistic intervention.
Research Shows Strong, Traditional Institutions Matter Most
In his 1975 presidential address to the American Psychological Association, Donald T. Campbell actually publicly apologized for the demeaning view of human nature an earlier generation of social scientists had promulgated, saying his colleagues had “special reasons for modesty and caution in undermining traditional belief systems.”
The growing influence of today’s conservative think tanks, such as the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, stems in no small part from the degree to which basic scientific research supports their advocacy of free markets, religious faith, and personal responsibility.
Ever since 1985, when Alan L. Ginsburg and Sandra L. Hanson published their U.S. Department of Education study on “Values and Educational Success among Disadvantaged Students,” studies have repeatedly confirmed that a strong work ethic, spiritual conviction, and parental support are by far the best psychological predictors of a successful life, no matter what a person’s ethnic or class background. These same values have also proved singularly crucial in treating and preventing America’s number-one health problem, substance abuse.
In the area of economics, M.I.T. professor Daron Acemoğlu and his University of Chicago collaborator James A. Robinson have demonstrated that the most prosperous countries are those where citizens resist any kind of top-down or ideological regulation, no matter how well-intentioned. Great Britain and later the United States became affluent precisely because the elites who had wielded power were overturned.
The Last Leftist Bastion: Environmentalism
It is not a coincidence that today’s Left has been reduced to justifying its policies with contorted references to the one remaining science whose findings can appear to suggest an expanded role for government: environmentalism. The long-standing progressive desire to impose racial and class quotas in affluent suburbs, for example, now issues forth under the guise of “ecologically friendly” higher-density housing.
Liberals similarly claim that public funding for community organization empowers the poor to fight for cleaner air, that avoiding military conflict prevents atmospheric pollution, and that greater access to abortion eases humanity’s burden on scarce environmental resources.
The progressive distortion of environmentalism for unrelated political purposes has become so ludicrous, in fact, that many serious ecologists believe it has undermined bipartisan support for legitimate conservation programs. “The takeover of the greens by the reds has helped to torpedo some key green causes,” complains Paul Kingsnorth, former deputy editor of The Ecologist magazine.
In the end, political correctness is best understood as the desperate last stand of a statist ideology that has been discredited wherever it has been tried, which long ago lost any intellectual justification from the social sciences, and which today is clumsily trying to pin its fading legitimacy on, of all things, climate change. If anything, it resembles the very kind of religious narrow-mindedness the Left has historically claimed to despise: arbitrary, loud, retrograde, and intolerant.