There’s a theory in medicine that the rise in allergies and autoimmune disorders in developed countries is due, at least in part, to the cleanliness of modern life there. The idea, called the “hygiene hypothesis,” is yet unproven. But the evidence for it is substantial. As a 2010 paper in the journal Clinical and Experimental Immunology explained, the theory is that “the decreasing incidence of infections in western countries and more recently in developing countries is at the origin of the increasing incidence of both autoimmune and allergic diseases.”
Because we in the developed world have fewer childhood diseases and infections, our immune systems instead overreact to ordinary things—as in the case of allergies—or even attack the body itself, as in autoimmune diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. Correlation is not causation, of course, but the theory is that our immune systems evolved to deal with constant threats and do not know what to do with themselves when those threats are mostly neutralized by modern hygiene and preventative medicine.
The ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’ Fits Our Political Moment
It’s a good analogy for the current state of American politics.
When George W. Bush was president, the Left had an obvious outlet for its frustrations. Bush and his administration were conservative. If you wanted to be an activist for radical environmentalism, wealth redistribution, abortion, and other lefty causes, Bush was your target. Add to that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and protesters could find ample reason to peaceably assemble during those eight years.
Such was their right and, as they saw it, their duty. In our hygiene analogy, the Left is the immune system, protecting America from what they see as threats. In protesting the Patriot Act, for instance, some leftists wanted to protest anything that helped the War on Terror, while others were concerned with the civil rights implications of the government’s expanded surveillance powers.
Various segments of the Left spent the Bush years united on social issues. Abortion, gay marriage, the death penalty, assisted suicide, and many other issues became causes for protests. In protecting their vision of the American body politic, leftists could agree: Bush was the enemy. Their job, as they saw it, was to reject him and others on the Right the way a body rejects a pathogen.
The Left’s Immune System Fell Apart Under Obama
Then came Obama. The election of 2008 brought a leftist to the White House and gave the Democrats supermajority control of Congress, too. That election was mostly a reaction to the economic crash the same year, but it also reflected the Left’s emerging victory in the culture wars. For them, 2008 was a good year.
Their victory continues to build until the present day. Despite the fundraising hysterics from the likes of Planned Parenthood and NARAL, the legal right to an abortion is as secure as it has ever been. Likewise, thanks to the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, gay marriage is now the law of the land in all 50 states. Enthusiasm for the death penalty is waning, as is support for the war on drugs. The culture wars are looking more and more like a victory for the Left.
At the same time, President Obama has presided over a retreat from our military responsibilities around the world. Hasty withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq aligned with the Left’s goals—and if they left a power vacuum that led to the rise of ISIS, well, that was someone else’s problem. At least the “Bush Lied, Kids Died” folks were starting to realize their pacifist dream. They must be thrilled, right?
Wrong. Obama’s policies could reasonably be called the most leftist in American history, but to a radical Left trained to attack traditional values, nothing is enough. As wars were winding down, they complained that we had not fully retreated to our own shores, as Obama’s bumbled intervention in Libya showed. Even the rapid growth of the gay rights revolution was not fast enough. And while Bush was a convenient target for hate from all strains of leftism, to attack the most progressive (and first non-white) President who succeeded him was unthinkable—even though he fell short of the Left’s ideal.
The Left Has Turned On Itself
The result? The Left has gone haywire. College campuses, the fomites of most intellectual illnesses, have seen the worst of it. But the effects are becoming more widespread. After the unrest of the 1960s, many liberal protesters continued their education and returned to campus as professors. Gradually, by the 1980s, the inmates had taken over the asylum. That provided for equilibrium for a time, as administration, staff, and the more left-leaning students were all on the same page.
Now, even those old radicals are considered backward by the standards of their 21st century protégés. Say what you will about the hippies, at least they believed in free speech. As the Left’s immune system began to malfunction, the Old Left’s insistence on listening to other points of view and exchanging ideas became, rather than a means of spreading ideas, a threat to the New Left’s dogma. Having defeated conservatives in the college administration and now the national administration, they had no true enemy left to fight. Tolerance itself became the foe.
Victory in the culture wars left social justice warriors without a battle to join. Gay marriage was a done deal, legally, and conservatives were forced to tolerate it. Success? Hardly. Tolerance was for the weak. Now, conservatives must be made to accept it—in hearts, minds, and speech, as well as in law. The marriage wars ended, but the wedding cake wars had just begun. The leftist immune system defeated right-wing values in much of the public sphere. Now, it turned on the insufficiently woke Left.
Social Justice Warriors Looking For a Cause
Some may have been happy to agree to disagree, but it is in the nature of a progressive to progress. They began to skip the pretense of tolerance, and went straight to forced acceptance. Disagreement is no longer an opportunity for reasoned discussion—it’s an assault. Leftists have used the metaphor of words-as-violence for so long that they now see it as literal truth.
The New Left now believes they must physically flee from words they disagree with. Did you say something everyone thought was normal 10 years ago? No, comrade, that’s a micro-aggression now. Did you use the “wrong” pronoun? That’s grounds for a Maoist struggle session. Protesters in the 1960s fled from tear gas and police dogs; their grandchildren flee from strongly worded Facebook posts.
Thus came the rise of safe spaces. Liberals once fought for integration, whether of race, of sex, or of philosophy. Now, tolerance and consorting with un-likeminded others is too taxing. They insist on commandeering a physical space from which to exclude them. The phenomenon has been covered across the media, and needs not be repeated here, except to say that it would not have happened if John McCain or Mitt Romney were president. It would not have happened if we were at war with ISIS. It would not have happened if the fight for gay marriage were being waged in state legislatures and ballot initiatives across the nation.
But the Left has already won those fights. Their political immune system has nothing to strive against, so they have intellectual allergic reactions to imagined slights and struggle against their erstwhile allies.
Could a President Trump Offer the Cure?
Progressives like to see history as following a path toward a more perfect future. If that were true, the trend on campus and in society at large would continue along its absurd trajectory. But if the hygiene hypothesis of political activism is true, the only cure for leftists will be the arrival of a real threat. Less micro-aggression and more aggression might focus their energy away from the farcical and back on the factual.
A few weeks ago in National Review, Dan McLaughlin pondered how the Left would react to a President Donald Trump. In his telling, “[m]uch of the academic Left would treat his election as a vindication of their grim view of America; they would see themselves as offering the last safe spaces in an island of insanity, havens where they could protect their fragile-flower students from a triggering world. Campus protests would blossom like dandelions.” That would likely be their initial response, as the first few months of President Trump’s term led to further entrenchment on campus.
Things would change, however, as soon as Trump did something. Appointed a Supreme Court justice. Bombed some terrorists. Started building his fabled wall. Any of the things a Republican president might do. Anything that poses an actual threat to the Left’s vision of America would provoke the immune response that have been missing these past eight years. There would still be a few Green Party types building safe spaces against water fluoridation, or whatever the next wacky cause is, but most would remember quickly that a (sort-of) Republican now heads the executive branch and poses a true threat to the causes they hold dear.
2016 Will Offer a Remedy to the Left’s Disorders
A Trump victory seems less likely by the day, but even a Hillary Clinton presidency might see the autoimmune response diminish. Because of the vicious primary fight she had against college kids’ favorite socialist, Bernie Sanders, the radical Left will not crown Clinton with the same diadem of hope and glory that they rested on Obama’s brow.
Clinton’s close association with Wall Street and her internationalist foreign policy (which many Sanders supporters consider indistinguishable from the Bush Doctrine) will not engender the same spirit of solidarity as Obama’s tabula rasa of a public career, onto which they inscribed all their hopes and dreams. A Clinton presidency would be a relief to most on the Left, but even she would be an object of greater ire than Obama.
If this is true, it will come as a relief to the normal kids on campus, the ones more interested in learning than protesting. The allergic reactions to every politically incorrect utterance will soon fade into the background as Clinton or Trump wins the presidency. The only question is: will the remedy be worse than the disease?