Did they really expect gratitude? The slow-motion populist revolution in the West has now convulsed France, threatening to bring down President Emmanuel Macron, who until recently had been a poster boy for the liberal European establishment.
Defenders of the liberal order (broadly understood), such as Steven Pinker and Jonah Goldberg, have denounced this rising populism as the basest ingratitude. But to whom, exactly, is gratitude owed? Certainly not to the decadent, self-dealing, and often-incompetent elites who currently lead the liberal West. If you seek a parable for our times, do not look at tales of ingratitude, but instead watch the 1973 British horror classic “The Wicker Man.”
The film follows police sergeant Neil Howie as he travels to a remote Scottish island to look into a report of a missing girl. His investigation is obstructed by the inhabitants, who have embraced a lascivious paganism that shocks the devout Christian policeman. Howie concludes that the missing child is to be sacrificed to propitiate the gods after a poor harvest.
He locates her, only to learn that she was a lure for him, the real sacrifice. Before he is burned alive, Howie warns the island’s leader, Lord Summerisle (magnificently played by Christopher Lee), that the people will demand Summerisle be sacrificed if another harvest fails: “Your time will come!”
This predicted immolation would be both a consummation and rejection of Summerisle’s paganism. That is a tale for our time, as the materialistic liberal order that has supplanted Christianity is now in danger of being sacrificed for its failures. Modern liberalism was built on the promise of wealth and pleasure, the pursuit of which was supposed to make us happy.
But modernity’s prosperity does not alleviate all worry, and its extremely unequal distribution exacerbates social tensions and envy. Sexual liberation has been less fulfilling than promised, and the bonds of family and community have been vitiated by liberalism’s relentless insistence on personal autonomy.
The liberal promise of prosperity, pleasure, and happiness has not been kept, especially for those who have been left behind economically and relationally. There are still blessings to be enjoyed, but food, shelter, and the endless entertainment options of the internet do not satisfy a lonely heart. Pornography and social media are poor substitutes for intimacy and friendship.
Along with its hollowing-out of family and community, liberalism excised gratitude and loyalty, which got in the way of both individual autonomy and the bottom line. The populists are showing the elite the same loyalty the elite showed them. For example, the miners of West Virginia, whose jobs Hillary Clinton boasted of planning to destroy, know the contempt our elites have for them. The Establishment Right is embarrassed by the plebs, and the Establishment Left had no use for them beyond keeping them as human pets on the government dole.
Both, along with their counterparts abroad, favor strip-mining human resources from struggling communities, thereby concentrating human capital in a few privileged locales. The dearth of local opportunity across much of the country induces the talented to leave and never come back, depriving communities of leaders, and hastening their demise.
The concentration of power, and the distrust of those who wield it, is radicalizing those with something to preserve. Michael Brendan Dougherty of National Review notes the oddity of the times “when many conservatives see working-class people pitching a riot in France and instinctively sympathize with them.”
Nor is it only those left behind in the hinterlands who are unhappy and feel betrayed by liberalism. Many on the left, especially among the youth, have their own grievances against it, as seen in the surge in socialism’s popularity and the zealotry of those devoted to intersectionality and “social justice.”
The generational conflict has already begun at venerable liberal institutions like The New York Times, and it will be intensified by the misery leftist pieties inflict upon their true believers. Higher education, where the left has unquestioned hegemony, runs on crippling student loans and cheap labor from graduate students and underpaid adjuncts. The romantic landscape is increasingly a wasteland, and feminism these days is all about being really, really angry.
Conservatives should recognize that these developments are as much a rejection of liberalism as an intensification of it. The “woke” are unhappy, and they blame their liberal progenitors almost as much as they blame conservatives (especially Christians).
Like the pagans of old, as well as those of “The Wicker Man,” our post-Christian culture will target Christians. They will fire those who use the “wrong” (i.e., biologically accurate) pronouns, and ban them from Twitter. They will continue to put Christians who refuse to celebrate same-sex wedding ceremonies out of business, and maybe into jail.
But they will show scant mercy to others who violate the edicts of their new religion. They will punish anyone who strays (even if unintentionally or long ago) from their dogmas. They will enforce blasphemy codes against comedians. This year’s Heisman Trophy winner was ambushed—the same night he won the award—by the social justice mob because he had used un-PC language on Twitter as 14 and 15-year-old. That sort of malevolence is far wickeder than anything the young athlete had tweeted, but miserable sanctimony knows neither proportion nor forgiveness.
The left’s young radicals will be no more forgiving to the liberal elites than the populists will. In the end, they too will turn on those who led them to ruin. Failure demands the occasional blood sacrifice. The result will be ugly, no matter who wins. With the embers still aglow in France, the warning to the comfortable leaders of the West is unmistakable: Your time will come.