Leftists are chipping away at America’s ideals and exacerbating the same polarization for which they blame conservatives. They are undermining the nation’s shared history and its commitment to civil discourse. The resulting balkanization will cause alienated Americans to resort to self-imposed segregation and support strident political leaders who promise to fight back.
In a speech before the Civil War, the radical preacher Theodore Parker popularized “the American idea.” Parker’s recipe combined three ingredients: All people are created equal, all possess unalienable rights, and all Americans should have the opportunity to develop them. An abolitionist, Parker believed in one inspired American culture, supported by all Americans, and open to all Americans.
Leftists rightfully emphasize the “open to all” component, arguing for diversity and equality for the disenfranchised, but they neglect the “one shared American culture.” Diversity thus becomes division, as the left works to undermine America’s civic religion.
Shared American Ideals
One of America’s great strengths has been its assimilation of people from all backgrounds. Unlike nations defined by shared ethnicity, Americans include citizens whose families have been here for generations as well as those born abroad.
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America’s founding as a republic dedicated to equality before the law is available to all, whether one’s ancestors fought in the Revolutionary War or arrived more recently. Generations of schoolchildren have studied the heroic examples of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln and adopted American history as their own.
The left is doing more than demanding modern reparations for the sins of previous generations; it is attacking America’s very self-conception as a nation born in liberty. Leftists see the nation as hopelessly corrupt before their fortuitous ascendance. Whereas Americans of all backgrounds once rightfully took pride in their shared inheritance of America’s founding ideals and the authors and defenders of those ideals, leftists now demand America’s history be rewritten to reflect nothing more than systemic racism and exploitation.
The left is correct to take part in expanding America’s canon to include the voices of heroes such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and others who pushed America to live up to its founding ideals. Leftists are wrong, however, to view history as a zero-sum game that requires denigrating the Founding Fathers and their ideals to make room for these neglected leaders.
The protesters toppling statues of Washington, Jefferson, and Ulysses S. Grant have fully embraced cancel culture. So-called peaceful protesters even vandalized a statue of Mahatma Gandhi, apparently offended by the father of peaceful protesting.
The Left’s Moral Superiority
Leftists view themselves as self-evidently morally superior to their predecessors, not to mention their contemporary political opponents. As America evolves to be less prejudiced, even previous leftist icons are exposed as perpetrators of sexism, racism, and other sins yet undiscovered. The left doesn’t judge these historic figures in the context of their times. Instead they imagine that they would have been more virtuous had they lived in a previous era.
Whereas conservatives, influenced by the religious concepts of original sin and redemption, view the struggle between good and evil occurring within each individual, liberals place this struggle at the group level, viewing their side as permanently occupying the moral high ground. It is hard to engage in serious discussion, much less compromise, with those one views as not only mistaken but morally deficient.
Conservatives aren’t blind to the moral failings of historical figures, but they also don’t believe America’s heroes should be defined by their worst attributes alone. Jefferson’s hypocrisy in owning slaves and failure to do more to abolish slavery do not negate his eloquent defense of reason, equality, and self-rule in contrast with the divine right of kings.
This disagreement is about more than statues or textbooks; leftists are transforming the political debate from persuasion to condemnation. Whereas previous protesters such as Martin Luther King Jr. appealed to America’s conscience to correct injustices, today’s left rejects America’s conscience as hopelessly corrupt and is thus more interested in delegitimizing and remaking the nation.
Abandonment of Persuasion
Leftists have abandoned their traditional commitments to free speech and protecting minority viewpoints, as they believe America’s changing demographics will endow them with an enduring majority. Whereas the left once championed Americans’ right to burn the flag and publish pornography, they do not defend the rights of those who recognize the biological reality of sex, reject apocalyptic environmentalism, or refuse to defund the police.
They have abandoned the open marketplace of ideas in favor of silencing critics through university speech codes, social media restrictions, and public shaming. Virtue signaling has replaced genuine debate, and the left stamps people with heterodox opinions into silence or ostracism.
As leftists continually move the goalposts, today’s moral crusaders will become tomorrow’s objects of derision. As groups compete to assert their grievances within the left’s shifting hierarchy of sex, race, and sexuality, intersectionalism threatens to render the public square a modern-day Tower of Babel. Instead of an aspirational society, leftists see people defined by the circumstances of their birth.
Ironically, leftism has devolved from making sweeping universal claims in the name of human rights to its own form of tribalism, advancing the particular interests of subgroups. The left no longer sees individuals as possessing agency to transcend group identities in order to pursue the unprecedented opportunity America offers for self-realization and material success.
Conservatives recognize America’s shortcomings but also see a nation striving since its birth to become a “more perfect union.” They see a nation with the most freedom, opportunity, and minority protections, unsurpassed in any history book. While conservatives might delight as the left devours its own, turning on Democratic presidents such as Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, and Bill Clinton, they must take seriously the assault on America’s foundations and the genuine threat to reasoned debate. The very “American idea” is at stake.