Forget the Hunger Games. Welcome to the Intolerance Wars.
Every day, it seems, someone tries to silence someone else in the name of some higher cause. The forced resignation of Brendan Eich as CEO of the popular Web browser Mozilla Firefox is only the tip of the iceberg.
This goes beyond the familiar tit for tat of the culture wars. We are witnessing nothing less than a major shift in America’s political culture. Ideological opponents are no longer just wrong; they have no right to be heard. People who disagree with you are not just misguided; they have no right to make a living. In extreme cases, they deserve incarceration.
This is far worse than intolerance. It turns American liberalism on its head to become its opposite: illiberalism.
Illiberalism has a long history, infecting both the right and the left, from the Ku Klux Klan to the SDS. But today it is taking over a movement that once claimed to be its bitter enemy: American liberalism. People who call themselves liberals may think of themselves as open-minded moderates, but some of them increasingly champion the use of coercive methods, either by government muscle or public shaming, to shut down debate and deprive certain people of their constitutional rights.
Look at the popular culture. In academia, the media and Hollywood, it’s now acceptable (and even cool) to suppress dissent. Speech codes, “trigger warnings” and preventing people such as former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice from speaking on campuses are by now old hat. But when media treat seriously actor Sean Penn’s suggestion that Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, be thrown into a mental institution, alarm bells should be ringing. Once-venerated liberal notions of free speech, pluralism and openness have been thrown out the window.
It’s happening in government too. The federal government stands accused of investigating political opponents and using its judicial powers to harass the press. The Obama administration routinely refuses to enforce laws it disagrees with and implements, by executive order, policies that were explicitly rejected by Congress. The courts throw out laws and referendums based on, at best, selective interpretations of the Constitution. Apparently America’s venerable checks-and-balances system, once a safeguard of its democratic liberal order, is now considered a roadblock to agendas rather than a protector of freedom. What is worse, some people apparently are more equal than others before the law.
Why is this happening? The rise of illiberalism in America represents the triumph of a countercultural liberalism that set out decades ago to overturn traditional progressivism.
It is often assumed that today’s liberals are the heirs of American progressivism. In reality, they are the sons and daughters of the new left of the 1960s, which set out to transform American progressivism. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John F. Kerry have much more in common with Betty Friedan and Tom Hayden than Woodrow Wilson or Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Progressivism always believed in big government, but up until the 1960s, it had an abiding respect for Holmes’ idea of free speech and Thomas Jefferson’s (and John Stuart Mill’s) veneration of individual conscience. No more. Those in power now regard dissent as a dirty word, a mere shield behind which bigots and haters supposedly lurk.
The illiberal temptation has long been part of the Western liberal tradition. From the French Revolution onward, the notion of creating absolute equality via coercion has attracted followers. But in America, that impulse was tempered by Holmes’ respect for freedom of speech and Jefferson’s belief in the sanctity of individual conscience.
That respect and that belief were the higher cause of American liberalism, not some agenda that assumes history ends when opponents are silenced or jailed.
Originally published in The Washington Times.