Watch That Last Step, It's a Doozy
As any mature radical will tell you, the great advantage of a gradual unraveling, as opposed to the more colorful sudden insurrection, is that in the latter case, everyone knows what is happening and, if so inclined, may resist, whereas the former method is akin to the stealthy burglar who steals your jewels while you sleep. You might wake up and carry on with your life for days before realizing you have lost your prized possessions and family heirlooms. And by then it is too late.
But the stealthy burglar is merely a metaphor. What are the real, practical mechanisms whereby socialists have co-opted most of the Western world over the past hundred years without awakening the majority of the population? No short article could hope to give a complete account of the process -- nor could any long book, for that matter, though many have explained elements of it with admirable clarity.
One invaluable tool in the radical's belt, however, is sometimes overlooked. This is the natural human weakness -- on display every day, everywhere -- for breaking a long process into its discernible stages, and then judging the significance of each stage relative to the whole, so that each stage appears less noteworthy than the preceding ones, as the growing whole proportionately diminishes each new part. This tendency of our thinking can prevent us from recognizing all sorts of gradual developments, both positive and negative. It allows us to observe incremental changes in our bodily condition over time without ever deducing that we have developed a serious illness, for example.
In the modern political context, this phenomenon helps to explain the blank stares or rolling eyes one meets when talking to people about the multifaceted catastrophe -- economic, social, and moral -- that looms just ahead of the Western world on its present path. "What are you getting all worked up about?" is a typical response, and a sure sign you are witnessing the psychological weakness in question. You, looking at the whole process, see an ever-expanding threat. They, focused only on the discrete stages -- each one seeming smaller than the last, compared to the whole -- see ever-shrinking dots against an amorphous gray background. "What's the big deal?"
An analogy: anyone with experience teaching a language knows that the special challenge with more advanced learners is to convince them that they really are progressing. For beginners, every new word or phrase feels like a great leap and engenders a sense of accomplishment. Advanced students, by contrast, are forever complaining that they don't see themselves improving. They may be progressing every bit as quickly as the beginners, but the distance between zero and one is inevitably easier to appreciate than the distance between a thousand and a thousand and one. The absolute rate of progress may be the same, but the relative rate -- which is how we experience the progress subjectively -- shrinks to indiscernibility.
The same applies to the West's gradual devolution into socialism, also known as "progress." The absolute rate of this "progress" fluctuates, but it has been accelerating of late. Progressivism's relative rate of change, however -- people's subjective perception of society's deterioration into authoritarianism and its accompanying material degradation -- inevitably shrinks each year. Once again, the distance between a thousand and a thousand and one feels insignificant compared to the distance between zero and one. Civilization has, through this trick of perception, long since ceased to notice that it is being forced to walk the plank, or even that there are pirates on board.
The problem is that as each generation's feeling of peril diminishes through this perceptual illusion, so does its real chance of averting the ultimate ends of "progress," which are now closer to realization than ever before. That is, there is an inversely proportional relationship between the real danger and the feeling of danger. This is a recipe for civilizational doom -- or, if you prefer a less judgmental description, for "fundamental transformation."
Seen in this light, the remarkable part of the West's decline was the early stage, when socialism progressed from zero to one, as it were. This was the hardest part of the process for the leftists; for during those first steps, their agenda was exposed, as everyone could see the nature of the changes they were proposing. It was as clear as the difference between knowing no words at all and saying "hello" for the first time.
These early progressives were true radicals, people educated in Marx and Lenin and inspired by the "workers' uprising" in Russia. Desirous of similar "reform" at home, despising "capitalism" for purely Marxist reasons -- exploitation of workers, unequal distribution of wealth, etc. -- they gradually realized that achieving their ends in the prosperous, democratically inclined West would require an arduous process of working to undo the evil system from within. They really had to "sell" socialism, exploiting (and falsely diagnosing) transitory conditions as grounds for permanent political "reform" (initially labor reform, in keeping with their Bolshevik dreams) in the hope of setting in motion a slow revolution. Since then, comparatively, and notwithstanding some bumps in the progressive road, their journey has been all downhill, in every sense of the word.
By way of a concrete example, consider Frances Perkins, FDR's labor secretary, widely credited as the driving force behind Social Security, along with other New Deal instantiations of the progressive agenda in America. An advocate of radical socialist reform, she evolved into a model for all leftists with an eye on practical goals rather than abstract theory. She grew to espouse the view that "venal politicians can sometimes be more useful than upstanding reformers." (For "upstanding reformers," read "doctrinaire Marxists.")
During the Senate Finance Committee hearings on Social Security, a Republican senator bluntly asked Perkins, "Isn't this socialism?" She flatly denied it, to which the senator replied ironically, "Isn't this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?"
FDR had to address such accusations directly. Those first teeny-weeny bits of socialism were the hard part, because every honest observer could see them as such. The s-word had not yet been banished from mainstream discussion. "Positive rights" had not yet been broadly accepted as rivals to Lockean natural rights. Property had not yet been excised from the lexicon of "freedom," or from international standards of human rights, as though liberty were somehow separable from the right to own the product of one's effort. Education had not yet been completely converted into a factory for building leftist attitudes. People in general did not yet feel "entitled" to things that could be guaranteed only by forcibly taking them from other people.
With each subsequent step, however, "progress" has become easier to implement, due in part to the increasing difficulty of seeing the discrete steps as a continuum of degradation. Each step appears smaller -- less "scary" -- than the previous steps, due to the relative perception of change.
Early victories such as those of Perkins represent socialism's progress from zero to one. The measure of their importance, and of the extraordinary power of the psychological mechanism of experiencing relative rather than absolute rates of change, can be taken by considering this obvious fact: Perkins, in her mature years, never advocated the degree of progressive policy that has subsequently been achieved in America. Later progressives have surpassed even her most ambitious efforts to convert leftism into legislation -- and yet only a small minority today see anything radical or extreme in the recent rapid advances of "progress."
This latter fact defines the "cognitive dissonance" that is often noted by people trying to understand how a self-described "progressive" like Barack Obama could ever have been elected -- toting all his leftist baggage, from communist mentors to communist appointees, with him -- in the land of Jefferson and Madison. The explanation seems to be that most people just cannot perceive the significance of the step from a thousand to a thousand and one. In fact, it should perhaps be regarded as surprising, and a triumph of reason, that any can still perceive it.
There is, however, in every plank walk, a final step beyond which one reaches the only logical outcome -- one must plunge into the shark-infested waters. No blindfold, however secure, can save you from this result. The thankless task of modern conservatives -- i.e., those still rational enough to perceive absolute "progress" -- is the race against inevitability to remove that blindfold from civilization's eyes before it is too late.
Word to the GOP campaign team: assiduously avoiding the s-word in defining the other side won't make this urgent effort any easier. "Playing it safe" with the rhetoric now will only ensure that humanity remains asleep long enough for the burglar to finish his work.