Shattered Consensus: Goodbye to the Liberal Era?
In his book, Shattered Consensus, James Piereson says the postwar political order is unraveling. We’re arriving at a rare historic moment. The century-old liberal era is about to breathe its last breaths.
If the liberal era is about to die, what replaces it? Don’t assume that liberty and founding principles fill the void, welcomed as antidotes to decades of statist imposition, rot, and rust; to the corrosive effects of leftist cultural subversion. There are no automatics in human affairs.
There are only a few comparable junctures in American history, per Piereson.
The previous major eras in American history identified by Piereson began with the Jefferson-Jackson era (1800-60). It foundered and fell apart over the issue of “slavery and territorial issues” in the 1850s. The “capitalist-industrial” era ran from post-Civil War to 1930, when the Great Depression occurred. And then the postwar (WWII) welfare state, which took form in the 1930s and solidified in 1940s but is faltering now.
Though Piereson is optimistic about what emerges from a liberal collapse, readers should be cautioned: we’re living the history; events unfold before and around us. No glimpse into the future is afforded us. We know from the Revolution and the Civil War that outcomes can be close-run things. World War II -- the so-called “good war” -- is assumed by many today as an inevitable allied victory. It wasn’t.
It’s possible that the collapse of the postwar (liberal) political order opens the way for further degradations of liberty, greater statism, and a more thorough debauching of the culture and society. Or it could lead to further fragmentation and ruptures, resulting in the breakup of the nation. Certainly, aberrant multiculturalism -- and the diversity doctrine that underpins it -- that the left champions and relentlessly foists on the country has eroded national unity. Leftist ideology -- increasingly rigidly dogmatic and intolerant of basic constitutional rights and dissent -- has only served to cleave the nation more deeply and push Americans into virtual warring camps.
Either prospect -- a new order even more statist and overbearing in character or a breakup of the nation -- is grim. The former -- a greater squelching of liberty -- is manifestly so; the latter because in a world of mounting threats to the security and welfare of Americans, unity under freedom is vital.
As Piereson points out, era-shiftings are transitions accompanied by crises. He speculates that the nation will be roiled over the coming decade. What crises will come?
A half-baked economic recovery is due for a recession in the next few years (statistically so). What tools are left to the Federal Reserve to combat the next downturn? What happens to the federal government, already listing under $19 trillion in debt and obligated to a “social safety net” for a boomer cohort retiring in droves? What happens to the economy as ObamaCare’s crippling provisions are fully implemented and costs spiral up? Racial issues grow contentious -- increasingly violent -- and illegals continue to flow into the country.
What about the growing threat from a militarizing China, having seized international waters in the East and South China Seas? Or the continued threat to the U.S. homeland and its overseas interests from ISIS and like extremist Islamic groups? What’s Putin’s and Russia’s play in the nearer term?
There are, of course, issues now of lesser account that could flower into major troubles.
There’s a crucial iteration within the postwar liberal phase, which Piereson acknowledges but gives insufficient weight to as threatening the nation.
The Cold War liberals (Harry Truman, for instance), who consolidated the New Deal, broadly shared traditional American principles and values. They were deposed in the late 1960s and early 1970s by young leftists -- Marxists and “liberation” doctrine adherents -- whose animus for traditional America still reverberates and animates the left to this day.
The left wasn’t -- isn’t -- interested in new or fair deals for American workers. Their aim -- as personified by Barack Obama -- is to “transform” America; meaning ripping the nation away from its cultural moorings, demeaning and marginalizing faith, undermining marriage and family, punishing Americans for their supposed criminal history here and abroad, and diminishing American power to subordinate the nation in a new world order. This American Cultural Revolution (and complimentary parts) has been ongoing for a generation and a half.
The left has insinuated itself into higher learning institutions and public schools, arts and entertainment, and news media -- into virtually every aspect of popular culture -- making it an embedded and formidable adversary. Its advances and victories are dreary facts. Controlling politics and government alone won’t defeat the left’s attacks on society. Legislation and laws go only so far (a fact the left grasp decades ago). The fight is for the soul of America (the allusion is sure to rankle the godless left). The urgent need is for another Great Awakening -- some variant -- that revivifies a commitment to freedom and affirms the nation’s Judeo-Christian underpinnings.
A Hydra, the left mutated out of the nation’s earlier progressive and liberal chapters and absorbed the wicked totalitarian urges of the 20th Century’s fraternal statist twins: communism and fascism. PC is “liberal fascism,” as Jonah Goldberg once argued.
Leftism is the most radical departure from, and challenge to, the nation’s founding principles -- to natural rights and freedom -- period. Leftism is a fundamentally alien creed.
We are past dialogue, past compromise, and any hope that the left will reform itself to moderation (whatever that would be). With each passing day, we see the struggle’s contours more starkly: either the left wins, supplanting the old liberal order, or the forces of liberty prevail, ushering in a renewal of founding principles and a dramatic reform period. Or… the struggle causes us to fly apart, with “from sea to shining sea” reduced to nostalgia.
Piereson, who serves as “president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute,” offers no detailed prognostications. Shattered Consensus is a collection of Piereson’s articles from various conservative and “neocon” publications. Piereson’s analyses are thorough and penetrating. He’s much like a coroner conducting a post-mortem, though the body isn’t cold yet. He dissects liberalism for the causes of the postwar order’s -- impending -- demise. His detailed examination and insights are valuable.
Providence plays a central role in the affairs of men. God’s beneficial hand was at work at pivotal moments in our history. Goes the old saying, “The ways of the Lord are mysterious, indeed.” We are mere actors in the play, but those of us committed to liberty must act rightly and strive mightily in the coming near-times; we can only do what’s in our power to do but we must act with unwavering commitment and faith.
If Piereson is correct, we’re at a momentous crossroads in the nation’s life. Are we a nation of free people, or are we a subservient people? Is America’s experiment in liberty to be extinguished, relegated to a lonely chapter in the mostly dark annals of human history? Or are we to flourish as never before?
Events are unfolding now. Most of us will live long enough to find out.