Archive Civic Polity Steven Wedgeworth

The Real Emergence of Radicalism in America

Writing over at The American Conservative, Daniel McCarthy points out that, strictly speaking, all of the new radical ideas in American politics have come from the right:

Obama does exhibit a great deal more “stand-pattism” than ideological fervor. Progressivism itself is far from revolutionary in 2013: Obama came around to supporting gay marriage only at a time when 51 percent of Republicans under 30 do so, too. That issue – which radicals have never found very radical at all – has been debated now for two decades. And that’s still, as far as older folks on the right are concerned, the cutting edge of leftist innovation.

No left-wing economic theory is challenging neoliberalism. Obama’s program is Keynesian – i.e., it draws on ideas that were fresh 80 years ago – and its Keynesianism is tepid in the eyes of figures like Paul Krugman, who themselves are hardly Bolsheviks. There are plenty of bad ideas on the left, but they’re all old ideas.

On the other hand, the past decade has seen exciting new bad ideas arise on the right, beginning with that of fomenting revolution throughout the Middle East. We already have an excessively financialized economy, but while the left has played a considerable role in bringing that about, the notion that there’s nothing dangerous about concentrating wealth in very few hands – or that American workers should have to compete for wages on a leveled playing field with billions of people in the developing world – is characteristic of the right’s economic philosophy. If you had to say whether America was in greater danger of tilting toward communism or plutocracy, could you honestly answer “communism”?

An overpriced, hyper-militarized foreign policy that fails to protect us from its own blowback; the immiseration of the American middle class; the structural weakness of the global financial system; the diminution of privacy amid the press of technological intrusions and mass taste; and the political/cultural fragmentation that deprives society as well as government of the capacity to act – all these things transcend the late 20th-century American understanding of the left-right spectrum. If your idea of conservatism is that it’s “anti-left,” you won’t be fighting the most important battles.

Our own political views here at TCI are difficult to categorize in contemporary nomenclature. We stand for a sort of mere Christendom, retaining the best features of the 16th- and 17th-century Protestant jurists. But we also know that there’s no sense in trying to turn back the clock to a time of powdered wigs, hosiery, and the gentleman’s rapier. Something like Abraham Kuyper’s Christian Democracy is a much more accessible tradition for 21st-century men to work with. Certain seemingly new, or even progressive, features will also be necessary, since the status quo really isn’t all that worth conserving.

Mr. McCarthy’s warning is important, though. The current political rhetoric is allowing “conservatives” to advance some of the most truly radical increases in government and military power. The significance of the American Left is, I think, a bit understated in his treatment. Even if we are only experiencing the inevitable outworkings of the second half of the 20th century, the present time is when those experiences are being felt and their impact is shaping our cultural identity in a big way. Sometimes the folks at TAC play it a bit too cool on this score, apparently a way to avoid having to lose a few battles.

Still, the main point is sound. Truly conservative thinkers, and especially Christians who want to bring the best of their tradition to bear on political thought, are going to have to go a long way at critiquing both the left wing and the right wing as currently constituted. Neither side can easily claim to be a friend at current.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.