Reaching Peak Progressivism

In 2020 we have finally hit peak progressivism. The adjective “peak”—apex or summit— is often used to describe something that has reached its maximum extent but thereafter will insidiously decline—like supposed U.S. domestic oil production in 2000 when more oil was purportedly taken out of, rather than still in the ground. While the idea of peak oil in the days before fracking and horizontal drilling proved vastly premature, we likely are witnessing something like “peak progressivism” today.

By that I mean the hard-left takeover of the Democratic Party and the accompanying progressive agenda now have reached an extreme—beyond which will only result in the steady erosion of radical ideology altogether.

The French Revolution hit “peak” coerced egalitarianism with the Jacobin takeover and so-called Reign of Terror. After all, when you begin guillotining fellow travelers on charges they are counterrevolutionaries and begin worshiping a new atheist secular power “Reason,” institutionalized as Robespierre’s “Cult of the Supreme Being,” you have mostly reached the limits of political radicalism and are into the territory of the nihilistic, if not the maniacal and absurd—with a rendezvous with Napoleon on the horizon.

From 2009 through 2016, Barack Obama recalibrated the Democratic Party’s liberalism into progressive radicalism. He opened the border and all but dismantled existing immigration law. Sanctuary cities sprang up with impunity. Executive orders bypassed the Congress. The Iran Deal ignored the Senate’s treaty-making responsibilities. Obama sought to nationalize healthcare. The concept of “diversity” replaced affirmative action, by redefining racial oppression as distinct from historical grievance and economic disparity and instead lumping together 30 percent of the population as nonwhite, and thus antithetical to the new buzz construct of “white privilege.” Fast and Furious, the surveillance of the Associated Press reporters, Benghazi, the weaponization of the IRS, and the use of CIA, FBI, and DOJ to seed the spurious Steele dossier were all written off as proof of the “most scandal free” administration in memory.

But today Obamaism has been figuratively guillotined by the New Jacobins. It is found guilty of crimes of insufficient revolutionary zeal, as well as compromises with the U.S. Constitution and capitalism.

Once considered a crank socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is now leads in many Democratic primary polls. Arriving with him at this moment in our politics is peak progressivism.

First-term socialists—House representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and her fellow “squad” members, inspired by Sanders—now set the new Democratic agenda. And it is one that is more radical than anything seen in modern American history and largely unsustainable: calls to level a wealth tax and new top income-tax rates of 70-90 percent, to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service, all student debt, an enforceable southern border, the internal combustion engine, and most Second Amendment rights, and to enact multi-trillion dollar new entitlements as outlined in the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, free college, free healthcare for illegal aliens, and reparations.

Identity politics so rules the rhetoric of the new progressive party that all of its—exclusively white—primary finalists vie to be most vocal in the ritual damning of their own country (that has ironically ensured their own influence, power, success and wealth) as inherently “racist.”

Universities Lead the Way In the Revolution Eating Itself

Outside of the political sphere, peak progressivism had reinvented the university, rejecting Martin Luther King, Jr’s vision of racial integration and assimilation, by demanding racially obsessed dorms, safe spaces, and applications.

There is hardly a First Amendment on campuses anymore. Speakers with unpopular views are shouted down with impunity by student activists. “Trigger warnings” seek to censor required texts. The mere accusation of sexual harassment on campus is synonymous with the suspension of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Amendments. Skepticism over abortion, “climate change,” or identity politics can cancel out a faculty career.

It is hard to imagine where universities go after peak progressivism, since it would be the pure nihilism of abolishing grades, admissions standards, and student fees.

Peak progressivism calls for the abolition of the constitutionally mandated Electoral College. Radicals now fault past failed schemes to pack the federal and Supreme Court with left-wing justices only because they failed, and thus advance ways to make court-packing work in the present. The bolder among them wants to reconfigure the U.S. Senate into a proportionally representational house or abolish it altogether. All that would be left after that would be the formal abolition of the U.S. Constitution itself.

Primary candidates compete with one another to water down voting laws, variously demanding that 16-year-olds, felons, and illegal aliens should be given the franchise. Gay marriage, which Obama opposed in 2008 and later promoted after reelection, is now passé. The new civil rights cause celebre is transgenderism, an ancient syndrome known in the past under a variety of clinical definitions that affects less than half of one percent of the population. Who, after these peak progressive ideas, would be left as ineligible to vote—12-year-olds, those on death row, the rest of the earth’s population?

All moderate Democratic presidential candidates long ago dropped out. Those who have not, such as Joe Biden and Michael Bloomberg, are in virtual reeducation camps, as they promise to progressive rivals and the media to renounce most of their past positions, effusively apologizing for prior incorrect thinking and failure to become sufficiently “woke.”

The Cycles of Cultish Extremism

There are certain historical characteristics of the current peak progressivism that are typical of past cycles of cultish extremism.

Iconoclasm—the destruction of statues and icons deemed reactionary—is typical.

So is Trotskyization, the renaming of buildings, streets, and institutions on the theory that current correct ideology makes past iconic figures no longer deserving of recognition and thus erased from history.

Puritanism is also typical, as correct speech extends to thoughts and behavior. Peak progressivism now includes Victorian prudery. Flattery, traditional flirting, and praise of physical beauty are proof of counter-revolutionary barbarism and toxic masculinity. The Internet allows instant cancel culture searches of one’s entire past thoughts, conduct, and expression in efforts to erase impure personas.

Tribal factionalism is a final symptom that peak ideology is already degenerating into chaos. In the Democratic primary, candidates could agree that white privilege and whiteness were toxic but no one quite could define whether black, Latino, Asian, gay, female upper-middle class, or wealthy candidates were the most victimized by America and thus the most deserving of reparatory considerations.

The much-discussed “intersectionality” is a construct, a myth. The history of ideological extremism is instead a war of all factions against one another.

We see just that in the peak progressive primaries. Michael Bloomberg is deemed a racist and sexist. But then so is Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders supposedly hires racists and sexists and won’t honor minimum wage laws. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) thinks Bernie is condescending to women and minorities. Pete Buttigieg thinks he is the victim of Joe Biden’s subtle anti-gay political adds, and feels, but does not articulate, that the black community is inherent anti-homosexual. The race to tag others as victimizers and selves as victimized is endless.

Radicals also vie to make rivals look counter-revolutionary, as they advance ever more incoherent and unhinged schemes without a clue that they are losing not just moderate support but even liberal followers. The more Warren feels she must become the purest peak progressive on the debate stage and the most radical in the U.S. Senate, the more her former supporters feel she is either a conniving opportunist or nuts or both.

Impossible Demands, Even of Their Own

Peak progressives cannot possibly live up to their rhetoric fantasies and so suffer from rank hypocrisies. Redistributionists like Warren and Sanders either fly on private jets or choose non-egalitarian first-class commercial. Hollywood stars who mouth crazy Oscar and Grammy ceremony platitudes vie with each other to wear multi-thousand-dollar clothes, live in mansions, and own yachts—as they drive down ratings to historic lows.

Not long ago, progressive pundits on CNN and MSNBC declared the current indicted lawyer Michael Avenatti presidential material for his fabrications and lies that were used to smear Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Where does a network go after that?

Racial quota advocates demand proportional representations and cry out about disparate impact but soon discover that they have no plans or desire to appoint candidates of color to be included on the Democrat debate stage (or to reserve slots for Asian-American basketball forwards, or to ensure blacks make up only 12 percent of the coveted billets of the U.S. Postal Service.) Peak progressives never imagine that they, too, can become prisoners of their ridiculous ideologies.

Peak progressives also live in cocoons. They have no inkling how their ever more radical talk alienates the public. How odd to see Mike Bloomberg repudiate many of his mayoral policies that once were popular with even liberal New Yorkers. (Or is Bloomberg’s Machiavellian team leaking past politically incorrect statements about crime and the housing collapse to show that in comparison with his current rivals’ professed lunacies that he once sounded pragmatic and sane?)

To prove he is not a racist, Joe Biden sounds like an incendiary radical, only further turning off his once-sizable moderate block of supporters. As Democratic candidates careen ever farther to the left, their crowds shrink, and Donald Trump’s rallies expand.

Peak progressivism even scares the diehard NeverTrump right, which fears imploding by voting for a whacked-out Bernie Sanders as the only alternative to the hated Trump.

Peak progressivism eventually either recedes, or, to remain viable, entails violence, as in the Russian, Chinese, or Cuban revolutions. The odd thing is not that Sanders supporter James Hodkinson tried to mow down some of the Republican House leadership, or a recent left-wing activist sought to run over Trump supporters with his van, or that Hollywood stars still compete with each other in imagining the most fitting rhetorical torture or killing of the president of the United States—bombing, incineration, beheading, stabbing, shooting, beating—but that progressive voices rarely complain about such extremist rhetoric or actions. Impeachment 1.0 in January 2017 looks tame in comparison to 2.0 in February 2020, which in turn will seem a sell-out compared to 3.0 in 2021.

George McGovern ensured a Nixon landslide, Jimmy Carter hastened the Reagan Revolution—and the eventual return of the old Democrats under Bill Clinton.

The frightening visions of the new peak progressives will ensure the reelection of Donald Trump, as well as either the likely end of themselves—or else a collective dystopian nightmare.

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About Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness and the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an American military historian, columnist, a former classics professor, and scholar of ancient warfare. He has been a visiting professor at Hillsdale College since 2004, and is the 2023 Giles O'Malley Distinguished Visiting Professor at the School of Public Policy, Pepperdine University. Hanson was awarded the National Humanities Medal in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and the Bradley Prize in 2008. Hanson is also a farmer (growing almonds on a family farm in Selma, California) and a critic of social trends related to farming and agrarianism. He is the author most recently of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won, The Case for Trump and the recently released The Dying Citizen, and the forthcoming The End of Everything (May 7, 2024).

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