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A New Conservative Theory of Why America Is So Polarized

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Christopher Caldwell is not a household name. But for the relatively small set of people who care deeply about political writing, he is a towering figure. His prose — full of wit and irony, enlivened by an eye for paradox and the telling detail, informed by a polyglot and polymathic erudition — is second to none in the world of conservative journalism and exceeds nine-tenths of what is published in the press at large. In a review of Caldwell’s previous book, 2008’s immigration-skeptic Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, the Marxist historian Perry Anderson, himself one of the most learned individuals on the planet, praised Caldwell’s “cultural range” as “perhaps without equal” among American journalists and noted, respectfully, that his “columns in the Financial Times make much liberal opinion look the dreary mainstream pabulum it too often is.”

Although long affiliated with the neoconservative Weekly Standard, Caldwell has always been more of an old-school, even Old World type of conservative. The cast of his mind is literary and historical, not ideological, and his principal concern is with cultural preservation and continuity. Perhaps for this reason, Caldwell has, over the past several years, emerged as America’s premier highbrow defender of transatlantic populism. In his recent essays for the Claremont Review of Books, City Journal, and even the New Republic, he has relentlessly attacked the “globalist” consensus around free trade and immigration while writing sympathetically — some would say too sympathetically — about some of globalism’s most disreputable opponents: Viktor Orbán, Eric Zemmour, Rodrigo Duterte, et al. In Caldwell’s writing, the conflict between globalism and populism is staged as a clash of civilizations: on one side is a high-handed elite, set on transforming the West into a sort of multicultural shopping mall; on the other is a loose band of dissidents, patriots, cranks, and gadflys who want their cultures, as they know them, to survive.

In Caldwell’s latest book, The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties, he applies this framework to American history from the assassination of Kennedy to the election of Trump. The result is in many ways impressive; in some, explosive. Caldwell’s basic thesis is that the country’s current divisions are the product of a longstanding and as-yet-unresolved conflict over the legacy of the ‘60s, and over race and civil rights in particular. His radical innovation is to argue that the legal regime that emerged out of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its subsequent expansions was, in his words, “not just a major new element in the Constitution,” but “a rival constitution, with which the original one was frequently incompatible.”

Early in the book he writes:

Much of what we have called ‘polarization’ or ‘incivility’ in recent years is something far more grave. It is the disagreement over which of the two constitutions shall prevail: the de jure constitution of 1788, with all the traditional forms of jurisprudential legitimacy and centuries of American culture behind it; or the de facto constitution of 1964, which lacks this traditional kind of legitimacy but commands the near-unanimous endorsement of judicial elites and civic educators and the passionate allegiance of those who received it as a liberation.

But how is the Civil Rights Act of 1964 a “de facto constitution” incompatible with the original one? In a strict legal sense, Caldwell argues, it is that the Civil Rights Act and associated Supreme Court decisions, such as Brown v. Board of Education, conflicted with or modified what had traditionally been understood as Americans’ constitutionally guaranteed rights. Court- or legislatively-mandated integration, for instance, curtailed freedom of association, in the same way that legal prohibitions on discrimination in hiring or renting out a room curtailed the property rights of a business or hotel owner.

Such objections to the 1964 act have long been aired by paleoconservatives and libertarians — in 2010, Rand Paul came under fire for voicing a version of them — and they are pretty small-bore. Caldwell’s concern is less legalistic and has more to do with how “civil rights ideology… became, most unexpectedly, the model for an entire new system of constantly churning political reform.” He argues that the act and its subsequent expansions provided a blueprint, a moral rationale, and a legal toolkit for ambitious and frequently unpopular social engineering projects, justified in the name of an ever-proliferating suite of rights and operating outside the bounds of traditional democratic and constitutional legitimacy. “The civil rights model of executive orders, litigation, and court-ordered redress eventually became the basis for resolving every question pitting a newly emerging idea of fairness against old traditions,” he writes. When the Supreme Court, in Roe v. Wade, legalized abortion based on a hitherto unheard-of construal of the 14th Amendment’s due process clause (“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”), or when, in Obergefell v. Hodges, it did the same for gay marriage, it was acting according to the spirit of this de facto constitution rather than the letter of the actual one.

Caldwell is strongest when discussing the ironies and unintended consequences of the civil rights revolution. He notes that white Americans in the ‘60s had been embarrassed by Jim Crow and were willing to countenance a little government heavy-handedness in order to solve what were, in their view, the regional problems of the backward South. Whites, in other words, were complacent, naive, and more than a little arrogant — they assumed that once explicit legal discrimination was eliminated, America’s “race problem” would simply go away. But Caldwell, drawing on the work of the sociologist Alan David Freeman, notes that “victims” and “oppressors” tend to have very different views of systems of racial discrimination. Oppressors think that once individual and legal prejudice has been ended, so too has discrimination. Victims tend to see  discrimination in systemic terms, and feel that justice requires an equalization of outcomes. Over time, the victims’ view became the official view, the one taught in schools and universities and which now pervades our mass media and public culture. (Caldwell notes that the phrase “white supremacy” is now used five times as often as during its previous heyday in the 1960s.) As a result, “a measure that had been intended to normalize American culture and cure the gothic paranoia of the Southern racial imagination… instead wound up nationalizing Southerners’ obsession with race and violence.”

Caldwell sees the rival constitutions as having realigned American politics, and much of his book traces, in essayistic and sometimes cursory fashion, the history of this realignment. His depiction of Reagan is particularly scathing — Caldwell sees him as having won a majority based on the public’s rejection of the 1964 constitution, but blames him for doing little to nothing to attack its legal and bureaucratic foundations. Instead, by cutting taxes for the white middle class, Reagan effectively kicked the can down the road, allowing his voters the option of recreating a simulacrum of the old order — via private schools and flight to the suburbs — through private, often debt-financed means. The bitter, zero-sum character of recent political conflict stems, in Caldwell’s telling, from a recognition that the Reagan settlement is no longer tenable, and that the country can no longer afford — literally, given Caldwell’s heavy emphasis on debt — to finance the existence of two irreconcilable constitutional and social orders. It must choose between them. In 2016, Caldwell appears to believe it did.

The Age of Entitlement is eloquent and bracing book, full of insight even when parts of its argument are difficult to credit (this is particularly true of Caldwell’s attempts to draw a causal connection between civil rights and the social pathologies — opioids and deaths of despair — now afflicting white Middle America). It is the best and the most thoughtful statement we have of what might be termed the “Flight 93 mindset” — the feeling, among a certain type of white conservative, that the changes of the past half century have amounted to a war on the country and the civilization that they knew and loved. The outstanding question is what, if anything, Caldwell believes the right can do to reverse these changes. Near the end of the book, he mentions in passing that Republicans have failed to see that “the only way back to the free country of their ideals [is] through the repeal of the civil rights laws.” It’s a shocking notion, and it is hard to believe that even Caldwell believes it is a viable way to proceed. In another late passage, he writes:

As they moved inland in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, Americans had obliterated whole cultures with a clean conscience, as if the continent were unpeopled. In the half-century after the mid-1960s, America’s leaders, still dreaming their big dreams, obliterated their own cultural institutions in a similar spirit.

One gets the sense that these lines are closer to his heart. The story his book tells is a kind of reactionary American tragedy — a lament for a version of the country that is now gone, dispatched by the same hubris and ambition that powered its ascent. As in a tragedy, events seem decreed by fate. There is little sense they could have turned out otherwise.

Park MacDougald is Life & Arts editor at the Washington Examiner magazine.

A New Conservative Theory of Why America Is So Polarized