March 6 2017
Shelby Steele fans (there are so many of us!) will savor the opening paragraph to his column in this morning's Wall Street Journal on the sorry state of modern liberalism. This decline has become most visible since--oh--about November 8, 2016. Steele writes:
The recent flurry of marches, demonstrations and even riots, along with the Democratic Party’s spiteful reaction to the Trump presidency, exposes what modern liberalism has become: a politics shrouded in pathos. Unlike the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, when protesters wore their Sunday best and carried themselves with heroic dignity, today’s liberal marches are marked by incoherence and downright lunacy—hats designed to evoke sexual organs, poems that scream in anger yet have no point to make, and an hysterical anti-Americanism.
All this suggests lostness, the end of something rather than the beginning. What is ending?
The Hoover Institution historian argues that since the 1960s we have been living through an era of white guilt. He goes on to say that white guilt is not actual guilt. Most of us are not personally assailed, Steele writes, by night horrors over our own mistreatment of people of color. No, the assertion of white guilty is a way to obtain moral hegemony.
Rather than being sorrowful over historic mistreatment of people, people sign on to white guilt because they are fearful of being themselves stigmatized by "America's old bigotries." To restate: white guilt isn't really guilt. But don't underestimate its centrality in contemporary liberalism:
It is also the heart and soul of contemporary liberalism. This liberalism is the politics given to us by white guilt, and it shares white guilt’s central corruption. It is not real liberalism, in the classic sense. It is a mock liberalism. Freedom is not its raison d’être; moral authority is.
When America became stigmatized in the ’60s as racist, sexist and militaristic, it wanted moral authority above all else. Subsequently the American left reconstituted itself as the keeper of America’s moral legitimacy. (Conservatism, focused on freedom and wealth, had little moral clout.) From that followed today’s markers of white guilt—political correctness, identity politics, environmental orthodoxy, the diversity cult and so on.
This was the circumstance in which innocence of America’s bigotries and dissociation from the American past became a currency of hardcore political power. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, good liberals both, pursued power by offering their candidacies as opportunities for Americans to document their innocence of the nation’s past. “I had to vote for Obama,” a rock-ribbed Republican said to me. “I couldn’t tell my grandson that I didn’t vote for the first black president.”
For this man liberalism was a moral vaccine that immunized him against stigmatization.
White guilt was not enough to give the presidency to Hillary Clinton, however, whose campaign stigmatized Donald Trump as a racist. Steele thinks that the white guilt movement has recently been "shooting blanks" (as when Elizabeth Warren tried to damage Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing by reading a thirty-year-old letter from Coretta Scott King--Warren was told to sit down--and, let me add, a grateful nation rejoiced). As far as solving public problems, this form of liberalism is increasingly useless:
Today’s liberalism is an anachronism. It has no understanding, really, of what poverty is and how it has to be overcome. It has no grip whatever on what American exceptionalism is and what it means at home and especially abroad. Instead it remains defined by an America of 1965—an America newly opening itself to its sins, an America of genuine goodwill, yet lacking in self-knowledge.
This liberalism came into being not as an ideology but as an identity. It offered Americans moral esteem against the specter of American shame. This made for a liberalism devoted to the idea of American shamefulness. Without an ugly America to loathe, there is no automatic esteem to receive. Thus liberalism’s unrelenting current of anti-Americanism.
A lot of voters last November decided they didn't deserve to be stigmatized by the white guilt movement. The president doesn't seem to take it very seriously either. But the blow was devastating and, if Steele is right, the bizarre behavior we're seeing now is a movement in its death throes. It is not going gently.