Navigate to News section

How American Progressives Became French Jacobins

The iconoclastic gestures of the woke left bear an alarming resemblance to the excesses of the French Revolution

by
Michael Lind
December 15, 2021
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Alamy
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Alamy
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Alamy
Tablet Magazine; original photo: Alamy

I spent the first third of my career among conservatives and the next two-thirds among progressives. At first, I thought both parties were equally cynical and instrumental when it came to theories of constitutional authority. The party that controls Congress only seeks to minimize presidential authority, and vice versa.

I no longer think that views of the Constitution are a matter of pure opportunism on both sides. The progressives of my acquaintance—mostly intellectuals and activists, not ordinary Democratic voters—favor the federal government by default and tend to view the states and counties and cities as relics of the past and obstacles to sound national policy. When a public policy strikes them as good, their first impulse is to think that it should be mandated for the whole country by Congress (or the president or the federal courts). The notion that something might be a good policy, and yet should not be imposed nationwide, but adopted or not by states or localities as they see fit, is a strange idea to many progressives for whom a federal law or mandate is always the first resort.

Likewise, many progressive intellectuals and activists of my acquaintance would make every judicial case a federal case, if they could. In their view, the federal government can be evil—albeit only when controlled by Republicans. But few if any progressives I know would argue that, if left-of-center Democrats controlled the federal, state, and local governments, there should in principle be limits on the power of the progressive Democratic Congress or White House to overrule the equally progressive and equally Democratic state legislatures and city councils.

In addition to denouncing nationalism while practicing extreme national statism, progressives talk a good game about minority rights while promoting centralized government by the bare numerical majority. Witness their complaints that federalism and the Electoral College prevent a 51% bare majority of the vote from translating automatically into 100% of power in government.

Here again, we see the implicit preference for a unitary state. In any federal system in which state or provincial boundaries cannot be redrawn by a majority in the national legislature, including Canada and Australia, there will be unequal geographic representation over time, thanks to the uneven distribution of populations. The disproportion among populations in the U.S. is extreme but could be lessened by adding more states or subdividing existing ones voluntarily, which the U.S. Constitution permits with congressional approval. And even in a unitary state, like the U.K. and New Zealand, a first-past-the-post system of single-member districts means that sometimes a party that most voters oppose can win a majority of legislative seats, as has frequently happened in Britain. American progressives who claim that the U.S. is somehow uniquely undemocratic or even racist because there is not a perfect match between votes cast and seats held show their ignorance of the structure of many other democracies.

In the U.S., the long abuse of states’ rights by Southern segregationists no doubt contributes to the centralizing though undeclared national statism of most liberals and leftists. But in many countries with nothing like America’s former solid South there are traditions of centralism on the left, motivated simply by the idea that local governments and intermediate institutions must not be allowed to thwart the popular will and its agent, the national bare majority. At this point I think the specter of the return of segregation is just an excuse that hides what most progressives really want: a unitary, consolidated, centralized nation-state in which the states have been reduced to provinces of the capital and the cities to prefectures. One of the ironies of our time is that liberals and leftists, who denounce the very idea of “American nationalism” as a code word for fascism or white supremacy, are, in fact, extreme American nationalists. The more power the federal government has to do good, the better, even if that means less autonomous power for states and local governments.

While 20th-century American presidents greatly expanded the acceptable domestic role of the presidency, Congress and the courts slapped them down when they went too far—for example, when the Supreme Court held that President Truman’s nationalization of private steel mills during the Korean War was unconstitutional. In the 21st century, however, two Democratic presidents have made shocking claims for the ability of the executive to make detailed federal laws without the participation of Congress and against the opposition of state governments.

In 2012, President Obama essentially rewrote U.S. immigration law to create elaborate new rights and privileges for the children of illegal immigrants by issuing an executive order concerning Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Then in 2014, Obama attempted an even more ambitious rewrite of statutory immigration law, using the pretense of merely using “prosecutorial discretion” in enforcing it, with Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). Obama’s Bonapartist power grab followed the failure of Democrats in Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which contained similar provisions.

That President Obama did not possess the power to do what he sought to do by executive order was the view of … President Obama a short time earlier. For years Obama rejected progressive entreaties that he simply impose the provisions of the failed DREAM Act by executive order. On March 28, 2011, Obama told a Univision Town Hall that he lacked authority to do so: “There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply through executive order ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as President.” Shortly before he issued the executive order for DAPA, Obama told Noticias Telemundo on Sept. 17, 2013: “But if we start broadening that, then essentially, I would be ignoring the law in a way that I think would be very difficult to defend legally. So that’s not an option.”

Obama then did what he said he lacked the power as president to do. The Washington Post—usually gentle with Obama—gave him an “upside-down Pinocchio” for his flip-flops: “Previously he said that was not possible, using evocative language that he is not a “king” or “the emperor.” Apparently he’s changed his mind.”

President Joe Biden, Obama’s former vice president, has been pressured by the left into similar Bonapartist or Caesarist views of presidential authority. Biden invoked an obscure provision in laws governing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as the basis of an executive order that requires employees of large firms in the U.S.—who, with federal workers and contractors under similar executive orders, make up two-thirds of the American workforce—to be vaccinated against COVID-19, regularly tested, or fired by January 4.“ Our patience is wearing thin,” he threatened unvaccinated citizens while announcing his sweeping, unilateral executive vaccine mandate on the private sector. A federal district court in Louisiana has put the latest Bonapartist presidential decree on hold nationwide for the time being, even as large corporations, health care companies, and other institutional employers that have dealings with the federal government have felt compelled to execute Biden’s order, by firing workers who do not comply.

In the early 20th century, Progressive reformers—based, like today’s progressives, in the white, Northeastern upper middle class—hoped to insulate government from ignorant voters and corrupt machine politicians and lobbies by creating a powerful national civil service like those of continental Europe. Congress, however, repeatedly killed proposals for executive branch reorganization that would have created an American mandarinate of Ivy League graduates comparable to the powerful enarques of France (graduates of prestigious schools of public administration).

The technocratic progressive dream of the 1900s is alive in the 2000s. The technocratic—dare we say French?—turn in American progressive thought is evident by looking at the heroes of many American progressives. The icons of today’s center left—literal icons, with their own posters, statuettes, and votive candles—are not politicians like FDR and LBJ but wise bureaucratic or judicial technocrats who were uncorrupted by the need to win elections: Dr. Anthony Fauci and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Of course, denunciations of the American left as “Jacobin” in tendency are nothing new. Back in the 1960s, John P. Roche, a Johnson administration official, derided radical leftists as “a bunch of Upper West Side Jacobins.” His interviewer, the journalist Jimmy Breslin, transcribed this as “a bunch of Upper West Side jackal bins,” as the neoconservative author and editor Norman Podhoretz has long delighted in pointing out. Yet until recently, claims that the American left resembles the Jacobin faction in the French Revolution were as absurd as comparisons of New Deal liberals and democratic socialists to Bolsheviks. Even today, most on the left do not relish the thought of beheading or otherwise executing their political enemies in cold blood, along with their spouses and children, with the possible exception of Bhaskar Sunkara, former vice-chair of Democratic Socialists of America and founding editor of the appropriately named Jacobin magazine, who wrote in a now-deleted tweet on Oct. 2, 2020: “The question isn’t what we think justice demands. I think killing little Romanov children was justified. But it’s not surprising why these views are controversial given most people’s ethical and moral frameworks.”

Let us grant that most progressives are not as depraved as Bhaskar “Kill the Kids” Sunkara. What makes contemporary American progressivism resemble Jacobinism is not the brutality of its methods, but its increasing resemblance to traditional French republican political culture—and the increasing alienation of American progressives from American political traditions, including those of liberals, labor activists, populists, Jewish religious leaders, and Christian reformers of all races..

The 18th-century political concepts invoked by both the American revolutionaries of 1776 and the French revolutionaries of 1789 were the same: popular sovereignty, which includes the collective right of a sovereign people to depose its government and install a new one, and universal human rights. But for more than two centuries the French version of republicanism, including relatively conservative versions of it, has been characterized by themes that are literally foreign to American democratic republicanism.

Centralization.

With its roots in the royal absolutism of the Ancien Regime, reinforced by revolutionary and Napoleonic consolidation, the degree of centralization in government that is considered legitimate in France has tended to be viewed as excessive if not tyrannical by liberals and conservatives alike in the English-speaking nations. Not anymore.

Executive authority.

Under the present constitution of the Gaullist Fifth Republic, the president of France has authority that could only be dreamed of by a power-mad U.S. president. Under Obama and Biden, that difference has been diminishing.

Deference to experts.

In Britain and its cultural offshoots, including the populist U.S., professors and bureaucrats tend to be figures of fun. Anglo-American lack of deference to the titled and credentialed has been a source of frustration to American progressive intellectuals and civil servants, who have longed for the respect and authority granted their grave and dignified German and French counterparts. In the case of COVID-19 and climate change, many progressives have gone beyond arguing that elected politicians should be informed by scientific advice when weighing the costs and benefits of public policies to supporting the delegation of public policymaking in these and other areas to unelected experts: “Follow the science.”

Anticlericalism.

American advocates of separation of church and state have seldom shared the uncompromising hostility of the French left to any public expression of religious identity or accommodation of religious believers by government. In fact, the history of the American left is inconceivable without the participation of the devoutly religious—whether evangelical Populists, Catholic trade unionists, Social Gospel reformers, Jewish clergy in the civil rights era, or Black preachers like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

The exception to the rule has been a paranoid hostility to Catholicism that has warped American politics for centuries. Fear that the pope and his Jesuits and Catholic American voters will subvert American democracy explains the numerous state constitutions with “Blaine amendments” prohibiting the use of state funding for religious schools. (Every other English-speaking democracy—the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—provides public funding for religious as well as secular schools, with no harmful effects.)

For most of American history, the alternative to Catholicism was not French-style radical anticlericalism, but a kind of generic Protestantism in the public realm. In the last generation, however, the formerly dominant mainline Protestant churches have rapidly lost membership, while the number of nonaffiliated, more or less secular “Nones” in the U.S. has risen rapidly. The Nones—overwhelmingly progressive and Democratic—have transformed the traditional hostility of their mainline Protestant ancestors to the Catholic church into something like rigid French anticlericalism.

A major line was crossed in December 2019, when a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Texas Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke—now a candidate for governor of Texas—declared that if he were elected president he would push for revocation of tax-exempt status for any religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage on theological grounds: “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. And so as president, we’re going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”

With O’Rourke’s proposal, we have a Gallic twofer: official anticlericalism and Bonapartism combined. First, the Internal Revenue Service will systematically inflict financial damage on the Catholic church, many Protestant denominations, Conservative and Orthodox Jews, and mainstream Muslim congregations which teach that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman. Second, this anticlerical revolution from above to reward “good theology” and punish “bad theology” will be led somehow by Bonapartist presidents like the would-be President O’Rourke, perhaps on the basis of constitutionally dubious executive orders like those of Obama and Biden.

Radical Iconoclasm.

The radical left in the French Revolution, although it was not collectivist in economics, foreshadowed 20th-century totalitarianism by attempting to abolish most national traditions and substitute new, ideologically useful replacements. Maximilian Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins when they were in power, tried to replace both Christianity and the Cult of Reason with a fabricated, state-sponsored version of deism called the Cult of the Supreme Being. In 1793 the Jacobin-controlled National Convention adopted a revolutionary calendar, which renamed all of the months and dated the modern epoch, the Republican Era, only back to 1792 with the abolition of the French monarchy.

While many have argued that the Great Awokening that has swept the American corporate-bureaucratic-nonprofit-media-academic oligarchy, though not the population as a whole, is driven by a kind of sublimated Protestantism, the iconoclastic gestures of the woke left—toppling statues, vandalizing churches and public buildings, censoring books and movies, “canceling” people (who are allowed to keep their heads)—more directly evoke the excesses of the French Revolution. The attempt of The New York Times to push, through the culture and the public schools, the idea that “1619,” the date of the arrival of the first Black slaves in British North American colonies, is the true “founding” of the United States of America, is an example of elite-sponsored ideological iconoclasm and brainwashing comparable to the French revolutionary calendar. Robespierre might have admired the pseudo-religious ritual in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer “took a knee” to protest the history of American white supremacy while wearing kente cloth, which along with the daishiki is part of the kitsch culture of the old Black Power movement that fell out of fashion in the 1970s.

Analogies can be pushed too far, and my thesis about the Jacobinization of American progressivism has its limits. For one thing, the contemporary American center left is too crazy for France. With few exceptions, French intellectuals and politicians of left, right, and center have rejected American progressive ideological fads like grammar-wrecking, gender-neutral language, gender fluidity, and racial essentialism.

So my thesis should be qualified. It might be said that American progressives are becoming more like those in the French Jacobin tradition, except that would be an insult to the French.

Michael Lind is a columnist at Tablet and a fellow at New America. His most recent book is The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite.

Support Our Journalism Today

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them.

Help us do what we do.