What happens in politics when one major party, or a major faction in both parties, commits itself to doomed utopian projects of social and economic engineering and seeks to capture and use government to impose its vision from above? In such cases ordinary political consensus and compromise become irrelevant. What is needed, in such cases, is the broadest possible coalition to defeat the mad and impossible schemes of these utopians.
Twice in the last half century utopian politics has emerged in the U.S.—once with the Republican Party as its vehicle, and now with the Democratic Party as its base. Old-fashioned conservative “fusionism”—a synthesis of anti-communism, moderate free market economics, and the genteel traditionalism represented by Russell Kirk—was replaced in the wake of the Cold War by what might be called Fusionism 2.0 and its allies on the hawkish left. This post-Cold War coalition, which culminated in the disastrous presidency of George W. Bush, was a radical movement, not “conservative” in any sense. It was based on the simultaneous promotion of three utopian projects: spreading “the global democratic revolution” through “wars of choice” and “humanitarian interventions” in the Middle East and elsewhere; radical libertarianism in trade and immigration policy, combined with the repeal of the New Deal through the privatization of Social Security and Medicare; and the imposition of “family values” as defined by the evangelical Protestant minority that formed the base for the Christian Coalition and the Moral Majority.
To say that these were utopian projects does not imply that they did not address genuine problems. For example, following 9/11, Washington had to respond to the transnational terrorist threat. But the U.S. did not have to topple Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, nor remain in Afghanistan for two decades after al-Qaida’s local base was disrupted. Preventing terrorist attacks on the U.S. did not require President George W. Bush to declare in his second inaugural address that all nondemocratic regimes everywhere must be subverted and overthrown and that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” This was utopianism at its most deranged and dangerous.
All three of these revolutions from above by the Bush Republicans—the global democratic revolution, the libertarian economic revolution, and the attempt to universalize evangelical Protestant morality—were, and remain, deeply unpopular with the American public. Already by 2008 the public had grown weary of the forever wars. Obama and Trump both ran on promises of a more restrained foreign policy (Trump delivered, but Obama added two Middle Eastern disasters, in Libya and Syria, to those in Iraq and Afghanistan). George W. Bush’s proposal for partial privatization of Social Security was so unpopular among voters that Republicans refused even to debate it when they controlled the House and Senate. As for the religious right, the American public has always been divided on abortion, a fact reflected in state-level differences now that the Supreme Court has overruled Roe v. Wade. The anti-gay rights crusade of the religious right, meanwhile, backfired. By 2021, 55% of Republicans supported gay marriage. The maladroit Moral Majority is now the Moral Minority.
It is in the nature of radical utopian projects in politics that they lead to rule or ruin. In the case of Bush-era Fusionist Conservatism 2.0, all roads led to ruin. Hubris produced a nemesis in the form of Donald Trump, the anti-Bush who won the Republican nomination by denouncing the Iraq War, promising not to cut Social Security or Medicare, and embracing gay rights (though not transgender ideology) and appointing openly gay Republicans to high-ranking positions. Far from being the beginning of a white nationalist takeover, as Democratic partisans absurdly claim, the Trump presidency was the Thermidorian Reaction to the radical Bush revolution.
What happens in politics when one major party, or a major faction in both parties, commits itself to doomed utopian projects of social and economic engineering and seeks to capture and use government to impose its vision from above?
Today, the threat of utopian politics comes from the radicalized center-left, not from the radicalized center-right. The term “progressivism” was revived in the 1980s and 1990s by Clintonite “Third Way” Democrats to distinguish their business-and-bank-friendly version of the center-left from the older New Deal farmer-labor version. But by the 2020s, “progressivism” came to mean something quite different—a commitment to utopian social engineering projects even more radical than those envisioned by the crackpot Bush-era neocons, libertarians, and religious right.
Three social engineering projects define progressivism in the 2020s: the Green Project, the Quota Project, and the Androgyny Project.
The Green Project is not limited to mitigating global warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions by industry and energy production. By itself, decarbonization is a technical project that can be carried out by methods like building nuclear power plants and replacing coal with natural gas in electrical generation.
The Green Project or Green New Deal is not satisfied with decarbonizing energy sources. It invokes climate change as an excuse to radically restructure the society of the U.S. and other advanced industrial democracies, from the way that food is grown to where people live to how people behave. Under the banner of the Green New Deal or the Green Transition, various lesser ideological projects on the left—veganism, replacing cars and trucks with mass transit, urban densification, anti-natalism—have rallied, even though none of these is necessary for decarbonizing the energy supply.
The Quota Project, embodied in the rote bureaucratic phrase “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI), is another utopian project. Its goal is the radical restructuring of the U.S. and other Western societies on the basis of racial quotas, so that all racial and ethnic groups are represented in equal proportions in all occupations, classes, academic curriculums, and even literary and artistic canons. DEI is affirmative action on LSD.
For the Quota Project, anti-racism is the public justification. But quota-based tokenism is not a solution for specific cases of discrimination against individuals—which can and should be dealt with by race-neutral, anti-discrimination laws. Nor does the Quota Project have any real solutions to offer in the case of class or cultural differences which—even in the absence of racism, conscious or “structural”—would result in some groups doing better than others in various occupations. Like the Green Transition, the Quota Project is a radical utopian program of social reconstruction in search of an excuse that might justify it.
The third of the three utopian projects that define contemporary trans-Atlantic progressivism is the Androgyny Project. This goes far beyond civil rights and humane treatment for victims of gender dysphoria and has nothing to do with the hard-won rights of gay men and lesbians. The Androgyny Project holds that gender identity is independent of biological sex and purely subjective. If a middle-aged man claims that he is a woman, then progressives favor requiring local government to retroactively falsify his birth certificate to show that he was “really” born female and “misassigned at birth.”
Far more comprehensive than “trans rights,” which affect fewer than 1% of the population, the Androgyny Project seeks to redefine all male and female human beings as generic, androgynous humanoids whose sex is a matter of subjective self-definition rather than objective reality.
The bizarre theory that sex is entirely a social construction has led much of the trans-Atlantic establishment to attempt to impose speech codes on society. Instead of “mothers,” the androgynists insist that we say “birthing people.” A “woman” becomes a “person with a cervix.” It is easy to get confused by the weird jargon. During the 2020 presidential primaries, Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro declared that every “trans female”—that is, a biological male incapable of pregnancy and childbirth—should have access to abortion, when he meant to say every “trans male” (that is, female).
Like all utopian social engineering projects, the Green Project, the Quota Project, and the Androgyny Project are at odds with reality and are doomed to fail. The Green Project is doomed by physics and engineering. Today 80% of the world’s energy comes from fossil fuels.
Without reliance on nuclear fission or, perhaps, in the future, nuclear fusion, the transition from fossil fuels may never take place at the global level, though it might happen in a few small countries. Politicians can make all the commitments they like, but most energy is likely to come from fossil fuels in 2050, 2100, and perhaps beyond. Instead of resembling the energy transitions of the past—from wood to coal and from coal to oil, gas, and nuclear—the present-day green movement is best viewed as a puritanical moral crusade like Prohibition, with Demon Oil and Demon Gas substituted for Demon Rum and Demon Whiskey.
The Quota Project is doomed by its own internal contradictions. Rigid systems of racial quotas cannot work in societies like those of the U.S. and Western Europe in which immigration is constantly changing the relative proportions of different races and ethnic groups in a national population, while rising rates of interracial marriage are blurring the boundaries among racial categories.
In the name of DEI, public, private, and nonprofit institutions now regularly engage in illegal but tolerated racial discrimination to artificially increase the representation of Black Americans and Hispanics at the expense of so-called “non-Hispanic whites” and so-called “Asian and Pacific Islanders” (the Census terms for “race” themselves are incoherent and absurd).
If the goal is that every occupation, every club, every reading list, and every sports team in the U.S. have exact proportions of each “race” defined by the census, then every 10 years following the latest census the racial composition of corporate boards, university faculties, sports teams, and artists displayed by museums must be readjusted, with some groups losing their shares and others increasing their shares. Suppose that a wave of immigration from Asia shrinks the relative share of Hispanics and Black Americans in the U.S. population. Does that mean that jobs, grants, and congressional districts should be taken away from Black Americans and Hispanic Americans and given to Asian Americans, to prevent Black American and Hispanic “overrepresentation”? Far better are the alternatives of race-neutral, anti-discrimination laws, protecting individuals of all races, and race-neutral reforms that help economically disadvantaged individuals of all races.
The Androgyny Project, for its part, is bound to crash against reality in the form of human biology. I predict that in a generation the “progressive” policy of so-called “gender-affirming health care” will be viewed in hindsight the way the prescription of lobotomies and chemical castration as cures for homosexuality in the 1950s is viewed today.
It might be objected that reactionary conservatives have long denounced many quite reasonable reforms as “utopian.” That is true. And they have often been wrong to do so. But that does not alter my point.
New Deal energy policy, which sought to protect consumers from price-gouging private electric utility monopolies, was not crazy in the way that the project of replacing all fossil fuels with solar, wind, hydropower, and ethanol is crazy. The movements for equal civil rights for women and for gay men and lesbians did not require the redefinition of “women” and “men.” The conservatives who warned that desegregation was a mad utopian project that was doomed to fail were wrong. The conservatives today—and sane centrists, and liberals, and leftists—who warn that pressuring or forcing everyone into agreeing that some men can give birth is a mad utopian project that is doomed to fail are correct.
An obvious question arises: If these utopian projects are so inherently at odds with reality, then how can widespread elite support for them in any given era be explained?
The answer, in the case of today’s progressivism as well as various ideological manias of the past, is a combination of cowardice, careerism, and cash.
Cowardice: Nobody on today’s center-left wants to be ostracized for pointing out that solar and renewable energy cannot power an industrial civilization with 7 or 8 billion people. In the same way, no Soviet scientist in Stalin’s USSR wanted to be the first—or even the second or third—to point out that Comrade Lysenko’s theories about the inheritance of acquired characteristics were wrong.
Careerism: DEI provides lots of lucrative jobs, fellowships, HR positions, deanships, professorships, foundation grants, and corporate gifts. Similarly, the open-ended global war on terror/global democratic revolution paid for a lot of mansions, cars, vacations, 401K contributions, and expensive private school tuitions for various government and nonprofit apparatchiks in the Washington, D.C., suburbs and elsewhere.
Cash: Prophets are followed by profiteers. When the prophets of “antiracism” demand reparations for African Americans, what they really mean, explain the profiteers, are government subsidies for historically African American universities, businesses, and nonprofits—that is, indirect subsidies for African American professional and managerial elites, not the African American working-class majority. When Green zealots declare that climate change is an emergency that requires warlike mobilization, what they really mean, the profiteers tell us, is that the tax code should subsidize private investors in solar and wind plants that are set up to take advantage of those subsidies as well as guaranteed purchases by electric utilities. When radical androgynists insist that gender is fluid, they create new business opportunities for great numbers of self-appointed gender experts, online influencers, diversity consultants, and the pharma companies and surgeons in the medical-industrial complex who profit from private and public insurance payments for “gender-affirming health care.” Apocalypse in the streets, lobbying in the sheets.
All three of these progressive utopian projects—the Green Project, the Quota Project, and the Androgyny Project—will ultimately fail. Of that we can be certain. But we don’t have to wait for them to collapse of their own contradictions and from collisions with recalcitrant reality. Before they can do further damage, we need to stop them in their tracks.
We are constantly lectured about the dangers of “vetocracy” and “paralysis”—often by people who regret the fact that elections and checks and balances slow down or block the particular proposals they favor. But when proposals are destructive or at odds with empirical reality, like the war on fossil fuels, radical race and gender tokenism, and radical androgynism, then they ought to be slowed down or blocked altogether. Although Barack Obama did not act on his own maxim, “Don’t do stupid shit,” is an achievement in itself. A bad status quo is better than a reform that makes things worse.
The Trump presidency was the Thermidorian Reaction to the radical Bush revolution.
In international relations theory, it is a truism that “revisionist” coalitions (like the Axis alliance in World War II) which seek to overturn the existing world order need to be limited in membership in order to be effective, while status quo coalitions that seek to thwart the revisionists should be as large as possible, like the United Nations alliance against the Axis which, by 1945, included most of the former fence-sitting republics of Latin America. The same applies to domestic politics as well. It took a broad-based coalition of liberals, social democrats, and populist conservatives to thwart the utopians of the Bush era center-right, and it will take an equally broad and varied coalition to block the insane social engineering projects of the Biden era center-left.
As the progressive juggernaut crashes through the institutional landscape of American society, it is creating ever-growing numbers of angry or frightened refugees—not merely conservative and libertarians and populists, but also former progressives who simply will not pretend that men can get pregnant, along with pro-industry socialists who reject the pastoralism of the wind-and-solar Green fanatics.
The immediate necessity in American politics is to reject partisan and ideological purity tests in order to form the largest possible anti-progressive front—one that will include militant Enlightenment atheists and Orthodox Jews and Ayn Rand libertarians and Trad Caths, pre-2010 neoliberals and old-fashioned labor liberals and reactionary paleoconservatives, small businesses and big businesses threatened by harmful Green New Deal energy policies, left-liberal professors who do not want to sign diversity statements and nuns in Catholic hospitals who refuse to pretend that men are women and women are men.
By its nature, a broad anti-progressive front must include Democrats as well as Republicans and independents. Although the Democratic Party has been hijacked and turned into the primary vehicle for progressive zealots, many Democratic politicians and most Democratic voters do not share these views. To date, sensible Democrats have been shamefully silent. Although few have spoken up to reject the crackpot crusade to “defund the police,” no prominent Democrat has dared to criticize unnecessary surgical castrations or hormone therapy and mastectomies for patients who suffer from gender dysphoria.
That will have to change. The struggle to break the power of the new utopian progressivism must be a struggle within the Democratic Party to reclaim the power now held by a small cadres of well-organized and well-financed progressive radicals. Freed from a forced association with Green lunatics, anti-racist lunatics, and androgynist lunatics, tomorrow’s center-left might focus again on sensible real-world projects like raising wages and increasing economic security for all.
Once the progressive juggernaut has been first slowed and then stopped and stripped for parts, former members of the anti-progressive front may well fall out among themselves, as members of victorious defensive coalitions often do. Yes, there is a danger that following the defeat of radical progressivism, the default option might be Clinton-Bush economic neoliberalism. But a restoration of pre-woke, fin de siècle free market neoliberalism would be temporary, because it no longer inspires anyone.
Violent resistance to today’s progressive revolutions from above must be ruled out, needless to say. But the diverse members of the anti-progressive front can and should use every peaceful method, from voting in elections to lawfare (litigation) to peaceful protest and satire, in order to frustrate, delay, damage, cripple, divert, stall, and ultimately topple and dismantle the three lumbering juggernauts of green lunacy, equity lunacy, and gender lunacy.
Move over, antifa. Antiprog is on the way.
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.