My crystal ball rolled off the table and broke, so I’ll have to guess. I didn’t think Donald Trump would win the presidency in 2016, so I don’t have a good track record. But hey, no one’s perfect.
Economist Arnold Kling wrote a book called The Three Languages of Politics, and it’s an intriguing idea. He says there are three basic philosophies in American politics:
- Libertarians value maximum freedom.
- Progressives believe society is made up of oppressed and privileged groups, and they want to level the playing field.
- Conservatives want to preserve traditional social structures to maintain civilization and prevent chaos.
That’s one way of looking at it. It’s not like there’s only one right to conceptualize modern American politics. And looking at different models can help us better understand things.
I’m offering my own different three-pronged viewpoint, not as a refutation of Kling, but as a another angle that may add texture.
A tale of three philosophies
Classical liberalism is the Jeffersonian tradition inspired by English philosopher John Locke. This Enlightenment-era philosophy values individual rights, which are derived from the Creator, not government; democracy; and free markets.
Authoritarianism values order and strong leaders as an antidote to chaos. Historically, a rigid social structure—often enforced with violence—was created to maintain the antebellum South’s slave society (and later, Jim Crow).
With the success of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, right-wing authoritarianism took the form of the John Birch Society’s conspiracy theories, with communism as the boogeyman. Today, the alt-right is carrying the torch with immigrants, feminists, transgender individuals, and the left in general as the perceived threat.
Marxism is an economic theory, and while its left-wing authoritarian manifestation—communism—was never very popular in the United States, other forms of Marxism have been. A century ago, intellectuals in Germany created the Frankfurt School, which applied Marxist thought to social science. The never ending class struggle between privileged business owners (the bourgeoisie) and oppressed workers (the proletariat) was expanded to include other privileged and oppressed social groups.
After World War II, the Frankfurt School’s intellectual epicenter shifted to New York and evolved into critical theory. Intersectionality—the observation that you can belong to multiple oppressed and/or privileged groups—developed from critical theory.
Finally, many of postmodernism’s founders were disaffected Marxists. Postmodernism is critical of any big explanation of why things are the way they are (metanarratives), including Marxism. Postmodernism’s main effect on society is its epistemological relativism—there are no facts, just opinions. But no one really believes this. In practice, epistemological relativism is used to distract people.
Getting down to cases
What does this mean for the American political landscape today? In my view, the classical liberal tradition includes libertarianism (individual liberty, laissez-faire economics) and Ronald Reagan-esque conservatism (nationalism, free markets, constitutional values, and resistance to change). Modern liberalism (today, moderate Democrats) also falls mostly under the classical liberal tradition, except that they’re skeptical of free markets.
Progressivism has more critical theory/intersectional influences, however, and some progressives (such as Bernie Sanders) describe themselves as democratic socialists. This doesn’t mean progressives are Marxists, however—most are not. Most progressives don’t oppose liberalism (in the general sense of the word). Still, some young left-wing radicals show authoritarian tendencies. In other words, progressivism straddles two philosophies. They’ll either develop a synthesis, or one philosophy will push out the other.
Trumpism also inhabits two worlds. Its main influence is conservatism, but right-wing authoritarianism is an influence as well. However, postmodernism and an inverted form of intersectionality also have somewhat impacted Trumpism.
President Trump’s political ideology is nationalistic like conservatism. But he seems sympathetic to right-wing identity politics, which views persecution of evangelical Christians, and immigration’s social and economic impact, as serious problems. And Trump uses relativism as a rhetorical device, promoting “alternative facts” and calling inconvenient facts “fake news.”
Where do we go from here?
The bottom line is there are authoritarian impulses affecting both the far left and the far right. Right-wing authoritarianism is wider spread geographically and has a longer history in the United States. But its adherents are older, and this could weaken right-wing authoritarianism in the long run.
There are fewer left-wing authoritarians, and they are geographically concentrated in coastal cities. But they are wealthier and better educated than most Americans, and so have disproportionate cultural power. They’re also a younger group, so they could grow over time.
I’m guessing Donald Trump will win reelection in 2020. Joe Biden’s failure will turn Democratic voters against the Democratic establishment, much like Republicans decided that they had enough of the Republican establishment after President Barack Obama’s defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012.
By 2024, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren will have retired from presidential runs, but Democrats will nominate a similar figure. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will be too young to run for president, but if Democrats win in 2024 she’ll have a prominent role in the new administration. Either way, she’ll run for president in the 2030s.
More people will realize that the authoritarian/classical liberal divide is more salient the left/right divide. This will be an opportunity for anti-authoritarian conservatives and liberals to form an alliance. But third parties always fail, and this will too.
In the 2030s, Baby Boomers will begin to age out of the political system and Millennials will start to take the reins. GenX is small and politically more similar to Boomers than Millennials. So, GenX will need to shift its orientation to Millennials to remain politically relevant—especially because Generation Z (which needs a proper name) is politically more in line with Millennials than they are with GenX.
I think Trumpism will lose favor in the Republican Party when this generational shift happens, and young conservatives will move the GOP in a more libertarian direction. Meanwhile, Millennial and Generation Z Democrats will move the party more toward democratic socialism, but I don’t know if they’ll be able to rein in left-wing authoritarianism.