by Bruce Thornton
Can a generation marked by privilege and arrogance be reasoned with?
Writing last week about the new affection for socialism on the part of Millellenials, electoral maven Karl Rove warned us not to ignore or dismiss this enthusiasm. Socialism’s long record of failure “doesn’t mean new forms of socialism can’t gain a following.” Rove’s solution is for Republicans to “do the hard work of updating old arguments,” and “hone their arguments” against socialist policies in preparation for the 2020 presidential race.
Welcome to 2500 years of dubious thinking about the power of rational persuasion and coherent argument to talk people out of bad ideas. It didn’t save Socrates from the hemlock, and it’s unlikely to change the minds of the worst-educated, most self-centered, and most pampered cohort in American history.
This stubborn belief in the power of rational thought and knowledge to improve human life lies at the heart of modern political ideologies like Marxism and progressivism. Both assume that the knowledge useful for politically organizing a state or society is “scientific,” comprising principles and techniques that are beyond ideology and universally true. Hence the need for enlightened technocratic elites to control social institutions and use power in order to rationally arrange human existence more justly and efficiently.
The flaw in this thinking was first identified by contemporaries of Plato, whose Republic imagined a utopia of elite Guardians educated to exercise totalitarian control over society. And the earliest critics of Plato’s flawed assumptions about human nature were likewise Greek writers such as Thucydides and Sophocles. Both argued that a human nature universally subject to irrational passions, free will, and a tragic world would always to some degree triumph over the rational mind.
Yet despite the subsequent millennia in which history has demonstrated that the road to utopia is lined with mountains of corpses, the dream of creating heaven on earth by applying rational techniques of control and improvement over human beings has not lost its allure. In modern times, the decline of faith and the belief in a transcendent reality has made us even more vulnerable to political religions, those delusional visions of human power and will alone able to eliminate the tragic limits of earthly life, such as inequality, suffering, injustice, and violence.
The Founders knew this history of political speculation going back to ancient Athens, and they agreed with Machiavelli that “it is necessary for whoever arranges to found a Republic and establish laws in it, to presuppose that all men are bad and that they will use their malignity of mind every time they have the opportunity.” This fundamental assumption also underlies the Constitution’s architecture, most famously laid out by James Madison in Federalist 10.
To protect political freedom, Madison writes, the state must be organized to protect against “faction,” groups of citizens united and motivated “by some common impulse or passion, or interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interest of the community as a whole.” Freedom nourishes faction and gives it scope, especially freedom of speech, which allows opinions to be publicized and conflict with those of others. Finally, faction is not a result of bad education or poverty, it is “sown in the nature of man,” which creates a “connection between his reason and his self-love,” and makes “his opinions and passions” a “reciprocal influence on each other.” To protect the freedom of all from this dynamic, the Founders checked and balanced and divided power so no one faction could dominate the rest and create tyranny.
Notice that although Madison does mention “interest,” property and wealth, he says nothing about rational scientific truths or rational arguments as causes of factions or means for restraining them. We don’t as a people gather into parties over facts, scientific theories and mathematical formulas, rather than over factional purposes to which some, like global warming, can be put. Mainly that’s because the most important political disagreements concern questions that science or reason or facts alone can’t answer: What are human beings? What do we owe to others? Why do we do what we do? What is the best way of life? What is the highest good for a political community? And who should participate in governing?
Most of us, then, are not going to be talked out of our political passions, any more than we will abandon our economic interests. Yet every election we hear over and over about the “partisan divide” that keeps us from rational discussions and solutions about important issues. Half an hour on any raucous internet, cable, or network news show will demonstrate that what we decry as “partisanship,” “polarization,” and even “hatred” are politics just as Madison understood it, and whose threat to freedom he guarded against by making “ambition counter ambition.”
There are, however, differences between our world and the centuries before World War II that have exacerbated these factional passions. Our high level of material existence, safety, and comfort is on an unprecedented scale. One consequence has been the elevation of expectations for our existence far beyond what’s possible for flawed, passionate creatures like us. And these expectations never seem to be gratified, but only to escalate.
Millennials are a different breed. They have lived in this brave new world of affluence from childhood, and so have a much higher baseline standard of material comfort, and greater expectations for achieving their political ideals like universal free health care, guaranteed jobs, free college tuition, social harmony, and equality of outcomes rather than of opportunity. But they are continually disappointed and aggrieved because despite the serial failure of a century of socialist economies and social policies, our country hasn’t been eager to repeat those failures. This is the same childish mentality that has fueled the rise of political correctness, hate speech codes, whimpering “snowflakes,” and all the illiberal and oppressive policies that have followed.
Finally, having spent 40 years in the university watching the degradation of scholarly disciplines, I’d like Rove to show me where he will find the millennial socialists educated enough in traditional subjects like history, philosophy, or critical thinking to be open to rational persuasion. A generation marked both by an elevated, unearned sense of self-regard, and an arrogant certainty about their own intellectual and moral superiority is more likely to scream and threaten rather than listen thoughtfully.
Not all Millennials, of course, deserve this portrait. Millions reject the nostrums of fashionable leftism and trendy socialism. They have experienced a world more challenging than their parents’ basements or a college dorm room. They go to church, serve in the military, protect our streets, and raise their children to be virtuous. But because they are busy at these adult activities, they don’t have the impact on our culture and politics that subsidized activists and “social justice” warriors do. That’s why the establishment media ignores them.
Will socialism, as Rove fears, start to attract more and more voters as the Boomers die off and the Democrat coalition of tribes expands? I don’t think so, and not because of Trump’s success in starting to reverse Obama’s “fundamental transformation” of America, of which the current socialist enthusiasm is the logical culmination. Nor will socialism be rejected because Republicans fanned out across the country to meetings and town halls and made converts with refurbished messaging.
Rather, our socialist poseurs are heading inexorably toward a looming economic disaster: the unfunded liabilities, mountains of government debt, and unsustainable entitlement spending, for which the reckoning is relentlessly growing closer. And who’s on the hook for that bill? Not most of us Boomers. The Millennials are going to be left holding the bag, and some hard lessons about an unforgiving reality and the eternal laws of compound interest will have to be learned.
But crises are unpredictable and irrational, and as Thucydides said, bring men’s characters down to the level of their circumstances. That process of righting our fiscal ship is likely to be dangerous and rife with social disorder that will make our petty quarrels over tweets and porn stars seem quaint. Voters may even become sufficiently frightened for their economic future, and desperate enough to turn to socialism for solutions that don’t require anything from them beyond more of other people’s money.
There’s no predicting how things will turn out in such circumstances, or how Millennials will respond. But one thing right now we know for sure: socialism will fail. It always has, and it always will.
Photo by Paul Stein
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, a Research Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution, and a Professor of Classics and Humanities at the California State University. He is the author of nine books and numerous essays on classical culture and its influence on Western Civilization. His most recent book, Democracy's Dangers and Discontents (Hoover Institution Press), is now available for purchase.
Follow Middle East and Terrorism on Twitter