C. P. Snow titled his last book, written shortly before he died, A Coat of Varnish. What he meant, as he put it, was that “Civilization is hideously fragile.” Civilization, that is to say, is like a thin coat of varnish spread on top of human savagery. The varnish looks terrific, but scratch it and what you find underneath is much uglier.
I began this series on populism, written 40 years further away from World War II and the Holocaust than Snow’s book, with a remark to similar effect: that civilization is like a really good suit of clothes that is, unfortunately, just a bit too small for us. In other words, the part of humankind that is civilized is certainly a genuine part of who we are, but unfortunately it’s not the whole story.
In addition to being civilized, we are also brutal and miserly and dishonest and annoying and iniquitous. A government that imagines we are only uncivilized will be a totalitarian government, determined to restrain the savages it believes itself to be governing. The Soviet Union, for example, believed that the New Man could only be knocked together by force.
A government that imagines we are only civilized – i.e., that it is governing angels – will believe that it can easily perfect humankind. The socialist republics that dominated Europe between the wars were driven by a Rousseauian belief in the straightforward perfectibility of man: merely articulating what the New Man should look like would be sufficient to make him happen. They thereupon set out to reform every part of public and private life that wasn’t yet perfect (in their checkered view), and to do it virtually overnight.
Both experiments failed utterly. The people-are-savages experiment in the USSR lasted a mere seven decades – infanthood by the standards of nation-states. But – and this is the crux of the matter – the people-are-angels experiments failed far more quickly. And not only did they fail, but they gave rise to fascist tyrannies that didn’t just stop the progress of reform, but set it back many decades.
The lesson of these failures seems clear: people want reform, they welcome improvements that make their societies more fair, effective and inclusive. But they won’t tolerate reform that is so rapid it threatens practices that have governed their lives for centuries and, indeed, that have made those lives possible. Reform needs to happen, but it needs to happen at a pace that people can assimilate.
So let’s jump ahead to what went wrong in America over the past three or four decades. During that period essentially all the benefits of being an American went to the top 20% of the society. In effect, America, like the between-the-wars European republics, no longer worked for most of its citizens.
Not only did this elite 20% prosper mightily – economically and culturally, amassing astonishing power and influence – but it became addicted to what sociologists call “virtue signaling.” Virtue signalers are people who genuinely believe that they are morally superior to the rest of us – more ethically enlightened, more environmentally sensitive, more thoroughly inclusive.
As if that weren’t bad enough, virtue signalers missed no opportunity to display their superiority. Those spectacles were designed to hammer home how defective the rest of us are: we are moral reprobates, environmental deadbeats, bigots, racists, chauvinists, homophobes.
If you combine the economic inequality that has grown ever worse in America with the virtue signaling that has infected its elites, what you get is the modern equivalent of “Let them eat cake.”
At first, economic inequality and virtue signaling led to the cultural populism that, as I mentioned earlier, always characterizes the early phases of populism. That is, vast stretches of the American public simply disconnected from their elites. It was clear that the latter had long ceased to care about the fortunes of the former and, indeed, rather despised them.
But what transformed cultural populism into political populism was the attempt to legislate virtue signaling into the law of the land. Like the between-the-wars European republics, America in the Obama years introduced progressive reforms essentially across-the-board and overnight. These ranged from the sublime (grappling with global climate change and healthcare reform) to the ridiculous (gender-neutral restrooms imposed on the American public by executive fiat).
In Europe the attempt to legislate moral reforms too quickly blew up the republics that tried it. Instead of the New Man, Europe got Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Salazar. In America the attempt was far more modest, but it still blew up the traditional political parties. Instead of the progressive New Person, we got Trump. Failing to progress at all risks revolution, but pursuing reform too quickly is, in a way, even more dangerous. No matter how good the cause or the intentions, it’s difficult to create the New Man without the Old Man punching you in the nose.
I’m not suggesting that human societies can’t or shouldn’t evolve or improve, but the history of democratic republics collapsing in the face of populist resistance to aggressive reform seems to me to be, if not conclusive, then at least powerfully suggestive. You just can’t force reforms on people as quickly or as thoroughly as progressive elites think it needs to happen. Not only do such reforms come to a screeching halt, but they are quickly undone by the newly installed populist leaders.
America’s elites continue to believe that Trump is the problem – get him out of office and all will be well. But the problem lies with the elites themselves. If economic progress had been more evenly distributed, and if the elite view of non-elites had been something other than contempt, cultural populism would never have happened. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the progressive reforms imposed during the Obama years might largely have been accepted.
But the effort by a wildly-successful elite to impose progressive reforms on a left-behind public was bound to come to grief. America isn’t a Weimar slowly breeding a Hitler, but we forget that “civilization is hideously fragile” at our peril. If we can’t remember the past, we will indeed continue to repeat it.
Next up: What Will You Do in the Crisis?
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