Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Last week’s speech by Joe Biden was the epitome of the Democrat Party’s totalitarian instincts. Even the banana-republic staging–– two Marines flanking the president, the lurid blood-red lighting, and a photo of Biden orating with raised fists––evoked the theatrics beloved by dictators. The burden of the speech was the dangerous “semi-fascism” of Donald Trump and his millions of MAGA supporters, which similarly recalled the “enemies of the state” like Jews, “deviationists,” and kulaks that typify autocratic regimes, as do the numerous “big lies” lacing Biden’s rant.
All this has been noted and deservedly criticized by commentators, some of them even on CNN. But the implications that the Dems and Biden have violated some venerable norms of “our democracy” were puzzling. For nearly 60 years the Democrats have been relentlessly moving farther to the Left and adopting its vicious “any means necessary” tactics for acquiring and keeping power. All it needed to reach a wider audience were decades of an educational system corrupted by leftist ideology.
But even before the chaos and degradation of politics in the Sixties got this malignant ball rolling, starting in the late 19th century Marxism had gained a foothold in our culture and politics. Progressivism was the political philosophy that was the vehicle of Marxist assumptions that both ideologies share.
Like Marxism, progressivism favors centralized power, technocratic control, the perfectibility of people, and the pretensions of “science” as the means for undermining the Constitution’s limited, balanced, and divided powers. This constitutional structure is necessitated by a human nature driven by zero-sum “passions and interests” that need power in order to be realized. And both ideologies scorned the Founders’ principles of federalism, unalienable human rights, individual freedom, traditional wisdom, common sense, and civil society.
The Great Depression was the crisis that facilitated FDR’s legislation that realized many of the progressives’ goals, creating a technocratic managerial elite that over the following years expanded its power and scope. Unalienable rights that precede government were challenged by the new “rights” created by government such as FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights.” By the postwar period, these innovations had created the bipartisan political guild who manage the ever-growing federal Leviathan.
The similarities between Marxism’s and progressivism’s foundational philosophies created a potential space for Marxists, particularly cultural Marxists, to flourish in our popular culture and universities. That influence made a quantum leap in the Sixties, when the New Left exploded onto the political scene, employing all the usual tactics of Marxism such as propaganda, violence, and a rhetoric increasingly vicious and preposterous in its blatant lies.
The results were soon noticeable in our politics. Conservative politicians and voters were regularly demonized by media and popular culture with coarse rhetoric and accusations of “racism” and “fascism.” Richard Nixon was the first to receive this treatment, including a dubious Watergate scandal some now claim was partly an FBI operation. Nixon’s constituency, the “Silent Majority” and “Moral Majority” of traditional Americans, came in for the same abuse, dismissed as racist and misogynists, repressed religious bigots itching to burn at the stake feminists, minorities, communists, and homosexuals.
In the following years this pattern repeated itself with Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. The increasingly left-leaning Dems and their media PR firms dismissed Reagan as an “amiable dunce” who carried water for corporate hegemons, and whose bellicose “evil empire” rhetoric and “Star-Wars” fantasy weapons would trigger an arms race and ignite nuclear war with the Soviets.
As for George W. Bush, he had, with the help of the Supreme Court, “stolen the election” from Al Gore. He was “selected,” the Left cried, “not elected.” Dems smeared him as “Bushitler,” a draft-dodging, imbecilic chicken-hawk whose disdain for diplomacy, and inveterate Islamophobia triggered neo-imperialist “endless wars” in the Middle East in order to enrich corporations like Haliburton and appropriate the region’s oil.
The presidency of Barack Obama, another faux “healer” of our divisions, was predicated on this same old received wisdom about Republicans and their constituents. He called the latter fearful, repressed “bitter clingers” to guns and religion, xenophobes lashing out against globalism and foreigners to compensate for their failure to succeed in the “new world” economic order. His anointed successor, Hillary Clinton, reprised this progressive gospel with her “basket of deplorables” dismissal of her rival Donald Trump’s supporters.
This long Democrat tradition of insult and invective reached its nadir of vicious absurdity with the unprecedented hatred of Donald Trump and his supporters, abetted by corrupted federal agencies like the DOJ and FBI. Biden’s recent speech was the logical conclusion of this long practice by an increasingly left-wing Democrat Party.
Yet it would be a mistake to think that this political assault is a violation of some venerable American tradition of political decorum and norms. From its beginnings in the Revolution, the country has been riven by conflicts among the various factions created by the Colonies’ complex diversity of settlement patterns, faiths, economic interests, customs, and mores.
This diversity has created the divisiveness of America’s “factions” driven by diverse “passions and interests.” Such political behavior, as Madison wrote, is “sown in the nature of man,” a non-negotiable, permanent feature of human identity and behavior. Hence it cannot be eliminated by increasing progress, material improvement, and education. Moreover, given the diversity of the country, it cannot be regulated or softened by norms of decorum. “Free men,” Sophocles said, “have free tongue,” and free speech will reflect the diversity of styles of speaking.
This melancholy fact of human nature meant that the Constitution’s highest purpose was to check and balance factions: “Ambition must be set against ambition,” Madison wrote. The purpose of checks and balances, divided government, and unalienable rights was to prevent factions from coalescing into a unit large enough to dominate other factions––just what we are seeing today with progressive absorption of popular culture, corporations, government agencies, and educational institutions. And that dynamic explains the progressive desire to dismantle other Constitutional guardrails such as state sovereignty, the electoral college, the equal number of senators, and the integrity of the Supreme Court by packing it.
So the incendiary, divisive rhetoric of Joe Biden is not the issue. From a historical perspective, it’s been the norm, from the Loyalists of the Revolution, to the disorder and political violence that followed the diverse state governments created during the war; the fierce conflict between federalists and champions of democracy during the Constitutional Convention; and the divisive clashes between the first political parties.
Diversity begets divisiveness, and the latter can be mitigated only by homogenizing the former into an abstract, unitary “people” with uniform interests that only a centralized, concentrated federal power can serve. But given how indelible diversity and individualism are, this reduction of the diversity of the people will only happened under a tyranny that monopolizes force and limits freedom.
Complaining about Joe Biden’s intensifying of the Dems’ abusive rhetoric for the last six decades is belaboring the obvious. What we need right now from the Republicans and conservatives is a plan of action for pushing back against not words, but deeds––the ongoing assault on the Constitution and our unalienable rights that the progressive Democrats have been waging for over a century, culminating in the manifest disasters of Biden’s presidency.
This undermining of the Constitution is more serious than the alleged decline of the “civility” and “decorum” that seldom have existed in our political history. We have traveled a long way down the road to tyranny, as the current assaults on the Bill of Rights, and the encroaching power of federal agencies on civil society and personal autonomy demonstrate–– as do the bungling and willful malfeasance of the Dems’ policies that have weakened every dimension of our existence.