Totalitarian Temptations Among Progressive Elites

During a mid-May CBS morning show, host Nate Burleson asked former U.S. President Barack Obama if there’s anything about the country that still keeps him up at night. Obama said: […]
Published on June 15, 2023

During a mid-May CBS morning show, host Nate Burleson asked former U.S. President Barack Obama if there’s anything about the country that still keeps him up at night.

Obama said: “The thing that I’m most worried about is the degree to which we now have a divided conversation, in part because we have a divided media. … When I was coming up, you had three TV stations. And people were getting a similar sense of what is true and what isn’t, what was real and what was not. Today, what I’m most concerned about is the fact that because of the splintering of the media, we almost occupy different realities.”

Obama’s answer was as distressing as it was predictable. Several conservative news commentators took issue with his response, but he got no push back from Burleson, and was given a complete pass by America’s legacy media.

Before the Obama era, Americans had much less patience for infringements on the Bill of Rights. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech were generally regarded as fundamental principles of democracy. Progressives are now inclined to believe that a free press is just another stubborn obstacle for people who should really be developing “a similar sense of what is true and what isn’t.”

This is the same troubling inclination that Polish scholar Rysard Legutko called the “totalitarian temptation.” One can only conclude from the Burleson interview that even former editors of the Harvard Law Review no longer value First Amendment rights.

A Dark New Orthodoxy

Liberal democrats once had a natural antipathy toward silencing opponents. But, in the early decades of the 21st century, they embraced the same sort of fascist political tactics they now condemn in others.

In recent years, those claiming devotion to liberal democracy, multiculturalism, human rights, social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion have been more inclined to support Herbert Marcuse’s neo-Marxist call for “repressive tolerance” than the case for free speech posited by 19th-century liberals such as John Stuart Mill.

The left now insists that “free speech is hate speech.” They will go to almost any lengths to obstruct access to facts or ideas that are inconsistent with their woke narrative.

Thinkers like Marcuse once elicited powerful anti-communist reactions from liberal Americans. The repression of ideas was considered to be an offense against the common good. Proponents of censorship were regarded as a threat to democracy.

Today, a dark new orthodoxy has captured the cultural high ground in the Democratic Party. It calls upon a deluded intelligentsia to defend an intersectional rainbow alliance against imaginary forces of white supremacy, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and a planet-destroying, counter-revolutionary American middle class.

To protect American progress against the calumny of the common man, inconvenient truths must be suppressed. Consensus is mandatory and open discourse is out of the question.

Hence, whistleblowers exposing political corruption in the FBI are harassed and punished. Citizens are forbidden to read the manifesto of an alleged trans child killer. The legacy media hides scores of illegal migrants, drug-addicted vagrants, and out-of-control criminals from public view. Americans are lied to by the press and their government more often than a trusting wife is deceived by an adulterous husband.

Anglo-American Culture Should Remain Adversarial

Writing a few years ago for the Adam Smith Institute, British author Madsen Pirie argued that people who worry excessively about living with division know nothing about the merits of English-speaking political history.

From the 17th-century Glorious Revolution to modern representative government, Anglo-American democracy has been well served by our adversarial political culture. “So has our law and our science,” wrote Pirie. “We pit parties against each other, facing their opponents in Parliament separated by two sword lengths, not in the horseshoe chambers favoured in continental Europe. The electors make judgements about who wins, and they vote accordingly.”

Politics can be ill-tempered and divisive. Ideologues often perceive their causes to be so just and imperative that they cannot tolerate opposition. But, ordinary men and women intuitively understand that a culture that encourages debate is superior to regimes that are inquisitional and censorious.

Anglo-American political culture should remain as adversarial as it has always been. A truly democratic society is not well-served by autocrats who insist on telling people what they can hear and say.

Americans should be wary of taking advice from those who lose sleep over permitting citizens to have a “divided conversation” about “what is true and what isn’t.”

The real truth is, people aren’t divided and unhappy just because our culture is adversarial. It always has been.

People are becoming ill-tempered and resentful because too many politicians have lost their tolerance for dissent and the freely expressed opinions of others.


William Brooks is a Senior Fellow at Frontier Centre for Public Policy.  Originally appeared here.

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