Americans like to think of themselves as living in a classless society, and historically this is largely, but not entirely, true, with a large middle class dominating the country’s economic, political, and social life. In the traditional social model, there was a small and moneyed upper class above the middle class, typically marked by its willingness to serve in public office. Below it was the lower middle class, similar in outlook to the middle class, but more economically insecure and perhaps envious of the material prosperity of those above them.
Below this was the lower class, which was and still is divided into two sub-groups: the workers and the socially disorganized. In terms of cultural outlook, they have nothing in common. Working-class families tend to be intact, attend church, are patriotic, and have the self-discipline to hold down jobs, whereas in the lowest rung, the nuclear family and the work ethic have all but disappeared. It is characterized by various social pathologies and is populated by white Americans as well as minorities.
Nonetheless, the boundary between the two middle classes and the wage earners has long been blurred, with many a working class family considering itself middle class. It is this blurring of categories that gives rise to the notion that American society is “classless.”
One could doodle out this social hierarchy in the shape of a rectangle, but for the model to be complete two other groups should be drawn on either side: the intellectuals on the left and the religious on the right. In the traditional context, these two groups had several things in common: they defined themselves as being apart from the hierarchy; they emphasized values in life other than money-making and material comfort; and many in each group dedicated themselves to the education of the young, who, upon graduation, were slotted into the money ladder. Where they differed was in their attitude toward pursuing the truth and the good, with the intellectuals speaking in the modernist keys of moral relativism and skepticism, while the religious were certain they possessed the truth.
These two groups are still on the scene today, but what is interesting is that their philosophical outlooks have undergone a kind of polar inversion, with the intelligentsia’s aversion to moral judgment now wrapped in the hard certitude of a leftist orthodoxy. Among the religious, the self-confidence of old has given way to uncertainty, as evidenced by the decline of the mainline Protestant churches, by the leadership crisis and doctrinal drift in the Catholic Church, and by the advent on the scene of a large number of “nones,” i.e., Americans of no religious affiliation, and those who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious.”
This rectangular hierarchy may look understandable on paper, but it is basically a static display. Social change is dynamic and our way of thinking about it should try to take motion into account. Think of American society as a solar system, with the middle class as the dominant body, i.e., the sun, holding other social groups in orbit around it. Social mobility would accordingly be a movement towards the center, where new entrants would add to the center’s mass. Some could opt to settle down in various habitable zones farther away from the center, choosing to live their lives primarily in intellectual pursuits or perhaps in a church-centric environment. The center could also eject material outward as individuals can and do slide backward into lower socio-economic situations, either through no fault of their own or because of their life decisions.
Today, however, no matter where one stands in this planetary model, if he looks up he will see not one, but two suns coursing across the American sky. A new star has appeared and it has sufficient mass to bring large parts of American society under its influence. One could say that American society today is held in a wobbly equipoise in a binary star system.
The new sun is the Progressive Left. It is not a new body searching for its rightful place in orbit around the traditional center; it wants to be the center itself. It is not content to be a part of a whole; it wants the whole for itself.
At its core are thinkers and doers who surprisingly share some of the traits of the intellectuals and the religious in the traditional social model: they think of themselves as a group apart from a social hierarchy; they emphasize the importance of values other than the earning of a living and material progress; and they emphasize the importance of educating the young. But that is where the similarities end.
The Progressive Left scorns tradition and mocks the good. Wherever it makes inroads, it stifles dissent and imposes a rule of political correctness. It emphasizes ends over means and will over reason. Its logic is to expand into every aspect of society so as to neutralize any opposing tendency. It expands in two ways: aggressively, by denouncing or ridiculing any idea that does not conform to itself, or subtly and insidiously, by using social pressure and convention to implant its errors into individuals and institutions alike.
The Left is out to “fundamentally transform” American society. Leftists believe they are on the “right side history,” and that controlling the apparatus of the state and the lives of others is their duty and right. They are the ultimate definers of social and cultural progress. They are the “Innovators” and the “Conditioners,” the people C.S. Lewis warned about in The Abolition of Man, his meditation on the leftist slouch towards a dystopian future.
It would be misleading to think of the Progressive Left primarily as a challenge posed by a radical elite. Large parts of the American population have coalesced around its core, giving it sufficient mass to rival the old system. It has pulled away many from the middle class and it has great influence over the upper class, as evidenced by the peculiar phenomenon of leftist billionaires, who embody a combination that would have had Karl Marx and Max Weber scratching their heads. (By contrast, the Left’s pull on the lower middle class and on workers appears to be less forceful.)
Among the middle class, leftist ideas and assumptions have been widely accepted, almost without people being conscious of the changes taking place around them. The Left has succeeded in getting people to think that certain vices are not really vices at all, but are actually misconceived values that can be redefined as virtues. In some cases, old virtues, such as love for one’s country, have been redefined as vices in need of purification. The Innovators and Conditioners thus lay claim not only to the conscience but also to what kind of conscience they want to produce. Their whole approach stems from the post-modernist notion that moral truths are nothing other than culturally constructed “values” inculcated in us by society so that patriarchal hierarchies can preserve their power.
At its core, the Leftist project is a rebellion against human nature itself. The Innovators and the Conditioners hold that human nature consists in however one defines it, and that human “values” can be changed according to the desires of human beings, that is, as long as the human beings are the Innovators and Conditioners themselves. This project is ultimately futile. In the words of C.S. Lewis, the human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than it has “of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.”