In his 2005 book Memory and Identity (New York, 2005), Pope John Paul II posed a profound question concerning the goals of progressivism.  Examining what he called the “anti-evangelical currents” of contemporary society, with its assault on family and life,” he asked “whether this is not another form of totalitarianism, subtly concealed under the appearances of democracy” (48).

There is no doubt in my mind that progressivism is a new form of totalitarianism.  Jaspar Ridley’s biography of Mussolini (Mussolini, New York, 1997) provides insight into the mind of one of the original progressives, a fascist leader who always thought first of maintaining power by “making the trains run on time” and other government-funded projects.  Mussolini was no friend of the Church or the family, but he was cunning enough to avoid antagonizing the pope, at least until the end of his regime.  Mussolini’s goal was always power, and his means were the typical progressive promises of “a better way” for the working man.

It’s important to note that Mussolini’s popular appeal was based not just on his reinstatement of order within a divided nation, not unlike America today, but also on his alluring promises of a future utopia.  Mussolini projected the image of a “modern” Italy “moving forward” into a new era of imperial power and wealth.  This was the progressive leader whom FDR and other liberals so much admired.  What Mussolini actually delivered was not a better life for working people, but a totalitarian state that stripped them of all their liberties.  As a result of Mussolini’s decision to ally with Germany in World War II, over 300,000 Italians lost their lives.

For anyone with knowledge of history, today’s progressives raise a terrifying specter.  The appeal of progressivism is grounded in a perennial feature of human nature: the desire for someone, anyone, to take care of us.  When leaders like Mussolini step forward with alluring promises, the masses are willing to trade their freedom.

It is an unsettling thought.  Obama captured 67% of the youth vote, Hillary and liberal alternatives 63%.  Donald Trump, who promised to cut taxes, cut regulation, increase national security, and defend individual liberty, won only 37% of the youth vote.  For the young, the allure of the left is not at all different from what it was in the past.  (Students and professors were among the strongest supporters of Hitler.)  It is the allure of unreflective power, of simplistic solutions, and of dreams of a perfect society.  Yet always, always, that “perfect society” turns out to be a bloodstained apocalypse. 

John Paul II’s idea that state control can be exercised “under the appearances of democracy” is a crucial insight.  What is now taking place in the West shares little in appearance with the brownshirted menace of fascism or the iron fist of communism.  It is not the boot on the throat, but the smiley face of government “helpers” and “nudgers” we have to fear.  It is candidates like Obama and Hillary “fighting for us,” whatever that means, who pose the greatest danger.  Or Elizabeth Warren, with her strident attacks on “the banks,” conspiracy theories of “a rigged system,” and the “subjugation” of women by men.

One nagging question: If progressivism offers the illusion of a state-funded safety net in exchange for the loss of liberty, an illusion that can easily be disproved, what’s so appealing about progressivism?  Why are half of American voters eager to hand over their liberty to a totalitarian state?  Why are they sprinting like lemmings toward the totalitarian abyss?

There are answers to this question that make sense.  A lot of those liberals are naïve young people.  A lot of them are women and minorities who may feel that they have no alternative to welfare and simply wish to increase their benefits.  Many are state employees whose motives are simply mercenary.  Many are ideological leftists with no appreciation for America’s constitutionalist democracy.  This would include the “red diaper babies” brought up in radical enclaves such as Berkeley and Manhattan.

Niall Ferguson explains the rise of tyranny somewhat differently, as the result of two major tendencies: first, social regression, for which Pope John Paul II provided ample evidence, and second, “the ability of a corrupt and monopolistic elite to exploit the system of law and administration to their own advantage” (The Great Degeneration, New York, 2013, page 9).

Just one figure illustrates the social degeneration Ferguson describes as a condition of democratic decline: a black youth unemployment rate of over 21% and an associated illegitimacy rate of 75%, a pathology Walter Williams traces to the welfare state.  And is there any better example of a corrupt elite than the revolving door between Washington and the many think-tanks, foundations, and corporations that depend on government-assigned subsidies and monopolies?

Do progressives actually believe they are improving society by undermining the family, creating dependence, and ending life via abortion on demand?

In order to understand the true motivations of progressives, one must return to John Paul II in Memory and Identity.  In a chapter entitled “Europe as ‘Native Land,'” he quotes Christ: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5).  That verse conveys the truth of mankind’s origin in God and, with it, the element of divinity in human nature.  Each human life, by this account, is a creation of inestimable potential containing “within itself something of the divine” (99).

Whether one is a believer or not, one can appreciate this element of divinity, which finds expression in man’s self-respect and creativity, and in his veneration for other persons, for nature, and for God.  Such veneration, based on the conviction of the sacredness of all life, poses a problem for the imperial state.  It creates an independent, self-respecting mindset that can never be controlled.  It is a massive roadblock in the path of state power.

John Paul II’s chain of reasoning is compelling.  It leaves one, as is intended, with profound doubts concerning the entire project of so-called liberation that has constituted the liberal and progressive agenda over the past century and a half.  As greater and greater personal “freedoms” have been extended, the power of the state has grown proportionately.  John Paul II was right: the Western democracies face their own threat of totalitarianism, and this threat emanates from the progressive state.  John Paul II was right about this as well: once the state has gained control, there is no limit to the devastation of which it is capable.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

In his 2005 book Memory and Identity (New York, 2005), Pope John Paul II posed a profound question concerning the goals of progressivism.  Examining what he called the “anti-evangelical currents” of contemporary society, with its assault on family and life,” he asked “whether this is not another form of totalitarianism, subtly concealed under the appearances of democracy” (48).

There is no doubt in my mind that progressivism is a new form of totalitarianism.  Jaspar Ridley’s biography of Mussolini (Mussolini, New York, 1997) provides insight into the mind of one of the original progressives, a fascist leader who always thought first of maintaining power by “making the trains run on time” and other government-funded projects.  Mussolini was no friend of the Church or the family, but he was cunning enough to avoid antagonizing the pope, at least until the end of his regime.  Mussolini’s goal was always power, and his means were the typical progressive promises of “a better way” for the working man.

It’s important to note that Mussolini’s popular appeal was based not just on his reinstatement of order within a divided nation, not unlike America today, but also on his alluring promises of a future utopia.  Mussolini projected the image of a “modern” Italy “moving forward” into a new era of imperial power and wealth.  This was the progressive leader whom FDR and other liberals so much admired.  What Mussolini actually delivered was not a better life for working people, but a totalitarian state that stripped them of all their liberties.  As a result of Mussolini’s decision to ally with Germany in World War II, over 300,000 Italians lost their lives.

For anyone with knowledge of history, today’s progressives raise a terrifying specter.  The appeal of progressivism is grounded in a perennial feature of human nature: the desire for someone, anyone, to take care of us.  When leaders like Mussolini step forward with alluring promises, the masses are willing to trade their freedom.

It is an unsettling thought.  Obama captured 67% of the youth vote, Hillary and liberal alternatives 63%.  Donald Trump, who promised to cut taxes, cut regulation, increase national security, and defend individual liberty, won only 37% of the youth vote.  For the young, the allure of the left is not at all different from what it was in the past.  (Students and professors were among the strongest supporters of Hitler.)  It is the allure of unreflective power, of simplistic solutions, and of dreams of a perfect society.  Yet always, always, that “perfect society” turns out to be a bloodstained apocalypse. 

John Paul II’s idea that state control can be exercised “under the appearances of democracy” is a crucial insight.  What is now taking place in the West shares little in appearance with the brownshirted menace of fascism or the iron fist of communism.  It is not the boot on the throat, but the smiley face of government “helpers” and “nudgers” we have to fear.  It is candidates like Obama and Hillary “fighting for us,” whatever that means, who pose the greatest danger.  Or Elizabeth Warren, with her strident attacks on “the banks,” conspiracy theories of “a rigged system,” and the “subjugation” of women by men.

One nagging question: If progressivism offers the illusion of a state-funded safety net in exchange for the loss of liberty, an illusion that can easily be disproved, what’s so appealing about progressivism?  Why are half of American voters eager to hand over their liberty to a totalitarian state?  Why are they sprinting like lemmings toward the totalitarian abyss?

There are answers to this question that make sense.  A lot of those liberals are naïve young people.  A lot of them are women and minorities who may feel that they have no alternative to welfare and simply wish to increase their benefits.  Many are state employees whose motives are simply mercenary.  Many are ideological leftists with no appreciation for America’s constitutionalist democracy.  This would include the “red diaper babies” brought up in radical enclaves such as Berkeley and Manhattan.

Niall Ferguson explains the rise of tyranny somewhat differently, as the result of two major tendencies: first, social regression, for which Pope John Paul II provided ample evidence, and second, “the ability of a corrupt and monopolistic elite to exploit the system of law and administration to their own advantage” (The Great Degeneration, New York, 2013, page 9).

Just one figure illustrates the social degeneration Ferguson describes as a condition of democratic decline: a black youth unemployment rate of over 21% and an associated illegitimacy rate of 75%, a pathology Walter Williams traces to the welfare state.  And is there any better example of a corrupt elite than the revolving door between Washington and the many think-tanks, foundations, and corporations that depend on government-assigned subsidies and monopolies?

Do progressives actually believe they are improving society by undermining the family, creating dependence, and ending life via abortion on demand?

In order to understand the true motivations of progressives, one must return to John Paul II in Memory and Identity.  In a chapter entitled “Europe as ‘Native Land,'” he quotes Christ: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5).  That verse conveys the truth of mankind’s origin in God and, with it, the element of divinity in human nature.  Each human life, by this account, is a creation of inestimable potential containing “within itself something of the divine” (99).

Whether one is a believer or not, one can appreciate this element of divinity, which finds expression in man’s self-respect and creativity, and in his veneration for other persons, for nature, and for God.  Such veneration, based on the conviction of the sacredness of all life, poses a problem for the imperial state.  It creates an independent, self-respecting mindset that can never be controlled.  It is a massive roadblock in the path of state power.

John Paul II’s chain of reasoning is compelling.  It leaves one, as is intended, with profound doubts concerning the entire project of so-called liberation that has constituted the liberal and progressive agenda over the past century and a half.  As greater and greater personal “freedoms” have been extended, the power of the state has grown proportionately.  John Paul II was right: the Western democracies face their own threat of totalitarianism, and this threat emanates from the progressive state.  John Paul II was right about this as well: once the state has gained control, there is no limit to the devastation of which it is capable.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).



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