In America 2018, the dominant political tribes despise all things that make America worth a damn. The populist right rejects individualism in favor of a raw cult of personality that demands unthinking loyalty to the Great Leader. The progressive left rejects debate in favor of repressing those who would dare offer opposing views. What's a decent person to do but spurn both political tribes and work to undermine the governments they dominate?
"My husband and I are watching closely to see who supports our president," wrote a voter whose comments were read aloud this week by the moderator of a debate among Michigan's Republican candidates for governor. "We will not vote for a candidate who does not."
"No need to worry," noted the Center for Michigan's Bridge magazine. "All four candidates support President Trump. Extravagantly."
And, in fact, the candidates competed to slip in as many mentions of the president and their connections to him as possible. "I don't know why, I love him," burbled physician Jim Hines.
Some candidates in other states—like failed West Virginia Senate hopeful Don Blankenship—seek to portray themselves less as Trump proxies than as his clones. Blankenship's opponents "want to say, 'Trump likes me the best,' where what we are trying to do is say, 'We are the most like Trump,' " Greg Thomas, Blankenship's campaign manager, told The Washington Post.
Republican primary races across the country feature similar scrambling for the support of voters whose allegiance is to Trumpismo rather than to policies or ideology. But it's hard to beat the devotions lavished on the president by his own cabinet. In one gathering, Vice President Mike Pence famously praised Trump once every 12 seconds for three minutes.
Of course, it's not like Democrats are unfamiliar with creepy cults of personality. In 2009, progressive celebrities gifted us all with an on-the-internet-forever demonstration of their willingness to drink then-President Barack Obama's Koolaid. "I pledge to be a servant to our president," they chanted in unison.
But these days the left has moved beyond embarrassing themselves with their own words to trying to choke off the utterances of others. In Seattle, socialist city council member Kshama Sawant and the union-backed organization Working Washington want online retail giant Amazon prosecuted for a felony.
Why? Because Amazon complained that a proposal to tax hours worked in the city would make the place an even lousier environment in which to do business than it already is. Specifically, Amazon paused a construction project and is considering subleasing office space it had planned to use—more than a hint that the company might pull entirely out of Seattle, where it's currently headquartered.
"Amazon's 'pause' was immediately and universally interpreted by politicians, journalists, and the public at large as a threat to inflict substantial harm on the business and financial conditions of the city," argues Working Washington. "It's a felony under state law to threaten substantial harm to the business or financial condition of any person, corporation or unincorporated association in an attempt to influence the vote or any other official action of a public servant."
"Working Washington's theory, of course, would criminalize a vast range of ordinary political action," comments law professor, First Amendment expert, and Reason contributor Eugene Volokh.
Targeting ordinary political action can also be seen in New York, where the Democratic governor is attempting to isolate and muzzle his political opponents—in particular, organizations that oppose his restrictive view of self-defense rights. Gov. Andrew Cuomo directed bank and insurance regulators "to urge insurers and bankers statewide to determine whether any relationship they may have with the NRA or similar organizations sends the wrong message to their clients and their communities who often look to them for guidance and support."
New York's Department of Financial Services promptly warned businesses under its jurisdiction that "their dealings with the NRA or similar gun promotion organizations" may incur "reputational risks" and that they should "take prompt actions to managing these risks."
That's an overt threat to banks and insurance companies that they'll suffer official wrath if they do business with legal organizations that disagree with high government officials about policy.
Between blind devotion to strongmen and hostility to free speech, Republicans and the populist right, on one hand, and Democrats and the progressive left, on the other, have done a fine job of embracing illiberalism. Increasingly, they show overt hostility to the individualism and individual liberty that have defined the country—imperfectly, for sure, but always aspirationally—since its founding. Forget debate and restraint, they seem to say; we'll just smash the opposition and follow the leader.
That liberal democracy is in trouble seems to be clear—or, at least, a clearly popular fear. The New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list currently features Madeleine Albright's Fascism: A Warning as well as Jonah Goldberg's Suicide of the West. Other recent books on similar themes include How Democracies Die and The People vs. Democracy. (Personally, I think Hayek's The Road to Serfdom captured it all pretty well decades ago.)
But while those books sell well, the conduct of our rulers suggest that they're filling their bookshelves not out of concern, but to add to their collections of how-to manuals. The likes of Pence and Cuomo must be stroking their chins and muttering, "fascism and serfdom? Hmmm… Sounds intriguing."
Too many of their co-tribalists are right there with them. And these illiberal tribes have their hands on the levers of government in our country. The people in power aren't being forced toward the fate warned of in the recent flood of apocalyptic political tomes—they're dragging us there.
That means that not just the dominant political tribes, but the governments that they run, are deadly enemies to anybody who retains a taste for individual liberty not just personally, but for others too. If you want to be left alone and also to leave alone anybody else who would grant you the same consideration, if you care to think for yourself and speak your mind, there's nothing of value to be gained from listening to the populist right or the progressive left, or from refraining from actively opposing the governments under their control.
When the most powerful political tribes and their supporters have turned illiberal, the only way to preserve your liberty is to reject them and the system they control.
Photo Credit: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA Press/Newscom