“It Can’t Happen”; Or, the Poverty of Political Imagination

One of the themes I hope to pursue on this substack is the nature and limits of the political imagination, which seems to me chronically impoverished among our intellectual class, especially among those who claim to be the most knowledgeable and realistic about politics. I have come to believe that our political world is far more fluid, far more malleable and susceptible to shaping through intentional action, especially the action of committed political minorities, than the putative realists can conceive at any given time. Today let me illustrate by mentioning a central dogma or rhetorical trope of right-liberalism — of the wing of liberalism that is also called “conservative liberalism,” that spreads its insights across the pages of the National Review, and that takes itself to be opposed to “woke-ism” and identity politics. (At least for now. The history of right-liberalism suggests that within a very few years, if that, the right-liberal will be defending identity politics against all challengers).

These days, the right-liberal spends a great deal of time policing threats to the status quo, not from the progressive left (against whom the right-liberal is in a deep way helpless, a theme I leave for another day) but from various strands of the so-called “New Right.” The term is appallingly inaccurate, for much of the New Right sounds, especially on economic matters, a great deal like the Old Left — the pre-identitarian Left that favored trade unions, was suspicious of the corrosive effects of unbridled capitalism on community and solidarity, and that saw the working-class family as something to be preserved and defended from the bosses. Moreover the “New Right” includes many distinct movements that are united only in being broadly post-liberal, most prominently various versions of populism, political Catholicism,  and “National Conservatism.” These movements by no means agree on everything, and indeed some of their adherents disagree on fundamentals, both across and within movements. I myself am not a “nationalist,” except in the very qualified, non-ideal and second-best sense that nationalism may be a temporary expedient born of necessity, in opposition to an overbearing transnational liberal order; nor am I a “conservative,” unless that term is taken to include anyone who is not a conventional left-progressive. Nonetheless, in the eternal friend-enemy dynamic of politics, right-liberalism lumps all these movements and views together, and aims to suppress all strands of domestic ideological insurgency from the right with the same fervor it brings to the use of military force against whatever foreign enemy is the demon of the moment.

In the rhetorical war against the New Right, the right-liberal deploys a number of tropes or dogmas, which I hope to examine serially over time. Here I confine myself to what I will call the futility trope, which asserts roughly that some proposal or movement for political or legal transformation “can’t work,” “can’t happen,” or is “unrealistic.” I have lifted the term “futility” from Albert Hirschman’s magisterial study of The Rhetoric of Reaction, although Hirschman’s version is considerably more subtle than that deployed by the right-liberal. For Hirschman, the paradigm of futility is Tocqueville’s famous claim that the Revolution changed nothing at the level of fundamental political and social structures, but indeed merely confirmed and cemented into place structures that already existed in the ancien regime. In this version, the inconceivable upheavals of the Revolution changed little at a deeper level. The cruder right-liberal version asserts, in contrast, that even the surface transformation can’t happen. The right-liberal asserts with the utter confidence of the putatively hard-headed observer of politics that current political constraints are immutable or that current political trends cannot be reversed or even redirected.

Examples are legion — the futility trope is a mainstay of the right-liberal press, even of right-liberal twitter — but for concreteness I will focus on a recent assertion by the blogger Rod Dreher that it is a sheer “fact” that political Catholicism can make no real headway in a polity only one-fifth of which is even nominally Catholic, and in which secular or pseudo-secular identity politics is overwhelmingly dominant in the institutions of culture and in the corporations. Now, it may be a kind of category mistake to analyze such pensées, a mistake akin to trying to make a hearty meal of a thin and watery gumbo. Nonetheless the illustration is useful, for Dreher says in explicit terms what other right-liberals are perhaps too canny to put quite so baldly. Despite the rhetoric of realism, Dreher is actually making a modal claim about the limits of political and legal possibility, even if that claim takes a negative form. It is a claim that a certain counterfactual state of affairs is not accessible by intentional political or legal action from the current state of affairs. It is a claim about the immovability of current political constraints and the inevitability of current trends, which can only ever get worse; intentional political action to shift the constraints or change the trends is sheer futility. Dreher asserts as a fact what is really a political argument.

And it is an argument that betrays a sheer poverty of political imagination. In my own lifetime, the hard-headed realists are precisely the people who have been most repeatedly and flagrantly wrong about the rigidity of current political arrangements, coalitions and constraints; they have been systematically blind to the fluidity of politics. The realists never imagined that the Soviet Union could fall, until it did. They were confident that same-sex marriage would never become the law of the land, while today the Supreme Court, having gone far beyond same-sex marriage, reads federal law to protect rights of gender identity. They were absolutely certain that Donald Trump  could never be elected, until he was. They knew, with the confidence of a man demonstrating a solution in mathematics, that Hispanics would always and overwhelmingly vote Democratic. They derided critical race theory as the bizarre ideology of a few radical faculty and students, which would never survive contact with the “real world,” yet in 2021 we all inhabit Derrick Bell’s mental universe.

It is said that “the past is another country,” but one needn’t go far back at all to feel like a stranger in a strange land. The cultural politics of a mere decade ago, 2011, before Barack Obama publicly announced his support for same-sex marriage, are today only dimly imaginable. We live now in an entirely different political world. The recent history of our politics, if it proves anything, proves only contingency, fluidity, transformation, and unpredictability. The assertion “it can’t happen” is only ever the assertion “I can’t imagine it happening.” It speaks only to the imaginative limitations of the speaker. Of course there are real, action-independent constraints in politics; it seems very unlikely that, say, French will become or could be made to become the predominant language of the United States by the year 2200, although rather less unlikely that Mandarin will do so. But the point is that, on the evidence, we have little idea which currently apparent constraints really are real, as it were. Some of these shifts of political possibility represented change from the left, some from the right. There is no systematic pattern, other than the systematic tendency of the hard-headed to a kind of political myopia.

By contrast, the radicals, the extremists, the idealists, the critics, the dissenters, the activists of social change, have in my lifetime been far more realistic, and simultaneously more imaginative, about the capacious and flexible limits of political and legal change. The activists who pushed for same-sex marriage, even when Congress and dozens of states had passed statutes barring it - and who, after the Obergefell decision, turned on a dime to promoting transgenderism; the Trump voters who ignored the ironclad predictions of their betters; Chris Rufo, who has achieved the nearly unimaginable in the wars over critical race theory and public education — all these have had a sense of the possible, a breadth of vision, that the myopic realist can only imagine possessing.

In many of these cases, furthermore, the activists — while of course claiming to represent the real will of the people, or the best of our national ideals, or what have you — formed a tiny minority of the population, even a tiny minority of the intellectual class. One of the standard mistakes underpinning the futility trope is to imagine that the political views and preferences of national majorities set the terms of political action. In fact, on most (many? all?) issues national majorities may well have no real views or preferences. At a minimum, as our political history since 1989 testifies over and over, some unpredictable number of the public’s seemingly fixed views are weakly held and malleable from above, susceptible to elite influence, and quick to acquiesce to changes in law or political practice put into place by tiny minorities with access to the crucial levers of power. De Maistre once said that despite the events of 1789 and after, “four or five men can give France a king.” The mechanisms underpinning this observation have been worked out as a major theme of political science and public-choice economics since Mancur Olson’s work on the logic of collective action. Committed minorities have often been able to set the terms of political life for large, relatively apathetic majorities, especially in a system like our own that offers many points of access for minority influence, such as the courts.

From the standpoint of political Catholicism, finally, the irony that the realists, the proponents of futility theses, are deficient in political imagination comes as no surprise. Donoso Cortes saw this all long ago, writing (in a theme later adumbrated by Chesterton) that it was precisely the “men of business” who so often failed to understand business, the “worldlings” who acted in myopic ways, and that this tendency became more marked the more secular they were. By contrast the rich and varied apprehension of higher things, the glorious pageant of Catholicism, spills over to broaden the political and active imagination. It is a paradox that the massively multigenerational projects of the Middle Ages, the cathedrals and castles, were undertaken by men whose life spans were on average shorter than our own. A paradox, but perhaps no accident; after all they inhabited a richer imaginative world.