DANIEL VAUGHAN: From Robespierre to SJWs, the left hasn’t changed

July 29, 2019

Conservative writers Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal and Bret Stephens of The New York Times recently took a lot of slack from the chattering liberal class for expressing a similar observation: the modern progressive left takes its cues from the French Revolution.

The left mostly shrugged this notion off because they don’t see anyone pulling out guillotines. But the leftist detractors miss the point: the right’s central critique of progressivism for the last century has been that the hard-left took all the wrong lessons from the French Revolution, which is why they’re so at odds with American free society today.

Noonan’s starts by observing: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme, as clever people say. And sometimes it hiccups. Here is a hiccup.”

The point isn’t that this is the literal Jacobin revolt with people dying in the streets — it’s that the left is taking its intellectual cues from their French ancestors.

As Noonan points out, “It was a revolution largely run by sociopaths. One, Robespierre, the ‘messianic schoolmaster,’ saw it as an opportunity for the moral instruction of the nation. Everything would be politicized, no part of the citizen’s life left untouched.”

Noonan went on to outline in her piece the sociopathic and puritanical tendencies of the modern left to rewrite the English language to reflect their core beliefs. It’s not enough to let them live their lives — you must approve of their ways and speak their language. Otherwise, you’re an outcast, a bigot of society.

Stephens concurred in his column, writing:

[T]he country I’m describing each year seems to feel the spirit of 1776 less and the spirit of 1789 more. “Armed with the ‘truth,’ Jacobins could brand any individuals who dared to disagree with them traitors or fanatics,” historian Susan Dunn wrote of the French Revolution. “Any distinction between their own political adversaries and the people’s ‘enemies’ was obliterated.”

Sound familiar? The new progressive mob seeks out and destroys anyone not toeing the party line. It’s not enough to apologize, or claim youthful transgressions — you must bow the knee or face excommunication.

Joining the mocking class on the left, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight remarked on Twitter: “Literally every NYT opinion column these days [is] about how liberals were mean to the columnist on the Internet and how if liberals on the Internet keep being mean to the columnist then TRUMP IS GONNA WIN IN 2020.”

Snarky comments like that may win a few retweets, but they miss the critique on modern liberalism. When conservatism first emerged in the rubble of WWII and the New Deal era, it looked at the arguments of liberalism and accused liberals of choosing the Jacobian route over the ideals of the American revolution.

And they had good reason to worry. The American Revolution led to one of the most prosperous and free nations the Earth has ever seen. The French Revolution led to blood in the streets, chaos, and eventually the brutal rules of Robespierre and Napoleon — the strongmen who took over for the mob rule of French democracy.

The excesses of the French Revolution and modern progressivism always invite reactionary politics to check their nonsense. As columnist Jonah Goldberg, continuing this criticism of the contemporary left, wrote in his book Liberal Fascism:

Progressivism, liberalism, or whatever you want to call it has become an ideology of power. So long as liberals hold it, principles don’t matter. It also highlights the real fascist legacy of World War I and the New Deal: the notion that government action in the name of “good things” under the direction of “our people” is always and everywhere justified.

Indeed, the excesses of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt led to the creation of the modern conservative movement. The excesses of the 1960s liberal culture led to Nixon winning landslide elections. And the excesses of progressive culture led to the election of Donald Trump.

The French Revolution led to Robespierre and Napoleon.

So far, the American experience has handled these excesses far better. But Noonan and Stephens’ point is that we’ve reached another inflection point where the progressive left, trying to remake culture in its own image, has sought to stomp out all of its enemies. As a result, we sit in a reactionary moment of our politics where the excesses of the left are being met by anyone willing to take up the fight on the right.

The chattering classes may find Jacobian comparisons amusing. But to any student of history, the parallels are instructive and sobering. Progressivism, like its French counterpart, wants to destroy all classical morality and enforce its own code on everyone. It’s not about freedom or liberty; it’s about power.

We’ve seen this with the so-called Democratic Socialists. They preach a big game on saving the environment or helping minorities, but in reality, it’s all a cover for a socialist control of everything. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, was honest on this point, saying: “The interesting thing about the Green New Deal is it wasn’t originally a climate thing at all.”

“Do you guys think of it as a climate thing?” Chakrabarti continued. “Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”

AOC wants to control the entire economy. The new progressives wish to control all the language. And anyone who opposes this push is an enemy.

Conservatism has had progressivism nailed for a century, and the left hasn’t changed at all since 1789. That’s not a joke, but it does sound like a hiccup.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.