gayrights22One of the defining myths of movement conservatism is that of inherent liberal totalitarianism, or “Liberal Fascism”—the notion that the true aim of American liberalism is to wipe out all dissenting views and impose a uniform, godless secularism on the whole country. It has been a strong theme of social conservative punditry during the rise of gay marriage, as conservative writers imagine a “post-Christian America” where their views are stigmatized or even criminalized, and keep lurid tallies of the all the ways liberals are intent on “bombing the rubble.”

I’m not sure when it seemed like to me that the notion of liberals drunk on culture-war victory achieved some kind of mainstream traction. Perhaps because it’s become a frequent topic for Ross Douthat, who addresses the mainstream by virtue of writing for the Times. The “cocky liberal” thesis was also endorsed earlier this year by Damon Linker in another mainstream publication. (I’m borrowing that term from him.) But whether or not this idea is actually traveling beyond the usual conservative suspects, the important question is: is it true? Or more precisely, are there instances where it is true, and other instances where it isn’t? Do the instances where it is true matter anywhere besides the conservative imagination?

It’s easier to support the Cocky Liberal Thesis if you look only at liberal rhetoric, especially liberal rhetoric on gay rights. There’s no doubt in my mind that the escalation of conservative alarm about the left “bombing them to rubble” correlates with liberal Twitter gloating when, say, another state legalizes gay marriage, or a pro athlete comes out. These tend to be moments when the entire oxygen of the American media is consumed with celebration of liberal victory, and almost always produce some breathless, hyperbolic Twitter pronouncements from liberal journalists and celebrities about the end of the culture war, or the defeat of the bigots, or whatever. Of course it’s stupid to treat the 140-character comments of a few thousand people who write on the internet as reality, but nonetheless a lot of us do so, even if we mean not to.

The results of both the 2008 and 2012 elections were broadly heralded as the end of the religious right, and by extension the end of the culture war. But if you look back, it’s surprising how much that conclusion came from conservatives themselves; it surely achieved its status as gospel because so many conservatives advanced it—and have continued to do so. While this is not applicable to all of those conservatives, the socially conservative ones have tended to let gay marriage stand in for the entire culture war, and allowed their self-pity about losing the that fight to narrow their vision. There’s no doubt that drumbeat of defeat and negativity helped convince liberals it really is all over but the crying. (Watch the link chain here: Dreher says it’s over, Linker mostly agrees, and then a liberal takes it all as fact and adds a few hubristic claims of his own.)

Leaving the realm of people writing on the internet, what about the more concrete episodes of the past few years that have helped convince conservatives that liberals are ugly triumphalists? For example, the disinvitation of an evangelical minister from praying at Obama’s second inauguration after old comments about homosexuality came to light; the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich under pressure from activists over his financial donation to the Prop 8 campaign in California; the uproar that crippled the Susan G. Komen cancer research foundation after they briefly decided to stop funding Planned Parenthood; and, biggest of all, the mandate of the Affordable Care Act that required most employers to provide employees with insurance plans that cover contraception. All of these provoked outcry from social conservatives that liberals were engaging in “moral McCarthyism” and demanding “unconditional surrender.”

These examples fall into somewhat different categories. The Louie Giglio affair, for example, was clumsy politics on the part of the Obama administration; it wasn’t a sign that conservative views are beyond the pale, but rather the simple fact that a president shouldn’t have someone in a highly symbolic position who holds a view his strongest supporters consider noxious. The Komen and Mozilla episodes were textbook examples of legitimate political pressure. A few liberals were uncomfortable with the idea of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich being punished for making a personal political donation, but they tended to be people who can never stomach genuine political conflict. Eich wasn’t forced out by the state or by his employer, he chose to resign based on pressure from activists who objected to his donation to a very controversial political campaign. He was a high-profile tech CEO, not a random nobody targeted for their beliefs, like the people who were politically persecuted for signing the petition to recall Scott Walker in Wisconsin.

Now the big one. The Hobby Lobby case has been transformed into the ultimate hill on which religious freedom in the United States might have died. The contraception mandate that spawned the case is seen as an all-out “war on religion” or “weaponized secularism,” rather than as part of a broad attempt to bring order to the incoherent American health care system in one of the only ways politically feasible. It doesn’t matter that the Hobby Lobby case was manifestly cynical, in that the company that filed it manufactured a conscience violation out of thin air—based on false information about contraception—once they were already in talks about filing a suit against the Obama administration. It doesn’t matter that, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig illustrates so well here, the company’s logic snaps when you extend it in virtually any direction. No government would be possible at all if exemptions so broad and incoherent were applied equally to every religious faction, and every corporation that claimed a religious conviction. (The Supreme Court arbitrarily decided the same exemptions couldn’t be granted for more extreme religious views, but there is no legal logic supporting that limitation. So they essentially created a special constitutional protection for one kind of religion.) It’s mind-blowing that smart people have gotten on board with the idea that this partisan case was really about religious freedom, or that this sort of writing of religious favoritism into the constitution is something liberals should “cheer.”

All this to say that even though conservatives succeeded in turning the Hobby Lobby case into a narrative of outrageous overreach by a secular liberal administration, they ultimately won. They won pretty much everything at the Supreme Court this term, including getting buffer zone for abortion clinics in Massachusetts overturned. Add that to the past several years of successfully passing the most stringent restrictions on contraception and abortion since Roe v. Wade, and actually making contraception, which somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 percent of American women use, a fixture of political debate. Conservative legislative activism has assured that public school science classes and sex education in many states are riddled with religious views and factual errors. It’s true that these things provoke negative media backlash, and that the American public is becoming generally LGBT-friendly and largely supportive of access to birth control. But unless gay rights are truly the extent of the culture war, this doesn’t look at all to me like liberals stomping social conservatives’ faces into the turf. Hardcore social conservatives have done their political organizing well and have fought hard, and are on the offensive on some of their key issues, even if they are a pretty small minority of the American people.

So is the Cocky Liberal Thesis supportable? For the most part it’s not. On one issue—gay rights—it’s possible to claim that liberal rhetoric, in its impatience with religious views that continue to support discrimination, veers into “sides of history” triumphalism and, when we’re talking about journalists on Twitter, immature self-righteousness. But this “intolerance,” if it can even be called that, is largely cultural and rhetorical, not legal and political. It’s hardly different from any other issue in American politics on which there is a clear majority, and as Alexis de Tocqueville said, American majorities almost always treat minority factions horribly. It’s a reality of the liberal system: it pretends to be about pragmatic compromise, but really, somebody’s vision wins, and the others lose. The losers have to play by the rules until they win again.

But when it comes to actually making the rules—and not just arguing about them on the internet—conservatives are not doing nearly as badly as they often seem to believe. On the other issues that make up the culture wars, liberals have had their former confidence chastened, and are anything but “cocky.” When conservatives win routine victories in state courts and legislatures, and a twice-elected liberal president can barely accomplish any of his agenda even by executive order, we’re not talking about a one-sided fight. On the ground, where it actually counts, it’s still as much of a contest as ever—and liberals who aren’t morons know that well. Even if things were going better for liberal secularism, religious people in the United States have and will retain protections and exemption from broadly-applicable laws that are unheard of in most Western nations.

In sum, I think the Cocky Liberal Thesis is a mixture of two things: conservative whining and liberal anti-politics. Conservatives have always fed their movement on paranoia about the eventual totalitarian takeover by liberal secularism, and they’re doing it more than ever as gay rights become the norm. It’s to be expected that their charges of “liberal triumphalism” would escalate as they lose on a big issue. Complaining about the “Bomb-the-Rubble-Left” is a way of complaining about losing, and they really should grow up. It doesn’t help to have liberals acting like there’s something wrong with exulting in victory—especially when it’s all mostly rhetorical, and the victory is as limited as it is.

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About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

14 Responses to The Myth of Liberal Triumphalism

  1. Hammer says:

    “rather than as part of a broad attempt to bring order to the incoherent American health care system in one of the only ways politically feasible”
    just stop dude. you’re being v specious/purposely misreading something just to bolster your own point

  2. eroteme says:

    Up until the late 1960’s US culture and mores and laws pretty much reflected the defacto hegemony of an overwhelmingly white, WASP, male ruling class. Mere lip service was paid to the notion of the separation of church and state. Now the US recognises itself as a multiethnic, multicultural society (it always was so but the ruling elite kept a tight lid on things) – and a society that is increasingly secular. Religion is rightly being seen as a private matter on individuals who have chosen to believe what they believe and can get together with like minded consenting adults and form a church or temple or mosque etc. What they may not do however, is impose their views on the wider public sphere. Conservative Christianity is finding this highly threatening for despite the intention of the Founding Fathers that a man or woman’s faith (or lack thereof) is their own business, practically a conservative Christianity has dictated what goes in the US up until now. Suddenly we find politicians like Palin and Bachman (to name just two) saying such nonsense that there is no separation of religion and state and that ‘America is a Christian country’, or worse “Gods will is that America is a Christian country”. All faith is just that; a faith, and is not able to be proven in the sense of a verifiable and repeatable experiment as science is. All religion is a circular argument “I believe in God because the Bible says he exists” and “I believe what the Bible says because God says it is true”. In a truly liberal democracy anyone is free to hold a personal faith like that, but then to go on and say that “I know the truth and everyone else must obey that truth or be punished” is monstrous garbage. Americans rightly reject the very recent statement by ISIS in Iraq that Christians must either convert, or pay punitive taxes or be killed.
    In the case of Hobby Lobby I personally think the Supreme Court got it right in narrowly upholding the right to refuse to provide contraception to a personally held private company where the owners all hold a religious belief. What the case does illustrate is that fact that it is completely idiotic for a modern nation to have a situation where private employers provide healthcare. On the other hand though Christians must not object if in future (and it will occur) a company run by persons of another faith make a demand based on that faith. US Christianity is running scared on that issue as evidenced by the flurry of anti-Sharia law regulations being passed in red states.

    • danallison says:

      So, you should be allowed to bring your deepest personal convictions into the political process, but I shouldn’t?

      • eroteme says:

        What is necessary is a public square with what some have called a civil religion that sets some boundaries – which need to be mutually agreed upon and that is a very difficult process. Presumably you are a Christian and if you are allowed to write laws that enforce your deep convictions on others then why cannot the same be said of a Muslim who for example believes that women are worth half a man? What if a majority voted that black white segregation was “Gods will”? Would you accept that as a democratic vote that reflects the will of the people and must be enacted? After all it is not long ago that the US has anti-miscegnation laws that forbade absolutely marriage between black and white people and based a strongly held Christian belief that black people were descendants of Ham whom Noah cursed. This is the reason for years the Mormon church would not accept that blacks could be in the elect. So the answer to your question is yes and no and the same applies to other religious or secular people.

        • danallison says:

          Except you and your own fellow travelers, of course.

          • eroteme says:

            Why do you say that I am forcing you to do anything? You can believe what you want and get together with likeminded other people and form your own church or other organization and make you own rules for who can be a member. What I believe is irrelevant to you. What you (and anybody else) cannot do is impose your idea of truth on others as something they must accept. As I said above if (hypothetically) at some time in the future certain areas of the US had a majority of the Muslim faith and they believed that it is Allah’s will they impose Sharia Law – would you accept that? Of course not. So the only answer is that religious belief is a private matter – something the Founding Fathers knew well and wrote into the constitution having been victims of inter-Christian persecution in Europe.

  3. Hammer says:

    “What they may not do however, is impose their views on the wider public sphere”
    Not wanting to pay for someone’s BC (generally not used for medical purposes) is not “imposing” anything on anyone, this argument is ridiculous

  4. Hammer says:

    saw rest of that post. Still though. Idk what exactly’s being imposed on anyone these days.
    Also this emerging “religion is just something you do for an hour on Sunday” line of thinking emerging from liberals is pretty silly

  5. danallison says:

    I will simply assume that the author is the most naive person on the planet. The alternative is that he’s creating clever manipulative lies to lower the guard of the decent people in this nation, and I hate to ascribe those kinds of motives. Out in the real world, people are being fired from their jobs and abandoned by their friends every day because of what the commies used to call “false consciousness, ” failure to adhere to the Party Line. Even Oprah said she thinks all the old white people need to die. This isn’t “liberal triumphalism” pal, this is the destruction of our nation. We’ve destroyed the space program, castrated the military, dumbed down the schools to where most high schoolers communicate with grunts, and put half the country on food stamps or “disability.” Our courts are busy setting free the child molesters and you can’t even let an 8-year-old kid walk a block to the local playground by himself. Liberals now portray child molesters — the most heinous predators — as “oppressed victims.” Conferences at universities “focus” on this topic.

    Also I love the total lack of historical insight! History begins with 9/11 for this writer. NOT EVEN A CLUE that we are witnessing the culmination of forces unleashed by the Enlightenment and exposed by the French Revolution. The 1965 Civil Rights Act guilt-tripped us into giving up our right to DO BUSINESS WITH WHOM WE PLEASE — a right that is as vital to freedom as free speech, which the Dems in Congress are also busy trying to destroy, Obviously we have here a writer who has possibly read but never grasped anything that CS Lewis, Orwell, Huxley, or Vonnegut had to say on any of these matters.

    Or then again, maybe the writer is not so naive after all. Now I see that he contributes to Slate, which kind of explains everything. I’ll surf over there and see what good and decent thing they are trying to destroy today.

  6. Patrick Sawyer says:

    I realize your post is broader than what I am about to say but for some of us the case against Hobby Lobby was the zenith of absurdity. It is a lesson in how deeply embedded an entitlement mentality is in our society. The Hobby Lobby case was egregious for the following reasons:

    Health Insurance is not a RIGHT, it is an earned PRIVILEGE, a privilege that is attained when certain requirements are met. For instance, if you live in a place where health insurance is being provided and your health profile is desirable to the companies providing the health insurance and you pay your premiums in a timely manner as decided by the providers of the insurance, you earn the privilege of having health insurance. Or if you have earned the right to work at a company that offers some form of health insurance and you meet certain requirements of the policy plan (such as full time and length of time in the job, etc.) you may earn the right to receive the benefit of the health insurance.

    Keeping in mind that health insurance and health are not synonymous, as an adult, the responsibility of my health, under the providence of God, lies STRICTLY with me. Not other people, not society, not government, not institutions, not organizations, not companies or corporations – strictly with me. I, and I alone, under the providence of God, are the one accountable and responsible in seeing that my health needs are taken care of.

    Given this, no company, including Hobby Lobby, should be REQUIRED
    to provide health insurance for anyone. Again, the individual is responsible for his or her health. If a company wants to provide health insurance to its employees because it feels it is in the company’s best interest to do so then it should have the right to provide whatever type of health insurance with the whatever type of services it wants to provide. If someone doesn’t like the services provided, he or she doesn’t have to work there. No company, including Hobby Lobby OWES anyone a job or OWES anyone health insurance. Don’t work at Hobby Lobby or quit if you are already working there if you don’t like the (un-owed) health benefit they are offering you. Again, Hobby Lobby owes no one either a job or health insurance.

    Moreover, it is well documented that Hobby Lobby provided 16 forms of contraception to its employees. And Hobby Lobby restricted none of their employees (or anyone for that matter) in attaining other forms of contraception or even from having an abortion. They kept NO ONE from these services. Their employees were free to go out in the marketplace and get them from those who were providing them. Of course it should be mentioned that according to the CDC and the Guttmacher Institute, abortion is ninety-five plus percent of the time an egregious act of convenience and has nothing to do with health concerns, except of course unless we are talking about the destroyed health of 500,000 plus female babies aborted each year in this country. In that sense it is a women’s health issue of genocidal proportions.

  7. John Wofford says:

    I partially agree with this, but having spent some time in certain liberal circles, I was shocked to find that some of my hard-right friends weren’t totally off base with the notion that many liberal activists, intellectuals, etc., are actively, openly hostile towards Christianity – particularly the WASPy kind – more than any other faith.

    I also think the claim that liberals are more likely to express sympathies to Muslims or Jews over Christians is also true in many cases. (I say this as a Jew.) Despite very similar problems in the fundamentalist sects of all the major Abrahamic faiths, many liberals I know – including close friends – often devote the most consternation, sarcasm, vitriol, or dismissal to Christianity above all.

    If I might guess, it’s probably to do with the myth that Christianity is exclusively the faith of the white, hetero-normative, purportedly misogynistic, shamefully wealthy white man: the most hated totem in a lot of activist, social justice oriented rhetoric. That’s speculation, but I see those categories get lumped together a great deal.

    Bottom line, are all liberals suffering from a superiority complex? God, no. But some, like some conservatives, definitely do. And those sections of each group are constantly providing new material for hardliners on both sides to continue the Eternal War of Mudslinging, Oversimplifying, and Exaggerating.

  8. AC700 says:

    The War/Monopoly on Truth!
    ABC News executive producer Ian Cameron is married to Susan Rice, National Security Adviser.
    CBS President David Rhodes is the brother of Ben Rhodes, Obama’s Deputy National
    Security Adviser for Strategic Communications.
    ABC News correspondent Claire Shipman is married to recent Whitehouse Press Secretary Jay Carney
    ABC News and Univision reporter Matthew Jaffe is married to Katie Hogan, Obama’s Deputy Press Secretary
    ABC President Ben Sherwood is the brother of Obama’s Special Adviser Elizabeth Sherwood
    CNN President Virginia Moseley is married to former Hillary Clinton’s Deputy Secretary Tom Nides.

  9. […] and worst-case scenarios, when there are plenty of alternate ways of reading the situation. (Not to sound like a broken record, but gay rights is only one issue among many; in other, arguably more important domains, […]

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