Joel Kotkin writes about the spread of “debate is over” syndrome. It’s a good article, but marred by the author’s surprise that this “embrace homogeneity of viewpoint” finds expression by the American left, “the same people who historically have identified themselves with open-mindedness and the defense of free speech.”
Actually, “debate is over” syndrome expresses a core tenet of American progressivism, and one that has been present from the beginning. It stems from the historicism of the German philosopher Hegel.
Hegel maintained that history unfolds through a “dialectical” process, in which each stage is the product of the contradictions inherent in the ideas that defined the preceding one. Within these tensions and contradictions, Hegel believed, the philosopher can discern a comprehensive, evolving, rational unity. He called that unity “the absolute idea.”
History consists of an inevitable and progressive march to that idea. The modern State is the final fruit of that progressive march.
It is natural for a Hegelian to pronounce a debate “over” even as it continues to rage. Having discerned the comprehensive rational unity — the absolute idea — positions contrary to that idea can be written off as things of the past.
Hegel’s place in Marxist thought is well known. But if anything, the German holds an even more central position in American Progressive thought, thanks mainly to Woodrow Wilson, the intellectual father of American Progressivism. (Theodore Roosevelt was also influenced by the German philosophy of Hegel’s day, as Jean Yarbrough has shown).
Ronald Pestritto demonstrated the connection in his book Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism, which Scott Johnson and I discussed in this Weekly Standard article. Hegel’s historicism was irresistible to Wilson, who wrote, “the philosophy of any time is, as Hegel says, ‘nothing but the spirit of the time expressed in abstract thought.’”
Wilson took Hegel so much to heart that, in a love letter to his future wife, he observed that “Hegel used to search for–and in most cases find, it seems to me–the fundamental psychological facts of society.” And Wilson’s writing about the State, about administration, and about the U.S. Constitution all are founded in Hegel’s historicism.
As Scott and I argued, one can draw a straight line from Wilson’s Hegelianism to liberal constitutional theory. Wilson endorsed the emerging, Darwinian-inspired theory of a “living Constitution” under which that document’s original meaning must take a back seat whenever it stands in the way of the march of History.
The Hegelian spirit of the modern American left — manifest in pronouncements about the Living Constitution and the end of debate — is everywhere to be found. Notice, for example, how quickly Team Obama declares that those who do or say things it doesn’t like are “on the wrong side of history” or relying on 19th century methods.
That this seems to be just about the strongest condemnation Team Obama can muster (e.g., against Putin) seems laughable to conservatives. But for Hegelians the charge is pure damnation.
Hegel’s historicism is, at root, authoritarian, if not totalitarian. When you are on the wrong side of history you aren’t just mistaken, you’re the enemy of “the rational unity” — “the absolute idea.” You are part of the “ash heap of history” (to quote Trotsky), and those who are on the right side of history will be happy to escort your remains there.
Hegel inspired the worst totalitarian excesses of the 20th century. No one should be surprised at the 21st century authoritarian tendencies of Hegel’s ideological heirs, American Progressives, or at the excesses they would like to impose.
STEVE adds: Well put and exactly right. I know Joel and have had some cordial arguments with him about exactly this point. He doesn’t get it, chiefly because he just doesn’t have much theoretical imagination. Plus, he comes from the Left himself (though he’s moved far far in our direction), and still has some sentimental attachment to much of the practical reformism of the old Progressive Era, which, to be sure, wasn’t all bad. But the pernicious theoretical doctrines now form the core of the increasingly Authoritarian Left.