On Tuesday, Barton Swaim of the Wall Street Journal gave a lecture on Amer­ica’s cul­tural and political trends and where the country is headed. Asa Hoffman | Collegian

We are living in Robert Bork’s America, and it’s the fault of lib­er­alism, according to Barton Swaim.

Swaim, a political books columnist for the Wall Street Journal and the spring 2021 Eugene C. Pulliam Dis­tin­guished Vis­iting Fellow in Jour­nalism, gave a public lecture on April 20, titled, “You Can’t Argue with the Righteous: Is Political Debate a Thing of the Past?” 

At the U.S. Senate hearings for Robert Bork’s nom­i­nation to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987, then-senator Ted Kennedy from Mass­a­chussets famously smeared “Robert Bork’s America” as a place where “women would be forced into back-alley abor­tions, blacks would sit at seg­re­gated lunch counters, rogue police could break down cit­izens’ doors in mid­night raids, and school­children could not be taught about evo­lution, writers and artists could be cen­sored at the whim of the gov­ernment, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of mil­lions of citizens.”

Swaim argued that Kennedy’s pre­diction has come true, not as a result of Reagan’s failed Supreme Court nominee or the work of con­ser­v­a­tives, nor because Kennedy was a political prophet. Rather, this is a direct result of pro­gressive lib­er­alism, Swaim said. 

This is because American lib­er­alism has trans­muted into some­thing new, Swaim said. While lib­er­alism set out to end seg­re­gation, to protect freedom of speech, to bring about radical sexual autonomy, and to expand the welfare state, it suc­ceeded at each of these goals long ago and is thus grasping for new goals which undercut those it achieved. 

“Lib­er­alism has long since accom­plished whatever it was going to accom­plish,” he said. “It has failed in whatever it was prone to fail at, and there is nothing left for it to do.”

You cannot argue with lib­erals, Swaim said, because they see their cause as inher­ently righteous, and all who dis­agree with them as inher­ently “racist,” “sexist” or part of a “weird reli­gious cult,” as in the case of Asso­ciate Justice of the Supreme Court Amy Coney Barrett. 

“But what else can pro­gres­sives do?” Swaim asked. “They have enormous power, but are bereft of a coherent philosophy.”

Where is it headed? Swaim, a Pres­by­terian, offered a Christian solution. 

“The United States is a fun­da­men­tally reli­gious nation. I think what is moti­vating the aggressive behavior on the left, espe­cially among the young, is, in my view, a reli­gious impulse,” Swaim said. “The desire to find meaning con­verging in some kind of struggle — hence the har­rowing spec­tacles of public con­fes­sions in the absence of wrong­doing; hence the pro­mul­gation of strict codes of speech and conduct; hence the refusal to reason, or con­sider counter evi­dence — again, you can’t reason with the righteous. These, and I say this as a reli­gious person myself, are the worst man­i­fes­ta­tions of reli­gious symbols.”

The solution, for Swaim, is found in religion, rightly con­strued: cen­tered in the church and gov­erned by scripture. 

“If the churches and syn­a­gogues stop trying to keep up and start pro­claiming their dis­tinctive and ancient mes­sages without apology, the whole cul­tural and political land­scape could change,” Swaim said. “I don’t know how it could change. But if we rob pro­gres­sivism of its appeal, we might destroy it alto­gether. You can’t reason with the righteous, but as Jesus Christ showed us, you can reason with the unrighteous.”

Eliz­abeth Schlueter, wife of Nathan Schlueter, pro­fessor of phi­losophy, asked Swaim if pro­gres­sivism is related to Marxism.

“I really appre­ciated your locating the heart of the new pro­gres­sivism in this reli­gious impulse,” Schlueter said. “When you described it, several of the ele­ments you men­tioned reminded me of Marxist ide­ology in its heyday, espe­cially perhaps its begin­nings. And I wonder if you think this new impulse has any relation or might be a mutation of Marxist ide­ology or is it some­thing entirely dif­ferent, in your opinion?”

Swaim said they are related: Marxism has always been a man­i­fes­tation of a reli­gious impulse, at a basic level, and American pro­gres­sivism has always had a Marxism element. 

Dis­tin­guished Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of History Darryl Hart said he agreed with Swaim’s argument that pro­gres­sivism is unsustainable. 

“I don’t under­stand why the cul­tural elites can’t see that,” Hart said. “Even the cor­po­ra­tions — they want to sell their products. It’s a strange phe­nomenon that people would be so com­mitted to an ideal, assum­ingly, and then not worry about the results.”

He added that using Kennedy as a frame was clever.

“There was a fair amount of red meat in it — in a good way, it was maybe medium-rare,” Hart said. “And of course, he ended with an appeal to religion, and that being perhaps a source of hope and sta­bility for the future.”