When they are making big change — the American Revolution, busting the trusts — these conservative radicals channel revolutionary impulses into reformist action. Lincoln had to slowly bring a whole nation around to the abolition of slavery. He had to compromise and gather a broad coalition to pass the 13th Amendment.
Today, we’re in the middle of another historic transition when dramatic change is necessary if we are to preserve what we love about America. The crises tearing our society are well known: economic inequality, racial injustice, dissolving families and communities, a crisis of legitimacy.
To some, this feels like a revolutionary moment. In Commentary, for example, Abe Greenwald argues that the radicals have seized control. They are pushing radical agendas (No police! No rent!). Worse, they undermine the liberal fundamentals of our democracy — the belief that democracy is a search for truth from a wide variety of perspectives; the belief that America is a noble experiment worth defending.
Many people smell in today’s radicalism the whiff of revolutions past: the destructive brutality of the French Revolution, the vicious thought police of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the naked power grabs of Lenin’s Soviet revolution.
I am not as alarmed. I’m convinced that the forces that brought Joe Biden the nomination are far more powerful than a few extremists in Portland and even the leftist illiberals on campus. I’m hopeful that if given power, Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will forge a new conservative radicalism.
They have spent their lives within the liberal system, understand politics, understand radicalism’s advantages and dangers. They’re drawing support from an astonishingly wide swath of the ideological spectrum. I’m convinced that if Donald Trump is defeated, revolutionary zealotry will fade as debates over practical change and legislation dominate.
During crises like these, each of us has to take a stand, to be clear on which causes we champion and which position we occupy on the political landscape. This is hard, because we’re in a period of flux.