It seems almost trite to describe my experience at Yale as a world-class education. The teachers are phenomenal, the resources unparalleled, and my fellow students brilliant. However, there is a reason that Yale’s sticker price is around $73,000, despite many of the classes being available online: you learn a lot outside of the classroom. Being from Indiana, I had never really been exposed to truly radical politics. Of course, I had experienced plenty of liberals, both in my home and community, but I had never really encountered a “burn-it-down” mentality before showing up on Old Campus. Such a mentality abounds. I encountered more anti-capitalists in my first week at Yale than probably exist in the state of Indiana. The Yale extracurricular bazaar is a sea of opportunities to help those in need. Siren songs of radical leftism periodically blow up my Facebook. And yet, I’ve come to realize something which has puzzled me: progressivism is, in many manifestations, a particularly elitist ideology. 

I imagine this statement is a tad bracing. After all, progressive politics seem to be organized around helping the least and last among us; in that sense, it is anti-elitist. In the material realm, this seems to be true. Critiques of capitalism by the left involve blistering attacks on the most privileged among us (who, ironically, make up most of Yale’s student population). Movements to defund the police do not come out of any deep-seated desire to preserve systems of power. If we were merely discussing the material preconditions, I would concede that progressives are, in no sense of the word, elitist. However, progressivism does not merely concern itself with the material; “Man shall not live by bread alone” (Matthew 4:4 KJV). It concerns itself with the entirety of human affairs. Here is where the elitism comes into play. 

Firstly, it is useful to clarify the core of progressivism, as I see it. This core is a concern regarding power structures. The goal of progressive politics is to tear down unequal power structures wherever they are, at least as much as feasibly possible. In many ways, this is a laudable goal. As one example, the edifice of white supremacy, the American power structure par excellence, ought to be dismantled. To wipe white supremacy off the face of the earth is to do the work of the Lord. However, the way progressives undertake this task is to detonate the entire system. 

Race is not the only structure they seek to upend. Progressives, at least in their more radical moments, want to destroy the gender binary, open up traditional nuclear family units, and paint national identity as crypto-racism. They are leery of organized religion, to say the least. The unifying feature of the “conservative” social orders targeted by progressives is that they are non-voluntary. In the eyes of the conservative, one does not get to choose one’s gender or one’s nation. These are social roles that we play out on a stage made by others. Progressives see imposed identities as yet another insidious avenue through which power can corrupt. They would like to see a world in which everything is up to the individual; a world in which the things we cannot control do not constrain us. 

This is elitist because it assumes the experience of a Yale student can be universalized. As a Yale student, I will never want for meaning in my life. I am lauded for my intelligence and hard work (regardless of how accurate the praise is); I am likely to work in a field or for an employer that society values. If the American meritocracy is in any way real, Yale students are the winners. This is not even getting into the fact that I am wealthy and white. The American “meritocracy” works great for me. The obvious question is, what about the losers? In the progressivism I’ve described above, all forms of meaning which are non-voluntary ought to be expunged from our consciousness. Where does this leave those who are left behind by our meritocracy? By its very nature, meritocracies provide meaning to the successful. If we are interested in providing meaning to everyone, we should seek to preserve non-voluntary forms of meaning. 

This is the great insight of conservatism: we love things not because they are great, but because they are ours. I am a proud Hoosier not because of any intrinsic characteristic of Indiana (though there are many), but because it is mine. I would be disappointed if someone didn’t feel the same way about Washington or Kansas. Similarly, many people derive great meaning from their imposed gender identity. Fathers feel that their sacrifices are worth it not because they are parents, but because they are fathers. Last month, I started volunteering at a local homeless shelter. One of the volunteers was a drug addict who has been clean for over a decade. His secret? The love of Christ. One of the beautiful things about Christianity is that we do not earn God’s love. Faith is “the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9 NIV). In our society, there will always be those at the lower rungs. For them, non-voluntary forms of meaning is all they have. We should not strip that which gives their lives dignity. 

It is not as if involuntary meaning is without its shortcomings. Race comes to mind as an involuntary identity. White people historically have derived much meaning from their racial identity. They also fought fiercely to preserve the prerogatives that they thought whites deserved. Here, it is important to distinguish between identity as privilege, and identity as meaning. Group supremacy, like white supremacy, falls into the first category. As a function of whiteness, certain things are deserved, ranging from segregated facilities to indigenous land to slave ownership. Another example is the patriarchy, in which men are entitled to exclusive control over the public sphere. It is exclusive, exclusionary, and distinct from identity as meaning. The function of identity as meaning is not to provide you with material things. Being a Connecticuter does not make you better than your neighbor. Being a father doesn’t prevent anyone else from being one as well. This form of identity doesn’t benefit you; in fact, it can require things of you. If we care about meaning, this is the identity that needs to be preserved.

One key question is whether malignant identity can be rehabilitated. Can we turn group supremacy into harmless meaning? After all, there is a reason that pride in white identity is only the domain of Neo-Nazis and Neo-Confederates: it is intrinsically bound up in the economic and political superiority of whites. We don’t see how you can be proud to be white without being a racist and a white supremacist. However, this doesn’t seem to be true for every example of group supremacy. Albeit imperfectly, male identity can be expressed without implicit superiority over women. Similarly, British national pride in the nineteenth century was extremely warlike and militaristic; it also trafficked in the supposed supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race. Nowadays, British national pride seems relatively benign (depending on one’s view of Brexit). In at least some cases, harmful identities can be moderated into beneficial ones.  

The second issue is that meaning might lead us away from what’s important; it’ll cause us to take our eye off the ball. Much of the argument so far is that there are those in our society who are poor, maligned, and forgotten. They have no economic opportunity, and their chance at dignity is being dismantled piece by piece. An obvious question might arise: “Why not just give them economic opportunity?” It is not obvious why we cannot just provide enough economic opportunity to obviate the need for involuntary meaning. This is compelling, but there will always be some people who fall off the wagon. Even if we have a perfectly meritocratic education, there will be those who don’t get into college. Even if our prison system becomes just, people will still be incarcerated. No matter how well we handle the opioid epidemic, there will be those whose substance addiction makes it difficult to take advantage of opportunity, no matter how plentiful. In short, there will always be those at the margins, for whom all the economic opportunity in the world will be insufficient; this doesn’t mean they don’t deserve dignity as well. 

The problem with progressivism is two-fold. The first is that the destruction of tradition doesn’t leave meaning for the unsuccessful in our society. The second is that it is cavalier about stripping that meaning. It may be true that people can find other forms of meaning in life. Perhaps being a good father can be replaced by being a good parent. A proud American can instead be a proud citizen of the world. But this strikes me as a bit presumptuous.  My love of Indiana is not easily replaceable. One cannot choose to grow up where they do; they also cannot love any other place in the same way. If we decided to redistribute the world at random into new countries, it would be hard to create a new nationalism. Heck, one need only look at modern Africa to see the difficulty of synthetic nationalism. 

Meaning is fickle and cannot be easily replicated. It is not pliable or malleable, or even durable. It cannot be created in a lab or a government building, and once destroyed it is difficult to resurrect. Pres. Josiah Bartlett of The West Wing says of heirlooms: “Something with a history, so we can say, ‘my father gave this to me, his father gave this to me; now I’m giving this to you’” (The West Wing S2E8). This meaning is valuable almost because it can’t be made; the beauty of history is that it is organically meaningful. We understand this intuitively when we talk about things like family history, but it’s more broadly applicable.  

Now, the death of meaning doesn’t matter to me personally, because I will be insulated no matter the outcome. Yale students, as bright, upwardly mobile people, need not fear a meaningless life. Despite this, there are millions of people today who find meaning in their lives from the structures that progressives want to destroy. There are drug addicts who are clean by the grace of God; there are mothers who reckon their sacrifices worth it for their children. Many give for their country selflessly. This should not prevent us from making a more equitable society. It does not preclude racial justice, nor a more egalitarian economic policy. All it does is circumscribe the change we should be trying to bring about. It is improving lives without removing what makes them meaningful now. While it is conceptually possible that all of this current meaning can be replaced, it strikes me as arrogant to make such a gamble.  

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