There are many moments in American history that have been significant because they have informed the principles of America’s traditional ideology of liberalism, but none as important as the present period since America’s founding. The United States is at a “1776 moment” of ideological transformation.
The American Revolution of 1776 was a change of political ideology from constitutional monarchy to liberalism. Today, the ideological transformation is from liberalism to progressivism. Like its antecedent, our “1776 moment” was decades in the making. A progressive elite first targeted and then replaced a liberal one. What has occurred over the last generation should be considered a revolution, even if it is too soon to tell whether it is a successful and lasting one.
Historically, the United States has possessed a single dominant ideology of liberalism that sustained itself from previous ideological challengers. Liberalism is a political ideology that promises liberty for the individual. It employs the concept of inalienable rights and individual freedoms. These ideas and principles are expressed in America’s founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights—and have been echoed in American political ideas, practices, tradition, and culture since the American Revolution of 1776.
The ideology of progressivism is now prominent in contemporary American left-wing politics. A symptom of our “1776 moment” is that the Democrats, once stalwart liberals, have become progressives, which means, in fact, they have become socialists.
Progressivism’s origins are in the thought of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, and the Frankfurt School. Gramsci and the Frankfurt School recognized that conditions for the working class were too good in the West for a Leninist revolution to occur. There would be no revolt by the workers on the factory floor as Marx and Engels assumed. Revolutionary change would come through culture, shifting bourgeois culture to revolutionary socialist culture. This revolution could be executed over decades of gradual change.
Gramsci identified ideology as the key both to social change and stable social order. For the proletariat to win required the emergence of a new stratum of intellectuals who will undermine and supplant bourgeois ideology. For Gramsci, the task was to create new proletarian ideology appropriate for the West, which will undermine popular consent to the reigning point of view—the “hegemonic ideology.”
The educational system was of central importance to shape subsequent generations’ perceptions of the right and proper political and social system for Western states. The path to communism was different in the West than in Russia, its tools would largely be cultural and ideological, but the end would be the same.
The Frankfurt School—most significantly Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Max Horkheimer, and Herbert Marcuse—advanced a similar message. This would evolve into a new social theory called critical theory. Its tools were what they termed the “culture industry,” by which they meant the tools and processes to manufacture culture: film, radio and television, literature, theater, print; and which broadened to include psychology, journalism, educational systems, including universities, philanthropic foundations, and publishing houses. In actuality, the “culture industry” should be conceived of as a component of the “ideas industry” since they sought to overthrow liberal ideas with progressive ones.
The ideas of Gramsci and the Frankfurt School serve as the intellectual foundation of progressivism. While the objectives of progressivism are anchored in critical theory, the ideology has flowed throughout American society, but especially in journalism, education, civil society, and as the foundation for critical race theory (CRT)—it has become the dominant ideology for American elites.
The consequences of progressivism are revolutionary: the replacement of liberal ideology and culture with its progressive alternative. Americans live at a “1776 moment” where governing principles, law, and society are changing to what Americans have never known. This revolution is altering how America defines itself, its interests, culture, and position in the world. The beneficiaries are America’s enemies, most significantly China, which watches with glee while the United States tears the sources of its great strength—its ideology and society—apart.
What makes our ideological struggle worse is that American society is caught between liberalism and progressivism. Americans do not know which should be obeyed, or perhaps even which is legitimate. The plan of progressivism is clear, and to prevent it requires a renaissance of liberalism to assert America’s political ideology, culture, and history. Doing so will prevent the slide of the United States into a totalitarian country. To reinvigorate liberalism requires a transition as great as that which has occurred from liberalism to progressivism. There are three major steps needed.
First, it requires capturing the ideas industry that the critical theorists identified and successfully seized. The most important of the ideas industry are K-12 and university education, but also journalism, social media, film, streaming services, music, and other elements of popular culture, philanthropic foundations, and publishing houses. This is singularly difficult to achieve precisely because progressives control the ideas industry. They also dominate the dissemination of those ideas through media and social media. The ideas industry has to be recaptured or alternatives found, as must alternative ways of disseminating ideas.
Second, part of the solution for liberals is to study progressivism’s success. What is needed is for liberals to wage a “war of positions” as Gramsci advocated. To assist the liberal response, a Frankfurt School for liberalism is needed to study progressivism. It is incomprehensible that such an institution does not already exist. Liberal donors must come forward to create it. A School of Liberalism would be able to analyze the causes of progressivism, how does it function, and what will be its consequences for American society and its place in the world. Moreover, it could answer fundamental questions, including revealing progressivism’s weaknesses.
Third, fundamentally, leadership is essential to counter progressivism, inspire liberals, and devise their strategy for victory. Until liberals can devise a strategy to sustain their ideology and permit it to flourish in this period of ideological upheaval, they will continue to lose public policy battles and their ideology will continue to ebb. Freedom beats tyranny hands down. As more Americans recognize this, the country is ripe for a renaissance of liberalism.
That is needed, as is a strategy for victory, and liberal leadership. Presently, none of these are in place. The window to arrest progressivism’s advances is narrowing, and liberals must organize now for the ideological struggle, or the progressives will win the “1776 moment.”