In an age of darkness, glimpses of light are rare — but all the brighter for it. As the censorious progressivism embraced by Joe Biden and much of his Democratic party grows into an increasingly pervasive quasi-religion, ordinary people are finding ways to push back. Like democratic Leftists in the Cold War, old-style liberals are becoming a key force in challenging today’s new orthodoxies.
And this rising tide of liberal apostasy, coupled with a growing pushback from grassroots businesses and consumers, represents a far more profound challenge to the established order than the one routinely mounted by conservatives. In the Renaissance, the impetus for change did not come from Jews, Muslims, devil-worshippers or pagans, but devout Christians such as Erasmus, Luther and Calvin.
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In our era, the most powerful critics of progressive theology once again tilt to the Left: Andrew Sullivan, Matt Taibbi, Ruy Teixeira, to name but three. Their apostasy rises to uphold the basic principles once central to liberalism — equality of opportunity, free speech, and open inquiry. This battle is also reminiscent of the struggle waged by the Renaissance critics of the all-powerful Catholic Church. Today, it’s not bishops or popes who seek control, but the oligarchs and their media platforms which, with the sometimes exception of Twitter, favour a censorship regime that brands dissidents largely as purveyors of “misinformation”.
Like earlier apostates, religious or scientific, ours face an uphill struggle. They must contend with forces within the C-suite and, particularly, academia, where even the sciences are now constrained by ideological edicts. This is where the money flows, often to a host of non-profits, some secretly funded, that spread the gospels of censorship, police reduction, indoctrination in schools and an apocalyptic environmental agenda. One problem the apostates face is therefore an obvious one: despite often impressive media resumes, their research rarely makes it into the mainstream, their voices being carried no further than Twitter, Substack and the more broad-minded corners of the media.
This pushback comes at a propitious time, extending beyond a few dissident intellectuals to the grassroots and business moguls such as Elon Musk, Ken Griffin and Bernie Marcus. The latter, in particular, understand that the new progressive orthodoxy undermines the entire system by embracing anti-capitalist memes and reducing the role of merit in a system built around it. And so a critical front has been the rebellion against ESG (environmental, social, governance) standards. Many US states have moved to take their pension funds out of firms that embrace this ideology; some investment houses, notably Vanguard and upstart Thrive Asset Management, are eschewing corporate policies that stress climate change and other issues over fiduciary obligation to investors.. The fact that returns to ESG firms have been poor, when compared with those tied to fossil fuels and basic industries, could presage a further awakening among financial and business leaders that the balance sheet, rather than ideological back-slapping, constitutes the primary mission of business.
More important still, apostasy is also rising among the general population. The pressure for reparations, for example, is opposed by upwards of two-thirds of Americans. All major ethnic groups, notes Pew, reject race quotas, including African-Americans; overall, almost three in four oppose this, as do a majority of both Democrats and Republicans.
In the race debate, the role of black apostates is particularly critical. As John McWhorter has long argued, preferential policies encourage “therapeutic alienation” among black people and other minorities — leading some to adopt a mentality of “anger and scapegoating”, instead of doing “the work needed for success”. In the bizarre world of modern progressivism, any opposition to this agenda is “racist”, even if it comes from people who support equal rights and access to opportunity. Critics of race-based discrimination such as McWhorter and Glenn Loury are far from Klansmen incarnate.
Similarly, assaults on European culture have proven unlikely to win over the masses in these countries, the bulk of whom still express some pride in their heritage. The notion that Western societies are eternally oppressive and racist seems a bit of a stretch given that millions of Africans, Middle Easterners, and south Asians continue to flock to these countries, largely to experience higher levels of economic and cultural freedom. The progressive assault on heritage also is likely to stir up far-Right sentiment, as we can see in France, Denmark, and, perhaps most dangerously, Germany.
The ever-more edgy cultural agenda of the Left, particularly its obsession with transgenderism, provides additional fuel for apostasy. People generally believe in the existence of two genders, and are hostile to efforts to impose either sexual or explicitly political curricula on young people. The idea of parental rights, for example — making sure parents are informed if their child decides to transition — has broad support, including nearly four-fifths of Californians, reflecting what appear to be national trends. In defiance of the transgender advocacy from the White House down, the opposition to sporting categories based on gender, rather than sex, has actually grown over the last two years, with even more Democrats now opposed to the practice than in favour.
Critically — and, no doubt, shocking for some — many opposing the progressive agenda are themselves minorities. In Britain and Europe, for example, Muslims tend to be more religious and socially conservative than whites, and Indians, particularly Hindus, have been drifting Right-wards for a generation. In America, surveys show that foreign-born Americans are also more culturally conservative than the native-born.
Perhaps the most economically significant apostasy relates to climate-change policy. Despite growing moves to censor contrary opinions, here the liberal apostates are not classic deniers or oil company executives, but respected scientists such as former Obama advisor Steve Koonin, and climate scientists Roger Pielke and Judith Curry. Even some environmentalists — including Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore — openly denounce “Net Zero” and “de-growth” policies as both impractical and deeply flawed. They recognise that these policies are already leading to the immiseration of poorer people, particularly in California and Germany. They are not calling for an end to climate change mitigation, but for policies that are more realistic and less economically damaging for the working and middle classes.
And then there are grassroots protests at European governments’ attempts to impose emission reductions on farmers and ban chemical fertilisers — regulatory moves at a time when food prices are rising throughout the West. Efforts to reduce agricultural output, now being suggested in the United States and Canada, also could have dire consequences for billions in the developing world. It’s hardly surprising, then, that there is growing scepticism about climate policies globally; in surveys, it barely registers as a priority for people either in Africa or the US where, according to Gallup, climate is stated as a primary concern for barely 2% of the population.
Other troubles, notably the loss of industry amid soaring energy costs, are already creating a popular backlash, which has been a boon for the far-Right in Germany and Italy, among others. Some centrist regimes have taken fright, with France’s Emmanuel Macron stepping back from climate extremism. Less than a year ago, Germany signed an EU target to ban the sale of cars with internal combustion engines by 2035, but quickly backtracked.
Overall, for all the talk of ideological polarisation, public opinion may well be tilting more towards the apostates than those of the progressive zealots. Despite the media profile of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow “Squad” members, the majority of Democrat members consider themselves moderate or conservative, while barely one in four sees themselves as “very liberal”.
Of course, even with public support, supporters of traditional liberal values face a number of challenges when it comes to enacting meaningful political change. But there is some good news. Many companies are now rethinking their marketing strategies in the face of negative consumer reaction. There are even glimmers of hope for liberal apostasy in some big cities, as demonstrated by the election of New York’s pro-police Eric Adams and San Francisco’s recall of progressive school board members.
As was the case during the Reformation, the apostate’s course is still not an easy one. But their critique remains critical to undermining the current progressive theology — a far more effective weapon than the reactionary antics of DeSantis, which are focused primarily on Right-leaning GOP voters. In contrast, the apostates speak the same language and share many of the values that once constituted progressive ideals. They are, in other words, both the key to restoring rationality — and to keeping liberalism alive for future generations.