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“Heads, I win, tails, you lose”

The rules of the progressive playbook


“Heads, I win, tails, you lose”
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Remember those optical illusion drawings that try to trick the eye from identifying the object within your field of vision? Once you see it, though, you cannot unsee it. The eye tends to frame everything else in the picture around the mystery object once it is seen.

Something similar has happened to me of late in observing what passes for the presumption of normal in our public debates. Or at least what appears to be the intentional imbalance of the defaults set by elite culture. Now, I see the pattern everywhere. I grew up believing that citizens within a liberal democracy—including reporters and politicians—valued equality, objectivity, and fair-mindedness as ways of getting to the truth. But are those who do now the exception?

Whether it goes by the name of getting so-called “red-pilled” or what the intellectual Irving Kristol referred to as getting “mugged by reality,” I’ve lost my Bambi-like innocence over the empty promises of “liberal neutrality” that our culture supposedly cherishes. Here’s what I’ve learned: Progressivism, the ideology that occupies the levers of power over virtually every elite sector in America, does not feel it necessary to play by the same rules it expects others to play by. If it did, it would welcome debate, but because fair debate would require it to answer for its half-truths, biased framings, and hypocrisies, it protects itself from accountability.

Consider four recent examples.

Liberalism relied upon raw judicial supremacy to get its abortion-on-demand outcome in Roe v. Wade in 1973. Even honest legal progressives will admit that the U.S. Supreme Court created a flimsy right to abortion in the Constitution, basically legislating from the bench. But now that conservatives form the court’s majority and have acted to rein in judicial supremacy, liberals are howling that precedent and tradition have been violated. Legislating from the court is good only when it results in outcomes favorable to liberalism. Heads, I win, tails, you lose.

In its morning newsletter from June 30, The New York Times declared that “in other advanced democracies, the courts are more restrained.” More restrained than what? Notice what just occurred here. A Supreme Court defined by closer adherence to the Constitution’s text and tradition is considered unrestrained by the Times. That’s precisely backward as far as judicial philosophy is concerned. Again, heads I win, tails you lose.

Liberals will accept only properly domesticated conservatives.

Chasten Buttigieg, the so-called “husband” of U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, sarcastically tweeted his approval of Justice Brett Kavanaugh facing harassment at a Washington, D.C., eatery. Amid the anguished protests of progressives’ (often justified) concerns about the decline of “norms” and “institutions” during the Trump years, the “spouse” of a sitting Cabinet secretary endorses mob-like tactics. Had a conservative counterexample done this, The New York Times and The Atlantic would have sent out push notifications with scolding think pieces about the demise of democracy, but liberals can subvert democratic norms with impunity. Once more, heads, I win, tails, you lose.

In one of the most grotesque comments ever made by a sitting U.S. senator, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts inveighed against crisis pregnancy centers for supposedly deceiving women—er, well, “pregnant persons”—into keeping their children. If you can believe it, she wants to sponsor legislation that would ban non-profits from encouraging mothers not to kill their children. Keep in mind, that Warren is as mainstream as mainstream can be according to elite standards. This only goes to show you that liberalism is accustomed to treating what is extreme as very normal. Say it again: Heads, I win, tails, you lose.

Each of these examples demonstrates a fundamental asymmetry in how topics in our culture are discussed. If one identifies as a progressive, you are afforded the benefits that elite society assumes are defaults. If one identifies as a conservative, one must disprove a negative—that you aren’t a troglodytic species lacking a developed intelligence and the “right” moral judgments. Liberals will accept only properly domesticated conservatives.

One solution to all this is to give no regard to what our cultural betters within the ruling class expect of us. Just don’t play by their rules. To calibrate one’s career by elite respectability and ruling-class sentiment is a recipe for slow-motion compromise.

We should not, as some suggest, jettison liberal democracy—or proper decorum—as though they are the problems. The real problem is the dishonesty of our cultural elites. They continually tip the scales in their favor. Conservatives must insist on debate, keeping interlocutors honest as much as possible, and calling out hypocrisy as we see it (even as we seek earnestly to avoid it ourselves). The elite rulebook shows up in just about every public debate—recognized by those who have ears to hear and eyes to see.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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