A History of Progress and Backlash

  • Two items about Fareed Zakaria and his new book;
  • Robert Reich on Roger Ailes;
  • How “DEI” is now substituting for the N-word.


There’s a new book out this week by Fareed Zakaria, whose 2020 book, Ten Lessons for a Post-Pandemic World, I quite admired. (Review here.)

So I bought the new one too, which is about “progress and backlash from 1600 to the present,” a theme which fascinates me. Why are so many people so eager to abandon the progress made since the Enlightenment, both in politics (democracy) and science (the anti-vaxxers and flat earthers and…)

NY Times, David Brooks, 28 Mar 2024: The Great Struggle for Liberalism

The columnist calls this an “important new book,” and summarizes its argument. Let’s see if I can find the gist of his conclusion.

I’m one of those people who subscribes to the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s doctrine: “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life.” To feel at home in the world, people need to see themselves serving some good — doing important work, loving others well, living within coherent moral communities, striving on behalf of some set of ideals.

The great liberal societies that Zakaria describes expanded and celebrated individual choice and individual freedom. But when liberalism thrived, that personal freedom lay upon a foundation of commitments and moral obligations that precede choice: our obligations to our families, to our communities and nations, to our ancestors and descendants, to God or some set of transcendent truths.

Over the past few generations, the celebration of individual freedom has overspilled its banks and begun to erode the underlying set of civic obligations. …

OK, well, this sounds like standard David Brooks, always bemoaning the lack of “shared” values as the rights of variously previously demonized groups claim their identity and value.

Trust is the faith that other people will do what they ought to do. When there are no shared moral values and norms, then social trust plummets. People feel alienated and under siege, and, as Hannah Arendt observed, lonely societies turn to authoritarianism. People eagerly follow the great leader and protector, the one who will lead the us/them struggle that seems to give life meaning.

So I can’t tell if this is Zakaria’s conclusion, or if this is what Brooks sees in Zakaria’s book, something he’s already written/preached about many times.


Meanwhile, we have a piece today from Zakaria himself. (Too bad the photo for the piece is of the odious Ronna McDaniel.)

Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria, 29 Mar 2024: Opinion | Liberals should tread carefully when confronting Trumpism

He uses the example of Ronna McDaniel to warn about the dangers of “canceling” people with other points of view. (Well, but her points of view were false; and NBC could have had her on their shows to express them, without paying her $300,000 a year, seems to be the consensus criticism.)

But Zakaria does tie this to his new book. The column concludes,

As I write in my new book, “Age of Revolutions,” the new populist right’s disdain for liberal democracy is frightening, constituting the gravest threat we face to our political future. But the left also has its excesses in this direction. Many “want to dispense with some of liberalism’s rules and procedures. … They want to ban those who have ‘wrong’ ideas from speaking. They want to achieve racial equality by quota or decree. They want to use education or art to achieve political goals rather than educational or artistic ones. Convinced of the virtue of their ideas in theory — say, the rights of asylum seekers — they are comfortable pushing this abstract notion of virtue onto a reluctant society. But top-down revolutionary actions, from the uncompromising left or the reactionary right, often cause more turmoil than progress.”

Donald Trump’s brand of right-wing populism is illiberal and xenophobic and takes America into dark dead-ends. But the way to defeat it in a liberal democracy is not by using legal mechanisms that take him off the political playing field and canceling those who support him. Rather it is to debate his allies, to put forward powerful and persuasive positions that show Americans that you can address their concerns, and to confront Trump on the political battlefield — and beat him.

OK, and the extreme left is guilty of “canceling” people they don’t like, especially speakers on campuses, as Jonathan Haidt described in his book The Coddling of the American Mind, another book I’ve read in the past six months but still not written up here. But — are the extremes of the left and right equally bad? Was NBC, and now Zakaria, bending over backward to try to acknowledge people who want to dismantle democracy and impose authoritarianism? A false equivalence?


This goes to the audience for Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. I saw Robert Reich on the Berkeley campus 11 months ago, as advised here, and discussed, along with a review of one of his books, here.

Substack, Robert Reich, 29 Mar 2024: When Roger Ailes and I didn’t make a deal, subtitled “A short biography of a bully”

Roger Ailes did more to degrade the tone of public life in America than anyone since Joseph McCarthy.

He describes in some detail being invited to Ailes’ office in New York City in 1998. (Years later, it came to light that Ailes had “sexually harassed and attacked a slew of women,” forcing his resignation from Fox News in July 2016; he died ten months later.) Ailes had something in mind for Reich to do on his network, but never followed up. Now, Reich recounts Ailes’ background and career.

I’m no psychoanalyst, but I’d guess that the combination of a fearsome disease, a cruel father, and a distant mother might produce someone who wanted to inflict fear and pain in others.

Ailes thought of Warren as the real America, which had been degraded by eggheads and the snobs.

Ailes was also credited with what he called the “Orchestra Pit Theory” of political coverage: “If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, ‘I have a solution to the Middle East problem,’ and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?”

Along the way, Ailes discovered that a continuous on-air mixture of lies, nastiness, derisive humor, and paranoid conspiracy theories — directed at liberals, Democrats, and nebulous “coastal elites” — would grab millions of viewers, and make him very rich.

And here’s what struck me, and why I’m posting this.

Ailes also knew that with the end of Soviet communism, the political right needed an overarching demonic force. He found it in America’s cultural left. Ailes instructed his producers to find far-left Democrats, unhinged left-wing professors, and liberal eccentrics with positions on gays, lesbians, trans people, immigrants, Black people, and crime that mainstream conservative viewers would find deeply offensive.

Here’s the key, rather like with the conspiracy theories about the Baltimore bridge: “the political right needed an overarching demonic force.” They need to have someone to blame. They think of the world in simplistic, black and white, terms of good and evil. Reich’s post concludes:

[By 2016] Fox had become presidential candidate Donald Trump’s chief enabler. The same evening Ailes left Fox, Trump accepted the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, and delivered a speech about America’s descent into crime and chaos, directed toward people whom Ailes had discovered and cultivated over two decades — mostly lacking college degrees, overwhelmingly white, older, largely rural, and bitter over being economically bullied and left behind by an establishment that barely knew they existed.

In other words, the bully Roger Ailes bequeathed to the bully Donald Trump a bullied working class.


Here’s an item that suggests that the MAGA crowd attacks “DEI” as a substitution for their racism.

Joe.My.God, 28 Mar 2024: Baltimore Mayor Reacts To Racist Attacks By Cultists: “They Don’t Have The Courage To Say The N-Word”

The mayor of Baltimore is black, you see, and so assumed by the racists to be incompetent, and therefore a beneficiary of DEI programs. Several interesting responses to the initial tweet at the link, including from S.E. Cupp: “They’re not even whistling anymore. He’s black, therefore, untrustworthy. And at a time of immense tragedy. They have no shame.”


Every day I reread and copy-edit my post from the evening before. If this comment is still here, I have not yet done so for this post.

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