When Compact magazine launched yesterday, its website included a “Note From the Founders” laying out the shared political vision of the magazine’s three founding editors. They’re willing to publish an ideologically diverse range of writers, they say, but their “editorial choices are shaped” by a “desire for a strong social-democratic state that defends community — local and national, familial and religious — against a libertine left and a libertarian right.”
There are two problems with this vision of social democracy and social conservatism fusing together to reshape American society. The first is that, as a matter of political strategy, it’s never going to happen. The second is that, as a matter of justice, it shouldn’t happen.
Social democracy isn’t a term Americans use very often, but we at Jacobin publish about social democratic policies all the time. Medicare for All, free public higher education, universal pre-K are all social-democratic goods, along with other pro-worker policies like raising the minimum wage and lessening workplace tyranny. While our long-term horizons involve going beyond these kinds of policies that can be carried out within capitalism (“social democracy”) and envisioning a more egalitarian and democratic way of organizing the economy (“socialism”), we’re enthusiastic about any step that takes us in the right direction. That’s why we also spend a lot of time talking about what we’ll need to do in order to have any hope of achieving social democracy in America — like rebuilding the labor movement.
It’s less clear, though, what a “strong state” defending “familial and religious” community would actually look like. A look at the stated views of the three founders give us a few hints.
Sohrab Ahmari engaged in a high-profile debate in 2019 with his fellow conservative pundit David French fueled by Ahmari’s disgust with public libraries that let drag queens read to children and his suspicion that more moderate conservatives like David French are too invested in liberal ideas about individual autonomy to be willing to use the power of the state to ban such transgressions against God’s law. A second of the three cofounders, Matthew Schmitz, spends much of his initial column in Compact sneering at “Never Trump” neocons like William Kristol for not wanting to ban abortion and bemoaning the Supreme Court case Obergefell vs. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage, as having deprived socially conservative politics, “already routed from the heights of the culture,” of “what little legal support they enjoyed.”
The third member of the trio, Edwin Aponte, is the only one who isn’t a hardcore right-wing Catholic traditionalist. His own initial contribution is on debates about free speech. Offering a strange sort of quasi-Marxist analysis, he essentially says that he’s not very interested in the particulars of such debates since “whichever wing of liberal capital is in ascendancy” will inevitably censor the other. He gives two examples of such debates he says he’s indifferent to: “Does Drag Queen Story Hour at local libraries go too far?” and “Should Biblical scripture be studied as divinely inspired in public schools?”
While the rest of the magazine’s masthead likely has differing opinions (I doubt Slavoj Žižek would sign onto this), among the staff, it sounds like there are two votes for knocking down the wall of separation between church and state, and one abstention. And the abstainer is still willing to sign onto a statement of support for his envisioned “strong social-democratic state” doing something to defend faith and family against “libertine” and “libertarian” threats.
How exactly would this agenda be implemented in the real world? Compact’s founders seem to believe that the ruling class is imposing social liberalism on an unwilling majority. But the majority of our society is wildly socially liberal by historical and global standards — or even by recent American ones.
According to a recent Pew poll, fewer than 10 percent of Americans think that marijuana should be illegal, for example. Almost three quarters agree with the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage assailed by Schmitz. Two-thirds oppose laws that limit trans rights. As young conservative Nate Hochman recently acknowledged, polling shows that even young Republicans are “more liberal than their older counterparts on everything from diversity to LGBT rights to immigration to climate change.”
Few European countries have been as historically friendly to the kind of laws Schmitz or Ahmari might support to defend “familial and religious” communities against “libertine” encroachments as the Republic of Ireland — and within the last decade, abortion and same-sex marriage were both legalized there by popular referendum. And they were playing catch-up. At least until some unforeseen cultural shift dramatically realigns public attitudes, any scenario by which neo-medieval traditionalists succeed in wielding state power to smite gay people who want to get married and women who want to control their own bodies and drag queens who want to read to children at the library is a scenario by which social conservatism is imposed against the will of a large majority of the American populace.
And to make things more difficult, the pockets of support that social conservatives would have in these endeavors would disproportionately be found among the parts of the population most likely to oppose a “social-democratic state” of any kind, strong or weak: strongly partisan Republicans who may be more willing than the Republican establishment to support universal health care or a higher minimum wage, but who are much less likely to support those policies than Democrats or independents.
It’s true that the quadrant of Americans who have views that can be described as economically but not socially “progressive” is far less represented in the halls of power than in polls. But it’s a comparatively small minority of the population as a whole. And this is the least of the problems with actually trying to achieve a God-fearing, “patriarchy”-defending version of social democracy.
There is, after all, a reason why the socially-but-not-economically-conservative portion of the public gets so little meaningful political representation. Think about the difference between someone like Bernie Sanders, who manifestly lives, eats, sleeps, and breathes Medicare for All and the struggle against income inequality, and Marco Rubio, who spouts a lot of economic-populist rhetoric but in practice has standard Reaganite, anti–working class economic views.
Both of America’s political parties are controlled by the ruling class. The peculiarities of America’s undemocratic electoral laws make it nearly impossible to form a separate labor or socialist party with its own ballot line. But the Democratic Party tends to absorb the forces that would otherwise be part of such a party. Even Bernie, while technically an independent, caucuses with Democrats in the Senate, and the democratic socialists in the House were all elected as Democrats. What little political influence organized labor exercises on either party is exercised in the Democratic Party as well.
That makes the Republican Party the political home of the most militantly intransigent wing of the ruling class — and territory that will never be a home for anyone pushing an even mildly social democratic agenda. Trump governed as an enthusiastic deregulator, and his National Labor Relations Board was fervently anti-union. Even Steve Bannon was unable to explain why, if he was such a “populist,” he wasn’t even willing to support Medicare for All.
Of course, if Bernie Sanders had been elected president in 2020 and a wave of Berniecrats were elected to Congress, turning his social democratic agenda into political reality would have still been a steep uphill battle. The resistance of capital, in the Democratic Party and in every other American institution, would have been ferocious. The only long-term hope for overcoming this resistance would be a rebuilt, revitalized, and militant labor movement. In a scenario where “right-wing populist” politicians whose populism isn’t a hilariously thin pretense were actually elected, there’s no equivalent social force that could act as a counterweight to capital.
It’s reasonable to criticize the cringe-worthy excesses of performative “wokeness” or the censoriousness of elements of American progressivism. Everyone should spend less time arguing about culture and more time mobilizing around core bread-and-butter issues that can cut through unhelpful forms of political polarization. But all of that is consistent with drawing a line in the sand around core democratic principles like protecting members of every group against unjust discrimination and letting everyone live their life as they choose, free from having anyone else’s cultural or religious sensibilities imposed on them by force.
I want a strong social democratic state. But I don’t want it so it can defend “familial and religious” “communities” against a “libertine left.” I want it so it can free ordinary people from economic pressures that stop them from living their lives however they want to live them.
If you and a willing partner want to have a giant Catholic family, attend 5 AM mass every morning, and read First Things every afternoon, you do you. But if you want to stay out all night doing designer drugs at a night club and respectfully pass by the 5 AM mass attendees while on your way home to sleep it off at your pansexual polyamorous Wiccan compound, that’s fine too. It’s your life. I just want you to have the material resources you need so you can live it however the hell you want.
I suppose you could want to eliminate poverty and empower workers without giving a shit about gay people living and dying in the closet or women dying from botched back-alley abortions or members of religious minorities living the kinds of miserable lives they’d end up living in Sohrab Ahmari’s ideal state. I’m pretty skeptical that Ahmari himself cares much about the first part, but I guess it’s possible.
I have to say, though, that I don’t see the appeal of this combination. If you don’t have the kind of egalitarian impulses that would lead you to support basic rights and equal dignity for every human being, why would you care about pro-worker policies in the first place? What on earth would be the point?