Bigots Vs. Totalitarians: Christopher Caldwell Lays Bare America's Cultural Divide

If you don’t know who Christopher Caldwell is, you really should.

As a Senior Fellow at the Claremont Institute, Caldwell has been doing mighty work explicating the culture divide in America. He recently gave a talk at Hillsdale College drawn from his new book: The Age of Entitlement: America Since the Sixties.

The central thesis of Caldwell’s talk is that the United States has TWO constitutions now: the original Constitution of 1787, and the civil rights constitution that was born in 1964 with the Civil Rights Act. Caldwell says:

What I am talking about are the emergency mechanisms that, in the name of ending segregation, were established under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These gave Washington the authority to override what Americans had traditionally thought of as their ordinary democratic institutions. It was widely assumed that the emergency mechanisms would be temporary and narrowly focused. But they soon escaped democratic control altogether, and they have now become the most powerful part of our governing system.

If this seems vaguely familiar, it’s because I made a similar argument a while back in a column, though framed differently.

Caldwell argues that the logic established by the Civil Rights Act became the new conception of constitutional law and sparked a reformulation of American law for all sorts of groups:

Meanwhile other groups, many of them not even envisioned in the original legislation, got the hang of using civil rights law. Immigrant advocates, for instance: Americans never voted for bilingual education, but when the Supreme Court upheld the idea in 1974, rule writers in the offices of civil rights simply established it, and it exists to this day. Women, too: the EEOC battled Sears, Roebuck & Co. from 1973 to 1986 with every weapon at its disposal, trying to prove it guilty of sexism—ultimately failing to prove even a single instance of it.

The result, according to Caldwell, is a divide between those who support the logic of the original Constitution and those who support the second constitution, the one that gives entitlements to an ever-lengthening list of groups–so long as they don’t comprise heterosexual white men.

This led in turn to an ‘Us Versus Them’ mentality, the opposition of the ‘bigots’ and the ‘totalitarians’:

Let’s say you’re a progressive. In fact, let’s say you are a progressive gay man in a gay marriage, with two adopted children. The civil rights version of the country is everything to you. Your whole way of life depends on it. How can you back a party or a politician who even wavers on it? Quite likely, your whole moral idea of yourself depends on it, too. You may have marched in gay pride parades carrying signs reading “Stop the Hate,” and you believe that people who opposed the campaign that made possible your way of life, your marriage, and your children, can only have done so for terrible reasons. *You* are on the side of the glorious marchers of Birmingham, and *they* are on the side of Bull Connor. To you, the other party is a party of bigots.

But say you’re a conservative person who goes to church, and your seven-year-old son is being taught about “gender fluidity” in first grade. There is no avenue for you to complain about this. You’ll be called a bigot at the very least. In fact, although you’re not a lawyer, you have a vague sense that you might get fired from your job, or fined, or that something else bad will happen. You also feel that this business has something to do with gay rights. “Sorry,” you ask, “when did I vote for this?” You begin to suspect that taking your voice away from you and taking your vote away from you is the main goal of these rights movements. To you, the other party is a party of totalitarians.

Caldwell’s talk, printed in full at Hillsdale College’s Imprimis, is a long-ish read, but it’s worth the time. Few thinkers today see the America dilemma more clearly. Check it out!