The Retreat of Progressivism, the Wuhan Virus, and the Emerging Coercive State

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

A woman walks on the Columbia University campus, Monday, March 9, 2020, in New York. The Ivy League school is canceling two days of classes this week because a person at the New York school is under quarantine from the rapidly spreading coronavirus, according to university president Lee Bollinger. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

For all its death and economic destruction, the Wuhan virus has done mighty work bringing the United States back down to earth.

The election of President Trump in 2016 shot American liberal-progressives into the clouds higher than any had gone before. Commentators, thinkers, and the media filled the mainstream with hysteria, conspiracy theories of Russian collusion, fever dreams of nascent ethno-nationalist facism, and the president’s supposed plot to destroy one-world globalism and progress.

On the last topic, the hysterics were partially right. But it wasn’t President Trump deconstructing liberal-progressivism and the globalist dream. It was political, economic, cultural, and biological forces working together, as has become plain from the onslaught of the Wuhan virus. As John Gray writes in New Statesman:

With all its talk of freedom and choice, liberalism was in practice the experiment of dissolving traditional sources of social cohesion and political legitimacy and replacing them with the promise of rising material living standards. This experiment has now run its course. Suppressing the virus necessitates an economic shutdown that can only be temporary, but when the economy restarts, it will be in a world where governments act to curb the global market.

Put another way, liberal-progressivism’s more fruity ideas–“We will eradicate homelessness, poverty, and lack of heathcare for everyone everywhere yesterday! Men and women are exactly the same, and men can become women, and the other way round! People are really good inside, and the only evil is tradition and its bigotries!”–were the eccentric hobbies of a wealthy United States and West.

Much like a rich heiress who believes the only thing that matters is to rescue orphaned Pekinese dogs–and spends all her millions doing so–reality was going to come calling sooner or later.


But there’s a problem: liberal-progressivism was the glue of American society from the 1940s onward–even for a great number of self-described ‘conservatives.’ Traditional social cohesive forces such as marriage and the family; community organizations; the western tradition of scholarship; churches and religion; and national patriotic loyalty were allowed to rust in the barn, replaced by progressive ideas that flooded the law, government, education, and culture.

Without traditional principles to align them–and progressivism breaking down–Americans have fallen to aimless and chaotic bickering. Americans can no longer find widespread agreement on any nationwide ideology, liberal or conservative. How can a country function as a team when there is such division about what matters most?

Some thinkers predict the United States will fall into some sort of cold or hot civil war. But that seems unlikely. Breaking up the country would destroy wealth and convenience in a way that few Americans would accept when they really came to it. Forget picking up a rifle and risking one’s life fighting the ‘libs’ (or ‘deplorables’): most Americans wouldn’t even risk their Netflix or cell coverage. We are a nation of passive consumers, not warriors.

This is not to say Americans today are particularly selfish or shallow people; they just don’t have a very clear idea of what principles they would be fighting for.

Conservatives today have become distanced by time and practice from the traditions they nominally espouse. If you wonder what I mean, take a poll of the conservatives you know who have read the ENTIRE Bible, let alone grasped the entirety in any depth.

Progressives for their part have lost faith in the Revolution, which was supposed to sweep the country years ago, unifying the population under their banner and turning the United States into a gleaming progressive City on a Hill. More decades of fighting human nature, biology, and conservatives isn’t an appealing or encouraging prospect for exhausted liberals.


With neither liberal nor conservative ideology unifying the country–and breakup of the country too difficult and costly to entertain–the government must step in to enforce national ‘unity’ with laws, harassment, and punishment.

This state of affairs is not new, only new to the U.S. In the 1930s, noted journalist Dorothy Thompson witnessed first-hand the rise of several authoritarian dictatorships in Europe. In 1937, she testified to Congress about the commonalities she saw in the dictatorships of communist Russia, Nazi Germany, Yugoslavia, Portugal, et al. She gave her thoughts on why democracies fall into tyranny:

In hundreds of respects, [these dictatorships] are completely dissimilar. But each of them was the answer of a particular people, with particular mores and particular traditions, to governments which were failing, not to meet human needs–if by that you mean failing to pass social laws–but failing in the first function of government: FAILING TO KEEP ORDER AND SOCIAL COHESION AND RESPECT FOR PRINCIPLES.

And each of these dictatorships has the same essential function. Its function is to impose those social disciplines by the edict and coercion of a single man and regime of men, BECAUSE  THE PEOPLE THEMSELVES HAVE CEASED TO ACCEPT THE DISCIPLINE OF LAW. [emphasis added]

Principles hold a healthy country together by cooperation and broad consent. When the government encourages and respects sound principles, the populace know what to expect and what’s expected of them. But in a vacuum emptied of shared principles, the government must step in and force the populace to follow an assortment of fiats, many of which make no sense to anyone but bureaucrats.


A very peculiar situation has evolved: liberals think conservatives have seized the government (the presidency, the Supreme Court, and parts of the federal judiciary in particular) to coerce them into some sort of reactionary, nationalist theocracy; and conservatives think liberals have seized the academy, the media, the federal administrative state, and other portions of the federal judiciary to coerce them into a fussy, politically correct police state, much like England is becoming.

One of the favorite refrains from the blue-check progressive lynch mob on Twitter is to label President Trump an ‘authoritarian.’ This assertion doesn’t pass the laugh test.

If anything, the president has governed with a soft hand. President Trump has resisted every opportunity to seize unilateral control from the other branches despite an obstructive and vindictive Democratic House; a federal judiciary with a fetish for nationwide injunctions; near-constant subversion from technocrats in the administrative state; and now a health emergency in which the president could have gotten away with nearly anything.

No, it’s not one man or a cabal that threatens the United States with authoritarianism. It’s a technocratic class that hold authority throughout the country’s bureaucracies: business, government, the academy, the media, Silicon Valley, and the like.

That these technocrats happen to mostly vote Democrat and talk a progressive game is really incidental. They are not ‘liberal’ in any true sense of the word, because they favor coercive methods (judicial activism, punitive lawfare, executive decrees, fines, administrative persecution, public shaming campaigns) to maintain their positions and influence in society. They want rule by experts–who are themselves–not a constitutional democratic republic weighed down by inflexible principles. The championing of liberal ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’ is not in their makeup.

And thus we reach the kernel of the problem: every time the government uses coercive’ means to force ‘unity’ on a contentious issue, it’s not liberal or conservative ideology that wins, even when one of them seems to come out on top. Rather, it’s the technocrats who are tasked with mediating and carrying out the coercion that win. Their influence on the levers of society and government grows every time they get to decide and/or enforce what Americans must do.


The Wuhan virus lockdown and response is like Christmas for the expert class of America. The populace is so scared–courtesy of a histrionic media–that the experts can make any rules they please, and nobody says ‘boo’ about it. Local governments and executives in particular have gone on a civil liberty killing spree, threatening citizens with fines and jail for what amounts to minding their own business.

All over–including car commercials–one hears platitudes about how the health crisis is “making us come together.” But the opposite is true, not just literally but figuratively. In the real world, millions of Americans are FURIOUS at the bureaucratic overreach unfolding around them virtually overnight.

The state’s coerciveness has flowered quickly, as authoritarianism always does. The public are getting a sense of what a police state actually feels like: needless, arbitrary, and selective punishment hanging over everyone’s heads for the crime of going on a walk or not wearing a mask the government said didn’t help just a few weeks ago–and may change their minds about tomorrow.

The lack of pushback to the business shutdowns and house arrests imposed on whole cities and counties demonstrates just how vulnerable Americans’ civil liberties have become. The civil liberty of keeping and bearing arms has been under siege for decades, and large organizations such as the NRA exist to fight back. But the Wuhan virus is unique and sudden; no civil liberties organizations exist to fight the coercive tactics emerging daily. The ACLU and other such organizations have gone missing in action.

The United States is indeed under attack, but the enemy is not a virus. The enemy is the technocratic state, exploiting Americans’ confusion to trade safety and enforced ‘unity’ for freedom.