Michael Lind doesn’t come out and say it, but clearly what he is getting at here with this analogy is that the reign of Robespierre and the Jacobins and the Reign of Terror was short lived.
“In the early 20th century, Progressive reformers—based, like today’s progressives, in the white, Northeastern upper middle class—hoped to insulate government from ignorant voters and corrupt machine politicians and lobbies by creating a powerful national civil service like those of continental Europe. Congress, however, repeatedly killed proposals for executive branch reorganization that would have created an American mandarinate of Ivy League graduates comparable to the powerful enarques of France (graduates of prestigious schools of public administration). …
With its roots in the royal absolutism of the Ancien Regime, reinforced by revolutionary and Napoleonic consolidation, the degree of centralization in government that is considered legitimate in France has tended to be viewed as excessive if not tyrannical by liberals and conservatives alike in the English-speaking nations. Not anymore.
Under the present constitution of the Gaullist Fifth Republic, the president of France has authority that could only be dreamed of by a power-mad U.S. president. Under Obama and Biden, that difference has been diminishing.
Deference to experts.
In Britain and its cultural offshoots, including the populist U.S., professors and bureaucrats tend to be figures of fun. Anglo-American lack of deference to the titled and credentialed has been a source of frustration to American progressive intellectuals and civil servants, who have longed for the respect and authority granted their grave and dignified German and French counterparts. In the case of COVID-19 and climate change, many progressives have gone beyond arguing that elected politicians should be informed by scientific advice when weighing the costs and benefits of public policies to supporting the delegation of public policymaking in these and other areas to unelected experts: “Follow the science.”
American advocates of separation of church and state have seldom shared the uncompromising hostility of the French left to any public expression of religious identity or accommodation of religious believers by government. In fact, the history of the American left is inconceivable without the participation of the devoutly religious—whether evangelical Populists, Catholic trade unionists, Social Gospel reformers, Jewish clergy in the civil rights era, or Black preachers like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Reverend Jesse Jackson.
The exception to the rule has been a paranoid hostility to Catholicism that has warped American politics for centuries. Fear that the pope and his Jesuits and Catholic American voters will subvert American democracy explains the numerous state constitutions with “Blaine amendments” prohibiting the use of state funding for religious schools. (Every other English-speaking democracy—the U.K., Ireland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—provides public funding for religious as well as secular schools, with no harmful effects.)
For most of American history, the alternative to Catholicism was not French-style radical anticlericalism, but a kind of generic Protestantism in the public realm. In the last generation, however, the formerly dominant mainline Protestant churches have rapidly lost membership, while the number of nonaffiliated, more or less secular “Nones” in the U.S. has risen rapidly. The Nones—overwhelmingly progressive and Democratic—have transformed the traditional hostility of their mainline Protestant ancestors to the Catholic church into something like rigid French anticlericalism.
A major line was crossed in December 2019, when a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Texas Rep. Robert “Beto” O’Rourke—now a candidate for governor of Texas—declared that if he were elected president he would push for revocation of tax-exempt status for any religious groups that oppose same-sex marriage on theological grounds: “There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. And so as president, we’re going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”
With O’Rourke’s proposal, we have a Gallic twofer: official anticlericalism and Bonapartism combined. First, the Internal Revenue Service will systematically inflict financial damage on the Catholic church, many Protestant denominations, Conservative and Orthodox Jews, and mainstream Muslim congregations which teach that marriage should be limited to a man and a woman. Second, this anticlerical revolution from above to reward “good theology” and punish “bad theology” will be led somehow by Bonapartist presidents like the would-be President O’Rourke, perhaps on the basis of constitutionally dubious executive orders like those of Obama and Biden.
The radical left in the French Revolution, although it was not collectivist in economics, foreshadowed 20th-century totalitarianism by attempting to abolish most national traditions and substitute new, ideologically useful replacements. Maximilian Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins when they were in power, tried to replace both Christianity and the Cult of Reason with a fabricated, state-sponsored version of deism called the Cult of the Supreme Being. In 1793 the Jacobin-controlled National Convention adopted a revolutionary calendar, which renamed all of the months and dated the modern epoch, the Republican Era, only back to 1792 with the abolition of the French monarchy.
While many have argued that the Great Awokening that has swept the American corporate-bureaucratic-nonprofit-media-academic oligarchy, though not the population as a whole, is driven by a kind of sublimated Protestantism, the iconoclastic gestures of the woke left—toppling statues, vandalizing churches and public buildings, censoring books and movies, “canceling” people (who are allowed to keep their heads)—more directly evoke the excesses of the French Revolution. The attempt of The New York Times to push, through the culture and the public schools, the idea that “1619,” the date of the arrival of the first Black slaves in British North American colonies, is the true “founding” of the United States of America, is an example of elite-sponsored ideological iconoclasm and brainwashing comparable to the French revolutionary calendar. Robespierre might have admired the pseudo-religious ritual in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer “took a knee” to protest the history of American white supremacy while wearing kente cloth, which along with the daishiki is part of the kitsch culture of the old Black Power movement that fell out of fashion in the 1970s.
Analogies can be pushed too far, and my thesis about the Jacobinization of American progressivism has its limits. For one thing, the contemporary American center left is too crazy for France. With few exceptions, French intellectuals and politicians of left, right, and center have rejected American progressive ideological fads like grammar-wrecking, gender-neutral language, gender fluidity, and racial essentialism.
So my thesis should be qualified. It might be said that American progressives are becoming more like those in the French Jacobin tradition, except that would be an insult to the French.”
What do you think?
What about our times is the most reminiscent of the French Revolution? The George Floyd riots which were cheered on by the establishment? Systematic racism? “Trans”? Demonizing the police? Emptying criminals from prison? Toppling monuments of the Founding Fathers? BIPOC and “Latinx”? Rewriting the calendar with things like Pride Month and Indigenous Peoples Day?
George Floyd’s death would be the beginning of the revolution. Trump’s departure from the White House would be the equivalent of the execution of Louis XVI. The Biden administration would be the equivalent of the authoritarian government controlled by the radicals like the First French Republic. The present would be like the Jacobins in power with the near future being our own Thermidorian Reaction.