Radicals are not my cup of tea, but I’m grateful for them. The radicals who brought us Occupy Wall Street and the Bernie Sanders campaign gave the problem of income inequality a prominence it wouldn’t have had without them.
The founders of the Black Lives Matter organization put racial injustice at the top of the national conversation. The radical populists who ultimately produced Donald Trump showed us how much alienation there is in Middle America.
Radicals are good at opening our eyes to social problems and expanding the realm of what’s sayable.
But if you look at who actually leads change over the course of American history, it’s not the radicals. At a certain point, radicals give way to the more prudent and moderate wings of their coalitions.
In the 1770s, the rabble-rousing Samuel Adams gave way to the more moderate John Adams (not to mention George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton). In the middle of the 19th century, radicals like John Brown and purists like Horace Greeley gave way to the incrementalist Abraham Lincoln. In the Progressive era, the radicals and anarchists who started the labor movement in the 1880s gave way to Theodore Roosevelt.
Radicals are not good at producing change because while they are good at shaking up the culture, they don’t have practical strategies to pass legislation when you have to get the support of 50% plus one.
They also tend to divide the world into good people and bad people. They think they can bring change if they can destroy enough bad people, and so they devolve into a purist, destructive force that offends potential allies.
The people who come in their wake and actually make change are conservative radicals. They believe in many of the radicals’ goals, but know how to work within the democratic framework to achieve them.
Conservative radicals, like Hamilton, Lincoln and Roosevelt, begin with moderate dispositions. They have a reverence for the collective wisdom of the past. They have an awareness that the veneer of civilization is thin and if you simply start breaking things you get nihilism, not progress. They are acutely aware of the complexity of the world, and how limited our knowledge of it is. They are pragmatists, experimenters, liberals.
But they also understand that in moments of historical transition, it is prudent to be bold. They understand that when your society is crumbling the only way to restore stability is to address the problems that are breaking it.
When they are making big change — the American Revolution, busting the trusts — these conservative radicals channel revolutionary impulses into reformist action. Lincoln had to slowly bring a whole nation around to the abolition of slavery. He had to compromise and gather a broad coalition to pass the 13th Amendment.
Today, we’re in the middle of another historic transition when dramatic change is necessary if we are to preserve what we love about America. The crises tearing our society are well known: economic inequality, racial injustice, dissolving families and communities, a crisis of legitimacy.
To some, this feels like a revolutionary moment. In Commentary, for example, Abe Greenwald argues that the radicals have seized control. They are pushing radical agendas (No police! No rent!). Worse, they undermine the liberal fundamentals of our democracy — the belief that democracy is a search for truth from a wide variety of perspectives; the belief that America is a noble experiment worth defending.
Many people smell in today’s radicalism the whiff of revolutions past: the destructive brutality of the French Revolution, the vicious thought police of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the naked power grabs of Lenin’s Soviet revolution.
I am not as alarmed. I’m convinced that the forces that brought Joe Biden the nomination are far more powerful than a few extremists in Portland and even the leftist illiberals on campus. I’m hopeful that if given power, Biden, Kamala Harris, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will forge a new conservative radicalism.
They have spent their lives within the liberal system, understand politics, understand radicalism’s advantages and dangers. They’re drawing support from an astonishingly wide swath of the ideological spectrum. I’m convinced that if Donald Trump is defeated, revolutionary zealotry will fade as debates over practical change and legislation dominate.
During crises like these, each of us has to take a stand, to be clear on which causes we champion and which position we occupy on the political landscape. This is hard, because we’re in a period of flux.
If your views haven’t shifted over the past four tumultuous years, you’re probably not doing much fresh thinking. I find I have moved “left” on race, left on economics and a bit “right” on community, family and social issues.
Mostly I find myself supporting the conservative radicals, leaders who are confident that we can push for big change while defeating the illiberalism of radicals on left and right.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin once said he occupied the “extreme right-wing edge of the left-wing movement.” If that’s good enough for Isaiah Berlin, it’s good enough for me.
David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.