Punitive Liberalism

Roger Kimball of The New Criterion explores how the left has become the new puritans, disdaining sybaritic pleasure at every turn–and smugly punishing those who don’t toe their rigid and arbitrary line.


Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal offers an example of new puritanism in action in England.

Kimball’s post builds on an essay from June in the Weekly Standard by James Piereson which he called “Punitive Liberalism“:

the time of John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, the Democratic party was gradually taken over by a bizarre doctrine that might be called Punitive Liberalism. According to this doctrine, America had been responsible for numerous crimes and misdeeds through its history for which it deserved punishment and chastisement. White Americans had enslaved blacks and committed genocide against Native Americans. They had oppressed women and tyrannized minority groups, such as the Japanese who had been interned in camps during World War II. They had been harsh and unfeeling toward the poor. By our greed, we had despoiled the environment and were consuming a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and resources. We had coddled dictators abroad and violated human rights out of our irrational fear of communism.

Given this bill of indictment, the Punitive Liberals held that Americans had no right at all to feel pride in their country’s history or optimism about its future. Those who expressed such pride were written off as ignorant patriots who could not face up to the sins of the past; and those who looked ahead to a brighter future were dismissed as naive “Pollyannas” who did not understand that the brief American century was now over. The Punitive Liberals felt that the purpose of national policy was to punish the nation for its crimes rather than to build a stronger America and a brighter future for all.

Here the Punitive Liberals parted company from earlier liberal reformers such as FDR, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson, who viewed reform as a means of bringing the promise of American life within reach of more of our people. The earlier reformers believed deeply that the American experiment in self-government was inherently good, and that the task of policy was to improve it. But in the troubled years following Kennedy’s death, the reform tradition took on a furrowed brow and a punitive visage.

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Fortunately for all of us, Ronald Reagan stepped into the void…He understood, more than any other candidate of the time, that the pervasive negativism of the Democratic party was largely responsible for our national difficulties. And thus his pragmatic proposals for tax cuts, deregulation, and defense spending were accompanied with inspiring rhetoric about national pride and a hopeful future.


As a result, as liberalism lost control on a national level, it simultaneously moved further and further to the left. The remnants of punitive liberalism have been transformed into a puritanical left, reduced to bickering about issues that are essentially scraps at the table–and as Kimball notes, trying to make you feel miserable when you sit down at yours.

The left has also made themselves incredibly easy to tweak in the process. And fortunately, as the old saying goes, living well truly is the best revenge against them.


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