Righteousness + force in America: The trap of righteous activism coupled with state power
By Sam Jacobs
There are two ways of getting things done: persuasion or coercion. You either convince someone of the value of your ideas or you hold a (literal or metaphorical) gun to their head. The latter has been the norm throughout human history. Most of what we value about the contemporary West is a shift toward the former occurring over the last 250 years or so.
However, there’s an important difference between the despotisms of old and coercive governments in the modern era: modern-day tyrants frame themselves as the righteous side in any conflict.
Think about it: Ancient Persian Emperors and the German Kaiser didn’t paint themselves as the moral superiors of their enemies. They simply wanted their stuff and, if they could, they took it. In contrast, during the American Civil War or the Allied cause during World War II, force didn’t justify itself. Instead, force was justified by the righteousness of the cause.
(President Lincoln openly, repeatedly stated more than a year into the Civil War that his call to "end slavery" was a useful means by which to justify his real objective: To preserve the Union.)
The need to justify force with righteousness is not limited to wartime. Every new coercive law or regulation is justified not on the basis of “I’m strong enough to take your stuff and so I think I will,” but because “our cause is just.” While some who would take your freedom or your life are motivated by their desire for power, the most vicious monsters in human history were all motivated by righteousness. They seek to perfect creation, no matter what the cost, rather than simply acquire power for its own end - a philosophically important distinction.
It is this philosophy of using state power to impose one's morality on others that in part has made American politics such a bloodsport nowadays. If you follow the thread from the Abolitionist movement (which provided moral justification for the Union's invasion of the Confederacy) through the Temperance movement (which culminated in Prohibition) to the Progressivism movement as we detail below, you'll see why.
What Do We Mean by Righteousness?
Righteousness is simply the sense that one's cause is so just that "the ends justify the means" – the ends could be anything. A critical feature of righteousness is the belief in the perfectibility of man and earth. It is often accompanied by philosophical progressivism, the view that the world becomes a better place, morally speaking, over time.
Righteousness requires coercion. This necessitates a large administrative state to enforce the prevailing diktats of the secular-religious. An excellent example from recent history is the campaign against tobacco, which in the span of a few years was chased from every public place.
Righteousness is not simply progressivism. It is a specific type of progressivism forged in America through the experience of Pietist Protestant Christians. The Pietists were originally Scandinavian Lutherans, but the posture of Pietism spread to most Protestant denominations in the United States: The Northern Baptists and Methodists, the Congregationalists, the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterians, and others.
The Pietists rejected ritualistic or "liturgical" religious practice in favor of an inner experience expressed in one's daily life. Correct beliefs and proper living were the focus, culminating in the Holiness Movement, which was an extreme and fundamentalist expression of Pietism. Holiness tolerated no deviation from orthodoxy in either thought or deed.
Righteousness, like its Pietist forebears, isn't satisfied that you do and say the right things, you need to truly believe the right things. Compliance is not enough. You have to love Big Brother.
Righteousness moved from the realm of the deeply religious Protestant pietists of early America into the mainstream progressive movement. The latter adopted this surety and energy, seeking to expand their ersatz religion into every aspect of American life.
Righteousness is dangerous as a political force because of how certain it makes those infected with it. What's more, political righteousness makes the stakes increasingly apocalyptic, allowing the ends to continually justify any means, up to and including the death camp.
This is not hyperbole: Righteousness does not prohibit your political participation, it demands it, and it sees everything else about you as superfluous.
Righteousness Enters the World Stage: Abolitionism
It is often said that before the Civil War, the United States "are," but after the War, the United States "is." This is a reference to the formerly theoretically sovereign nature of each state as compared to "one nation, indivisible" found in the Pledge of Allegiance, which was created after the Civil War by a Union war veteran.
Why does this distinction matter? Because it was a distinction which the Confederacy, headed by Jefferson Davis, was willing to test in the furnaces of war.
In the run-up to the War, Davis repeatedly pointed out that the U.S. was a voluntary union of states which delegated authority to Washington, as ratified in the U.S. Constitution in the Bill of Rights #9 and #10. Thus if a state wanted to leave the Union, it could do so. Despite the best efforts of the southern states to maintain the Union, at the end of the day they voted to secede because their differences with the northern states were irreconcilable. Was slavery one of the issues over which they didn't agree? Yes, absolutely. Slavery was an issue that plagued the Founders as well.
Yet Davis made an important point: Just because one doesn't like slavery (and we don't like slavery, let's be clear) that does not then automatically mean that one supports President Lincoln using the U.S. Army to roll into the Confederacy in order to occupy them and make them behave the way we'd like them to. This is persuasion vs. coercion in action.
(One of the reasons Jefferson Davis was never tried for treason following the Civil War is that his case would've given him a platform to highlight the Constitutional issues presented by the North's invasion of the South.)
Fast forward to the present day. If you're reading this then you're likely a Unionist (i.e. happy that the U.S. is intact), at least in spirit if not in name, and also a fan of President Lincoln. Yet it was President Lincoln who said, in a widely publicized 1862 letter written more than a year into the War:
"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do lesswhenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause (of saving the Union), and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause."
One can point this out without arguing in favor of slavery as it's clear President Lincoln knew what he was doing - trying to save the Union - and that picking up the moral banner of ending slavery was a useful means by which to ally himself because it furthered his goal of saving the Union. Machiavelli would've been proud, and so were the Abolitionists, who got a taste of what righteousness and force can do once the reins of state power are grasped.
It was these Abolitionists who not only claimed the moral high ground for President Lincoln during the War but who, following Appomattox, then went about the Reconstruction of the Southern state governments, which was largely a disaster. During Reconstruction, the Northern Republicans attempted to form Southern state governments with people who either had no experience in governance or had no connections to their constituents because the righteousness of their cause, "reconstructing" the South, would make it all work in the end.
Note that this is not a condemnation of the abolitionist cause, instead, it is a condemnation of the social phenomenon of righteousness, which generally sees political orthodoxy as trumping basic competence.
The end of the Civil War led to a total war against American citizens. Significant portions of Southern states were stripped of the right to vote and the right to keep and bear arms. The Radical Reconstructionist Congress was all too eager to ride roughshod over the Southern states because they felt ideologically and morally justified in doing so.
What caused the Civil War will always remain a question of debate. What will not is that it represented a massive transfer of power upward from sovereign individuals and states to a centralized federal government, as Jefferson Davis warned. This provided later incarnations of righteousness and force with a ready-made set of tools to increase the efficiency of coercion.
Righteousness must also be considered separately from the question of abolition itself, which was a moot point by the time the Reconstruction governments came into power. It's one thing to see slavery, which was the default mode of human production throughout all of human history, as a great moral evil that must be ended at once. It is another to dramatically punish, humiliate, and disenfranchise people who participated in this economic system.
It is still another thing entirely to attempt to dramatically remake the world into one's personal vision of Heaven on Earth. The carpetbaggers flooding Southern states during the Reconstruction Era believed that they simply needed to point the right guns in the right direction to create their earthly paradise.
Righteousness, in addition to a tangible ability of coercion through the military, cops, and courts, was the animating force of Reconstruction; however, it didn't end there.
Righteousness Comes for Your Daily Life: Temperance
Temperance was not originally in favor of Prohibition. The Temperance Movement, as the name suggests, was originally about moderate drinking. This was a time when the average American rarely consumed water and instead hydrated with beer and spirits. Only later did Temperance become synonymous with teetotaling and banning alcohol.
The pro-Prohibition or "dry" argument is rarely given enough attention, with many dismissing the period as a brief blip of madness requiring no further explanation. However, it's worth diving into what the drys believed.
The drys believed that alcohol was not simply an individual choice, but a highly corrosive social factor. They blamed the decay of the family and a host of other social ills on demon alcohol.
Post-World War I urbanization added gas to the fire. People were concerned about their children moving to cities and becoming introduced to saloon life. It followed, for the drys, that banning alcohol would end these social ills. In many cases, they believed the final result would be the Second Coming.
The degree to which Prohibition "worked" or could have is debatable, but we definitively know that Prohibition drove the rise in organized crime and militarized policing in a symbiotic relationship.
Strange as it might sound, the "drys" tended to be part of the Progressive Movement of the early 20th Century. They too sought to cure social ills like child labor, dirty meat, women's disenfranchisement, and the like using coercion rather than persuasion. Despite the rather strange bedfellows, conservative Christian anti-liquor people allied with labor activists and proto-feminists. We can now begin to see how righteousness begins to move into the modern left.
Prohibition was also a dramatic intensification of force.
Abolition wanted to remove a barbaric economic system from America. Temperance, however, attempted to police the daily behaviors of average Americans. It is frequently noted how few who fought for the Southern cause were impacted by abolition. The abolitionists sought systemic change. No one was ever thrown in jail for being a plantation owner.
Temperance, on the other hand, made tens of millions of Americans into felons overnight.
The scale of Temperance is important to note as it is a far more aggressive posture than the War on Drugs because it went after a substance that had been widely used for centuries. Banning cocaine in 1920, the year the Volstead Act took effect, would have impacted orders of magnitude fewer people.
Abolitionists saw a system as the center of great moral outrage. Abolitionism saw individuals as the engine. And so that's who it targeted: Not a regional economic system, but individuals consuming the world's most widely used substance in any amount.
Righteousness Comes For Everything: The Progressive Era
The Progressive Era of the early 20th Century offers insight because it is the first serious attempt to use righteousness combined with coercion to take over every aspect of American society. Unfortunately, it would not be the last.
The Progressive Era saw righteousness rule America as a broad coalition of suffragettes, Prohibitionists, labor reformers, child advocates, and other interest groups. This was the era that gave us federal control over medicine, the income tax, compulsory education of children, and a host of other measures that curbed individual liberty.
People were not asked to live righteous lives. They were forced to using state power.
The Era was wrapped up in religious zeal, taking place at the same time as the Third Great Awakening, an uptick in Holiness, Nazarene, and Pentecostal religious denominations, which were Pietist Protestant movements emerging in the second half of the 19th Century. Much like later movements, these religious groups sought to make heaven on earth by reforming human behavior.
The social sciences also began in earnest around this time. They offered secular solutions that mirrored their religious alternatives. Man was broken, not by sin, but by socialization. Salvation was not to be found in the Gospels but in the social sciences.
This secular view of man fits well with the religious views of Social Gospel. Social Gospel believed that the Gospel held answers not just for spiritual life, but for social problems as well: alcoholism, urban crime, racial tensions, environmental concerns, and other issues – common goals made for a common cause.
The Progressive Era was largely successful in that it transformed a passive and largely benign federal government into an all-pervasive bureaucracy. It formed the basis of the administrative state which was greatly expanded, first under FDR, then under LBJ.
It was the first time in American history that using righteousness and force seeking to coerce all non-believers into compliance became a mass, mainstream political trend in American politics. The parallels to the modern left are easy to draw in this context.
Righteousness Conquers the World: Wilson and Progressivism
Woodrow Wilson was, by all accounts, the progressive President. What he did at home pales in comparison to what he did abroad. Much of the map of the modern world owes a lot to President Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson was the originator of the Wilsonian foreign policy, which broadly speaking means that aggressive ideological aims are pursued abroad. For Wilson, this meant forming the League of Nations, national sovereignty over ancient empires, and the Western-liberal version of democracy.
Nations had long fought for their own freedom. They had sometimes fought for the freedom of their allies, but it was thinly veiled realpolitik. Wilson, however, demanded a specific vision of freedom for the world.
It was not the riches of the colonial world or geopolitical considerations fueling Wilson's drive to get into World War I, something that he ran against. Wilson wanted to end the possibility of any future war by remaking the world in such a way that war would be impossible.
Righteousness and coercion were no longer the exclusive provinces of one set of religious do-gooders. It was the official policy of the American Departments of State and War.
Why Righteousness Trends Toward Totalitarianism
Righteousness is always impossible to enforce without tyrannical measures trending toward totalitarianism. This is because righteousness attempts to tackle problems so large that massive state intervention is required. The bigger the problem, the more state intervention, coercion, is required.
This is why the current iteration of righteousness and force is so insidious. It attempts to untangle the Gordian knot of human inequality. Not equality before the law or equality of opportunity. But human inequality as such.
The current crusade of righteousness is using the levers of state power, which are now capable of reaching every corner of the globe and monitoring virtually all private communication, to chase after a totally flat, "equal" society without any divergence of the outcome.
This type of equality means kneecapping some people and is arguably the final result of the stages of righteousness and force outlined above. Righteousness and force in America first attempted to tackle an economic problem, Abolitionism; then a moral problem, Temperance; followed by a political problem, Progressivism.
It now attempts to solve the problem of why some people have more than others, more health, wealth, fame, beauty, etc...
Such radical leveling requires highly invasive state power. Such power is dangerous on its own but also invites sociopathic personalities to pursue it. The people who desire it most deserve it least.
Once this impulse is let out of the cage, it is very hard to get the genie back in the bottle. History teaches us this with outbursts of righteousness-driven force such as Mao's Red Guards or the violent American radicalism of the 1970s.
Its desire to enforce radical equality of outcome is not limited to America's borders. Increasingly, since the Bush and Obama Administrations, it views American military power as something to be aggressively and proactively projected in its service.
Historically speaking, American intervention was justified by American interests, not a specific set of values. This is why America supported dictators around the world in the struggle against Communism. It was not an endorsement of their views or actions, but a recognition of realpolitik. America needed allies and found them where she could.
Compare with the post-9/11 view of American intervention: America must turn Iraq into Japan in the desert, not because this is good for America, but because liberal democracy is especially noble and righteous.
Righteousness and force have become universalist. Any deviation from a specific form of political organization or way of life is seen as prima facie evidence of electoral chicanery or tyranny.
This offers insight into the $64,000 question: Why can't San Francisco just leave Oklahoma City alone? For that matter, why can't California cities leave the more rural, suburban, and conservative parts of California alone? Because of this universalist drive for an extremely abstract notion of human equality effectively without limits.
Any variance from their all-encompassing notion of righteousness requires force, not persuasion, to correct.
"History doesn't repeat, but it rhymes" and this is a great example of how that old historical cliche plays out in the real world. The "protests" of summer 2020 aren't all that different from the protests of the 1960s and 1970s, but there is more going on here than a simple expression of popular rage or even the boredom of the young adults.
The riots of 2020 were not terribly different from how death squads work in banana republics. The leftists were allowed to burn, loot, pillage, and assault at will, but any response in defense would result in arrest and criminal charges. Thus, there is the quasi-religious nature to the movement, expressed in the exuberant fanatical violence of last summer. These riots act as something of a victory dance and an act of war – is it not clear that the righteous were able to increase their social and political power in the United States by rioting?
Furthermore, there is a religious aspect to the COVID-19 hysteria. It ignores actual data on the subject in favor of an ever-shifting official "science." The adherents of this leverage coercion through mask and vaccine mandates while also openly calling for punishment or even death for those who do not comply.
The COVID cult introduces fear into the mix, a form of coercion, with an eye toward gaining compliance and assistance from those not otherwise predisposed toward ideological flights of fancy.
The pandemic provided an opportunity for otherwise diffuse forces to band together in the name of controlling every aspect of human behavior. It also provided insight into just how many restrictions on human freedom people were willing to submit to.
Weaponized Righteousness Cannot Be Reasoned With
It runs counter to the general sense of fair play and open-mindedness that the Anglo-Saxon tradition is known for to say that there is a person or group of people who are not worth communicating with.
But the righteous want total control over every aspect of social and private life, and they are satisfied with nothing less and will do anything to get it. Their desires for control are an insatiable black hole, an endless quest for new dragons to slay.
Further, they do not respect the notion of rights as you and I understand them. Rights, for the militantly righteous, are positive values provided by the government in the service of moving the world closer to their utopia. Rights are not boundaries to be respected but are instead manipulated as a means to an end.
Finally, because their ideology has a quasi-religious nature to it, there is no arguing with them. Arguing with the righteous over whether or not America is an inherently racist country is a bit like arguing with a brick wall over whether or not the moon is made of green cheese.
Political righteousness has no sense of "live and let live," let alone any sense that persuasion is better than force.
The cynic can be reasoned with or even bribed. For the true believer, there is no acceptable result except for total and complete victory. Those seeking to ensure freedom for themselves, their family, their community, and their future would do well to form a clear picture of how militant, weaponized righteousness has worked in the past.
Righteousness and force didn't end last summer – we can see it in the digital pages of our electronic newspapers almost every day. The attempts to decide what is right for you and yours, and to enforce such at gunpoint is the essence of armed righteousness. The reader will ignore its ever-changing manifestations at his own peril.