This "New Left" owes its inner certitude to the forceful ideas of a long-ago philosopher -- Jean Jacques Rousseau.
America's political prospect has become unrelenting divisiveness, leading to permanent gridlock, and so to inevitable national decline, because "a house divided cannot stand."
Why is this happening?
Simply put, we now have a politics of oil-and-water ideologies -- social Darwinism pushed by the right and the nanny state pushed by the left. These two visions of social justice can never mix.
The ideals of the nanny state are spiritual antimatter to the Republican social Darwinism I wrote about in this space two months ago ("Survival of the fittest: The evolution of an idea," May 27).
Neither the nanny state nor social Darwinism had anything to do with the American founding. Neither is in our Constitution. Each is a late arrival to our politics.
Our current political left arose especially recently, with the baby boomers. But like the Social Darwinist Right, this "New Left" owes its inner certitude to the forceful ideas of a long-ago philosopher -- and to one man's rejection of the Calvinism that lies at the heart of social Darwinism.
In 1712 Jean Jacques Rousseau was born in Calvin's Geneva but grew up unconstrained by Calvinism's belief that a person's lot in life was divinely ordained. Rousseau sought to explain why most people belong to what we might call the 99 percent and not the 1 percent.
His answer was: "It's not our fault. They did it to us!" He began a famous essay, "The Social Contract," by declaring, "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains."
Rousseau wrote on behalf of those dependent on the great and the powerful, those who were marginal, despised, weak, different, vulnerable -- all those who were in "chains."
He recommended two strategies to free shackled humanity: First, he claimed that private property was at the root of all social constraints. Therefore, we need to loosen the claims of property.
As capitalist industrialization grew during the opening decades of the 19th century, concerns spread about those not well-served -- the workers in the early factories. The application of Rousseau to capitalism produced the "Old Left" of socialists, communists, and the free trade union movement, all focused on helping workers break their free-market economic fetters.
In "The Communist Manifesto," Karl Marx would famously echo Rousseau: "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains."
Second, Rousseau argued forcefully that human beings in their original unsocialized, uncivilized state are natural paragons who become corrupted by social conventions. These should be discarded so that we can become our best -- free of cultural repression.
It was this second, psycho-social track of Rousseauist reformation that ultimately flowered into the American "New Left" among the baby boomers in the 1960s. Asserting that each of us naturally is entitled to a portion of justice in life, Rousseau gave birth to entitlement politics. He created a new category of rights, what legal scholars call "negative" rights.
Rousseau's negative rights are claims on outcomes that our own powers and abilities are insufficient to secure for us. Rights to education, health care, a living wage, retirement income, vacations, parental leave, etc., are thus negative rights. It is the responsibility of others to provide them for us. It's life as free lunch.
For all his vivid imagination, Rousseau failed to foresee two negative consequences: encouraging free riding on what others provide for us, and increasing the costs to society of personal irresponsibility (precisely because its private cost to the feckless individual has been reduced).
Rousseau imagined into being the nanny state. Big, paternalistic government began to evolve with the French Revolution.
In his proposed Declaration of Rights of April 1794, Rousseau follower and Jacobin leader Robespierre demanded that "society is obliged to provide for the subsistence of all its members. ... Citizens whose incomes do not exceed whatever is necessary for their subsistence are exempted from contributing to public expenditures; the others must support them progressively, according to the extent of their wealth."
When Republicans call Obama a "socialist" who wants to turn America into "Europe," they are only trying to say, awkwardly, that he has "Rousseauist" tendencies. Obama has reciprocated with a charge that Republicans have become social Darwinists.
The Rousseau-inspired "Old Left" crossed over to the United States as the reaction of urban workers and their allies to the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism. In the late 19th century, the Democratic Party slid toward a Rousseauist perspective as it took up the interests of the vulnerable -- recently arrived non-Protestant immigrants in the big cities, workers, miners and farmers.
Progressives came to power in Wisconsin, and the Farmer-Labor Party rose to prominence here in Minnesota. Their reform efforts also drew upon that part of Christian teachings that elevated charity as core to a life of Christian witness.
The Jewish tradition of seeking "tikkun olarn" (healing a broken world) drew many Jews into social and intellectual activism on the left. The progressive Woodrow Wilson, an academic at heart, was our first "Rousseauist" president.
Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was a major expansion of entitlement thinking in American politics, as a response to the business elite's Wall Street disaster of October 1929. The nanny state grew larger under Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.
The psychological and cultural left, which now bedevils our social Darwinists, began in the 1960s as the "New Left" of the Beats and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). This ideology was something new, more cultural than economic. You can read its complaints in the Port Huron Statement of 1962 -- a litany of Rousseauist thoughts, one after another.
The New Left appeared among the highly educated and well-to-do. It grew out of college communities, fueled by opposition to the Vietnam War and by the sexual revolution of the baby boomers. Rebels who had never had to work threw off their remaining "chains" -- church and parental authority. Rousseau would applaud.
I was in Harvard College as SDS was getting off the ground. The joke among my Red-Diaper friends from Old Left families was that, to join SDS, your father had to earn at least $30,000 a year -- about $200,000 in today's money.
In 1965, I was told by a seminar instructor -- Marty Peretz (later owner of the New Republic) -- that "you will never get your politics correct until you learn to reject your father." I saw no reason to learn that New Left lesson, and so Marty and I grew apart.
Author Norman Mailer had seen the Rousseauist psycho-cultural revolution coming. In a 1958 essay, he described a new generation of urban hipsters for whom whatever made them feel good was The Good. Mailer artfully predicted that the coming anticapitalist revolution in America would be psychological and cultural, not Marxist economic.
It would come through the mass emergence of hedonists with unending infantile demands for entitlements. Mailer's prediction came true with oh so many members of my generation -- the "Me" generation.
Rousseau's thinking arrived on our shores with massive psychological power through the Summer of Love in San Francisco, the Beatles White Album, the Age of Aquarius, Woodstock, and much, much more.
The gathering storm of protest over the Vietnam War split the Democratic Party. On one side was its traditional governing coalition -- big-city, white-ethnic machines, African-Americans, unions, white Southerners, northern intellectuals. On the other was a countercultural New Left extending New Deal and Great Society entitlements in many new directions.
The crucial year was 1968. Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey led the old-timers, while Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota and Bobby Kennedy gave voice to a new politics of protest and entitlement. Mailer's sensibility was acted out by the Yippies and the Chicago Seven on the streets of Chicago during the chaotic Democrat convention.
In 1972, the Democratic Party under George McGovern decisively became the party of inclusive causes, of taking care of those who were (or felt) marginalized, of recognizing negative rights -- the party of bigger government and higher taxes, opposed to social Darwinism in any form.
Feeling culturally threatened by all this, Calvinist evangelicals and fundamentalists then entered politics through the Republican Party, which was simultaneously reaching out to white Southerners and who had their own prejudices to protect now that official segregation was over and done with.
Thus, social Darwinism renewed its march to national power as America split more and more into antagonistic tribes -- the militant right and the self-righteous left.
We have now lost the comprehensive vision of our founders, and no one has yet appeared who can save us from our self-indulgent divisiveness.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.