The gravamen of Kotkin's argument is that there is a new progressive Clerisy emerging, comprised of three main constituent parts: the creative elite of media and entertainment, the academic community, and the high-level government bureaucracy. This elite constitutes a genuine threat to Americans' individual liberties, and the first step in stopping it is recognizing what it is and the agenda it's pursuing. Kotkin writes:
In ways not seen since at least the McCarthy era, Americans are finding themselves increasingly constrained by a rising class—what I call the progressive Clerisy—that accepts no dissent from its basic tenets. Like the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, the Clerisy increasingly exercises its power to constrain dissenting views, whether on politics, social attitudes or science.The three constituent groups of the modern Clerisy have ballooned in numbers, power and influence in the last several decades.
An alliance of upper level bureaucrats and cultural elites, the Clerisy, for for all their concerns about inequality, have thrived, unlike most Americans, in recent years. They also enjoy strong relations with the power structure in Washington, Silicon Valley, Hollywood and Wall Street.
Since 1990, the number of government workers has expanded by some five million to some twenty million. That’s four times the number who were employed by the government at the end of the Second World War, a growth rate roughly twice that of the population as a whole.The modern Clerisy, in Kotkin's telling, seeks to aggrandize its own power while stifling, even punishing, dissent whenever and wherever it can. Commencement speakers are hounded into withdrawing, climate-change skeptics and, he might have added, those who question Darwinian materialism, are punished, while questioning the prevailing orthodoxies about race, gender, class, gay marriage and abortion will make one a target for angry personal attacks, if not worse:
The upper bureaucracy have been among the greatest beneficiaries — along with Wall Street and the green crony capitalists — of the Obama Administration’s economic policy. The number of workers, particularly at the federal level, continued to rise even at the height of the great recession. Between late 2007 and mid-2009, the number of U.S. federal workers earning at least $150,000 more than doubled. The ranks of federal nomenklatura — combined with a host of related private contractors — have swelled so much that Washington DC by 2012 replaced New York as the wealthiest region in the country.
More important still is the bureaucracy’s ability to control society through unelected agencies, something that grew even during Republican administrations, but has achieved unprecedented scale under President Obama. Increasingly, agencies such as the EPA and HUD, seek to shape community development patterns — for example on land use policies — that traditionally fell under local control.
With their power, the agencies have harassed unfriendly conservative organizations, as seen by the IRS, and monitored the populace’s private conversations, seen in the case of the NSA. But to some prominent members of the Clerisy, these power grabs haven’t gone far enough.
Today’s Clerisy attempts to distill today’s distinctly secular “truths”—on issues ranging from the nature of justice, race and gender to the environment—and decide what is acceptable and that which is not. Those who dissent from the accepted point of view can expect their work to be simply ignored, or in some cases vilified. In the Clerical bastion of San Francisco, an actress with heretical views, in this case supporting a Tea Party candidate, who was pilloried, and lost work for her offense.There are, however, grounds for hope that the condition is not terminal:
The pattern of intolerance has been particularly notable in the area of climate change....Climate scientists who diverge from the warming party line, even in a matter of degree, are routinely excoriated by the Clerisy as “deniers” of “settled” science even in the face of 15 years of relatively stable temperatures. The media also participates in this defense of orthodoxy. The Los Angeles Times as well as the website Reddit have chosen to exclude contributions from skeptics.
The stifling orthodoxy from the technocrats and media elite is benign compared to the inquisitional behavior ... seen in institutions of higher education. It is nothing short of tragic, notes civil libertarian Nat Hentoff, that a 2010 survey of 24,000 college students found that barely a third thought it “safe to hold unpopular views on campus.”
The fact that Republicans continue to maintain considerable power in both Washington and the states suggests that the Clerisy’s power is not yet determinative. And indeed after President Obama leaves office, the Clerisy’s reach may be temporarily diminished, but its ability to set the social and political agenda will likely persist and even grow given their influence to shape perceptions, particularly among the young.Religious heresy got one burned at the stake in some quarters of medieval Europe. Modern inquisitors on the left eschew the stake, but one sometimes gets the impression that that's only because they so far lack the political power to impose that punishment. They seem content, for now, to destroy dissenters' careers and smear their reputations rather than taking their lives.
The current atmosphere of ideological unanimity — in academia, the arts and much of the government bureaucracy — set the stage for the outrages of this commencement season, making painfully palpable the growing authoritarian spirit in so many of our leading institutions. They often see themselves as a liberating force in our society, but in their dislike of conflicting ideas and open debate,today’s Clerisy increasingly resembles the closed-minded dogmatists of the Medieval church.