Political Philosophy

The Politics of Innocence

February 18, 2022

Joshua Mitchell

Washington Fellow

This article was originally published by City Journal on October 22, 2021.

Joe Biden’s administration ushers in a destructive new version of the American regime.

What do the Biden administration’s three spectacular failings—the sudden and purportedly unpredictable collapse of Afghanistan, the deliberate effort to undermine U.S. energy independence with the sabotage of the Keystone XL Pipeline, and the unconscionable national border crisis—have in common? More is at work here than normal political shifts, of the sort expected when one administration succeeds another. We are witnessing, instead, a change in the very purpose of politics.

The American regime, founded on the idea of limited government, presumed that citizens were competent and largely capable of taking care of themselves. Our competence was developed, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, through the mediating institutions of family, church, civic associations, and municipal government. No citizen competence, no limited government. That was Tocqueville’s formula—the American formula.

The first phase of the American regime, characterized by citizen competence, lasted for more than a century. Supplanting it was the second, progressive, phase of the American regime, in which expert competence purportedly replaced citizen competence. The Biden administration came to power claiming the mantle of expert competence. “The adults are back in charge,” our legacy media jubilantly proclaimed.

The failings of the so-called adults in the Biden administration are a consequence of a shift to a third phase of the American regime, a shift so large that it would be more accurate to say it is the end of one type of regime and its replacement by another. The American fixation on the politics of competence, whether citizen or expert, is being replaced by the politics of innocence.

In this new politics, what matters most is your standing as an innocent victim. If you are not an innocent victim, you are anonymous or, more likely, a threat.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives the order to fly the LGBTQ+ pride flag at all U.S. embassies, including Afghanistan, signaling that innocent victimhood is the singular policy orientation of the United States government. Much of the rest of the world is incredulous, and the effort to shape Afghanistan in our own image collapses within days of our military withdrawal.

The Biden administration shuts down the Keystone Pipeline because we are all innocent victims of fossil fuels who must be saved by green energy and the crony capitalism that will usher in a new age of cleanliness.

The United States border should not, in the eyes of the Biden administration, protect us from illegal aliens. It should instead serve as the porous pass-through for “undocumented migrants,” who, along with an ever-growing list of legally protected identity groups, are also innocent victims.

More recently, Attorney General Merrick Garland has led us to believe that parents repulsed that their children are being taught critical race theory, not to mention Orwellian assertions about the fluidity of “gender,” may be investigated as domestic terrorists under the Patriot Act. Our children, the administration insists, must be taught that they are transgressors whose doltish and deplorable thoughts conspire against innocent victims everywhere. These innocent victims must now be the singular focus of the efforts of our government—not excluding the military—which must purge its ranks of the guilty to make room for the innocent victims soon to fill the vacancies.

The Biden administration is pulling the United States into a third phase of politics. We are witnessing the birth of the politics of innocence. From this we can only expect an ongoing sequence of failures.