The Supreme Court and the End of Punitive Liberalism

By Mark Judge Published on July 4, 2023

The Supreme Court ended its season by exploding punitive liberalism.

The phrase “punitive liberalism” was coined by James Piereson in his remarkable 2007 book, Camelot and the Cultural Revolution: How the Assassination of John F. Kennedy Shattered American Liberalism. Simply put, punitive liberalism means liberalism that exists to punish the United States for all the world’s problems. From foreign policy to racism to personal psychological ills, America is the world’s great Satan.

In its recent landmark rulings, the Supreme Court has blown the doors off punitive liberalism. It has ruled that:

  • Racism is bad no matter who does it.
  • You can’t punish someone for being a Christian and speaking freely. And, in shooting down President Biden’s loan-forgiveness scam,
  • That other people won’t pay your debts.

With the Dobbs decision last year, it ruled that it’s bad to kill innocent babies.

The Left Is Still Howling at the Sky

The left is screaming because all of these things were grounded in the idea that America needs to be punished. This punitive liberalism has driven our culture for more than half a century. It’s a breath of fresh air to see it die.

In his book, Piereson argues that in the 20th century and up until the 1960s, liberalism was sane and healthy. It was largely a doctrine of maintaining government programs and slowly expanding freedom and equal justice for all people. It was not radical. John F. Kennedy liberalism was not the communist-infiltrated Progressive movement.

They Were Sane Once. No, Really …

I was raised in a family of John F. Kennedy liberals, and welcome a sane liberalism returning … if such a thing is possible. JFK liberalism, as Piereson argues, was competent, patriotic, anti-communist, for legal immigration and low taxes. It did good things.

Still, in the middle of last century it became a “dry” philosophy. It was missing something vital: spirituality and a righteous anger about genuine societal ills. This is why 1950s liberalism got excoriated by the left as much as the right. Piereson cites the liberal intellectual Lionel Trilling, who criticized mainstream liberalism in his 1950 book The Liberal Imagination.

Trilling: “The world is a complex and unexpected and terrible place which is not always to be understood by the mind as we use it in our everyday tasks.” As Piereson elaborates, “liberalism … because of its programmatic focus and near exclusive emphasis on politics, lacks an imaginative dimension that might give it a better sense of the richness and complexity of life.”

Real Problems Liberals Struggled to Face

Liberalism also ignored or dragged its feet on some the causes that were championed by progressives and others farther left that the Kennedys. While always tainted with communist ideology, leftism had very valid points to make about America’s sins. Slavery and Jim Crow laws had destroyed the souls and potential of too many black lives. John F. Kennedy was notoriously slow to come to the cause of civil rights for black Americans.

There were also the violent assaults on gay people. in the 1980s my brother was an actor, and while he was not gay, one of his fellow artists was badly beaten up one night. It was something that had been happening to gay men for decades. Progressivism pointed to these horrors and rightly declared that to live up to our American creed we do something about them.

The left wanted fairness and humane treatment of all Americans. It had not devolved into transgenderism, drag shows, open borders and abortion. It didn’t yet want to punish us, to ram creepy demonic evil down our throats. It accepted that a good way to prevent a pregnancy or a sexually transmitted disease was to keep your pants on, not scream at the president, often a substitute for an absent father, to do something about it. It was sane.

A “Lone Gunman” Assassinated Liberalism

When John F. Kennedy was killed, liberalism was shattered. The old “vital center” of politics disappeared. It was replaced by a violent, anti-religious, paranoid, rioting, sexually perverse and enraged new order: the ANTIFA left. They declared that it was right-wing America, not communist Lee Harvey Oswald, who was to blame for Kennedy’s death. It was our soldiers who were the sadistic killers in Vietnam. American was rotten to her core.

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This is today’s liberalism. With its censorious cancel culture, tireless race obsession and policing of speech and “cultural appropriation,” liberalism in 2023 is full of rage and bereft of joy. All day, every day, people broadcast the message, which has become an academic an media default position: America is evil.

I see your Gettysburg and raise you a 1619 project. I know you’re just here to watch a movie, but first an acknowledgment of whose land we stole. Indiana Jones? We’re remaking it with a female lead and punishing Indy for cultural appropriation. Hectoring, tireless, ruthless and just plain awful, punitive liberalism was in the air we breathe. This is why optimistic, handsome and witty Ronald Reagan (ideologically not far from Kennedy) drove the left insane. How dare this man be so happy in the middle of this ugly, racist, fascist country?

Liberalism Is Big Nurse, Ready to Electroshock Us Again

This mantra has been drilled into our heads for decades, sapping our cultural strength and brainwashing our students. Pierseson summarized the philosophy in a 2004 essay in the Weekly Standard:

From 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.

“Given this bill of indictment,” Piereson concludes, “the Punitive Liberals held that Americans had no right at all to feel pride in their country’s history or optimism about its future.”

Is Sanity Returning, via SCOTUS?

Yet with the recent SCOTUS rulings, punitive liberalism may be entering its final days. The optimism that started with Reagan and lost footing during President Obama is now inching back. South American immigrants who come here love the place — and Trump!

The fair-minded, faithful, compassionate liberalism of John F. Kennedy — which today is known as conservatism — is reasserting itself. People finally got sick and tired of being lectured to and reduced to their skin color, or being told what they could or could not say.

The Supreme Court has given us an opportunity for a future brighter than we’ve had since 1963. It’s possible to care for pregnant mothers, acknowledge the racism of the past while holding everyone to the same standards, and to not force Christians to agree with the state instead of their own conscience. If we can cancel the drag queens, try and act like Jesus, and finally go to Mars, we’re looking at a second American Century.

The demon of punitive liberalism getting exorcised. I won’t miss it.


Mark Judge is a writer and filmmaker in Washington, D.C. His new book is The Devil’s Triangle: Mark Judge vs the New American Stasi.

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