The year 2016 brought the progressive extreme of American politics into national discussion. Bernie Sanders and Democratic socialism became familiar phrases; Elizabeth Warren promised free daycare and free college; Andrew Yang’s one-issue focus made universal basic income seem plausible. What would America have looked like if one of these progressives had won the White House alongside a Democratic-controlled House and Senate under a packed Supreme Court? George Leef argues that such policies would have ruined the economy, destroyed the balance of powers, and created a tyrannical government obsessed with policing thought, speech, and action. In The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale: A Political Fable for Our Time, Leef explores what could happen were a progressive journalist to discover that her basic view of reality was wrong, and where she might turn to find a better source of truth.
Evaluating The Awakening requires taking the subtitle seriously. Leef’s stock-in-trade is reviewing economics volumes and exposing problems within the academy. In this case, he advances an argument through fiction. The early chapters of Leef’s volume recall Aesop’s Fables. Aesop’s stories have endured for millennia because they conceptualize truth in timeless images: the Tortoise and the Hare, the Scorpion and the Frog, and so on. Children read them and grasp the point; adults read them and recognize the world as it is. Leef has written a fable that conceptualizes the polarity at the heart of contemporary American politics. Leef explores that polarity and invites the reader to consider where each side leads. Few family members would appreciate a volume of Smith or Hayek under the Christmas tree, but many more would likely thumb through the opening chapters of The Awakening. Jennifer is a believable character, and as such she unifies the narrative through her intellectual transformation. The Awakening asks progressives to address where Leef goes wrong in his dystopic prediction of their policies. In provoking such questions, Leef accomplishes his implicit goal: He is not writing to the converted, but to provoke the Socratic awareness of ignorance within readers who hold views opposite from his own.
The Awakening introduces Jennifer Van Arsdale as a single, childless reporter based out of D.C. Having written for the Washington Post for more than a decade, Jennifer has an established beat covering the growth of progressive politics. She represents the grown-up millennial disconnected from the realities of family and normal community, so part of Jennifer’s awakening involves discovering just how deeply she lives within a progressive bubble. The plot takes off when she is invited to interview Pat Farnsworth, the first female president of the United States, so that Jennifer can write the official presidential biography. While in Laguna Beach to interview Farnsworth, Jennifer is attacked by criminals and saved by an (illegally) armed African American retired Navy officer named Willis Collier. Willis becomes Jennifer’s introduction to the problems progressive politics have caused, and her conversation with Willis is the first in a series that begins her reeducation. By the conclusion of the novel, Jennifer is faced with a choice: How will she act now that she rejects, by conviction, the fundamental precepts of progressivism? Leef hits the sweet spot—his novel is clearly driven by an argument, but conversations advance the plot such that the reader never loses sight of Jennifer’s transformation from a progressive yuppie into a real person.
Leef establishes Farnsworth, however, as a reductio ad absurdum of progressivism: Over her time in office, she establishes a UBI program, guarantees free college, erases Mount Rushmore in her attempt to create national unity (those presidential faces—just oppressive), packs the Supreme Court to destroy the balance of powers, and establishes a national gun-buyback program. As the novel progresses, Leef illustrates the consequences of each progressive program: The UBI disincentivizes work, free college results in lower rates of student participation and success, and minority figures do not care about statues being changed—they just want a strong economy with opportunity for success. In addition, without the Supreme Court as a constitutional check, the party in power rules tyrannically, and that gun buyback program? It only further protects those with illegal guns in the first place. As Jennifer encounters the real results of progressive policies, she illustrates the differing ways left and right anticipate causes and effects in contemporary American politics.
The Biden administration has provided ample demonstration of a polarized America, and the recent leaking of the Dobbs case has further revealed the extent of the opposed worldviews within American politics. Rather than bemoan the existence of polarity, Leef points to the fact that progressivism and classical liberalism each rest upon opposed convictions about freedom, government, and the good life. His novel avoids the temptation of speaking into a conservative echo chamber, but instead asks the reader to consider what life would be like if Elizabeth Warren’s every policy dream were to come true. Would life be good in such an America? Leef has a confidence in individual reason that aligns with his classical liberalism, and his novel invites the reader to consider whether an America lacking respect for individual liberty, speech, and property would be worth living in.
He does this through specific conversations Jennifer has with conservative characters. Each of the conversations, delivered by reasonable people who hold convictions not her own, causes Jennifer to consider a specific political claim. For example, Willis Collier says to Jennifer: “This might sound cynical, but I think most politicians would have us remain poor and angry rather than successful and independent. They want us to look to them for salvation, not our own efforts.” Here Leef introduces a core insight of public choice economics—the real motivations and incentives of politicians lies beneath the surface—which aptly illustrates Lord Acton’s observation that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Willis introduces Jennifer to a group of concerned citizens called the Free Peoples of Laguna Beach. One member, Gordon, argues that “the blame rests with the politicians who keep creating more and more money to cover their insatiable appetite for spending.” The United States as depicted in The Awakening experiences runaway inflation, and progressive politicians use that inflation to justify increased control over the economy and the citizenry.
Another member of the Free Peoples group, Stan, responds to the idea that governments need to police speech and action to prevent discrimination by arguing that “democracy worked due to the moral character of the citizens, not because majority rule automatically produces wise leaders and sound laws.” Democracy depends on the moral foundations of its citizens; people gravitate toward popular figures, not necessarily good ones. The government cannot function as the source of moral wisdom. The attempt to guide the morality of the nation, Leef suggests, masks an insatiable appetite for control of individual actions.
Leef brings a journalist’s concern for integrity to his account of journalistic dishonesty; Jennifer at one point contemplates “an unwritten rule of journalism”: never point out negative effects of progressive politics. People asking about bad policies or their consequences must be shushed; editors of major newspapers must shut down reporters who are interested in the wrong kind of story. Leef paints a picture of mainstream media as an establishment dedicated to critiquing only certain parts of the body politic but not those of their own persuasion.
In addition to the ideas discussed above, Leef includes passages on civil asset forfeiture, violent crime being stopped by armed citizens, and attempts to legislatively engineer group representation. Jennifer eventually begins reading Hayek, Smith, von Mises, and other towering figures of classical liberal thought.
Through characterization, metaphor, and story arc, the reader sympathizes with the protagonist and considers the ideas behind her transformation. The progressive left has owned the literary creative space for decades. The Awakening of Jennifer Van Arsdale proves that intellectuals on the right can craft fables that introduce ideas that shape one’s view of reality. The Awakening makes for a great introduction to the harms of progressive thought, the ways in which reality is more complex than progressivism would have you believe in its crude ideological manner, and the patterns of thought classical liberalism proposes instead.