A new front has opened in the culture war that differs from yesterday’s battles over specific issues like abortion or marriage equality. Progressives are now working to stigmatize individuals and groups that are not—and I’m using this as a shorthand—sufficiently woke. This has prompted a backlash among populists who want to “Make America Great Again.” Both sides seek to impose their will upon the other through the power of government and cultural institutions.
Progressives have made gains by building upon their cultural capital. They dominate the commanding heights of many shaping institutions: mass media, entertainment, and academia. Their cause commands significant support from government bureaucrats, like the Obama-era Health and Human Services employee who told Politico in December 2016: “Do you stay and try and be the internal saboteur, or do you stay and try to be the last defender at the table?” Conservatives, by contrast, have Fox News, the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, and a few prominent radio shows.
In a column exploring bias against conservatives, Megan McArdle describes how “conservatives spend the first few decades of their lives in a left-skewed educational system, and the rest consuming cultural products made by liberals, so that liberal cultural hegemony barrages them daily with their ‘otherness.’ Which is how they can sincerely feel powerless despite holding a great deal of political power.
In other words: you may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in you. Progressives offer a choice: submission to their ideology, or banishment. Former Google employee James Damore learned this the hard way, as did former Atlantic writer Kevin Williamson, as did several bakery owners with religious convictions.
A former Army ranger turned National Football League lineman had to apologize for taking the field to stand for the national anthem. Even Taylor Swift has come under fire for not vocally embracing the zeitgeist. Where does it stop?
Trump Noticed Half of America Didn’t Like Being Bullied
Donald Trump took advantage of the market opportunity to appeal to Americans who feel differently about their country than the cultural left does. He offered validation that America could be great once again, and that the clock could be turned back to better days. In a country that has changed dramatically in even the last 10 years, this appealed to those seeking cultural affirmation. And thus did a reality TV star secure election as our 45th president.
In an interview with Bill Kristol, Jonah Goldberg explains how progressives and conservatives alike share blame for Trump’s rise, and highlights the unfortunate contributing factor of racial politics. I share nearly all of his conclusions, as well as his dismay at the current state of events. But I part ways with the response that Goldberg and Kristol suggest for ideological liberals (the real kind, not American progressives).
They essentially argue that Paul Ryan should have followed Thích Quảng Đức’s example in response to Trump’s rise, the same Ryan who did more to condemn his party’s nominee than any other party leader in recent memory. Arguing that the remnant of right-liberals and conservatives should make a priority of fighting and dying gallantly against Trumpism is foolish. Goldberg and Kristol have the luxury of floating above the political fray. After all, punditry is not zero-sum in the way that an election or a congressional vote is.
If Goldberg and Kristol want to secure a future for individual liberty and human flourishing in American life, they’ll need to learn the lesson that allowed Elliot Ness to realize his goal in The Untouchables. Ideas and persuasion alone—the path forward Goldberg offers—are as insufficient to stem the tide of illiberalism sweeping across the country as a few liquor raids were to bringing down Al Capone. To echo the challenge made to Ness by Malone, the streetwise Chicago cop who helped him bring down the crime boss, “What are you prepared to do?”
Make Common Cause Where Possible
Donald Trump is the president, and right-liberals should make common cause with him when compatible with their beliefs. When it violates deeply held principles, they should withhold this support or work to oppose him. But right-liberals must not reflexively oppose him, as Kristol does, or deceive themselves into thinking that some other faction will ride to our rescue.
A resurgent progressivism is a far greater threat to the American idea than Trump’s populism. Progressives are doing what every out-group does when it finally comes to power: use public institutions to suppress dissent. Their project comes down to one word: control.
Progressives want to deploy their immense cultural power to shape the way you think. Raise questions about climate change? You’re a denier. Condemn the terrorists who murdered the staff of Charlie Hebdo? You must be an Islamophobe. Suggest making old-age programs financially sustainable? Stop throwing granny off the cliff!
Stop Firing On Allies You Need Badly
Even if you agree with the progressive critique on these issues, the tactics of otherizing conservatives begins down a slippery slope. All movements need pushback to be held accountable, and removing conservatives from the public square would mean that progressives are effectively beyond reproach. The Right, with limited cultural capital, primarily uses political speech to impact society. Take that away, and at least 40 percent of the country becomes voiceless. This isn’t a recipe for social stability.
Some of progressives’ aims are laudable. Greater social inclusion, for instance, is a worthy goal, and it’s beyond debate that certain groups continue to be unjustly denied access to the full promise of America. But stigmatizing those with good-faith objections to how this is carried out will only perpetuate a cycle of grievance and disillusionment.
Politics is downstream of culture, and it always has been. I’d rather think about ways to change policy to help poor and working-class people through free markets and rebuilding community. But alas, I’ve become a reluctant culture warrior for the right to earn a living and have a place in society even for people who believe things that violate the beliefs of the new class. This is a fight we can’t afford to lose.