Neoconservatives, who were in many ways the dominant foreign policy manufacturers of the 1970s through the 2000s, never had much of a popular constituency. There were never tens of millions of Americans who identified as neocons, nor is it clear that a whole lot of Americans actually agreed with their philosophy of globally and neverendingly exerting American might.
What they did have was a constituency of institutional power, at times including both political parties. This is what made their preferred policies dominant.
Likewise, it seems unlikely that the Justice Democrats, and their avatar Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, represent the beliefs of many Americans outside of our bluest, farthest left enclaves. They haven’t flipped any districts. But what they do have is an outsized constituency of cultural power. Among those who create and maintain our culture, their beliefs are disproportionally represented, just as the neocons were in the foreign policy establishment.
On the surface, both of these situations appear to be problematic and deeply anti-democratic. If most Americans didn’t think they never saw a bombing they didn’t like, and most Americans don’t believe there are 72 genders, then why should these attitudes become dominant in foreign policy and culture? The answer lies with America itself.
America Is Not a Democracy
The short version of this answer is that the United States is not a democracy, never was a democracy, and was never intended to be one. The fear of majorities trampling the rights and influence of minorities outweighed ideas of fairness and equal representation. This is why South Dakota and California both have two senators, despite huge differences in population. So if the founders didn’t want to lay power directly in the hands of a majority of the American people, where did they want that power to lie?
The somewhat uncomfortable, but also fairly obvious, answer is that they wanted power to lie in the hands of elites. Smart and educated white men, eventually smart and educated non-white men, and then eventually also, smart and educated women were to be the real force behind policy and decision-making.
The critics of this idea of elite power understood this concept from the very beginning of the republic. Andrew Jackson’s entire political career in antebellum America was based on distrust of this elite power. It’s little surprise he is Donald Trump’s favorite president. That’s because Trump is the opposite of this elite political and policy power system. Those who write about or hold political power simply had no idea what a vast popular constituency his ideas and attitudes have. He was able to tap that.
But the founders in their wisdom seemed to understand that popular constituencies do represent a counterbalance to the elite power our system creates and even encourages. The currently derided neocon movement did help to crush the Soviet Union and establish dominant American power, even if majority opinion played little role in fostering their policies. It was not until the excesses of the Iraq War and eventually the election of anti (Iraq) war Barack Obama that the popular constituency became large and powerful enough to blunt them.
If conservatives are to be equally successful in their fight against the elite cultural power of Justice Democrat concepts, they most look for a similar pattern. Progressives have been able to push through significant cultural victories without majority constituencies, like the neocons did in defeating communism. Some have been good, like the expansion of tolerance for gay Americans.
But we may be entering a point where the darker side of the progressive ideals that people like Justice Democrats push into the culture are becoming clear, and dismaying to wide swaths of the American populace. What ultimately began cracking up neocon foreign policy power, such as it is, was that it stopped being an amorphous concept only known by readers of high-end political and policy magazines. It developed avatars.
Attack the Progressive Avatars
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the Iraq War itself became avatars of neo-conservatism that could be directly attacked. What had been a murky and multifarious elite power network took on faces. This is exactly what is happening to progressive cultural hegemony with the rise of the Justice Democrats, the heirs of Occupy Wall Street.
The progressive and often libertine trends in our popular culture — such as the rise of porn, small children being flaunted as drag queens with grown men in bars, abortion celebrated as a social good instead of mourned as a tragic but sometimes necessary decision, individual responsibility being replaced by government support, a certain kind of anti-Semitism, even the idea that America has never been great — were amorphous, faceless, a cultural cloud that could absorb any attack in its fog.
This is no longer the case. These once-faceless cultural trends now have faces, and very public ones. There now exist actual people with political power who can be compelled to answer for the conditions that lead to these cultural states. Progressivism as a whole could never be questioned directly as a unique thing capable of answering in one voice, but Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar are. They are capable of gaffes, and saying the quiet part out loud. Much like Cheney and Rumsfeld, they do so quite often.
This is where the American conservative cultural opportunity resides. We have been provided avatars of progressivism. Just as those who opposed the neocons pounded the avatars of that movement, so must conservatives attack Justice Democrats as the entity that can be embarrassed by forcing them to explain and make clear the absurdities of their ideas. They must be never allowed to duck questions.
The Progressive Parade of Horribles
While I agree the country faces a cultural crisis — I mean, when has the country not faced a cultural crisis — I am more optimistic than most of my conservative friends on all sides of our needlessly fractured although fruitful debate. Just as Americans en masse rebelled against the institutional power of the neocons, so, I believe they will rebel against extreme forms of cultural progressivism now that there are people who must explain the unexplainable to them.
When teenage girls file a lawsuit because biological boys who identify as trans kept them out of state championships while — surprise, surprise — breaking females’ records, most Americans cringe a bit because it’s blatantly unfair. We need the Justice Democrats to explain to the American people why these girls should just suck it up and take the loss when boys who identify as girls dominate their sports.
When our culture tells us that climate change needs to be fought by any means necessary, we must ask Justice Democrats: What “means,” exactly? Who is allowed to do what under the regime of the means undertaken? When our culture tells us racism is not an individual action but a system of oppression built into the American government, we must ask Justice Democrats what specific actions can be taken to change those alleged systems, and why fighting attitudes of individual bigotry, which over the last half century our society has succeeded at wildly well, although not completely, is not the faster and more effective approach?
For the first time, those who oppose or maybe question the norms and values of contemporary progressive culture have actual people in positions where they can’t completely duck questions. The Post Millennial put a piece up yesterday cheekily titled, “We Must Stop Writing About Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (after this article).” It is well worth reading. In it, the authors compare her to a Gremlin whom shouldn’t wet with media attention lest she, like Trump, turn into a monster. This is a viewpoint to which I am extremely sympathetic, but with which I must ultimately disagree.
First of all, progressives, not conservatives, made AOC a star, and progressive cultural outlets were the ones making her the face of the resistance. More importantly, she is our way into a substantive debate. Finally. The good news for American conservatives is that even if she can exquisitely express her worldview, it, unlike Trump’s, is wildly out of step with the average American’s, just as with neocons.
Neocons and Justice Democrats are true believers. They believe their approaches will create, if not utopias, at least stable societies in which people can live happily. The American voters are far more cynical. Perhaps this, in part, explains the American founders’ unwillingness to give them total power.
Americans don’t vote for future utopias. They vote for today and tomorrow. That undid the neocons once they had political faces. That is what will undo the Justice Democrats now that they have cultural ones.