Editors’ note: The following essay forms part of “The new conservative dilemma: a symposium,” a special section on the challenges facing conservatism today. Roger Kimball’s introduction can be read here.

When William F. Buckley Jr. and his allies launched the post-war conservative movement in the 1950s, they were bombarded with attacks from critics who claimed that their goals could never be achieved. The United States is a liberal nation, naysayers shouted, devoted to equality and restless change—conservatism can never gain a foothold here. Besides, the new conservatives were outsiders attacking the post-war status quo; in this sense, they looked more like radicals than traditional conservatives. They aimed to build a popular movement in support of their ideas, and so they were populists of the kind that “real” conservatives would never support. Conservatism could never prosper, the doubters said, because if it did, it would no longer deserve to be called conservatism.

These were some of the dilemmas that conservatives faced in that era as they worked toward a popular conservatism that might displace liberals from power while paring back the reach of government and confronting communists at home and abroad. Buckley and his fellow writers at National Review gave as much as they got in debates with liberals in that period. Nevertheless, the liberal advances in the 1960s, both in the form of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs and the cultural revolutions launched by the youth movement, seemed for many to prove the case against conservatism. Liberals would forever set the public agenda in America. Conservatives could never overcome their internal contradictions, along with their alienation from America’s liberal heritage.

The liberal failures of the 1960s and 1970s gave conservatives an opportunity to counterattack.

The liberal failures of the 1960s and 1970s gave conservatives an opportunity to counterattack, and thus to resolve some of these supposed contradictions. The Great Society programs led to crime, excessive government spending, inflation, and unemployment, while liberal foreign policies permitted communist advances in the Cold War. Conservatives, when given an opportunity to govern in the 1980s, addressed most of those challenges by ending the Cold War, reviving the national economy, and creating the conditions for several decades of low interest rates and economic expansion. The Reagan-era conservatives negated those old-time criticisms and put conservatives on an equal footing with liberals in national debates—an outcome that was thought to be impossible in the 1950s and 1960s. In doing so, they undoubtedly saved the country from ongoing decline at home and retreat abroad.

Yet now, having resolved those schisms decades ago, conservatives have been brought face-to-face with new dilemmas following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election and the cultural upheavals that coursed through the nation during the coronavirus lockdowns and the 2020 presidential campaign. These events knocked conservatives off balance in several ways and discredited some deeply held assumptions, for example that the United States is a stable polity, or that it is still a “center-right” nation, or that the federal government is a neutral actor as regards the two major political parties. None of those claims can be maintained any longer.

Democrats are using the criminal-justice system as a tool in their reelection campaign.

Trump’s victory unintentionally exposed the degree to which Democrats had managed over the years to politicize law enforcement and national-security agencies that were previously assumed to be nonpartisan. These included the fbi especially, but also the irs, cia, and Justice Department. A federal judge recently wrote (in Missouri v. Biden) that the Biden administration, in working with social-media companies to remove information posted by critics, had created an “almost dystopian scenario” in which the government operated liked an “Orwellian Ministry of Truth.” Those are strong words, but not inaccurate in light of the campaign Democrats in government mounted to control information. A federal appeals court later upheld the original verdict, finding that “several officials,” including some in the White House, the office of the Surgeon General, and at the cdc and fbi, “likely coerced or significantly encouraged social-media platforms to moderate content, rendering those decisions state actions. In doing so, the officials likely violated the First Amendment.” The original judge in Missouri v. Biden wrote his opinion before a federal prosecutor, acting at the behest of the Biden Administration, indicted Donald Trump on a mix of serious and unserious criminal charges. Democrats are using the criminal-justice system as a tool in their reelection campaign, which is one reason why Trump’s support increases as Democrats pile on their indictments.

Conservatives were also caught flat-footed by the societal convulsions of recent years that abruptly converted corporations, cultural institutions, and professionals to the belief that the United States is a racist nation, that white people must make amends for the crimes of slavery and imperialism, and that Americans with contrary ideas should be prevented from expressing themselves. The Constitution, the Founding Fathers, the heritage of liberty and limited government—all were cast to the winds by the hysteria of the Trump years, forcing conservatives into an agonizing reappraisal of their situation.

How do conservatives challenge the cultural revolution and the new world of politicized law enforcement without rending the constitutional order, causing a new civil war, or wrecking the capacity of government to function? That is the new dilemma for conservatives: to go along with the cultural revolution and the growing powers of government officials to control information, censor contrary opinion, and disorient their opponents, in which case conservatives will be silenced, enfeebled, and eventually destroyed; or, alternatively, to take aggressive steps to confront it, in which case they run the risk of disrupting the current order, with American prosperity and international power hanging in the balance. Conservatives are not inclined by temperament either to disrupt the system or to question the legitimacy of government. Yet they may have little choice but to take those risks to save themselves and perhaps the constitutional order itself.

How, then, did we get here?

Christopher F. Rufo provides one answer in an eye-opening new book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything.1 Rufo, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute (I am a fellow also), advisor to governors and legislators, and surgically effective debunker of Critical Race Theory, traces current cultural upheavals back to their ideological sources in the 1960s, when the radicals of that era abandoned their revolutionary rhetoric and began a long and ultimately successful march through America’s elite institutions (a program well written about in the 1990s by this magazine’s editor, Roger Kimball, in his books Tenured Radicals and The Long March). Rufo’s book, thoroughly researched and persuasively argued, explains how the cultural revolution advanced to the point today where it controls most of the key institutions in American society.

The long march arrived at its ultimate destination in 2020, according to Rufo, when mobs of left-wing rioters surged into the streets of major cities, attacking the police, tearing down statues, and demanding “change,” while political, corporate, and academic leaders invoked the catechism of the new revolution: “white privilege,” “institutional racism,” “defund the police,” and (of course) “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” The two prongs of the revolution—the street demonstrations and the rhetoric emanating from corporate boardrooms and academic lounges—worked in tandem to give the impression of an across-the-board upheaval in American society.

The long march arrived at its ultimate destination in 2020.

In contrast to the 1960s, when the radicals operated outside the system and in opposition to political and business leaders, the new revolutionaries now have the full support of the nation’s leadership class. Mayors and governors came out in support of the rioters in cities such as Portland, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., while corporate leaders pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to support Black Lives Matter and related causes. Though these outbursts appeared to be spontaneous reactions to Trump’s presidency, the coronavirus lockdowns, and the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Rufo argues that they occurred as the culmination of a carefully crafted strategy prepared decades ago by a handful of New Left theorists.

Rufo makes this case through a studied analysis of the thought and ultimate influence of three ideological leaders of the New Left: Herbert Marcuse, the German-born philosopher who devised the strategy of “the long march”; Paulo Freire, the Brazilian Marxist who introduced the concept of “critical pedagogy” into American education; and Derrick Bell, the African American law professor who formulated the concept of Critical Race Theory and introduced it into the law schools. These theorists, Rufo maintains, conceived the cultural revolution that has now swept through America and knocked conservatives on their heels.

When schools and universities unveil programs that teach about the evils of America or claim that the nation was founded on the basis of white supremacy and racism or urge students to work to overthrow the Constitution and “white culture,” they are recycling the ideas originally formulated by Marcuse, Freire, and Bell. School districts around the country have in fact adopted curricula based upon these ideological presumptions. In 2021, the state of California adopted a curriculum with the aim of teaching students to “challenge racist, bigoted, discriminatory, imperialist/colonialist beliefs,” while urging students to join movements that agitate for social justice. Corporations and government agencies have adopted training programs for employees that denounce the United States as “systemically racist” and based upon “white privilege.” The calls today for reparations for slavery, the redistribution of wealth along racial lines, and the elimination of color-blind ideals originated in the New Left pedagogy promoted by these theorists.

But Rufo identifies Marcuse as the “grandfather” of the New Left and the theorist who persuaded the radicals of the 1960s to abandon dreams of violent revolution and instead to move into the schools, colleges, and government with a long-run plan to subvert the capitalist system from within. Marcuse accepted Marx’s critique of capitalism but updated it to take into account the rise of new technologies, the development of a consumer society, and the evolution of the working class into a conservative force in industrial nations. Because of these developments, he concluded that the state and the capitalist system had grown far too powerful to be overthrown by the loose band of student radicals who controlled the New Left. Violence as practiced by the radicals was pointless, he wrote, because they could never compete with the state in the use of force. By the early 1970s, Marcuse concluded, the first era of the New Left—that period of “joyful and spectacular action” in the 1960s—had come to an end. A new strategy was needed.

Radicals were busy penetrating the system in preparation for an opportunity to overthrow it.

In setting forth this new strategy for the Left, Marcuse broke with Marxism in some important respects. He did not see workers as a revolutionary group, because affluence and consumerism had lulled them into support for capitalist America. Marcuse looked instead to new groups—students, intellectuals, blacks, and feminists—to carry forward the revolution against capitalism. Marcuse claimed that the number of allies and allied groups would expand as the capitalist system created demands for more teachers, professors, government workers, and the like. More important, Marcuse called for a cultural revolution rather than a proletarian seizure of power—in other words, a gradual revolution in values that would destroy consumerism, eliminate racism, change the relations between the sexes, transform educational practices, and eventually wreck the existing bourgeois culture that sustained the capitalist order. While conservatives were celebrating victories in the Cold War and the restoration of free markets and lower taxes in the United States, radicals were busy penetrating the system in preparation for an opportunity to overthrow it—an opportunity they seized in 2020.

Is a counterrevolution, an overthrowing of the current regime, possible? Rufo, it turns out, is optimistic that the cultural revolution can be turned back and eventually defeated. Today’s radicals are paper tigers with more growl than bite: professors at Harvard, Yale, and ucla and salaried professionals in government and foundations are not going to take arms against the current system, because “the system” supports their positions and pays their salaries. But the radicalism of these teachers and officials will be tempered by a dose of self-preserving conservatism, though that could make them even more difficult to dislodge. As Robert Conquest said, “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.” But since these academics are more timeservers than ideologues, nor will they defend their radicalism if it comes under sustained fire. So the situation in the academy, while baleful, is unlikely to get much worse. In addition, Rufo writes, the revolution that brought the radicals into the academy offends common citizens who see it as an attack on families, local communities, and deeply held ideals about what America stands for.

Rufo is an activist and an effective one, but also a conservative.

At some point, he anticipates that America’s middle- and working-class voters will force a showdown with the New Left, pitting the ideals of 1776 against the cultural doctrines unleashed in 1968 and 2020. The solution to the New Left march through the institutions, Rufo writes, is to bring institutions under the political control of the voters in order to circumvent the de facto rule of managers, bureaucrats, and social engineers. Rufo goes further, suggesting that counterrevolutionaries should “dismantle” bureaucracies in governments and corporations that prop up the cultural revolution through grants, jobs, and regulations.

Rufo is an activist and an effective one, but also a conservative, though an unusual one: he calls for some extreme steps (“smashing the bureaucracy”) to restore the promise of American life for everyday Americans not connected to elite institutions. He is, in that sense, a new type of conservative, and to some extent a radical one, adapting to a new world of “woke” politics. There is precedent for this: Buckley was called a radical, too.

America’s Cultural Revolution addresses one dimension of the upheavals of the 1960s: the cultural and ideological attack on America’s institutions and middle-class norms. It is a compelling account, and accurate so far as it goes, though it does not explain how Marcuse’s heirs were able to take control of so many institutions or what it was about America’s institutions in the modern era that made them vulnerable to his strategy. There is a complementary side to Rufo’s account that begins to fill out the history of this period.

There was another theme in play during the 1960s that emphasized political reform rather than cultural revolution. That was Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society agenda of the mid-1960s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and his panoply of expensive federal programs that were passed by Congress in 1965 and 1966. These programs opened the way for an unprecedented degree of federal intervention in areas previously in the domain of state and local governments. This political breakthrough expanded federal bureaucracies and gave them leverage over other major institutions in American society, including businesses, schools and colleges, and state and local governments. It was this revolution that provided leftists with new institutional opportunities that propelled them on their long march. Absent the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act, they might never have been able to execute Marcuse’s strategy.

Absent the Great Society and the Civil Rights Act, they might never have been able to execute Marcuse’s strategy.

The Great Society brought about an institutional revolution in American society, primarily because of the interaction between expensive federal programs—such as Medicare, Medicaid, and federal aid to schools, colleges, and state and local government—and the enforcement politics of the Civil Rights Act. The campaign to desegregate the American South finally succeeded because of this interaction: hospitals, schools, and colleges were ineligible to receive federal funds under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act unless they opened those institutions to all races. In a matter of a few years, all major institutions in American society—every serious university, every government and sub-jurisdiction, and many businesses—were on the receiving end of federal dollars due to one or another newly passed program. Advocacy groups working to uphold the Civil Rights Act pressed bureaucrats to enforce those anti-discrimination clauses by threatening to withhold federal funds. The threats were effective as corporations, colleges, and governments began to enforce their own quotas and hiring goals for fear of some enforcement action from one of the many federal offices of civil rights created during this period.

These programs eventually erased the unofficial barrier that had existed until that time between the powers of the federal government and those of other institutions across the society. The New Deal expanded many of the powers of government but did little to interfere with this traditional barrier. In 1961, the U.S. government spent about $80 billion, with 57 percent ($46 billion) going to national defense and the rest scattered among interest payments, Social Security, agricultural programs, and veterans affairs. By 1980, when Great Society programs were in full swing, the federal government spent about $550 billion, with just 24 percent allocated to defense. But 39 percent was allocated to income programs of various kinds (through Social Security, Medicare, welfare, and other items) and 16 percent to grants and payments to state and local governments. Those sub-grants to other institutions were accompanied by requirements to carry out civil-rights legislation, in addition to others later mandated by laws dealing with the environment, mental health, and physical handicaps.

The new programs created in that period spawned a host of advocacy groups in Washington that worked with journalists, congressional committees, and executive agencies to protect expenditures and expand the reach of the programs. The advocacy groups were funded by charitable foundations and wealthy individuals, and sometimes by the government itself, which sent money to such groups to press Congress to spend more, in a cumulative process of expansion. If a president, perhaps Nixon or Reagan, threatened to cut a program, bureaucrats would leak news of the threat to friendly journalists, along with necessary information to defend said program—and the journalists were happy to publish it. Those presidents usually backed off. The result: the Great Society programs are still intact, and still expanding, sixty years later, despite conservative calls to cut them back or eliminate them. There are plenty of jobs in the government, education, and health establishment, many of them occupied by radicals engaged in the long march.

The Civil Rights Act may have been the machinery that brought all of these programs together under the umbrella of race and gender reform. That, in any case, is an argument advanced a few years ago by Christopher Caldwell in The Age of Entitlement (2020). The act, as most Americans thought, was a one-time step designed to eliminate the racial caste system in the Southern states by outlawing segregation in schools, colleges, and public facilities. Yet advocates expanded the scope of the act in various ways year after year—by applying it to new groups, or by expanding the definition of “discrimination,” or by threatening the withdrawal of federal funds from institutions that did not fall into line behind federal guidelines. The act was soon taken to apply to all manner of subjects, from college admissions to employment practices to test results. Since nearly all institutions now receive federal aid in one way or another, all are covered by the never-ending expansion of the Civil Rights Act.

Some have suggested that the Civil Rights Act was the law that “ate the Constitution” by giving the federal government (along with the activists who run it) unprecedented powers never anticipated by the Founding Fathers. Caldwell writes that it has given rise to an alternative constitution in which the Civil Rights Act and its bureaucratic progeny are promoted by activists and thereby elevated in status over the original Constitution of 1787. Some claim the Civil Rights Act was a mistake from the beginning; others that it was twisted out of shape over the years by activists, judges, and bureaucrats to the point where it should be pared back to its original meaning. Caldwell makes a strong case for the latter.

Richard Hanania, a political scientist at the University of Texas, has delved into the Civil Rights Act and its expansion in a series of essays and in a fascinating new book, The Origins of Woke: Civil Rights Law, Corporate America, and the Triumph of Identity Politics.2 He makes a provocative argument: “woke” politics is an outgrowth of federal civil-rights policy. He attacks especially the claim, now embedded in regulations, that any disparity in outcomes between blacks and whites or men and women must be due to discrimination—and thus subject to civil-rights enforcement. To avoid investigations and penalties, corporations, universities, and other institutions have imposed preemptive quotas on hiring and promotions, such that bureaucratic influence expands under the act by threat rather than by direct use.

Hanania recommends that a new president, probably a Republican, eliminate this rule by executive action. He regrets—for good reasons—that President Trump did not try to act on this point until the final days of his administration, when it was far too late. Perhaps the next Republican president will act sooner and with greater dispatch. On this front, the Supreme Court has taken a long step in the right direction by eliminating the use of race in college admissions and employment policies. With this decision, the Court has shown that it is possible to unwind the unwarranted expansion of civil rights into areas that the authors of the legislation never intended it to reach.

These works complement Rufo’s book by showing that the “revolution of the 1960s” proceeded along both cultural and political tracks to bring us to the bizarre situation in which we find ourselves today, when the most extreme ideas of that decade are now judged to be commonplace in most institutions that are within reach of the federal government and the national press. The radicals’ agenda, as it turned out, was less about class or wealth or redistribution and more about race, gender, and sexual identity—to the point where these have become national obsessions. A few years ago, it was hard to see how things could get much worse. But they did. Rufo’s solution as outlined in the conclusion to his book unites these two tracks: instead of attacking the culture (the focus of his book), he proposes to unwind the agencies and bureaucracies that empower far-left doctrines.

Rufo’s book, and the others mentioned above, should shake conservatives from complacent thoughts

Rufo’s book, and the others mentioned above, should shake conservatives from complacent thoughts that events are moving in a constructive direction. They are not: things are getting worse, at least from political and cultural points of view, and will continue to do so unless conservative Americans can find a way to intervene, as they did in the 1980s. Donald Trump won the Republican primary and later the presidency in 2016 because alleged conservatives had failed to deliver on promises to support the economic and cultural interests of the middle classes. He remains popular in middle- and lower-class circles, despite indictments, because he speaks to those interests and general feelings of national decline, while many other conservatives do not. Rufo and others, without necessarily endorsing Trump or his approach, call on conservatives to come to grips with the sources of Trump’s popularity.

Does this amount to a “radical” conservatism? Perhaps, though in truth it points in the direction of a more aggressive politics than conservatives have practiced heretofore—albeit in defense of old principles newly endangered.

  1.   America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, by Christopher F. Rufo; Broadside Books, 352 pages, $32.
  2.   The Origins of Woke: Civil Rights Law, Corporate America, and the Triumph of Identity Politics, by Richard Hanania; Broadside Books, 288 pages, $32.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 42 Number 2, on page 4
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