My earlier odyssey through America’s fruited plains ended with a prediction that the recent struggle between the country’s twin political hysterias of left and right was starting to trend in the right’s direction after a year in which the left had dominated the field. At the same time, the struggle between these twin hysterias needed a clearer definition, since it was much more than an unusually partisan version of the traditional two-party battle between Republicans and Democrats. Both parties are changing and exchanging their identities, at least in part, in a long-germinating political realignment that first erupted into the public’s consciousness with the election of Donald Trump in 2016.
A partial list of the peaks and troughs for both sides in the struggle since 2016 is easily assembled. Even before the shock of Trump’s victory (fuelled as it was by the defection of working-class Democrats to the GOP) had been fully absorbed by the Democrats, a meeting in President Obama’s White House initiated a campaign to portray the new president as a tool of Russia and the beneficiary of collusion with the Kremlin. Assisted by a highly partisan media, an investigation into ‘Russiagate’ by special prosecutor Robert Muller crippled the new administration for three years until July 2019 when Muller concluded reluctantly that there had been no such conspiracy (though he suggested darkly that Trump might have done something else wrong). That report, being released at a time when the US economy was booming and Trump’s view of China was gaining non-partisan support, revived Trump’s political prospects in the run-up to election year 2020.
But 2020 also proved to be the first year of the COVID pandemic, which made voters anxious, unsettled all political calculations, and stalled Trump’s recovery. It was also the first year of the Black Lives Matter protests and ‘largely peaceful’ riots, which burned down large areas of urban America, cost an estimated thirty lives, and turned the voters’ unfocused anxiety into deep political foreboding. An election held in these circumstances, often under new voting rules without safeguards against fraud, in which both mainstream media and Big Tech openly campaigned against Trump—all combined to produce a paradoxical result: Trump increased his vote both generally and among minorities, but Biden enjoyed an even larger increase in Democratic votes to win a decisive victory. Some ingredients in this electoral stew smelled bad, but not enough to change the result: Biden’s margin of victory was too large to overcome.
If Trump had then complained about the election’s failings but conceded defeat (even if through gritted teeth), he would have had enough supporters and sympathy within his party to plausibly hope for the GOP’s presidential nomination in 2024 on the slogan ‘Vindicate Me’. Instead, with extraordinary folly even by his own standards, he alleged that the election had been stolen, sought to overturn it by unconstitutional methods that his own vice-President rejected, and staged an angry rally on Capitol Hill that degenerated into a disgraceful and disorderly riot.
That riot became the dominant political motif for most of 2021. Though the mob made no effort to seize any of the institutions needed for a successful coup, and rioters were the only people killed, Democrats and the media defined the event as an ‘insurrection’ and weaponized it to argue that the biggest national security threat to America was ‘White supremacy’. Who were these dangerous ‘White supremacists’? The suspects turned out to be anyone who happened to be on Capitol Hill that day or, more broadly, anyone who had voted for Trump or held conservative opinions. Those arrested for taking part in the riot have been held without bail for months on the grounds that they are a risk to public order. Some still remain in custody, allegedly in dire conditions. Yet none have been charged with offenses linked to insurrection. And the federal Justice Department resists releasing videos of the riot that defence attorneys insist would demonstrate their clients’ innocence. The heavy-handed response to the ‘insurrection’ was intensified by a months-long military occupation of Capitol Hill, the politicization of COVID treatments, the lockdowns, vaccination mandates, and mask mandates demanded by compliant media and ordered by Democratic governors and mayors across the country, and demonization of both individual politicians and groups which resisted these measures. Overall, the political atmosphere that prevailed in America during the spring and early summer was an oddly authoritarian one.
That atmosphere nonetheless seemed to be gradually evaporating on my last visit in late summer, in part because many ordinary Americans were fed up with the restrictions of life under lockdown and wanted a return to ‘normality’, in part because the progressive narratives of ‘White supremacy’ and ‘insurrection’ were being overwhelmed by contrary reports of the failure of Biden’s more progressive policies such as the chaos of illegal migration on America’s southern border. Two events in particular were dissipating this atmosphere. I thought at the time that America’s undignified ‘scuttle’ from Afghanistan would be the most serious wound in the Biden administration’s popularity since it left several thousand Americans and many more Afghan allies stranded there at the mercy of the Taliban (not to mention billions of dollars’ worth of advanced US weaponry). It certainly damaged President Biden with both US allies and the more hawkish members of America’s foreign policy establishment. But what inflicted a more serious electoral blow was the growing awareness of parents that their children in America’s primary and high schools were being taught ‘critical race theory’ (CRT), or the view that anti-Black racism permeates American life and education so completely (both consciously and unconsciously) that it could be countered only by lessons that showed its toxic presence in all subjects and in every mind.
For many years, conservative philosophers had been lamenting the gradual emergence of CRT and other progressive nostrums as academic orthodoxies in colleges, while their educationist colleagues warn of its spread to high schools via teacher training. But it had been easy for liberals who then dominated these institutions to dismiss their complaints as so much McCarthyite paranoia. What now alerted most Americans, especially parents, to this threatening reality was the pandemic. Kept home themselves by lockdowns and thus able to see what their children, also at home, were learning from their teachers in online lessons, parents were astonished at the raw racism (usually anti-White) that drenched the curriculum. Children were divided apartheid-style into different racial groups in class; young White children were asked to apologize for their White ‘privilege’; children of all ethnicities were told that they could not have friends in other racial groups; and lessons in history and other topics were distorted through the lens of CRT doctrine.
‘Distorted’ is a weak word for this process. CRT is not taught as one of several perspectives which are equally subjected to criticism—as is now sometimes disingenuously claimed by its adherents. It is taught as the Truth across the entire range of disciplines, even though CRT has an uneasy relationship with even the idea of truth. Drawn as it is from several related intellectual traditions—including postmodernism, classical Marxism, post-structuralism, some strands of feminism, post-colonial theory, gender theory, and the cultural Marxist contributions of György Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, and the Frankfurt School—CRT doctrine is a mess of sophisticated academic theories based essentially on the idea that society and history are a struggle between groups with power and marginalized minorities, and that culture and language are structured so as to grant privilege to the former over the latter. CRT is a set of techniques that will supposedly reveal and overthrow the privilege (of, for instance, ‘Whiteness’) and liberate the oppressed groups from the chains in their own minds. Educating children is therefore the obvious route to changing society by discrediting the ideas, cultural traditions, customs, and even words that supposedly support and entrench existing power relations and the dominance of ‘Whites’ and other privileged groups. Hence, the school lessons that dramatize separate and unequal relations between different groups by dividing young children into separate areas in the classroom and requiring confessions and apologies from some to others. CRT calls these dramas ‘anti-racism’ because they supposedly uproot the racism that society has already implanted in the children.
That is not how it appeared to parents, however. What they saw when they listened in to the online school lessons was plain old-fashioned racism in which their children were either humiliated for their skin colour or encouraged to despise other pupils on the same racial grounds. Outraged, they began to protest about this at the school board meetings, which are an important feature of American urban and suburban life. Black parents were among those protesting fiercely. Such protests at Jim Crow anti-Black racism quickly became a scandal, and its practitioners were forced to resign in disgrace. But the supporters of CRT are made of sterner stuff. An entire lumpen intelligentsia of teachers and school administrators has imbibed CRT in college and believes in it with almost religious passion. They and their representatives first denied it was happening, then argued that CRT was a genuinely anti-racist exercise which the parents were intellectually ill-equipped to understand, then claimed that the parents were usurping the professional rights of teachers in trying to shape lessons, and as a last-ditch defence suggested that the parents were complicit in attacks on teachers and administrators at school board meetings. (There had been clashes between angry parents and activist teachers and school board administrators who defended CRT.) Parents cover a wide social range of people and occupations, however, and they were not going to be intimidated when their children were at risk. A movement of parents who exchanged videos and other information about both school lessons and school board meetings developed spontaneously across America and began to challenge activist teachers and administrators in school board elections. It was a multi-racial, bi-partisan, and socially highly diverse movement—as was demonstrated most surprisingly by the emergence of clashes between the (very liberal) parents and the (extremely progressive) teachers at America’s ‘toniest’ and most expensive private schools, which had gone ‘woke’ in a big way.
It was never likely that this movement could be kept out of the wider political struggle between left and right (even though that is what many moderate Democrats must have wanted). CRT is woven deeply into the broader politics of wokeness, which is now the bible of the activist progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In particular, the teachers unions, themselves increasingly under progressive influence, constitute the single biggest financial contributor to Democratic election campaigns. The Democrats were therefore inevitably drawn into the schools battle—and not only those from the progressive wing. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic candidate for Virginia’s governorship, a moderate who was expected to win easily, suggested that parents had no right to control their children’s education (apparently not knowing that is a right proclaimed in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights). More significantly, US Attorney General Merrick Garland also a reputed moderate, issued a statement that he intended to intervene to protect teachers and school administrators at risk of violence and intimidation: ‘To this end, I am directing the Federal Bureau of Investigation, working with each United States Attorney, to convene meetings with federal, state, local, Tribal, and territorial leaders in each federal judicial district within 30 days of the issuance of this memorandum. These meetings will facilitate the discussion of strategies for addressing threats against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff, and will open dedicated lines of communication for threat reporting, assessment, and response.’
This was obviously taking the side of the lumpen intelligentsia against the parents, in that it was rooted in the assumption that there was a national threat of violence against teachers. If so, from whom did this violence and intimidation come? The answer was obvious: the parents, who, as a result, were now going to be persons of interest to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. That invited concern not only from the GOP, but also from a much wider social circle, encompassing presumably the parents of pupils at the tony Grace School in Manhattan. Garland’s intervention proved even more suspect when it was discovered, first, that his memorandum had been prompted by a letter from the activist National School Board Association and even repeated some of its phrasing, and second, that the Board’s original letter was the product of discussions between the Board’s woke leadership and the White House. The poor Attorney General was beginning to resemble a respectable lawyer who fronts for a Mafia operation in the White House.
This episode has not ended, of course; the task force established by Garland still exists and is presumably investigating someone. An activist mother claims to have had an intrusion early in the morning by a heavily armed FBI squad who took away various documents. In time we will doubtless find out whether this episode is a fantasy or a scandal. Even politicians concerned with civil liberties, however, will be made more nervous by another apparent result of Garland’s memorandum (in addition, of course, to the Democrats’ general embarrassment as each revelation tumbled forth). This was the election result in Virginia which, only a month earlier, would have seemed a major upset. In an election that was widely seen as shaped by the CRT-in-schools issue, Terry McAuliffe was defeated by a novice Republican candidate—by a close margin, admittedly, but in a state that Biden won last year by a double-digit majority. That result has had commentators speculating confidently that the Democrats are likely to lose next November’s mid-term elections very, er, handsomely.
Has that result banished the 6 January insurrection myth that dominated political discourse and made respectable a leftist authoritarianism for most of this year? Not completely, but it has signified that a conservative narrative of popular resistance to a progressive ideology embraced by the new administration now competes effectively with it. In the world of directly democratic institutions, conservatives and progressives, Republicans and Democrats, compete on equal terrain. The vast problem that remains is that almost all other significant public institutions, especially the media and cultural bodies, are controlled by progressive elites or by liberal elites that are either intimidated by or voluntarily wish to appease progressive elites, so that there is a constant drift in a progressive direction even when conservatives control the government.
As the parental rebellion shows, however, there is an underlying social reality of everyday life that could potentially halt and defeat the woke ideology. It has, in fact, three obvious weaknesses.
The first is that when its ideas are separated from their intellectual scaffolding and obscurantist language—what Chesterton called its ‘mystagoguery’—they are exposed as being extremely silly. It is not true that racism is whatever a member of a disadvantaged group perceives as racism. It is a transparent sophistry that only those with power can be racist and that since Black people or other ethnic minorities lack power, they cannot be racist—a sophistry contradicted by the very rise of the self-described ‘anti-racists’ like Ibrahim X. Kendle, and by the contempt for working class Whites exhibited by progressive activists. It is self-evidently false that all relationships are determined by power, as the history of the family shows, especially the relationships between sons and mothers, fathers and daughters. And it is not possible to believe that all cultures are equal if you believe that all human beings are equal, since some cultures deny human equality and justify treating whole classes of human beings as inherently inferior. Once these absurdities are dragged out of the academic closet and into the political arena, they cannot survive robust criticism.
Secondly, woke ideas cannot really compete with the common sense of the ordinary citizen which, far from being an ideology of the ruling class imposed upon victim groups, as Marx argued, is in fact the distilled experience of society over generations, expressed in pithy aphorisms. That is one key difference between conservatives and progressives: conservatives aim to maintain and improve society, with an attitude of respect towards its prevailing ideas, while radicals seek to transform society in line with novel academic theories that have difficulty surviving once they are exposed to the light of day. Their dogmas outrage common sense and provoke opposition among those who have either not become true believers or have not been intimidated/bribed into compliance. Hence the reliance of wokeness on the traditional methods of political oppression when faced with those who resist: isolation, banishment, and starvation. Dissenters are identified on social media and inundated with denunciations by a seemingly universal twitter mob. They lose their occupations and perhaps their livelihoods because other employers are warned against them. How many journalists who have offended woke colleagues on The New York Times could hope to be employed on The Washington Post?
That reveals their third weakness, however. The wokerati’s willingness to impose their dogmas on society is disproportionately dependent upon their control of the mechanisms of communication. If your ideas are unfounded and run counter to most people’s experience and opinions, they require constant reinforcement from outside by the media, employers, publishing houses, and other cultural transmission belts. Their ‘soft authoritarianism’ rests both on such ideas as ‘political correctness’ that ban entire topics from academic, political, and public debate, and on tactics of intimidation that penalize heretics by depriving them of their jobs and banishing them from their professions. If those tactics do not succeed every time, then the heretics will get a hearing from the rest of society. And the entire shaky edifice will be at risk.
That is now happening in an unusual context: jokes. Professional comedians are complaining that there are so many rules that prohibit the giving of offense on ethnic, social, intellectual, and almost all other grounds, that it is very hard for them to practice their profession. That argument gets added support from the fact that America’s late night comedians—who used to be the escape-valve of social and political irritation and wildly popular as a result—are now progressive, preachy, and tragically unfunny. Their rivals who refuse to play by the rules of progressive prohibition are gaining audiences and becoming vocal in their rejection of progressive ideology.
It is an odd Achilles Heel for the woke to discover, but perhaps a crippling one. To which they will reply: ‘It is not funny.’ And, fortunately, it is better than funny.