Conservatives need to stop treating virtue signaling as if it didn’t matter.
The Vanguard of Record
Woke identity politics is liberalism’s successor ideology—from the New York Times on down.
The leftist demagoguery of playing the “race card” did not begin with the candidacy of Donald J. Trump. It has been building for nearly 50 years. During the 1980 Presidential campaign, a Jimmy Carter surrogate—HHS Secretary Patricia Harris—attempted to tie candidate Reagan to the Ku Klux Klan. She predicted that when Reagan spoke to African-American audiences, many blacks would “see the specter of a white sheet behind him.” Since then, the ruling faction of the left-of-center coalition in America, the bloc that enforces the norms and promotes the moral vision of that coalition, has steadily passed to the far Left. Today, it is the sole possession of the woke progressives.
Just before the 2008 election, Barack Obama famously declared, “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” Intentionally or not, however, Obama raised expectations on the far Left that he did not satisfy. The “force” of those expectations, as Ross Douthat writes in a recent column at the New York Times, has been frenetically “transforming Western liberalism” ever since. It goes under a variety of names, he says: “identity politics,” “social justice,” “SJWs,” “anti-racism,” “intersectionality,” “political correctness,” “Cultural Marxism,” and the “great awokening,” among others. Douthat prefers Wesley Yang’s formulation, “the successor ideology”—meaning that this force “represents a possible successor to liberalism, like Marxism in the last century.”
Douthat, a Never-Trump conservative columnist on the Times opinion page, hopes that liberalism will survive the onslaught of the successor ideology. His column was prompted by the newspaper leadership’s spineless public apology for having published Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling for military backing of the police against rioters and looters, when necessary. Interestingly, this was an op-ed the Times had originally solicited.
Douthat’s essay combines some insightful observations with gratuitous asides attacking the President (“Twitter-feed authoritarianism”) and wishful thinking on the current status of American liberalism.
In his attempt to prop up old-fashioned New York Times liberalism against the forces of identity politics, Douthat makes assertions that underestimate both the power of the woke progressive Left and the corresponding weakness of traditional liberalism.
Thus, he describes the social justice left as “inchoate and half formed and sometimes internally contradictory.” This “may make it especially hard to translate into normal party politics.” Are Asian Americans, for example, “welcomed as allies” or “regarded as suspiciously ‘white-adjacent’”?
Douthat admits that woke progressivism and so-called “anti-racism” theory have made a considerable advance (“tremendous headway”) into our “professional-class institutions,” the corporate world, and the media. But he insists that “Whatever this is, it is not Barack Obama-era liberalism.”
Further, he takes comfort from the fact that the ideas of anti-racism theorists such as Ibram X. Kendi are unlikely “to appear in the Democratic Party’s platform, and generally the successor ideology has flopped on the campaign trail. Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee.”
Douthat closes with the hope that the “liberal” New York Times, and the liberal media more generally, will “win” the intramural struggle against the successor ideology.
But does he believe it can?
They Mean What They Say
Let us unpack Douthat’s key points. First, successful political-ideological movements often contain contradictory elements but are united in opposition to a rival force. Twentieth-century American conservatism—both as an ideology (fusionism) and a political movement (the successful Reagan coalition)—contained contradictory ideas and yet united in a common front against a political rival (Great Society liberalism). Adherents of Russell Kirk’s traditionalism, Frank Meyer’s libertarianism, Willmoore Kendall’s populism, James Burnham’s realism, William F. Buckley’s ecumenicism, West- and East-Coast Straussians, and many “Bushies” all served in the Reagan administration. They sometimes clashed, but usually cooperated.
Likewise, today’s left-liberal-progressive fusionism contains contradictions (feminists vs transgender advocates, Wall Streeters vs social democrats). Nevertheless, these groups are united (and have been for decades) by opposition to a political adversary. Douthat denies the connection between “Obama-era liberalism” and the contemporary “successor ideology.” Many of us, however, remember that Obama left the White House with unfinished business that his base believed was theirs to do in his place. After all, if a society needs to be fundamentally transformed there must be something deeply wrong with it. And if the woke progressives judged something to be deeply wrong with America, well, it had to be fundamentally transformed
That radical leftist conviction—that America as a whole needs uprooting and undoing—is the one that currently dominates the Times. Introducing the 1619 Project, Jake Silverstein, the editor of the New York Times Magazine, writes,
Out of slavery—and the anti-black racism it required—grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional: its economic might, its industrial power, its electoral system…the inequities of its public health and education, its astonishing penchant for violence, its income inequality…the endemic racial fears and hatreds that continue to plague us to this day.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Times reporter who created the 1619 Project, declared that “anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Historian James Oakes responded, “if it’s the DNA, there’s nothing you can do. What do you do? Alter your DNA?”
So, is the 1619 Project the work of the liberal New York Times or the successor ideology? In truth they are allies in a new fusionism of the Left, whose dominant force is the woke progressivism of identity politics.
For the New York Times, for President Obama, and for the woke successor ideology today, the American way of life (past and present) is itself the problem. It is too racist, too sexist, too militaristic, too gun-crazy, too gas-guzzling, too religious, too middle class, too hypocritical, and too greedy. American society is not a political community to be affirmed, but one to be problematized.
The conclusion which naturally arises from these premises is that the American way of life, the entire regime itself, its institutions, mores, culture, politics, and yes, even its principles, need to be totally transformed and replaced by a new regime, a regime that is based on racial, ethnic, and gender group proportionalism.
When the successor ideology says all institutions must “look like America,” in practical terms this is a demand for statistical ethnic-gender group equality of result in all professions and occupations. This is a utopian goal, unlikely ever to be achieved anywhere on the planet, and it is a project that could only be enforced by coercive, even totalitarian, methods.
No Turning Back
Douthat is encouraged that the liberal Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, as opposed to candidates friendlier to the successor ideology “like Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren.” The voters apparently were “cool to their jargon and appeals.”
Does Douthat think that a President Biden (to say nothing of the cadres who will fill his administration) will be reluctant to advance the successor ideology? Will Biden be reluctant to promote what Christopher Caldwell has called the rival post-1960s constitution, its supporting culture, and its “moral vision,” which is incompatible with the traditional American way of life?
Biden is already using the “jargon and appeals” of the successor ideology. In a USA Today op-ed, Biden declared that we must “achieve fundamental changes that address racial inequality and white supremacy.” “We need,” he says, “to root out systemic racism across our laws and institutions.” Nine days later (as Roger Kimball notes) Biden trumpeted that ending “systemic racism” is the “moral obligation of our time.”
The concept of “systemic racism” is at the center of the successor ideology. It was first developed in the 1970s and ’80s by radical “critical race theorists.” “Systemic racism” means, of course, that the entire American system, from top to bottom, is racist and oppressive. If this is true, America is essentially an evil society and needs fundamental, i.e, revolutionary change.
This is the message of the 1619 Project. In developing and promoting this project, the leadership of the Times has revealed that the paper’s traditional liberalism has been subsumed under the hegemony of the successor ideology.
Douthat is being either naïve or disingenuous in suggesting that the Times still exists as a “liberal” institution. What is most significant is that this contempt for America’s founding and the statesmanship of our founders is endorsed not only by Hannah-Jones and radical reporters on the staff, but by the top decision-makers at the New York Times.
Any remaining doubts about the abject subordination of liberalism to woke progressivism were erased by the response of the chief architect of the 1619 project Nikole Hannah-Jones to the Claremont Institute’s Charles Kesler’s essay “Call them the 1619 riots.” Kesler stated forthrightly that “America is burning.” He condemned the rioters for tearing down a statue of George Washington and expressing contempt for the American Founders and their principles.
Hannah-Jones answered Kesler by embracing his accusations. She tweeted that “it would be an honor” to have the riots called the 1619 Riots. She followed with another tweet: “Also, America isn’t burning.” The Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times journalist wrote “America isn’t burning” as mobs tore down statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and U.S. Grant, while local and state governments dominated by the “successor ideology” stood by and did nothing.