by Mark Bauerlin
Even as Donald Trump continues to frustrate #TheResistance after three years of ceaseless fabrication and hysteria, conservatives must not forget just how close they are to the edge. We have a defender in the White House, but the social ideas of the Left prevail in nearly every other elite and cultural space in the United States.
The election of November 2016, the elevation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, the Mueller report debacle, the Iran turnaround, and other wins for conservatives may be satisfying, but they have not shaken the leftist lock on our institutions one bit. The simmering stew of LGBT rights, toxic masculinity, white privilege, disparate impact calculations, and Millennial social justice campaigns has become dogma in corporate America, media, higher education, K-12 public schools (and many private schools, too), Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Broadway, the art world, museums, libraries . . .
It functions in all those realms as a hegemony, a body of beliefs and values that are wielded by those in power in such a way that a society comes to accept them as the ordinary and proper criteria of judgment. A hegemony distinguishes good from bad, legitimate from illegitimate, qualified from unqualified. And it gives people the capacity to act on that judgment. A criterion isn’t hegemonic unless it has force behind it.
(The term “hegemony” as used here comes out of Marxist thought. We should always consider the Left’s vocabulary of critique when addressing the current situation. The Left aims its lexicon of “hegemony,” “privilege,” “exclusion,” “normativity,” etc., at conservatives and their putative aggressions and discriminations. The language is altogether accurate, but not in the way leftists think. It describes very well the Left’s behaviors, not the Right’s. There is no better analyst of the Left than Michel Foucault.)
Margaret Thatcher once said that you have to win the argument before you win the vote, but when the Left controls the institutions—or rather, screens conservatives out of those institutions by applying tests of social opinion (“Do you oppose or favor same-sex marriage?”)—Thatcher’s formulation can no longer hold. For 30 years, conservatives have won many debates, issued best-selling books, and swayed public opinion in many areas, but they haven’t slowed the long march of the Left through the institutions at all. For example, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and writings by Roger Kimball, Dinesh D’Souza, Richard Bernstein, and countless others convinced the public that political correctness was becoming a serious problem on college campuses, but the coercive uniformity of opinion in higher education has only gotten worse since then. While the Right was beating them in the ideas arena, the Left was claiming office space.
In the current condition, intellectual wins are ineffectual. It doesn’t matter that U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) proves herself a civic and historical ignoramus again and again. Her job is not to be cogent and accurate. It is to reiterate the dogma over and over, to pound it home again and again, no matter the circumstances. The hegemony must be maintained.
Conservatives who appeal to liberal ideals in the context of existing institutions, be they the longstanding mores of cooperation in the Senate or academic freedom in the university, are beating their heads against a wall. Are they still naïve enough to assume that Senate decorum is enough to restrain an identity politician such as Senator Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii)?
When a law professor criticizes affirmative action on the grounds that beneficiaries of the system can’t compete with those admitted through regular channels, and subsequently is denounced by her colleagues and activist student groups calling for her termination, conservatives are inclined to defend her by appealing to traditional norms of dissent and free speech. This is futile. If those norms had much pull in higher education, the collective attack on said professor never would have happened. Her critics would have challenged her ideas and evidence, not her employment. But that didn’t happen. She crossed the dogma, she disrespected the hegemony, she must go.
This is how the game works. It’s not a contest of ideas, it’s a competition for jobs. As leftists take over human resources offices, reduce the number of conservatives on the faculty to less than 3 percent, make appointments to political office contingent upon compliance with political correctness, and exile troublemakers and nonconformists such as James Woods and Charles Murray, the game as conservatives used to understand it is over. Conservatives lost the war of positions long ago. Woods is a great actor, but so what? Murray is one of the great social scientists of our time, but no academic department would have him.
For the Left, outcomes trump procedure just as politics eclipses intelligence, conscientiousness, and competence. One thing I saw in more than 30 years in academia was that while leftists on the faculty were not always the brightest bulbs in the room, they often managed to populate university and department committees where policies were created and passed. While we were teaching and researching; they were reshaping the institution. We were getting on with our work, pushing our individual careers, getting our names in print, and believing we were advancing the field and the school. They were taking over. Put it this way: We were clueless, they were canny.
Donald Trump understands this. That’s one reason the Left despises him. He typically doesn’t bother to debate ideas and ideals, but this is not anti-intellectualism, as the liberal says. It is, instead, his awareness that politics is now, first and foremost, a battle of persons, not ideologies or tax rates or trade. The Kavanaugh episode proves the point, for this battle was all about the individual (which is one reason why Supreme Court appointments are so heated).
In recent times, conservatives have tended to focus on ideas. If, after President Trump leaves office, they don’t start thinking more about personnel, if they don’t consider the population of institutions as much as they do the structure of institutions, if they choose a leader who thinks technocratically instead of ad hominem-ly, we will indeed end up with the permanent Democratic majority liberal intellectuals have predicted for the last 20 years.
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Mark Bauerlein is a senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, where he has taught since earning his Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 1989. For two years (2003-2005) he served as director of the Office of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts. His books include Literary Criticism: An Autopsy, The Pragmatic Mind: Explorations in the Psychology of Belief, and The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. His essays have appeared in PMLA, Partisan Review, Wilson Quarterly, Commentary, and New Criterion, and his commentaries and reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, The Guardian, Chronicle of Higher Education, and other national periodicals.
Photo “Marco Rubio and Sean Hannity” by Michael Vadon. CC BY-SA 2.0.