Not So Useful Idiots — What Our Intellectuals Have Misunderstood About Our Political Conflict

We have seen an extraordinary political reversal: in just 30 years, “conservatives” have become full-on postmodern nihilists, denying that there is any objective truth, disparaging the cultivation of virtue, and tearing down institutions that get in the way of the raw exercise of power. “Liberals,” on the other hand, have moved starkly (though less completely) to celebrating science and objectivity, emphasizing the importance of character, and demanding the preservation of historic norms, institutions, and customs.

I personally have been part of this movement — moving from being a relatively radical leftist who believed that we needed to remake our institutions to a fairly Burkean conservative who believes in the vital importance of custom and the necessity for incremental change — and even so, it’s shocking to see the distance we have all traveled. We are all the people we made fun of 20 years ago.

Part of this is the poetic tragedy of life: “for each man kills the thing he loves,” wrote Oscar Wilde. Or, as my friend Jeff Barron used to say … all the time, constantly, whether or not you asked … “we all become what we hate.” To some extent, this is just the way life is.

But the degree to which this movement has been so total so quickly has me thinking that it may be an optical illusion.

A source of great pathos over the last four years has been to watch scales fall from the eyes of intellectually honest conservatives. Seeing their movement and comrades ignore Trump’s obvious unfitness and bend a knee to his corruption forced them to realize that they had been swimming with grifters and racists all along — and unknowingly provided cover. I don’t take schadenfreude in this because while I wasn’t a part of their movement, I’d fallen for it too — never really understanding just how much of the conservative establishment had been arguing in full bad faith this whole time.

At the same time it has become very apparent that the left was never really as full of postmodern relativists as it claimed — or we thought. It was full of people who were sick and tired of being judged aberrant. The moment they were able to gather social force and power, they used it to claim legitimacy and hegemony in exactly the way real postmodernists condemn. “Cancel culture” could never exist in a real postmodern den of relativists. It turned out that deconstruction really was a pedagogical tool of the oppressed, from which they learned nothing — and once conservatism felt perpetually victimized, they grabbed it and said “my turn!” And also learned nothing.

All of which is to say that the reason this 180 degree shift in ideology could happen so fast is that almost no one really held those positions. They were costumes sewn by fairy god-intellectuals for the ball, and easy to change out of for a fight in the parking lot.

So what was really going on? It’s not that this is a contest between two sides that ultimately stand for nothing — something really is at stake here. Just not those things. I think there are primarily two principles in conflict. First:

Who Gets Included in the Conversation?

Over a decade ago, I became fascinated by studies of the post-aparthied South African higher education system. At first, the integration of South Africa’s colleges had been hailed as a major breakthrough in multiculturalism. (Remember when we used that term?) Integration had happened smoothly, white institutions had been welcoming to black students, and everyone seemed happy with the system.

Then, suddenly, it all went to shit, and outright hostility was breaking out everywhere.

What appeared to have happened — this is still a working hypothesis but the evidence is compelling — is that a threshold of the number of black South Africans included in colleges had been crossed. Integration had been easy when blacks were attending colleges but still an overwhelming minority. Why? Because as an overwhelming minority, they had been present but not actually advocated for anything to change. They were welcomed as guests in institutions built by and for other people.

But when they started to comprise more than 30% of the student body? At that point they started to suggest that the institutions and conventions ought to change to accommodate their specific needs — and they had the institutional presence to make that a real conversation. And when that happened … when they suggested that they were not in fact guests who ought to adapt but stakeholders who out to have a say in what people were expected to adapt to … hell came crashing down.

I think that same dynamic has played out in our country. Our nation is not really divided between post-modernists and traditionalists — but it is very much divided along the question of who gets to be part of our civic conversation. Who gets to have a voice?

Racially, this breaks down very cleanly into Red and Blue teams. Economically, not so much. One of the things that has made Silicon Valley “progressives” so loathsome is the degree to which they believe neither working people nor even voters ought to have a say in the development of laws and regulations around technology.

But either way, we’re not really fighting about ideology — although “white supremacy” is an ideology, for sure — we’re fighting about who gets to be included in the creation of our culture and ideology, and who is expected to just go along.

How To Win At Capitalism

As we moved from the manufacturing era to the information era, as dominant economic products and processes both shifted, the kinds of skills and cultures that lead to prosperity shifted as well.

The same approaches that worked in industrial capitalism are simply not as competitive in information economy capitalism. The countries with the highest standards of living are not “socialist,” but they are a lot more collaborative. The companies that are most successful are mission driven and have more collaborative cultures — and studies consistently show that women tend to make better CEOs precisely because they tend to have a more collaborative leadership style. Within the United States, Blue States are far more prosperous on average than Red States, and even within states, Blue counties are far more prosperous on average than Red counties. It’s not subtle.

Whether it’s cause or effect, mass cultural collapse has also become pronounced in major “red” areas — they are increasingly associated with high mortality rates, opioid addiction, and existential despair.

I say all this not to cheer team Blue — in fact, the failure of liberalism to create a workable model of society that can be exported and adopted is a significant cause of our current strife — but to show that for all that Blue states are seen as socialists and Red states as free market capitalists, Blue culture is actually better at information age capitalism than Red culture. The soft skills and collaborative approaches of Blue modernity builds better corporations, is healthier for businesses, and establishes a stronger quality of life.

Much as politics is war by other means, the Red Team has been waging a political culture war to try to overcome this disadvantage while preserving their existing ways of doing business and competitive practices. That’s what they’re holding on to, that’s the other thing that’s really at stake.

Sometimes Useful Idiots Are Not So Useful

There are purple shades, to be sure … it’s relatively easy to find mix-and-match contingents. Our country is filled with people who want a more collaborative economy that only certain types of people can participate in, and people who want a brutal, cutthroat, economy that is open to everyone. But again, the fundamental touchpoints around which these perspectives revolve is not politics as the chattering classes and intellectuals tend to talk about it.

Intellectuals are the kind of people least likely to notice these shifts happening, because intellectuals are people for whom ideas — as ideas — actually matter. The intellectual class set the terms for the debate during the Pax Americana, never realizing that what was solid and real to us were simply team cheers to the people actually living the struggle out.

Now they have killed our sacred cows. Our God is dead — theirs is not. Like Paganism hiding in Christianity, it has emerged again. And we, the priestly orders of the modern era, did not understand why our sacraments and excommunications no longer mattered.

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