Discover more from Political Currents by Ross Barkan
The Left Owns Culture, the Right Owns Power
The poisonous stalemate of modern America
In the spring of 2008, the revolting Ann Coulter decided to come speak at the college I was attending, Stony Brook University. A sleepy commuter school on the eastern reaches of Long Island, Stony Brook is a public university, one of four flagship campuses in the larger SUNY system. It is, more than anything else, a place where middle and working-class kids can go to get a top-100 education and approximate, to a limited degree, what students at the more prestige and expensive public universities—University of Michigan, U.C. Berkeley, University of North Carolina—might enjoy.
My years there were pleasant, even transformational, but I understood why so many students, shuttling in from Brooklyn Tech and Roslyn High School and Huntington High School, might resent the place. On Friday, many students fled on the Long Island Rail Road, either to the city 60-odd miles away or back home, where they walked the streets with their old high school friends. Some of the campus buildings appeared too brutalist and midcentury, and everywhere, it seemed, was a muddy construction site. Unlike other colleges, there was not much to be overly earnest about—no one was sure what a seawolf was or why the president with the southern accent and the English degree kept trying to slash the English programs. When a student committed suicide in a dormitory building known as Hendrix College, there was a macabre joke about “going to Hendrix” any time something went awry.
Those years, in retrospect, were quiescent. Not because of the external events—the Iraq War, the economic crash of 2008—but because the campus itself, like most in America, was not a place of particular unrest. Left and right co-existed, the ideological skirmishes never feeling existential. I wrote for the leftist alternative newspaper, the Stony Brook Press, and picked fights with the comically-named Stony Brook Patriot. These were not physical fights or terribly personal; they were waged through chippy satire in the pages of a newspaper, and they could only bear so much consequence. In the fall of 2008, Barack Obama was elected president. It was the last time there was an affirmative mass exultation over any kind of political event. In 2020, they would cheer in the streets for the defeat of Donald Trump, not the ascension of Joe Biden. For a transitory time in late 2008, it could feel like a simulacrum of the popular culture’s conception of the 1950s—consensus and peace, with our very own Black Eisenhower sweeping into power with a dominant and somewhat unfathomable Electoral College win.
Coulter arrived at the end of the Bush presidency, when it was clear Obama was going places. Her star burned bright then. She was an ace race-baiter, Islamophobe, and homophobe, a top tier right-wing demagogue along with Hannity, O’Reilly, and Michael Savage. Coulter is somewhere in the wilderness these days, slinking in the Fox-sized shadow of Tucker Carlson, but she mattered much more then to a lot of people. She came to Stony Brook to deliver a lecture entitled “Liberals Are Wrong About Everything.”
The particulars are lost to me now, though they are recounted in some detail by the main campus newspaper, the Stony Brook Statesman. (I delivered a painfully awkward quote in the piece to a campus reporter: “I find her opinions disputable. She just cracked jokes on things that do not even make sense. I find her repulsive to my political viewpoints,” I said then. It should be noted the date of the online article is October 2008, but the actual visit came in the spring of my freshman year. It was posted to the website belatedly.) The newspaper, in an even-handed way, recounted how terrible Coulter had been and the various controversies she had kicked up, including her declarations that “all terrorists are Muslims” and Christians are “perfected Jews.” At the Stony Brook talk, according to the Statesman, Coulter spouted inanities like “Gitmo sounds like a freshman dorm at a state university where terrorists wait for a Democratic president.” What’s notable about all of this is that it was allowed to happen and no one cared enough to mount a protest. Left-wing students showed up to watch and then merely complained about it. Most other students, preoccupied with their own lives, didn’t acknowledge the visit at all.
When the president of the college Republican club introduced Coulter, he declared, correctly, “it’s not particularly popular to be a conservative on campus.” For decades, colleges and universities have been, culturally at least, liberal places, attracting upwardly mobile or already affluent students who hold left-of-center viewpoints or adopt them upon arrival. Academia has, in the modern context, always trended left, with registered Republicans existing in the distinct minority. Conservatives, even those with college degrees, have long resented American college campuses, where the liberal imagination can be incubated.
In the last decade, this trend has only accelerated. The college campus of the late 2010s and early 2020s, at least among top-100 schools, grew into a bastion of fierce left-liberalism and socialism, particularly on matters of culture. When Coulter, as odious as ever, attempted to visit the campus of U.C. Berkeley in 2019, the students there were not willing to sit in the audience and grouse to a campus reporter afterward. More than a thousand angrily protested, attempting to physically block people from hearing Coulter speak. Law enforcement guarded the building with riot gear. As raucous as the visit became, it did not even match the pitch of the violent 2017 protests against another far-right provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos. The Yiannopoulos speech was ultimately canceled: street fights broke out, fires were set, and the campus suffered more than $100,000 in physical damage. Beyond the visits of right-wing speakers, college campuses became the sites of other kinds of peculiar controversies: racially-segregated commencement addresses, undertaken in the name of social justice; a professor suffering a concussion after trying to interview Charles Murray of “Bell Curve” infamy; a “day of absence” for white professors, and the student tumult that followed at the Evergreen State College.
Whether one thinks these battles were necessary or not—the argument in the maw of the Trump era was that fascism lurked in every corner and had to be combated—it can’t really be debated any longer that a distinct shift took place. These campus politics, infused with identity-first nostrums that have their roots in critical race theory, migrated outward, into the realms of politics and media. An occurrence that would have been unremarkable in 2009 or 2010—a right-wing U.S. senator penning an incendiary op-ed in the New York Times—became the stuff of staff revolts and firings in 2020. The Times, in the past, had published opinion pieces from Putin, Erdogan, and the Taliban, but Tom Cotton’s op-ed had come at a precarious moment: after George Floyd’s death and during the mass protests, and racial reckoning, in America. Among the college-educated, particularly the whites who still occupy a sizable majority of jobs in politics and media, views on race are now more liberal than what most Black Americans and Latinos hold—some have called this, somewhat inelegantly, the “awokening.” Those with undergraduate and graduate degrees, especially the wealthier of their ranks, are now increasingly likely to have most jobs in media. Over the last 20 years, local and regional outlets have hollowed out, leaving New York and Washington-based news organizations with outsized representation. It’s the college-educated’s media now.
Corporate America took note of these gradual—and then quite seismic—evolutions. For decades, socialists who place class matters at the forefront of their politics have decried corporate liberalism, the idea that otherwise oppressive private companies can readily adopt certain signifiers of the left without making much in the way of material change. If corporate America was edging rhetorically to the left at the close of the 2010s, the pandemic and George Floyd’s death catalyzed a more striking, and perhaps lasting, change. The most powerful and exploitative corporations on Earth, as well as many smaller but well-known competitors, made social justice the centerpiece of their public relations efforts in 2020.
“The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop,” the virulently anti-union Amazon tweeted last year. “Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community—our employees, customers, and partners—in the fight against systemic racism and injustice.” Systemic was the talismanic word of that year, tacked onto the usual denunciations of racism to make clear that billion and trillion-dollar corporations internalized the depths of a problem as articulated in once-obscure academic texts. The NFL, which has profited off the destruction and death of Black bodies, made sure to deploy “systemic” too. Apple, manufacturing its prized products with de facto Chinese slave labor, posted a lengthy statement entitled “Speaking Up on Racism.”
Other companies, in addition to posting statements affirming their vague commitment to combating racism in America, announced policy changes. Facebook pledged to double the number of Black and Latino employees by 2023. PepsiCo said it would increase its number of Black managers by 30 percent by 2025. Walmart promised to invest $100 million over the next five years to create a “Center on Racial Equity.”
Diversity and antiracist trainings in corporate headquarters exploded, with Robin DiAngelo growing very wealthy and famous. Nefarious government actors have followed the private sector’s lead: the CIA, which has orchestrated coups around the world and spied on Americans at home, is now fluent in the language of the academic left. “I am a woman of color. I am a mom. I am a cis-gendered millennial whose been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder,” a woman declares in a CIA recruitment video. “I am intersectional, but my existence is not a box-checking exercise … I used to struggle with imposter syndrome, but at 36 I refuse to internalize misguided patriarchal ideas of what a woman can or should be.”
Broader cultural shifts have favored this style of left rhetoric. Acidic satire that attacks left and right alike is increasingly not in vogue any longer. A Washington journalist, speaking for how art is increasingly viewed, criticized South Park for having the temerity, all those years ago, to mock Al Gore for being elitist. “Remember when South Park made fun of Al Gore talking about Climate Change by doing the ManBearPig episode and everyone laughed because haha, look at how smug Al Gore is,” the reporter tweeted. “Matt and Trey did a lot to poison political discourse.”
The subtext here is plain: Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of one of the more ground-breaking television shows of the last 30 years, deserve blame for the corroded and hopelessly polarized political scene we’ve inherited. This isn’t true, but it alludes to another impulse a growing number of educated, affluent liberals are openly embracing today. South Park was bad because it dared to challenge the left, the Democrats, the people who are inherently good. Never mind that South Park itself defied any easy political categorization and mocked, without mercy, George W. Bush-style patriotism, the Christian Right, and organized religion broadly. A pox on South Park for not, always, taking on the targets the educated deemed proper. It is hard to imagine a television show like South Park surviving today. Rather, banal and ultimately inoffensive comedies that flatter left-leaning sensibilities, like Ted Lasso or Parks and Recreation, are routinely celebrated as more difficult art is shunted to the side. In the words of the revived Gawker, these kind of shows offer a “fantasia of Middle American liberal technocracy” and “didactic comedy” that is “always rooted in mutual self-satisfaction.” In these fictional worlds, and with their living architects, the college-educated liberal will never feel she or he is bestriding alien turf.
The greater culture, along with corporate America and even the mainstream media, did not always belong so fully to the cultural left. It was once the right that was in possession of full censure power, that trafficked hardest and most dangerously in virtue signaling. The post 9/11 era, now two decades gone, saw the Chicks (then called the Dixie Chicks) have their careers damaged because they dared to criticize George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. Kanye West endured significant backlash for declaring, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Bush didn’t “care about Black people.” Michael Moore was booed at the Academy Awards for opposing Bush and his Iraq War. If the choice is between a corporate and entertainment complex that is willing to pander to elements social justice and one that is upholding one of the most disastrous foreign policy decisions of the last 60 years, the former is certainly preferable.
What makes this moment feel so crackling and destabilizing, though, is how power, in the plague age, is dispersed. Free trade, globalization, and deindustrialization, along with the inevitable fracturing of the North-South Democratic Party alliance, broke the union-underpinned social democracy that arose out of the Great Depression. Corporate America, at one time, was forced to make material concessions to their workforces; union membership surged, with agreements like the so-called Treaty of Detroit between Walter Reuther and the Big Three automakers becoming the standard that otherwise ruthless capitalists had to adhere to. Without a college education, many American workers, particularly men, were able to earn a middle-class salary, buy homes, and easily send their own children to college. Though some left-liberal writers today believe the best way to halt the drift of working-class whites into a reactionary GOP is to shovel them into universities, the actual answer is a strong union. Otherwise culturally conservative whites in suburban and rural areas were willing to support left-of-center Democratic candidates because they were always voting in their own interests. Some Republicans supported labor unions, but many more Democrats did, and union leaders forged close relationships with Democratic politicians and their local machines. In the latter half of the 20th century, right-wing oligarchs and Republican strategists understood that the New Deal coalition would only be weakened and broken altogether if union power declined drastically. Today, with the private sector union movement depleted, corporations have swapped the Treaty of Detroit for flashy displays of wokeness. For the titans of industry, this is a fine trade, their ludicrous profits protected at little expense.
One of the oddities of the “awokening” is that it has coincided with a decided shift of working-class voters of color away from the Democratic Party. In the aftermath of Trump’s 2016 victory, almost all media attention fell on the working-class whites who had voted for Obama and then chose Trump. Were they racists? Were they worried about their jobs? What really churned in their souls? Thousands of thinkpieces bloomed. For most of the left-liberal journalists and pundits at prestige publications, this reality was somewhat comforting: poor whites, with darkness in their hearts, could always be blamed for the mad tyrant in their midst. Four years of Trump taught us to believe he was a “whitelash” to Obama, a product of unrelenting white supremacy baked into the foundation of America. Efforts like the 1619 Project would probably not have taken flight if Trump were not in office. Trump’s own demeanor and political views—a mendacious bully who has demagogued around race for much of his life—only lent these efforts more credence.
But elections are never so neat. Instead of a multiracial Democratic wave washing across America, delivering Joe Biden and a raft of Democrats into office as a rebuke to Trump’s terror, Republicans gained seats in the House and in most state legislatures. Trump himself outperformed polling forecasts, winning key states like Florida for a second time and losing the national vote by just four points. Democrats barely recaptured the Senate, helped along by two unlikely special election victories in Georgia in early January. The entire election was a rejection of at least one key orthodoxy of the Obama and Trump years: high turnout would always benefit Democrats. In the highest turnout election in modern American history, Democrats could do no better than a 50-50 split in the Senate, a weakened majority in the House, and a sizable but not overwhelming victory in the popular vote and the Electoral College.
More disconcerting, perhaps, was the clear movement of Latino and Black voters away from the Democrats, particularly those who are working-class and without college degrees. Four years of Trump only drew them closer to the Republican brand, not further away. In one sense, this trend was long in the making: if working-class whites were going to break from Democrats, why wouldn’t the working-class entirely? Despite the rigid identitarian preaching of left-liberals in media and academia, class can define an existence as much as race—or even more so. Meanwhile, white and Black college graduates have much to share, from elite colleges to the gentrified neighborhoods they might inhabit. They share cultural signifiers and the rhetoric of their class; they are fluid in all proper terminology, from “intersectional” to “cis” to the “progressive stack.”
Many members of left-liberal media do not want to acknowledge it was white, wealthier liberals—the awokened—who delivered Biden’s victory at the margins, not the voters of color that are routinely sanctified, in a somewhat condescending way, by Democratic pundits and activists. On a national level, white college voters moved over 8 margin points toward Biden in 2020, greater than Biden’s gains among white non-college voters and quite different from nonwhite voters who actually moved toward Trump. This drove the swing toward Biden in Arizona and Georgia, where Black voters had lower Democratic margins as well as a slightly reduced voter share due to declining relative turnout. “As in Arizona, the Democratic shift from a deficit in 2016 to an advantage in 2020 can be accounted for almost entirely by a sharp shift toward the Democrats among white voters, especially white college-educated voters,” wrote the political scientist and demographer Ruy Teixeira.
Meanwhile, Latinos had a remarkable 16-point shift toward Trump nationally. In urban and rural areas like, this trend was pronounced. Queens County, which is more diverse and Democratic than ever before, saw a sharp turn toward Trump in the 2020 elections. Overall, it was working-class nonwhites migrating, to a greater degree, toward Trump than working-class whites. “It is particularly striking to note that since 2012, running against Trump twice, Democrats have lost 18 points off of their margin among nonwhite working class voters,” Teixeira wrote. “That obviously undercuts the Democrat-friendly effects of rising racial diversity. This is underscored by the under-appreciated fact that working class voters still vastly outnumber college-educated voters.”
Democrats are winning the culture, but they are backsliding with a substantial number of people. Combine that with the structural advantages Republicans enjoy in federal elections—a mix of cunning, luck, and a legacy of racism—and the question of power becomes a more vexed one. If liberals, broadly, get the schools, the media, and the expressions of sympathy from corporate America, why are they still so beleaguered? In Texas, abortion is effectively banned because Republicans control all levels of government and conservatives dominate the U.S. Supreme Court. It is here, in a material sense, where power lies—in the states and judiciary, where Democrats have been locked out for the last decade. The Tea Party wave of 2010, a product of diminished Democratic turnout from the sugar high of 2008, delivered the Republican House and state legislative majorities that would gerrymander districts on the federal and local levels for the next decade. The 2020 elections did not disrupt this status quo, and Republicans again will control a majority of redistricting efforts. Couple that with the reality that the U.S. Senate hands far too much power to small, rural states that used to elect Democrats and don’t any longer, and the rest of the decade begins to look grim. There are many people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who may never live to see a liberal Supreme Court majority again.
Culture and its attendant symbolism will only get you so far. Amazon and Apple can publish anti-racist manifestos for the next 50 years while never building or shipping with union labor. The CIA’s embrace of critical race theory will not unwind a military-industrial complex that has sapped the United States of trillions of dollars that could have been used to build a world-class universal healthcare system. The revanchist Republican control of tangible levers of power will only further this polarization, this cultural bend leftward, especially if Trump attempts another presidential run. Resistance is an inexhaustible brand.
Each party, to some plausible extent, can embrace the status of the aggrieved, and this will only curdle the national discourse further. Liberals can claim victimhood because Republicans really do run governments and the courts, even as Democrats grasp to their rail-thin majorities and the White House. Fox News remains a right-wing media behemoth. Sinclair Broadcasting is subsuming more and more local markets. If you are an anti-war liberal, Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan is a reminder that even left-leaning cable TV, like CNN and MSNBC, will cater to the neoconservative brain-rot of retired generals/defense contractors who want to warmonger at all hours of the day and night. Corporate media’s bias is left on culture but right on warfare abroad; producers seemingly haven’t met a war they didn’t salivate after.
Yet the overall leftward shift of media, academia, and elite cultural spaces does create its own power dynamic, a socio-cultural complex that cannot be ignored. We care about the growth of so-called successor ideology at expensive private schools and universities because that is where the next generation of teachers, lawyers, doctors, politicians, and hedge funders are being educated. The campus wars matter because the teens eventually leave campus. The divisions between right and left have never been greater in modern times; each political party has purified itself ideologically and is neatly sorting itself among regional and educational lines. Democrats, thanks to the legacy of the Civil Rights movement and the ceaseless race-baiting of contemporary Republicans, win strong majorities from the Black and Latino working-classes, but each election seems to draw more of them away. America might be irredeemable, built on the stolen land of the Indigenous peoples and brought into being by African slave labor, but the fatalism in vogue among the academic and media left—a despair that teaches, not wrongly, that the American Empire breeds chaos across the world and punishes its nonwhite citizens at home—has little purchase with the working-class strivers, particularly immigrants, who believe in whatever promise America has left. The Latinos that defected to Trump are overwhelmingly patriotic. They do not view speech, either from Milo or Coulter or anyone else, as violence. Some have fled the more literal varieties in their homelands. And they do not sneer at faith.
It might be better for a republic, in theory, that each dominant political faction secures some piece of power. If the right will have a stranglehold on the Supreme Court and the legislatures, at least give the left the culture. But the polarization only grows more savage. The courts and the Senate are anti-democratic because they do not reflect the popular vote, which has handed small majorities or pluralities to every Democratic presidential candidate but one since 1988. No other country, newly-born, would choose a such a system.
Yet consider, too, the oddity of the nation’s media and its universities so thoroughly stacked the other way, with almost half the country voting for the Republican presidential candidate and almost none of their voters joining the ranks of the prestige media organizations that are not explicitly hard right. Consider a culture, deeply tribal and censorious, that mocks and demeans those who do not cohere to the popular groupthink or do not reside in large, wealthy cities. Consider a culture that can cheer on Covid deaths if they occur in Florida or Louisiana, a culture that, in the depths of the Trump era, was as capable of any as falling prey to lunatic conspiracy and disinformation. Consider, ultimately, a culture that is less interested in defending First Amendment rights than it once was, that champions tech monopolies when they are cracking down on the perceived enemies of the good and just.
All of this, of course, might not add up to the might of one Amy Coney Barrett or Neil Gorsuch. The gavel might beat culture every time.