The Left Won the Culture War. They Just Can’t Admit It.
How do you fight the establishment when you are the establishment?
This week’s article is a post by Johan Pregmo.
Spend enough time in left-leaning circles, and you’ll encounter a certain type of person. They’re all so similar to one another that it’s hard to know where one ends and the next begins. You know the type. Mostly white, educated, and upper-middle class. Passionate about social justice, with a concern for virtue matched only by their reluctance to vote. Full of rage and revolutionary fervor about the “rigged system” and its callous establishment ruled by racist oligarchs.
These folks have spread across the internet like a swarm of deeply pious locusts. Their rhetoric is as vapid as it is predictable. We demand justice for the oppressed, but the cruel establishment just won’t let us have it! Those evil conservatives are destroying the world, and those gosh darned liberals are aiding and abetting them! They paint the United States as a dystopian hellscape where the stakes couldn’t be higher, and as such, only radical change and revolutionary action will suffice. The ends always justify the means, they assure us.
But how true is this narrative, really?
The cultural winds have shifted. Twenty years ago, casual homophobia was ubiquitous. Now, it ranges from a grave faux pas to a mortal sin. Today, sensitivity about racial prejudice and approval of racial equality, interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, and expanding opportunity are at all-time highs. Every left-of-center cultural cause of the past century has been won. It’s time the American progressive movement faced the facts: they’re no longer fighting the establishment. Culturally, they are the establishment.
In their minds, they are the candle in the dark, the light in the storm, bravely pushing against the oppressive, white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy. But down here in reality, this self-glorifying image rings hollow. The left-dogma, for better or for worse, is slowly becoming the mainstream. The blue-haired activists protesting and shaking their banners at the powers that be are no longer trailblazing firebrands. They’re aligned with the popular views of one of the two major parties, and the other one has, amid the inexorable grind of social progress, conceded many of the points it once refused to compromise on.
America is a remarkable success story. In a mere 150 years, the United States went from the most abject form of chattel slavery to an ethos of full racial equality so universal that to reject it is to be banished not only from polite society, but many areas of the the job market, too. To give some perspective on how brief that time span is, there were soldiers fighting in World War II whose grandfathers had seen action in the Civil War — and there are WWII veterans still living. In just two lifetimes, a society with the worst kind of degradation changed into the most diverse multi-ethnic democracy in the history of the world. The US has, of its own volition, decided as a society that tolerance and liberalism are preferable to bigotry.
Today, open prejudice often carries severe repercussions, both social, financial, and sometimes even criminal. Major corporations now compete to out-woke one another. When purely profit-driven entities are willing to do that, it’s a surefire sign that these are safe and mainstream opinions. No company would virtue signal if it hurt their bottom line. The fact that it apparently proves lucrative speaks volumes.
The culture war is over. The left has won. No white flags are visible, no treaties have been signed, and the fighting is still ongoing, but the Wehrmacht is broken and Patton is leading the charge toward Berlin, while the Fuhrer sits in his bunker contemplating the taste of gun metal. The outcome is inevitable.
Even so, the pushback is real. Cultural populism has captured the GOP. Red states across the country have passed a number of heavy-handed and intentionally vague laws banning left-wing education practices inspired by critical race theory or queer theory. Republican activists and politicians have proposed punishing corporations who are too woke for their liking. And, of course, the majority GOP-appointed Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade. Some battles are won, even in a losing war. But the culture war is a war of ideas, not of politics. These victories, it should be noted, all occur on the political field, in the institutions where the right has power — but the right is not changing public opinion, nor winning hearts and minds. They have no ability to persuade, only to exercise what political power they still cling to. And while the effects have real-world consequences, these backlashes are ultimately the death throes of a party that doesn’t realize it’s already dead.
The question is why, if the left has been so culturally dominant, does it struggle to make political gains?
Despite decades of uninterrupted cultural victories, there is a temptation on the political left to hang on to the outsider narrative. There are several incentives. First, outsidership is sexy and easy to idolize — to be the little guy struggling against The Man conveys an air of romanticized glory. Imagine the opposite — actually having power, and with it, the responsibility for a flawed system. Suddenly, the failings are on you, and instead of chirping from the sidelines, you’re now in the spotlight, and the onus to produce concrete and viable solutions rest squarely on your shoulders. It’s easier to reap social rewards online by tweeting about how we need to defund the police, or how droves of unarmed black people are executed every day by cops — never mind that fatal shootings are rare — and dismissing the system as hopelessly and irredeemably broken. That way you get to remain morally pure while taking zero responsibility for improving society.
There is a certain pessimism about the world inherent to the movement, where every political defeat is framed as an unrecoverable catastrophe, while every victory is too little, too late. Tragically, most of this pessimism stems from simply not understanding how government, politics, or indeed human psychology works. By and large, the loudest contingents on the left have no concept of history, checks and balances, the separation of powers, political capital, public opinion, or the realities of legislative sausage-making. No, the president cannot unilaterally pass every policy you want. No, gargantuan paradigm shifts can’t be shrieked into existence overnight. Democracy is founded on cooperation and compromise, and if you can’t make that work, then at least part of the problem is on you. But the left, so focused on systemic problems, has a hard time giving personal responsibility its due.
This predicament is inherent to the foundational assumptions of left-leaning thought. Today’s left was born against the backdrop of World War II, when social democracy was being built and political realignment was redefining the left-right spectrum. The left became the champion of the downtrodden. The essence of left-leaning thought, especially in the US, where it faced a hostile climate under the paranoia of anti-communism and later McCarthyism, was to be the rebels speaking truth to power, the ones “punching up”; standing up to bullies like corporate conglomerates or the then-blatantly imperialist government.
Decades later, the landscape is unrecognizable, and yet leftist attitudes have not changed. With the worst of legal and societal oppression over and done with, the modern left now turns to bizarre, esoteric, and abstract ideas from critical theory about power dynamics. These rabbit holes lead them to irrational, anti-liberal, bigoted, and self-sabotaging places. Many leftists now find themselves going full horseshoe with appeals to racial essentialism, a moral ranking of identity groups, and arguments against racial and cultural integration.
Why? Because they just can’t admit past progress. That would make the whole house of cards come tumbling down. Where does the intrepid countercultural radical go if he admits that his views are, in fact, popular? He’d have to follow through and do some actual work. And responsibility is scary.
Society needs progressivism, and not just for ideological diversity. There needs to be adversarial elements to challenge establishment politics, lest they stagnate and become obsolete. But progressivism must evolve.
It begins with attitude. The US faces many problems, and it’s easy to get swept up in righteousness and lose sight of how to realistically address them. Instead of disparaging the system at every turn, show up and vote. Vote, even if the perfect candidate isn’t on the ballot. Recognize that the winds are blowing in your favor, so raise your sails and let it carry you forward instead of holding out for a bigger gust that will probably never come.
Get involved in local and state-level politics — not all issues can or should be solved at the federal level. Just three or four people canvassing can swing a local election. Imagine that kind of impact in a purple area — real political power to the benefit of your side of the aisle, with just a bit of enthusiasm and time invested. Ballot initiatives are another incredible opportunity for activists to enact legislative change. By simply filing the necessary paperwork, paying a fee, and collecting signatures, activists can put their policies directly on the ballots for the voters to decide, in a way that virtually bypasses politicians altogether. There is so much that can be achieved, if only you put your time and money where your mouth is.
Culturally, my left-of-center friends, things are turning in your favor — yet the right remains a formidable political force, in no small part due to center-left apathy. The GOP’s influence in American political life is vastly disproportionate to the popularity of their ideas, because they, to use a phrase of the moment, do the work. If you can’t volunteer, canvass, or donate, then at least commit to voting in every election — presidential, midterm, and primary; federal, state, and local. No amount of moral purity will matter without political power. The progressive movement must adapt to the system such as it is, rather than demand convenient sweeping changes here and now. And if it won’t adapt, it doesn’t deserve to survive.
The onus is on the left — social democrats, democratic socialists, progressives, whatever label you prefer — to capitalize on this cultural shift. The system isn’t broken. The American style of government is remarkably resilient, and has presided over some of the world’s most dramatic improvements — to social values, human rights, prosperity, and opportunity. Anyone can survey today’s problems and feel outraged, but look a century back in time and you’ll find that the state of poverty, injustice, and exploitation was remarkably worse than it is today — as was the middle class, and life for everyone but the wealthiest.
With clear inroads available through the political system, the time to make something happen is now. The 2022 midterm elections are looming over the horizon — has there ever been a better time to get invested as citizens in the future and well-being of your country? The US may be entrenched in an old and inflexible system, but the right is losing its traditional grasp on the culture. Change is possible — but it will require putting down your phones and rolling up your sleeves.
See also: “Autism and the Importance of Doing Better”
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