By Graham Cunningham
Vladimir Putin may be a paranoid autocrat and a failing military strategist, but when he talks about people in the West who want to "destroy [its] traditional values and impose their pseudo-values ... which would corrode [it] from within" you surely have to ask yourself if he doesn't have a point.
Ironically, the people he presumably is talking of really do know how to mount a successful invasion. However you choose to describe them – social justice warriors, virtue-signaling liberals or "the woke" – they have achieved a rapid colonization of every single institution of civil society in America. And all without firing a shot.
They've not conquered the citizenry with bombs; they've hypnotized them with ex-cathedra incantations of pseudo-values so absurd that only a few years ago it would have seemed like they must be just kidding. They have been groomed, at the West's most prestigious schools and universities, to such pitch-perfect self-righteousness that it would never even occur to them that they might be imposing their pseudo-values on a public with little realistic means of democratic resistance.
Key to the success of this invasion is that, crucially, in its early stages, it managed to advance largely under the MSM radar. It's not that there has been no spirited resistance, but, conceived of in counter-insurgency terms, the performance of the defenders of "traditional values" has been a textbook case in strategic failure. They started with all the advantage on their side, in particular an American public with solidly conservative instincts. The failure was to let themselves be blindsided by the enemy's secret weapon: its longstanding grip on the institutions of "higher education."
The American electorate has – since 1969 – given the Republican Party 32 years of presidential power – as against the Democrats' 21 years. This raises a Big Question: How did the GOP come to preside over a half-century-long erosion of so much that conservatives hold dear? The answer – the elephant (or more accurately the Leviathan) in the room – is that power gained at the ballot box is no match against the permanently entrenched power of a "progressive" elite that has been drawn – for three or more highly impressionable college years – through a kind of intellectual sheep dip. Hence Robert Conquest's apocryphal third law of politics: "Any organization not explicitly right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing."
The academy's pied-piper hold on the ambitious young minds of the future "opinion-forming" elite, including the teaching profession, has proceeded unchecked, such that its seductive virtue-signaling mentality has now taken hold in most graduate-entry professional walks of life. And an "Academia-Media Complex" – a feedback loop between an overwhelmingly left-wing academy and a largely left-wing MSM – has softened up enough of what used to be called "the workers" to keep the progressive show on the road. As Orwell said it, "The public will believe what the media tell them they believe."
The sheep dip is an especially powerful brew in the humanities and social sciences from which background the future governmental elite is primarily drawn. Unsurprisingly, neither governmental bureaucracies nor any other quasi-governmental and civil institutions keep statistics on the political leanings of their employees. But there are clues. Research in the U.S. context finds that "the political beliefs of the median federal government employee lie to the left not only of the median Republican, but also the median Democrat." (In the U.K. context, Unherd columnist Peter Franklin, reflecting on his own experience of working in two government departments, comments: "How many of the civil servants that most closely serve this Conservative government are actually left-wing? Well … I would say approximately all of them.")
If the defenders of traditional values (presumably a re-invigorated GOP) ever did really get their act together (and the votes to back it), what kind of fight-back could they mount? It would need to be an unashamedly sledgehammer legislative approach pursued with Machiavellian sleight of hand. It might include:
- ending the decades-long absurdity of left-wing proselytizing organizations being actually funded by the taxpayer;
- a clear-out of the kind of senior academics who have so cravenly caved in to spoiled-brat radicalism;
- a complete clear-out of the multi-billion-dollar "diversity" bureaucracy racket;
- a complete overhaul of teacher training (that has long been allowed to become a training ground in progressive ideology); and
- an end to public-sector security-of-tenure unrelated to performance.
But in order for any such fight-back to have any realistic chance of popular support – either at state or at federal level – its political leaders would need to radically up their game in challenging – and unpicking – some philosophical fallacies that have taken root even amongst many of their own voters. Left-wing politics has been a fraud – a posh person's mind game – for decades now, but the "left = oppressed and caring / right = privileged and hard-hearted" fallacy remains the intellectual matrix framing all of Western liberalism's moral philosophy. Many instinctive conservatives (including politicians) still reflexively allow this fallacy to confuse their thinking.
The left's appeal to the prosperous middle class is an essentially narcissistic and performative one, offering a way to feel more sophisticated than thou and a cost-free way to feel virtuous. Millions of people recognize the truth of this, but it runs so contrary to prevailing media narratives that any such heretical thoughts get drowned out by the sheer volume of virtue-signaling tales of victimhood. And expressing such thoughts out loud risks offending friends, colleagues and neighbors.
Saying them out loud is, for politicians, a high risk strategy. Even for combative politicians there is a perceived imperative to flatter the electorate as a whole and keep the targets of invective within careful limits (abstractions like do-gooders, champagne socialists, etc.). Fighting an election on a policy of redressing endemic political bias in most civil administrators, most school teachers and academics and most legal professionals would be a challenge indeed.
The practical obstacles would be legion. Conservatism is a broad church, and political interference in supposedly independent public bodies would sound heavy-handed to many. And attracting conservatives to put themselves in the Canute-like position of trying to turn back the left-wing organizational tide is another.
But on our current trajectory, the imposition of pseudo-values is – as the Putin bogeyman says – "corroding us from within." It is difficult to be optimistic. But it is just possible that future historians might see the perceived vulgarity of the Trump phenomenon as an inchoate (and of course in many ways flawed) early attempt to break out of conservatism's imprisonment in a political etiquette that is a philosophical stacked deck.
Graham Cunningham is an occasional contributor to several magazines including The American Conservative, The American Mind and City Journal among others.
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