The intellectual class across the West—encompassing its universities, media, and arts—is striving to dismantle the values that paced its ascendancy. Europe, the source of Western civilization, now faces a campaign, in academia and elite media, to replace its cultural and religious traditions with what one author describes as a “multicultural and post-racial republic” supportive of separate identities. “The European ‘we’ does not exist,” writes French philosopher Pierre Manent, assessing the damage. “European culture is in hiding, disappearing, without a soul.”

The increasingly “woke” values of the educated upper classes reflect, as Alvin Toffler predicted almost half a century ago, the inevitable consequence of mass affluence, corporate concentration, and the shift to a service economy. The new elite, Toffler foresaw, would abandon traditional bourgeois values of hard work and family for “more aesthetic goals, self-fulfillment as well as unbridled hedonism.” Affluence, he observed, “serves as a base from which men begin to strive for post economic goals.”

The driving force for these changes has been the ascendant clerisy, which, reprising the role that the Church played in medieval times, sees itself as anointed to direct human society, a modern version of the “oligarchy of priests and monks whose task it was to propitiate heaven,” in the words of the great French historian of the Middle Ages, Marc Bloch. Traditional clerics remained part of this class but were joined by others—university professors, scientists, public intellectuals, and heads of charitable foundations. This secular portion of society has now essentially replaced the clergy, serving as what German sociologist Max Weber once called society’s “new legitimizers.” The clerisy spans an ever-growing section of the workforce that largely works outside the market economy—teachers, consultants, lawyers, government workers, and medical professionals. Meantime, positions common among the traditional middle class—small-business owners, workers in basic industries and construction—have dwindled as a share of the job market.

The educated, affluent class detests President Trump, whom many in the Third Estate support, and has rallied to its preferred candidate, Elizabeth Warren, who emerges from the legal and university communities and voices the progressive rhetoric common to this class. (Warren’s less brainy left-wing rival, Bernie Sanders, fares better among struggling, often younger workers.) Warren’s clerisy supporters represent what French Marxist author Christophe Guilluy calls the “privileged stratum,” which operates from an assumption of moral superiority that justifies its right to rule. They are the apotheosis of H. G. Wells’s notion of an “emergent class of capable men” that could “take upon itself the task of “controlling and restricting . . . the non-functional masses.” This new elite, Wells predicted, would replace democracy with a “higher organism” of what he called “the New Republic.”

For generations, the media embraced an ideal of impartiality and the validity of diverse viewpoints. Now, as Andrew Sullivan recently noted, it’s almost impossible to consider the mainstream news as anything other than a partisan tool. Perhaps nothing illustrates this more than the media role in the resistance to Trump; however awful he may seem, no president, even Richard Nixon, has suffered such total opposition from powerful media, with an estimated 92 percent negative coverage from the networks, even before he assumed office.

The media’s anti-Trump lockstep reflects broader changes in the industry. Reporters rarely come, as in the past, from the working class but instead from elite universities. They tilt overwhelmingly to the progressive side. By 2018, barely 7 percent of U.S. reporters identified themselves as Republicans; some 97 percent of journalist political donations go to Democrats. The ongoing media takeover by tech leaders is certain to accelerate this trend. Nearly two-thirds of readers now get their news through Facebook and Google, platforms that often “curate,” or eliminate, conservative views, according to former employees. It’s not just conservatives who think so: over 70 percent of Americans, notes a recent Pew study, believe social media platforms “censor political views.”

Similar patterns can be seen in Hollywood, once divided between conservatives and liberals but now heavily slanted to the left. Liberal columnist Jonathan Chait, reviewing the offerings of major studios and networks, described what he called “a pervasive, if not total, liberalism.” Virtually all mass-media cultural production follows a progressive script, from the music industry to theater—and now including sports, too.

Perhaps nothing has so enhanced the power of the clerisy as the expansion of universities. Overall, the percentage of college graduates in the labor force soared from under 11 percent in 1970 to over 30 percent four decades later. The number of people enrolled in college in the United States has grown from 5 million in 1964 to some 20 million today. Universities, particularly elite institutions, have emerged as the primary gatekeepers and ideological shapers for the upper classes. A National Journal survey of 250 top American public-sector decision-makers found that 40 percent were Ivy League graduates. Only a quarter had earned graduate degrees from a public university. 

Orthodoxy of viewpoints in contemporary higher education is increasingly rigid. In 1990, according to survey data by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, 42 percent of professors identified as “liberal” or “far-left.” By 2014, that number had jumped to 60 percent. Another study of 51 top colleges found the proportion of liberals to conservatives ranging from at least 8 to 1 to as much as 70 to 1. At elite liberal arts schools like Wellesley, Swarthmore, and Williams, the proportion reaches 120 to 1.

These trends are particularly acute in fields that affect public policy and opinion. Well short of 10 percent of faculty at leading law schools, such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, and Berkeley—schools that graduate many of the nation’s leaders—describe themselves as conservative. Leading journalism schools, including Columbia, have moved away from teaching the fundamentals of reporting and adopted an openly left social-justice agenda.

Once largely a college phenomenon, progressive ideology is now being pressed upon elementary school students, a development that could transform our politics permanently. As authoritarians from Stalin and Hitler to Mao all recognized, youth are the most susceptible to propaganda and most easily shaped by the worldview of their instructors. This process has been most apparent in the environmental movement, which has elevated as its ideological battering ram the unlikely figure of Greta Thunberg, a seemingly troubled Swedish teenager. With her harsh millenarian rhetoric about the end of the world, she reprises the role played by youthful religious fanatics during the “children’s crusade” of the thirteenth century or, more recently, the Red Guards, whom Mao mobilized to silence his critics.

The politicization of basic education, particularly concerning American history, is notable throughout the country but most entrenched in liberal regions such as New York City and Minneapolis. In California, schools are scrapping measures such as exit exams for more ideologically correct policies. Once a leader in educational innovation and performance, California now toils near the bottom of the pack, ranked 40th on Education Week’s composite score of school performance. These poor results mean little to progressives in places like the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has banned “willful defiance” removals and suspensions in the name of racial equity. A bill that would do the same statewide is moving through the legislature, along with a massive campaign to weaken the state’s charter schools. Nothing has been more illustrative of our educational establishment’s far-left, racialist agenda—tinged with a strong dose of anti-capitalist indoctrination—than the draft proposal for an “ethnic studies” curriculum for the state’s schools. The program has provoked fierce opposition and is unlikely to be adopted in its present form, but activists will surely keep trying.

Ethnic-studies programs are aimed at high schoolers who often lack even the most basic understanding of American history. Incapable of meeting national standards for basic grade-level English language arts and mathematics, many of these students would instead learn academic jargon like misogynoir, cisheteropatriarchy, and hxrstory—which ethnic-studies advocates, such as R. Tolteka Cuauhtin, a member of the advisory committee that worked on the draft, defend in the name of legitimating the discipline. “AP Chemistry, for example, has some very complex academic terms, difficult to pronounce, but it’s expected because it’s AP Chemistry,” Cuauhtin explains.

The clerisy is working to undermine basic liberal democracy. In the years ahead, technology will help shape attitudes on everything from the environment to the existence of “unconscious bias” against racial and sexual minorities. China’s efforts to control and monitor thought, sometimes assisted by U.S. tech firms, are likely a hint of things to come in Europe, Australia, and North America. Already we see the rise of a new political generation with little use for the Western political tradition or the cultural values that shaped it. American millennials—despite, or perhaps because of, their high educational attainment—are increasingly inculcated with the idea that America is hopelessly racist and oppressive. Their worldview includes embracing limits on free speech. Some 40 percent of millennials, notes Pew, favor limiting speech deemed offensive to minorities—well above the already-depressing 27 percent among Gen-Xers and 24 percent among baby boomers. Among the oldest cohorts, though—those who likely remember fascist and Communist regimes—only 12 percent support such restrictions. European millennials also display far less faith in democracy and fewer objections to autocratic control than Americans or previous generations. Young Europeans are almost three times as likely to see democracy as failing than their elders, and many in countries as diverse in Sweden, Hungary, Spain, Poland, and Slovakia embrace the far Right, while others, notably in Great Britain and France, favor the far Left.

With lower levels of cultural literacy and reduced interest in history, the new generation could reprise the intellectual deterioration of the Middle Ages, when, according to Belgian historian Henri Pirenne, “the very mind of man was going through degeneration.” Just as the feudal prelates disdained classical culture, today’s clerisy seeks to unmoor liberal culture and the Western political tradition; nearly 40 percent of young Americans, for example, think that the country lacks “a history to be proud of.” Far smaller numbers than previous generations prize family, religion, or patriotism.

If one does not even know about the complex legacy underpinning democracy, including the drive for individual freedom and open discussion, one is not likely to understand when it is in peril. If we are to save our uniquely open civilization, we must counter the clerisy’s efforts to discredit our past and demolish our future.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next