The struggle for Harvard’s presidency is ostensibly about anti-Semitism, freedom of speech, and a rapidly unfolding plagiarism scandal. A group of challengers—most notably, New York representative Elise Stefanik, hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, and journalists Christopher Brunet, Aaron Sibarium, and myself—has contested the leadership of Claudine Gay, arguing that she epitomizes the moral and intellectual rot within the institution.
Despite the firestorm, the Harvard Corporation has stubbornly defended Gay. And it appears that, for now, the outsider offensive has failed to remove her from power.
Why? To answer that question, one might consult the twentieth-century Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, who outlined the distinction between the “war of maneuver,” in which a political actor can quickly topple a centralized, weakly structured regime, and the “war of position,” in which a political actor must wage a protracted fight against an entrenched bureaucracy that protects itself via a dispersed yet hegemonic ideology.
At Harvard, the war of maneuver has failed, but there is a silver lining: the institution’s ruling ideology has been exposed to the public. The university has sacrificed its academic integrity to retain a president who minimized genocidal rhetoric against Jews, oversaw a racially discriminatory admissions system, ensnared herself in multiple personnel scandals, and lifted sections of at least four academic papers—all because she is the living embodiment and administrative enforcer of DEI ideology.
What should critics of Harvard and other elite institutions do now? As Gramsci warns, they must prepare for a war of position: a long, grueling form of conflict in which ideological opponents contest the ruling regime at each part of the front lines. In practice, that means continuing to uncover the ideological corruption within America’s institutions and building a counter-elite capable of challenging those institutions.
This work has already begun. Recent campaigns against critical race theory, gender ideology, and DEI have eroded trust in educational institutions. Elites in tech and finance, such as hedge-fund manager Bill Ackman, have become increasingly comfortable criticizing left-wing orthodoxy. Meantime, the Left’s rhetorical magic—smearing critics as “racist,” “sexist,” and “homophobic”—has lost its power, due to years of unjustified use.
But critics of the current regime should not be too sanguine. The surface-level ideology is merely the outer shell of cultural hegemony. The Left’s deeper power is institutionally embedded: left-wing administrators hold the key to power; left-wing faculty have consolidated control over academic departments; left-wing ideas have been shaped into rules, regulations, manners, and mores. Gay may have been revealed as a fraud, but the institution will continue to protect her, confirming that the ideology trumps older notions of academic honor. Harvard’s motto, Veritas, is now subordinate to the principles of DEI.
A century ago, Gramsci made clear that all politics is elite politics. This is even more true today, as our institutions have expanded in size, scope, and complexity. If conservatives are to have any hope of recapturing the culture, they must work, not to enlist what Gramsci called the “traditional intellectuals” of the previous era, but to recruit, cultivate, and co-opt the “organic intellectuals” of our modern technological society. More bluntly, conservatives cannot rely on a populist, blue-collar coalition alone but must also elevate a new class of professionals with the capacity to wield power within complex institutions.
Conservatives, who have in recent years focused on heaping scorn on “elites,” should begin educating and organizing a counter-elite of their own. Then they can begin to answer the key questions: What should this counter-elite look like? How should it wield political power? And what is its vision for American institutions? Without answers to these questions, the prospects for successfully disrupting left-wing hegemony at Harvard and beyond will always be dim.
Photo by Boston Globe/Getty Images