Two young fish are swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who sees them and says, “Morning, boys. Have you noticed that the water is polluted?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then one looks over at the other and says, “What the hell is water? And why would that guy make such a rude observation?”
With apologies to David Foster Wallace, this parable serves as a useful summary of the state of American cultural politics. From your choice of candy or your recipe magazine to your history curriculum or your local football team, parts of life long assumed to be outside of politics are now being adulterated by politics. As aggressive activists bring their totalizing vision into domains once seen as apolitical, some people notice that the water they swim in is changing in composition. And as they try to restore what was lost, they’re told that they shouldn’t be so divisive.
Consider a recent article by veteran left-wing journalist Chris Lehmann in The Nation. “Gas stoves. M&Ms. Xboxes. There is no consumer product or domestic practice too banal to serve as fodder in the culture wars now raging on the American right,” Lehmann writes. This “militant blurring of the private and public spheres is a signal characteristic of totalitarianism, as mid-century political thinkers understood it.” Lehmann compares the alleged right-wing politicization of everyday life to “the Nazi program for coordination,” under which “at every level, society would be nazified.” (Lehman and his academic source refer to this as the Gleichstellung, though the correct term is Gleichschaltung.)
Rarely does one encounter such a precise inversion of the truth. In the examples Lehmann cites, progressives undertook aggressive actions against which conservatives reacted. Gas stoves became a subject of controversy only when the Biden administration circulated a notice of proposed rulemaking titled “Proposing Ban on Gas Stoves (Indoor Air Quality).” M&Ms became a subject of controversy only when candymaker Mars rebranded its “spokescandies” from the form they had taken since the 1960s to a more gender-inclusive scheme in order to signify “acceptance.” The College Board’s pilot program for AP African-American Studies became a subject of controversy only when it decided to teach as fact the highly contentious assertions of Angela Davis, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and bell hooks.
Recent culture-war battles usually follow this pattern. In 2020, organizations from Fruit Gushers to the National Basketball Association to the local summer camp issued solemn statements proclaiming their commitment to the fight for racial justice. Following the famous slogan of countercultural protests that the personal is political, these groups announced that they could no longer adopt a stance of neutrality on the day’s pressing questions. “Food has always been political,” wrote the editor of Bon Appetit. “Science has always been political,” wrote the editor-in-chief of Science. Classical music, medicine, theme parks, professional sports, Doctor Who, the nuclear family structure, law schools, Blue’s Clues singalongs: no part of American life could continue to disclaim an inherent relationship to politics.
Notwithstanding its exercise in projection, Lehmann’s article does expose a risk of right-wing efforts to resist or roll back the capture of American institutions: the first-mover advantage in politicizing previously nonpolitical domains is that people acclimate quickly to the new status quo. Accusations that those opposing such politicization are themselves engaged in a totalizing enterprise thus can seem more persuasive. We shouldn’t want to live in a world where bowling leagues, doctors’ associations, or knitting hobbyist groups are the subjects of nonstop political battles; ordinary people should be free to ignore the culture war. Those hoping to restore American life by depoliticizing it should be clear about their intentions.
The Gleichschaltung was indeed totalitarian. Entertainment, the academy, religion, and business all fell to Nazi efforts to ideologize everyday life. Professional groups lost autonomy as their associations were shuttered and brought under Nazi control. Even leisure time became an opportunity to get with the National Socialist program via the Strength Through Joy initiative. In The Third Reich in Power, historian Richard J. Evans explains that the “dumbing-down of university education and professional training, with its emphasis on ideological indoctrination . . . rather than on the traditional acquisition of knowledge and skills, added to this regimentation of professional activities to produce a palpable demoralization amongst many professionals.” Analogies to that dark period tend to be corrosive to public debate, but as long as we’re throwing them around . . .