It’s an article of faith among many conservatives, and some liberals, that we’re being swept by a Maoist cultural revolution destined to transform American society into a woke collective. Yet before surrendering basics like equality of opportunity, social order, and free speech to leftist authoritarians, we should consider whether they’re the ones who will wind up getting canceled.
Most Americans don’t favor defunding police or instituting race quotas; they are wary of the costs connected with the Green New Deal and of allowing Washington to control local zoning. Many are already voting with their feet, fleeing places that promote these ideas and seeking out areas aligned with more recognizable American values. Over the past 20 years, virtually all the most progressive large states—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California—have suffered massive outmigration, while red or purplish states like Florida, Texas, the Carolinas, or Arizona welcome more and more Americans to resettle there. On the metropolitan level, even before Covid-19 accelerated the trend, a steady, largely unacknowledged, movement from the deep-blue core to the less progressive suburbs or exurbs has been underway.
Political correctness—the secular religion of elite liberal society—turns out to be enormously unpopular, something President Trump has exploited politically. Some 80 percent of Americans, notes one recent survey, including most millennials and minorities, see political correctness as “a problem,” not a solution for the future. Progressive social activists, a survey by the liberal research organization More in Common found, account for barely 8 percent of the adult population, less than a third of the number who identify as traditional conservatives.
The fact that most Americans—Democrat and Republican—fall between these two categories suggests that social attitudes may be far less polarized, and less susceptible to political correctness, than has been widely assumed. As seen in the reaction to the George Floyd case, most Americans generally back the police but also embrace the notion of police reform; they are increasingly hostile, however, to the wave of violence that has accompanied some of the protests. Rather than support growing attempts to limit free speech, almost four in five Americans, according to Pew, support protecting it. These attitudes extend well beyond the base of Trumpian conservatives to include most Americans, regardless of ethnic background.
The media epitomize the gap between the public and the nation’s dominant institutions. Subjectivity, notes a recent Rand study, has replaced the world of shared facts with approaches that lead to “truth decay.” Reporters once believed that their mission was to inform the public, but now many journalism schools, including Columbia, embrace progressive groupthink, openly advancing a leftist social-justice agenda in which reporters are advocates. Even Teen Vogue has taken a neo-Marxist tack. “Moral clarity” replaces objectivity. Free speech is somehow linked to white privilege.
These partisan attitudes have dramatically eroded trust in media, according to a new Knight Foundation study. Public trust in most large media has declined steadily over the past four years, with the biggest drops among Republicans; the New York Times, the publisher of the 1619 Project takedown of American history, is trusted by less than half of the public, compared with almost 60 percent in 2016. Gallup reports that, since the pandemic, the news media has suffered the lowest ratings of any major institution, performing even worse than Congress or President Trump.
Certainly, the shift leftward has not helped the progressive-dominated newspaper business. Between 2001 and 2017, the publishing industry (books, newspapers, magazines) lost 290,000 jobs, a decline of 40 percent. Endless partisan sniping and countless crises have boosted CNN, but the network lags well behind right-wing Fox. NPR has seen its ratings drop as many listeners gravitate to less predictable, livelier voices like Joe Rogan.
The new media also suffer from a credibility crisis. Controllers like those at Facebook, Google, Apple, and Twitter are increasingly determined to curate “quality content” on their sites, or even eliminate views they find objectionable, which tend to be conservative, according to employees. The idea that managers of huge social-media platforms aim to control content is more than conservative paranoia. Over 70 percent of Americans, according to a recent Pew study, believe that such platforms—as demonstrated in the case of Reddit, Facebook, and Google—“censor political views.” In California, the center of Big Tech, people express more trust in the marijuana industry than they do in social media, according to a 2019 survey.
A similar trend is at work in arts and entertainment, where partisanship has rapidly become the standard. Once divided between conservatives and liberals, Hollywood, in the words of liberal journalist Jonathan Chait, now exhibits “a pervasive, if not total, liberalism.” This tilt reflects the political views of the executives: over 99 percent of all political donations by major entertainment executives in 2018 went to Democrats.
In the past, however, many filmmakers, liberal and conservative, tried to separate politics from the business of art; today, priority often goes to gender issues and racial grievance. Quality films with broad popularity—in the vein of the The Sound of Music, The Godfather, or, more recently, Lord of the Rings—rarely win the top prizes anymore. Instead, award-winning films largely are chosen for their appeal to insiders, even as they generally do at best modest box office. To make money, Hollywood resorts to producing superhero movies.
This phenomenon is likely to get worse before it gets better. Just recently, the Academy announced that applicants for Best Picture must fulfill quotas for minorities, women, the disabled, and gays. Under these conditions, some suggest, even as brilliant a film as the Oscar-nominated 1917—set in World War I trenches—would face tough barriers since its cast, and directors, were all white men.
Americans are not enthusiastically embracing the new cultural orthodoxy. Many may share progressive views on gender and the environment, but they don’t necessarily want to spend their free time being reeducated.
Before Covid, the audience for awards shows such as the Emmys and Oscars, increasingly disconnected from the values and tastes of many Americans, had already dropped to record lows. And since the pandemic, the ratings, as seen in the Emmys, have headed down still further. Attendance at theaters plunged even before Covid, and the prospects for a strong recovery—given an unappealing product for many—seem limited.
Much the same can be said about television and sports. Ratings for politicized media like ESPN have plummeted. The decision by A&E to drop its popular Live PD show—made to appease anti-police sentiment—cost it roughly half its viewers. The industry may be thriving in its progressive lane, but it’s clearly out of touch with much of its market.
Even sports are losing their allure. Even as much of the population remains quarantined at home, ratings for the National Basketball Association—the wokest league of them all—have cratered, falling behind Fox’s Tucker Carlson, not someone who appeals beyond the right. With players “taking the knee” and threatening walkouts after reported police incidents, the numbers are also way down for Major League Baseball and the National Football League. Perhaps Americans would prefer some entertainment in these hard times, and not to have to listen to “social justice” rhetoric from the likes of LeBron “Peking” James, a multimillionaire and passionate defender of the league’s Chinese sponsors.
Higher education has served as master instructor and amplifier for the new orthodoxy, but impatience is growing with the performance of our schools. College students are graduating with fixed ideas about racial politics but few real-world skills. One recent study of American college students found that more than one-third “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. The products of today’s universities maintain rigid positions on various issues, confident of their superior intelligence and perspicuity. Employers also report that recent graduates are short on critical-thinking skills.
Many colleges were hurting before Covid-19, with a growing percentage of enrollees engaged in online learning. Many students and parents, particularly at less prestigious schools, are questioning the cost of higher education. And universities have been losing confidence with a majority of Americans, according to Gallup. Employers—including Google and Elon Musk—are more willing to challenge the validity of degrees. If this trend continues, the whole university structure faces a challenging future. In examining some 442 American universities, NYU marketing professor Scott Galloway estimates that more than 20 percent could fail because of the lockdowns, and that another 30 percent will struggle to stay afloat.
It would be overly optimistic to imagine that the cultural revolution will fade away of its own accord. A taste for authoritarian solutions, Right or Left, is usually acquired. This is not a liberal or conservative struggle; it is a civilizational one. If nearly 40 percent of young Americans think that the country lacks “a history to be proud of,” they won’t see anything precious to protect. A civilization can survive only if its members, particularly those with the greatest influence, believe in its basic values.
Unfortunately, we can’t count on our elites in the academy, the media, the corporate hierarchy, or even the clergy to support the core values of American democracy. Not anymore. Only stubborn resistance from the middle and working classes can push back against an assault being largely directed from above. “Happy the nation whose people have not forgotten how to rebel,” wrote British historian R. H. Tawney. It’s up to Americans everywhere, regardless of their party registration, to put a halt to a cultural revolution that our children may otherwise inherit.
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images