Christopher F. Rufo joins Brian C. Anderson to discuss his new book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything.
Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Christopher Rufo. Chris has been on the show before. He’s a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a valued contributing editor of City Journal. His work explores a variety of issues including critical race theory, gender ideology, homelessness, addiction, crime, and the struggles of American cities. Chris writes regularly for City Journal as most listeners will know, and his work has also been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and other publications. He’s directed four documentaries, and you can check out his YouTube channel where he posts new videos. Today, though, we’re going to be discussing his New York Times bestselling book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How The Radical Left Conquered Everything, which was published in July. The book is Chris’s first, and it traces the intellectual origins of today’s radical left. So Chris, thanks very much for joining us.
Chris Rufo: It’s great to be with you.
Brian Anderson: So you’re reporting for City Journal on race and gender issues. It’s been explosive, it’s exposed radical ideologies, perversion of our institutions. It’s brought critical race theory in particular to the forefront of the public discourse, but also some of the more radical gender ideology that has been intruding in public schools. It’s reached a broad audience. It’s influenced legislation in several states. What did you hope to achieve by writing this book, which is more of an intellectual history?
Chris Rufo: Well, it’s really interesting. As I have been doing the reporting for City Journal over the last few years, most of my work is finding sources within institutions, procuring documents, emails, PDFs, multimedia materials, and then exposing them to the public. And so, this is really basic journalism 101 and tackling the documents, turning them into stories. But the whole time I was very curious to learn of where did these ideas come from, whether it’s CRT, or gender, or DEI bureaucracies, how did they suddenly seem to capture so much of American life? And so as I was doing the reporting for City Journal, I was simultaneously going back and back and back and doing historical research, archival research, and really trying to dig into the origins of it beginning in 1968. And then the other bookend of the book would be the kind of George Floyd Revolution in 2020. And so it was really fun. All of it came from the reporting. And then I was silently, as the public was not looking, working backwards to try to understand at a greater depth the genealogy of some of these ideas.
Brian Anderson: Well, you highlight four major figures whose ideas and tactics have defined the radical Lft as we experience it today. So these were the “prophets of revolution,” as you call them: philosopher Herbert Marcuse, who was a kind of figure that was an intellectual guru of the Left in the 1960s, German thinker; activist Angela Davis; education theorist Paulo Freire; and then the law professor Derrick Bell. I wonder why these four, and if you could briefly sum up their particular contributions to today’s Left, that would be useful.
Chris Rufo: Absolutely, yeah. These were the four central figures from the New Left. And then what I’m arguing is that they set the stage for everything that followed. And so it’s actually quite an interesting thing. I really concluded after doing all of this research that the far left, the radical left, let’s say, has not had any original ideas since 1968, 1969. And in a sense, they were already fully fleshed out, fully baked, fully developed by that time. And it’s just a process of institutional conquest that has followed. And so Herbert Marcuse lays out the theory of revolution. He’s taking the neo-Marxist critical theory and applying it to the social conditions of the United States in the post-war era. And his ideas about revolution, about repressive tolerance, about the coalition of the white intelligentsia and the black underclass driving the revolution is still at the heart of left-wing politics today.
Angela Davis, if you look at the Black Lives Matter movement, if you look at the so-called anti-racism scholarship, none of it innovates at all from what Angela Davis was writing about in the late 1960s. Paolo Freire published a very influential book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the late 1960s that’s really dominated intellectual discourse within graduate schools of education and is the primary text for teacher training programs in the United States that are all just now essentially footnotes on Paolo Freire.
And then finally, Derrick Bell, who was the godfather of critical race theory. Really what he served to do was professionalize this, enter this movement into academia, use legal reasoning and civil rights discourse, and then injecting it with the racial cynicism that was used as a method for achieving institutional power. And so when you think of critical race theory and education and government and policymaking, all of it is really the fruit of Derrick Bell’s work. And so I wanted to highlight all these four stories, not only to show the ideas in the abstract, but to show that these are flesh and blood human beings that are flawed, that are bringing these ideas into public life.
Brian Anderson: The sixties and seventies, as you note in your book, were—and people forget this sometimes—there was just incredible left-wing political violence at the time. So you had radical militant groups like the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground, Black Liberation Army. They were murdering people, kidnapping people, conducting jailbreaks. There were bombings galore, including in New York City. The New York Police Department headquarters was bombed. The U.S. Capitol was bombed, the Pentagon was bombed, all of this in an effort to spark a revolution that these forces believed was imminent. Yet you write quite strikingly in the book that the radicals became far more dangerous after they laid down their arms. Why do you think so?
Chris Rufo: Well, for quite a simple reason is that when they pursued violent revolution starting in the late 1960s, but really coming to full expression in 1971, 1972, their strategy failed. It didn’t spark revolution. They were operating on this Marxist idea called Foco theory from the Italian or the Latin meaning focus or focal point. And they said that if they could focus public attention on these dramatic examples of revolution, robbing banks, assassinating police officers, bombing key American institutions, that it would spark a wider revolt. That didn’t happen, actually, the opposite happened. They not only alienated the broad middle class in the United States, but they alienated the very people that were supposedly their base because they were causing chaos in lower income minority neighborhoods, and then their friends, colleagues, people in their immediate environments said we don’t want any part of this. We want change perhaps, but we don’t want to do it by, for example, assassinating police officers.
And so they thought that the revolution was finished. And so even Herbert Marcuse in 1972 writes a book called Counter-Revolution and Revolt, and he says, Hoover’s, FBI, the broader public is anti-revolutionary. All of these forces in American society have defeated the revolution. Marcuse, of course, was right in the short-term sense, but wrong in a long-term sense. And in fact, their method of using very highly intelligent activists who were able to infiltrate American institutions beginning with universities and then spreading their influence from the universities outward, they were much more influential. They were much more able to conduct their revolution silently in the shadows initially through anti-democratic or non-democratic institutional capture. And I think that the public in the United States really saw this in 2020. When all of our institutions were gripped by an ideological frenzy. That’s when this process revealed itself and revealed itself in the fullest manner that really showed the progress over the past 50 years of this movement.
Brian Anderson: Well, you mentioned George Floyd, and it’s true that I think the Black Lives Matter movement is the direct heir of the black liberation movements of the ‘60s. What role, in your view, did the post George Floyd riots, which were so disturbing throughout 2020, play in the left’s long running cultural revolution?
Chris Rufo: My analysis now looking back, is something quite interesting. I think that the left in that summer of George Floyd felt that it had finally triumphed. It felt that it had achieved a style of soft hegemony over American institutions and felt that it was morally as well as socially and politically victorious. And consequently, you saw the left-wing ideas, narratives, symbols, statements, cancellation campaigns, public rituals just dominate the discourse and dominate institutional life. And for a time, they were right. I mean, every CEO, every school superintendent, every media figure had to, in a sense, flinch or at best or kowtow at worst, to these left-wing narratives, predominantly the BLM narrative. But something then quite interesting happened, just as they had done in the 1970s, they overplayed their hand and they made a really catastrophic mistake. As people were asking, well, what does BLM want?
What did these folks who are rioting and burning down city blocks actually propose? They proposed the worst possible solution that was almost designed to alienate in the same way that their campaigns alienated in 1972. They picked defund the police. And so if you fast forward a couple years later, you had of course the backlash against CRT. You had the parent movement trying to take back the curriculum in schools. You had the utter collapse of BLM and the Defund the Police movement. Now even Democrats and even very far left Democrats are running away from that. And so you have a new flux where we haven’t quite settled in on the new status quo. I think it’s unlikely to be what they want. Will never be what they want, because what they want is of course impossible. But we’re in a process of negotiation right now. So I think that this year and next year will be very interesting, especially with the presidential campaign to figure out how society is going to negotiate between left and right.
Brian Anderson: Well, you write in the book about the diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. This is something you’ve written about for City Journal quite a bit too, that they represent the implementation of critical race theories, abstract principles into policies and practice. But we’re starting to see a pushback against these DEI initiatives too, right?
Chris Rufo: That’s absolutely right. And so some of the reporting that I’ve done for City Journal this year focused on exposing DEI bureaucracies in public universities in Florida and Texas, and in most part because of great leadership in those states. But I think in some part, because of the work that we did with City Journal. Legislators abolished those departments in every public university in both states. It’s probably not going to be perfect legislation. Universities are probably going to try to weasel around it, but I think it’s a very clear statement from legislators who are saying, we do not want critical race ideologies turned into administrative orthodoxy and enforcement mechanisms. The DEI bureaucracies in our publicly funded universities, we don’t want to pay for that. We don’t want to promote that. And to me, this is significant because Conservatives for many years seemed to have ceded control over public universities to their adversaries even in very conservative states.
And to me, this is the first step in a longer process of higher education reform that I hope will be more ambitious and more proactive and have also a positive thrust to it, meaning that it will have a competing vision of what a university is for. And my big hope with the book and also with some of these reporting campaigns and advocacy campaigns that we’re doing, is that I want to challenge conservatives to actually create a substantive and competing vision for what public institutions are supposed to do, how they’re supposed to operate, which values they’re supposed to transmit from one generation to the next.
Because conservatives can no longer rely on a neutral, laissez-faire libertarian view of institutions. The fact of the matter is that we have enormous public institutions that in some ways dominate political and social life in our country. And the question is, of course, I would like to limit the influence. I would like to reduce the size of these institutions, but in the meantime, given the pragmatic concerns that we’re facing, how do we govern them? To me, that’s the most important question that I’d like to raise in both the reporting and the book.
Brian Anderson: Well, you mentioned your advocacy work, and your work has ignited incredible opposition in Florida with the Left just going ballistic over the work you’ve done at New College of Florida, which is just one small university college, this has dominated headlines across the country. Talk a little bit about that, just the incredible outrage of the Left that this small school, which was not doing well, is now going to be turned into a school with a curriculum based on classical liberal ideas.
Chris Rufo: Yeah, it’s really astonishing, and I anticipated some criticism, but I didn’t anticipate the absolutely hysterical reaction to this reform. But the basic stories that the governor Ron DeSantis appointed me and a number of other conservative intellectuals as a new board majority for the New College of Florida in Sarasota. New College was the lowest performing university in the state, failed to meet recruiting targets. It was functionally insolvent. It had turned into a kind of social justice ghetto where gender studies and gender ideology was the center of intellectual life. And even the college’s former administration admitted that it had a cultural problem, that it was a left-wing echo chamber. And that conservative students in particular were not only excluded, but really bullied and maligned by these left-wing orthodoxies. And legislators were even contemplating just dissolving the university. It was doing so badly. And so instead of doing that, the governor said, “Hey, take it over. Overturn the leadership, bring in new people and make it a classical liberal arts institution, something along the lines of a public and secular Hillsdale college.” And I mean, this provoked immediate outrage.
And then every step of the way that we’ve been reforming this college has provoked these really massive media cycles. And so we got rid of the President, we got rid of the Provost, we abolished the DEI office, we abolished the Gender Studies program, and now we’re bringing in new academics. We’re bringing in new administrative staff, we’re bringing in a new kind of student body. We’ve launched some sports teams and sports programs, and we’ve secured record funding from the legislature putting the college on its best financial footing in many decades. But what I think the heart of the reaction from the left is that we’re demonstrating that conservatives can use political power to reform public universities and to bring them more in line with the wishes of legislators and the public.
Because in the past, universities have operated in recent decades as wholly owned subsidiaries of left-wing politics. They push activism instead of scholarship, and they really serve as a kind of training and employment grounds for left-wing ideologues, not scholars in any real sense of the word. And we’re challenging that status quo. And we’re starting, of course, with the smallest university, but it’s become a symbol of a contest, which in my view is between the people of the state of Florida who elected Governor DeSantis, who elected state legislators, who therefore are responsible for the appointment of this new board and then the permanent left-wing bureaucracy that would want no challenges to its authority.
And so to me, this is not just, it’s not even primarily a competition between left and right. It’s primarily a competition between democratic governance of public institutions and bureaucratic governance of public institutions. And I’d like to demonstrate that ultimately the people are in charge and the people in the state like Florida deserve to have at least one institution within their state university system that upholds classical liberal education, which of course, classical meaning preserving the tradition of the past, it is somewhat conservative in nature.
Brian Anderson: The radical left has really pushed to transform our language and our institutions, including universities and colleges and public schools to serve its ends. Yet one of the philosophical points you make in the book, and I think it’s an important one, is that this whole project has been haunted by a moral void. It’s failed to extinguish traditional or naturally grounded desires people have for democracy, for family. In your view, what is the radical Left’s greatest weakness? Does it relate to this moral void? And I guess you’ve been describing this already, but what more can we do to push back and defeat it?
Chris Rufo: I think that the greatest weakness is twofold. First, there is a moral weakness through all of the literature that you see from the new left all the way to the radical left of our own contemporary period. You don’t actually get a real serious sense of moral alternative. It’s all criticism, it’s all deconstruction. It’s all the negative side of the dialectic. Exposing all of the existing institutions as racist, deficient, evil, oppressive, et cetera. But they only can propose in a sense, liberation. That’s the great theme, liberation from these constraints, liberation from these institutions. And what happens is that it creates really a moral vacuum because they don’t recognize the legitimacy of anything that precedes them. They only recognize the legitimacy of an extremely and completely abstract future that is unshackled from the limitations of the past. The second limitation stems precisely from the moral premise that they can’t actually govern any institutions effectively.
You hand over your municipal government to left-wing radicals, they’re going to abolish the police department. And what we’ve seen, even not short of abolition, which of course didn’t happen anywhere, but you see defunding, de-policing, decarcerating, decriminalizing, you see that impetus for liberation in very physical terms in criminal justice. And then you see it in human terms creating more crime, more decay, more chaos, more homicide, more violence, more death. And so the management of institutions by the Left, it has never demonstrated that they can do so competently or in the interest of the general consensus of the broader public. And so you have this paradox where left-wing radicals can only exist parasitically within the institutions. They can exist as critics that don’t produce anything of economic value, but seek to have their positions ensconced in the public bureaucracy, where they soak up taxpayer funding and resources and academic departments, creating criticism of the existing society without any capacity to improve or govern the institutions of that society. So you end this way forever. There’s really no evidence or no strong, even kind of strong, argument that they can transcend this function and they’ll overcome it.
Brian Anderson: The book, America’s Cultural Revolution, it’s been out for about a month now, a little over a month maybe, hit number one on Amazon. Among all books, as I noted earlier, it’s a New York Times bestselling book. It’s also garnered recognition, positive recognition, or at least respect from both sides of the political spectrum in an interesting way. So conservatives have hailed it as one of the more important and effective books in recent years. But even some detractors are saying it’s well-researched, it’s well written, you have to take it seriously. So I wonder, has the reception to the book been a surprise to you? How do you view this and in your view, has it reached the audience you were looking for when you wrote it?
Chris Rufo: It has, and it’s reached even beyond the audience that I wrote it for. I think I wrote it really for people within our broader social and political movement, people who are likely to agree with me and want this information and want to know the history and want to understand the key points and the key development of these ideas. But I also made sure to write it in a way that would at least garner the respect and really command the respect of any critics and detractors and people who disagree with my conclusions, because I wanted to write a serious book in a serious way with serious research, and I wanted to write it in a way that was also narratively sophisticated. So it was enjoyable to read, that it had a story that it was telling.
And it’s been interesting to watch even some of my harsh critics who have pegged me as a bomb thrower or a vandal or a propagandist, actually be forced to reckon with, wait a minute, this is a different tone. And I think that I actually, I like to communicate in different registers, in different media for different audiences. And I think that it’s not a contradiction, but it’s actually a sign of enjoyment of the variety of methods of communication and rhetoric and scholarship that my work is one way to persuade legislators, another way in a three-minute Fox News hit, another way in City Journal and then another way entirely writing.
Brian Anderson: Well, thanks very much, Chris. The book again is called America’s Cultural Revolution. Don’t forget to check out Chris Rufo’s work on the City Journal website that’s at www.city-journal.org. You can follow him on Twitter, where he is a frequent presence, at @realchrisrufo, and we’ll link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you’ve heard on the podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Chris Rufo, thanks very much. Great to talk with you as always.
Chris Rufo: Likewise.