On April 18, U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle struck down the federal requirement for wearing surgical masks on airplanes, in airports, and while riding mass transit. Online videos showed passengers and airline staff ripping off their masks and celebrating in mid-flight. Given the accumulated frustration of two years of pandemic travel, the reaction was understandable.
Far more remarkable was the vehemence of those opposed to the ruling. Judge Mizelle was unfit for office, they said. She was too young, at 35; she was unelected; she was a single, unrepresentative voice. Worst of all, she was an “activist Trump judge” and thus branded with the mark of the beast. Rescinding government policy—the kind of thing that American judges engage in with abandon, and usually to progressive cheers—in this instance was condemned as a usurpation of the powers of the executive branch.
Judge Mizelle had crashed an exclusive party reserved for people of higher caste. “The CDC has the capability, through a large number of trained epidemiologists, scientists, to be able to make projections and make recommendations,” said Anthony Fauci, bureaucratic czar of all things Covid-19. “Far more than a judge with no experience in public health.”
That was the heart of the matter. Fauci embodied a bureaucracy and political class that, with the active support of the media, had converted the public’s fear of infection into a principle of elite authority. Under this principle, only trained scientists can make projections and recommendations. The writ of government stretched as far as the boundaries of scientific truth—and those boundaries were, of course, determined by government agencies. It wasn’t just a question of specific policies like lockdowns and vaccine mandates. At stake was the restoration of the public’s habit of obedience that had gone missing during the Trump years.
By spring of this year, however, the public had shed most of its fears, as the in-flight celebrations demonstrated. Legally and psychologically, the state of emergency couldn’t last forever. Judge Mizelle merely officiated at the burial rites over the carcass of an improvised authority. The disproportion between a ruling about masks and the existential howl of the opposition can be explained in terms of the loss of elite control—and it wasn’t the only recent example of such panic.
Three days after the mask mandate was struck down, on April 21, Barack Obama delivered the bad news about “disinformation” to a Stanford University forum on that subject. His unacknowledged theme, too, was the crisis of elite authority, which he explained with a history lesson. The twentieth century, Obama said, may have excluded “women and people of color,” but it was a time of information sanity, when the masses gathered in the great American family room to receive the news from Walter Cronkite and laugh over I Dream of Jeannie and The Jeffersons. Those were the days when a “shared culture” could operate on a “shared set of facts.”
The digital age has battered that peaceable kingdom to bits. Obama seemed unaware of the argument he was making, but it boiled down to this: the rise of social inclusiveness has opened the door to political chaos. As in the Judge Mizelle flap, the question, asked only tacitly, was who had the authority to make projections and recommendations.
Online, everyone did. People with opinions that the former president found toxic—nationalists, white supremacists, unhinged Republicans, Vladimir Putin and his gang of Russian hackers—could say anything they wished on the Web, no matter how irresponsible, including lies. A defenseless public, sunk in ignorance, could be deceived into voting against enlightened Democrats.
Total blindness to the other side of the story is a partisan affliction that Obama makes no attempt to overcome. At Stanford, he never mentioned the most effective disinformation campaign of recent times, conducted against Trump by the Hillary Clinton campaign, in which members of his own administration participated. He simply doesn’t believe that it works that way. Disinformation, for him, is a form of lèse-majesté—any insult to the progressive ruling class.
How are we to deal with this “tumultuous, dangerous moment in history”? Obama was clear about the answer: we must recover the power to exclude certain voices, this time through regulation. The government must assume control over disorderly online speech. First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech don’t apply to private companies like Facebook and Twitter, he noted. At the same time, since these companies “play a unique role in how we . . . are consuming information,” the state must impose “accountability.” The examples he provided betray nostalgia for a lost era: the “meat inspector,” who would presumably check on how the algorithmic sausage is made; and the Fairness Doctrine, which somehow would be applied to an information universe virtually infinite in volume.
Obama views disinformation much as Fauci does Covid-19: as a lever of authority in the hands of the guardian class. Democracy, he tells us over and again, must be protected from “toxic content.” But by democracy, he means the rule of the righteous, a group that coincides exactly with his partisan inclinations. By toxic, he means anything that smacks of Trumpism. The former president’s speech was vague on details, but it left all options open. Who can say what pretext will be needed to expel the next rough beast from social media, tomorrow or the day after?
The tone, nevertheless, was far from hopeful. The Barack Obama who spoke at Stanford plainly believed that nefarious forces have overrun the information sphere and that the Web, supreme medium of American politics, is now the mother of lies. The talk of regulation, like the strangely unprogressive yearning for the twentieth century, was a plea for dramatic intervention from a government that can’t enact an annual budget. An air of quiet desperation, I thought, clung to the performance.
Obama’s speech, in turn, took place four days before the apparent sale of Twitter to Elon Musk—at which point elite despair, always volatile, at last exploded in a fireball of rage and panic. Our unhappy age possesses a capacity for rhetorical grandiosity that may be unparalleled in history. Twitter in the clutches of the “supervillain” Musk, we were warned, could trigger World War III “and the destruction of our planet.” The complaints about Judge Mizelle resembled genteel mumblings in comparison.
Two clear themes emerged from the noise surrounding this pseudo-event. The first is that the people in charge of American politics and culture are obsessed with control and hostile to any principle that might interfere with it. After expelling Trump and edging out founder Jack Dorsey, Twitter had evolved into a gated community for progressive-minded elites, with heretical opinions on race and Covid-19, for example, ever more tightly policed. Musk calls himself a “free speech absolutist.” He had attempted to purchase the platform with the aim of returning it to a more “neutral” posture.
For a considerable number of agitated people, the goal of neutrality was an abomination. Suddenly, “free speech” became a code for something dark and evil—racism, white nationalism, oligarchy, transphobia, “extremist rightwing Nazis”—all the phantoms and goblins that inhabit the nightmares of the progressive mind. Self-awareness was the first casualty of this war of words. The Washington Post, owned by multibillionaire Jeff Bezos, solemnly preached the need for regulation “to prevent rich people from controlling our channels of communication.”
Following the Obama formula, the itch to control what Americans can say online was equated with the defense of freedom. Granting unfettered speech to the rabble, as Musk intended, would be “dangerous to our democracy,” Elizabeth Warren said. “For democracy to survive we need more content moderation, not less,” was how Max Boot, Washington Post columnist, put it. “We must pass laws to protect privacy and promote algorithmic justice for internet users,” was the bizarre formulation of Ed Markey, junior senator from Massachusetts. The Biden White House, never a hotbed of originality, recited the Obama refrain about holding the digital platforms “accountable” for the “harm” they inflict on us.
Honesty is a rare quality in the exercise of the will to power. For at least a generation, our elites haven’t valued anyone’s freedom but their own: but it was fascinating to hear them say it.
The second theme follows from the first. The elites are convinced that their control over American society is slipping away. They have conquered the presidency, both houses of Congress, and the entirety of our culture; yet their mood is one of panic and resentment. Trump, they are certain, will return to Twitter. There, as Obama warned, he will spew toxic clouds of disinformation and poison the minds of a gullible public. Attempts to enforce truth by legal means will be foiled by Trumpist judges like Mizelle. Inevitably, Trump will be reelected, and a revanchist holocaust will ensue.
To conservatives and Republicans, this rending of garments will appear disingenuous. After all, if you are obsessed with control, you will never get enough of it. But there’s no necessary contradiction between the two perspectives: you can be addicted to control and aware of its loss. In a vague and inchoate way, the progressive elites sense that they have power but lack authority. They live in dread of a reversal in the tide of history that will bestow the future to the worst kind of people and the bloody idols they worship.
Much of the gloom reflected the changed political climate. Starting with the onset of Covid-19 in the spring of 2020, elite fortunes took an almost magical turn. The pandemic frightened the public into docility. The Black Lives Matter riots enshrined racial doctrines that demanded constant state interference as not only legitimate but mandatory in every corner of American culture. The malevolent Trump went down to defeat, and the presidency passed to Biden, a hollow man easily led by the progressive zealots around him. The Senate flipped Democratic.
This victory parade culminated on January 6, 2021, when Trump’s outrageous behavior led to his expulsion from social media and the shunning by polite society of anything that reeked of “insurgent” Republicanism. By Inauguration Day, the elites and their identitarian ideas seemed to stand unchallenged.
That was never quite true—and the moment quickly passed. The burden of incumbency has crushed the Democrats. With Trump gone, they have nothing of substance to rally around. President Biden has staggered from disaster to disaster and is touching calamitous levels of unpopularity. Biden inherited peace and a recovering economy but must now deal with inflation, shortages, and a major war in Europe.
As I write, the conventional wisdom is that the 2022 midterm elections will witness a slaughter of Democrats in both the House and Senate. With Biden’s incumbency blocking better candidates, Democratic prospects of retaining the presidency in 2024 look increasingly poor. Next Inauguration Day, the elite class, so recently triumphant, could find itself stranded in the political wilderness. Yet even then, all would not be lost.
There is a tremendous asymmetry in the alignment of ideological forces in this country. Politically, we are fractured: war-bands of every denomination prowl restlessly through a zone of perpetual conflict. Electorally, we are divided. Voting is binary: in practice, this means that the war-bands get artificially squeezed into one of two mega-tribes. On Election Day, we must choose one or the other—and, because of the dynamic among war-bands, any one of which can defect at any moment, majorities rest on a razor’s edge.
Culturally, however, we are monolithic. From the scientific establishment through the corporate boardroom all the way to Hollywood, elite keepers of our culture speak with a single, shrill voice—and the script always follows the dogmas of one particular war-band—the cult of identity—and the politics of one specific partisan flavor, that of progressive Democrats.
The imbalance between a divided nation and a monolithic culture warps our shared perception of reality. A potentially scandalous story about the son of the Democratic presidential candidate, though entirely true, can be smothered to death by Facebook, Twitter, and Google. On the other side, if you are a former Republican president, you can expect to get locked out of social media permanently, even though 74 million Americans voted for you.
These decisions don’t reflect a consensus of public opinion. None of us was polled on the proper informational treatment for Hunter Biden or Donald Trump. This was control at a far more elemental level—and only here, in the murky depths of truth and post-truth, can we discern the motive for this year’s meltdown over disinformation and its avatar, Musk. The elites, confronting what they believe to be a political tempest of biblical proportions, are terrified of losing their monopoly over culture as well.
Whether this will actually happen is beyond the reach of analysis: culture evolves in mysterious ways. But it may be useful to speculate on the matter. In this spirit, let me propose three strong countercurrents, already visible across the American landscape—that might, in time, threaten the cultural supremacy of the elites.
The first is the intrusion of the political into the cultural. Since conservatives and Republicans are politically strong but culturally nonexistent, they will flex their political muscle to try to right the imbalance. Virginia and Florida have banned the teaching of certain progressive doctrines in public schools. When Disney, Florida’s largest employer, vocally condemned these laws, the company was punished with the removal of local privileges. Should Republicans win Congress and the White House, I would expect American politics to experience a cultural Armageddon. The output of culture can’t be legislated on demand: otherwise, the Soviet Union would have been a golden age of creativity. But raw political power can make the cost of cultural monopoly—and of idle posturing, Disney-style—unpleasantly high.
A second threat to elite culture is the defection of the victim class. The cult of identity generates an insatiable demand for victim groups, which, by necessity, must become ever smaller and more marginal not only to the mainstream but also to traditional minorities. Even as the elites solidified their grip on culture, the focus of their performative outrage was drifting from civil rights and pocketbook issues to more esoteric questions of sexuality and climate justice. The new causes simply don’t resonate with Hispanics or blacks, whose socioeconomic interests lie in other directions. According to recent polls, significant numbers of both groups are threatening to abandon the Democratic Party.
Progressivism is essentially a protection racket. If the elites ever lose the undisputed right to shout “Racism!” at the producers of culture, the latter will begin to fracture like the rest of the country and to look to the marketplace, rather than ideology, for inspiration.
The last countercurrent may be the most potent of all: the internal churning and dispersal of populations spurred by the pandemic and the availability of remote work. The number of Americans moving from their home regions, a recent survey found, is at the highest level on record. Though conservative writers are quick to observe that this is predominantly a flight from Democratic-controlled states to Republican strongholds in the Sunbelt, the political implications strike me as unclear. Many of the newcomers, I’m guessing, will be Democrats.
Far more significant will be the impact on the culture. Migration is a powerful solvent. Millions of people are leaving home in pursuit of change. They wish to be reborn, reinvented, liberated from the dead hand of the past; pick your metaphor for personal transformation. Such sweeping tides of humanity have always exemplified the central tenet of the American creed: that we are not captives to fate. Each wave of immigrants will begin a strange new story. To tell it, the culture, too, must be reborn and reinvented—and the mold of progressive dogmatism will be shattered in the process.
An unexpected blow against the progressive hold on culture came on May 2, when an anonymous leaker within the Supreme Court made public Justice Samuel Alito’s draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and devolve the regulation of abortion to Congress and the states. By the time the formal ruling came down on June 24, traumatized elites seemed ready to repudiate the one branch of the federal government that they did not control. The Supreme Court had “burned whatever legitimacy they may still have had,” Senator Elizabeth Warren proclaimed. “They just took the last of it and set a torch to it.” Abortion on demand—an early victory over traditional culture—has become sacramental to the left, with Roe v. Wade as holy writ. If Republican governors can align with Republican-appointed justices to demolish this once-settled arrangement, then every facet of the culture will be up for grabs. Justice Alito’s opinion “is not just about a woman’s right to choose. It is about much more than that,” cautioned Hillary Clinton, after the draft leaked. “Once you allow this kind of extreme power to take hold, you have no idea who they will come for next.”
Are we on the cusp, then, of an anti-elite cultural revolution? I still wouldn’t bet on it. For obscure reasons of psychology, creative minds incline to radical politics. A kulturkampf directed from Tallahassee, Florida, or even Washington, D.C., won’t budge that reality much. The group portrait of American culture will continue to tilt left indefinitely.
But that’s not the question at hand. What terrifies elites is the loss of their cultural monopoly in the face of a foretold political disaster. They fear diversity of any kind, with good cause: to the extent that the public enjoys a variety of choices in cultural products, elite control will be proportionately diluted.
Our cultural monolith, never popular, is today pounded by crosscurrents that undermine its solidity. Alongside the vast progressive choir, quieter voices—conservative, libertarian, religious, none-of-the-above—could soon arise, leaving our culture more fractured, more divided, and more representative of the nation as a whole. If that were to occur, sullen elites will point to 2022’s springtime of discontent, and remark, with typical vehemence, that their panic was fully justified.
Top Photo: In April, a U.S. district judge struck down federal mask mandates for all transit. (KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)