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The New Right's Theory of Power is Insane
It is simply not true that radical leftists took over all major institutions and use them to crush the right, and mainstream figures should stop being afraid to say so
In a sharp New York Times column, David French argues that Elon Musk’s problems at Twitter show how the “new right’s theory of power” has failed. The new right—culture war focused, often very online, rejects small government conservatism as weak—thought Musk buying Twitter would force their cultural preferences onto America, as they believe the old owners did for the left. But American culture is too much of a bottom-up process. Individual preferences and the market are bigger forces, which we’re seeing now as advertisers flee, and companies launch Twitter competitors that attract some interest, such as Threads.
It’s a good point, but I’m going to take it further: This theory of power is not just wrong, it’s insane. Nuts. A distortion of reality. More conspiracy theory than empirical assessment, based on a false premise that stokes feelings of victimization.
Here’s how French explains the theory:
“In the new right’s telling, the story of contemporary American culture is the story of progressive elite capture of the nation’s most important institutions — from the academy to big business to pop culture to the “deep state” — followed by its remorseless use of that institutional power to warp and distort American values.”
French argues that the new right’s counter-strategy of “domination and imposition” isn’t working and won’t, but he doesn’t really interrogate the premise.
The idea that leftists executed a hostile takeover of all major institutions and now use them to persecute conservatives is a foundational truism for the new right. Feeling like a victim of that persecution, and justified in taking drastic action in response, might be the main thing holding the movement together.
For example, here’s some typical rhetoric from Christopher Rufo, who Governor Ron DeSantis recently empowered to reshape higher education in Florida:
Rufo doesn’t say anything issue focused, like “reforming higher education.” Nor something generic, like “get the government out of the way.” Instead, it’s sweeping language with martial metaphors like “recapturing the institutions” (all of them). Elsewhere, he called his plan “laying siege to the institutions,” and announced his appointment to New College of Florida’s Board of Trustees with “we are now over the walls.”
Why would such dramatic action be needed? Because “left-wing radicals” did it first.
Except they didn’t. But pretending that happened offers a handy rationalization for doing what the new right wanted to do already—in Rufo’s case, use state power to purge universities of “wokeness” and other ideas he doesn’t like—and calling it self-defense.
Forced Binary: Left or Right
To claim progressive elites control all of America’s important institutions, you first have to define the following as powerless:
The Supreme Court, many lower courts, U.S. Senators, the Electoral College, states (including two of the biggest, Texas and Florida), the most-watched news network, some of the most-read websites, some of the biggest podcasts, the most shared pundits on Facebook, a bunch of religious institutions (that don’t have to pay taxes), a lot of the business world (energy, finance, agriculture, etc.), police unions, and more.
You also need to ignore any distinction between the progressive left and the centrist establishment that leftists deride, and to employ a narrowly social conservative definition of left and right.
Take Hollywood, considered a powerful, quintessentially left-wing institution. But entertainment products portray wealth and guns as awesome. Talented rich men who play by their own rules—Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark—will save the day, if only bureaucracy stops interfering, like something out of Ayn Rand. As writers and actors strike, Hollywood bosses are at the forefront of the fight against labor, trying not to share future profits from artificial intelligence with workers.
But Hollywood also sends the message that sex is fun and fine to do outside marriage, insists that LGBT people should be treated as equals, sometimes casts women and non-white people in heroic roles, tends to mock or look down on people of faith, and the most public-facing component (actors) includes a lot of outspoken Democrats. In the new right’s culture war taxonomy, that puts the institution on the left.
But even within that frame it gets ridiculous. For example, right-wing influencer Benny Johnson, one of 23 people Musk now pays to make content for Twitter, mocked what he calls the “communist writers strike.” Hollywood studios good! He also declared that America is “a nation in decline” because he saw a photo from the set of Disney’s live action remake of Snow White showing a multiracial, rather than all-white, Seven Dwarfs. Hollywood studios bad!
The movie and TV industry doing some things the right cheers and the left opposes is hard to square with the claim that it’s dominated by crusading leftists.
Or take academia. The faculty tends progressive, but the administration doesn’t. Like Hollywood bosses, the people with real power often try to exploit labor, such as adjuncts.
Much of the claim that academia has been ideologically captured by the left overlaps with claims about the pervasive repressiveness of cancel culture. But setting aside oft-repeated anecdotes and examining the data shows those claims to be heavily overstated.
It’s reasonable to classify Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives, and most research programs on identity, such as Gender Studies, as culturally progressive, but that’s hardly all of academia. University presidents, trustees, and football programs tend conservative. The most common major is business, with health professions second. All social sciences combined are third, which includes more quantitative economists and political scientists than identity theorists. Fourth is engineering.
The average college student is, unsurprisingly, to the left of the average American. Of professors who make political contributions, far more donate to Democrats than to Republicans. Higher education is staunchly pro-science, and rejecting science on things like climate and vaccines—or rejecting the authority of experts in general—is a prominent feature of today’s right. Academia treats diversity as a value, while much of the new right is organized around opposing that idea. The internal culture and external influence of academia are both, on balance, to the left.
The institution is not, however, dominated by left-wing radicals ruthlessly prioritizing an activist agenda. Public and private institutions educate, employ, and elevate conservatives. Millions of college graduates vote Republican (just not as many as vote Democrat). Even if academia as a whole leans left, some prominent institutions, such as the University of Chicago, make a public contribution that is, on balance, to the right.
Five of the six Republican-nominated Supreme Court Justices got their law degree from Harvard or Yale—Amy Coney Barrett went to Notre Dame—as did multiple Republican senators. Ted Cruz (R-TX) graduated Harvard Law, then clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist (also Harvard, nominated by Richard Nixon). The conservative Federalist Society is thriving, placing judges and clerks throughout the judiciary.
Recounting these well-known facts doesn’t address questions about tolerance towards alternative viewpoints, measuring the effectiveness of DEI approaches, or the ideal allocation of education funds. They don’t show that academia (or Hollywood) is actually right-wing, nor totally neutral. But they’re more than enough to disprove claims of leftist institutional dominance focused on crushing the right.
It’s Not Personal, It’s Business
The claim of progressive-dominated institutions grows even more stretched when branching beyond academia and Hollywood into other influential areas. The idea that the FBI is a bunch of leftists persecuting conservatives, as Congressional Republicans insisted in a recent hearing with Trump-appointed, GOP Senate-confirmed FBI Director Christopher Wray, is laughably absurd. And that theory isn’t much better when applied to sports and business.
For example, you’d have to say the NFL stifling antiracist protest by Colin Kaepernick and other players doesn’t count. But an NFL team calling a Thursday game in September “Pride Night” and expecting players to go along with it, as they expect for every promo, is of great importance.
To most people, these look like business decisions. (1) A bunch of our customers don’t like players kneeling during the national anthem, let’s stop it. (2) Maybe we can get more gay people to buy our stuff if we do a theme night and make merch with rainbows. But to the aggrieved culture war right, Pride Night is proof that not just football, but sports as an institution, is in the tank for the left.
Or consider a recent business decision the new right turned into a cause celebre. Dylan Mulvaney, an influencer who posted videos documenting her gender transition, partnered with Bud Light on a promotion during the NCAA’s March Madness, where they sent her some cans with her picture on them and she talked up the beer on Instagram. In response, right-wing figures called for a boycott. A common complaint was “people just don’t want it shoved down their throat.”
Except it wasn’t. At least not by Bud or Mulvaney.
It looks like a straightforward social media marketing move. A wide variety of people like to drink alcohol, the Bud Light brand might have a frat bro image, so during a major college sporting event, they did a promo with a Gen Z internet personality who has a different audience (10 million followers on TikTok; 2 million on Instagram).
Budweiser didn’t make Mulvaney the star of Super Bowl commercials or put her picture on every can. Even if you think that would be wrong for some reason, this was a niche promotion, targeting Mulvaney’s Instagram circles. Most outside those circles who heard about this did so because right wing social and professional media amplified the ad campaign and drove outrage about it viral.
To the extent anyone “shoved” this “down their throats,” they did it to themselves. Then called it an example of their persecution.
As the boycott grew, parent company Anheuser-Busch put out an empty corporate statement about “bringing people together over a beer” instead of being “part of a discussion that divides people.” Mulvaney got online mobbing, offline stalking, and death threats. While Bud stood by the promotion in generic terms, they made another business decision and kept their distance from her.
An institution captured by progressive gender activists hellbent on pushing their religion-like ideology would’ve issued statements in support of Mulvaney. Crusading woke leftists would’ve grabbed the opportunity to portray her as a victim, tried to blame the Republican Party, and deepened the brand’s public partnership with her. Anheuser-Busch did not.
Who, exactly, was hurt by a beer brand hiring a trans woman for a promotion? I don’t mean whether it was a smart/dumb business decision—those happen all the time—but whether anyone suffered any real harm.
No one has to be into Mulvaney’s schtick (I’ve never watched her videos), and like any other public figure, she’s not above criticism. But this went far beyond that. Why spread corporate marketing to people it doesn’t target and say its existence, which they otherwise wouldn’t know about, is a personal attack on them?
The complaint appears to be that Dylan Mulvaney is out in public, acting happy and proud to be trans, while an All-American brand like Bud Light treated Mulvaney and her fans as normal – just another internet celebrity and potential customers. The only way to satisfy that complaint would be for Bud Light—for every brand—to shun trans people, or at least not openly welcome them the way they do numerous other demographic groups.
That doesn’t look like conservative persecution by institution-dominating progressives. It looks like frustration with lost dominance.
Social conservatives aren’t wrong to think their beliefs have less influence in America today than in past eras, but that doesn’t make them victims. Rather, they’ve gone from the overwhelmingly dominant force in the culture to a large faction within it, with less ability to impose their values upon others, or take for granted that their views were default.
It wasn’t long ago that no gay teacher was out of the closet, at least not in school. Now some display rainbow flags and a picture of their same-sex spouse in class, and Republican-led state governments pass ambiguous, potentially onerous laws to chill it.
It wasn’t long ago that virtually no trans people were out and seeking mainstream recognition. Now they’re asking others to use their pronouns, calling people who reject their gender identity bigoted, and getting sponsorship deals online.
LGBT people haven’t taken over all major American institutions and started repressing their enemies, but they have carved out enough acceptance in society that trying to bully them out doesn’t work like it used to. Now people who want to shun them have to compete, and competing at the national level requires appealing to a wide variety of people, not just those on your “side.” Especially when we’re talking about all of society here, not just partisan politics, since tons of Americans don’t vote (about 80 million, even in record-turnout 2020).
Yes, the new right’s theory of power, with culture-transforming dictates imposed from above, is wrong. But the illustrative case they use to build their theory, and the way they measure power distribution in society, are both so far off—more a fantasy that casts themselves as victims, with anything they want justified in response, than an empirical study—that any theory based on it is fundamentally flawed.
The reason no one has a good explanation for how left-wing radicals took over all major institutions, and how the right can counter these leftists’ remorseful application of power, is because that didn’t happen, and isn’t close.