If you’ve been on Twitter recently, you may have stumbled across arguments about critical race theory, or CRT — what it is, whether it’s good or bad, whether it even exists at all. The term has surged in popularity largely thanks to the efforts of Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute who has almost single-handedly spearheaded a wave of state-level Republican initiatives to ban the teaching of CRT in public schools, which have provoked alarm among liberals and a long string of jokes about right-wing “cancel culture.” But in a recent piece for Arc Digital, the writer Oliver Traldi noted that “critical race theory” is just the latest name for an ideology that we’ve been arguing about for nearly a decade: social justice, identity politics, “wokeness,” “intersectionality,” the successor ideology, cancel culture, cultural Marxism, etc. It can be hard to define precisely, and the various names cover a range of practices, from law to corporate and university culture to art and entertainment, but you generally know it when you see it. If you encounter language about “whiteness” and “white supremacy,” hetero- and cis-normativity, “racialized” and “criminalized” persons, and “gendered” bodies, among others, you’re encountering the phenomenon designated by the term critical race theory, regardless of what you think the best name for it is.
The name isn’t super important. “Car” and “automobile” both refer to the same object, and debates over the correct terminology, as Traldi pointed out, are often a sort of filibuster, a way to avoid discussing substance by fixating on words. The more interesting question is what the object actually is. (I’ll use critical race theory here for clarity, but it’s arguably not the best term: Narrowly defined, CRT refers to an academic legal theory, and the underlying ideology that critics like Rufo are referring to also puts emphasis on minority sexual, gender, and linguistic identities.) Those who sympathize with it, or at least those who both sympathize with it and are tactically willing to acknowledge its existence, tend to portray it as little more than an acknowledgment of the fact of racial inequality. CRT, according to the Washington Post’s Christine Emba, is merely the recognition that “our nation’s history of race and racism is embedded in law and public policy, still plays a role in shaping outcomes for Black Americans and other people of color, and should be taken into account when these issues are discussed.” Critics, obviously, disagree. Former President Donald Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director, Russell Vought, famously called CRT “divisive, anti-American propaganda” in a memo banning CRT-inspired training for government employees, and Rufo has described it as “little more than reformulated Marxism.”
I’m personally sympathetic to the argument that CRT has Marxist influences and overtones, but if it were genuinely Marxist, it would be hard to explain why it has been so eagerly adopted by major corporations, billionaires, and Ivy League universities, none of which are particularly interested in proletarian revolution. Rather, I think the meaning of CRT, wokeness, intersectionality, whatever, is simple and hiding in plain sight. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than the ideology of the modern Democratic Party. Or, more precisely, it is the ideological glue that holds together the modern Democratic coalition, with its new economy oligarchs, affluent college-educated professionals (particularly single women), socialists, and racial and sexual minorities (of course, these groups are not mutually exclusive). As Christopher Caldwell observed in a November essay in the New Republic, “civil rights, broadly understood” (his term for what I’m calling CRT) is the “reconciler-of-contradictions” within the Democratic Party, analogous to the role that anti-communism used to play in “fusionist” conservatism — that is, providing an ideological least common denominator that could unite the downscale religious believers and upscale businessmen and Cold War hawks who made up the Reagan coalition.
In other words: Jack Dorsey is not going to agree with socialists who want confiscatory taxes on CEOs. White urban gay couples may feel some tension with black and Hispanic anti-gentrification activists. Black and Hispanic Christians, and religious Muslims, in turn, might be uncomfortable with abortion, which is tremendously important to college-educated single women, or with their children learning about the gender unicorn. And Asians, who have been targets of a wave of violent assaults in major cities such as New York City and San Francisco, might be more sympathetic to the conservative politics of law and order than African Americans, who are generally more skeptical of the police. So what could all these groups agree on? Possibly, they could agree on a narrative according to which the main problem in our society is the present power and past crimes of straight white men, the American nation that they traditionally governed, and the Republican Party for which most of them vote. As a result, this narrative is hammered relentlessly. We are all on the same side against them, and here's a sophisticated-sounding theory explaining why we are good and they are bad. (This admittedly puts straight white men in the Democratic camp in an awkward position, but they can always discover a nonbinary identity or play up a Cherokee ancestor.)
My theory is admittedly crude and functional. It doesn’t explain all the subtleties of this ideology, its history, or the mechanisms of its transmission. It doesn’t say anything about the validity of CRT's claims, some of which may be true. But it does, I think, explain why you hear about this ideology all the time and why, particularly in the media, certain stories are emphasized and others are ignored. Elite culture is heavily Democratic. Joe Biden won counties accounting for 71% of the nation’s gross domestic product. I don’t think journalists intentionally mislead their readers, but they overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party and live in liberal cities where Republicans have roughly the social prestige of the Ku Klux Klan. And people generally tend to internalize the mythos of their favored party — why would you vote for people you sincerely believe are bad?
So when a white guy shoots up an Asian massage parlor, regardless of his stated motive, journalists recognize it as a national story that exemplifies a bunch of evil things that are basically dog whistles for “Republican” — whiteness, masculinity, guns, hate, racism, misogyny, what have you. It fits the pattern they have in their head. But when other minorities attack Asians on the streets of New York, such incidents are either local news stories or prompts for Jesuitical think pieces about how they, too, are the fault of white supremacy (i.e., Republicans). Conservatives like to point to these stories as evidence of hypocrisy, but there’s no real hypocrisy if you understand that the only relevant question is, “Which framing helps the Democrats?”
By itself, this wouldn’t be so much of a problem. Lots of people believe something because it is what people from their political party are supposed to believe. I would prefer that the Democrats’ ideology be less divisive, but American politics is notoriously pugilistic, people don’t always need to like each other, and our last Republican president was famous for his crudity. In other words, I can understand liberals who don’t want to hear complaints about “civility.” But earnest proponents of CRT, wokeness, and “civil rights, broadly understood,” should have a little more self-awareness about what they’re doing, or at least what it looks like they’re doing to people outside of their bubble. When the media nearly unanimously amplify the ideology of one of the major parties, when the tenets of that ideology are written into school curricula, and when publicly criticizing that ideology is seen as justified grounds for job loss and social death, a lot of people are going to feel as if they’re living in a one-party state. And at that point, they won’t be wrong.
Park MacDougald is the Life and Arts editor of the Washington Examiner magazine.
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