Last November, conservative commentator Ross Douthat penned a provocative column titled “How the Right Became the Left and the Left Became the Right.” “One of the master keys to understanding our era,” Douthat wrote in the opening paragraph, “is seeing all the ways in which conservatives and progressives have traded attitudes and impulses.”
The populist right’s attitude toward American institutions has the flavor of the 1970s — skeptical, pessimistic, paranoid — while the mainstream, MSNBC-watching left has a strange new respect for the F.B.I. and C.I.A. The online right likes transgression for its own sake, while cultural progressivism dabbles in censorship and worries that the First Amendment goes too far. Trumpian conservatism flirts with postmodernism and channels Michel Foucault; its progressive rivals are institutionalist, moralistic, confident in official narratives and establishment credentials.
Despite some terminological imprecision — Douthat often writes of “the Left” when he really means “liberals” — the argument speaks to something real.
While liberals of the Bush era worried about mass surveillance and government overreach, today’s liberal mainstream champions the sanctity of institutions and views the likes of courts, security agencies, and misinformation regulators as a bulwark against the Right. As Donald Trump insulted his way into the executive branch, liberals bludgeoned Bernie Sanders and his supporters with bad-faith social-justice critiques and made prudish appeals to consensus and decency. The Republican affect, by contrast, has increasingly drawn on themes of dissent and rebellion, with a politics of trolling and an aesthetic of 4chan-esque vulgarity supplanting the comparatively upright style once associated with figures like Mitt Romney and Jeb Bush.
There’s a certain elegance in seeing contemporary politics like this: censorious and oversensitive Brahmins sermonizing about institutional authority in one corner and a newly irreverent right pursuing a frenzied and paranoid style in the other. It isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s not exactly right either. In its tidiness, such a narrative elides the important ways that the Right now engages in its own version of the very politics it claims to deplore. Conservatism, in this sense, has not so much traded places with liberalism as converged with some of its shallowest and most illiberal instincts.
Recently, conservatives launched a crusade against brewing company Anheuser-Busch in response to an innocuous advertising collaboration with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Breweries have reportedly been targeted with bomb threats, and one right-leaning company has seized upon the situation to launch a service called “Woke Alerts” that will warn consumers “when companies cave to the woke mob.” The episode is instructive for several reasons, among them that the campaign so obviously mirrors the very sensibility it purports to be resisting. In effect, the Right’s go-to reaction to what it imagines are woke mobs is to create woke mobs of its own.
The incident is merely one example of a wider zeitgeist currently reflected in mass campaigns to get books with black or LGBTQ themes pulled from library shelves, draconian legislation to discipline academics who teach particular subjects, heavy-handed regulation of free expression in public-school classrooms, and sinister directives to state agencies targeting transgender children and their parents. “Woke capitalism” has, meanwhile, become conservatism’s favorite bête noire, inspiring absurd freakouts about everything from Disney’s ostensible promotion of socialism to Pride-themed Oreo packaging. The related concept of “ESG” (Environmental and Social Governance) is set to be the subject of congressional hearings that will, like Woke Alerts, target investors thought to be undermining profits in pursuit of a “woke” agenda.
Conservatives, in effect, have recognized the socially liberal bent of modern America — and they absolutely hate it. The result is a politics increasingly indistinguishable from the most exaggerated right-wing caricature of censorious social-justice warrior liberalism.
Another irony of this posture is that it has seen conservatives embrace a key premise of the shallow social-justice ethos that now pervades the upper echelons of some large corporations. True, they may hate it when leviathans like Amazon and Nike issue statements in support of Black Lives Matter or partner with transgender TikTok stars. But, in lockstep with the marketing teams at these very companies, conservatives accept the corporate alignment with various social-justice causes as something genuine rather than a branding exercise. On this, they agree with an influential section of American liberals: “woke capitalism” exists.
Yet the whole idea of so-called woke capitalism is absurd on its face. Large profitable corporations are, by definition, driven by cold-market calculus, not the pursuit of social justice in anything but the hollowest sense. Insofar as some corporations bend toward social liberalism, it’s mostly because there’s a greater market share to be found there — on major issues like trans rights and abortion, conservatism is very much a minority proposition in today’s America — and because it can be an effective inoculant when their owners and bosses are caught union busting, running exploitative workplaces, or contributing to climate change. It’s a cynical and often nakedly hypocritical branding exercise undertaken by people thinking about their bottom lines and little more. If the Right is wrong to attack woke capital, liberals are wrong to celebrate it.
It’s one thing to find fault with the moralism that pervades some liberal milieus, or to roll one’s eyes in the direction of Wall Street banks or entertainment conglomerates trying to cash in on social-justice branding. The fact remains, however, that it is not oversensitive liberals who are crusading against Bud Light, trying to get books banned en masse, or enforcing parochial ideas about gender and sexuality through state legislation. In the narcotic haze of the culture war, it is all too easy to overlook the extent to which America’s conservative minority has become a mirror image of the very thing it purports to deplore: a shrill and inflexible mass that not only mistakes consumption for politics but demands protection, at all times, from facts, people, and ideas that make it uncomfortable.