Six years on from the events at Ferguson, Missouri, and the explosion of cultural radicalism that Matthew Yglesias calls the “Great Awokening,” it’s now possible to see the woke movement for what it is: a decentered liberal ideology whose moral innovators impel it toward fundamentalism.
The Awokening’s roots are more liberal than socialist. At this ideology’s core is a simple emotional binary that began with the minoritarian liberalism of the nineteenth century, in which minorities are viewed warmly and majorities coolly. I term this the liberal identity. The history of the liberal identity has been one in which the emotional volume has been steadily turned up on this affective pairing, while the chosen form of “minority” has been narrowed to concentrate on totemic racial, gender, and sexual categories. This is not because these categories universally align with the most disadvantaged persons, but due to their politico-symbolic potential.
At the extreme, minorities are viewed as hyper-fragile children that must be protected from all harms, however microscopic or imaginary. The majority is hated and feared as a vicious predator against whom one must constantly stand on guard, and which should be attacked remorselessly.
Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky observed that people “aren’t rational, they rationalize.” Jonathan Haidt makes a similar point with his metaphor of the elephant and the rider. Our “elephant” is the fast-thinking emotive driver of our behavior, while our “rider” tells us a story about why we act as we do. Split-brain experiments neatly show this, where a subject with a split brain laughs in response to scientists making funny faces on one side of a split-vision divider and tells the scientists on the other side that he is laughing because of what they are wearing. Likewise, the ideological somersaults of the cultural Left (the “rider”) are largely rationalizations for the liberal identity, its subconscious “elephant.”
The liberal identity has steadily diverged from liberal principles, and its blend of ideas is now best characterized as left-modernism, a blend of cultural egalitarianism and modernist individualism. Since the 1960s, left-modernism has absorbed revolutionary cadences from Marxism, ratcheting its tone upwards towards today’s “woke” fundamentalist apogee. Novels, film, and educational campaigns, which repeatedly evoked sympathy for minority groups—especially blacks—while featuring white saviors as leads, have instilled a clear narrative in the minds of left-liberals over decades. Little wonder, then, that when someone from the majority actually or symbolically assaults a minority, especially when this involves the sacralized category of race and a central script such as police violence against black Americans, this resonates with liberal tropes and memories, activating uniquely intense outrage. Similar assaults involving minority-minority or majority-majority pairings don’t elicit the same reaction.
Minority status alone doesn’t purchase left-modernist sympathy. A small demographic share matters mainly as an indicator of powerlessness and disadvantage. Mormons are fair game to be ridiculed in productions like The Book of Mormon, as are evangelicals. Jews, being largely white and prosperous, receive reduced attention, though left-modernism’s worship of trauma means it is willing to police anti-Semitism, especially if it comes from the Right. Left-modernism’s emphasis on psychic egalitarianism means that no matter how small whites become as a share of the U.S. population, they will be viewed as benefiting from the unearned psychic privilege of having been historically dominant. Perhaps it would take a significant period of ethnic subordination, akin to that experienced by the formerly dominant Muslims of North India after 1947, before they get to call themselves a disadvantaged minority.
The liberal identity’s decentered structure means it resembles distributed schismatic religions like Protestantism or Islam more than centralized ones like Catholicism. Its lack of any high church establishment, however, pushes it beyond Protestantism or Islam. Indeed, there are almost no internal checks on its radicalism.
Viewing wokeness as a highly decentered liberal religion helps us understand the movement’s extremism, its witch hunts, and its awakenings. It explains why high-status people and elite institutions mouth its mantras, why its moderates can’t stand up to its fundamentalists, and why it is both the product of, and an engine of, polarization.
Why liberal fundamentalism? After all, illiberalism in the name of “social justice” is this movement’s calling card. This cognitive dissonance doesn’t arise from liberal principles, but from liberal identity. Liberalism’s concern with the tyranny of the majority has produced a minoritarian sensibility that has morphed into a perfectionist left-modernism, which is profoundly illiberal.
What Isaiah Berlin terms negative liberalism—the set of procedures that seek to regulate conduct by maximizing a person’s freedom subject to the rights of others—is logically sound. But logic is not enough to inspire passionate social action. Even if the aim is limited to negative liberalism—ensuring equal rights for all individuals—liberals must rely on the same movement strategies as their adversaries. This means generating symbols, narratives, sacred events, heroes, slogans, and charismatic leaders. Once again, these don’t just die when a movement like women’s suffrage succeeds. They survive as memes (in the sense of Richard Dawkins’s original coinage)—cultural replicators like viruses whose aim is to perpetuate themselves.
This will to replicate is useful if a meme’s job remains unfinished. But at other times they persist as powerful social identities which stretch their goals through “concept creep” to ensure that they continue to stay relevant and can call upon our passions and resources. What Douglas Murray refers to as “St. George in retirement syndrome”—slaying phantom dragons—is the result.
When liberalism was about metaphorically slaying despotic elites, its narratives were grounded in ideas of “the people,” like democracy and nationhood. Once liberalism turned from defending the rights of disenfranchised majorities to protecting minority rights, the narrative shifted. When it came to the rights of Catholics and Jews (in Protestant countries), racial minorities, or homosexuals, the “bad guys” were the majority, who menaced minorities in need of protection. The emotive pairing of majority with malice and minority with empathy began this way. What started as a modest habit of mind has deepened into a reflexive demonization of majorities and lionization of minorities, which is the “elephant” driving the “rider” of contemporary left-modernism.
In theory, liberalism could have mothballed its mytho-symbolic arsenal once equal rights had been achieved for disenfranchised groups. It could have remained agnostic about the merits of majority and minority culture. But the liberal army was a living, breathing force, inspiring loyalty, meaning, and identity among its followers. The liberal conscience collective became a distinct entity from liberal principles, complete with its myth of the avant-garde and memories of struggle. The liberal community became willing to violate liberal principles to maintain solidarity and meaning.
Consider the fateful shift from color-blind racial liberalism to affirmative action represented by President Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Howard University speech, in which he argued that it is not enough to liberate blacks through “equality of opportunity,” but that society must achieve “equality as a result.” Johnson was correct that social policies to improve the lives of blacks were reasonable, but this was not a liberal argument and therefore represents a major conceptual rupture with the logic of civil rights. Nevertheless, in the liberal consciousness, there is no break. Pre- and post-1965 liberalism appear as parts of a seamless organic whole. This sleight of hand only goes unnoticed because of the continuity provided by liberal emotions, narrative, identity, and organization. This wasn’t lost on astute observers like Bayard Rustin, who rightly saw the change as a betrayal of liberal principles. All of these aspects show how different the liberal emotional-symbolic web is from liberal logic. The former can smooth over logical contradictions in a way the latter, by definition, cannot.
Liberty and equality overlap when there are barriers to the equal treatment of individuals. Once the question shifts to abridging liberty to achieve equal outcomes, the two part ways and we supposedly get liberalism and egalitarianism. In reality, however, a liberal identity that has become accustomed to empathizing with minorities against oppressive majorities will incline liberals to depart from liberal principles and adopt egalitarianism, all the while retaining the “liberal” label. Various means were designed to square this circle, from asserting that the weak need equality before they can exercise their rights to John Rawls’s theory that if people had to choose a set of rules before knowing how privileged they would be, most would opt for left-liberalism.
As a result, liberalism split into its right-liberal and left-liberal halves. In the United States, gun rights, anti-government sentiment, and anti-communism represent a right-liberal tradition that harks back to the “Don’t Tread on Me” principles of the founding. But Penn’s tolerant Pennsylvania, the founders’ deism, anarchist individualism in the nineteenth century, and liberal Progressivism in the early twentieth century have also birthed a left-liberal tradition. Today’s woke legions are direct descendants of the early anarchists and liberal Progressives.
Left-Modernism: A Radical Successor of Liberalism
What we have witnessed over the past century is a steady radicalization of the liberal identity’s pro-minority/anti-majority emotional antinomy.
The liberal Progressive movement of the first decade of the twentieth century is an important chrysalis for today’s dominant ideology, the blend of liberal and leftist ideas that I term left-modernism. Liberal Progressivism brought together university-educated liberal Protestants like John Dewey and Jane Addams with freethinkers like William James and Felix Adler. While most Progressives favored restricted immigration and temperance alongside social welfare and economic support for the working class, the liberal Progressives were the first to combine leftist social reform with a truly cosmopolitan vision of the country. By 1910 they had influenced the ecumenical mainline Protestant elites of the Federal Council of Churches, who embraced pluralism and the humanist rationale for liberal immigration. The liberal Progressives didn’t fully abandon assimilation, but exchanged Milton Gordon’s Anglo-Protestant “transmuting pot” for Israel Zangwill’s “crescent and cross” global fusion. Already, Dewey chafed against the “New Englandism” of his birth, yearning for diversity. In theory all groups were equal, including WASPs, but the affections of Addams, Dewey, and others were generally reserved for immigrant groups like Italians and Jews, while a wary eye was kept on the Anglo-Protestant majority.
With the minoritarian liberal template now established, a new generation began the iterative process of amplifying the majority-minority binary, explicitly denouncing the Anglo-Protestant heritage of the country. The modernist avant-garde of 1910s Greenwich Village combined experimentalism in the arts with enthusiasm for the new immigrants who were remaking the ethnic composition of major Eastern Seaboard cities between the 1880s and 1920s. Randolph Bourne, the doyen of the Young Intellectuals in the Village, urged his fellow Anglo-Saxons to slough off their stale provincial upbringings and leverage the interesting new immigrants to find the “cosmopolitan note.” Immigrants like Jews, by contrast, were urged to “stick to” their faith and culture and not to succumb to the temptation to assimilate and thereby become “cultural half-breeds.” Elite young modernists began embarking on “slumming” excursions to the Jewish Lower East Side or up to Harlem to take in the new black jazz. The Anglo-Protestant heartland was derided as uninteresting.
The result is what I term asymmetrical multiculturalism: ethnicity as wonderful for minorities, poisonous for majorities. This contradiction in the worldview of the left-modernist bohemians established a minoritarian, anti-majority mold which occupies the very soul of today’s woke culture. This isn’t to say that empathy for minorities wasn’t sorely needed at the time, or that attention to the excesses of majority behavior was unwarranted. Yet once the emotional valences had crystallized, the world became a much simpler place, where reflex rather than logic ruled. It became considerably more difficult to take a nuanced, contextualized view of the Anglo-Protestant majority group and its identity. To cherish Anglo-American traditions and accomplishments in world-historical context, for instance, or to appreciate the difference between Anglo-Protestants’ attachment to their group and its traditions, and whites’ maltreatment of out-groups, became impossible.
While the Young Intellectuals criticized Anglos for being provincial, their successors in the 1920s were considerably less restrained, cranking anti-majoritarianism up several notches. The sale of alcohol had been prohibited by the Low Church Protestant–inspired Volstead Act of 1920, while the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 established new immigration laws that severely curtailed the influx from southern and eastern Europe. Outraged, 1920s essayist H. L. Mencken attacked the ethnic majority:
The Anglo-Saxon American[’s] is a history of . . . blind rage against peoples who have begun to worst him. . . . The normal American of the “pure-blooded” majority goes to rest every night with an uneasy feeling that there is a burglar under the bed. . . . His political ideas are crude and shallow. He is almost wholly devoid of esthetic feeling. The most elementary facts about the visible universe alarm him, and incite him to put them down. Educate him . . . and he still remains palpably third-rate. He fears ideas almost more cravenly than he fears men.
In Sinclair Lewis’s novel Main Street (1920), Carol Kennicott, the lead character, longs to escape her midwestern town, run by an Anglo‑Protestant middle class of “standardized background . . . scornful of the living. . . . A savourless people, gulping tasteless food . . . and viewing themselves as the greatest race in the world.” Sarah Jeong and others who make similar criticisms of white people today are the intellectual descendants of the early left-modernists.
Left-modernism’s roots lie in minoritarian liberalism, not socialism, which envisioned a majoritarian uprising of the working masses. In this sense, socialism was closer to ideas of “the people,” like nationalism and populist democracy, than to left-liberalism. In addition, socialists of the Second International (1889–1916) tended to believe that only “advanced” societies and peoples were ready for revolution. Immigrants from what Marx termed primitive, slave, or feudal societies would forestall the revolution with their backward consciousness. Socialists were also generally supportive of both nationalism and imperialism. Eugenics and immigration restriction were both popular with socialists, while advocacy on behalf of African Americans was pioneered by the liberal naacp in 1908, whose concerns were typically viewed by socialists as bourgeois.
At the same time, left-leaning liberals—the so-called lyrical Left—had a tense relationship with socialism. While drawn to the utopian dreams of Marxism, many of these left-modernists found themselves repelled by Soviet socialism’s doctrinaire conformity and political demands. As the Young Intellectual Floyd Dell confessed, he was drawn to luxury, sensuality, and self-indulgence rather than the drabness of socialist struggle, preferring Freud to Marx. Still, many bohemians hoped the two balls could be kept in the air. The Soviet Central Committee disabused them of this illusion in 1932 with the diktat that experimentation in the arts was forbidden, and only socialist realism would be tolerated.
Twentieth-Century Cancel Culture
Many among the rising “New York Intellectuals” generation of 1930s left-modernists were ex-Communists who lost their faith when Stalin banned artistic experimentation. The rift deepened as Stalin began purging dissidents during the 1936 Moscow Show Trials and signed the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact. Instead of the Communist dream, cultural radicals gravitated to an expressive liberal-cosmopolitan utopia that resembled that of the earlier Young Intellectuals. Some cooperated with the CIA to undermine Soviet Communism.
Nevertheless, the Marxist habit of shutting down debate with moralistic sound bites and purity tests followed the New York Intellectuals as they transitioned from Communism to cosmopolitan liberalism. In Communist circles, “bourgeois” was a moral statement, an epithet designed to silence discussion and dissent. This was joined by the use of “fascist” in the 1930s. In 1937–39, the present danger of fascism produced a “concept creep” in the use of the term among left-modernists who had gravitated to liberalism. Now it was not only Nazis but liberal-nationalist American Scene artists like Thomas Hart Benton or architects like Frank Lloyd Wright who were attacked by left-modernist critics such as Stuart Davis as fascist and racist. Cancel culture is the product of this transposition of moral rhetoric from class conflict to cultural conflicts around ethnicity and race.
In the wake of World War II, as second-generation New York Intellectual Daniel Bell noted, the once-vibrant intellectual Right all but disappeared in Europe and America. Communist and anti-Communist versions of the Left battled for supremacy, with the latter emerging triumphant. What Lionel Trilling termed the “adversary culture” had been confined to small groups of bohemian writers and artists, though aspects of its outlook were adopted by the urban upper-middle classes as early as the 1920s. By the 1940s, a reflexive sympathy for minorities was becoming common in some East Coast establishment circles, whether among progressive Democrats and the mainline Protestant National Council of Churches or liberal business executives such as 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie. In the 1960s, the massive expansion of universities and national television spread the countercultural liberal identity to a rising “knowledge class” of tertiary-sector workers.
Along with the spread of drugs and the sexual revolution came a rise in accusations of racism and, later, sexism. Left-modernism’s initial wave of emotional enthusiasm, the First Great Awokening, began around 1964 at Berkeley, moving into high gear in the late sixties. Race, and later gender and sexuality, took center stage as the Left increasingly pivoted away from traditional class concerns toward those of the left-modernists.
Meanwhile, former Marxists embraced the cause of black civil rights and anti-imperialism, as well as feminism and gay liberation. Herbert Marcuse brought critical theory’s Freudian focus and concern with anti-Semitism into the American context. Despairing of working-class revolution in the West, he embraced the cause of disadvantaged identity groups. For instance, Angela Davis, a leading Black Panther, studied under Marcuse in Frankfurt and San Diego. The productive tension between revolutionary Marxism and liberalism injected a political radicalism into left-modernism, lending it a sharper moral edge which focused on its emerging holy trinity of racism, sexism, and, in due course, homophobia.
With landmark civil rights legislation passed in 1965, the mainstream accepted the need for change, and the racist charge now carried a moral weight in the wider society that had previously been limited to progressive circles. As Paul Krugman recalls, statues of coachmen in front of nice Long Island homes were suddenly repainted from black to white during the summer of 1965 to remain au fait with the new taboo.
The sacralization of race by left-modernists would prove monumentally important in the decades to come. The anti-WASP ethos of the early left-modernists gradually evolved into a generalized anti-whiteness as white Catholics and Jews assimilated into a new unhyphenated white majority. Robin DiAngelo’s “white fragility” and Noel Ignatiev’s 1990s critical race theory trope of “abolishing the white race” stem from the same liberal mindset as Mencken and Bourne’s anti-WASP diatribes.
This development, it should be stressed, originates not with Marxism but with liberalism’s minoritarian sympathies and anti-majority ethos. In effect, liberalism’s categories of majority and minority cultural identities were plugged into socialism’s oppressor-oppressed terminal, filling the blank slots left by the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. While those who point to wokeness as a cultural form of Marxism are partially correct, these influences came later, and fertilized a preexisting liberal matrix.
Competitive Radicalization: The Woke Moral Economy
A centrally directed system like a machine consists of a control center that directs the entire apparatus. Complex systems like flocks of birds work from the bottom up, with order emerging from the uncoordinated activities of individuals following simple rules. A command economy is centrally directed by a state bureaucracy while a market operates as an uncoordinated complex system. Individuals following price signals generate a system that matches supply with demand.
The same distinction holds for idea systems. At the extreme, the fashion system is an almost perfect marketplace, with virtually no limit on experimentation. Sumptuary laws once regulated what each social stratum was permitted to wear. Once this collapsed, a market model took over in which new trends, often originating with dandies or bohemian innovators, were picked up by the fashion-conscious upper class. These then percolated down the social scale. The lowest classes were always behind, with higher-status groups using fashion as a means of distinguishing themselves. We find this pattern even in first names, with lower-status groups slower to adapt to new conventions than elite strata.
Do values behave the same way? The marketing firm Cultural Dynamics uses the terms pioneer, prospector, and settler to describe three values groups, with pioneers the first to experiment with new trends. Once an idea goes from weird to safe, the trendy prospectors seize on it to distinguish themselves. The conservative settlers are the last to change, only adopting new values once they become well-established.
Moral orders differ to some extent from fashion orders inasmuch as they enforce norms of behavior and set out the values of society. There is a stronger punitive aspect here, which can take the form of ostracism or even physical punishment. But value trends operate in similar ways to fashion trends.
Among moral idea systems, Catholicism, communism, and Irish republicanism are examples of ideas with centrally controlled command structures where official doctrine flows from the top down. Protestantism, Islam, and Judaism, by contrast, possess competing religious authorities, with wide latitude for preachers, imams, and rabbis to innovate. While national establishments like Iran’s mullahs can exert power, in democratic societies it is difficult for the religious authorities to clamp down on moral innovators. Anarchism and liberalism, the two main sources of left-modernism, are even more distributed than Protestantism, approaching levels of dispersion not so different from that of the fashion system.
One of the characteristics of highly decentered moral systems is a tendency toward fundamentalism. Protestantism is a break from Catholicism, and while Lutheran and Anglican establishments tried to create new hierarchies, dissenting preachers armed with their own interpretations of Scripture forged new sects. Presbyterians separated from Anglicans, the Free Church broke from Presbyterianism, and so on down to the independent Protestant ministries of today. Schisms occasionally produced liberal offshoots like Unitarianism but more often pushed in the direction of textual literalism, resistance to modernity, or emotional expressivism. New sects like the Methodists and Baptists or, later, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, inveighed against established denominations or secular authorities, accusing them of being corrupted by worldly forces. In Islam, dissident imams echoed this line of reasoning, assailing the laxity and un-Quranic mores of sultans and their official clergy.
Why fundamentalism? One reason lies, oddly enough, in value consensus. When everyone agrees that morality stems from the word of God as written in the Bible, it’s very difficult to argue against Scripture in favor of rationalism or syncretism. The fundamentalist gets to occupy the moral high ground and holds cultural power. Something similar occurs in ethnic conflicts when, within a group, extremists “outbid” moderates who wish to sign a peace deal. Since everyone identifies with the community first, moderates can easily be cast as sellouts who are betraying the memory of communal martyrs who died in past conflicts. In Northern Ireland, for example, the hardline Loyalist Ian Paisley accused the moderate David Trimble of being a “Lundy”—the name of a famous seventeenth-century Protestant traitor who tried to trick the inhabitants of Londonderry into surrendering to the Catholics—for signing up to the Belfast power-sharing agreement. Soon after, Paisley’s party defeated Trimble’s. Similar outbidding processes have occurred in hot spots such as Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia. Once again, the reason has to do with value consensus: everyone is loyal to their ethnic group first rather than the multiethnic state, so accusations of disloyalty work to shut down competing claims.
So too with left-modernism. Whenever an institution like a university or newspaper comes to be mainly populated by the cultural Left, value consensus is assumed and left-modernist moral entrepreneurs rise up to “outbid” others in their commitment to communal values. Even where centrists rather than extremists are dominant, appeals to the liberal identity—in which minorities carry a positive valence while majorities are viewed as threatening—are tricky for moderates to morally contest. Fundamentalist innovators like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, or keyboard social justice warriors like Alyssa Milano, are left-modernism’s Sayyid Qutbs and Jerry Falwells. Moral entrepreneurs pioneer politically correct terms like “Latinx” and “lgbtq,” or tropes like cultural appropriation. They advance new issues like transgender emotional safety, institutions such as speech codes, or religious practices like jazz hands and taking the knee. Their religious equivalents are prayer breakfasts, speaking in tongues, Christian rock, terms like “pro-life,” and educational campaigns like creationism.
Protestant fundamentalism’s politics has typically focused on a small number of mobilizing issues that people can easily grasp. Ritualism in the Anglican church in twentieth-century England, drink and the saloon in early twentieth-century America, and, more recently, abortion, school prayer, or gay marriage. Liberal fundamentalism also tends to prioritize a few high-profile issues. It cares a bit about disability and poverty, but mainly concentrates on the holy crusades of race, gender, and sexuality. The “critical” race, gender, and queer theories detailed by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay in their book Cynical Theories are the philosophical riders, but the elephant pushing the movement is the liberal identity.
Rather than Scripture, the core of the left-modernist faith is the minoritarian liberal identity, with its affection for minorities and hostility to the majority. This paves the way for a leftism that seeks to weaken the strong and strengthen the weak. Transposing the leveling impulse from “scientific” majoritarian Marxism to anti-scientific minoritarian liberalism is what led to organizing around race, gender, and sexuality. This in turn enacted a victim-oppressor moral hierarchy, with racial groups deemed oppressed on top, followed by women and sexual minorities, with other intersectional categories lower down the scale.
As John McWhorter notes, the religion of anti-racism has its high priests (like Ta-Nehisi Coates), its rituals (taking the knee), and its incantations. White males are the fallen, and redemption comes in the form of prostration to, and allyship with, “people of color.” In place of the thousand-year reign of Christ on Earth, or the Workers’ State, comes the multicultural utopia of equality-in-diversity. The communal emotions called forth by religious reasoning give rise to periodic waves of mass enthusiasm and innovation. The First Great Awakening (1725–50), Second Great Awakening (1815–40), and the Azusa Street Revival (1906–15) furnish examples from American Protestantism. Left-modernism has similarly enjoyed three Great Awokenings. The first took place in the late 1960s, the second in the late 1980s and early ’90s when “political correctness” came into vogue, and the third from 2014 with the explosion of social media and the catalyst of the Ferguson riots.
We can visualize these waves by tracking the use of the terms “racism” or “sexism” over time. As figure 1 shows, each Awokening corresponds to an upsurge in the use of the word “racism” in American English–language books. A very similar pattern holds for “sexism.” Importantly, each wave consolidated and built upon the success of previous waves. This reflects left-modernism’s successful “march through the [elite] institutions,” beginning with universities in the 1960s and spreading to the media and corporate world, beginning in the early 1990s but especially since 2014.
As the liberal identity and its left-modernist ideology spread, it pushed on an open door. Few in the academy had the wherewithal to mount a sustained intellectual pushback against left-modernist moralism. Conservatives were preoccupied with economics and foreign policy and hoped to curry favor with the Left by acting as rule-takers in the cultural realm. The main constraint on wokeness at the time was the supply of activists and the breadth of their imagination. Both expanded as grievance studies fields and equity and diversity officers proliferated. This led to the unfolding of left-modernist logic and personnel into new frontiers like trans rights and fat studies. In the past, left-modernist activists might interfere with a speaker, such as James Coleman, whose 1976 American Sociological Association conference address on the impact of busing on white flight featured picketers with swastika signs on stage. At other times they might occupy a building and demand fifty ethnic studies professorships, as at San Francisco State University in 1968. In the political science faculty of the University of British Columbia in 1995, an entire department was paralyzed for months by nonspecific accusations of “systemic” racism and sexism. This could have happened far more often if activists were better organized and globally connected. If activists had social media in the late 1960s or early ’90s, I have little doubt they would have hit upon cancel culture.
In some religions and nationalist movements, an establishment which is viewed as the repository of tradition can check fundamentalists. Fundamentalists threaten the power of the religious and political establishment, who act to suppress them, as in Egypt, which jailed the Islamist Sayyid Qutb. Among Irish nationalists, dissident extremists who wanted to continue the armed struggle after 1998 had to contend with the prestige of the Provisional IRA and its political wing, Sinn Féin, which had signed up to the deal. During the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the regime could step in to curb the activities of pro-regime moral innovators, as when Zhou Enlai unleashed the People’s Liberation Army against Red Guards who wanted to destroy the Forbidden City. Often establishments will accuse extremists of being heretics or dividing the community, a charge which Official Unionists leveled at Ian Paisley and which Jewish rabbinical authorities aimed at ultra-Orthodox rabbis.
For liberals, there is no analogous power center. There seems to be a vacuum at the heart of liberalism, with no established institutions able to successfully counter the claims of woke innovators. While the courts tend to uphold traditional liberalism and many liberals excoriate wokeness and cancel culture in the media, they are not systematically organized into a network within universities, newsrooms, foundations, or corporations. No liberal Vatican exists which can draw on traditional legitimacy and organizational depth to curtail the moral authority of woke preachers. Instead, universities, sections of the media, and corporations tend to swiftly fall into line behind the latest radical movement and buzzword.
Secularization, Leading to Polarization
Fundamentalism is often a response to secularization. The desire to draw a firm line between religion and secular modernity leads to the desire to define a set of anti-modern doctrinal fundamentals which cannot be abridged. This can alienate moderates from the faith. Since the mid-twentieth century, liberal or modernist sects, such as mainline Protestantism or reform Judaism, have been hemorrhaging members to both nonreligion and strict religion. Secularization lends urgency to fundamentalism, but fundamentalism also propels moderates to leave religion.
Likewise, the populist challenge to minoritarian liberalism in Europe since 2014, and in America since 2015, has profaned liberal sacred values by campaigning to reduce immigration and openly attacking political correctness. This has invigorated left-modernist fundamentalism. Radical excesses in turn power populism, with Trump leveraging public disgust with political correctness to his advantage. The result is a ratcheting polarization and culture war. In the middle, people are forced to take sides. Some liberals climb aboard the woke express while others find themselves “red-pilled,” alienated from minoritarian liberalism, and move right. Some conservatives shift the other way in response to populism.
Polarization is less evident in elite institutions, however, whose policies and pronouncements on race, gender, and sexuality remain uniformly left-modernist. This is why Trump exiting the scene may reduce radical outrage, but is unlikely to slow the woke express. Institutions with a progressive ethos, like the feminist academic journal Hypatia, are highly responsive to woke accusations because they are deeply invested in left-modernist identity.
It’s one thing for moral innovators to appear in such progressive spaces, but how might we explain phenomena like woke corporations or their “bobo” (bourgeois bohemian) employees who seem so keen on adopting the latest moral fashions? Recall that in the fashion system, elites seize on new styles developed by bohemian innovators to distinguish themselves from those below. In the Cultural Dynamics values model, the mores of the pioneer values innovators influence the trendy prospectors who work in the new knowledge economy, with the older, more working-class settlers resisting value change. Woke morals enjoy high status, and many employees in tertiary industries are liberal graduates. Firms are keen to adopt left-modernist moral innovations to both please their woke employees and to distinguish themselves from their less “progressive” competitors. Signaling left-modernist virtue through advertising campaigns or diversity training programs is therefore partly about a company trying to keep up with, or attain a status advantage over, its competitors.
But this puts the cart before the horse. Firms are hardly going to take up the latest evangelical Christian cause. Left-modernism’s moral status thereby stems from a liberal fundamentalist elite operating beyond the business world. Only after left-modernism’s sacred values, such as anti-racism and anti-sexism, are recognized as the currency of the moral realm do companies act to maximize their quantity of these goods. As Max Weber noted, people act in self-interested ways, but only within a preset value system. Left-modernist moral supremacy comes first, and the virtue-signaling status machine second. In effect, status considerations are secondary to moral authority.
The moral DNA of elite institutions is provided by a taken-for-granted minoritarian liberalism that began over a century ago, borrowed from cultural Marxism in the sixties, and has been deepening its grip on elite institutions ever since. This laid the seedbed for today’s left-modernist innovators to assert moral authority, pressing organizations for implicit bias training, equity, and diversity policy, and, where necessary, the canceling of problematic employees and products. There is no countervailing moral power in most institutions, and thus no competing source of values to counter the tide of liberal fundamentalism.
Private Truths, Public Lies
Religions, whether otherworldly or secular, sometimes retreat from the world, while at other times they pursue power to rule and harm others. Salafism is usually quietist, but when mixed with Marxist theories of action, produced bin Laden’s Salafi-jihadism. In Algeria, Islamic fundamentalists during the civil war in the 1990s turned outward, killing fellow citizens whom they accused of being insufficiently “woke” in Islamist terms (i.e., attentive to God’s law). Islamists who make accusations in the name of their society’s sacred values signal their virtue and gain moral stature. This allows them to punish dissent.
The same transpired in colonial Massachusetts, where hapless women were accused of being witches while no countervailing morality to Puritanism existed. In 1960s China, the best way to neutralize an enemy was to tar them as a “capitalist roader.” Today, moral entrepreneurs win plaudits by slinging the “racist” charge. Those whose lives and reputations are destroyed are scalps to be displayed as trophies on social media, as when journalist George Eaton of the New Statesman celebrated his canceling of Roger Scruton by posting a photo of himself swigging a bottle of champagne.
Once a taboo comes to be respected, even a small number of liberal fundamentalists is enough to quell opposition. Moderate liberals who might speak against woke innovations like safe spaces fear that others will view them as reactionaries or racists for standing against sacred minoritarian values. Their view of what others might think pulls down a veil of silence. This produces Timur Kuran’s “private truths, public lies” in which public reality becomes the performance of a lie. The best the majority can do is to drag its feet or change the subject in the hope that activists will go away. They won’t.
On the one hand, the woke system is like the emperor’s new clothes, a fragile illusion waiting to be exposed. A critical mass of open dissenters can set off a cascade in which fence-sitters move, convincing the next set of undecideds, and eventually exposing the entire racket. Desacralizing wokeness is therefore partly a matter of sufficient dissidents raising their voices until a tipping point is reached and a self-fulfilling dynamic collapses the entire edifice. This means that even one brave person in a committee meeting or studio audience can be enough to unmask its pretensions, desacralizing liberal fundamentalism. In complex systems, small causes around a tipping point can have massive effects.
On the other hand, left-modernist extremism is durable due to its hold on the consciousness of well-educated people. Even if its lack of logical and empirical foundations is exposed, it has a claim on the emotions of many liberals. A wide swath of opinion cleaves to the minoritarian liberal identity which underpins left-modernism and is the dominant moral reflex of western societies. While nervous about woke overreach, most have imbibed stories about right-wing excess while remaining comparatively ignorant of the sins of the Left. Even if there is a vague sense that Mao or Stalin did something wrong, there are no emotional attachments to these stories equivalent to the sins of Jim Crow or the Nazis. Film, novels, and schoolbooks offer few psychosocial profiles of leftist regimes, failing to bring them to life. Liberals instinctively fear the Right more than the Left, and thus there is a deep sympathy for the sacred values that left-modernist moral entrepreneurs skillfully evoke.
Might Wokeness Be Desacralized?
Consider two examples of successful moral defenestration. In the late nineteenth century, temperance was viewed as a prestigious moral crusade. Between 1890 and 1920, however, the class composition of the leading temperance organization, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), slid from elite to lower-middle. By the 1920s, the American elite endorsed prohibition repeal and stood against the now lower-status WCTU. In 1933, thanks in part to Al Capone’s antics, the elite won the argument and alcohol was sold once again.
Another case of downward value mobility is the way social class counteracted fundamentalism among American white Protestants in the early twentieth century. Fire-and-brimstone Baptists held the religious high ground over the more moderate Presbyterians and Episcopalians, but Baptists who achieved upward mobility tended to switch to become Methodists or Presbyterians, who in turn graduated to Episcopalianism. Secular prestige offset moral power to keep fundamentalism at bay until this system collapsed in the late twentieth century.
While raw status considerations played a part in the resistance to fundamentalist pressure in both cases, this was bolstered by a rising liberal ethos that endowed the modernizing side with moral authority. Likewise, in the case of Ulster Unionism, liberal moral appeals played an important role within the Protestant middle class, helping to counteract Ian Paisley’s accusation that voting for the 1998 Belfast Agreement was a betrayal of the Unionist community.
It’s similarly easy to imagine liberal fundamentalism losing prestige. Professors in grievance studies disciplines have long held lower status than those doing work where conceptual clarity, measurement, and testing are the measure of excellence. Top-cited journals tend to be quantitative, analytic, or, for historians, archive-driven. Increasingly frequent attacks on the excesses of cancel culture from liberals occupying prestigious positions are difficult to rebut. Edgy comedians such as Dave Chappelle lend a hipness to the growing anti-woke counterculture. Might the lower status of the fundamentalist left eventually spell its demise? While this is necessary, it is not, in my view, a sufficient condition for change.
Steven Pinker’s rationalism may be higher status than the critical race theory of Ibram X. Kendi, but the rationalists lack the moral authority to contest left-modernism. Their emotional arsenal—heroes, memories, narratives, symbols—cannot compete with left-modernism’s victim-oppressor pantheon of heroic resistance to slavery, imperialism, and patriarchy, with the promise of a millennium of equality and diversity. To change course we need to replace the elephant, not just the rider.
Appeals to freedom of expression and reason need to be augmented by the cultural work of constructing a usable past, complete with memorials and martyrs. Given how much blood has been spilled to win the right to freedom of expression, this shouldn’t be difficult, but the truth is that most in the West, especially the young, only know the culture of minoritarian liberalism. It’s in their music, their movies, their TikTok, their schools. They know far more about Hitler and slavery than Stalin. Few have any idea about the struggle for press freedom and habeas corpus in eighteenth-century Britain or the excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China.
It is noteworthy that those who have successfully answered back to left-modernism have invoked religion or patriotism. Basketball player Jonathan Isaac of the Orlando Magic refused to take the knee, citing the Bible and God’s glory. Chicago Red Stars soccer player Rachel Hill also stood for the anthem, citing her family’s military service. The problem is that both nation and religion are viewed as lower-status values and are therefore unlikely to win over the elite professionals who run society’s liberal institutions. Both are also identified as morally problematic by left-modernists. While faith and flag are critical for buttressing resistance within the nongraduate settler population, these forces are unlikely to dent the growing problem of institutional left-modernism.
The way forward must therefore involve bolstering an emotionally compelling narrative of freedom which foregrounds the threats emanating from a politics of psychic redistribution. Government has an important role to play here, balancing the teaching of minoritarian narratives of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Holocaust with an equivalent appreciation of the illiberal atrocities and cultural totalitarianism committed by perfectionists claiming to speak for the weak, like Stalin and Mao. Revulsion at the thought control portrayed in Orwell’s 1984 needs to become a cultural reflex. This will balance today’s minoritarian liberal sensibility with an equally potent vigilance against the threats that those speaking the language of equality pose to expressive freedom.
Communism is majoritarian, but its central cultural program—ideological control of free speech, internal purging of the impure, authoritarian and arbitrary justice, brainwashing, and propaganda—have been taken over by today’s minoritarian Left. Today’s liberal fear of majority tyranny must be counterbalanced by the horror of leftist thought control in order to undergird a rational liberal order that prioritizes science, logic, and evidence over left-modernism’s feelings-based, minoritarian epistemology. Together with an appeal to national solidarity and the falling intellectual prestige of wokeness, a more balanced liberalism can reappear to restore sanity.
The institutional power of left-modernism must also be addressed. Across the media, there is already plenty of viewpoint diversity, but in the policies and pronouncements of elite institutions there is virtually none. Liberal institutions like universities, government agencies, and the courts are vital to protect. Their institutional prerogatives, however, cannot be permitted to override individual rights. Democratic governments must proactively intervene when a state-controlled and state-funded institution has been captured by a pressure group and has become corrupt, no longer upholding the rights of individuals. This is a delicate balance, as elite institutions are needed to safeguard liberalism, and state power should always be limited by the constitution and to the minimum required to protect people’s rights. But liberal institutions can be captured, and cannot simply be permitted to break or reinterpret the law and do whatever their activist captors desire. This means conservatives need to temper their instinctive fear of using government policy, recognizing that democratically elected governments are more likely to uphold freedom than institutions captured by left-modernists.
When southern universities failed to admit black students in the early 1960s, or when schools in Britain came to be controlled by Islamists, the government had to step in to protect students’ rights. Governments should regulate universities on an annual basis, fining them or withdrawing funding if they fail to uphold due process or academic freedom, and providing avenues for the accused to appeal to a higher government authority. Employment law should be changed so that companies cannot fire “at will” but only for just cause. Political discrimination should be included among the list of protected characteristics except where politics is central to an organization’s mission. These measures will remove chill effects, emboldening dissenters and undercutting the power of political correctness. Like the child who exposes the emperor’s new clothes, this can upend the entire moral economy of liberal fundamentalism. On the other hand, a Biden presidency, which is predicted as of this writing, could remove the few restraints that currently exist, abetting the spread of left‑modernism.
Patrick Deneen, Christopher Caldwell, Ryszard Legutko, and other conservative critics of liberalism correctly identify liberalism as central to the excesses of cancel culture. But in throwing the baby of liberalism out with the bathwater of left-modernism, they are making a grave mistake. Principles of negative liberalism are essential for a good society. They underpin much of what the West has achieved. What instead needs reform is the liberal identity, a mytho-symbolic construct that reflexively fears majorities and venerates minorities. This gives rise to a liberal fundamentalism which demonizes the former and sacralizes the latter. What is required is to rebalance this fundamentalism with a healthy Orwellian fear of egalitarian thought control, backed by a proper understanding of the history of leftist attacks on expressive freedom. Alongside the draw of national loyalty and prestige of scientific reason, this coalition of forces can shift elite institutions back to the cultural center, reducing the need for populism and healing today’s divided societies.