What Happened To You?

The radicalization of the American elite against liberalism


“What happened to you?”

It’s a question I get a lot on Twitter. “When did you become so far right?” “Why have you become a white supremacist, transphobic, misogynistic eugenicist?” Or, of course: “See! I told you who he really was! Just take the hood off, Sully!” It’s trolling, mainly. And it’s a weapon for some in the elite to wield against others in the kind of emotional blackmail spiral that was first pioneered on elite college campuses. But it’s worth answering, a year after I was booted from New York Magazine for my unacceptable politics. Because it seems to me that the dynamic should really be the other way round.

The real question is: what happened to you?

The CRT debate is just the latest squall in a tempest brewing and building for five years or so. And, yes, some of the liberal critiques of a Fox News hyped campaign are well taken. Is this a wedge issue for the GOP? Of course it is. Are they using the term “critical race theory” as a cynical, marketing boogeyman? Of course they are. Are some dog whistles involved? A few. Are crude bans on public servants’ speech dangerous? Absolutely. Do many of the alarmists know who Derrick Bell was? Of course not. 

But does that mean there isn’t a real issue here? Of course it doesn’t.

Take a big step back. Observe what has happened in our discourse since around 2015. Forget CRT for a moment and ask yourself: is nothing going on here but Republican propaganda and guile? Can you not see that the Republicans may be acting, but they are also reacting — reacting against something that is right in front of our noses?

What is it? It is, I’d argue, the sudden, rapid, stunning shift in the belief system of the American elites. It has sent the whole society into a profound cultural dislocation. It is, in essence, an ongoing moral panic against the specter of “white supremacy,” which is now bizarrely regarded as an accurate description of the largest, freest, most successful multiracial democracy in human history.

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We all know it’s happened. The elites, increasingly sequestered within one political party and one media monoculture, educated by colleges and private schools that have become hermetically sealed against any non-left dissent, have had a “social justice reckoning” these past few years. And they have been ideologically transformed, with countless cascading consequences. 

Take it from a NYT woke star, Kara Swisher, who celebrated this week that “the country’s social justice movement is reshaping how we talk about, well, everything.” She’s right — and certainly about the NYT and all mainstream journalism.

This is the media hub of the “social justice movement.” And the core point of that movement, its essential point, is that liberalism is no longer enough. Not just not enough, but itself a means to perpetuate “white supremacy,” designed to oppress, harm and terrorize minorities and women, and in dire need of dismantling. That’s a huge deal. And it explains a lot.

The reason “critical race theory” is a decent approximation for this new orthodoxy is that it was precisely this exasperation with liberalism’s seeming inability to end racial inequality in a generation that prompted Derrick Bell et al. to come up with the term in the first place, and Kimberlé Crenshaw to subsequently universalize it beyond race to every other possible dimension of human identity (“intersectionality”).

A specter of invisible and unfalsifiable “systems” and “structures” and “internal biases” arrived to hover over the world. Some of this critique was specific and helpful: the legacy of redlining, the depth of the wealth gap. But much was tendentious post-modern theorizing. The popular breakthrough was Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations in the Atlantic and his subsequent, gut-wrenching memoir, “Between The World And Me.” He combined the worldview and vocabulary of CRT with the vivid lived experience of his own biography. He is a beautifully gifted writer, and I am not surprised he had such an emotional impact, even if, in my view, the power of his prose blinded many to the radical implications of the ideology he surrendered to, in what many of his blog readers called his “blue period.”

The movement is much broader than race — as anyone who is dealing with matters of sex and gender will tell you. The best moniker I’ve read to describe this mishmash of postmodern thought and therapy culture ascendant among liberal white elites is Wesley Yang’s coinage: “the successor ideology.” The “structural oppression” is white supremacy, but that can also be expressed more broadly, along Crenshaw lines: to describe a hegemony that is saturated with “anti-Blackness,” misogyny, and transphobia, in a miasma of social “cis-heteronormative patriarchal white supremacy.” And the term “successor ideology” works because it centers the fact that this ideology wishes, first and foremost, to repeal and succeed a liberal society and democracy.

In the successor ideology, there is no escape, no refuge, from the ongoing nightmare of oppression and violence — and you are either fighting this and “on the right side of history,” or you are against it and abetting evil. There is no neutrality. No space for skepticism. No room for debate. No space even for staying silent. (Silence, remember, is violence — perhaps the most profoundly anti-liberal slogan ever invented.)

And that tells you about the will to power behind it. Liberalism leaves you alone. The successor ideology will never let go of you. Liberalism is only concerned with your actions. The successor ideology is concerned with your mind, your psyche, and the deepest recesses of your soul. Liberalism will let you do your job, and let you keep your politics private. S.I. will force you into a struggle session as a condition for employment.

What happened to me? You know what I want to know: What on earth has happened to you?

I have exactly the same principles and support most of the same policies I did under Barack Obama. In fact, I’ve moved left on economic and foreign policy since then. It’s Democrats who have taken a sudden, giant swerve away from their recent past. 

At the moment, I’m recording an audiobook for a new collection of my writing, from 1989 - 2021, “Out On A Limb,” to be published next month. (More to come on that next week.) It covers the Obama years, including my impression in May 2007 that he’d be the next president and why I found him so appealing a figure. It’s been a shocking reminder of how our politics has been transformed since then:

My favorite moment was a very simple one. He referred to the anniversary of the March on Selma, how he went and how he came back and someone (I don’t remember who now) said to him: “That was a great celebration of African-American history.” To which Obama said he replied: “No, no, no, no, no. That was not a great celebration of African-American history. That was a celebration of American history.”

How much further can you get from the ideology of the 1619 Project — that rejects any notion of white contributions to black freedom? In his Jeremiah Wright speech, the best of his career, this is what Obama said of Wright’s CRT-inspired words, damning America:

They expressed a profoundly distorted view of this country — a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above
all that we know is right with America... The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country — a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old — is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past.

This is what I still believe. Do you?

A plank of successor ideology, for example, is that the only and exclusive reason for racial inequality is “white supremacy.” Culture, economics, poverty, criminality, family structure: all are irrelevant, unless seen as mere emanations of white control. Even discussing these complicated factors is racist, according to Ibram X Kendi.

Obama was a straddler, of course, and did not deny that “so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” I don’t deny that either. Who could? But neither did he deny African-American agency or responsibility:

It means taking full responsibility for own lives — by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

To say this today would evoke instant accusations of being a white supremacist and racist. That’s how far the left has moved: Obama as an enabler of white supremacy. You keep asking: what happened to me? I remain an Obamacon, same as I always have been. What, in contrast, has happened to you?

Check out this really insightful interview of Wes Yang by Matt Taibbi. Yang beautifully explains the radical shift in elite opinion. He notes the ascending rhetoric: “So there’s a line in an n+1 essay, where the person is saying, ‘Oh, we are now menaced by whiteness and masculinity.’ Whereas in the past, we would have said, ‘Oh, we’re menaced by racism and sexism.’” He sees what this movement is about: the end of due process, the rejection of even an attempt at objectivity, a belief in active race and sex discrimination (“equity”) to counter the legacy of the past, the purging of ideological diversity, and the replacement of liberal education with left-indoctrination. 

Yang sees the attempt to dismantle the entire carapace of liberal society and liberal institutions: “[The proponents of the successor ideology are] not trying to be malicious, but they are trying to basically annihilate a lot of the foundational processes that we depend upon and then remake them anew. You operate from the starting point that all the previous ideologies, methods, and processes are untrustworthy, because they produced this outcome previously, so we’ve got to remake all of them.” Precisely. This is a revolution against liberalism commanded from above.

Look how far the left’s war on liberalism has gone.

Due process? If you’re a male on campus, gone. Privacy? Stripped away — by anonymous rape accusations, exposure of private emails, violence against people’s private homes, screaming at folks in restaurants, sordid exposés of sexual encounters, eagerly published by woke mags. Non-violence? Exceptions are available if you want to “punch a fascist.” Free speech? Only if you don’t mind being fired and ostracized as a righteous consequence. Free association? You’ve got to be kidding. Religious freedom? Illegitimate bigotry. Equality? Only group equity counts now, and individuals of the wrong identity can and must be discriminated against. Color-blindness? Another word for racism. Mercy? Not for oppressors. Intent? Irrelevant. Objectivity? A racist lie. Science? A manifestation of white supremacy. Biological sex? Replaced by socially constructed gender so that women have penises and men have periods. The rule of law? Not for migrants or looters. Borders? Racist. Viewpoint diversity? A form of violence against the oppressed. 

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It is absolutely no accident that this illiberal ideology has no qualms whatever with illiberal methods. The latter springs intrinsically from the former. Kendi, feted across the establishment, favors amending the Constitution to appoint an unelected and unaccountable committee of “experts” that has the power to coerce and punish any individual or group anywhere in the country deemed practicing racism. Intent does not matter. And the decisions are final. An advocate for unaccountable, totalitarian control of our society is the darling of every single elite institution in America, and is routinely given platforms where no tough questioning of him is allowed.  He is as dumb as Obama is smart; as crude as Obama is nuanced; as authoritarian as Obama is liberal.

Or check out Kevin Drum’s analysis of asymmetric polarization these past few decades. He shows relentlessly that over the past few decades, it’s Democrats who have veered most decisively to the extremes on policy on cultural issues since the 1990s. Not Republicans. Democrats.

On immigration, Republicans have moved around five points to the right; the Democrats 35 points to the left. On abortion, Republicans who advocate a total ban have increased their numbers a couple of points since 1994; Democrats who favor legality in every instance has risen 20 points. On guns, the GOP has moved ten points right; Dems 20 points left.

It is also no accident that, as Drum notes and as David Shor has shown: “white academic theories of racism — and probably the whole woke movement in general —have turned off many moderate Black and Hispanic voters.” This is why even a huge economic boom may not be enough to keep the Democrats in power next year. 

We are going through the greatest radicalization of the elites since the 1960s. This isn’t coming from the ground up. It’s being imposed ruthlessly from above, marshaled with a fusillade of constant MSM propaganda, and its victims are often the poor and the black and the brown. It nearly lost the Democrats the last election. Only Biden’s seeming moderation, the wisdom of black Democratic primary voters,and the profound ugliness of Trump wrested the presidency from a vicious demagogue, whose contempt for our system of government appears ever greater the more we find out about his term in office.

But as Wes Yang notes, Biden has also aided and abetted and justified this radicalism. He has instituted a huge program of overt government race and sex discrimination throughout every policy and area of government; he backs decimating due process for sexual accusations on campus; he favors abolishing religious freedom as a defense of anti-gay discrimination; he believes that gender identity should replace sex as a legal category, and gender identity should rest entirely on self-disclosure; he favors expediting and maximizing mass immigration, not stemming it. In Yang’s rather brutal assessment, for the hard left, “what they saw is that with Joe Biden, who’s this throwback figure, the activists could all rush to him and get most of what they wanted from him anyway.” 

Does that mean we should support an increasingly nihilist cult on the right among the GOP? Of course not. Does it mean we should ignore its increasingly menacing contempt for electoral integrity and a stable democracy? Absolutely not. But one reason to fight for liberalism against the successor ideology is that its extremes are quite obviously fomenting and facilitating and inspiring ever-rising fanaticism in response. I fear the successor ideology’s Kulturkampf is already making the 2022 midterms a landslide for a cultish, unmoored GOP. In fighting S.I., we are also fighting Trump.

But I am not making a tactical argument here. I’m making a deeper moral argument. We can and must still fight and argue for what we believe in: a liberal democracy in a liberal society. This fight will not end if we just ignore it or allow ourselves to be intimidated by it, or join the tribal pile-ons. And I will not apologize for confronting this, however unpopular it might make me, just as I won’t apologize for confronting the poison and nihilism on the right. And if you really want to be on “the right side of liberalism,” you will join me. 

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(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my review of the HBO miniseries “Mare of Easttown”; my conversation with “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua on the resilience of immigrants and the fragility of college students; yet more reader dissents over my writing on CRT; a few notable quotes from the week; a few notable views from reader windows; eight notable pieces from other substackers; your weekly dose of Mental Health Break; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)


New On The Dishcast: Amy Chua

Amy, who you probably know as the Tiger Mom, is a law professor at Yale and the other of several books, including The Triple Package. In this episode we discuss the experience of being an immigrant, of being a minority within a minority, and the importance of, in Amy’s words, “turning being an outsider into a source of strength,” not victimhood.

To hear three clips from my conversation with Amy — on how college kids these days are terrified of debate; on how to be resilient in the face of bigotry; and on the courage of the individual in the face of woke conformity — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.

That link also serves up responses to our episode with Katie Herzog and Jamie Kirchick on Pride and the alphabet people, including a touching letter from a young guy coming to terms with his homosexuality and a frustrated letter from a father whose teen daughter recently came out as trans. Another reader explores why the current generation of young activists is so sex-negative compared to previous ones.


HBO And Middle America

I know I’m way behind on this, but I’m about to watch the last episode in the recent HBO miniseries, “Mare of Easttown.” Read my review here.


Dissents Of The Week: Trying To Be Cheerful

A reader writes:

I enjoyed your upbeat column, but I gasped when I got to this paragraph:

And the biggest shift has occurred in black families, where the proportion of children raised with two parents in the home inched up from 24 to 30 percent. It’s still startlingly low — and, in my view, is easily the most powerful “structural” reason for racial inequality in America — but this turnaround will do more for African-Americans than any “equity” program.

This reads like you are unaware of the war America has waged on the black family unit since slavery, a war that continues to this day with mass incarceration, destruction of black communities for freeways, lack of generational wealth, lack of education investment. These are some of the “structural” reasons that black children are less likely to be raised with two parents. America has always had a pretty consistent “inequity” program when it comes to supporting black families.

Read my response to that dissent, along with another one, here. As always, please keep the dissents coming, along with anything else you want to add to the Dish mix, such as the view from your own window (if we pick your photo we’ll give you a free subscription): dish@andrewsullivan.com.


The View From Your Window Contest

Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to contest@andrewsullivan.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!

The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to subscribers later today.

See you next Friday.

(Top photo by Michael DeMocker/Getty Images)