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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Chris Rufo, Man in the Arena

State of the Union: How should conservatives lead an active political life?

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Credit: Intercollegiate Studies Institute

On March 15, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute honored Chris Rufo, an activist and senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, with their Conservative Book of the Year Award at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

Rufo finished his first book, America’s Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything, in 2023. In his speech after receiving the award, he said to the gathered crowd, “What I tried to do with this book is to make sure that it was not oriented just towards good prose, solid research, good line of argument, some historical value, but it was actually oriented towards active political life.”

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This emphasis on active political life transcends the pages of America’s Cultural Revolution and bleeds into Rufo’s personal life. Rufo gained notoriety in 2020 for his fight against DEI and critical race theory, particularly in school curricula. 

Most recently, Rufo collaborated with Chris Brunet, a contributing editor to The American Conservative, to expose Harvard’s former President Claudine Gay for plagiarism. Their joint efforts sparked a nationwide conversation about the detriments of DEI policies at the university level.

Tackling such prevalent issues was at the center of Rufo’s book as well: “What’s critical race theory?” he asked the audience. “It’s an academic discipline that has captured elite institutions with public funding, even though in many cases, the public never voted for these ideas to be installed. It’s not just in California, New York, it’s actually you know, almost everywhere.”

He went on, asking, “The point being is that these ideas proliferated and propagated through institutions, and the real question is how?... The worst answer is to say, well, they’re bad or stupid at what they’re doing and it doesn’t work. The better question is, so how do they do it? What can you learn from it? And then, how can you adjust your own politics to respond effectively?”

Daniel McCarthy, editor of Modern Age and contributing editor of The American Conservative, asked Rufo his opinion on a sense of complacency in America that has allowed DEI initiatives and critical race theory to take such a strong hold: “Some complacency or some weakness on the part of that stronger and more virtuous America opened the door to the insanity that we’ve seen the last 20 plus years. I’m curious, what do you think has created this sense of complacency, or this obliviousness, among so many conservative people towards the threat that they’re facing from a very radical revolutionary level?” 

Rufo explained that, in his opinion, baby-boomers and libertarians were to blame for the current state of conservatism in America, concluding that it is important to understand and be educated about the history of the ideologies ripping through today’s society in order to restore a recognizable American order. 

Nevertheless, even in the midst of this significant culture war, Rufo maintained that conservatives should hold the high ground and never mimic the often violent and aggressive fighting strategies of the left. 

“And, and I think, look, the right shouting and getting in people’s faces is always a loser for us,” he said. “The left can burn down a city and the media will cover for them. If there’s one bad person in a crowd at a conservative rally or something, it tars everybody. We have to avoid that.”

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