Respect The Institutions? But Why?
I saw that old meme on Twitter the other day, featuring Pope Lenny from TV's "The Young Pope," and loved it. It made me realize how whenever I see the name of any Ivy League university, I immediately associate it with decadence, decline, and unearned privilege. I think those universities symbolize what's wrong with America, and long have. I grew up in a generation in which the Ivy League schools were places to aspire to attend. Now, the worst ideas and practices come from them. When candidate (now Senator) J.D. Vance said at NatCon a while back that "universities are the enemy," it was shocking for two reason: first, because it was so hardcore populist, and second, because it's, um, true.
I didn't take him to be saying that universities per se are problematic, and certainly not that intellectual thought is bad. He was pointing to the deep intellectual and moral corruption of the academy in our time. These are institutions that form the American ruling class, yet they create a leadership class that is frail, arrogant, unaccountable, and committed to illiberal left wing ideas that are destroying the capacity of our country to thrive. As a conservative, I believe in natural elites and hierarchies. But the hierarchy we have now is a bad one, and it's taking the country down.
It came to mind after reading this exchange between Bret Stephens and David Brooks, two of the right-of-center writers at The New York Times. They only really count as meaningfully right of center at the Times. Mostly -- and I think they would agree with this -- they are at best on the leftmost fringe of American conservatism. If that. Their conversation is about What Happened To The Republican Party, and it does exactly like you expect it to. Brooks doesn't consider himself a Republican anymore (surprise!), and Stephens seems to think of himself only as a nominal one. They're not wrong to conclude that the GOP left them. There are a couple of good segments worth commenting on. Here is Brooks on the story of how the GOP fell from grace:
David: I think I’d tell a similar story, but maybe less flattering to my circle. The people who led the Republican Party, either as president (Ronald Reagan through the Bushes), members of Congress (Jack Kemp, John McCain, Paul Ryan) or as administration officials and intellectuals (Richard Darman, Condi Rice) believed in promoting change through the institutions of established power. They generally wanted to shrink and reform the government but they venerated the Senate, the institution of the presidency, and they worked comfortably with people from the think tanks, the press and the universities. They were liberal internationalists, cosmopolitan, believers in the value of immigration.
Bret: I’d add that they also believed in the core values of old-fashioned liberalism: faith in the goodness of democracy, human rights, the rule of law, free speech, political compromise, the political process itself. They believed in building things up, not just tearing them down. I would count myself among them.
David: Then the establishment got discredited (Iraq War, financial crisis, the ossifying of the meritocracy, the widening values gap between metro elites and everybody else), and suddenly all the people I regarded as fringe and wackadoodle (Pat Buchanan, Donald Trump, anybody who ran CPAC) rose up on the wave of populist fury.
Everybody likes a story in which the little guy rises up to take on the establishment, but in this case the little guys rode in on a wave of know-nothingism, mendacity, an apocalyptic mind-set, and authoritarianism. Within a few short years, a somewhat Hamiltonian party became a Jacksonian one, with a truly nihilistic wing.
OK, hold that thought for a second. Here is Bret Stephens:
There have been previous Republican presidents who rode to office on waves of populist discontent, particularly Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. But as presidents they channeled the discontent into serious programs and also turned their backs on the ugly fringes of the right. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and expanded the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Reagan established a working relationship with Democratic House leaders to pass tax reform and gave amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants. What’s different this time is that populist feelings were never harnessed to pragmatic policies. As you say, it’s just populism in the service of nihilism.
OK, here's what I think. Brooks (who's a friend; our political differences matter not one bit to me) doesn't seem to grasp the enormity of the collapse of the institutional Republican Party's authority. There was the Iraq War. And then came the Wall Street crash, which happened on a Republican president's watch. It's not fair to blame Bush entirely for that -- Washington's sellout to Wall Street deregulation was truly a uniparty affair; as Bill Clinton -- but the Republican Party was supposed to be the party that was more trustworthy on defense and economics. And it imploded. Not only did it implode, but its Washington leadership seemed to learn no lessons from that implosion. It offered no leadership. When the Tea Party emerged out of understandable populist rage, Washington Republicans, bereft of a better idea, hitched their wagons to its star, but went nowhere. The key document to read to understand why the GOP Establishment collapsed in the face of Donald Trump remains Tucker Carlson's Politico piece from January 2016, when nobody thought Trump had a chance at the nomination, titled, "Donald Trump Is Shocking, Vulgar -- And Right".
What is entirely missing from the Brooks-Stephens discussion is that the changes in the GOP took place during the Great Awokening. The rise of the illiberal Left -- and, crucially, its conquering nearly ever major institution in American life -- is the elephant in the room here. While all this was happening, the Republican Party did very damn little to stop it. Not even Trump, for all his rhetoric, made much of a difference. The reason I have a tiny bit of sympathy for Stephens's position is that I too believe that a lot of the Trumpian populist Storm and Stress was little more than populism in the service of nihilism. Still, Brooks and Stephens lament that conservatives used to venerate institutions, but now hate them. Does it occur to these men that these institutions may not merit deference anymore? Why can't they see that these institutions are the ones tearing America apart by attacking classical liberal ideas of race and justice, gutting the natural family, and demonizing anyone who dares to question its dogmas. Why should conservative Americans have any faith in these institutions anymore, when the leadership of these institutions broke faith with them a while back? It's not a surprise that Brooks and Stephens grieve the populism on the Right, because they have made their peace with the Cultural Revolution. They remind me of Catholic institutionalists who can't understand why so many of the great unwashed in the pews don't trust the clergy, never mind the fact that the bishops ran the institutional church into the ditch, and the current leadership in Rome is busily deconstructing what's left of the Church's authority and heritage.
As long as the Republican Party remains divided between ineffective institutionalists and cartoon populists, nothing is going to get done. Fortunately, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is leading the way to a different future. Did you see his move the other day to appoint a new, conservative majority on the board of New College, the small liberal arts school within the Florida public university system? Among the new board members is the antiwoke activist Christopher Rufo, whose appointment freaked liberal NYT columnist Michelle Goldberg's cheese. She writes:
New College of Florida has a reputation for being the most progressive public college in the state. X González — a survivor of the Parkland school shooting who, as Emma González, became a prominent gun control activist — recently wrote of their alma mater, “In the queer space of New College, changing your pronouns, name or presentation is a nonevent.” In The Princeton Review’s ranking of the best public colleges and universities for “making an impact” — measured by things like student engagement, community service and sustainability efforts — New College comes in third.
Naturally, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida wants to demolish it, at least as it currently exists. On Friday, he announced six new appointments to New College’s 13-member board of trustees, including Chris Rufo, who orchestrated the right’s attack on critical race theory, and Matthew Spalding, a professor and dean at Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in Michigan with close ties to Donald Trump. (A seventh member will soon be appointed by Florida’s Board of Governors, which is full of DeSantis allies.)
The new majority’s plan, Rufo told me just after his appointment was announced, is to transform New College into a public version of Hillsdale. “We want to provide an alternative for conservative families in the state of Florida to say there is a public university that reflects your values,” he said.
The fight over the future of New College is about more than just the fate of this small school in Sarasota. For DeSantis, it’s part of a broader quest to crush any hint of progressivism in public education, a quest he’d likely take national if he ever became president. For Rufo, a reconstructed New College would serve as a model for conservatives to copy all over the country. “If we can take this high-risk, high-reward gambit and turn it into a victory, we’re going to see conservative state legislators starting to reconquer public institutions all over the United States,” he said. Should he prevail, it will set the stage for an even broader assault on the academic freedom of every instructor whose worldview is at odds with the Republican Party.
Quest to crush any hint of progressivism in public education! If conservative readers' eyeballs weren't firmly fixed in their skulls, they would orbit around the sun at that statement. Most of the education system in this country for at least the past two decades -- and certainly at the elite level -- has been actively and unapologetically trying to crush any hint of conservatism, or even classical liberalism, in higher education. When the public decides it's tired of being shat on by progressive educational elites who take their money and use it to alienate their children from them, and to create a society in which many of them are marginalized, and decides to do something about it as regards a tiny public liberal arts school in Florida -- well, golly, Attila the Hun is at the gates.
The thing is, conservatives are accustomed to Republican lawmakers sitting back and doing absolutely nothing to defend the public interest as publicly-funded universities have become stridently illiberal during the Great Awokening. Seen charitably, it could be because these lawmakers lived by an honorable code of the recent classical-liberal past, believing that the state doesn't have any business involving itself in the governance of these public institutions. Thank God Ron DeSantis doesn't share that winsome view. The rules of decorum, as set up and enforced by institutionalists, would make it virtually impossible to reform public education. David Brooks, Bret Stephens, and their kind of Republican cannot be counted on to defend the integrity of institutions in the face of the woke takeover. Street fighters like Chris Rufo can be.
Again, it all goes back to the main lesson American conservatives should learn from Hungarian PM Viktor Orban. He understands, and long has understood, how power actually works in postliberal societies. Like many hopeful conservative/classical liberal types left standing after Communism fell, he expected the best from the West in terms of free markets and democracy. He found that much of that talk was just cover for Western cultural and economic hegemony. And he saw that Western corporations, NGOs, and academic institutions were often used as weapons against national sovereignty and traditional values. What's more, Orban grasped that even in his own country, some institutions were filled with progressive ideologues who had no intention of sharing power with the conservative majority in Hungary. So he fought back with the only weapon conservatives here had: the power of the state, led by elected officials.
This is the thing that the media simply are incapable of understanding about Hungary, and that they will not understand about DeSantis if he continues on this admirable path: that what they (the media) see as normative, people who aren't progressive see as hegemonic, as hostile to them and their interests, and as a sign of national decline. When progressives exploit their power and privilege to oppress and suppress those who don't agree with them, then they should not be surprised when those people find some way of fighting back instead of being good boys and girls, and doing what they're told by their betters.
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Look at this. It's just one small example, but stuff like this goes on every damn day, in institutions everywhere. These are the people running this country:
The woke ruling class has declared war on the majority of people in this country. Till now, the majority has not had the leadership both willing and capable of fighting back. It looks like it might be emerging with Ron DeSantis. And lo, the new Sen. J.D. Vance is asking the Biden Administration to account for the truckloads of cash Washington has been funneling to Ukraine over the past year in this forever war. You didn't see that from any previous Republican. Things may be changing. Good. I would love to be able to believe in American institutions again. Something has to change radically for that to happen.
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