Over the past few days, there’s been considerable discussion of the cultural power of the left and the political power, for now, of the right. The idea, as I understand it, is that while the left dominates the culture industries and elite academia, its devotees resent the fact that self-described conservatives are firmly in the driver’s seat of the federal government. This disconnect between the left’s cultural power and its lack of political power to match is experienced by some liberals as a sign that something has gone gravely wrong. Many conservatives, meanwhile, sense that even when they do manage to win elections, they still find themselves disempowered by a cultural climate that, to their mind, is hostile to their values and sensibilities. Conformity with liberal beliefs is, according to this line of thinking, a prerequisite to membership in the polite elite. It’s a conflict dramatized, in the past week, by the controversies swirling around an unlikely pair of stars: Kanye West and Taylor Swift.
Shortly before the 2016 presidential election, The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed that though the left has always had a disproportionate presence in the commanding heights of culture, “the swing toward social liberalism among younger Americans and the simultaneous surge of activist energy on the left have created a new dynamic, in which areas once considered relatively apolitical now have (or are being pushed to have) an overtly left-wing party line.” This, he argued, has engendered a sense of panic and resentment among those who don’t embrace social liberalism, and as a consequence, “the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.” At the time, I recall that Douthat’s argument was widely ridiculed, especially among those who found the notion that Donald Trump might win the White House risible. That has changed.
The swing toward social liberalism, as Douthat described it, is a predictable consequence of two larger developments. The first is that the views we typically describe as socially liberal are, by and large, the views of the affluent, college-educated people who lead virtually all of our major institutions, even when these views are actually rather censorious. These women and men can shape culture by incentivizing certain behaviors through their control over, for example, elite college admissions. They normalize some ways of life while stigmatizing others through their informal control of the organs of culture and entertainment. (As Jonathan Chait memorably put it in a 2012 essay in New York, “The world of popular culture increasingly reflects a shared reality in which the Republican Party is either absent or anathema,” a description that resonates still.) And finally, they capitalize on people’s basic tendency to emulate the wealthy and socially successful. None of this is new. Elites have always had the power to shape social norms.
What is new, I would argue, is the second development: that the number of people who are susceptible to elite influence has grown larger. Here is where I must tread lightly, as what follows is necessarily impressionistic. I get the sense that the most aggressively “woke” young people are precisely those who find themselves in the most fiercely competitive environments. Status and prestige matter to everyone, of course, but they matter to some more than others. Most of all, they matter to those who find themselves in precarious industries where one’s reputation counts for a great deal and, just as important, to lonely, unattached people who long to feel valued and desired. Delayed marriage and child-rearing ensure that many more young people spend many more years in the mating market and, by extension, orienting their lives around fulfilling their own social and sexual appetites over the care and feeding of children. This is especially true among children of the culturally powerful upper middle class, who’ve been trained to fear downward mobility in a stratified society as much as our primitive ancestors feared being devoured by toothy predators. The result is what you might call a culture of “competitive wokeness.”
To people in this world, traditionalism must look like a dead end. A commitment to it will do nothing to improve your status in ferociously competitive environments, as those who’ve already scrambled to the top of the ladder tend to hold traditionalist ideals in disdain. Besides, to embrace traditionalist ideals would be to reject the terms of the social tournament to which you’ve chosen to dedicate your life—to decide that devotion to family and community ought to trump individual achievement. If you were to find yourself in this hyper-competitive world, well, you’d be foolish not to emulate the highest-status people you could find. Thanks to social media, you can access their opinions on all and sundry in an instant. The result is a kind of swarm effect in which high-status moral entrepreneurs declare the right position to take on a given issue, and then, within minutes, hordes of epigones scramble to adopt and enforce the new orthodoxy. If you’re a good enough enforcer, you might soon find yourself in a position to dictate the new party line.
And it’s not just normals who fall prey to this swarm effect. As Us Weekly reminds us in its eponymous feature, “Stars—they’re just like us!”
Recently, Taylor Swift urged her many fans to vote for Democratic candidates in her adopted home state of Tennessee. Ordinarily, the fact that a celebrated pop star would offer her thoughts on the political scene wouldn’t attract all that much attention. What is different in Swift’s case is that, at least until now, she has scrupulously avoided partisan politicking, to the point where she has been denounced for her “political silence.” In an Instagram post, she explained that recent events had led her to become more open about her political beliefs, and I’m sure that’s true. More interesting to me—I confess I’m not an expert on Swift’s inner life—is what her intervention tells us about the larger cultural and political landscape.
Swift became a star as a teenager, when her political sensibilities were presumably not yet fully formed. Moreover, her early success was in country pop, a genre closely associated with more rural corners of the country. In this phase of her career, she and her team would have had good reason to believe that many of her most devoted admirers were conservatives who appreciated her upbeat lyrics and wholesome image.
Since then, however, Swift has sought to broaden her artistic horizons and, as you might expect, to transcend her middlebrow origins. Having achieved unsurpassed celebrity, she now finds herself in the uppermost echelons of the culture industries, where woke liberalism is de rigueur and departures from it are stigmatized. Her reluctance to explicitly embrace left-of-center politics was, I imagine, somewhat costly to her reputation among tastemakers. Critics who delighted in the enlightened political interventions of her peers took note of Swift’s reluctance to definitively affirm their view of the world, and it informed how they received her work. Politics aside, her seeming conventionality—her basicness—already made her suspect, and less interesting than performers who could more plausibly claim marginalized identities. At best, Swift could be an ally to those who, in the theology of woke liberalism, command the most sympathy.
Given these incentives, I’m not sure Swift had much of a choice in the matter. Declaring that Republican Marsha Blackburn’s conventionally conservative voting record “appalls and terrifies” her was close to the least she could do. Indeed, I don’t doubt there will be many detractors who will demand she offer further denunciations of the political right, thus distancing herself from the shrinking slice of her global audience consisting of conventional conservatives. It helps that most conservatives are so accustomed to enjoying the work of people who hold them in low regard that denouncing them is unlikely to exact much of a cost and that, as the columnist Josh Barro has observed, the most affluent and influential consumers “are more disproportionately left-of-center than they used to be.” From a purely commercial perspective, Swift would have been foolish not to have made her political gesture. Otherwise, she would have left herself open to the charge that she does not detest the GOP and all that it represents, which would have posed an unacceptable risk to her standing in the eyes of those she cares to impress.
And then there is Kanye West, who offers a useful counterpoint. West and Swift first publicly crossed paths when he interrupted her acceptance speech at a 2009 awards ceremony, so passionate was he about establishing that it was Beyoncé, not Swift, who most deserved the accolade in question. If Swift has been calculatedly climbing the cultural ladder in the years since, West has, in the Trump era, done something like the opposite. Once the consummate trendsetter, reaching almost Beyoncéan heights of renown, he has recently made a habit of praising President Trump, declaring that the two men are brothers in their shared possession of something called “dragon energy.” In doing so, he has committed an act of reputational self-immolation so spectacular that some see it as a reflection of West’s struggles with mental illness. One should always hesitate before weighing in on a stranger’s mental health. But there’s something revealing in the suggestion that for an artist of West’s stature, facing the incentive structure of a celebrity of the first rank, dissent from woke liberalism can only be explained as a manifestation of mental illness.
Beneath West’s often bizarre pronouncements, there is an idea so simple as to be banal, which he expressed during a much-maligned recent appearance on Saturday Night Live: “There’s so many times I talk to, like, a white person about this, and they say, ‘How could you like Trump? He’s racist.’” By way of explanation, he then said, “If someone inspires me and I connect with them, I don’t have to believe in all their policies.” That is: I can find things to like and admire in people with whom I otherwise strongly disagree. In itself, this might not seem so objectionable. But it represents the violation of a taboo.
One gets the impression that West is less interested in endorsing Trumpist politics than he is in escaping the confines of what he sees as a suffocating consensus among the great and the good—a perception that could, I grant you, be mistaken. When he suggested that President George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina was in some sense rooted in racism, he was cheered by many people who were rich in cultural capital. Suggesting that he can, in some cases, make common cause with some of those who are by his lights racist has, in contrast, proved a bridge too far.
So where is competitive wokeness taking us? Toward a world of cultural separation, in which there aren’t unifying stars that both red and blue America admire? Toward a world of the cultural dominance of blue America, with a red subculture that features its own competitive dynamics—say, a drive to denounce political correctness in ever-more-apocalyptic terms? Or, if the Trump fever passes, do cultural figures and institutions feel as if politics is less epochally important, and draw back from the enforcement of these norms to focus on other things?
My tentative diagnosis is that traditionalist conservatives ought to respond to this cultural climate with a dose of political economy. If I’m right to believe that competitive wokeness is rooted in precarity, and the desperate fear of being out of step with our unofficial cultural mandarins that stems from it, perhaps the answer is to address it at its source. Eric Weinstein, the managing director at Thiel Capital and a figure identified with the “Intellectual Dark Web,” recently offered an incisive observation along these lines, written in the stylized language of Twitter: “You want our parties to end this unraveling? Get them to agree that when a nation cannot provide sufficient opportunities allowing unremarkable *young* folks to couple, become stakeholders & tend to the raising of healthy kids, we have problems that don’t touch our donor classes.” This strikes me as exactly right. A traditionalist conservatism that heeds this lesson could, in time, turn the cultural tide. But one that merely brays against woke liberalism, as we see so often today, will continue to find itself marginalized and furious.