The Top-Down Culture War
David French’s New York Times column last week addressed a topic that has been of great interest to me for many years. (I even wrote a book about it.) It is about “the new right’s theory of culture and power,” which he describes as a “top-down model of culture change.”
Concretely, his column is about the new challenges to Twitter. (I just established a toehold on Threads, Mark Zuckerberg’s new Twitter competitor, under the handle RTracinski. We’ll see how it goes.) More broadly, it’s about the folly of Elon Musk’s presumption that he could buy Twitter, use it to promote his favorite right-wing trolls, and expect it to have the same value and influence as it did before.
Here is the interesting part of the column.
The new right’s theory of power is based on a model of domination and imposition, and it just doesn’t work. In the new right’s telling, the story of contemporary American culture is the story of progressive elite capture of the nation’s most important institutions—from the academy to big business to pop culture to the “deep state”—followed by its remorseless use of that institutional power to warp and distort American values.
And what’s the new right’s response to its theory of the left’s use of power? Fight fire with fire. Take over institutions. They tried to cancel us? Cancel them. They bullied us? Bully them. Or, as Sohrab Ahmari put it directly, “fight the culture war with the aim of defeating the enemy and enjoying the spoils in the form of a public square reordered to the common good and ultimately the Highest Good.”…
Yet that top-down model doesn’t really explain how American culture works. To the extent that Americans have become more liberal, it’s often in spite of pressure from the far left, not because of it. As a rule, Americans do not simply conform to elite demands. They rebel….
Any form of domination and bullying will create a backlash, and that backlash will gain particular momentum when the bullies are both aggressive and absurd—and that’s exactly the world that both Trump and Musk built.
But the right is correct in thinking that the left has its own top-down vision of the culture.
For some years now, I have been tracking the main trend in (supposedly) highbrow art, which is an insistent didacticism which regards “art and entertainment as a vehicle for lecturing us about the right views on politics.”
I can’t think of a better example than a bizarre review of a chorale work in the New York Times.