An Anti-Woke Warrior Has US Companies Running Scared

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The poet Shelley once described poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In today’s America, that honor belongs to the armchair warriors of the culture wars. Already on the ascent, left-wing academics such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo gained even more influence in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. In reaction, a new generation of conservative culture warriors is rising, taking aim not only at their ideological opponents but also at some of the country’s biggest corporations as their chief executive officers and boards weigh which, if any, side to take.

Few of these new warriors on the right have been more effective sharpshooters than Christopher Rufo, who is devoting his life to doing battle with what he regards as the monsters of “critical race theory” and “gender ideology.” Rufo’s articles, social media posts and TV appearances have garnered widespread attention and influence. He has written model legislation for several Republican states, inspired one of Donald Trump’s executive orders and produced a guide on how to talk about culture. In one profile, the New Yorker described him as the man who “invented the conflict over critical race theory.” In another, New York magazine accused him of being a specialist in moral panics. Yet notwithstanding the boiling anger that he has stirred, he came across in our recent conversation as a relatively happy warrior who relishes the daily struggle. (He adds for good measure that his neighbors are heavily armed Republicans so he doesn’t fear for his safety.) He’s much less angry than Steve Bannon, who often gives the impression that he has steam coming out of his ears, and much more measured than Ann Coulter, avoiding making outrageous statements except when they’re ascribed to the other side and happily discussing serious thinkers in a serious way.

Rufo’s early targets were in the public sector. Trump acknowledged his influence in issuing an executive order banning programs that taught federal employees and members of the military that the “United States is an inherently racist or evil country or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil” (Joe Biden has rescinded the order). Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin unseated Terry McAuliffe from the governorship of Virginia in November 2021, in part because he promised that “On Day One, I will ban critical race theory in our schools.” (A CBS News poll a month before the election found that 62% of likely voters considered “school curriculums on race and history” a “major factor” in how they would vote.) Rufo helped shape DeSantis’s “Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Employees” (WOKE) Act and appeared on stage immediately after he unveiled it.

More recently, he has added “woke capital” to his list of targets. He was the mastermind behind DeSantis’s assault on Walt Disney Co, for promoting CRT and “gender ideology” and thereby, in the governor’s opinion, polluting its brand as a family-friendly company. This assault plunged “the wokest place on earth,” as Rufo dubbed it, into crisis, reducing its share price, putting off conservative subscribers and almost toppling its CEO, Bob Chapek. Other Rufo targets have included Walmart Inc., AT&T Inc., CVS Health Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., Raytheon Technologies Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., Bank of America Corp. and Amex Corp.

Why has a man who, only a few years ago, was an unsung film producer become so influential? The standard left-wing answer is that he’s part of a vast right-wing conspiracy that is fueled by “dark money” and proceeds by distortion. Rufo is certainly a hero of the right, with a senior fellowship at the Manhattan Institute and regular appearances on Fox. He is also guilty of putting lots of topspin on his findings — he told me that he’s an “activist who does journalism rather than a journalist.”

Yet much of the Republican establishment was nervous about sponsoring a self-conscious culture warrior, preferring to focus on economic issues. His natural audience was the “petty bourgeoisie” who felt that something odd was going on and couldn’t explain it. Rufo made a name for himself in the wild west of the internet long before the likes of Fox and the Manhattan Institute came calling. He told me that he was radicalized in the process of research — he didn’t know anything about CRT, a somewhat abstruse brand of theory developed by Derrick Bell, of Harvard Law School, and Kimberle Crenshaw, of Columbia and UCLA, until he investigated the footnotes of the documents he received and started reading Kendi and others.

Rufo’s own answer to the question of his success is that he has invented a highly effective business model. He receives tips from sympathetic sources in institutions the length and breadth of the land. The pandemic provided a windfall because so much business that once went on behind closed doors had to be conducted through Zoom meetings and e-mailed documents. He says that he has some 5,000 sources, including contacts in half of the country’s 500 biggest companies.

He then publicizes his best scoops on social media — his aim is to produce one big story a week — which is then taken up by mainstream conservative media, not least Fox News, and then bleeds into the rest of the media. “I have the easiest job in the world,” Rufo said. “I just have to find their own information and show it to the world.”

This is all self-reinforcing: The higher his profile rises, the more stories he receives. During the dispute with Disney, for example, an inside source sent him a video in which a producer spoke of injecting “queerness” into programming and proclaimed her “not-at-all-secret gay agenda.” It is also carefully managed: Rather than just releasing outrageous stories (of which there are bound to be plenty in a country as big as the United States), he fits them into the ideological category of CRT and gender ideology. The aim is to drive up the “negatives” of vaguely understood terms such as CRT and gender ideology by linking them to a constant stream of unsettling revelations. He then tries to turn outrage into legislation.

There is more than a hint of Marxism-Leninism about all this. Rufo admits to admiring the left’s discipline and patience. He also talks about learning lessons from leading leftists — particularly the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who talked in the 1930s about “capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches,” the German student revolutionary Rudi Dutschke, who favored “the long march through the institutions,” and the American community activist Saul Alinsky, who emphasized the power of popular agitation.

Rufo believes that the left has achieved most of its aims: The culture is saturated with progressivism and the institutions, from the federal government to the human resources departments of big companies, have been captured by progressive cadres. Now the combination of the rise of social media and the birth of conservative populism provides a chance to reverse all this. Rufo wants to create an army of activists and outraged citizens who will turn up to school-board meetings or governors’ rallies and demand change.

Rufo has grasped two big things about today’s politics. The first is that the culture wars are back in a new form. Irving Kristol once famously told Joseph Epstein, “The culture wars are over. We lost.” The religious right had imploded in scandals and gay marriage was legalized. Now the rise of a new generation of progressives who regard America as structurally racist and sex as socially constructed has reignited them.

The second is that the growing gap between American institutions and broader citizenry creates massive political opportunity. The institutions are largely run by a credentialed elite that has absorbed progressive values along with their college degrees. This is increasingly true of corporations as well as public-sector bureaucracies. The citizenry is increasingly skeptical about those institutions, particularly when they touch on family life. The moment when Terry McAuliffe likely doomed his campaign to retain the governorship was during a debate when he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”

What should companies do about the rise of Rufo? Continuing with business as usual is an increasingly risky strategy. Conservatives now have a formidable machine that has already humbled one of the world’s most successful media companies and is geared up for more battles to come. Although opinion polls about CRT and gender ideology are something of a methodological minefield, both issues are clearly red rags to Republican voters. Leading Republicans, not least DeSantis, are toying with an anti-corporate strategy based on Teddy Roosevelt’s war on giant corporations, but this time focused on concentrations of cultural power, particularly in the hands of media and tech companies, rather than concentrations of ownership. “The corporation is chartered by the state. It has a duty to serve the common good of the country,” Rufo points out, in words that could easily have come from the left. It is a bold company that sides with controversial cultural positions at a time of squeezed living standards and boiling populism.

The simplest answer for companies is to declare neutrality in the culture wars. Rufo’s overall aim when it comes to “woke capital” is to make it clear that companies will pay a price for progressive political activism. “I want them to fear transgressing the political right,” as he puts it. Many companies have embraced activism because, especially after George Floyd’s murder, they were frightened of falling foul of the progressive left. Hence the recent surge in diversity, inclusion and equity training courses. Now they are learning that they will also pay a high price if they don’t back down. Rufo points to Disney as an example. DeSantis has kept up a drumbeat on CRT and LGBTQ issues since his battle with Disney. The Supreme Court has also overturned Roe v. Wade. Disney has kept a notably low profile in response.

Rufo argues that many companies opting for progressive policies for fear of the left and wanting nothing more than to be left alone would welcome neutrality. But what about companies that are genuinely worried about promoting social justice either for moral reasons (the parlous state of much of Black America remains a moral stain) or strategic ones (America cannot thrive without harnessing the skills of its entire population)?

Here, the best advice is to think much more carefully about DEI policies rather than contracting them out to consultants who have drunk deep in the saloon of critical theory or to activists within the corporation. It is true, for example, that there is more to racism than just individual bias as many conservatives would have it. Thanks to the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and red-lining, African-Americans have significantly less wealth than other Americans. But that doesn’t justify CRT claims that all Whites are guilty of unconscious racism requiring an intrusive program of retraining. That will only create resentment. It is also true that the classic liberal formulas of open competition and non-discrimination need to be supplemented if they leave some ethnic groups languishing permanently at the bottom of society. But that doesn’t justify endorsing CRT activists who believe that you can’t cure racism without abolishing capitalism. That way lies Venezuela. Companies need to remember that the best way to deal with culture warriors on both the left and the right is to embrace the great meritocratic ideal of race and gender blindness that tries hard to rectify past injustices but ultimately judges people not as members of biological or social categories but as individuals.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

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Stop Calling Everything You Disagree With ‘Anti-Democratic’: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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