You Say You Want a Counter-Revolution

REVIEW: ‘America's Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything’ by Christopher Rufo

October 1, 2023

For a right-wing supervillain hell-bent on cultural domination, Christopher Rufo has never made much effort to hide his master plan. The man who turned "critical race theory" into an electoral epithet, Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is fond of telling the public exactly what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, making his triumphs all the more mortifying for those seeking to arrest them.

"The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’" he tweeted in March 2021. "We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans."

With the recodification complete—a poll taken later that year found that only 27 percent of Americans supported CRT—Rufo announced a new trap. "The Left will expect that, after passing so-called ‘CRT bans’ last year, we will overplay our hand," he explained. "By moving to curriculum transparency, we will deflate that argument and bait the Left into opposing ‘transparency.’" The gambit worked: Within weeks, the American Civil Liberties Union was complaining that curriculum transparency laws, which require schools to post instructional materials online, are "thinly veiled attempts" to prevent discussion "about race and gender."

Because this bombastic honesty has been so effective, I expected Rufo’s new book, America’s Cultural Revolution, to be a simple exposition of its subtitle, "how the radical left conquered everything." And it is—but it also admits of more subtle and subversive readings, conveyed only by implication and buried between the lines with a wink and nod.

Rufo has ostensibly written a history of the left’s long march through the institutions, refracted through the lives of four figures—Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Paulo Freire, and Derrick Bell—to whom he devotes surprisingly sympathetic profiles. What he’s actually done is provide a blueprint for a kind of right-wing countermarch, which uses the foibles of his subjects to preempt, gently, the possible pitfalls of that project.

Each profile reads like a reverse Bildungsroman, in which a brilliant and often persecuted thinker gradually succumbs to their worst impulses. There is Marcuse, a Marxist who saw clearly the evils of the Soviet Union but nursed the nihilism of his own followers; Davis, who escaped the Birmingham bombings only to become a domestic terrorist; Freire, who was exiled by Brazil’s dictatorship and ended up an apologist for Mao’s; and Bell, the godfather of critical race theory, who went from scrappy civil-rights lawyer to Ivy League race huckster, ginning up controversies about faculty diversity and hurling the R-word at anyone who disagreed.

Despite their declensions, Rufo shows, these cultural underdogs ultimately conquered an establishment set against them. The FBI wiretaps of Marcuse, the public backlash to Davis and the Black Panthers, the acerbic takedowns of Bell by other academics—none of it stopped their disciples from infiltrating the universities, then teachers’ colleges, then finally the administrative state.

But this ingress proceeded through means and arguments that, in 2023, sound positively right wing.

Rufo’s story begins with Marcuse, the "father of the New Left" and a friend of the Weather Underground, who argued, among other things, that an alliance of media, state, and corporate power had rendered democratic elections illegitimate; that ostensibly neutral structures really weren’t; and that dismantling them would require the creation of "counter-institutions," including alternative media, to "break the information monopoly of the establishment."

Each of these points has an obvious corollary on the contemporary right. The idea that a corporate-state leviathan vitiates democracy is received wisdom among those who believe the 2020 election was, if not stolen, then certainly rigged by Twitter, Facebook, and the FBI. The critique of neutrality is seen in conservatism’s growing distrust of public health officials and other forms of expertise. And the very term "counter-institutions" was used by Matthew Continetti, the founder of the Washington Free Beacon, all the way back in 2012 to describe this publication, as well as the many other outlets that had sprung up in opposition to the mainstream media.

That label could also be applied to the University of Austin, founded by former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, and to New College of Florida, where Rufo is now a trustee, both of which represent efforts to create new, non-woke universities.

These sorts of parallels suffuse the book and, though Rufo never acknowledges them directly, make it read like a manual as well as a history. Not fully, of course: Unlike the ’60s radicals, who captured universities from below by joining them as professors, Rufo arrived at New College through an act of raw political power, having been appointed by Florida governor Ron DeSantis with a top-down mandate to reshape the school. And the book ends with a call to "smash" the institutions rather than "seize" them, an apparent disavowal of right-wing entryism.

But there are still enough similarities between the New Left’s project and Rufo’s that any competent reader is bound to think: Isn’t he basically doing that? Even the jargon in his now-famous tweet about critical race theory—"decodify" and "recodify"—comes directly from Paulo Freire, one of the most cited theorists of education, who used the terms to describe a process by which students are made aware of the power structures supervening on their lives. In this book as in his career, Rufo himself functions as a Freirian, guiding the reader toward the realization that critical race theory has been so deeply institutionalized that it now constitutes an oppressive regime of its own, shaping policy, language, and thought.

(Anyone skeptical of that claim can consult the laundry list of examples, including the race-based allocation of COVID drugs and the curricula of countless public schools, that Rufo marshals in support of it.)

The attempts to turn "CRT" into a catch-all bogeyman, meanwhile, recall Marcuse’s concept of "linguistic therapy," in which activists redefine their enemies’ terms and, per Rufo, "floo[d] the discourse" with them, thereby conditioning the public for a particular conclusion. That is exactly what Rufo has done to critical race theory, what other conservative activists are doing to "ESG," and what may soon be done to "gender-affirming care." It is also what has been done to "woke," which originated on the black left but, to activists’ chagrin, has been captured and recodified by the right.

One can hear in these echoes a sly defense of Rufo’s own stratagems, and of conservatism’s long-term efforts to build up parallel institutions. After all, those are the tactics that worked for the left! But one can also hear an implicit warning: The linguistic shell games, the totalizing antinomianism, and the quest for institutional dominance were, in Rufo’s final analysis, disastrous, giving us the cultural cataclysms of 2020, an ongoing crime wave in major cities, and an education system so poisoned by ideology that it fails to teach basic mathematics.

There is a cautionary tale here about how critiques of power can morph into justifications for it—one with obvious lessons for a right that is now in the insurgent position of the ’60s left. And there is a related point about the importance of gatekeeping.

The far left’s institutional conquest, Rufo shows, could not have happened without liberal accommodationism. Even as the public turned against radicals like Davis, who almost certainly helped orchestrate a terrorist attack on a California courtroom, academia continued to hire, tenure, and legitimize them, creating a beachhead for bloodless sorties.

In one of the book’s most striking anecdotes, future Supreme Court justice Elena Kagan, then an editor at the Harvard Law Review, solicited four fictional stories from Derrick Bell about the alleged permanence of racism. The stories, which became the foreword to the journal’s November 1985 issue, helped boost Bell’s status and mainstream the then-fringe ideas that would become CRT.

Kagan is the establishment liberal par excellence, and as dean of Harvard Law she hired several conservative professors who arguably inoculated the school against the worst of campus craziness. Yet it was precisely this small-L liberal impulse—the belief that Bell and his critics both had something to contribute to the marketplace of ideas—that created the conditions for a broader ideological takeover within liberalism, even as the critical race theorists appeared to be losing the argument by the late ’90s.

That in turn offers a warning for conservatives who now chafe at boundary-policing their own fringe. The allergy is understandable, given the litany of unjust controversies and cancellations, but it has also harmed the right’s ideological immune system, giving genuine bad guys a small but real foothold that they didn’t have before.

And the lesson of Rufo’s book is that it doesn’t take many footholds to begin a coalitional conquest. Yes, there are structural differences between the establishment of 1968 and the NGOcracy of today. Yes, civil rights law has made it more difficult over time for institutions to resist woke entryism (a point Rufo makes but doesn’t develop). Yes, in some ways the right has gatekept its own fringes more effectively than the left, the massive caveat of Donald Trump notwithstanding.

But decisions like Kagan’s—premised on what we now know to be a mistaken calculation of coalitional power—were nonetheless integral to the radicals’ rise. And as conservatives consider what Faustian bargains to make in the service of cultural insurgency, they would do well to heed the warning implied by Rufo’s argument: Sometimes, it’s best to say no.

America's Cultural Revolution: How the Radical Left Conquered Everything
by Christopher Rufo
Broadside Books, 352 pp., $32

Aaron Sibarium is a staff writer at the Washington Free Beacon.