Cultural power won’t save progressives
By Michelle Goldberg
Andrew Breitbart, founder of the right-wing website Breitbart News, once said that “politics is downstream from culture,” and conservatives have been reverentially repeating his maxim ever since.
This belief contributes to the right’s eternal sense of victimization. Our system’s rural bias may give Republicans disproportionate political power, but progressives have outsize sway in academia, media and the arts. “They — the progressive left — tell us what is the truth and what is not, what is right and what is wrong,” Hungarian strongman Viktor Orban said in a speech last week at CPAC, an influential American conservative conference held, for the first time, in Budapest. As conservatives, said Orban, “our lot is to feel about our nations’ public life as Sting felt in New York: like a ‘legal alien.’ ”
Progressives sometimes seem to believe Breitbart’s maxim as well, acting as if the way to change the world is to change how we describe it. At best, the left’s ever-shifting language rules can push social norms in a more decent direction. At worst, they’re obscurantist and alienating. Either way, they reflect a choice about where to focus political energy.
This choice is understandable. It makes sense that, faced with the right’s structural advantages, some progressives sought to exercise influence in the more responsive realms of culture and business. Corporations, after all, can be more movable than Congress. The mass shootings that have become a regular feature of American life haven’t led to national gun control, but they have caused Walmart to scale back ammunition sales. People fight where they feel they have a chance of winning.
But purely cultural victories are little match for the brute force of politics. One lesson of Orban’s rise in Hungary is that the hard power of the state can crush the soft power of intellectuals, artists and tastemakers. It’s a lesson that American conservatives are learning.
Let’s start with Disney. In March, the corporation, under pressure from some of its employees, spoke out against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, responded by signing a law revoking the company’s special tax status. “If you’re a woke CEO, you want to get involved in our legislative business, look, it’s a free country,” he said. “But understand, if you do that, I’m fighting back against you.”
Other companies took note of this unambiguous act of retaliation. The Wall Street Journal reported, “In private meetings and coaching sessions over the past few weeks, top business leaders have been asking a version of the same question: How can we avoid becoming the next Walt Disney Company?”
An easy answer is to remain mum on contentious social issues. A memo from the PR firm Zeno, first obtained by the newsletter Popular Information, advised clients reacting to the leaked Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe v. Wade to “avoid taking a stand that they cannot reverse, especially when the decision is not final.” Many conservatives have been gleeful about the relative quiet of previously outspoken corporate leaders. “The campaign against Disney was really proof of concept for how the political right can tame woke capital,” conservative activist Chris Rufo told me.
Rather than denounce the likely death of Roe, some companies have promised employees in red states that they’ll pay for abortion-related travel costs. But conservative state lawmakers may take aim at such benefits. “The State of Texas will take swift and decisive action if you do not immediately rescind your recently announced policy to pay for the travel expenses of women who abort their unborn child,” said a letter to Lyft’s CEO from 14 Republican legislators in Texas.
It is not just on abortion that the law is reshaping culture. Teachers in many states have become terrified of talking to their students about homosexuality or racism. The Texas lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, wants to extend the state’s ban on teaching critical race theory to higher education, and proposed getting rid of tenure at public colleges and universities in order to purge uncooperative professors.
Last week, two Virginia politicians sought a restraining order to stop Barnes & Noble from selling the illustrated memoir “Gender Queer” and the fantasy novel “A Court of Mist and Fury” to minors without parental consent, part of a broader lawsuit over the books. When I read about the suit, which argues that the books are obscene, I emailed Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, asking whether it could actually go anywhere.
His chilling reply was that it could. It’s up to judges, after all, to make determinations about what is obscene, and Republicans have put lots of far-right judges on the bench. Even if such a suit ultimately fails, Friedman expects it to have a chilling effect on booksellers as they decide what to stock.
Conservative politicians in America and Western Europe, said Orban, face a problem that “Hungarians have already tackled successfully.” The problem is that “progressive liberals” dominate the media and “produce all the politically indoctrinating works of high and mass culture.” Orban solved this problem through censorship and the legal and bureaucratic harassment of unfriendly artists, writers and media outlets. Culture, it turns out, is downstream from politics.