Over the past several decades, the progressive Left has successfully fulfilled Antonio Gramsci’s famed admonition of a “long march through the institutions”. In almost every Western country, its adherents now dominate the education system, media, cultural institutions, and financial behemoths.
But what do they have to show for it? Not as much as they might have expected. Rather than a Bolshevik-style assumption of power, there’s every chance this institutional triumph will not produce an enduring political victory, let alone substantially change public opinion.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Even before Biden’s botched Build Back Better initiative, American progressives faced opposition to their wildly impractical claims about achieving “zero Covid” and “zero emissions”, confronting “systemic racism” by defunding the police, regulating speech, and redefining two biological sexes into a multiplicity.
Increasingly, the “march” has started to falter. Like the French generals in 1940 who thought they could defeat the Germans by perfecting World War One tactics, the progressive establishment has built its own impressive Maginot Line which may be difficult to breach, but can still be flanked.
That is not to deny the progressives’ limited successes. It has certainly developed a remarkable ability to besmirch even the most respected institutions, including the US military. But that is where its achievements stop.
While the Pentagon’s top brass focused on “domestic terrorists” and a progressive social agenda, it calamitously bungled its withdrawal from Afghanistan and appears utterly unprepared for Chinese or Russian competitors. And the effect of this progressive march is plain to see: the percentage of Americans who feel “a great deal of trust and confidence in the military” has dropped in just three years to 45% from 70%.
This decline in trust in major institutions, so evident in America, is also rife across Europe and Australia. In Europe, for example, young people express less pride in their cultural and religious heritage, and are almost three times as likely as their elders to believe that democracy is failing.
The great paradox of progressivism is that nowhere are its shortcomings more evident than in its geographic heartland: the dense urban centre. Conventional wisdom has dictated that America’s high-tech economic future will be shaped in dense urban areas, where superstar companies stand the best chance of recruiting superstar employees.
But while the upper crust of the labour force continue to head to the dense urban cores, on the ground people are moving in the other direction. Across the high-income world, not only in America but Europe as well, the vast preponderance of growth has taken place in suburbs and exurbs. In the last decade over 90% of all US metropolitan population growth and 80% of job growth took place on the periphery. On the ground, then, the progressive dream is withering.
The pandemic has greatly enhanced these trends, with downtown neighbourhoods recovering far less quickly than suburban, exurban, and small towns. But even if these changes are not permanent, at least not entirely, city residents will still have to contend with another pitfall of the progressive agenda: rising crime. Twelve American cities have experienced record homicides this year; all are ruled by Democratic, often progressive, leaders, many of whom explain away crime and excused, even praised, the looting and mayhem caused by protestors in the summer of 2020.
Yet despite this visceral impact on urban neighbourhoods, it is in education that our new hegemony could have its most long-lasting impact. The West’s new educational mandarins, increasingly strident and increasingly influential, have no use for our liberal inheritance, which they consider little more than a screen for racists and misogynists.
In Canada, we have seen an instance of “flame purification” for everything from old encyclopaedias and maps to Depression-era cartoons. In America, the disconnect between the professoriate and the people also keeps growing, as conservatives head towards extinction on many campuses: on some well-regarded campuses such as Williams, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans reaches between 70 and 132 to 1.
These trends have long been evident in the fading humanities and social sciences, but now even the sciences are becoming politicised. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that universities are losing credibility even among some traditional Leftists, who marvel at how they burnish their progressive credentials while making huge profits off their endowments and seriously underpaying most of their employees.
And just as with the growing disaffection for the military, teachers, students and parents are starting to push back. A number of teachers who have been “cancelled” or otherwise threatened for dissenting are now fighting back in the courts. There’s also considerable criticism from parents and alumni, some of whom are now pledging not to contribute to their schools, and instead support well-publicised and well-funded efforts to start new initiatives, such as the recently announced University of Austin. Even more importantly, would-be students are also voting with their feet: after decades of rapid expansion, the number of college students enrolments fell by 5% last decade, and dropped an additional 6.5% since 2019.
Likewise, only one in three Americans have confidence in their public schools, where the education establishment’s goal seems to be to obliterate merit. In my adopted home state of California, this “post-colonial” approach includes deemphasising the importance of tests, excusing bad behaviour, and imposing ideology on often ill-educated students. The San Diego Unified School District, meanwhile, is busily getting rid of mandates for such things as knowing course material, taking tests, handing in work on time, or even showing up; all these, the district insists, are inherently “racist”. This in a state that ranked 49th in the performance of poor, largely minority students. (Still, the situation could be worse: neighbouring Oregon no longer requires any demonstrable proof of competence to graduate.)
In the past year, this blindness has incited considerable public outrage. Criticism of Critical Race Theory buoyed the Republican win in Virginia in November, and has become a rallying principle for parents around the country, including a recall drive against San Francisco school board members.
Other parents are trying to opt out of the public system altogether. The pandemic saw the departure of more one million American students from public schools, while 1.2 million families switched to home-schooling last academic year, bringing the total number of home-schooled students to 3.1 million, roughly 11% of the total. According to the Census Bureau, Black and Hispanic families now have the highest estimated rates of home-schooling, at 16% and 12%, respectively.
Meanwhile, the mass media, particularly its legacy outlets, constitute another progressive bastion losing credibility. One recent survey found that barely one in three Americans trusts the media, including a majority of Democrats, while only 15% of Americans have confidence in newspapers. Part of this surely stems from their bias: although there remain some powerful conservative voices, notably on talk radio and Newscorp properties, the vast majority of journalistic power lies with the Left. It’s the same story with social media, which increasingly dominates news access and is also widely distrusted.
But the media’s Maginot Line may prove more vulnerable than expected, and this breach is certainly a far better prospect than those that came with the German flanking. There is a definite challenge not just from the traditional Right but a plethora of new publications which offer intelligent analysis outside the establishmentarian party line, as well as from Substack. Unless the media oligarchs find ways to repress these elements, a resurgence of free thinking may rescue journalism from progressive editors and journalism schools.
The shift in the media parallels that in mass culture. As late as the Fifties, mass culture was seen as largely neutral. But in recent decades, it shifted towards a more monochromatic look — one which a significant portion of the public are fed up with. Gender flipping may excite progressive creatives, but politically correct remakes of household favourites have proved box offices disasters. Indeed, it’s striking that openly conservative presenters, such as Fox’s Greg Gutfeld, now do better in ratings than their more established network rivals like Jimmy Kimmel and Jimmy Fallon.
Yet perhaps nothing is more ironic, and potentially dangerous, than the takeover of the corporate suite by progressive ideology. Traditionally, the dispersion of ownership and the conflicting views of entrepreneurs and inheritors fuelled the dynamism of democracy: you had far-Left businessmen like George Soros and doctrinaire Right-wingers like the Kochs in competition. They fought it out, and sometimes even aligned. But they came from diverse viewpoints.
Today this diversity of viewpoints is being obliterated by design, with corporate behaviour now married closely to the notion of the “great reset” and “de-growth”: an economy where improving conditions for the masses is replaced with lowering carbon emissions and diversity tokenism. Such standards, of course, do not apply to snotty private schools attended by their offspring, or areas that are home to their mansions.
The oligarchs may feel they deserve dispensation from the masses by their “good deeds”, but people are not as stupid or malleable as the ruling elites believe. Trust in major corporations, never too robust, is below 20%, less than one third that for small businesses. It is slowly becoming apparent that ‘woke capitalism’ will never solve divisions which are essentially economic. The key, notes Richard Parsons, former President of Citigroup, lies not with racial quotas or hiring transgender workers but the economic growth and opportunity. There will never be “unity”, he suggests, until people “feel it in their pockets”.
The question now is whether there will be sufficient pushback to turn the tide. Unlike local school boards, online magazines, and even alternative colleges, it’s difficult to replace or challenge an Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, Google, or Morgan Stanley. Yet fortunately these institutions do not yet control all wealth. Big companies may have shamed themselves out of oil and gas, but investors are ramping up due to the soaring price of these assets.
So, here’s the good news. On what sometimes seems the inexorable course towards progressive capture, we can see multiple fronts of resistance, and the early congealing of independent-minded forces, from the rational Right to the traditional liberal-left. Our society may never regain the feistiness of previous eras, and our new elites might continue marching through our institutions. But as they become increasingly discredited, they would be unwise to forget that all long marches one day come to an end.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe