“How did you go bankrupt?” Bill asked?
“Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
—Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises (1926).
We are told that conservatives “lost the culture war.” I dissent from this view: American conservatives never waged a culture war. Conservatives certainly fought, there is no denying that. They fought with every bit of obstruction and scandal their operatives could muster. But this was not a culture war. Rather, America’s conservatives fought a political war over culture. Republicans used cultural issues to gain—or to try to gain—political power. Their brightest minds and greatest efforts went into securing control of judiciary, developing a judicial philosophy for their appointees, securing control of the Capitol, and developing laws that could be implemented in multiple state houses across the nation. No actual attempt to change the culture was attempted.
This was not thought necessary. Conservatives had the people. One decade they were called a “silent” majority; as the culture war heated up, that majority transitioned from “silent” to “moral,” but a majority they remained. In these circumstances it was sufficient to quarantine the cultural dissidents and keep them from using minority maneuvers (“legislating from the bench”) to impose their cultural priorities on the rest of us. Political containment was the name of our game. Republicans played it well. They still play it well, even when the majority of yesterday has melted away.
The left played for different stakes. They fought for American culture as the right fought over it. Their insurgency succeeded as Hemingway’s businessman failed: gradually, then suddenly.
This is the normal pattern of things. The woke campaign to remake American society is only one of a dozen that have reshaped the American republic. The creation of a distinct American national identity between 1750 and 1780, the 2nd Great Awakening’s moral crusade (culminating in widespread anti-slavery sentiment) that transformed the North between 1820 and 1860, the South’s embrace of pro-slavery politics between 1830 and 1860, and the advance of the Progressive Movement between 1880 and 1920 are all examples of this pattern. More recent social and political movements we tend to associate with narrower dates: the ‘neoliberal revolution,’ with the election of Ronald Reagan, the Civil Rights movement with the victories of 1954-1968, and so forth. But here too there was a gradually and a suddenly; behind almost all of these sudden revolutions were a decade or two of less glamorous institution and idea building. We don’t see the Moral Majority of the ‘80s without Oral Roberts tramping about Tulsa in 1947; there is no Ms. without The Second Sex or the Kinsey reports three decades earlier.
Cultures can be changed; movements can be built. But as these examples all suggest, this is not a quick task. Culture wars are long wars. Instilling new ideas and overthrowing existing orthodoxies takes time—usually two to three generations of time. It is a 35-50 year process.
There are four pieces I request any person serious about this problem—be they conservative or otherwise— read. They explain why cultural conflict takes place at this two-generation tempo, and where the “center of gravity” of this conflict lies. If you want to actually overthrow a cultural orthodoxy, instead of just grouse about said orthodoxies for the sake of shilling up votes, these are a good place to start. I will not provide an in-depth summary of each of these four pieces, but will briefly introduce each.
Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” in The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. George Huszar (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1960), 371–84.
Musa al-Gharbi, “Seizing the Means of Knowledge Production” Heterodox Academy (4 August, 2019).
Robert Putnam, “From Generation to Generation” in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community, 2nd ed (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020), 247-276.
Stephen Vaisey and Omar Lizardo, “Cultural Fragmentation or Acquired Dispositions? A New Approach to Accounting for Patterns of Cultural Change,” Socius 2 (1 January, 2016).
If you care at all about this topic, Friedrich Hayek is a man to study closely. Consider his position in 1949, the year he penned the essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism.” He was an economic libertarian living in a world that had seemingly discredited everything he had stood for. Two decades before, humanity plunged into the greatest depression in the history of the species. This depression was blamed squarely on the very laissez faire politics Hayek championed. The developed world was a collection of command economies; expansive growth in government had shepherded the Western world through the Great Depression and total war. Labour was victorious in Britain, social democrats were sweeping Europe, in the United States even Republicans had made their peace with social welfare, and communism was ascendant everywhere. The USSR’s improvements in living standards and industrial output impressed all: their success cast a pall on the capitalist world. Unfettered capitalism was endorsed by no one. Well, almost no one. It was still endorsed by one Friedrich Hayek.
You know what happens over the next three decades. The Soviet economy stalls, Bretton-Woods falls apart, stagflation rips through the American economy, Reagan and Thatcher have their respective revolutions, and with the end of the Cold War ‘neoliberal’ economic principles become the bedrock of the new global order. Hayek and his little band of economic libertarians begin this story as pariahs. They end it prophets. This is a remarkable transformation, a clear case of cultural insurgency triumphant. Hayek fought and won a war over American ideals.
“Socialism and the Intellectuals” is Hayek’s war manual.
Key to Hayek’s campaign was the conviction that policy flowed from the general attitudes, beliefs, and worldview of what he terms “secondhand dealers in ideas.”1 What these people believe today, Hayek maintains, will determine policy in 10-20 years. Secondhand dealers in ideas are not experts in the ideas they peddle; they care less about particulars than the grand sweep of things. Libertarians failed to make way against the midcentury socialist tide, Hayek maintains, because they had nothing to offer these people. They offered stale orthodoxies of an earlier age and saw politics mostly as a wonkish scheme of adjustment at the edges. The secondhand dealer of ideas thirsts for something more than this. Hayek’s essay describes the shape ideas must take if they are to appeal to the generalist intellectual, who exactly these intellectuals were, and why keepers of cultural orthodoxies struggle to adapt their message for the secondhand market.
Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” in The Intellectuals: A Controversial Portrait, ed. George Huszar (Glencoe, Illinois: Free Press, 1960), 372.
Hayek’s essay is all theory. It can be usefully supplemented with an account of the institutions Hayek and his friends built to go about waging their insurgency, like the one I link to here.2 Musa al-Gharbi’s “Seizing the Means of Knowledge Production” does the same job for the woke moment. In this essay al-Gharbi traces the origins of the ideas, terms, and practices we associate with the woke breakout of 2013-15 back to their origins in legal and activist circles back in the 1970s and 1980s. Al-Gharbi is especially good at identifying the institutions and pathways by which ideas spread from these small activist circles to mainstream acceptance today. In his account we see the old pattern recur: like most successful cultural insurgencies, the woke transformation of American life was the fruit of a four decade insurgency. Its victory came first gradually, then suddenly.
John Blundell, Waging the War of Ideas, 4th ed (London: Institute for Economic Affairs: 2015), esp. chapters 1-2.
However, both Hayek and al-Gharbi miss something important—the key element, I maintain, to any accurate account of social change. This element is the topic of the next two pieces, both written by sociologists. The first is a chapter of Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, an investigation of changing social capital, social norms, and social trust in U.S. over the 20th century. Putnam isolates many different reasons for these changes, but in the chapter “Generation to Generation,” he describes most of them as effects of cohort change.
The logic of cohort change can be grasped by the graphic at the top of this essay (Putnam includes many similar ones in his book). America’s future is godless not because the God-fearing were convinced of the errors of their faith, but because their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren never adopted their faith to start out with. Cultures do not change when people replace old ideas with new ones; cultures change when people with new ideas replace the people with old ones.
Putnam’s chapter is the most accessible presentation of this process that I have read. Vaisey and Lazardo’s paper is a more technical (and thus less friendly) test of concept. They test the cohort hypothesis against a set of four dozen different beliefs and social attitudes (as measured in GSS). They conclude that almost all “social” or “value laden” attitudes are established early in life and are then maintained throughout it. The “formative events” of one’s youth truly are formative. The ideas, attitudes, and social pressures of one’s youth have a similar impact on one’s worldview, even after the conditions that created these pressures have long disappeared.
Taken together, these four papers explain many of the odd characteristics of cultural change. Generational churn helps account for the “gradually, then suddenly” tempo of social revolution. Cultural insurgents win few converts in their own cohort. They can, however, build up a system of ideas and institutions which will preserve and refine the ideals they hope their community will adopt in the future. The real target of these ideas are not their contemporaries, but their contemporaries’ children and grandchildren. Culture wars are fought for the hearts of the unborn. Future generations will be open to values the current generation rejects outright.
This will not be apparent at first. Beneath the official comings and goings of the cohorts above, a new consensus forms in the cohorts below. Ideas will fester among the young, but their impact will be hidden by the inability and inexperience of youth. But the youth do not stay young. Eventually a transition point arrives. Sometimes, this transition will be marked by a great event the old orthodoxy cannot explain. At other times it is simply a matter of numbers. In either case, the end falls swift: the older cohorts suddenly find themselves outnumbered and outgunned, swept up in a flood they had assumed was a mere trickle.
For them it was a trickle. They spent their time with members of their own cohort. The revolution occurring below did not echo in their souls. It won no converts among their friends, nor even among their rivals. The new values remained the preserve of weirdos and extremists. Not so for the rising generation!
The rising cohort has many reasons to thirst for new ideas. Old orthodoxies, designed to solve the problems of a past age, will have difficulty explaining crises in the new one. These events will be formative for the new generation; a group of insurgents who can explain these formative events in terms of their own program will win converts to the cause.3
The classic example of this was the stagflation of the 1970s, which existing economic theories had difficulty explaining and existing economic tools had difficulty taming. Yet Milton Friedman was altogether too modest when he remarked that “the role of people is to keep ideas alive until a crisis occurs. It wasn’t my talking that caused people to embrace these ideas, just as the rooster doesn’t make the sun rise.” The stagflation crisis was a necessary, but not a sufficient, cause of the ‘neoliberal’ revolution. Without the rooster’s crow that sun might never have rose.
Quote from Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw, The Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), 145.
To this we might add: the mere existence of orthodoxy sows the seeds of its own destruction. Older cohorts did the hard work of setting terms for the social sphere back in their youth. With the revolution won, revolution ends: in older age they reduce their role to that of tinkerer and technician. “This, more than anything else,” Hayek observes, “creates an almost impassable barrier between them and the intellectuals” of the rising generation. Intellectuals are Hayek’s premier class of “secondhand dealers in ideas”—and they will always be alienated by the orthodoxies of generations past. For
Orthodoxy of any kind, any pretense that a system of ideas is final and must be unquestioningly accepted as a whole, is the one view which of necessity antagonizes all intellectuals, whatever their views on particular issues. Any system which judges men by the completeness of their conformity to a fixed set of opinions, by their “soundness” or the extent to which they can be relied upon to hold approved views on all points, deprives itself of a support without which no set of ideas can maintain its influence in modern society. The ability to criticize accepted views, to explore new vistas and to experience with new conceptions, provides the atmosphere without which the intellectual cannot breathe. A cause which offers no scope for these traits can have no support from him and is thereby doomed in any society which, like ours, rests on his services.4
Hayek, “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” 383.
If you want to see this process in real time, look no further than the Democrat’s socialist wing. Older party leaders view the socialists as spoilers and madmen, political contagions not to be fought against nor partnered with, but contained and quarantined. Socialism is not something they take seriously. This is a cohort problem. Democrats under 40 take socialism very seriously. The Great Recession was their formative event; the old orthodoxy did not seem equal to the fear and heartache it caused. Thus, gradually, the younger cohorts have been won over to the socialist cause.5 All that keeps the socialists at bay is the power of their elders. That power cannot last. At some point in the next decade the transition point will arrive. Gradually will become suddenly, and America’s most popular party will be openly run by socialists.
Lydia Saad, “Socialism as Popular as Capitalism Among Young Adults in U.S.,” Gallup (25 November 2019); Hannah Hartig, “Stark partisan divisions in Americans’ views of ‘socialism,’ ‘capitalism’,” Pew Social Trends (25 June 2019).
Understanding this is equal parts clarifying and frustrating. Clarifying, because it gives us a clear idea of what must be done and of what cannot be done. Frustration comes from that second item: as culture wars are long wars, there are no quick victories. If you reject the quickly crystalizing orthodoxy of America’s millennials, your short-term options are limited. The millennials are a lost generation; they will persist in their errors to the end of their days. Theirs is a doomed cohort—and for most of the next two decades, this doomed cohort will be in charge.
But like all orthodoxies, theirs will eventually stumble. Today’s orthodoxy will meet events it cannot explain. Today’s hopes will be the source of tomorrow’s sorrows. When those sorrows arrive, a rising generation will be looking for alternatives. The job of today’s insurgents is to build a coherent critique of this orthodoxy, a compelling vision of a better way, and a set of networks that can guard the flame until the arrival of that happy day.
Values must be forged. Utopias must be imagined. Ideas must be tailored for mass intellectual appeal. Paths to communicate these ideals must be cleared. The inevitable shall happen: old orthodoxies shall go stale and brittle. New crises shall discredit them in their brittleness. Then the well-placed culture warrior will have both the arguments and the networks needed to inspire the rising generation. That generation will learn how their fathers and mothers created the mess they are now in. Gradually, then suddenly, our people will turn to the light.
This is a long process, but a true one. This is the proven path of the culture warrior.
If this post on generational determinants of political ideology has caught your interest interest, consider reading my earlier posts “Conservatism’s Generational Civil War,” “The Problem of the New Right,” “Living in the Shadow of the Boomers,” and “Public Opinion in Authoritarian States.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, Facebook page, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible. —————————————————————————————