Culture, Politics, and the Pitfalls of Centrism

My interview with Antonio García Martínez at The Pull Request.

Antonio García Martínez is a long-time tech writer and author of the book Chaos Monkeys, about his time working at Facebook in its early years. But he’s probably most famous for being hired and then immediately fired at Apple, following a campaign by left-wing employees to cancel Martínez for his “controversial” views.

Now Antonio is writing a newsletter on Substack and interviewed me as part of an ongoing series on tech, culture, and woke politics. For more, subscribe to Antonio’s newsletter here.

Antonio García Martínez: In doing my Rufo deep dive, it was news to me that you had done this serious documentary on the state of the United States: America Lost. You might consider this to be an unflattering comparison, but watching your film reminded me of early Michael Moore actually, back when he was ‘good’.

Christopher F. Rufo: Roger & Me was a great film that he did in the 90s, it must’ve been. I can’t remember.

AGM: Something like that, late 80s, early 90s [eds. note: 1989]. You’re right, it was really good. He took one town, Flint, Michigan, which is now known for a bunch of stuff, and just captured the bleak despair and hard reality of it, I think in the same way that you looked at three different American cities: Youngstown, Ohio; Memphis, Tennessee; and Stockton, California.

CFR: Yeah, it is pretty interesting. I think looking at the reflection of myself in the media over the last six months, or a year, is sometimes surprising and bewildering. It’s like you look in the mirror and it’s something quite different. And a lot of people don’t know that I spent the first decade-plus of my career directing documentaries. I did four that broadcast nationally on PBS, I sold one to Netflix. I was in a very different world. And I think with America Lost, it was for me, a huge shift, a huge internal change, and spending a lot of time looking at real life in the poorest and most desperate communities in the United States.

So with that as my background, having been there when the kid gets shot and killed in the gas-station mini-mart, being there six inches away from the casket when it’s getting lowered on a murder victim, or being there when some wayward father is coming back out of prison and trying to rebuild his family—all of these wrenching human situations—and then now making this transition and looking at something like critical race theory, which is abstract, effete, intellectual, self-serving, elite-driven, and really elite-oriented. And then seeing this yawning gap between the two, this human carnage below, and then this really self-serving intellectualism above that has nothing to offer most people.

And that’s, I think, what really drives me in this fight against the critical ideologies, specifically critical race theory, is that they make a huge show about the revolution, and anti-capitalism, and the poor, and the marginalized, and the intersectionally-oppressed. And then you read, read, read, read thousands of pages of their literature, and then you think about what’s actually happening in a place like Stockton or Youngstown or Memphis, and you realize they have nothing to offer, absolutely nothing. I think it’s a great bait and switch, and it’s really at heart a scam. I think it’s an intellectual scam that is really designed for intra-elite competition within our institutions. And many decades ago, they abandoned any genuine thought or reflection or action that might benefit the poorest people in our country.

AGM: There was some polling data that came out recently, I think I saw it first via a Noah Smith retweet, about the fact that a majority of Black Americans actually oppose CRT in schools.

CFR: That’s right. Yeah, that’s polling data from my colleague, Michael Hendrix at the Manhattan Institute, and it shows that in America’s 20 fastest-growing cities—these are cities that have dynamic growth, they’re diversifying, they’re people that are seeking opportunity—critical race theory in the classroom, including lessons on systemic racism and white privilege, is opposed by parents at I think a 41-point margin. And that includes white parents, black parents, Asian parents, Latino parents. And this is consistent with polling data from Rasmussen and other places, where Americans do not want this.

And although The New York Times and The Washington Post have attempted to frame it as white backlash, or white resentment, or white racism plainly, the numbers don’t support it. In fact, the people who are most likely to support it are white progressives, and everyone else actually opposes it, and in some case by large margins. Latinos by a two-to-one margin, Asian-Americans by a two-to-one margin. Depending on the polling data, African-Americans can go either way, it’s somewhere in the middle.

But these ideologies are unpopular among real people, I think because they don’t inspire, they don’t give anyone a sense of their own possibility. They don’t give white kids a sense of their own possibility, but in a proportionate way, they don’t give minority kids a sense of their own possibility. And they trap people in this endless loop of oppressor/oppressed dichotomies, and it’s a sure-fire path to make you miserable. And you look at the history of these ideas, and they’ve invariably led to disappointment.

You look at the first wave of critical theory. You look at the second wave of critical praxis in the 1970s. Then you go dormant for a little while as the Soviet Union collapses and these ideas get thoroughly discredited, and now you’ve revived it with Critical Race Theory. And I think that what you see even graphically in the usage of these terms, or you see graphically in their adoption by institutions, it can either be two things: It can be truly a revolution, where the world kind of goes in a 180-degree turn. Or it could be another fad, another kind of desperate clinging to some novelty that eventually crashes and burns like it has before. 

AGM: Right, so you said a lot there, and I tend to agree with you. Potentially the worst way to get rid of racism is talking about it 24/7. But one thing you said earlier I wanted to address: The data that we just cited from the Manhattan Institute, or other data like the 97% of Hispanic Americans who don’t use Latinx (and I happen to be among those 97%). These are examples of a somewhat bizarre elite race politics that are pushed from the top down, and then AstroTurfed into being a progressive working class thing. And as the data shows, it really isn’t.

But here’s a debate that I’ve had with a lot of my friends: Is there actually, to use a Nixonian phrase, a silent majority of people who in fact are not on board with much of what we’re talking about—CRT, LatinX, and all the rest of it? Is it the case that 80-plus percent of Americans are saying, “This is kind of dumb and I don’t agree with it, but I’m just going along.” Are they Havel’s Greengrocer or are some of them getting permanently swayed, with views changing as they do on other issues?

CFR: There absolutely is a silent majority, but it’s based on a new consensus. So in 1968, in the Nixon era, there was still a significant portion of the country that held racist attitudes and beliefs, how we’d characterize them now. If you look at that chart on interracial marriage acceptance, it’s going up but it’s still kind of middling in 1968. And certainly they were only four years away from Jim Crow laws, this is a huge transition point. You started to see an uptick in violence by 1969, 1970, 1971, politically motivated violence. You had, in that period, something like 2,000 politically motivated property bombings, Molotov cocktails, dynamite, et cetera.

So the position we’re in today is very different. You have essentially universal acceptance of interracial marriage, which I think we can take as general proxy for racial attitudes, especially because we can measure it over a long period of time.

AGM: Can I just nuance that with one thing? Sorry to interrupt, but one thing is revealed preferences and other polling data. Timur Kuran wrote this great book Private Truth, Public Lies about this. If you put a microphone in somebody’s face, these days nobody can actually say, “No, I don’t think interracial marriage is good.” However, how many people will get upset if their kids actually did marry someone of another race or ethnicity? Is racism really on the decline? It might be a different number.

CFR: It might be, but I would say though, even in my own parents’ time, there was significant family friction because my father was an Italian Catholic and my mother was a WASP Protestant, which is unimaginable today in the vast majority of the United States. But even if let’s say there’s still a racist remnant in the United States, in my experience, in my observation and my extensive travel, I think it’s a very small group of people, and almost all of those people have essentially no institutional, or professional, or educational power. I think that that is almost certainly true. So let’s just assume though, with that caveat, let’s assume that that’s the new consensus. The new consensus is that overt racism is unacceptable to almost everyone, even if it’s a revealed preference, or even if it’s a public preference. Overt racism is unacceptable to everyone. I think that’s really good, that’s a sign of tangible progress.

But on top of this baseline of ‘overt racism is unacceptable,’ you have now this kind of ferment at the very top. I think that from the polling data that I’ve seen, and now the conversations that I’ve had all over the country, you do have probably 70% silent majority of people who oppose hyper-race-conscious politics in our institutions. So critical race theory is a good kind of synecdoche for that, seeing as how it’s opposed by this huge majority.

And I think what we’re seeing now is this silent majority that in general is apathetic—the majority of people are just busy going to Costco, taking care of their kids, and showing up for work on time—they’re now hitting the point where they can no longer laugh it off as a phenomenon restricted to university campuses or left-wing journals; it’s actually starting to affect them.

This really only went into extreme acceleration last year. We’re seeing the silent majority’s red line: what is their point where they’re tipped out of apathy into action. And we’re seeing this now in thousands of school districts across the country. Parents are starting to reassert their democratic authority, and they’re starting to draw a line for people to say, “We oppose racism, but we don’t believe that critical race theory, or diversity, equity, and inclusion, or race-based quotas in education are good for any kids.”

And what I think is also important to note within that is that these are places that aren’t even necessarily driven by white parents, white families. You have Asian American groups who are really fighting hard, Latinos to a lesser extent, and to another lesser extent, African Americans. But we’re seeing the great reassertion of democratic power and the democratic voice in the United States. And one place that’s happening is within schools where people feel like the bureaucratic authorities are imposing on them an ideology that they didn’t vote for and they don’t want to pay for.

AGM: Well, Chris, it’s democracy when it supports my views, but it’s populism when it doesn’t.

CFR: Fascism, it’s fascism.

AGM: Fascism, that’s right. It’s interesting you think that, because as someone who kind of has a foot in the ‘red state’ world—I was raised in South Florida with Cuban Republican parents who worshiped Reagan—and having lived in rural America, I always thought that whenever this blue city stuff hit regular America, everything would go bonkers. Because most Americans outside coastal cities are going to think this is insane. Rightly or wrongly, this is not something they will default accept the same way that (say) the Apple HR department will, and say: “Oh yeah, this thing we invented seven seconds ago on Twitter is now the absolute Western civilizational view on this. And if you think otherwise, you are a Nazi.”

I don’t see a random working-class guy with a plumbing business outside of Reno, to pick a random hypothetical, really just nodding their head at this. It’ll be like an immune-system organ rejection at transplant time.

CFR: That’s right yeah, and the irony is it’s really a class-based elite colonization effort onto Middle America. And Christopher Lasch talks about this in the early nineties, and really sees all of the pieces starting to form into a coherent puzzle. They moved from kind of planning to implementation in the last decade, and then really implementing in the last 18 months.

People don’t like it. People don’t want to have in a way a foreign ideology imposed on them, and especially in ways where they sense that they’re vulnerable: their children, their public schools, their local institutions. First, I think it’s bewildering to people, and then it’s infuriating. I’m in kind of ex-urban rural Washington state in a kind of 50/50 red/blue district, depending on which way you cut it. And I woke up one morning and saw that my local school district, without my involvement, had voted unanimously to ban critical race theory from the local schools. And I talked to my neighbors and said, “Oh yeah, we’ve been going to school board meetings, and we’ve been fighting, we’ve been messaging this person. The mayor’s upset about it.” And you see this almost New England town-hall revival where people say, “Wait a minute, I am absolutely opposed to what’s happening. What mechanisms do I have to change it?” And then people are really funneling their energies at the lowest level, at the school-board level, at the city-council level, and I think that’s good.

I think for decades now average Americans have delegated responsibility to public bureaucracies, which they know don’t do a great job, but they really don’t do a terrible job. They’re focused on the basics of kind of municipal government: roads, schools, bridges, trash service, et cetera. But when they made the shift to now trying to convert their kids into a new ideology that’s based on kind of 1970s- style race radicalism, then they’re going to say, “Wait a minute. We gave you authority. We kind of put a long leash on you for the previous time period, but now we’re going to shift. Now we’re going to take control.” I think it’s almost, you know if there’s a hostage situation, you always want to see proof of life? I think that’s where the United States is right now. It feels like these ideologies and elite institutions are strangling Middle America, and Middle America has now posted proof of life. And to me, this is just the beginning, and the contrast will become more stark in the months and years to come.

AGM: As a comment on that, it’s interesting that another observation from the “real America” (I’m using that at least partly ironically), people are really into their civic infrastructure; they know about their city councils, and get involved. On Orcas Island, your average Joe would run for the county council or whatever, and be engaged in a way that I think is not really true in coastal blue cities. If anything, the global cosmopolitan elites (also being used semi-ironically) don’t really care too much about their local government. At most it’s some NIMBYism and that’s it.

CFR: I’ve lived in big blue cities, in DC and LA and the Bay Area, and I now live in a small town of 10,000 people. So I can see both very clearly, and I’ve studied how they both operate.

In Seattle for example, which is I think a good stand in for blue cities, who really runs Seattle? It’s not citizens, it’s not Mr. Smith Goes to the Seattle City Council1. It’s this constellation of institutions that are backed by big money, whether it’s union money, or whether it’s philanthropic money, or whether it’s environmental money, or democratic-socialist money that pours in from all over the country. And so you have this constellation of institutions that is almost like a para state, it runs in parallel to the actual official governing bodies, and in many ways is more influential.

I did a story when this great documentary called Seattle Is Dying came out. A local reporter and a lifelong Democrat puts out this exposé just exposing what the streets look like. If you’ve been to Seattle it shouldn’t surprise you, but it caused this enormous outrage, and panic, and backlash among Seattle’s governing class. The reporter was humiliated, ostracized, and attacked. Every local media institution started doing hit pieces against him. He suffered personal family consequences that I’m not at liberty to share.

And so I did records requests at the mayor’s office and other offices, and it’s actually kind of eye opening and I felt naïve for not really even anticipating the answer. But the answer was that about 200 organizations between government, philanthropy, media, nonprofit activism were on this email list: They hired this series of PR firms; they coordinated, not only to basically shut him up and marginalize him, not only to attempt to discredit the piece, but then to serve as a warning to anyone else.

I think they’re very effective. In contrast to what you see in a small town environment, which is much more Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. My neighbor here in Gig Harbor, Washington is the mayor. So if I have a problem, I knock on her door and talk to her. What you lose in a big city’s opportunity, network effects, wealth and prestige, you gain in a sense of civic autonomy. You gain in the sense that the institutions are not overwhelming relative to your own power. And you can actually effect some kind of change as an individual, as a neighborhood, as a community. So you have a sense of life, a sense of potential, a sense of autonomy, a sense of freedom that I don’t think you have in one of the big blue cities today.

That’s another thing.

I look at the media, and it’s like, “Chris Rufo, right-wing ideologue, flame-throwing maniac, clever propagandist,” The Times says. And it’s funny to me because I’ve lived in Seattle, and LA, and San Francisco, and DC. I’m an avid kombucha drinker. It’s so funny.

I think that politics right now are shifting, someone like you, someone like me to maybe a lesser extent. But there’s a network of people who aren’t easily caricatured as kind of Christian conservative, kind of bow-tie wearing Buckley-ites, and yet they descend from this kind of insane orthodoxy of the blue institutions. To me, that’s an interesting shift. It’s really a defection in my eyes, a betrayal. And the reason that you see such hatred directed at people like Bari Weiss or Glenn Greenwald is because they’re not only seen as enemies, but they’re seen as enemies who have betrayed. And that’s where I think you get the kind of really hot emotions and vitriol against them.

AGM: Most religions reserve their harshest punishments not for infidels, but for apostates.

That’s right.

AGM: I’ll confess Chris, the artist who does the portraits almost refused to do yours. She’s like, “Rufo! I have to draw Rufo?” I’m like, “What do you have against Rufo?”

CFR: I’m hoping you can explain it to me. I try to be above board with stuff. I see myself as fairly moderate compared to even some of my colleagues, and yet I feel like I provoke some feeling in people. I’m hoping maybe you can explain it to me.

AGM: It’s just when you embody a movement like you do, and particularly with the sort of discourse that happens on Twitter—I’m guilty of it as well—there has to be a certain level of ideological snark to it. Even if you don’t go below the belt, it still comes off as being a little snide. And I think compared to conventional public intellectuals of the past, which someone normal and not-totally-online like this artist would read, it comes off as very off-putting.

CFR: Okay, I think I’m understanding that. I don’t take offense to it. Like you said, when you’re leading a movement, which I found myself to be in the position of by accident—I didn’t ever plan on or intend to lead a movement—but you’re obviously going to draw people into camps and that’s kind of the price.

For about two months I was on the kind of receiving end of some pretty brutal and constant attacks in the media. The Washington Post attacked me in 10 separate pieces in a two month period (here’s one). The New York Times attacked me in many different pieces (an example). Michelle Goldberg, the columnist, wrote two pieces attacking me (here’s one). And I pushed back on some of them, but I never took it to heart. I never was offended by it. I have good relationships with the reporters, even the ones who are in some ways aggressively attacking me, because there’s an understanding that these are my adversaries. And of course they’re going to attack me; of course they’re going to try to undermine me; of course they’re going to engage. And to me, there’s even a certain amount of respect, and a certain amount of understanding that this is the game. We’re on different sides and we’re going to now do the dance, we’re going to fight each other, and then I’m going to try to outwit them, they’re going to try to outwit me.

And in another way, practically the consequences of this are actually quite good. Conflict drives media, conflict drives coverage, conflict drives growth. And so when I go on Joy Ried and let her yell at me for 12 minutes straight, I have big subscriber growth, big mailing-list growth, big Twitter growth. And then I think I can assume from that I’m extending my awareness into their camp, into their territory. People ask me: “Oh, how do you deal with that? They called you a propagandist,” or, “They called you a liar. They called you this.” Of course they are. It doesn’t affect me emotionally because we are actually engaging in this meta-politics almost. It’s like fencing where you’re fighting but no one is going to slit your throat fencing.

There was another faction though, and a faction that I think many of your readers may fall under, that it’s this kind of centrist, fence sitters, critics where they sit atop of the mountain and criticize both sides while refusing to take any real position. Paradoxically, people who may be in a kind of very noncommittal, intellectual sense even agree with me, just infuriates me because I think that they are one toe in, one toe out.

In politics, I don’t find that a responsible position. I don’t find that an effective position; I find it a position of great cowardice. It’s not a blanket aspersion, but there is a certain segment in our intellectual discourse that doesn’t want to dirty themselves in politics, and yet don’t realize that they’re in politics already. And I just find that such a phony position, and so self-serving, and kind of pathetic. We should devalue their opinions to the extent that they’re not putting skin in the game.

AGM: I’m glad you went there, because I wanted to ask you about the viral tweet that you posted last week about centrism.

One thing that strikes me about American politics right now is that for both parties it centers around seizing either the judiciary or the executive branch, and imposing your version of the Constitution on the other side. As a defensive action, the other party tries to resist that at the state level, such as California declaring sanctuary cities or Texas banning abortion. The story of America during political turmoil has always been one of dueling factions engaged in what’s a religious schism over our founding documents. In happier moments, you have a more bipartisan parliamentary vibe and things actually happen in Congress. But when’s the last time some Congress vote was the burning issue of the day? I can’t think of the last time..

CFR: Probably Clinton, right?

AGM: Right, so everything is either an executive order—an elected monarch ruling by fiat—or the judiciary—this rabbinical court that reinterprets the sacred founding documents and comes up with a new interpretation. Which I think supports your conclusion, which is that a world of centrism would be a parliamentary world, and a world of extremism would be a monarchical or a judiciary world.

CFR: If you’re the kind of engaged intellectual who says with a certain seriousness, the two-party system is broken, we need to move beyond it, you’re just an idiot. In political science, one of the most robust findings is Duverger’s Law, which shows that in the type of constitutional republic that we have in the United States, it inevitably creates a kind of two-party system, and a third party will always get co-opted or absorbed and never obtain power. If you’re sophisticated and say, “Well, we want to have a third party in order to raise issue awareness, in the hopes that it’s co-opted by one of the big parties, and then we can influence it from within,” I’ll give you credit for sophistication. But you have this kind of brain-dead centrism that pretends that they can occupy a hallowed third ground where they don’t get messy, they don’t have to engage in partisan politics. Those people can never get anything done.

I was maybe one of those people years ago, and I found that it was not because I was smarter, it’s not because I was better informed, it’s not because I was more honest or intellectually pure, it’s because I was being a coward. I wasn’t actually grappling with what I believe, what I would stand for, and what I was willing to take a risk on. So I know the feeling, I know the feeling internally, and I can see it and I can smell it on other people. And in a sense, I feel some sympathy because it’s hard. If you’re let’s say working in New York, or Seattle, or San Francisco, there’s a lot of pressure. You can’t just go out and say what you want necessarily.

If you’re a computer programmer and you’re politically uninvolved, that’s fine. I think that’s a totally reasonable, rational, and respectable position. But if you’re writing for a political magazine, you end up with the kind milquetoast takes, the on the other-hand takes, the both-sides takes. Then they ultimately retreat at the closing paragraph and offer only the most anodyne, harmless, ineffective, cop-out solutions.

The other thing that I’ve learned in the last year is that I was under this myth a year ago, six months ago even, that this kind of intellectual center mattered. When David French, Kmele Foster, and Thomas Chatterton Williams, and the absolutely hyper-neurotic Jason Stanley offered their op-ed, I felt a duty to respond. I felt like I had to push back, because it would have some impact on the political project that I was trying to advance.

Looking back, what I should have done perhaps is ignore it, because we’ve actually been successful. Now we have nine states that have passed legislation, or school-board resolutions, banning critical race theory. We’ve had now, in both houses of Congress, federal legislation introduced. We now have multiple state attorneys general that have declared that many of these pedagogies actually violate the Constitution and civil rights laws. We have, by my estimate, a thousand or so districts where parents are now revolting and will overthrow their school boards in the coming elections.

The opinion of The New York Times op-ed page has zero influence on these political victories. And so I think we confuse the political sphere where you want to be successful on Twitter in this intellectual milieu, you want to get your book reviewed, or you want to be on a cool podcast, you have influence within that sphere, but you actually don’t have much influence in actual flesh-and-blood politics.

Everyone has their preference, but my preference is that I don’t want to win the debate, I want to win the fight. And for me, practical political outcomes that protect people like my friends, my family, my neighbors, are much more important than winning a point or pointing out a logical fallacy on Twitter, which to me is quickly evaporating as something that I consider important.

AGM: I tend to think as you do, which is that we’re in a very fragmented media world. There is no center of the world really. I think it’s because I straddle some of these worlds, or maybe because in my career I’ve lived in four totally different worlds, and everyone thinks they’re living in the Center of the Universe and everybody’s wrong. Maybe someone’s bubble is somewhat bigger, or will get you the correct Brooklyn brunch invites, but nobody really is at the vital center of anything.

And then I post about interviewing you or Ben Shapiro, and I get that cold wind of exile that indicates I’m somehow being consigned to Siberia. And maybe there is an elite center that governs most of the institutions in our lives…

CFR: I get it. It’s like when I shifted internally on this question, there was a scary moment. I tried to maintain this centrist position, a kind of vaguely Libertarian position, a blue-city palatable persona. I did that for a little while, but I felt this anxiety. I felt this internal conflict. I was really thrown across the Rubicon when I started getting involved in Seattle politics from this centrist positions, and then was immediately called a racist, a white supremacist, a fascist, a whatever. That was shocking, it was painful, it was bewildering.

But then when I crossed over, and after you’ve been run through the mud like that, you realize: Oh, that’s what I was scared of, that’s the worst that’s going to happen to me? Somebody’s going to put posters up in my neighborhood with my face, calling me a fascist or whatever? And then you realize once you get through that wall of fear and you get on the other side, you feel this sense of freedom, creativity, possibility. And I feel like since I’ve crossed over and since I’ve then moved to a small town, I feel like my own mind has been liberated. The pressure is off, and I feel much more free. And I think that I’m still shedding some of these other preconceptions and other really inaccurate ideas about how politics works. And the more that I do that, the more that I see my own political vision getting implemented and enacted in the real world, and it’s a great thrill when I think of an idea in my home office in a small town in rural Washington state, and then I see it being introduced in the United States Senate.

To me, it’s like a miracle. And it’s like it’s such a beautiful thing that would have never happened had I been on-the-other-handing and centrism-ing. I’d be neurotically attending happy hours on some rooftop in Seattle. That’s it.

AGM: So let me ask you one final big question. Let’s zoom out to the widest possible view. Getting back to your film again, one of the points you make in the film is related to this very offhand Twitter observation that I made last week. If you look at the poor or disenfranchised in the United States, their lives often have multiple problems—crime, broken families, drug use—of which the economic side is but one input. And this is what you diagnose in the film, things like family, community, and all the rest of it.

Here’s the question I had at the end of your film: governments are kind of like the proverbial man with the hammer. What they have is money and government institutions that do things, and so they try to fix problems that those tools can fix. But how do you create family? How do you create community?

CFR: I mean the first step is to stop destroying it, to stop kind of deliberately, both intellectually and through public policy, shredding that social fabric, which is what we’ve done for the last 60 years. If you read critical theory dating back to the 1960s, they deliberately say we want to shred social institutions to create instability, so we can then be in a position where we can achieve the revolution.

So in the intellectual lineage of the critical ideologies is a deliberate attempt to undermine institutions like faith, family, local community, self-reliance, et cetera. So the first step is to stop doing that. And then I think the bigger picture, the thing I’ve thought about since making the film, hadn’t quite gotten there at that time, is the great federal political project for conservatives should be to gain power and strip these ideologies from the federal government, from federal policy, from federal personnel, from federal training, from federal grant making, absolutely strip it. Remove, kind of ruthlessly and relentlessly strip these ideologies from the structures and functions and policies of the federal government.

And then to the greatest extent that we can, redistribute power, money, and authority to the lowest level possible, sometimes to states. So for example, the $1.1 trillion in means-tested benefit spending: divide it by per capita and then block grant it back to the states with no restrictions and let them kind of experiment and go.

I think the biggest problem that we have in the United States is centralized power, which creates what I think of as ideological cartels. These are school bureaucracies, these are state bureaucracies, federal bureaucracies, et cetera, that really have now pulled away from the majority sentiment, the majority values, and majority beliefs. So for example, in schools, and this could be repeated kind of endlessly throughout most of our institutions, provide funding to families and let the families choose a school that they believe is the best for their kids. It could be the public school, it could be a public charter school, it could be a private school, it could be a religious school. And I think what we’d see if we actually break up some of these cartel-style institutions, strip these ridiculous student-loan subsidies from universities and make them actually financially responsible for them on the back end.

If we can kind of reshape where money flows and how money is structured, and the incentives and leverage on these dollars that get pushed out of the federal government, I think we can see communities starting to rebuild. Because if you’re a parent and all the sudden you have $17,000 a year per child to spend on education, you actually now have the responsibility to make choices. And by the nature of that responsibility, you are now going to be involved in what is a political process, and you’re going to be roused from any apathy or any cynicism, or any pessimism, because you must make a decision.

There’s a great book from Robert Nisbet, The Quest for Community, which talks about the idea that form follows function in a way, where you have to provide people with a necessity to come together, a purpose, a function to serve in society, and they’ll fill it in with that content and activity and engagement. So I think the solution, as much as we can, is to break up these centralized political powers that have been captured by the long march of the institutions, and return power to people that can then make a billion different decisions that reshape it in an almost market-like mechanism. So that my hunch and my firm belief is that if we do this, if we return power to people democratically, and then return money to people democratically, the institutions will shift dramatically and you’ll start to see a revival of pluralism, a revival of this American participation that Tocqueville saw in his time, that we’ve lost, but I don’t think is too late to recover.

Christopher F. Rufo is a writer, filmmaker, and senior fellow of Manhattan Institute. He has directed four documentaries for PBS and is currently a contributing editor of City Journal, where he covers critical race theory, homelessness, addiction, crime, and other afflictions.