Discover more from Christopher F. Rufo
Bring on the Counterrevolution
Conservatives need a national agenda that reclaims American institutions from the Left. A blueprint exists, from a surprising source.
America is trapped in the loop of 1968. The politics of that fateful year have set the patterns and bounds of our national life for decades.
It’s as though we have lived an endless recurrence: the Black Panther Party reappears as the Black Lives Matter movement; the Weather Underground pamphlets launder themselves into academic papers; the Marxist-Leninist guerrillas trade in their bandoliers and become managers of an elite-led revolution in manners and mores. The ideology, narrative, and aesthetics of the left-wing social movements of that earlier time, though now often degraded through cynicism and repetition, have maintained the position of a jealous hegemon.
The cultural revolution that began a half-century ago, now reflected in a deadening sequence of acronyms—CRT, DEI, ESG, and more—has increasingly become our new official morality. Many conservatives have made an uneasy peace with this transformation of values, even as the culture around them has, in many places, collapsed.
This attitude no longer suffices. It is time to break the loop of 1968. We need a counterrevolution.
This is the word that haunts the revolutionary mind. The French Revolution fell to the forces of Thermidor; the Revolution of 1848 fell to the empire of the bourgeoisie; the Bolshevik Revolution fell to the democratic-capitalists, the imperialist-backed juntas, and the forces of global capitalism. Marx himself viewed counterrevolution as an overwhelming threat. “Every important part of the revolutionary annals from 1848 to 1849 bears the heading: Defeat of the revolution!” he lamented.
The urgent task for the political Right today is to comprehend the dynamics of revolution and counterrevolution and to create a strategy for dislodging the New Left ideology of 1968, which has solidified control over the most fundamental structures of American society. The challenge must be met not solely in the realm of policy debate but on the deepest political and philosophical grounds.
Today’s counterrevolution is not one of class against class but takes place along a new axis between the citizen and an ideologically driven state. Its ultimate ambition is not to replace the new “universal class”—the heirs of the 1960s cultural revolution, who have worked to professionalize it and install it in elite institutions—or to capture the bureaucratic apparatus that the universal class currently controls; instead, it seeks to restore the nation’s founding principle of citizen rule over the state.
The current moment can be symbolized as a conflict between the Revolution of 1968 and the Revolution of 1776. And despite the seemingly overwhelming power of their opponents, the partisans of 1776 have some significant advantages. The 1968ers promise liberation through the destruction of old forms of order; they appeal to the romantic spirit of the revolutionary. But their campaigns inevitably collapse into nihilism. They tear away the supposed masks, denounce the great ideals, humiliate the old heroes—and leave nothing but an immense void in their place.
The counterrevolution must take its bearings from the common citizen and offer to restore his dignity and mastery over his own life. It must reverse the process of institutional capture, break up centralized ideological powers, and return influence to local communities. The strategy has been described as “right-wing Leninism,” but this misunderstands a key point: while the revolution seeks to demolish America’s founding principles, the counterrevolution seeks to restore them; while the revolution proceeds by a long march through the institutions, the counterrevolution works to remove power from institutions that have lost or betrayed the public trust.
The architects of the counterrevolution—intellectuals, activists, and political leaders—must develop a new political vocabulary that can break through the Left’s identitarian and bureaucratic narratives, tap into the reservoir of popular sentiment that will provide the basis for mass support, and design policies to sever the connection between the radical ideologies and administrative power.
Given current circumstances, with the Left’s seemingly wholesale capture of major institutions—public education, the universities, private-sector leadership, culture, and, increasingly, even the sciences—the current battlefield can appear overwhelming. But today’s Left has an Achilles heel: its power is, to a significant degree, a creature of the state, subsidized by patronage, loan schemes, bureaucratic employment, and civil rights regulations. These structures often appear permanent, but they can be reformed, redirected, or abolished through the democratic process.
With a presidential election looming, conservatives need to develop a national counterrevolutionary agenda. For some ideas for what that might look like, they can turn to a surprising guide: Richard Nixon.
The movement against the Revolution of 1968 had already begun to take form in the closing stretch of that year. As the radical left-wing factions asserted themselves in the universities and in the streets, voters cast their presidential ballots for former vice president Richard Milhous Nixon, who promised to restore “law and order” on behalf of the “silent majority.” Nixon is held in contempt these days, even by many conservatives, but parts of his legacy deserve reappraisal. He acutely understood the threat of ideological revolution and anticipated the dynamics of bureaucratic capture.
In his presidential nomination speech of 1968, as the forces of the New Left’s cultural revolution were rapidly ascending, Nixon set the stakes for the American public and established themes that still dominate American politics today. “My friends, we live in an age of revolution in America and in the world,” Nixon said. “We see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying on distant battlefields abroad. We see Americans hating each other; fighting each other; killing each other at home.”
Through the chaos and tumult of the cultural revolution, Nixon called to the “great majority of Americans, the forgotten Americans, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.” He defended this silent majority against attacks that have since become ubiquitous. “They’re not racists or sick; they’re not guilty of the crime that plagues the land; they are black, they are white; they’re native-born and foreign-born,” he told the convention audience in Miami Beach. “And this I say, this I say to you tonight, is the real voice of America.”
Nixon appealed to the Revolution of 1776 as the antidote to the Revolution of 1968. “To find the answers to our problems, let us turn to a revolution—a revolution that will never grow old, the world’s greatest continuing revolution, the American Revolution,” he said. “The American Revolution was and is dedicated to progress. But our founders recognized that the first requisite of progress is order. Now there is no quarrel between progress and order because neither can exist without the other. . . . And to those who say that law and order is the code word for racism, here is a reply: Our goal is justice—justice for every American.”
An early priority in Nixon’s counterrevolution was to tame the national bureaucracy. Between 1969 and 1971, Nixon unveiled a series of proposals under the concept of the “New Federalism,” designed to consolidate federal agencies under tighter presidential authority, convert entire federal programs into direct block grants to states and municipalities, eliminate specific expenditures through the budget impoundment process, and replace the Great Society’s antipoverty initiatives, which sought to reengineer human behavior, with a simple guaranteed income program for the poor.
Nixon believed that the federal government should provide a financial backstop for the American people, but he wanted to curb the power of the government’s experts, managers, and bureaucrats, who, he recognized, wanted to remake organic social institutions in the service of left-wing ideology. Nixon once asked his domestic policy advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan if his proposed basic-income program would “get rid of social workers.” Moynihan responded: “It would wipe them out.”
The second element of Nixon’s counterrevolution—the most successful during his presidency—was the campaign to reestablish “law and order.” The late 1960s were marked by mass rioting, looting, and arson in America’s urban areas. The promise of the civil rights movement, which established full formal equality for black Americans in 1964 and 1965, had turned to disillusion. Members of the New Left’s coalition of white middle-class students and black urban agitators took to the streets in a cataclysm of political violence, promising to wage guerrilla war against the government and to establish a Marxist-Leninist state. Radicals planted thousands of bombs and assassinated police officers in major cities.
Nixon responded with an appeal to the middle class. “When the nation with the greatest tradition of the rule of law is plagued by unprecedented lawlessness; when a nation that has been known for a century for equality of opportunity is torn by unprecedented racial violence,” Nixon said, “then it’s time for new leadership for the United States of America.”
As president, Nixon ruthlessly dismantled the radical organizations, such as the Black Panther Party, Black Liberation Army, Weather Underground, and Communist Party USA, that threatened violent revolution against the state. His FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, launched a sophisticated campaign to infiltrate, disrupt, and disperse their networks, with devastatingly effective results. Of course, some of what Hoover’s FBI did ran the gamut from questionable to flatly illegal, and these practices not only violated the rights of numerous American citizens but also undermined the authority by which the U.S. government rightly engages in containment of lawless individuals or groups. Still, by the end of Nixon’s first term, most of the subversive organizations had imploded, and many of their leaders were on the run, in prison, or in the ground.
And the New Left’s intellectual leaders believed that Nixon’s drive against radical groups was succeeding. “The Nixon Administration has strengthened the counterrevolutionary organization of society in all directions,” wrote the neo-Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse in 1972. “The Black Panther party has been systematically chased down before it disintegrated in internal conflicts. A vast army of undercover agents is spread over the entire country and through all branches of society.” The revolution, he believed, was finished.
The third element of Nixon’s counterrevolution was the formation of a counter-elite. Nixon felt besieged by the post–New Deal liberal establishment and the New Left counterculture that had captured the sympathies of the press. The bureaucracy, he believed—whether in the Communist Soviet Union or capitalist United States—would inevitably be controlled by a ruling elite that, with the advent of mass communications and administration, could wield unprecedented powers. He feared that the new elites would undermine older middle-class values, and his notorious “enemies list” was a crude proxy for the kind of individuals who would make that happen.
“The leadership class is made up of highly educated and influential people in the arts, the media, the academic community, the government bureaucracies, and even business,” Nixon maintained. “They are characterized by intellectual arrogance, an obsession with style, fashion, and class, and a permissive attitude,” he wrote, a profile that has not changed much in the half-century since. Nixon was blunt: “The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy,” he told advisor Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office.
In their place, Nixon hoped, his administration could help “create a new establishment” to counterbalance the elite universities and the media, which, Nixon estimated, was “90–10” against him. In meetings with his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, Nixon shared his desire to freeze out liberal reporters, to adopt a harder line against his foes, and to “go out into the heartland” to recruit a conservative counter-elite uncorrupted by the Ivy Leagues. He believed that a resounding reelection victory could establish the conditions for a deeper shift in the nation’s power structure. “What [liberal presidential candidate George] McGovern stands for, the eastern liberal media stands for, the eastern intellectuals stand for . . . must be crushed,” he told aides in October 1972. “It cannot come back and have an opportunity to have much influence in American life for a while.”
By the end of his first term, frustrated by the permanent administration in Washington, Nixon had conceived of his most important task as leading a counterrevolution against the state bureaucracy—or, as he put it in his 1971 State of the Union Address, a “New American Revolution,” in which the federal government would be put back into check and power returned to the common citizen. As Nixon aide Richard Nathan explained in his book The Plot That Failed: Nixon and the Administrative Presidency, the president increasingly saw himself as a champion of the “general interest,” caught at the center of a system arrayed against it.
In November 1972, Nixon got his resounding reelection, winning with the largest popular vote margin of any candidate in the postwar era, defeating McGovern in 49 out of 50 states, including McGovern’s home state of South Dakota. The press immediately noted the significance of Nixon’s ambitions. The New York Times published a postelection editorial titled “Nixon Counterrevolution,” warning that the reelected president wanted to “advance an ideological grand design” that would reverse the progression of the New Deal and the Great Society, abolishing federal programs that imposed elite-approved views on local communities and administered society from above. “Mr. Nixon seeks to accomplish a retrogressive counterrevolution in the guise of an administrative reorganization,” the editorial cautioned.
As his second term began, Nixon proceeded to abolish entire federal offices and programs that promoted left-wing social theories; suspend federal housing programs, pending review; and restrict the methods and ideological scope of federally funded social-services initiatives. He also proposed a truly ambitious system of “revenue sharing,” which would send billions in federal funding directly to states and municipalities, which, he believed, could administer social programs in greater alignment with local communities. The only way to avoid the slide into bureaucratic tyranny, Nixon believed, was to centralize control over the executive branch in the White House and to decentralize financing and administration of social programs, ensuring that they operated with minimal bureaucracy and as close to the people as possible.
To be sure, not all of Nixon’s domestic policy proposals were wise or successful. He enacted wage and price controls, expanded the reach of government through the creation of the EPA and other departments, and strengthened President Lyndon Johnson’s affirmative-action policy. His guaranteed income and block-grant proposals, if adopted, might have yielded unintended consequences, disincentivizing work and enabling ideological capture at the local level, respectively. But Nixon, whatever his flaws, thought seriously about how to reshape America’s institutions and had a vision for policy that was commensurate with the problem.
In the end, Nixon was subverted by the very forces he feared most. His enemies in the bureaucracy and the press were able to use the Watergate scandal to oust him and stop his plans for realignment. The tragedy of Nixon is that he accomplished his dream of winning a “new majority” but was unable to transform it into a “new establishment.” His closest aides described the experience as working in “the White House surrounded”—in a position of constitutional power, vitiated by the rise of the permanent bureaucracy.
With Nixon’s counterrevolution long since halted, the process of institutional capture has only intensified. Today, the federal government spends billions of dollars yearly supporting left-wing ideology and administration. The institutional Left, both within and without government, has built a vast network of departments, programs, contracts, grants, nonprofits, and service providers that circulate money throughout the system. Further, the federal government has financed and guaranteed more than $1.6 trillion in student loans, which help subsidize left-wing academic departments and “diversity and inclusion” bureaucracies at universities across the United States. Indeed, the entire federal bureaucracy, with more than 2 million civilian employees, is now under orders to advance “diversity, equity, and inclusion”—that is, to conform all its programs to racial ideology—across every department of government. It is not just social workers, then, but doctors, scientists, law-enforcement agents, and military commanders who have been recruited, willing or not, into the Left’s ongoing cultural capture.
Herbert Marcuse was premature in declaring the death of the revolution. Left-wing activists have today resurrected the militancy and tactics of the 1960s radical movements, organizing demonstrations and using the threat of violence to achieve political aims. During the summer of 2020, the Black Lives Matter movement led protests in 140 cities. Many of these demonstrations became violent—the largest eruption of left-wing race rioting since the late 1960s. Members of BLM, Antifa, and other so-called antifascist groups rampaged through neighborhoods, established street dominance in certain areas, and even launched a short-lived “autonomous zone” in Seattle. Protesters in Portland, Oregon, laid siege to a federal courthouse and rioted for more than 100 consecutive nights.
The intellectual descendants of the so-called New Left have warped the national narrative in dramatic ways. Today’s master-signifiers, their grounding first developed during the earlier period—”systemic racism,” “white supremacy,” “white privilege,” “antiracism”—have pushed the Right into a posture of seemingly permanent defense. The Black Lives Matter movement has recast the country’s “greatest heroes as the arch-villains,” as one old-time activist put it. And the managers of America’s institutions have ensured that schools, universities, nonprofits, and corporations repeat these themes ad nauseam, transmitting them to the next generation.
Conservatives today rarely appeal to Richard Nixon for inspiration, allowing the Watergate narrative and Nixon’s own ideological and policy inconsistencies to obscure the potential of his vision for resisting the Left’s cultural revolution. This is a mistake—but what would Nixon’s blueprint for counterrevolution look like today?
The starting point is correctly to perceive the current state of play in America. The bitter irony of the Revolution of 1968 is that it has attained power but hasn’t opened up new possibilities. Instead, it has locked major institutions of society within a suffocating orthodoxy. Though it has amassed significant administrative advantages, it has failed to deliver positive results to the broad public. It has thus not gained the trust of the common citizen. Its hold remains tenuous; it can be overcome.
The Oval Office can help drive the counterrevolution. Following the Nixon centralization-decentralization model, the next conservative president should establish ideological authority over the federal bureaucracy in the White House and, in partnership with Congress, decentralize as much of the federal government as possible, with an eye toward gutting the power of the social engineers. For decades, conservatives in Congress have effectively written a blank check to captured institutions, experienced dismay at the subsequent behavior of those institutions, and then continued to fund them. These are all policy choices—and they can be changed.
On the first day in office, the new president could prepare executive orders targeting the concepts and formulations that have traveled from the fringes of the 1960s Left to the center of American power. At the head of this list would be a ban on the government promotion of left-wing racialist ideology, or critical race theory, and to abolish the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” bureaucracy that serves as its administrative vehicle. The order would replace all this with a system of strict color-blind equality, prioritizing the values of equal treatment, individual excellence, and race-neutral decision-making. As part of this policy, the president could also rescind Lyndon Johnson’s Executive Order 11246, which established the legal basis for “affirmative action”—a euphemism for state-sanctioned racial discrimination in the interest of favored identity groups—and forbid the use of identity-based quotas, preferences, and “disparate impact” analysis as an acceptable basis for any federal decision-making, to the fullest extent of the law.
To start reshaping the culture inside federal agencies, the president should order an executive supplement to the Hatch Act, which prohibits civil service employees from engaging in partisan political activity, that would bar all social and political activism unrelated to such workers’ official duties. The policy would restrict federal employees from promoting the messages or displaying the symbols of political causes, such as Black Lives Matter or radical gender activism, while using federal resources and facilities. In principle, the restriction would apply equally to the Left and Right; in practice, it would almost exclusively restrict left-wing activism, given the left-dominated composition of the federal workforce and culture of the federal bureaucracy.
Following this, as Nixon demonstrated using the budget impoundment process, the next president should aggressively “defund the Left” and assert, unequivocally, that all federal programs, contracts, grants, and projects must reflect the values of the voters who elected him or her, unless specifically required by statute to do otherwise. Existing grants and contracts that violate these principles should be canceled, litigated, and strangled with red tape. Over time, this impoundment effort could deprive the Left’s public and private networks of hundreds of billions of dollars, which are laundered through universities, schools, nonprofits, and other entities. With a willing majority in Congress, this order could be codified into law, blocking federal funding of partisan left-wing ideological programs, much as the Hyde Amendment bans federal funding for abortion.
Next, reprising Nixon’s great theme of “law and order,” the next president should create a federal task force for disrupting violent left-wing activist groups. As Nixon did with the Black Panther Party and the Weather Underground, the next president should, using entirely legal means, pursue action against violent or lawless left-wing groups such as Antifa. The threat of political violence cannot be allowed to shape life in America’s cities, nor can it be used to put pressure on the electoral process—both of which occurred in 2020. With a relatively modest budgetary commitment, federal law enforcement could infiltrate groups, disrupt their financial networks, and prosecute their criminal behavior.
The new president could also work toward the objective that Nixon envisioned but never accomplished: the restructuring of American institutions more broadly. This can be attained through both content and form.
The federal government could use the tools of the 1968 revolution—above all, civil rights law—to advance the counterrevolution. The next administration can instruct the attorney general to set up a new civil rights enforcement office within the Department of Justice and then recruit hundreds of conservative lawyers to staff it. This new office, adhering to a conservative interpretation of civil rights law, would investigate corporations, universities, schools, and other institutions that engage in racial preferences, hostile diversity and inclusion programming, and critical race theory–style scapegoating and discrimination. These practices would all be deemed violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and prosecuted with the full force of the Justice Department.
The president can instruct the Secretary of Education to employ a similar method to strike at the origin point of the revolution: the universities. On the first day of the new administration, the Department of Education should announce a new unit within its civil rights division, tasked with investigating universities—beginning with the Ivy Leagues—for racial discrimination in admissions, identity-based preferences in hiring, and activist-style DEI programs. As a complement to these enforcement provisions, the DOE should also require all federally supported universities to submit race, sex, grade-point average, and standardized test data for each incoming class and tie federal student loan programs—accepted at virtually every university in the country—to specific metrics on academic merit, open debate, and civil discourse. Universities that tolerate mobs and enforce left-wing orthodoxy will be punished; universities that encourage equal treatment and academic excellence will be rewarded. As incentives change, so will the institutions.
Finally, reviving the spirit of Nixon’s early New Federalism, the president, working with Congress, should decentralize the government’s colossal “health, education, and welfare” bureaucracy, block-granting large portions of federal expenditures to state governments, which are, at least in theory, less vulnerable to ideological capture. In addition, the president should pursue, in Nixon’s phrasing, an “income strategy,” similar in function to Social Security, which prioritizes direct financial assistance, rather than a “service strategy,” which seeks to manipulate values and behavior. Families, not bureaucrats and social workers, should be in charge; bonds of affection, not coercion, should be the primary shaper of human life. The cultural revolution has gained ground by imposing its values through centralized administrative structures; the counterrevolution must fight not only to overturn that system on intellectual grounds but also to provide families with the freedom and resources to build a new, decentralized system that respects their deepest rights of conscience and belief.
Would this battle be winnable? Nixon himself felt a sense of urgency, writing in his diary shortly after reelection that his second-term agenda was “the only way, and probably the last time, that we can get government under control before it gets so big that it submerges the individual completely and destroys the dynamism which makes the American system what it is.” Of course, for the battle to be winnable requires that it first be waged—and that requires winning elections, a formidable task.
Yet, we have some reason for optimism. For the past half-century, the left-wing revolution has relied on a high-low coalition—the “new proletariat” of the white intelligentsia and the black underclass—but its reach is inherently limited. The counterrevolution has an opportunity to build a broad, multiracial, middle-out coalition that seeks to overthrow the synthetic institutions of the Left and protect the organic institutions of the common citizen. Nixon’s “silent majority” has diversified: Latinos and Asians are beginning to revolt against left-wing ideology, including critical race theory and gender radicalism; parents of all racial backgrounds have flooded local school boards to express opposition to their ideological corruption. With a national leader drawing on the great themes of the counterrevolution, conservatives can reconstitute Nixon’s majority and wield democratic power to bring the cultural revolution to heel.
The question that troubled Nixon during his presidency was the basic one of politics: Who rules? He saw that the deepest conflict in the United States was not along lines of class, race, or identity but between the bureaucracy and the people. And the Revolution of 1968, which sought to connect ideology to institutional power and to shape human society through elite guidance, was ultimately antidemocratic. Nixon understood that bureaucratic rule meant the end of our constitutional order.
The telos of the counterrevolution is the restoration of political rule—rule of, by, and for the people. From the summer of 1968 through the summer of George Floyd, the common citizen has found himself continuously shamed, cowed, and degraded. But despite this, he has retained the power of his instincts, which orient him toward justice, and of his own memory, which makes possible the retrieval of the symbols and principles that once animated the republic. Indeed, most Americans still believe in the promise of the Declaration and the Constitution. The statues of America’s Founders might have been toppled, spray-painted, and hidden away; their principles might have been deconstructed, denigrated, and forgotten in the country’s elite institutions. But the vision of the Founders strikes at something eternal. The common citizen understands this intuitively.
To this end, the counterrevolution’s guiding purpose must be to reanimate the instinct for self-government and to mobilize an organic movement of citizens who will reassert their influence in the institutions that matter: the school, the municipality, the workplace, the statehouse, the Congress. The antidemocratic structures—the DEI departments and the intrusive bureaucracies—must be dismantled. The rule of experts must be replaced by the rule of the people; the threat of violence must be met with the power of justice.
The United States under counterrevolution will be a pluralist republic: local communities will have the autonomy to pursue their own vision of the good, within the binding principles of the Constitution. The common citizen will have the space for living and passing down his own virtues, sentiments, and beliefs, free from the imposition of values from above. The government will protect the basic dignity and political rights of the citizen, while refraining from the utopian task of remaking society in its image. The principles of the society under counterrevolution are not oriented toward sweeping reversals and absolutes but toward the protection of the humble values and institutions of the common citizen: family, faith, work, community, country. The promise of this regime lies in the particular, rather than the abstract; the humble, rather than the grandiose; the limited, rather than the limitless.
The great vulnerability of the cultural revolution is that it undermines the morality and stability of the common citizen. And as it corrodes the institutions of family, faith, and community, it causes an emptiness in the human heart that cannot be filled with its one-dimensional ideology. The counterrevolution must begin at that exact point. If the culmination of America’s cultural revolution is nihilism, the counterrevolution must begin with hope. This means rediscovering and revitalizing the principles, language, and sentiments of the Revolution of 1776.
“The idea that a bureaucratic elite in Washington knows best what is best for people everywhere . . . is a notion completely foreign to the American experience,” Nixon observed. “The time has now come in America to reverse the flow of power and resources from the States and communities to Washington and start power and resources flowing back from Washington to the States and communities and, more important, to the people all across America.”
It is a project against cynicism. Rather than simply present itself as a force of opposition, the counterrevolution must offer the population a competing set of values, in language that clarifies our choices: excellence over diversity, equality over equity, dignity over inclusion, order over chaos.
This article was originally published at City Journal.
Christopher F. Rufo is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.