Weekend Listen: Our Political Moment, with Ben Shapiro
Institutional capture, woke capital, and the lurking monster of ideology.
I recently sat down for Ben Shapiro’s Sunday Special as part of the promotional campaign for my new book, America’s Cultural Revolution. We had a wide-ranging discussion that covered the history of institutional capture, the social dynamics of woke capital, and the “lurking monster of ideology.”
The following are lightly edited highlights from the conversation.
On Our Current Political Moment
Ben Shapiro: Why don’t we start with the biggest question on everybody’s mind: Are we winning? It seems like in some areas, yes, in some areas, no. Republicans have been underperforming the last several election cycles running, but, at the same time, in a lot of states, we’re seeing some success. What’s your impression?
Christopher F. Rufo: In politics, there are no ultimate victories and there are no ultimate failures, so you have to figure out what the combination is amongst the two opposites. We are demonstrating effective models for winning in the media, activism, and policy domains, but that has not translated into a broad-scale reversal of some of the cultural phenomena that we are fighting against. I think we are in an experimental phase and that many of the experiments that we’ve been running have been successful, whether it’s concerning critical race theory, gender ideology, or some of the recent corporate boycotts. And these are the models that we will need to replicate and deploy across different domains in order to be successful in the long term.
On the Lurking Monster of Ideology
Shapiro: Let’s talk about the history that you have uncovered in your book and in your journalism. What do you think was the tipping point for the United States? Was there a lurking monster for fifty years that was gradually gaining ground, and then finally we saw it in the 2010s? Or did it happen all at once?
Rufo: The lurking-monster theory is probably the most accurate. And what I’ve found in researching this book, which traces the radical Left’s “long march through the institutions,” is that, intellectually, the Left’s ideology was fully formed in 1968. They had the ideas. They had the theories. They had the basic coalitional patterns. The very language we see used today was already in use in the far-left radical journals, publications, and pamphlets of the era. In some sense, there have been no new ideas on the Left since that time. But what has changed is the placement of these ideas within institutions. From the period of 1968 to 2020, with the death of George Floyd—everyone taking the knee, everyone posting the black square for BLM—what we see is this long-march process.
What the Left has done very brilliantly since 1968, when its intellectual development essentially ceased, is to understand how to identify weaknesses within institutions; capture choke points where ideologies can take hold; and identify distribution mechanisms where they can have a minority of individuals within, say, a Fortune 100 company, who can exert power with great leverage, from middle management all the way to the CEO suite. And I think the Right has done a poor job historically responding to these trends. We want to have a debate as if politics is an Oxford-style exchange of ideas and the best ideas win. But that is not actually how politics plays out in the real world. So, what I have really hoped to do is to show conservatives how politics really works, how institutions really function, and then, given that knowledge, show how we can start to turn things around.
On the Social Dynamics of Woke Capital
Shapiro: Universities are run by the Left. Educational institutions are run by the Left. But the one that took conservatives completely by surprise over the last decade is the takeover of corporate America. This is a place we had always thought would be safe, not because we assumed that every executive was going to be a conservative but because the market was supposed to be the deciding factor in how decisions got made. And yet, over the course of the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve seen an open usurpation of the mechanisms of economic power at corporations by the woke or people who surrender to the woke. What exactly happened here?
Rufo: I’ve talked to a lot of C-suite executives and board members of Fortune 500 companies, and the basic picture that I could paint for you is something like this: You have to think of corporations and executives as amoral operators that are merely putting their antennae up and responding to incentives, pressure, and economic, cultural, and political forces for their immediate short-term safety and security.
What executives have learned in the last ten years is that they have secured their economic interests from the political Right—corporate taxes, favorable regulations, free trade agreements—and that has allowed American companies to make a lot of money. After corporations felt that they had secured everything that they needed from the political Right, they felt like they could also pander to the political Left on culture. So, they are trying to have it both ways. They are trying to have their economic fortunes taken care of by the Right and their cultural status taken care of by the Left, which has led to the creation of DEI bureaucracies, left-wing cultural campaigns, and left-wing philanthropic contributions.
Corporate CEOs are facing activist organizations on the outside that have very effective mechanisms for putting pressure on companies; activist employees within the corporate hierarchy who have formed identity-based activist groups on the inside; and activist board members who have plenty of cash but want status, fame, and recognition through cultural politics. So, corporate executives are confronting three-dimensional pressure, and—as amoral incentive-responders—they make the obvious choice: they kowtow to these left-wing cultural policies. That’s the simple calculus.
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