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170

Why the IDW Fell Apart

The Intellectual Dark Web failed to address the question of politics—and has become a spent force.
170

In 2018, the journalist Bari Weiss crowned a heterodox group of writers and cultural figures as the “Intellectual Dark Web.” The IDW, the story goes, promised to deliver a substantive critique of left-wing orthodoxy that had not emerged from the traditional Right. These new figures were also using new media, especially podcast platforms, to reach younger audiences and generate buzz for their intellectual movement.

But now, five years later, the IDW has become a spent force. As the group was confronted with a series of real-world political decisions—the rise of Trump, the COVID crisis, and the anti-CRT movement—it fractured, splintered, and decomposed. With some notable exceptions, such as Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson, and Bret Weinstein, the “centrists” of the IDW could never move from the domain of criticism to the domain of action. They acted as if they could solve political problems through interminable podcast debates and failed to offer a viable theory of change.

Consequently, the IDW was overtaken by events. Although the movement deserves credit for pointing out the problem of left-wing overreach in America’s institutions, this critique is now part of conventional wisdom and is no longer sufficient. As I explain in my new video essay, the lesson of the IDW’s disintegration is clear: opponents of left-wing orthodoxy must grapple with the reality that, in a two-party democratic system, the path to reform must go through politics. If they want results, they must be willing to get their hands dirty.

Listen to this video on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Google Podcasts.


Transcript

A number of years ago, there was a phenomenon called the IDW, or the Intellectual Dark Web. And this was a group of academics and writers and public intellectuals who were challenging the woke orthodoxy, they were raising the alarm about problems in academia, and they were really the first core set of people to challenge what we’re seeing now as BLM ideology, as radical gender theory, and as progressive governance of America’s cities. And I, like many people, was fascinated by this development.

I liked many of the voices that were there—Dave Rubin was a central organizing point with his Rubin Report, you had people like Jordan Peterson, the Weinstein brothers, Sam Harris, Quillette magazine, and a number of other people who had all, in my opinion, bravely and courageously challenged what was happening in America’s institutions and drove some serious attention to institutional problems, for example, in academia.

But if we fast-forward now, five years later, I think we have to make the argument that the IDW is a spent force. In some ways, like President Trump, it served an initial purpose to shake up the status quo. But in the case of the IDW, I’m going to argue that it was unable to offer a solution and, in fact, unable to even arrive at the necessity of a solution itself. And so we have seen a decomposition. I think even a lot of the people—and I’ve talked about this with some of them—would say that the IDW has scattered, people have gone in different directions, and it’s not a coherent intellectual force as it once was. And if you look at it, there are a couple of reasons why this happened, but it starts with the sequence of events over the last few years since this group rose to prominence.

Three Decision Points That Broke the IDW

There are three key decision points that started this splintering of the group, which revealed that it wasn’t an intellectually coherent group, but actually an alliance of convenience against an orthodoxy, but not an alliance capable of creating a replacement or a substitution for that orthodoxy.

The first was Trump. Look: a lot of the people in the IDW, the more centrist types, were horrified by President Trump. They didn’t want to get anywhere near him. They thought that he was an incarnation of evil, anti-intellectualism, and corruption—and he had a really distasteful skin coloration. The most famous example, of course, is Sam Harris, who basically tapped out at Trump and said, if anyone is going in the direction of Trump, I’m going the total opposite direction.

The second was COVID, whether it was the initial lockdowns, the vaccines, or the mandates in schools, workplaces, and other institutions. You had the Quillette magazine crew, Claire Lehmann—they tapped out at this point. They said: We are going all in with the lockdown orthodoxy and we’re not going along with the troglodyte Republicans or Governor DeSantis, who want to keep their states open. We’re with the scientific and technocratic experts (who turned out not to be such great experts after all), and so they tapped out.

Then the third—the one that I’m most familiar with, and I think is really in some ways the most decisive—is the cluster of issues around critical race theory and so-called “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” or DEI. And this is when you had the key decision moment, in which you had all of the centrist types tap out, hit the button, and say: Nope, we’re gone. We think CRT is a problem. We oppose coercive DEI bureaucracies, but we are unwilling to go along with Republican politicians who want to do something about it, who want to use democratic power to restrict critical race theory, to restrict DEI bureaucracies and K-12 schools and public universities.

So at the end of these three decision points, you’re left with very few people still standing. You have a splintering, you have a decomposition, you have really, honestly, a collapse of this movement as a coherent ideological force, intellectual force, and certainly political force.

The Realm of Criticism and the Realm of Action

And if you look at what’s underneath all of these three decision points, I think there’s a single theme that was the initial and primary cause of the decay of this idea, of this movement: it’s that the IDW’s value proposition was that it offered a critique. And I’ll be the first to say: it was a brave critique, a brilliant critique, and a necessary critique. But the IDW wanted to remain in the mode of criticism in perpetuity. It had a very clear idea of what they were against, but could never rally around a coherent agenda on what they were for. And as those decisions started to become imposed from the outside because of these external circumstances—Trump, COVID, CRT, DEI—they were forced to make decisions, and then all of those people tapped out and said: No.

And the problem is that they could not move beyond critique and meet the demands of political action—and they were abdicating, they were unwilling to move into a political arena outside the confines of the intellectual arena, where critique is the key value proposition. And so, what happens is that over this period of four or five years, events surpassed the IDW and it turned the IDW into a spent political force, as the world moved beyond critique and accepted the critique. I mean, look: even the New York Times has absorbed the initial critique of the IDW into its op-ed pages. You see, IDW-style critiques getting published in the New York Times all the time now. They aren’t new, they aren’t fresh, they aren’t transgressive, and they aren’t dangerous opinions to hold. And so, you have a necessity to then go beyond critique into the realm of action.

The IDW Never Had a Viable Theory of Change

And my question to centrists has been and remains to this day: what is your theory of change? What is your model for solving the problems that you yourself have identified? And I think there are two key problems, or two key barriers, for the centrist types or IDW types, to get beyond that question and to answer that question sufficiently.

The first is that these are ultimately political problems. What do I mean by that? I mean that a podcast, even a brilliant argument sustained over a number of years about the evils of critical race theory, for example, will not change the K-12 curriculum in a public school system. And so, you can’t merely criticize it, you actually have to use political power to change existing state curricula to modify the current status quo in order to say: In our public schools, which are funded by taxpayers and ultimately subject to the will of taxpayers through their elected authorities, we’re going to change it. We’re going to say that these ideas are better than these other ideas. Let’s say, the ideas of the American Founding are better than the ideas of critical race theory, and we are going to then say that this is what we’re going to transmit in the public schools.

The IDW people said: No, we’re unwilling to do that. We’re unwilling to use political power to regulate the state. And my argument is that, in a sense, what they’re saying is that the people have no right to regulate their own government. And if you think about this position, it verges on the border of absurdity, a kind of tautological untruth. And, actually, by deferring or abdicating the responsibility of governing, you’re delegating authority to unelected bureaucracies that want to push critical race theory into the classroom, for example, with no consent of the governed. And at the end of the day, there is a legislative and public and political question that must be answered—and not answering that question is not taking a moral high ground, it’s abdicating responsibility and leaving those questions to unelected anti-democratic bureaucracies that have been captured by left-wing ideologues who are pushing the ideology that the IDW, in theory, opposes on intellectual grounds. So there is a deep problem there that I don’t think has been grappled with sufficiently.

Duverger’s Law and the Two-Party Imperative

And the second problem—this really emerges from the first problem—is the problem of Duverger’s Law. This is a political theory that says a first-past-the-post majoritarian electoral system, as we have in the United States, always leads to a two-party political system. And so, if Duverger’s Law holds—I think that it does, the evidence suggests that it does—we are going to have a two-party political system for the foreseeable future. We’ve had, in essence, a two-party political system for the last 250 years, with some minor threats, most recently with Ross Perot in 1992. But really we have a stable two-party political system and one of these two majority parties absorbs in a third-party challenge and siphons or co-ops the voters and the ideas associated with a third party. We saw that in ‘92, and I think we’d see that anytime in the future.

Then the real specific political question is: a) if there is a necessity for political action, b), what does the field of political action look like? Well, because of Duverger’s Law, because of the historical reality of the last 250 years of the United States, it looks like choosing one of two political parties as your vehicle for political change and as a necessary operator in your theory of social, intellectual, cultural, and political change. So your model of change has to grapple with this two-party political system that we have. And here, I think that the centrist IDW types, again, abdicate all responsibility. Someone whom I admire, John McWhorter, wrote a great book titled Woke Racism. The premise of the book is that left-wing racialist ideology is a threat to the country—it’s a threat to not only the country as a whole, but a threat to all of the individual racial and ethnic groups in the country. It is a kind of cancer to intellectual rigor, to progress, to good governance.

Well, if that is your premise, your conclusion should be: how can we change this? How can we defeat this? How can we have public policy that doesn’t adopt these as the new governing principles of our country? And look: the political Left is not going to do that. The political Left for the foreseeable future is captured by its vanguardist faction. Their default ideology, their governing philosophy, is critical race theory, it is DEI bureaucracy. Even for someone like Joe Biden, who is a more old-school, backslapping, moderate-friendly candidate—after he got into office, he nationalized the DEI bureaucracy. This is the governing philosophy of the Democratic Party and of the organized Left. And yet, someone like John McWhorter prides himself and will say in media interviews: I’ve never voted Republican. I would never vote Republican.

Well, again: what is your theory of change in a two-party political system? If you would categorically never vote for Republicans who oppose “woke racism,” who oppose critical race theory, who opposed DEI bureaucracies, how are you going to get the political Left that has staked its fortune on those concepts and operationalized them through every facet of government that it controls—how are you going to get them to walk it back? How are you going to persuade that organized political faction to defeat “woke racism”? You’re not. That’s actually the spoiler to the question. You’re not going to do it. That’s an impossibility. And again, what you see over and over and over: an initial tapping out when the political question is raised, an initial tapping out when you have to actually make a decision, when external circumstances are forcing a decision point, and then tapping out when you have to grapple with the fact that we have a two-party political system.

One party is all in on this, one party is against it. And even if we accept that the conservative party is not perfect, it’s not ideal, it doesn’t line up one hundred percent—even in those circumstances, there’s a clear answer that the only theory of change that has a possibility of victory has to go through a majority conservative party. And then saying: I will not do that, I’m tapping out, I won’t choose because choosing is uncomfortable, because choosing is distasteful because there is lurking figure with an ugly orange-hued skin tone that I just can’t, for aesthetic reasons or political reasons or reasons of conscience, even contemplate. And so, if this is your position, what do you have at the end? You have a force that is spent, you have a movement that is incoherent, and you have a political theory that no longer has a plausible claim on reality.

And let me be the first to say too, there are exceptions. I think Dave Rubin has been someone who understands the political question and has been willing to not tap out, but actually, to opt in to all of those hard decisions and move forward in a way that is likely to succeed, that is consonant with reality, that deals with these difficult political questions and says: You know what? Let’s move forward toward an answer. Jordan Peterson, with whom I had a nice dinner exchange a few weeks ago, had a great podcast conversation about this very question. He’s also moving towards this realization that: You know what? I know how bad academia is. I know how bad diversity, equity, and inclusion ideology is. I know historically what collectivism as a governing principle looks like. It looks like very, very ugly outcomes. And he’s edging towards a kind of bridging of the gap between pure philosophical wisdom and then practical wisdom or prudential wisdom or statesmanship. I think he’s getting there. And then I think Bret Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying, whether you agree with them or not—and I don’t know all their positions on it—they courageously said: You know what? We’re going to tap in to this debate on COVID and say we dissent from the orthodoxy. We dissent from Fauci, we dissent from this scientific pseudo-consensus that we have to lock our country down, that we have to mandate vaccines across the board, and that we have to take away the free choice of individuals and delegate the authority to unelected bureaucracies in the CDC, in Silicon Valley, and other entities that suppress information. They took real political risks. They did the brave thing at the time to say: Right or wrong, we’re going to go with our best judgment. We’re staking a claim. There are some others, I think, that have also done this, so it’s not a categorical condemnation.

The Path Forward

I want to be clear: I don’t think the IDW is bad per se. I think it was actually a necessary and healthy corrective at the time, but one that has splintered to such an extent that it no longer can serve a practical political function. And so, to conclude the argument, I think we have to then answer these questions: This is a political problem. We have a two-party system, according to Duverger’s Law, and we have to make decisions. This doesn’t mean you have to give your unconditional loyalty to one political party or another. It doesn’t mean that you have to blindly follow the political leaders of our time. It doesn’t mean that you cannot also offer caveats and critiques and warnings, something that I think Jordan Peterson has done very brilliantly and very responsibly. But I think it does mean that the conservative party in the United States is the only reasonable path to having a governing majority, to having legislative power, and to answering political questions as our founding fathers and our constitutions intended, which is through the political process.

We live in a republic, we elect our legislators, and questions of public importance are answered through that democratic process. Libertarians may not like that: they believe in some sort of fanciful utopia in which we’re all living on communes and downloading Bitcoin ledgers and living in an anarchist utopia where we all make individual decisions and we log them on the blockchain—but that’s not the reality. We have K-12 public schools, we have public universities, and we have a government with extraordinary bureaucratic and political power. And so do not abdicate. Answer these hard questions. And learn the lessons of how to move beyond the realm of critique into the realm of concrete action. That’s where the fight is. That’s where the fight is going. And we’re going to see people who are tapping out, tapping out, tapping out—and we’re going to leave them behind.

Because we believe—the movement that is generating the most potential for securing the liberty and freedom of the American people over and against these nihilistic left-wing, racial philosophies and gender philosophies that seek to divide us into categories, call us “oppressor” and “oppressed,” and shred the Constitution altogether—we believe that we must take action. And the courageous and the brave are going to be the ones who are leading this country into the future. And this is an open invitation to IDW-style figures to join us. But if you’re unwilling to make the hard decisions, you’re going to be left behind.

This video is sponsored by Manhattan Institute.

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Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo
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Christopher F. Rufo