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The Worst of Times

How the paper of record enables the CRT moral panic

 

Chris Lehmann | February 17, 2022

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We tend to think that the extremist convulsions that have lately reshaped our politics have come about from ominous ill-defined forces at the margins of our public life, like the thunder sheets struck at climactic moments in the production of an opera: distant mobilizations of smoldering anxieties, grievances, and racialized animus, spurred on by this or that flashpoint in the culture wars. But what’s in many ways more decisive is the direction coming from the conductor’s podium: namely, the willful elite suspension of disbelief that enables the whole underlying narrative to gain traction in the first place. 
 

     For a grimly edifying case study, just consider a pair of recent newsletter offerings from the nation’s premier journalistic organ of political and cultural consensus, the New York Times: one furnishing an obliging rhetorical platform to Reihan Salam, president of the Manhattan Institute and an enthusiastic prosecutor of the culture war against critical race theory; and the other furnishing an obliging rhetorical platform to Ruy Teixeira, longtime Democratic party poll savant lately given to his own tirades against CRT and the allied excesses of over-woke activists within Democratic ranks.

 

     Taken together, the shared testimony of Salam and Teixeira, prominently featured in Times-branded online marketing platforms aimed at information-hungry and savvy political insiders, supplies an invaluable skeleton key to the mindset of respectable-opinion-shaping at the nation’s leading newspaper—and thereby a case study in how something like the unhinged anti-CRT moral panic gains a solid footing in self-advertised Serious Political Discourse.

 

     Both men, the record should show at the outset, are textbook examples of actually existing political elites—they sport prestigious academic pedigrees, move within rarefied policy circles, and have long pundit resumes. (Indeed, they have even interviewed each other, in a spirited show of savvy insider bonhomie.) But the editorial mission at the Times is to recruit figures like Salam and Teixeira to serve as sober authorities on the state of things in Real America, and so this involves a deft show of selective elite-baiting. Over on Salam’s side of the aisle, this means a lot of loose-yet-knowing talk about the race-besotted folkways of those tried-and-true culture-war demons on the right—the university toffs and the feckless lords of the liberal media, to wit:

I sometimes get the sense that the most race-obsessed environments in America are prisons—think of California’s racial prison gangs, who Chris Rufo wrote about recently for City Journal—and elite media and academic institutions. If you dissent from certain ideas championed by credentialed spokespeople for what it means to be Black or Latino or Asian or whatever, the message is that you are not to be taken seriously, you don’t count as a diverse voice.

     But of course in Salam’s nightmare vision, the enforcers of woke orthodoxy aren’t content to preside over their elite cultural perches—no, they’re also throttling the basic operations of governance. Speaking of the rise of a new generation of progressive, cop-skeptical D.A.’s in major cities throughout the country, Salam fingers the media-intelligentsia complex as its chief enablers. Why, you ask? Well, just do the math! “Prestige media imparts prestige, and so it incentivizes the behavior of elite, status-seeking people,” the Harvard-matriculated Salam, who was Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat’s post-collegiate roommate back in the Bush years, pronounces. “What matters in these contexts is who gets through what you could call the ‘prestige primary.’ And it’s just not cool for kids at Yale Law School to care more about the fate of unfashionable crime victims than about whatever they’re reading in the socialist magazine Jacobin or The New York Times Magazine, which are increasingly indistinguishable. Giving voice to people who are outside of this bubble is vitally important — it challenges the legitimacy of the elite progressive consensus, it activates citizens who haven’t otherwise felt their power and it creates an opening for political and civic entrepreneurs to build new coalitions.”

 

     OK, then, let’s roll the tape here. Aside from perhaps designated CRT assassin Chris Rufo, one imagines that a pet breaker of the monolithic elite progressive consensus in Salam’s universe would be hillbilly-memoirist-cum-GOP Senate candidate J.D. Vance—a political entrepreneur if ever there was one, and a former colleague of Salam’s at The National Review. But if memory serves, Vance was a Yale Law alum, and enough of a “cool kid” to have one of his professors there—Amy Chua, of Tiger Mom and other renown—help guide his own memoir through the prestige-dispensing Manhattan publishing industry. These days, of course, you’re far more apt to hear Vance braying Trumpian talking points about those same willowy-yet-omnipotent cultural elites as he, too, inveighs against the evils of CRT in pursuit of maximum right-sanctioned power. But the larger takeaway here is unmistakable: in an America bitterly divided over what does and does not constitute a viable civic education, the Yale or Harvard pedigree simply shuts down an outsized part of the whole argument. You can grab your Ivy League credential and set about berating the whole elitist, P.C. apparatus of higher education in the same elegant feint. You might call this maneuver “the Full Kavanaugh,” after another fire-breathing right-wing Yale Law graduate of notable influence.

 

     But if Salam were merely guilty of blatant hypocrisy, that by itself would be of little note in a country that awarded its highest office to Donald J. Trump, self-professed tribune of the common working folk. What’s far more noteworthy is the particular policy shop Salam now presides over—and how he’s cannily positioning it as its own franchise of common-sense political consensus. In a right-wing intellectual scene overrun with bad-faith ideological agendas, the Manhattan Institute stands out as an egregious offender. Prior to Trump’s election, the neoconservative think tank—along with its principal donor, hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer—was broadly aligned with the ineffectual “Never Trump” right. But once Trump won election in 2016, the Manhattan Institute did a resounding turnaround, as former writer for its policy organ City Journal Sol Stern has noted. Singer promptly donated a cool million dollars to Trump’s inauguration committee, and another high-rolling trustee there, Rebekah Mercer—the Cambridge Analytica heiress who had long backed white nationalist Trump consigliere Steve Bannon—rose to premier influence-peddling prominence. Stern left City Journal shortly after Trump’s inauguration in 2017; after Salam, who had long claimed cachet on the right as a maverick and independent thinker, took over in 2019, Stern briefly hoped for a Perestroika moment, but the magazine’s consistently Trump-friendly streak of coverage stayed unbroken. Indeed, Stern writes, a special City Journal issue on the Covid pandemic “was Orwellian history, as if a group of editors and writers had produced an account of America without assessing the role of the nation’s commander-in-chief at the height of World War II.” Ditto for the racial reckoning of 2020: “The magazine covered every aspect of this second American crisis,” Stern recalls, “but once again never mentioned the President’s response. No comment about the Trump Administration’s use of force against peaceful protesters in front of the White House, or the Hollywood-style photo-op of the President posing as a Roman emperor holding up a bible instead of a scepter. Not a word about the dangerous rift between the U.S. military establishment and the White House.” (Making the most of his audience with the credulous paper of record, Salam even seeks to affect some critical distance from the legacy of the 45th president; he says that “Trumpism is exceedingly hard to define,” which is very much like a fish professing to know nothing of the liquid substance called water.)

 

In a right-wing intellectual scene overrun with bad-faith ideological agendas, the Manhattan Institute stands out as an egregious offender.

     It’s no great surprise, in other words, that Reihan Salam’s Manhattan Institute is touting the moral panic over critical race theory as a blow for common-sense post-racial comity against the sinister forces of woke cultural self-regard—or that the Trumpified GOP has enthusiastically taken up the same refrain. It’s a ploy to exploit longstanding racial anxieties that have served to mobilize the conservative movement base, while also seizing on the impressionable blind spots of establishment journalists at outlets like the Times to paint this hard ideological pivot as a sensible overture to the political center. Throughout his interview with Times stenographer Jay Caspian Kang, Salam portrays the Institute as a heroic defender of hard-won “center right” wisdom—reprising a favorite characterization of the reigning American political consensus that dates from the far-from-centrist George W. Bush administration.

 

     This disingenuous phrasing neatly conceals the all-too-plain mission of the Manhattan Institute: to aggressively push the policy discussion ever further to the right, particularly as it concerns racial justice, so as to transform the understanding of what the putative “center” of our politics is and should be. That’s why it’s vital for Salam to—again dishonestly—claim that critical race theory is steeped in “race essentialism” and to hymn an emergent new “utopian” and colorblind American mainstream “in which people aren’t bound by rigid racial expectations, and ethnic identity is more voluntary or symbolic than something that determines your life chances.” Of course, this glib word picture completely inverts existing political reality: the lead apostles of “race essentialism” are on the white nationalist right, and they are more committed than ever to ensuring that “rigid racial expectations” determine life outcomes unto their innermost parts—and to making damn sure that Americans will not be exercising any voluntary agency over matters of identity, be they racial, ethnic, or gender-based. A whole vast battery of regressive state legislative measures to ban classroom discussion and reading pertaining to such issues—and indeed to the whole of America’s unlovely history of vigilant identity-policing—bears eloquent testimony to this univocal drive toward white-patriarchal cultural homogenization on today’s American right. But you won’t be reading about the dynamics of this process in City Journal—or, it seems, in the New York Times.

 

     Indeed, when Times political scribes shift their gaze over to the liberal side of the spectrum, the same basic structural analysis holds—as the recent softball interview that the Times’ “On Politics” correspondents Blake Hounshell and Leah Askirinam conducted with Ruy Teixeira makes abundantly clear. This depiction of Teixeira as a maverick dispenser of hard poll-driven truths—titled, of course, “Confessions of a Liberal Heretic”—appears to have emerged from the same inert Mad Libs-style editorial formatting that produced Kang’s extended herogram to Salam. Does our interview subject profess disdain for the ill-specified forces of “race essentialism”? You bet he does: “His Substack newsletter, The Liberal Patriot, delivers ‘no-holds-barred reality-based analysis,’ unafraid to take on what he calls a ‘race-essentialist’ dogma that is dominating the Democratic party.” (Here I should note that I am, as a longtime DC-based journalist, acquainted with both Teixeira and Salam in passing; I even receive The Liberal Patriot, though I never signed up to get it.)

 

     Does Teixiera deride the out-of-touch sensibilities of the overprivileged knowledge elite? You’d better believe it, hoss! Indeed, he assigns these haughty souls much of the blame for the failed prophecy packaged in his best-known study—the 2002 tract co-authored with John Judis bearing the painfully overconfident title The New Democratic Majority. What he and Judis didn’t reckon on, Teixeira reports, “was the eventual effect of professional-class hegemony in the Democratic Party—that it would tilt the Democrats so far to the left on sociocultural issues that it would actually make the Democratic Party significantly unattractive to working-class voters.” You’d think this might be a signal to skeptical journalistic interlocutors that Teixeira comes to the debate over Democratic racial politics bearing a not inconsiderable professional-class grudge of his own—you might even dare to dream that they’d question Teixeira about the Democrats’ disastrous embrace of neoliberal trade, fiscal, and monetary policies that gutted so much of the manufacturing economy and delivered the white working class into the same conditions of precarity that have long hollowed out the livelihoods of Black and brown workers. Instead, the bedazzled “On Politics” correspondents cheerfully let Teixeira continue laying into the shadowy elites of his fond culture-war imaginings: “The people who staff the party, the people who staff the think tanks, the advocacy groups, the foundations, they’re all singing from the same hymnal, to some extent. They live in this liberal cultural bubble, particularly the younger members.” (The notion that a clutch of vigilant young staffers in think tanks and congressional offices is calling the shots in today’s nakedly donor-dominated political scene is another stunning study in the elite suspension of disbelief, but that is a sermon for another occasion.)

 

     When his interviewers manage briefly to rouse themselves into pressing the fearless heretic for an example, he obliges with a full-blown straw man: In the 2020 Democratic primaries, Teixeira laments, “things that were alienating to the average voter, particularly the average working-class voter, were gaily promulgated, with no apparent second thoughts about how it might appear to people outside the bubble. Things like open borders, basically, let’s decriminalize the border. . . . Arguably Democrats would have been better off from the beginning saying, ‘Yeah, we believe in being humane to immigrants. We also believe in border security and we’re going to enforce it.’ You know, take a page from the old Obama playbook. Obama got a lot of stuff right on some of these issues, which the party is now insisting on forgetting.”

 

     Brave, no-holds-barred stuff indeed. The only trouble is that decriminalizing border crossings is not the same thing as “open borders”—as it was debated among Democratic presidential candidates in 2020, the proposal was to alter the status of illegal border crossings from a criminal offense, punishable (let us recall) by historically brutal detention practices under the Trump administration, to a civil trespass, more commonly punished with a fine. “Open borders” is the essential elimination of conventional border strictures—one that historically has won the endorsement of the editorial board of that flagrant left-wing rag The Wall Street Journal. What’s more, the immigration debate took place during the primaries—i.e., the part of the presidential selection process designed to engage the base of major parties, which is why, in the 2016 GOP primaries, Trump was able to upend the entire GOP establishment with his xenophobic tirades about wall-building and the nonexistent immigrant crime wave. As events unfolded, of course, the 2020 Democratic nomination and presidency went to Obama’s former Vice President Joe Biden, who has replicated the Obama immigration playbook to a tee—albeit much to the dismay of anyone who truly believes in “being humane to immigrants.”

 

     Then, of course, Teixeira lets loose with the by-the-numbers plaint about elite racial wokeness, which, like Salam, he views as an augur of the downfall of liberal politics in our time: “In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder, there was a distinct, almost inflection point in the intensity of this professional-class hegemony on race, to the point where it becomes completely routine for people in and around the party to talk about white supremacy, systemic racism, how America has always been a benighted country and still is, we haven’t made any progress, everybody who is white has work to do in terms of discarding their racism.”

 

     Imagine that: a racially motivated police murder that produced the largest racial protests in the world sparked influential liberals to . . . talk seriously about race. Never mind that, pace both Teixeira and Salam, no one on the critical race theory side of this conversation denies the existence of measurable progress in America’s racial life. No, what they note is the striking and demonstrable pattern of such progress running sharply into the forces of white backlash—as the post-Floyd assault on critical race theory is now dramatizing in unmistakable terms. And it’s likely true that talk of systemic racism and the persistence of white supremacy sparks discomfort among some voting blocs—but no more so than the weaponized brand of racial reaction on the right creates a profound existential terror in communities who know all too well what those tirades are apt to produce in their own working-class lives. What’s more—speaking of Democratic majorities—the U.S. Senate owes its vanishingly narrow Democratic margin to the election of a pair of senators in Georgia runoffs that drew directly on the widespread demand for substantive racial justice sparked by the Floyd protests.

 

     So how is this a bad thing for the Democratic Party again? It’s never made clear, beyond Teixeira’s oft-reiterated distaste for that irksome “professional-class hegemony on race.” Responsible polling on the critical-race theory scare isn’t showing aversion to the substantive core of the debate—whether to include slavery and racism in standard curricular treatments of US history, with polled majorities with both major-party affiliations supporting such instruction, and support actually increasing when the issue is framed as a matter of diversity-themed pedagogy, as opposed to the favored scare words of “division” and “discomfort” bandied by CRT’s opportunistic foes. But that, admittedly, is not very promising material for a “liberal heretic” to work with. So back to the Mad Libs! Do Democratic poohbahs really believe, Teixeira asks incredulously, “that the Black voters who form the base of the Democratic Party think like Ibram X. Kendi, or the leaders of BLM? Are they crazy?”

A chastened restorationist agenda isn’t likely to help expand a Democratic party that’s made a point of alienating its base for the better part of a political generation.  

 

     Once again, it’s hard to know just who Teixeira is talking about, but the larger point here is that perceptions of racial justice, like perceptions of most major political issues, are subject to change. The same country that elected Barack Obama as its first Black president, after all, then elected Donald Trump as his successor. And speaking of Black Lives Matter, the protests over George Floyd’s killing won greater polled support than Donald Trump did at the time. (Until, once again, they didn’t.) Black voters’ opinions, like all voters’ opinions, are moving targets, and polls mostly capture snapshot-style, incremental shifts in political views over time. Meanwhile, if there’s a “race essentialist” brain trust steering policy calls in the Democratic establishment, it’s hard to see what they’ve done to fundamentally reorient the party, beyond Biden’s announcement that he will nominate a Black woman to the Supreme Court vacancy created by Stephen Breyer’s retirement. (Not that anyone much bothers with such details in our amnesiac political discourse, but this was, for the record, a pledge he debuted to no great pearl-clutching in those unhinged 2020 Democratic primaries we now hear so much about.)

 

     So as with the parallel fulminations of Reihan Salam on the right, it’s quite difficult, at the end of the day, to know just what sort of concrete proposals Teixeira is up in arms about. When his interviewers again stir themselves to ask a prescriptive question about what his preferred Democratic agenda should look like, Teixeira ticks off a wan laundry list of long-deferred Biden White House action items: Maybe induce Joe Manchin to sign off on a still more watered-down version of the Build Back Better social spending package? Oh, and cut the relevant ribbons when full-scale Covid reopenings take place! “A Democrat should be ready to reopen the country. You’ve just got to send the message that what you want is for people to be happy and for things to get back to normal.”

 

     Happy and normal—check. The thing is, the status quo doesn’t feel all that conducive to happiness for plenty of Americans who were struggling before, and who have long been caught in the racial and socioeconomic crossfire of the pandemic. That means, among other things, a chastened restorationist agenda isn’t likely to help expand a Democratic party that’s made a point of alienating its base for the better part of a political generation —to the ever-eager plaudits of establishment journalists on the perennial watch for a savvy “Sistah Souljah moment” on high. It turns out that there are real costs to such careless posturing toward the racial right; it’s just not in the particular interests of a certain kind of elite politico—and the journalistic enablers of this breed of policy savant—to treat the longer-term fallout from such reactionary racial political theater as serious fodder for a new social democratic agenda.

 

     It does, however, mean that Reihan Salam is right about one thing: Prestige media does impart prestige, and therefore is indeed incentivizing the behavior of ambitious, status-seeking people. But when that media is the opinion shop at today’s New York Times, the incentive is to continue the autopilot messaging that racial justice must forever be deferred in the name of neither provoking nor frightening the dwindling and aggrieved white constituencies in the long-fetishized, and waning, “center” or “center right.” Salam and Teixeira are, in this limited and disastrous sense, astute students of our politics indeed. 

Chris Lehmann is editor-in-chief for the African American Policy Forum, and editor at large for The Baffler and The New Republic. He is also the author of The Money Cult: Capitalism, Christianity, and the Unmaking of the American Dream (Melville House, 2016). 

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