Intellectuals have never mattered less in American life. Not only do writers and academics find themselves in diminishing institutions with diminishing influence, but experts of all kinds, even on basic questions like public health, have had their expertise swallowed by general mistrust and conspiracy. Political violence is rising and democratic institutions are failing, and the forces tearing America apart are systemic, above and below thinking—toxic hyper-partisanship, insupportable levels of inequality, environmental degradation, and the spread of military-grade weaponry.
But an intellectual failure undergirds these crises, a failure of insight that afflicts both left and right. There is no way to understand the decline of American political life without understanding the decay that has spread throughout its discourse.
The alarm has been rung, and often enough. Any American who can read knows that democracy is in crisis. The US government increasingly struggles to fulfill its most basic tasks, like guaranteeing the debt, passing budgets or confirming the diplomatic corps. Meanwhile armed groups of insurrectionists, like the one that stormed the US Capitol just over a year ago, spread incoherence. Think tanks on the right and universities on the left still debate policies like the tax rate or parental leave but they’re playacting by this point, whether they know it or not. They distract themselves with antiquities while the temple collapses around their shoulders. The questions have become much more basic than abstruse policy. Will democracy survive? How to keep America’s institutions alive?
Future historians will see a great irony in the intellectual history of our moment. Supposedly, we live in an era of wokeness. The misnomer could hardly be more total. The United States is sleepwalking to its end.
For conservative intellectuals, the slip into dreams came over a decade ago, in 2008. The reason behind their collapse was simple. They were wrong about everything.
Three events defined 2008: the crash of the housing market, the disastrous surge in Iraq, and the election of Barack Obama. Conservative ideas had the misfortune to be tested by reality; they were tried in the fire and found wanting. “I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms,” confessed Alan Greenspan, disciple of Ayn Rand. The free market, it turned out, did not possess magical self-righting properties.
The housing crisis was more than just the failure of an economic schema; it meant the death of the American dream of home ownership for everyone. The Surge was a similar object lesson: American power, it turned out, could not export democracy to the world by force. The election of Barack Obama ended the putative fiction of colorblind conservatism—too many Republicans became too vocal and too specific about Black Americans not counting as real Americans.
By 2016, there were no more conservative public intellectuals. You could be a public intellectual, or you could be a conservative intellectual, or you could be publicly conservative. But you couldn’t be all three at the same time. The rise of the hard right in America, the Tea Party, the militias, Trump and the rest of it, all date from 2008.
Today, the remnants of the Conservative intellectual collapse survive as fugitives from their own extinction event, haunted by their former brilliance. “I came of age inside the conservative movement of the 20th century,” David Frum wrote in Trumpocalypse. “In the 21st, that movement has delivered much more harm than good, from the Iraq War to the financial crisis to the Trump Presidency.”
David Brooks, for The Atlantic, recently undertook a rather brilliant autopsy of his own intellectual tradition. He noted dark tendencies in his predecessors—the explicit racism of Enoch Powell and William F. Buckley Jr.—and dark tendencies in the current strain of conservatism—the mass market authoritarianism of Trump and the turn from democracy. But he didn’t mention that his own generation of conservative intellectuals were directly responsible for two failed wars and the destruction of the middle class through fanatical dedication to ideas of economic freedom that turned out to be nonsense. It hardly matters how bad Brooks and Frum feel anyway. The contrition and humility of the mournful new breed of conservative intellectuals is admirable on a personal level, but the legacy of their generation is that they tried to export democracy to the world and ended up importing authoritarianism home.
And their contrition and humility only go so far, of course. Unfortunately, conservatism has one last wrong idea remaining to it: the criminalization of abortion. Because it’s their last political idea, they put a great deal of force behind it, all they can muster. For the promise of overturning Roe v. Wade, Mitch McConnell decided to destroy two hundred years of legislative tradition around Supreme Court nomination, effectively ending the legitimacy of the institution in the process.
The current struggle over abortion is a perfect example of what intellectual life in America has become: A great deal of screaming, not a great deal of policy, all predicated on an inability to find common ground even when the correct action would serve the interests of both sides.
One of the facts that has been more or less completely forgotten in the “debate” around abortion in the United States is that the procedure has been in massive, consistent decline since 1984—19 percent between 2011 and 2017 alone. The reason for the decline—also not discussed—is that women and girls have received more access to education and more control over their bodies. America’s relationship to abortion should be, by any metric, a resounding success from everybody’s point of view. Women get fewer abortions exactly because they have more control over their reproductive health.
Every other developed country in the world has figured this out. Canada, which has no legal restrictions of any kind on abortion—it is strictly a matter between a woman and her doctor—has a fraction of the abortion rate of the United States. If anti-abortion activists really wanted to diminish the number of abortions in their country, the best thing they could do is radically expand Planned Parenthood. But they don’t want to diminish the number of abortions. They just want to scream about how they want to diminish the number of abortions. They want to shout “Life!” against people shouting “Choice!” It feels good to shout.
The criminalization of abortion, which at this point looks highly likely, will of course be a fiasco, like every other conservative policy idea of the past thirty years. The Texas bounty law can barely even be considered a policy. The legislators don’t want to answer the questions such a policy would demand. Are they going to arrest pregnant women who publicly profess their plans to procure abortions? Are they going to establish a separate police branch, like the DEA, to surveil medical providers? How else would they plan to impose a ban? The American government can’t regulate or diminish, even slightly, the flow of heroin into its streets, so how will they control chemical abortions? Will Southern states punish women who travel to Northern states for abortions? How? Under what statute?
Eventually, it will become clear, as it is already everywhere else in the world, that criminalizing abortion just promotes needless suffering. In the end, another conservative idea will wreck a few million lives, mostly in their own communities, and after, the more thoughtful will wonder, in their columns, whether, in hindsight, it were better not to base matters of public health on atavistic sexual prescriptions derived from Medieval theology. The more honest will then admit to themselves that it wasn’t so much about policy but about control over women’s bodies and a fear of sexuality itself. Then they’ll shrug. They’ll have a shower to rinse the blood off and walk to their next catastrophe. Contemporary conservative intellectuals have spent their whole careers doing just that.
The failures of the left-wing intellectuals are more severe than the failures on the right. Much of the left doesn’t know it’s failed.
The liberal failure also began in 2008. It came disguised as success, as hope and change. It came as Barack Obama, the man who checked every box, brilliant in every way, the man able to do things no other President in history could: Tell a joke that made you laugh and dance in a way that wasn’t embarrassing. He did not end torture at Guantanamo Bay. He did not end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He oversaw the reconstitution of the American economy to its pre-crash state of brittle inequality. He oversaw the developing racialist brutality of the American border. But God he looked good doing it.
Style has overwhelmed policy for the left. While you were debating the gender politics of Quidditch, the Oath Keepers were forming militias. While you were arguing over the lead in the next James Bond, they established themselves on school boards. While you got op-ed editors and professors fired for minor infractions of a new etiquette, they sent mobs to intimidate election officials. While you were calling each other fascists in the TERF wars, actual fascists took over the courts. While you were shouting defund the police, they became the police.
Under a politics of style, allyship grew to be the core of contemporary social justice movements, having replaced the old left-wing concept of solidarity as the basis of progress. Like the term wokeness, allyship could hardly be less accurate. It is a form of exclusion based on social anxiety, which is why its most prominent successes are in publishing, media, the HR and marketing departments of certain companies, Hollywood studios and television networks. For these groups, who have a tendency vastly to overrate the power of culture generally, allyship is as much if not more important that political and legal changes themselves.The basic fact on the ground is that America has entered a post-policy phase; the government can no longer enact political ideas so why bother even having them?
At the heart of this failure is a misunderstanding of the nature of the times themselves. It is a commonplace in liberal publications to read that we have entered “a time of racial reckoning” or “a time of gender reckoning.” Maybe at The New York Times. Maybe at Harvard. But in the United States, women are growing less and less powerful, less in control over their bodies and their lives every day. The United States is not entering a period of racial reconciliation but a period of spiking racialized violence. Hate crimes rose 16 percent in 2020. Hate crimes against Black Americans rose 45 percent from the previous year, against Asian-Americans by 70 percent. In the face of this violence, current social justice movements have nothing to offer but righteous impotence. A woke institution is a contradiction in terms. Any institutions that do form—TimesUp, the Women’s March, CHAZ, Defund the Police—eat themselves in the fury they try to unleash on others.
The counter-woke are equally futile. The Harper’s Letter and Bari Weiss’s Substack are not wrong. They just miss the point: When American democracy ends, it won’t be a bunch of student union radicals on Twitter ending it. It will be hard right militias, and their elected supporters who overtly espouse the politics of the gun. The problem with the woke is that they’re impotent; they make ideal enemies. They have willed their own powerlessness—the first intellectual sin.
These trends are not the whole story. There are exceptions, and they are significant. Across the country, there are right wing lawyers fighting to preserve the integrity of their electoral institutions. Over the past few years, there has been a significant number of on-the-ground left-wing movements, particularly in red states, abandoned by the online left and the national democratic party, which fight evictions and provide material support for women in need of reproductive support and protest labor conditions in factories and warehouses. But these groups are consciously in resistance to the wider trend.
Deep in the heart of both the American left and the American right, the same overarching desire has blossomed: the desire to punish. The right has explicitly enjoined “politics as war and enmity.” On some fundamental level, they believe in the value of suffering, that women who want to terminate pregnancies should struggle to do so, that poverty needs to be overcome rather than eradicated, that democratic values need to be demonstrated through war machines. The left has devolved into intimate sadism, having come to believe that public shaming is the path to progress, even after all evidence demonstrates that the strategy of humiliation leads to regression rather than progress, with common decency and compassion as the primary victims.
As to the source of this bipartisan desire to punish that defines current American intellectual life, I would not hazard even a guess. I have no idea where it comes from. I know only that it dominates and shows no signs of diminishment.
Meanwhile, the basic fact on the ground is that America has entered a post-policy phase; the government can no longer enact political ideas so why bother even having them? The partisans have lost hope in their ability to change the system. Despair feeds into rage which feeds into fantasy which feeds into despair. Cycles of vacuous extremism dominate. In the face of supreme crisis, the thinking right can do little more than mourn its errors while the thinking left consumes itself in fits of pointless righteousness. Meanwhile, in both camps, the urge to throw out ideas altogether swells, and the replacements for thinking are tribal loyalties, esoteric fantasies and violence.
The dominant factions increasingly find they have no need of inquiry at all, assuming there are no answers beyond the ones they already know, and so dedicate themselves to the business of purification and screaming louder. They have become addicted to rage and fury, to the creation of straw men and their ritualistic burning.
At the same time, everyone with a brain can see the same basic fact: If Americans do not come together to preserve the basic foundations of democracy, they will not survive. Intellectuals may never have mattered less in American life but American politics has never been more in need of robust ideas. The old ways of doing things obviously don’t work. New ideas, of the most radical nature, are necessary. What would a meaningful 21st-century Constitution for the United States look like? (The old one’s broken.) How can a stable economic order under radical technological change flourish? (The one we have is diseased.) These are not just grand theoretical questions. They demand practical answers, immediately.
The clever ones, the smartest and clearest-eyed, mourn and rage, fidget with antique symbols and emptiness, rack their brains to figure out where it all went wrong, cultivate personal animosities and flirt with conspiracy, drift through wreckage, wondering what, if anything, will survive. Another question they do not want to face is looming: When the sleepwalkers awake, where will they find themselves?