An Anti-Woke Warrior Has US Companies Running Scared

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Poet Shelley once described poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In today’s America, that honor belongs to the war veterans of the culture wars. Already on the rise, left-leaning academics like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo have gained even more influence over the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. In response, a new generation of conservative culture warriors is emerging, targeting not only their ideological opponents but also some of the nation’s largest corporations as their executives and boards weigh which side to take.

Few of these new warriors on the right have been more effective sharpshooters than Christopher Rufo, who is devoting his life to fighting what he sees as the monsters of “critical race theory” and “gender ideology.” Rufus’ articles, social media posts, and television appearances have garnered a lot of attention and influence. He wrote model legislation for several Republican states, inspired one of Donald Trump’s executive orders, and produced a guide to talking about culture. In one profile, the New Yorker described him as someone who “invented conflict over critical race theory.” In another magazine, New York accused him of being a specialist in moral panic. But despite the simmering anger he harbors, in our recent conversation he came across as a pretty happy soldier who enjoys the daily grind. (His neighbors are heavily armed Republicans, he adds, so he doesn’t fear for his safety.) He’s a lot less angry than Steve Bannon, who often looks like he’s got steam coming out of his ears, and a lot more. more measured than Ann Coulter, who avoids making outrageous claims except when attributed to the other side and is happy to seriously debate serious thinkers.

Rufo’s early goals were in the public sector. Trump acknowledged his influence in issuing an executive order banning programs that taught federal employees and members of the military that “the United States is a racist or evil country, or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil” (Joe Biden revoked the order). Rookie Republican Glenn Youngkin 2021 fired Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe in November, in part because he promised, “On day one, I’m going to ban critical race theory from our schools.” (A CBS News poll conducted a month before the election found that 62% of likely voters believed that “school curriculum on race and history” was a “major factor” in how they would vote.) Rufo helped shape DeSantis’ book, Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Stop the Wrongs to Our Kids and Rufo”. Workers’ (WOKE) act and appeared on stage immediately after introducing it.

More recently, he added “awakened capital” to his list of goals. He was at the center of DeSantis’ attack on the Walt Disney Co. for promoting CRT and “gender ideology” and, in the governor’s view, tarnishing its brand as a family-friendly company. The attack plunged “the most woke place on earth,” as Rufo called it, into crisis, driving down its stock price, scaring away conservative subscribers and nearly ousting its CEO, Bob Chapek. Rufo’s other targets included Walmart Inc., AT&T Inc., CVS Health Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., Raytheon Technologies Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., Bank of America Corp. and Amex Corp.

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Why has a man who was an unsung film producer just a few years ago become so influential? The standard response from the left is that he is part of a vast right-wing conspiracy fueled by “dark money” and carried out by distortion. Rufo is undoubtedly a hero of the right, who holds a senior fellowship at the Manhattan Institute and appears regularly on Fox. He’s also guilty of putting too much emphasis on his findings – he told me he’s “an activist who does journalism, not a journalist”.

But most Republican governments have been anxious to support a conscious culture warrior, preferring economic issues. His natural audience was the “petty bourgeoisie” who sensed that something strange was going on and could not explain it. Rufo made a name for himself in the wild west of the internet long before the likes of Fox and the Manhattan Institute came calling. He told me that he was radicalized by the research process—he didn’t know anything about CRT, a somewhat absurd brand of theory developed by Derrick Bell of Harvard Law School and Kimberle Crenshaw of Columbia and UCLA, until he researched it. the footnotes of the resulting papers began to be read by Kendi et al.

Rufo’s own answer to the question of his success is that he invented a highly effective business model. He gets advice from sympathetic sources in institutions the length and breadth of the earth. The pandemic has been a surprise, as so much business that once took place behind closed doors has had to be conducted through Zoom meetings and emailed documents. He says he has about 5,000 sources, including contacts with half of the nation’s top 500 companies.

He then posts his best scoops on social media — his goal is one big story a week — which is then picked up by the mainstream conservative media, especially Fox News, and then trickles down to the rest of the media. “I have the easiest job in the world,” Rufo said. “I just have to find their own information and show it to the world.”

All of this is self-reinforcing: the higher his profile, the more stories he gets. During the dispute with Disney, for example, one source sent him a video of a producer talking about bringing “queerness” into programming and announcing its “not-so-secret gay agenda.” It’s also carefully managed: instead of publishing outrageous stories (of which there are certainly plenty in a country as large as the US), it places them under the ideological category of CRT and gender ideology. The aim is to increase the “negatives” of vaguely understood terms such as CRT and gender ideology by associating them with a steady stream of disturbing revelations. Then he tries to turn the outrage into legislation.

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There is more than a hint of Marxism-Leninism about all this. Rufo admits that he admires the discipline and patience of the leftists. He also talks about learning from leading leftists – notably the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who in the 1940s spoke of “capturing culture by infiltrating schools, universities, churches”, and the German student revolutionary Rudi Dutschke, who favored the “long march”. through institutions”, and the American community activist Saulius Alinsky, who emphasized the power of popular agitation.

Rufo believes the left has achieved most of its goals: the culture is saturated with progressivism, and institutions, from the federal government to the human resources departments of large corporations, have been hijacked by progressive cadres. Now, the combination of the rise of social media and the birth of conservative populism offers an opportunity to change all that. Rufo wants to build an army of activists and outraged citizens who will come to school board meetings or governor’s rallies and demand change.

Rufo realized two important things about today’s politics. First, the culture wars are back in a new form. Irving Kristol once famously told Joseph Epstein, “The culture wars are over. We lost.” The religious right erupted into scandal and gay marriage was legalized. Now the rise of a new generation of progressives who see America as structurally racist and sex as socially constructed has reignited them.

Second, the widening gap between American institutions and the broader citizenry creates enormous political opportunities. Institutions are largely run by trusted elites who have adopted progressive values ​​along with their college degrees. This is increasingly true of corporations and public sector bureaucracies. Citizens are increasingly skeptical of these institutions, especially when they affect family life. The moment Terry McAuliffe most likely doomed his campaign to retain the governorship was during a debate when he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what to teach.”

What should companies do about the rise of Rufus? Business as usual is an increasingly risky strategy. The Conservatives now have a massive machine that has already brought down one of the world’s most successful media companies and is ready for further battles. Although opinion polls about CRT and gender ideology are something of a methodological minefield, both issues are clearly red rags for Republican voters. Prominent Republicans, not least DeSantis, are playing with an anti-corporate strategy based on Teddy Roosevelt’s war on giant corporations, but this time focused on the concentration of cultural power, particularly in the hands of media and technology companies, rather than the concentration of ownership. “The corporation is bound by the state. She has a duty to serve the common good of the country,” Rufo points out, with words that could easily have come from the left. It’s a bold company that takes a controversial cultural stance in an age of low living standards and seething populism.

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The simplest response for companies is to declare neutrality in the culture wars. Rufo’s overall goal when talking about “awakened capital” is to make it clear that companies will pay a price for progressive political activism. “I want them to be afraid of offending the political right,” he says. Many companies have turned to activism because, especially in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, they’ve been afraid of antagonizing the progressive left. As a result, diversity, inclusion and equity training courses have recently grown. Now they are learning that they will also pay a heavy price if they don’t back down. Rufo points to Disney as an example. Since his fight with Disney, DeSantis has consistently hammered CRT and LGBTQ issues. The Supreme Court also overturned Roe v. Wade. Disney kept the response extremely low-key.

Rufo says many companies that choose progressive politics out of fear of the left and want nothing more than to be left alone would welcome neutrality. But what about companies that genuinely care about promoting social justice, either for moral reasons (the plight of much of Black America remains a moral stain) or for strategic reasons (America cannot prosper without utilizing the skills of its entire population)?

The best advice is to think much more carefully about DEI policy rather than contracting with consultants steeped in critical theory or corporate activists. It is true, for example, that racism is more than just the individual bias that many conservatives would have it. Because of the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and the red lining, African Americans have significantly less wealth than other Americans. But this does not justify CRT’s claims that all whites are guilty of unconscious racism that requires an intrusive retraining program. This will only cause resentment. It is also true that the classic liberal formulas of open competition and non-discrimination need to be supplemented, if they lead to some ethnic groups languishing at the bottom of society forever. However, this does not justify the endorsement of CRT activists who believe that racism cannot be cured without the abolition of capitalism. This is Venezuela. Businesses need to remember that the best way to deal with culture warriors on both the left and the right is to embrace a grandiose ideal of meritocracy and gender blindness that tries hard to right past injustices but ultimately values ​​people beyond the biological or social realm. categories, but as individuals.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

DeSantis’ Attack on ESG Throws Back Its Edge: Matthew A. Winkler

Biden’s debt relief plan will make American politics worse: Clive Crook

Stop calling everything you disagree with “anti-democratic”: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is a global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer for the Economist, he is most recently the author of The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.

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