By Ross Douthat
In recent months, there have been several instances of elite universities or their faculty members offering some kind of institutional pushback to a censorious progressivism. Prominent examples include Cornell’s refusal to create a trigger warning requirement demanded by the undergraduate student assembly, the formation of a Harvard faculty group defending academic freedom and Stanford’s official condemnation of the disruptions at a conservative judge’s law school talk.
These developments dovetail with the argument made earlier this year by Musa al-Gharbi at Columbia, a perceptive observer of the culture war, that the Great Awokening as a period of intense moral fervor may be winding down — that after “10 straight years of heightened unrest in knowledge-economy institutions and knowledge-economy hubs” we’re seeing a partial depoliticization, a diminishment of ideological policing and cancellation attempts. And they also dovetail, to some extent, with an essay this week from Matt Yglesias, the Vox co-founder turned Substacker, arguing that critics of wokeness risk creating a self-fulfilling prophecy if they constantly emphasize the obstacles to free speech and the professional penalties for heterodoxy, rather than simply encouraging journalists and academics to have courage and recognize that you can take a controversial position without being immediately professionally disappeared.
I agree with al-Gharbi that the recent intellectual trends within liberal institutions are somewhat more favorable to free debate, and I agree with Yglesias that intellectual courage is necessary and that the language of anti-wokeness sometimes encourages people to imagine a more Soviet situation than actually exists. But I also think that there are different ways that an era of “heightened unrest” and ideological revolution can give way to relative cultural peace.
In some situations, the revolution might be rolled back or resisted or collapse of its own accord. But in others, peace might arrive because the revolution feels confident in its path to ultimate victory and no longer feels an urgent need to make examples of its enemies; it can move comfortably to entrenchment, the institutional long march.
The latter scenario is suggested by the Canadian academic Eric Kaufmann’s response to the wokeness-has-peaked arguments. The current pendulum swing is real enough, he argues, but the ideological enforcers don’t need to win every near-term battle to win the institutional war:
... in the long run, liberalism is giving way to progressivism in elite spaces. The new cultural liberalism in the media reflects the views of senior staff members and is opposed by affinity groups and young employees. That’s important, because surveys consistently find that “woke” values are twice as prevalent among younger leftists than among older leftists. Over eight in 10 undergraduates at 150 leading US colleges say speakers who say B.L.M. is a hate group or transgenderism is a mental disorder should not be permitted to speak on campus. What’s more, seven in 10 think a professor who says something that students find offensive should be reported to their university. Young academics are twice as censorious as those over 50. These are the editorial teams and professoriate of tomorrow.
There’s a lot to say about this subject, but I want to focus on that last sentence, because I think it conflates two experiences that reality may substantially divide: the intellectual climate within media and journalism on the one hand and in academia on the other.
Both of these professions are subject to the pressures and ideas and incentives that gave rise to woke progressivism, and both have experienced various forms of internal tumult in recent years. But my sense is that their ideological paths have already diverged a bit and are likely to diverge further as the generational turnover Kaufmann describes continues.
To be clear, I’m discussing the media outlets that traditionally think of themselves as mainstream enterprises — ideologically neutral or center-left or small-l liberal, not explicitly political in their formal missions, with some room for diversity, even though their staffs vote mostly for Democrats. These organizations seem less likely to become as ideologically bunkered as similarly situated academic institutions because of several forces that limit the full entrenchment of progressive ideology.
First, the media is, by definition, an outward-facing, audience-driven enterprise, dependent on some kind of mass market for its viability. Mass audiences can make their own ideological demands and effectively capture some of the journalists who serve them; you can certainly see versions of this happening in explicitly right-wing media in the Trump era. But wokeness has often been more of an elite-driven ideology, with special influence in academia and professionalized activist organizations, and its rules and shibboleths tend to spread from inner circles outward, rather than being demanded by a mass public first.
Which means there will always be a large potential audience that doesn’t “get” the new ideological rules, or not yet, and for whom dissent or debate around the emergent order will seem much more normal and desirable than to true believers. And if normal debate seems poised to disappear from a given publication or broadcast channel, some readers, listeners and viewers will follow the argument elsewhere — to a rival, a start-up, a Joe Rogan-esque alternative or a platform like Substack, if necessary. And some of the commentators and journalists whom they follow, who choose to work in this terrain, may even end up much more richly rewarded than they were before.
This doesn’t create an outright veto on ideological uniformity, especially given the power of consolidation in, say, newspaper journalism, where this paper, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post all loom much larger relative to the diminished daily-newspaper competition than they did when I started out as a writer. But it still creates market-based checks on certain internal mechanisms of ideological enforcement. To take a television example, it’s not just up to internal opinion at Netflix or HBO whether to air a Dave Chappelle special or keep running Bill Maher’s show; the mass audience gets a pretty important vote as well.