Bret Stephens is typical for a conservative journalist—not much of a writing style, even less in the way of discernible ideas outside his distaste for Democrats, and no reason for his plum op-ed position at the New York Times other than the media’s white male affirmative action program and white conservative tokenism. Stephens couldn’t get fired at the New York Times any more than Jeffrey Toobin could get fired at CNN.
Responding to a New York Times assignment for a column about something he was wrong about, Stephens chose “Trump Voters” and began his argument by quoting that famous anti-elitist Peggy Noonan (sarcasm voice) on the distinction between people like Stephens himself (“The Protected”) and Trump voters (“The Unprotected”). Sticking close to the stereotypes, Stephens ignored the fact that the average 2016 Trump primary voter made $71k and Trump’s strongest 2020 constituency was the $100k and over category.
For what it’s worth, I grew up in rural and declining Upstate NY and have lived for the last 32 years in Bible Belt Eastern Kentucky where the poverty is industrial strength, regional economies have yet to recover from the Great Recession of 2008, and the best and brightest migrate to urban centers as soon as they’re out of high school or college. What I saw and what was confirmed in the searching articles on Trump voters was that working/middle class white men no longer inherited or maintained their inheritance in farms, factory jobs, small businesses or teaching positions but were unwilling to compete with women, black people, or immigrants. Pile that resentment on top of the racist explosion following the election of the first black president and traditional anti-abortion, pro-gun, and small government conservatism and that got Trump to a +60 margin in my Congressional district (KY-5).
But my focus is on the comments Stephens made on the Great American Cultural Revolution of our times.
Oh, and then came the great American cultural revolution of the 2010s, in which traditional practices and beliefs — regarding same-sex marriage, sex-segregated bathrooms, personal pronouns, meritocratic ideals, race-blind rules, reverence for patriotic symbols, the rules of romance, the presumption of innocence and the distinction between equality of opportunity and outcome — became, more and more, not just passé, but taboo.
Stephens is so intellectually lazy he can just list a bunch of stuff and call it a “cultural revolution.” But mainstream America has in fact gone through a cultural sea change which coalesced during the Obama years. IMHO, the outcome of the transformation was a multicultural, socially liberal culture which both became dominant during the Obama years and developed an orientation toward progressive economic reform since then. The relevant events were the election and defense of Obama as the first black president, the legalization of gay marriage, the campaigns against rape, and climate activism. In the course of these developments and others, a cultural consensus developed around “diversity” as a core common value and diversity became a guiding orientation in education, corporate advertising, pop culture, and internet discourse. The history of civil rights became the dominant sense of a common American history and intersectionality with its stress on identity politics gained ground on neo-neoliberalism as a pre-eminent intellectual framework. The political implication was that the U.S. was shedding its past as a patriarchal white Republic and making a transition to multiracial democracy.
Putting the Stephens list in context, a sense of disgust did develop for much that had been accepted in the post-feminist, post-civil rights conservatism of the 80’s and 90’s. As I moved around during the late 1970’s and 1980’s, there was a sense that racism, homophobia, woman-hating, and other bigotries were “sort of okay” if they weren’t “too egregious.” When I started teaching at Morehead State during the early 1990’s, students in my government classes brought in new forms of such “soft bigotry” every semester. By 2015 or so, such expressions were under a severe bigotry taboo and using these expressions was presumptive evidence that people did not “share the values” needed for many areas of corporate employment, education, and government. “Color-blind ideology” became “color-blind racism;” date rape became rape, and wife-beating became criminal abuse. Contrary to Stephens’ thought on “meritocratic ideals,” the meritocracy was strengthened by diversity but as more corporate and government positions were now being filled by women, black people, Hispanics, and immigrants, the achievements of white men like Stephens were met with a more skeptical eye.
The coalescing of a multicultural, socially liberal mainstream culture is one of the most promising developments in the United States since the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s, but has gone unnoticed as well as uncelebrated in cultural and political commentary. Such has not been the case for the revanchist right-wing counter-culture that’s developed simultaneously and could be seen early in Obama’s impolitic but wholly accurate statements about rural voters: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Given that the New York Times leads the nation in obsessive coverage of Trump and Trump voters, little can be expected from the “Gray Lady.” But somebody in the media needs to take up the cause of understanding the mainstream cultural revolution of our times as well as its recent history.