Here are two scenes from the same drama. The first scene takes place in California, where the state's public university system now requires prospective faculty members to make a statement affirming their commitment to "diversity, equity and inclusion" — an officially politically neutral trinity that is widely suspected to be conterminous with progressive notions of what counts as diversity and what sort of inclusion matters.
At the University of California, Berkeley, the state's flagship school, a recent investigation found that these don't-call-them-loyalty-oaths are being used to cull job applications across multiple departments. In one case in life sciences, Robby Soave of Reason reported, "a pool of 894 candidates was narrowed down to 214" based exclusively on whether their statements cleared the diversity-and-inclusion ideological bar.
The second scene takes place across the country, in Washington, D.C., where the Trump administration has drafted an executive order that would give precedence to classical architectural forms in the construction of federal buildings and give local communities and nonexperts a stronger influence over designs. This would reverse a 1960s policy that discourages an official style and favors expert control over the building process, on the grounds that "design must flow from the architectural profession to the government and not vice versa."
While the University of California's project of ideological exclusion appears mostly of interest to heterodox academics and conservatives, the Trump draft order has inspired a general media freakout, with editorial pages joining architects in denouncing the idea of political control over political buildings. (In a representative commentary, The Chicago Sun-Times' editorial board accused the White House of taking us "back into a bygone era when women wore bonnets, men wore tricorn hats and the only acceptable design for a federal building was a knockoff of a classical Greek or Roman structure.")
But these two stories, Californian and Trumpian, belong together because they illustrate the evolution of the culture war. Over the last generation, our nation's elite cultural institutions have become more themselves, which is to say that they have passed from being mostly liberal to being monolithically so, with strong internal forces — like Berkeley's litmus tests — pulling them leftward and no countervailing power remaining on the right. Over the same period, in a trend that obviously feeds into and is fed by the first one, conservative politics has become more populist and anti-intellectual, and conservative voters have become more hostile to universities, the media and other organs of the intelligentsia.
This has sharpened one of our many forms of polarization. Conservatives have political power but feel shut out of cultural power, and liberals have cultural power but lack the political power to match.
The second half of the equation explains the current liberal fascination with novel forms of political hardball, to make the most of the Democratic Party's next rendezvous with power — ranging from mild ideas like abolishing the filibuster to more extreme plans for state-adding, court-packing and Electoral College abolition.
But this liberal yearning has its mirror image in the Trump-era conservative desire for novel forms of cultural hardball — for ways to use the power that the right still enjoys, the power over laws and budgets, to either regain influence in the commanding heights of culture or weaken the institutions that dominate those heights.
As an example of this combative thinking, the conservative intellectual journal National Affairs recently published an essay by Arthur Milikh urging the right to effectively defund the university system — cutting subsidies, ending student loan financing and removing tax exemptions. If major public universities are explicitly imposing progressivism as an orthodoxy, the thinking goes, with diversity-and-inclusion statements as the equivalent of a faith profession at a seminary, then why should right-of-center politicians vote to keep them funded?
Milikh's sweeping proposal isn't likely to be adopted, but higher education funding cuts championed by Republican governors and the GOP tax reform's bite out of high-dollar endowments represent a more modest version of this impulse. And a similar impulse lies behind the Trump architecture order: It's a repudiation of the idea that there exists some neutral community of cultural expertise to which Republican presidents as well as Democrats should defer, and it's a deliberate attempt to use the power of the public purse to shift the balance of power within a specific culture industry.
As such, it's an act that provisionally deepens polarization, by elevating a new culture-war issue. But it also points to one plausible way that polarization might ultimately diminish: not through mutual disarmament, but through the fruitful use of power against power, so that different ideologies balance one another in different spheres and it becomes easier for Americans of all political persuasions to invest in their institutions once again.
In "A Time to Build," one of the few mildly optimistic political books to come out in this winter of depressing ones, conservative scholar (and editor of National Affairs) Yuval Levin argues for just such a comprehensive recommitment to American institutions — families and churches, academia and government — as an alternative to the current tendency to use them instrumentally, as a platform for partisan ambitions and personal desires.
Only a renewed institutionalism, in Levin's telling, can correct both individualism and partisan tribalism, the two self-reinforcing spirits of our age. When we see our lives, personal or political, "as mediated by institutions that structure appropriate ways to do what we do," he writes, "we are more likely to act responsibly and to demand responsibility of others."
But reading Levin's admirable exhortation while contemplating our "conservatives rule politics"/"liberals rule culture" division made me wonder if, to reach the point where people are willing to submit themselves to institutionalism once again, we may first need our factions to more aggressively check one another, in politics and culture both.
In politics, it's easier for liberals to see how this might work. A movement to add Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., to the roster of Senate-represented states, for instance, or to divide California into six states, two conservative-leaning and four liberal, would be a form of partisan aggression in the short run. But if successful, in the long run it might help depolarize the Senate somewhat, forcing conservatives to compete outside their current rural-state majority and restoring liberal confidence in the fairness of the upper chamber.
But the same pattern might hold in cultural conflicts. Liberals have a harder time imagining this because they like to think of public architecture proposals or public-university hiring as "independent" and "nonideological." But this is silly: Cultural production is obviously dominated by guilds with strong ideological dispositions, which alienate differently disposed citizens when those dispositions seem too all-controlling or oppressive.
In the architectural case, what we have now is a permanent bias toward modern schools that have cycled through various ideological justifications (today, anti-racism, yesterday, Great Society liberalism, the day before that, fascism) for their long-running war on beauty. And I can confidently say that my own patriotism, my own trust in American institutions, would be modestly increased if public architecture tilted toward the wide variety of forms called classical under Republican presidents and then back toward "starchitect" experiments under Democrats. Judging by polling on Americans' favorite public buildings, I would not be alone.
Note that the Trump administration draft order does not propose defunding or eliminating public architecture, but just changing the way public money influences the choice of designs and schools and hires. That makes it more plausible and productive, more institutionalist, if you will, than a Republican crusade to defund universities, and it's suggestive of a better way that the right might approach its alienation from academia and vice versa. Instead of imposing an austerity that often just leaves shrunken humanities faculties more ideological than before, conservatives with political power should use it to reward schools and systems that don't take the Californian path, to fund programs that diversify academia along lines of philosophy and faith and class as well as race and gender, to regard the demographic challenges facing many colleges as an opportunity to influence them for the better rather than just smirking while they fall.
Such efforts, where they exist — for instance, Arizona State's School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, which was initially funded by the state's Republican-led Legislature — are generally greeted with the same academic suspicion, shading into hysteria, that's greeted the Trump architecture proposal. I should disclose that I spoke at an event sponsored by the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership in 2018. And that suspicion and resistance are natural and inevitable, in the same way that Republican opposition to D.C. statehood would be inevitable; the people or the factions with power in a given institutional realm are never going to be excited by anything that would weaken it.
But sometimes forcing incumbents to share power is a necessary path to a more stable equilibrium, to an increase in public buy-in and transpartisan trust.
In politics, it's likely that you won't get an America where liberals are institutionally invested in the Senate until liberal constituencies feel that they can be more justly represented in that body — which at the very least requires Democrats to figure out a way to win more Senate seats, and possibly to change the institution somewhat once they do.
And likewise, you won't get an America where conservatives trust elite cultural institutions until something happens to break up the current consolidation of progressive power in those spheres. Making American architecture a little more traditional probably isn't going to get us there, but it certainly wouldn't hurt — and it's more likely than many forms of cultural skirmishing to produce a little surplus beauty along the way.
The New York Times