The rise of identity politics authoritarianism has led to scenes that look like something out of a pulp horror flick like Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Lobotomized hordes now control a staggering number of key American institutions: the legacy media, most of higher education, Hollywood, most wealthy coastal cities, and last—but not least—the human resources departments of nearly every major corporation in America. These HR managers demand all employees attend reprogramming sessions dubbed “sensitivity” and “implicit bias” training. Acting out the ethos of the HR managers, wealthy college students demand segregated housing—in the name of racial justice. Aging liberal politicians don kente cloth scarves, kneel, and genuflect to the new idol of “justice.” And in the background of the frame, cities burn while CNN declares the riots are “fiery but mostly peaceful protests.”
The images of violence and chaos pouring in almost nightly may be shocking but they are not unfamiliar scenes from American history. Our ongoing moral panic is merely the repetition of a continual pattern deep within the country’s ancestral roots. However, woke culture also represents something genuinely new within that pattern—it is no less than the first fully formed authoritarian political movement to originate from the modern Anglosphere.
The idea that “woke” social justice thought is something alien to Anglo cultures, advanced by conservative scholars like Roger Scruton—and now more recently by the critics of critical race theory, Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay—has a basis in fact. It is also far from complete. Anglo Protestant culture has always had a tendency toward political hysteria, but today’s hysterics now express themselves in the accepted vernacular of the culture’s “post-Protestant” stage of liberal development. Confusing, I know. Allow me to explain.
Culturally speaking, America is—and always was—a LASP nation. Liberal Anglo Saxon Protestant. I prefer this moniker to WASP. First because, scientifically speaking, “race” is a fiction. It is a made-up category derived from 19th-century pseudoscience, which has been discredited by pretty much the whole of the 20th-century biological sciences—so the sooner we stop reifying it, the better. Second, replacing the word “white” with liberal connotes the fact that American political thought remains trapped in the early British liberalism of John Locke and Adam Smith—an obsession with the self, individual rights, respect for freedom of religion (but mainly for Protestants), solicitous concepts of rebellion, private property accumulation, and a fundamentalist brand of market worship even Smith himself would have opposed.
Anglo Protestantism and Anglo-liberal political thought have been fundamentally intertwined in the cultural development of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. There are good reasons, as Walter Russell Mead writes, that “more aware foreigners” simply refer to these countries as the “Anglo-Saxon powers.” If America had an intellectual class, it would spend a lot more time wondering why Catholic-origin countries like Spain, Italy, Mexico, Brazil, Hungary, and Croatia are not witnessing a takeover of woke philosophy, but the same cannot be said about the Anglosphere cultures now running on the fumes of the Protestant ethic.
Woke culture is thriving more in the United States than anywhere else for related, specifically Anglo Protestant, reasons. Ever since the Puritans—Protestant extremists—decided to leave Britain to complete their “errand in the wilderness,” righteous bourgeois mania and moral hysteria have been a fixture of the American experience. From a hilltop vantage, one can draw a straight line from the Salem witch trials of the 17th century to the tar and featherings of the monomaniacal Sons of Liberty in the 18th century, and then to the anti-immigrant Know Nothing thugs who targeted Irish Catholics and German “radicals” in the middle of the 19th century. This trend toward intolerant—and chauvinistically LASP—cultural hysteria continued on with the “100 percent American” vigilantes who waged ethnic war on German Americans and “radicals” throughout the late 1910s. Thirty years later, America witnessed 20th-century Anglo-liberal nativism’s first televised events starring Joseph McCarthy. All of America’s various hysterias have been nativist in tone, intolerantly LASP in cultural expression, and highly anti-intellectual in temperament.
Many observers investigating the origins of wokeness have focused on the influence of so-called Frankfurt school “Cultural Marxism” and French postmodernism. Both indeed have played a major role in this political culture’s development. A 40-year love affair with the work of Michel Foucault across nearly all humanities fields has cemented the idea that all truth claims and social relations are only disguised forms of “power relations.” Concomitantly, large swaths of educated pseudo-elites have pivoted from this premise that all relations are mere “power plays” and combined it with another postmodern axiom: “Words have no consistent meaning.” From this they decipher that “silence” can now equal “violence.” In other words, any lack of explicit agreement with their cause is now just grounds for harassment, if not actual violence, of the physical variety (as was recently went on full display with Black Lives Matter activists harassing restaurant goers in Washington, D.C. and Rochester who did not comply with their mob demands to raise a fist in “solidarity” with their movement).
In the early stages of woke culture’s development—the late 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s—“left conservatives” like Christopher Lasch, Daniel Bell, Philip Rieff, and Allan Bloom shared a unique foresight about the swarms of anti-intellectual locusts gathering on the horizon. None of these famed thinkers—many quite proud of American political thought—though, placed woke culture as part of Anglo-American culture’s long-standing anti-intellectual and nativist tendency.
In his seminal text on American anti-intellectualism, historian Richard Hofstadter charted the United States’ strand of anti-intellectualism as originating specifically in the country’s “English cultural inheritance.” Hofstadter concurred with the British political theorist Leonard Woolf that “no people has ever despised and distrusted the intellect and intellectuals more than the British.” Woolf’s claim was overstated. Nevertheless, a certain strain of anti-intellectualism has long been an essential part of Anglo culture, manifesting sometimes as a religious impulse and in other cases as a political attitude.
In America, anti-intellectual hysteria is the national culture’s default method of dealing with troubling and confusing changes to its way of life. Whenever faced with major political and economic challenges, America’s LASP cultural id rises up and attempts to calm the social nerves by promising to reestablish a lost cultural homogeneity. In an effort to escape feelings of panic due to disorienting change, the original Puritanical element of the national character reasserts itself with promises to purge errancy and sin and restore a primitive and Adamic social order. Every one of America’s moral hysterias have promised the restoration of a simpler—more unified—life that, of course, is no longer possible in a modern, liberal society. In the process of attempting to make the impossible real, this collective cultural impulse insists all complication, nuance, and debate challenging accepted elite orthodoxies disappear.
Confusing as it may be, woke thought is now the authorized agent of 21st-century Anglo elite norms. It has been since at least President Obama’s second term. For fun, download nearly any elite institution’s fellowship application, or instructions for a foundation grant, or higher ed faculty job post from 2013 onward. Play a drinking game with how many times the applicant is asked to explain how their work supports the cause of “social justice,” “racial justice,” “equity,” “diversity,” or “inclusion.” If you’re sober after examining more than two applications, see a doctor immediately. You may have more than one liver.
The pressure to comply has recently moved far beyond elite credentialing and philanthropy do-gooderism. Those who will not submit to the new, chic LASP values accepted across the cocktail party set will be met with explosive accusations of cultural heresy and character assassination—just as defenders of the crown were during the American Revolution, allies of the kaiser (and socialists) encountered during the First World War, and “pinko communists” endured in the 1950s. We are living through yet another manifestation of Anglo Protestant moral hysteria and its fondness for blacklists—now remade in the values of the post-Christian age.
Our contemporary woke hysterics are the latest iteration of Anglo-American anti-intellectualism but filtered through the ’60s-era lens of the Black Panthers’ racial nationalism and the “third-worldism” of Mao and the Viet Cong. The bomb-throwing radicals of 1968 have tenure now—and instruct legions of underemployed graduate teaching assistants. Several of them, like former Obama associate Bill Ayers and his one-time Weather Underground comrade Susan Rosenberg, have tapped into tens of millions of dollars in corporate backed nonprofit funding streams.
Ostensibly, woke thought would like to overthrow the Anglo-liberal tradition, but this is only the surface. The frenzied self-denunciation serves a key LASP purpose—it provides a cohesive social ethic to the country’s restless upper middle class, which does the dual job of certifying moral righteousness and establishing their class credentials. After all, “wokeness” is something done for the poor and downtrodden, not by them. In the 1910s, respectable women joined the Daughters of the American Revolution and purchased William H. Skaggs German Conspiracies in America en masse. Today, they donate to the Black Lives Matter Foundation and buy two copies of White Fragility—one to prominently display on their shelf at home and another to give as a gift.
Since the Mayflower, Anglo-Americans have been bred to think narcissistic self-flagellation equals a godly avoidance of sin. Wokeness operates in this same lineage of self-condemning Protestant practice. The biggest difference between our contemporary woke hysterics and that of the previous LASP hysterias of the 1690s, the late-1770s, the mid-1850s, the 1910s, and the 1950s is our present one’s veneer of “multiculturalism.” However, this is a circumvention deceiving even its supporters.
Nearly everyone—left and right—in the annals of our current American culture have been effectively fooled by the efforts of the country’s elite institutions to rebrand themselves as Benneton posters come to life. Not even 30 years ago, most observers recognized America’s elite higher education and major media operations were dominated by “WASP” culture (again, I prefer “LASP”—more accurate).
In response to criticisms of their WASP exclusivity, public relations teams, admissions committees, and faculty hiring committees went to work. Starting in the early 1990s, these LASP schools began seeking out more ethnic “minorities,” non-heterosexuals, and eventually nonbinary genders—but, they did so almost exclusively from the same incestuous, select public schools of wealthy neighborhoods, and well-to-do, thoroughly Anglicized—and culturally Protestant—private schools and elite feeder programs. Within a short period of time, the superficial diversity on display in school promotional brochures and op-ed avatars changed dramatically, while little about these elite institution’s cultures changed.
We are living through another extended bout of American nativist hysteria. This one too is driven by LASP elites. However, today’s iteration does not know its habits of thought remain culturally Anglo-Saxon Protestant. That the proponents of wokeness are ignorant of their own intellectual and comparative cultural roots should be no surprise as academia has largely conspired against the teaching of intellectual history since the late ’60s. Each year for the last five decades, powerful internal committees meet inside universities where a growing number of members act in concert to oppose any mandate of courses on intellectual history that teach students the old Western canon of comparative political philosophy. Things have become so strange that even the mere presence of these courses is interpreted as a “threat” to “minorities.” To the woke crowd, the study of Western thought represents “the study of dead white men,”—and, worse, the continuation of the systems of oppression created by those dead white men—and thus it must be halted in its tracks. Almost universally, these opponents of the serious study of comparative ideas also adhere to ideological concepts of liberationism— a notion leaden with Protestant assumptions of a coming millenarian salvation. In true Protestant fashion, salvation is still imagined as brought on through the individual’s expression of correct moral belief. However, now in the post-Protestant age, reward is not thought to arrive in the afterlife or some other metaphysical plane. Instead, social salvation awaits us all through mere individual choice. The path forward? Simply show you are on the “right side of history.”
Following Jacob Blake’s (entirely obscene) shooting by a Wisconsin police officer in August, American professional athletes recently refused to play in protest. The fawning reactions of elite media all across the Anglosphere to these athletes’ choice serves as an example of this Protestant confusion of belief with action. Did these professional athletes donate the—literally—hundreds of millions of dollars they make between them for playing a single game to various candidates running for local sheriff’s offices around the nation, or nonprofits working to design new deescalation training modules for American law enforcement? The answer, of course, is no. These professional athletes merely displayed their fervent belief that police violence and “racial injustice” was unacceptable.
Belief itself can change the empirical world, so many across the Anglosphere still assume. If enough people just believe something—if people just “raise consciousness” as they started saying in the ’60s— the preferred political outcome surely will transpire exactly as they wish. This idea persists in spite of all historical evidence to the contrary. This Pollyannaish and juvenile premise did not begin with Oprah Winfrey or The Secret. It has deep roots in Protestantism—especially Anglo-America’s Puritan variety.
As with the Puritans, the Mormons, and other Protestantoid groups throughout the Anglo-American experience, LASP elites love to assume that if they just get their culture to move toward uniform “right” think on moral issues, soon after a major “progressive” turning point in history will naturally take place. Everything will–all of a sudden–be different and liberating ... The millennium will arrive, Christ will come down from heaven, restart the world anew and “justice for all” will finally ring true.
Today’s woke mania serves as refashioned Anglo elitist exclusivity—an envoy of the same-old LASP hysterias of the past, but now wearing a “multicultural” mask. Perhaps because of woke thought’s odd familiarity in the Anglo-American world, most so-called centrists in American political culture still see these aspiring authoritarians as just an odd curiosity. It’s a phase. This will pass, they think. Many still refuse to take it seriously. That position was naive 10 years ago. It is dangerous today.
Political hysteria almost always signals a culture’s sublimated call for stasis, protection and, yes, safety—an instinctual desire to crawl back into a conceptual womb to escape the frightfulness of the changing external world. Today’s episode rapidly spreading across the Anglosphere derives from an elite cultural tantruming over the fact “Third Way” Clinton/Tony Blair/Obama techno-Calvinism did not usher in the utopian— perfectly diverse and “representationally correct”—meritocratic future as promised.
America’s so-called “resistance” spent the last three and a half years fretting (fantasizing more, really) about Trump birthing a uniquely American brand of authoritarianism. Alas, a uniquely Anglo-American brand of authoritarianism has arrived—and it’s them.
The ascendance of this new totalitarian thinking represents a key trail marker for Anglo-liberalism’s evolution. Leo Strauss, the great Jewish scholar who fled the Holocaust, warned that liberalism’s commitment to tolerance would eventually sabotage the very foundations of the liberal project itself. Naive liberals would foolishly tolerate those with no reciprocal commitments. These dangerous actors would then make a long march through the institutions and, eventually, hijack the system to their own ends.
That process is not at risk of happening—it’s already happened and is now entering its final stages.
We are living through a nativist mania carried out under the false veneer of multiculturalism and diversity. Today, America’s civic culture is as much at risk of collapsing as the nation’s economy. The COVID-19 virus feels almost like something designed by a space alien to bring down America’s anti-statist laissez faire liberal practices. Our (still somehow mostly private) health care system is on the verge of breakdown. Higher education too. The sports industry as well. Ditto for dining and the performing arts. Most blue-collar service jobs. The auto industry and all small—and large—businesses who depend on it. An unprecedented wave of housing foreclosures and evictions looms just around the bend. If defunding the police and instituting more diversity, equity, and inclusion programs—carried out based off of 19th-century notions of “race” and 21st-century assumptions of “privilege”—help with any of these issues, no one’s ever explained how. Far more likely, the demands of woke activists, rather than ushering in a utopia of racial justice, will merely provide one last assist to the thoroughly Anglo Protestant “meritocractic” institutions now crumbling all around us.
B. Duncan Moench (@DuncanMoench) is Tablet’s social critic at large and a scholar of political thought and American character studies.