Critical race theory has exploded into public consciousness. Millions of American parents are just coming to realize that our schools have become woke indoctrination centers preaching divisiveness, bigotry, discrimination, and disdain for American history. Most of them are wondering how we got here.
The answer is simple: Slowly. Incrementally. One step after another, over the course of decades. It’s hardly just K-12 education. An incentive system of “incremental outrageousness” has taken every aspect of American culture dangerously far from reality into the orgy of radical leftist hatred known as progressivism.
How did it happen without anyone noticing?
Turns out, we’ve reached the endgame of a strategy the radical left put in play in the 1960s: the long march through the institutions. The onslaught began in higher education—an institution particularly well suited for a takeover because it functions without external market signals. Success in academia hinges entirely on peer approval. Faculty members make all decisions concerning the hiring, firing, and promotion of junior colleagues, curriculum design, publication in prestigious journals, the appropriate paths for research, and the availability of public and private research funding.
The surest way to succeed as an academic is thus to flatter the senior folks charged with making decisions about your career. The best way to do that (within the bounds of legality and propriety) is to “build upon” their work—that is, by taking it one step further in the recommended direction. Senior academics select the direction. Junior academics bolster the prestige of their seniors whenever they make a new “scientific discovery” along the designated path. In one fell swoop these junior academics show how important past work has been and tie their own egos, prestige, and careers to those of their seniors.
This process calcifies conventional wisdom while divorcing each new “discovery” from everything other than the step that immediately preceded it. Each small step in the approved direction represents a small step away from the reality that originally grounded it.
Incremental outrageousness. Consider, for example, the well-grounded observation that it might be worthwhile to study history from the perspective of the peasants and/or the conquered rather than of royalty and/or the victorious. Fast-forward a few decades and many incremental steps. Now, perspective implies sympathy; those who study the oppressed are compassionate, while those who study the oppressors are cruel. Fast-forward a few more decades. Critical theory reduces all human interactions into conflicts between oppressors and oppressed.
Finally, fast-forward to present. Today, “science has proved” that the nuclear family is a tool of oppression—hence the opposition of Black Lives Matter and its ideological allies—and that the biggest problem facing America is a white supremacism so pervasive that it can boast exactly zero organizations of any size or influence.
How did science prove such things? One day at a time, building incrementally upon the scientific frontier of the day before.
Outrageous? Absolutely. But the path from a grounded, reasonable observation to a hateful fantasy capable of undermining the republic was so methodical, so incremental, and so organic that few noticed it happening. Millions of individuals, over the course of decades, responded rationally to the incentives they faced. Prestigious “experts” told them what they had to do, say and join to succeed. Most young people arriving on campus or beginning work in the prestige professions complied; those who did not had short, unhappy experiences and limited career success.
Meanwhile, decent, colorblind, patriotic Americans trusted our nation’s institutions to police themselves. That trust was badly misplaced. The radical left hollowed out our institutions and took them over—first academia, then the media, then the civil service, K-12 education, the professional organizations, Silicon Valley, and Wall Street. In 2021, even corporate America is more interested in being woke than in maximizing profits.
Social media was the final blow. Social media made incremental outrageousness the dominant incentive system driving American society. Viral posts invariably move one step beyond yesterday’s outrage—familiar enough to seem plausible, but still pushing forward in the approved direction. The conventional wisdom dominating American culture is dangerously divorced from reality.
The organic nature of incremental outrageousness is responsible for today’s “social progressives”: The folks committed to progressivism despite having no understanding of progressive ideology. The folks who provide cover and support for anti-American radicals despite believing quite deeply that they’re supporting traditional American concepts of democracy, freedom, and equality. The folks we need to wake up if we’re to secure the support necessary to sustain the American republic.
Those of us committed to that republic must undertake a program of strategic education and commitment. Tools and techniques for waking them and changing their incentives are available and teachable. By all appearances, however, very few of our leaders or our fighters have mastered them. That’s going to have to change—soon—if we have any hope of restoring America.
No one said it was going to be easy.