Irving Kristol famously defined a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” Today, it seems, a good number have similarly been muggedif not quite by reality, then by its fever dream simulacrum that raged through American institutions during the Trump years and peaked in the annus horribilis of 2020.

Don’t touch that dial: Matt Franck will be back for his regularly scheduled Bookshelf column in July. But he’s graciously handed over the tiller this month. The last few months have seen a number of new releases that touch on the backlash to the “Great Awokening” from different perspectivescultural, personal, political, and historical.

For nearly a decade, progressive causes benefited from voices closer to the midpoint of the political spectrum being unwilling to make waves. If it came down to excusing some slightly over-exuberant cultural progressivism or making common cause with deplorables, well, the choice was easy.

But as the Left’s cultural energy reached escape velocity, fueled by four years of the (first?) Trump administration, COVID-19, and the death of George Floyd, some ruptures started to appear in the consensus of respectable mainstream voices. And, on a matter of pure politics, the thermostatic nature of American politicswhichever party won the last presidential election always experiences a bit of cultural backlashmeans the progressive bender was always going to cause a hangover.

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This leaves conservatives in a complicated, though welcome, spot. Those who have left the Left, to varying degrees, can be potent allies when they use their platforms to question the conventional wisdom and unspoken premises of their former colleagues. Nothing gets attention like an apostate. (Just as those voices who used to be bulwarks of the conservative movement have found success criticizing their old comrades in arms.)

But how far can these new alliances take us? Making common cause against the excesses of the “woke” may be one thing, but admitting that conservatives may have had a point all along is something else entirely. Some of these refugees from the cultural revolution may be open to new alliances. Some of them just want the Left of 2013 back.

Let’s start with the classroom. In Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up (reviewed for Public Discourse by my EPPC colleague Alexandra DeSanctis), Abigail Shrier uncovers a Phillip Rieff fever dream come to life. The “therapeutic” hasn’t just triumphed; it colonized the classroom in an effort to remake K–12 education into a process of healing “trauma” and prioritizing “mental health.”

“I can’t think of a content area that needs more social-emotional learning than mathematics,” one education consultant she quotes says, before encouraging teachers to have students share their feelings and anxieties before jumping into fractions or algebra. The tendency to cast behavioral problems as some kind of clinical disorder“generalized anxiety disorder” rather than “shy,” or “food avoidant” rather than “picky eater”isn’t unique to the Left. But it does reflect the saccharine sentimentality that characterizes so much of mainstream education discourse, the kind that says not allowing students with head lice to return to class will cause them “stigma.”

The largely respectfuland successfulreception Shrier’s book received suggests she gave some permission to parents to criticize the excesses of progressive therapy culture run amok. Like Ivy League colleges belatedly reintroducing standardized testing requirements, it now feels a little more acceptable in polite company to observe that asking math teachers to play ersatz mental health counselors is bad for their ability to teachand bad for kids.

Then there’s Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History, by the former New York Times reporter Nellie Bowles, whose book succeeds as a kind of horror movie. The people and institutions she thought she knew are gradually revealed to have been replaced by individuals and attitudes she can hardly recognize. What, after all, is “progressive” about letting a park in a California neighborhood slowly slide into violence? How could the political movement that embraces the rhetoric of female empowerment have turned a blind eye to naked men barging into female-only spaces?

Morning After the Revolution largely eschews stylistic flourishes to give the reader a sense of what it must feel like to watch one’s social circle of progressives in good standing succumb to a “mind virus.” And her dawning realization of the vapidity of certain leftist bromidesYes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Policegives space for other dissenters to criticize where unadulterated left-wing logic takes us.

It doesn’t seem unthinkable that a certain type of still-respectable liberal could now admit that having gone all-in on BLM symbolism in Summer 2020 was, in retrospect, a little gauche, much like the sheepish retroactive acknowledgment we now see that dumping sand to render playgrounds unusable during COVID was a bit much. It remains to be seen how many are willing to take the next step and admit that conservatives who opposed kente-cloth photo ops or firing employees unwilling to get vaccinated may have had a point.

Another leftist voice who is fed up with symbolism is the prolific, if slightly irascible, essayist Fredrik deBoer. His How Elites Ate the Social Justice Movement calls out progressive leaders for squandering the newfound attention on racial justice issues. Instead of economic policies to lift up the poor and disenfranchised, deBoer argues, social justice became efforts to capitalize the “B” in “Black” or scrub the phrase “I see what you mean” out of vocabularies for being “ableist.”

DeBoerwho describes himself as a class-first leftist, in contrast to others who prioritize race or gendercan see the log of diversity clouding the eyes of progressive activists. While his latest is less hard-hitting than his first book, The Cult of Smart, deBoer clearly sees how the progressive emphasis on credentialing, combined with prioritizing identity over other considerations, led to the focus on the intangible and inchoate political sentiments that Bowles saw taking shape.

And, though deBoer might be appalled to hear it, his prescriptions for left-wing activists also offer conservative would-be populists some pointers. As the parties realign along educational lines, the GOP must increasingly shift toward a working-class agenda that offers more than trucker hats. “Talk like human beings again” is good advice for both community organizers and those whose populist agenda often revolves around rigged election subplots and half-baked conspiracy theories.

But of course, conspiracy theories have a long history on the Right, as John Ganz’s When the Clock Broke: Con Men, Conspiracists, and How America Cracked Up in the Early 1990s illustrates. It offers an opinionated, well-written retelling of the events, personalities, and cultural dynamics around the 1992 election.

For those who weren’t around, or were young enough not to be paying attention, Ganz’s treatment of H. Ross Perot is something of a revelation. The appeal of a pox-on-both-their-houses businessman who sports a casual relationship with the truth and wraps his appeal in a muscular patriotism takes on a certain, undeniable new resonance. Ganz puts the spotlight on figures history had written out of the narrative until they came storming back, ranging all the way from Sam Francis and Murray Rothbard to David Duke and John Gotti, in an attempt to trace where the Right’s pressure points have always been.

Though conservatives can be grateful for any number of new partnerships with strange bedfellows, we shouldn’t mistake strategic alliances for establishing new beachheads that will win the war.


Ganz’s book is a reminder to the Right that whether or not extremism in the defense of liberty may be a vice, it is certainly not always the best application of prudence; and even less often the path to political success. Capitalizing on the newly disaffected voices of the former Center-Left will require, as the Heritage Foundation’s Delano Squires recently wrote, minimizing “collateral damage“ in rhetorical outreach. A new vital Center that affirms commitments to free speech, equal treatment, and authentic pluralism will require a Right that is confident in its own traditions and able to distinguish between champions and charlatans.

But those fed up with the Left’s excesses have a homework assignment too. Today’s ex-progressives are reactionaries in their own way, longing for the “sensible” Left that opposed the Iraq War, pushed for same-sex marriage, elected the first black president, and rallied against the 1 percent. But somewhere between Obama’s second inauguration and ill-fated attempts at identity politics by mass-market beer producers, they recognize, things seem to have gotten out of hand. Where would today’s anti-woke liberals draw the line? Can they point to a Supreme Court case or policy decision that, in retrospect, conservatives were correct to oppose as overreach? Or do their complaints amount to wishing their former confreres were just a little more chill?

Though conservatives can be grateful for any number of new partnerships with strange bedfellows, we shouldn’t mistake strategic alliances for establishing new beachheads that will win the war. A second Trump term will probably turn the thermostat of American politics and culture back in a leftward direction; the courage it took for today’s intellectual emigrés to abandon the Left may be, once again, in short supply.

Shrier, Bowles, deBoer, and Ganz are not avatars for the kind of shift I’m curious about. But they are all honest brokers. And each of their books offers a way of analyzing contemporary trends that sheds light on what a new alliance against identitarian politics (on both extreme ends of the political spectrum) could look like.

Conservatives, who sometimes can be seen as wanting to turn the clock much farther back than the last decade, will need to identify ways of applying core principles in ways that avoid falling into sheer revanchism. Old-fashioned liberals who wish to recover a circa 2013 version of the Democratic Party will have to lay out what, exactly, they would change to prevent the same cultural trends from playing out all over again.

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