Opinion | Ross Douthat: The Tom Cotton Op-Ed and the Cultural Revolution

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Kendi’s books are popular, but his Department of Anti-Racism isn’t likely to appear in the Democratic Party’s platform, and generally the successor ideology has flopped on the campaign trail. Joe Biden is the Democratic nominee, while candidates like Julián Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren found the voters cool to their jargon and appeals. And the inchoate shape of the new movement, the way the locus of power and authority keeps shifting between different groups — the fierce lean-in feminist is suddenly recast as the despised Karen, Jews and Asians are welcomed as allies one moment and regarded as suspiciously “white-adjacent” the next — may make it especially hard to translate into normal party politics.

But in professional-class institutions the successor ideology has made tremendous headway — especially among younger white people, interestingly, for whom it seems to supply a substitute for the structures of civic and religious meaning that their baby boomer parents overthrew. The dynamic in which the pursuit of liberal goals blurs into successor-ideology ambitions is now visible everywhere in upper-middle-class America, from the Ivy League to the young-adult fiction industry, from public school systems in liberal cities to H.R. departments all over corporate America. Indeed the successor ideology seems particularly adaptable (as DiAngelo’s career attests) to the corporate world, where it promises a framework for regulating an increasingly diverse work force that conveniently emphasizes psychology and identity rather than a class solidarity that might threaten the corporate bottom line.

And of course, the influence of the successor ideology is palpable in the media as well, where as closures and consolidation have made the profession more upper middle class and metropolitan, the old biases of the liberal media have given way to a more crusading spirit.

Again, this shift is happening on a continuum with the pursuit of old-fashioned and laudable liberal goals — more diversity in hiring, equal opportunity instead of old boys networks, newsrooms that more adequately represent the communities they cover. But bound up with these goals is a growing newsroom assumption that greater diversity should actually lead to a more singular perspective on the news, a journalism of “truth” rather than “objectivity,” in which issues that involve black — or gay or female or transgender or immigrant — interests are covered less as complex debates and more as stories of good versus evil. (Obviously, having Donald Trump as president, with his birtherism, bluster and Twitter-feed authoritarianism, has made this transformation seem more urgent and essential.)

And because the media is more consolidated than in the past, its talent concentrated in a few cities with a few papers (like this one) bestriding the landscape and smaller outlets fading every day, it’s a mistake to see this change as just a return of the partisan journalism that dominated 19th-century America. We don’t suddenly have a Democratic and a Republican newspaper battling in every city once again. Instead we have a national media (with Fox News as the exception that helps solidify the rule) that moves as a herd but doesn’t think of itself as partisan — because partisans are partial and biased, and the assumption is that in rejecting neutrality we’re just moving toward the truth.

The results of this shift have been particularly apparent lately at this newspaper, especially in the transformed relationship between our news and opinion pages. The Times of my youth and adolescence aspired to be nonpartisan in its news gathering, while the editorial page was frankly liberal and the Op-Ed page mostly (William Safire excepted) left-of-center. But as our news pages have become more ideological, oriented toward the perceived truths of the successor ideology — a shift documented last year by Zach Goldberg, a Ph.D student at Georgia State, in a series of striking charts showing how the shifting vocabulary of activists has taken off in Times stories — the Op-Ed page has gone from being to the left of the news pages to being, strangely, somewhat to their right.

This is not because the Op-Ed department is no longer mostly left-of-center; indeed, we have added many talented left-wing columnists and contributors, and (as my friends on the right never fail to point out) we do not have a single columnist who supported Donald Trump. But by publishing several right-of-center columnists, and running both regular Op-Eds by pro-Trump contributors and a wider range of heterodox opinion, we have maintained a commitment, liberal-minded in the old sense, to capturing the range of American debate — and earned an odd sort of intramural hostility from some of our news colleagues in the process.


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