A young woman, well known to the New York City-based chattering class, has finally let loose with what she really thinks. “The white race is the cancer of human history,” she says, “it is the white race and it alone—its ideologies and inventions—which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself.”
Has this author discovered some new tweet from Sarah Jeong, the now-notorious new hire at the New York Times? Nope. The quote above dates back to 1967. It’s from Susan Sontag, the chic literary critic. Her words were mostly in response to the Vietnam War, but as we can see, her critique extended far further. We might also add that Sontag later said she regretted her quote—because it was insensitive to cancer victims.
In other words, we’ve been down this road before. White people are bad, Western culture is bad, America is bad, etc. Indeed, Sarah Jeong has plenty of coevals. The June 8 op-ed page of the Washington Post was graced with the headline, “Why can’t we hate men?” And on June 19, The Root—founded by the owner of the Washington Post, now owned by Univision—headlined a piece, “White People Are Cowards.” And on July 23, the New Yorker offered this one: “A Sociologist Examines the ‘White Fragility’ That Prevents White Americans from Confronting Racism.”
As we can see, plenty of writers today are vying to be the new Susan Sontag.
Yet here’s the thing: success in the media is not the same as success in politics. That is, what’s beloved by the chatterers is often, shall we say, not loved by the voters.
To illustrate this point, we might return to Sontag’s time, the late 1960s. In 1968, the year after her “cancer” declaration, the Democrats, having held the White House for two terms, lost to Richard Nixon. Moreover, the end of the ’60s brought a distinct shift in the zeitgeist. Yes, the cultural revolution revolted on at some universities and other elite areas, yet for the most part, the country moved to the right.
For example, the most notable song of 1968 was the Beatles’ “Revolution,” the lyrics of which were, in fact, distinctly counterrevolutionary. And the most pointed tune of 1969, Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee,” was downright reactionary.
To be sure, the left was still plenty strong. On November 15, 1969, an anti-Vietnam War protest in Washington, D.C., drew 500,000 people. And speaking of protests, albeit of a particular kind, in 1969 and 1970, there were 370 bombings in New York City alone. Over the next two years, at least 2,500 bombs blew up across the country, including at the U.S. Capitol.
Meanwhile, Hollywood went into overdrive, pushing anti-Vietnam parables such as M*A*S*H, Catch 22, and Little Big Man. Thrown on the defensive by the pop culture, Republicans pointed out that they had inherited the Vietnam War from the Democrats, yet by now, the leftist critique of America had grown to Sontag-ian dimensions. For instance, the 1970 film, Joe, about a bigoted blue-collar father—it starred a young Susan Sarandon—depicted its main character as hateful to the point of murder.
Yet as always, electoral politics, as opposed to cultural posturing, was about numbers—who had the majority? And this is where the leftists had a problem: they had the venom but not the voters.
Thus the 1970 midterm elections were substantially waged over cultural issues, specifically the New Left versus what Nixon had dubbed the “Silent Majority,” believers in “law and order.” In the meantime, the critics and crazies flailed, calling Nixon virtually every name in the book, including “fascist” and “Nazi.”
Yet even so, observers were startled when Nixon chose to hit back, at least partially. In May 1970, the 37th president derided campus radicals as “bums, you know, blowing up the campuses.” By the standards of today, such rhetoric might seem mild, but at the time, it caused a sensation.
Meanwhile, Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, went further, ripping into opponents, especially in the media, as “effete snobs” and “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
Perhaps as a result, the 1970 midterm election results were a mild success for the Nixon-Agnew forces: the Republicans won a net of two Senate seats—or three, if you count James Buckley, brother of Bill, who was elected by the New York State Conservative Party. Yes, they also lost a dozen House seats and a number of governorships, but that bad news was somewhat mitigated by the comfortable re-election of a rising star in California, Ronald Reagan.
Yet even if the left couldn’t thwart Nixon at the ballot box, it sought, in its fashion, to beat him on TV. In 1971, CBS premiered All in the Family, a sitcom featuring Archie Bunker, a bigoted man from Queens, New York. The program clearly owed a debt to the film Joe, even if the actor Carroll O’Connor played Archie with a whimsical twinkle. (And yes, in the years since, many observers—including Rob Reiner, a member of the show’s cast— have compared Archie Bunker to that other son of Queens, Donald Trump.)
Nonetheless, Archie became the hero of the show. Audiences across Middle America surely understood that he was supposed to be the heavy, and yet the folks in Muskogee and Peoria decided that they loved him anyway. To use some of today’s parlance, Middle Americans opted to “own” Archie, warts and all. The show was first in the Nielsen ratings for five seasons at a time when, we might note, that meant a third of all the TVs in America were tuned in (by contrast, today a show can be first in the nation with just a fifth of All in the Family’s ratings).
So as we can see, the left’s culture-war strategy against the right had its weaknesses, even boomerangs. In the meantime, of course, even in those pre-Rush Limbaugh, pre-Fox News days, there was at least some counter to the counterculture. Two notable works from the early ’70s were Arnold Beichman’s vigorous defense of this country, its institutions, and its people, Nine Lies About America, and Edith Efron’s scathing attack on the media, The News Twisters. In the meantime, ordinary people, not necessarily book readers, went with their gut: if the unpopular bicoastal elites hated Nixon so much, then he must be doing something right.
Thus we come to the 1972 presidential election. Nixon was not particularly popular, and yet it was his great good fortune that the Democrats, hopped up on their own culture—plus, perhaps, various substances—chose to shun their moderate candidates, instead choosing a lefty, George McGovern. And McGovern was further weighed down by the baggage of those even further to the left, including those who gloried in a Sontag Sensibility.
Not surprisingly, McGovern was disastrously defeated, losing 49 states.
We can stop this little historical tour here. Suffice it to say that never since have the Democrats run a candidate as far to the left as McGovern.
Well, actually, maybe we should say that they haven’t so far. As we have seen, the left’s cultural drift even further leftwards—to the point of outright antagonism towards America—is likely to put off many voters, even those who might not be fans of Trump. In other words, Social Justice Warriors might predominate in Berkeley and Burlington, but they play poorly in Pontiac and Provo.
So what will happen to the Democrats in 2020? Will they succumb, once again, to the siren song of McGovernism, with its notes of Sontagism, and, to apply today’s terminology, Jeong-ism?
No plausible Democratic presidential candidate is openly hostile to the majority of the people in this country. Yet it remains to be seen whether any of the hopefuls will actively denounce Jeong’s words, thereby inoculating themselves against PC poison.
We might recall that such denouncing was the effective strategy of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1992. In May of that year, Clinton responded to the incendiary comments of rapper Sister Souljah who said, “Why not have a week and kill white people?” by doing exactly what a normal American would want him to do and condemning her. Of course, Clinton was clever about it: he compared her to David Duke, the Klansman, thus triangulating himself in the sensible middle, equidistant from both noxious figures.
Yet his calculation notwithstanding, Clinton obviously did the right thing. In that moment—what’s remembered as his Sister Souljah moment—he established himself as a gutsy centrist, unafraid to take on extremism wherever he found it. He took heat from the left at the time, and yet, of course, in November the voters rewarded him and he won the White House in a landslide.
Can the Democrats repeat Clinton’s feat today? Can they free themselves from their coalition’s most politically toxic elements?
It’s entirely possible that the 2020 presidential election will hinge on the answer to those questions.
James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at TAC. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.