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The Dawn of Effective Conservatism
A Review of 'The Origins of Woke' by Richard Hanania
Hypothetically, imagine you’re conservative. Inside you are two wolves.
One is a doomer. He thinks it’s all over and things are only going to get worse from here. The left is getting ever more control of the culture, the law, corporations, and pretty much everything else. The arc of history bends towards apocalypse, and there’s no way short of revolution to end it.
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Another is an optimist. He sees conservatives having a mixed record. The left might win more on net, but this is because of clearly identifiable reasons which you can find and change. Decline is a choice. All that’s necessary to reverse it is for conservatives to get their act together and take some responsibility.
Right now, many conservative personalities want to speak to the first wolf, including President Trump, Billboard’s number one singer Oliver Anthony, and top-rated X streamer Tucker Carlson. These include many people I know and respect, who think the only way out is to permanently change the rules of the game and have said as much on my podcast.
In The Origins of Woke, Richard Hanania asks us to give the second wolf a chance. He takes a look at a leading complaint of modern conservatives, the woke culture which dominates universities, government, and even businesses, cancelling people for refusing to lie about race and sex. His conclusion is that cause and effect is lying there in plain sight; all you need to do is look.
When I saw the rise of what most educated people call wokeness, it seemed to be only the long overdue cultural manifestation of assumptions and beliefs that have in many instances been deeply embedded in American law for over half a century.
It is not that culture and aesthetics are unimportant. People can and do legitimately debate moral standards, the purpose of art, and the nature of justice. Wokeness as a cultural phenomenon has something to say about all those things, as does the backlash to it. But what I found strange about the anti-wokeness side of the debate was that its proponents seemed oblivious to the extent to which the beliefs and practices they disliked were mandated by law. (xii)
Not only is his description of civil rights law detailed, but he has clear actionable directions fit to print for a white house briefing. Take this table:
In my interview with Josh Steinman, he named clear, concise communication as the most important skill for translating success in business to success in the National Security Council, where he served. Hanania executes this playbook excellently. He learned from the effectiveness of Rufo and distilled a functioning Republican civil rights law agenda to a few bullet points. The next Republican administration should be handed copies of this table the day after election night.
Small Actions, Big Consequences
A natural human instinct is to believe that big problems must have big causes. If there is a widespread transformation of all companies to obey leftist values, one might naturally come to think that there must be an equivalently powerful, intelligent conspiracy behind the scenes, making it happen. In his book Conspiracy, Michael Shermer finds this result in human psychology rit large: people on average favor causes and effects which are similar in scale, even if the evidence does not favor them. When you dig a bit deeper, you realize that this is rarely the case. Most society-transforming processes have simple roots in repeatable technologies, laws, and narratives.
Richard Hanania lays out the evidence that the same is true for “woke capitalism”. Rather than being the tip of the iceberg of some grand conspiracy, it’s the last domino in an escalating chain of executive orders and court rulings.
This means that the whole project of seeking a grand philosophical explanation for wokeness relies on a conceptual mistake, likely rooted in the need of intellectuals to exaggerate their importance. One is today supposed to believe a list of things about race, gender, and sexual orientation that are consistent with one another in some ways but not others. Although I defined wokeness in terms of three pillars—disparities equal discrimination, speech controls, and HR bureaucracy—these beliefs and practices should be seen less as a philosophical doctrine with its own impeccable inner logic than as a political program that has emerged from a combination of factors such as interest group lobbying, mass emotional sentiment, and bureaucrats seeking to increase their power. (18)
Richard is at his strongest when applying this analysis to HR bureaucracies, the feminization of the workplace, “woke capital”, and the takeover of universities. When it comes to legacy institutions, the direct links he presents are undeniable. Read this amazing long quote in full:
Under affirmative action guidelines as applied to government contractors, it is no exaggeration to say that businesses are forced to be obsessed with race and sex. Long before people noticed that identity-related issues had consumed American universities, something resembling modern wokeness had already been forced on big business. Affirmative action is required for every employer with fifty employees that does at least $50,000 worth of business a year with the federal government, and every subcontractor with at least $10,000 in business. Government regulations specify that a “central premise underlying affirmative action is that, absent discrimination, over time a contractor’s workforce, generally, will reflect the gender, racial and ethnic profile of the labor pools from which the contractor recruits and selects.”19 If a contractor falls short in any particular area, it must take “practical steps” to make up for its deficiency.
The employer is required to participate in a detailed process of identity-based classification and analysis. Middle managers for construction companies and retail store owners become social scientists. First, employers are forced to create an “organizational profile,” defined as “a detailed graphical or tabular chart, text, spreadsheet or
similar presentation of the contractor’s organizational structure.” The contractor must break his business down into “organizational units,” and record the race, gender, and ethnicity of the supervisor of each one. Within each unit, the business must record the number of males and females of each of the following groups: blacks, Hispanics, Asians/ Pacific Islanders, and American Indians/Alaskan Natives. Race and sex are to be determined by self-identification, with the employer prohibited from overruling an individual’s selection, although visual classification is acceptable under certain conditions.20 The next step is engaging in a “workforce analysis,” which divides the employees of a company by job title. Those with titles that are similar in terms of work and pay are combined into “job groups.”
This initial work is required to get to the “job group analysis.” This means comparing the number of women and minorities in each job group to their estimated availability in the population. And how does one determine availability? By coming up with a number for the “percentage of minorities or women with requisite skills in the reasonable recruitment area.” When a particular demographic is underrepresented in a job group, the employer must create “placement goals” to correct its deficiency.
There are plenty of these fine-grained descriptions throughout the book. Even the most dedicated of leftists cannot say that this is a reasonable or consistent way to do things. They might say it’s for the greater good or favor it so long as they think it helps black people, but the procedure is clearly ridiculous on its face.
The Origins of Woke also shines in its treatment of political incentives:
None of this would matter all that much if civil rights law wasn’t also self-financing, the second reason for the existence of a robust human resources industry. Unlike in other areas of law, successful litigants can get attorney’s fees for lawsuits. The practice of awarding punitive damages, codified in the CRA of 1991, has further contributed to an incentive problem in which employers face penalties for running afoul of the law that are disproportionate to the tangible harms caused.
There’s often a false binary presented to describe why politicians, regulators, or bureaucrats take actions: ‘stupid vs. evil’. In reality, it’s often both. Minor changes in law can finance entire industries acting in self interest, contorting themselves to the arbitrary social trends in “DEI”. Moreover, the idea that small changes in law can eventually have huge effects lays the groundwork for a change in conservative policy thinking that has already begun: laws, like decisions or businesses, are Pareto-distributed. Firstly, some laws matter exponentially more than others. Secondly, the importance of these laws can be observed in hindsight. Thirdly, the relative importance of future laws can be reasonably forecast. All this combines to form a fairly drastic change in Republican political strategy and donation patterns.
Is Civil Rights Law An Existential Risk?
Where I think Richard reaches too far is presenting wokeness and civil rights law as a kind of civilizational if not existential risk, akin to communism.
At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, never before had an ideological debate been settled with such finality. For half a century, intellectuals debated whether central planning or markets were the better way to organize an economy. Although socialists had lost the debate intellectually by at least the 1970s, few analysts foresaw that the Soviet Union would decide to abolish itself because its leaders no longer believed in the ideology of the empire. Even those who benefited by ruling over a planned economy were now admitting that it could not work. It was almost as if, in the midst of the European wars of religion, the pope announced that he’d had a revelation in which God told him that Martin Luther’s critique of the Catholic Church was on point. Today the debate is between those who advocate for a form of free market capitalism with relatively little redistribution, as in the United States, or one with more redistribution, as in Scandinavian countries. China and India, the two largest states in the world, have benefited immensely from the move toward capitalism, despite large differences in their governing systems.
Yet while central planning in the economic realm has been completely discredited, in social matters it has become an accepted part of life in the United States.
If anything I think the more urgent threat to freedom are the direct inheritors of communism: the European-style regulatory state which exact vengeance on successful people by banning industries instead of nationalizing them, which creates the same if not greater harm to prosperity. In the American context you can say it’s all related, that civil rights laws and the downstream attitudes on race lead to a need for paternalistic crackdowns on all of social life. That’s pretty much what Richard argues:
This chapter makes the case that civil rights law, out of all the problems one can focus on, should be an area of concern for those interested in human progress. In broad terms, modern civil rights law has at least four major effects on American society: the war on merit, restrictions on the cultural pluralism that is necessary for human happiness, ending creative destruction in personnel management, and widespread social strife as reflected in our cultural wars.
How could one area of law have such disastrous downstream effects in so many different areas of life? By way of analogy, this question can be answered by noting that one might be skeptical of a claim that there is a medicine that cures a large number of ailments, while being more ready to believe that there is a poison with a large number of negative health effects. Like the human body, society is an extremely complex system, which means that there are many more potentially harmful interventions than there are beneficial ones. Civil rights law has effectively ended freedom of association as the default assumption in American private life, and it reaches down to regulate nearly all forms of interpersonal relations. There is no reason to expect the downstream effects of such a revolutionary change to be constrained to one area of human existence. One cannot make a comprehensive list of all the things that can go wrong in a centrally planned economy, because the theory the system being analyzed relies upon fundamentally contradicts sound economic principles. Likewise, the idea that the federal government can regulate personal relationships is so contrary to human nature, and reflects such a misunderstanding of the organic ways in which cultures and norms develop, that it should be unsurprising to learn that the post-1964 regime has had dire and wide-reaching consequences. (120-121)
I’m somewhat sympathetic to this case. Certainly, I think repealing civil rights laws, reinstating cognitive tests, and making it easier to fire underperforming workers are some of the most important things Conservative politicians could be doing. But I’d much rather live in the wokest American city than anywhere in the Soviet Union.
Perhaps this is simply a necessary part of any conservative book. I don’t want to jump to conclusions about Richard’s reasoning at this moment. It’s likely that we’ll record a podcast episode together near the end of his press tour, so that’s probably where I’ll dive deeper into my critiques of this chapter. I do think we have a fairly substantive disagreement of whether wokeness acts as an accelerator for more deplorable parts of the (especially economic) left or if it actually constrains them, which is my view.
Why Do Conservatives Suck so Much?
There’s a faction of intellectuals on both left and right who want to believe in the great man theory of history, except instead of conquering nations or founding companies, the great man is a loser wordcel who writes boring philosophy papers. Through magical fact-free argument, often by quoting Hegel (one such loser mistaken for a great man), they come to the conclusion that American race relations and violence wouldn’t be like every multi-ethnic third world country if only Foucault never put ink to the page. I’m pretty sure this is more extreme than Richard’s opinion, but this is my opinion. Anyways,
For example, in The Diversity Myth, originally published in 1995, David Sacks and Peter Thiel saw the switch from the classics to so-called multicultural education at Stanford as a microcosm of what was happening to higher education and the rest of society. More recently Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay argue that social justice ideology can be traced to postmodern philosophy, which at first “developed in relatively obscure corners of academia” and now “has spread to other parts of the academy, into activism, throughout bureaucracies, and to the heart of primary, secondary, and post-secondary education.”6 They contend that postmodernism “co-opted the notion of social justice from the civil rights movements and other liberal and progressive theories,” and that this began “just as legal equality had largely been achieved.” When discussing the negative societal effects of the Frankfurt School, Pluckrose and Lindsay echo socially conservative thinkers like Pat Buchanan and Michael Lind, who conceptualize their opponents as “cultural Marxists.” Professor Paul Gottfried finds roots that are even deeper, arguing that political correctness is a kind of “secular theocracy” and emphasizing the “fit between the current state of Protestant Germanic religious consciousness and the politics of guilt.” (9)
If it is a matter of philosophy and belief, then the answer is more books, articles, essays, and scientific studies debunking the beliefs that form the basis of identity politics and political correctness. In other words, keep employing the same strategy that opponents of earlier and more contemporary forms of wokeness have used since at least the 1970s, when disillusioned former liberals who came to be known as “neoconservatives” began to write about the failures of the Great Society. Their work continues today on social media and in online publications such as Quillette, which has one foot in academia and few connections to the American right. If, however, this book is correct, and wokeness should be understood as a matter of government power, then the political entrepreneur is more important than the essayist. That is, unless the latter can produce work that serves as a catalyst for effective activism, as this book aspires to do. (19)
“The political entrepreneur” is a great phrase here. The political entrepreneur isn’t a wordcel (someone who focuses on rhetoric) or a shape rotator (someone who focuses on underlying technology) but a third thing. Richard continues to focus on the causal direction between civil rights law and wokeness.
A particular problem for the idea that wokeness came from the university is the fact that identity politics had to originally be forced upon much of higher education by Washington, with the Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare originally coercing schools like Columbia and UC Berkeley to adopt quota-based faculty hiring during the early 1970s. The government mandates came first, and the ideology later.
Richard uses the entirety of chapter six to answer the question in the title. I’m just going to post a longquote here because I think he is quite concise.
There have been three eras that reflect different Republican approaches to civil rights. First was 1964–1980, when conservative politicians spoke to the fears and concerns of the majority of Americans on civil rights excesses but allowed government bureaucracy to move forward on issues such as disparate impact and consent decrees that mandated racial balancing. This is because Republican elites, while willing to appeal to cultural grievances to win elections, were far from antagonistic to the civil rights establishment and often intimidated by a hostile media landscape. This changed with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. From 1981 to 2008, we saw the second era, one in which Democrats continued to be completely united on civil rights law while the other side was split. Reagan and those around him did more to push back on civil rights law than any other president since the 1960s, but disagreements within his cabinet and resistance in Congress prevented him from taking decisive action. The administration of George H. W. Bush spoke out against “quotas” but capitulated to a Democratic Congress and signed the Civil Rights Acts of 1991 while actively supporting the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). His son would sign a bill in 2008 expanding the definition of “disability” under the ADA.
After the 2008 election, we started to see the culmination of decades of political sorting and elite polarization as conservatives took charge of the Republican Party. On a wide range of issues—including guns, abortion rights, and environmental regulations—Republican officials moved to the right. Yet civil rights law simply fell off the radar. Conservatives grew increasingly concerned with wokeness as a cultural phenomenon while ignoring its origins in policy. (151-153)
The one line summary is “Republicans were too lazy and disorganized”. I have no doubt that this explanation is true, but it feels unsatisfactory. Perhaps I should try to pull out a more ambitious explanation. Universities have long been a staging ground for leftist ‘political entrepreneurs’. The political entrepreneur is an unnatural being. He has to have a fair amount of talent and dedication, but instead of putting those admirable qualities to work by starting a company or conducting research or doing some other useful thing, they choose to dedicate their life to making the state more tyrannical. It’s a mindset that has to be driven by some unusual motivation, whether it’s a hatred of markets or a belief that the current regime is an existential threat. This isn’t to say that no political entrepreneurs contribute positively to the world, only that the incentives that lead someone to become one are strange and often bad.
This is one of the reasons I’m hopeful for the next generation of conservatives, which increasingly think that civilization itself is at stake. Is it true that Western civilization is literally going to collapse like the Roman Empire? I don’t know, it seems like an extremely difficult question to answer with any degree of confidence. But it’s honestly a healthier reason to be a policy entrepreneur than the crazy things leftists tell themselves, and will likely lead to better results.
There’s two conclusions you could draw. One is the doomer conclusion – that desire to influence policy overwhelmingly tilts towards evil and that the imbalance between left-wing policy entrepreneurs and right-wing policy entrepreneurs is a fact of life. The other is the optimist conclusion – by picking their battles and acting in a more strategic, rational way, the right can overcome the disadvantage in numbers. The right does take some wins. If each and every one of those wins were in the most important areas, we could easily see right-wing domination of the culture. Being the more vaguely pro-autist party, this gives the Republican party some plausible road to victory. While being outnumbered, a venture capitalist style approach to political entrepreneurship – funding crazy autists on the most important issues of the century – might just be enough.
The parallel to effective altruism is intentional. A crazy claim that I’m going to make without any evidence for now is that I think a fusion between effective altruist means and conservative ends is inevitable. Naturally, both conservatives and EAs will vehemently deny in public that this is what happened, but in the background, everyone will know.
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