The Anti-C.R.T. Movement and a Vision For a New Right Wing

It’s become fashionable on the left to think of the American political right as a thicket of vaguely defined ideologies funded, in large part, by shadowy billionaires who want to overthrow democracy. This may very well be true, but what’s changed over the past decade or so is that it’s become a lot easier to track the lineage of right-wing thought. The shadows, mostly, have been lifted.

The national meltdown over critical race theory, for example, can quite easily be traced back to the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank that employs Christopher Rufo, the country’s pre-eminent critic of critical race theory. The group has historically been funded by corporations, political interest groups like EdChoice, which promotes voucher programs, and wealthy private donors like the Koch brothers and the Bradley Foundation.

Why has the Manhattan Institute, which typically focuses on economic policy, immigration, crime and education policy, turned so much of its attention to the critical race theory culture war? Is it just a way to sow racial discord and “own the libs”? Does it come out of a sincere desire to eliminate a type of racialized thinking from public schools? Or is there some larger vision of conservative politics that’s at play here?

To answer these questions, I spoke to Reihan Salam, the president of the Manhattan Institute. He explained his organization’s concentration on critical race theory along with educational meritocracy and law and order matters. These aren’t particularly new arenas for conservatives, but what’s interesting is the intended audience. Salam and the Manhattan Institute see a multicultural right that can be built by looking in places that progressives either overlook, or, in Salam’s estimation, willfully ignore.

Can you build a coalition between frustrated Latino, Asian American and Black parents who believe in school choice and the ideals of American meritocracy? And can those groups then be folded into a modern Republican Party that still is in the thrall of Trumpism?

Here are edited excerpts from our conversations:

What’s the Manhattan Institute platform for 2022?

Crime and public safety have been absolutely central to our work. Partly because, at a moment when virtually all elite institutions, including elite institutions on the right, were oriented toward criminal justice reform, we were saying: “Look, responsible, thoughtful, measured reform may well make sense. But what we want to do is avoid some kind of mechanistic lurch toward a permissive bias.”

And also the intersection of race and public policy. If you look at every important policy debate right now, there’s a way in which classic empirical debates have been overshadowed by a debate over what is and is not racist, with the definition of what counts as racist growing ever more expansive and totalizing.

I think it freezes a lot of people, including a lot of people of color, out of conversations. I think that it has obscured a lot of the diversity of opinion, a lot of different communities. If you’re a nonwhite person who dissents from elite progressive opinion, you are guilty of “multiracial whiteness.” We see this in debates about environmental policy, about health policy, any number of things. So I think that squarely addressing that is especially important in diverse communities, because these are communities where it winds up having very material consequences.

What’s an example of a consensus with regards to racism that is locking out diverse intellectual thought?

The political scientists Alan Yan and Hakeem Jefferson did some survey work looking at Black Americans and their views on, for example, the size of the welfare state and how much we devote to social spending. And they found that 31 percent of Black respondents favored increasing the resources allocated to these programs — but 28 percent favored reducing them.

If you look at prestige media institutions, and their kind of narrative around what it means to have diverse voices, I don’t think you see that diversity of opinion expressed. The moral authority of a person who reflects a progressive left view and speaks on behalf of a marginalized population is vast. And it has a huge effect on conversations, including policy conversations. I think merely surfacing the fact that actually you cannot speak for a group in these monolithic terms has some power in itself.

A lot of people would agree with you there. Progressive elite media does tend to overlook a lot of narratives, especially in minority communities. But how do you build a political platform out of that observation? To put it a bit more succinctly, what’s the prestige media got to do with it?

Prestige media imparts prestige, and so it incentivizes the behavior of ambitious, status-seeking people.

Consider the rise of the so-called progressive prosecution movement. Alvin Bragg, the new Manhattan D.A., is a graduate of the Trinity School, one of the most selective prep schools in the country, and Harvard and Harvard Law School. He is a product of the most elite American institutions. And he’s advancing an approach to prosecution — roughly the same approach as Chesa Boudin, the San Francisco D.A., himself a Rhodes scholar — that is just deeply not in tune with the opinions of the working-class Dominicans or Bangladeshis or Black people who are getting victimized by chronic offenders.

What matters in these contexts is who gets through what you could call the “prestige primary.” And it’s just not cool for kids at Yale Law School to care more about the fate of unfashionable crime victims than about whatever they’re reading in the socialist magazine Jacobin or The New York Times Magazine, which are increasingly indistinguishable. Giving voice to people who are outside of this bubble is vitally important — it challenges the legitimacy of the elite progressive consensus, it activates citizens who haven’t otherwise felt their power and it creates an opening for political and civic entrepreneurs to build new coalitions.

The platform you’re describing sounds a lot like the one that New York City’s new mayor, Eric Adams, ran on. He’s focused on public safety, education and fighting the progressive elite in the name of working-class people of color. What do you think about his first few weeks as mayor? Do you think he could be someone who could further the aims of the center right?

Basically, yes.

Eric Adams might be the most consequential Democratic politician in the country right now. Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, even Kamala Harris all seem to represent an interregnum. There’s something else that’s on the horizon for the center left, and it could very well be Adams.

At a time when a self-referential, educated, affluent group dominates the uppermost echelons of the party, Adams has a great deal of moral authority. The fragility of New York City’s recovery, the fact that the city’s economic model depends on retaining the ultrarich and the vast service-sector working class, the fraught politics of race and public order all make this an incredibly high-stakes moment. If Adams can get this roughly right, he will absolutely have claim to being the party’s next national leader.

And Adams is not entirely alone. There’s a handful of other Black and brown outer-borough politicians in New York who understand the stakes and who are carving out new ideological approaches that go beyond prestige-media progressivism. Ritchie Torres, the first-term congressman from the South Bronx, is perhaps the most obvious and compelling example. You could call them the pragmatic progressives or neo-moderates or whatever. They’re all hated by the post-college democratic socialist youth, who sneer at them on Twitter, but they represent working-class communities and they viscerally understand the cost of saying no to housing development and to decent blue-collar jobs. Adams is their most visible success.

Of course, Adams is not a conventional conservative. But if he can follow through on his calls for increased investment in effective policing and increasing the number of high-quality schools (as opposed to obsessing over the racial balance at Stuyvesant or Bronx Science while most children go to schools that are failing their students), and if he can lower the barriers to new housing and private-sector growth in general, he’ll build a durable, diverse majority of moderate, small-c conservative voters that could absolutely serve as a national model.

You fund and promote the work of Chris Rufo. He has started a full-on culture war over critical race theory. Why did the Manhattan Institute fund this fight?

I appreciate that Chris’s work has been controversial, especially among practitioners of prestige media, but we don’t shy away from that. His reporting for City Journal, a publication run by the Manhattan Institute,and the broader work he’s been doing for us has been consistently insightful, intellectually serious and impactful.

We hire people with traditional academic credentials, but we also hire people with unconventional experiences that allow them to see things in new ways — investigative journalists, documentary filmmakers, renegade ex-civil servants — and we encourage scholars with different experiences and skill sets to collaborate. We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t hire people like Chris, and we intend to keep doing it.

Rufo has tweeted that this critical race theory fight is all part of a larger plan. And when he said that, I instantly pictured some think tank behind all this. You’re the think tank behind this. What’s the plan here?

I’d say that we’re the think tank where Chris has found an intellectual home.

What he has done is put a name on a big, sprawling concept that’s having a big effect on American life. What Chris has tried to say is, ‘I’ve looked into this, I’ve listened carefully. I’ve looked at these trainings, and it does seem as though there is a kind of body of intellectual work. Is this something that we can reasonably name and say that there is some kind of rough coherent set of ideas here?’

Chris has assigned a name to this phenomenon.

OK, but what are you trying to accomplish?

I see the C.R.T. fight as part of a larger fight against race essentialism. If we’re going to build a successful multiethnic democracy, it’ll be because we’ve lowered the salience of race in people’s lives. Our goal should be the expansion of the American mainstream, in which people aren’t bound by rigid racial expectations, and ethnic identity is more voluntary or symbolic than something that determines your life chances.

To some, I’m sure this will sound utopian, but I actually think it’s a decent description of an emerging reality in huge swaths of working-class and middle-class America, and particularly for immigrants and second-generation Americans in nonelite neighborhoods and workplaces.

I sometimes get the sense that the most race-obsessed environments in America are prisons — think of California’s racial prison gangs, which Chris Rufo wrote about recently for City Journal— and elite media and academic institutions. If you dissent from a certain set of ideas championed by credentialed spokespeople for what it means to be Black or Latino or Asian or whatever, the message is that you are not to be taken seriously, you don’t count as a diverse voice.

The C.R.T. fight, to me, is first and foremost about resisting this tendency to further racialize American life, which, in turn, creates the potential for new cultural possibilities, new social ties across ethnic lines and new political coalitions.

Are you concerned at all about downstream effects from this culture war? Like school boards banning books by Black authors and some of the actions we’ve seen that I think even you would say constitute censorious overreach?

As Chris has observed, the pushback against critical race theory has been multiethnic, and it’s transcended ideological lines. There’s no question that some opponents of C.R.T. have overreached, just as some partisans of C.R.T. have gone too far in the direction of compelling students, faculty and staff to affirm a specific set of political and ideological ideas.

There are more than 13,000 public school districts in the country, not all of which are governed thoughtfully or responsibly. One of the reasons our scholars have been calling for greater transparency is that we believe these debates should happen in the open, with all interested parties having access to reliable information. It’s been very disorienting to see many organizations denounce new curriculum transparency proposals as paving the way for censorship — it seems almost calculated to convince people that there’s a shadowy “deep state” in public education that wants to evade scrutiny, which strikes me as unfair to most public educators.

I suspect this is all a manifestation of negative polarization: If those people are for curriculum transparency, we must be against it.

These ideas — being tough on crime, against critical race theory in schools and for educational choice — whom do you hope this appeals to?

I think it can appeal to a very diverse coalition of people, especially people who depend on public order, who depend on high-quality public services. You know, as you and I both know, there is a universe of people who can lead perfectly happy lives without relying on the public sector. They can be perfectly safe, they can insulate themselves. But our sense is that there’s just a large universe of people who can’t, for whom the stakes are actually quite high. It’s not ideological for them. And I think that those are the people that we want to speak to.

I think there’s a fair argument to be made that being tough on crime and against C.R.T. and moving away from equity approaches in education could all be considered anti-Black. How do you respond to that?

It’s insane, because I believe that Black Americans, in particular, benefit enormously from effective policing and enormously and disproportionately from improving the quality of public education.

When it comes to the education battles, we recently published a paper on high schools in New York City, and what we found is that these high schools that were established after 1994 — starting under the Giuliani administration, but really under the Bloomberg administration — have just done way, way better in terms of actually getting students to graduate and also imparting the kind of skills that young people need to flourish than incumbent schools.

The de Blasio administration kind of stopped going down that road and creating new schools. That matters so much more than whether Bronx Science has this or that racial composition. And, to me, that’s the whole problem: You have this kind of urban progressivism that is so narrowly fixated on selective institutions and the concerns of affluent, credentialed, educated people.. They’re so narrowly fixated on their own experiences and what that means, rather than on what does it mean to broaden access and opportunity for a much, much larger group of people who, by the way, don’t necessarily aspire to the exact same things as the people who are on the faculty at Yale Law School.

Do you think this platform can compete with Trumpism?

Trumpism is exceedingly hard to define. Donald Trump’s presidency gave any number of different factions on the right little hints that they could claim him. Immigration restrictionists claim him, but there were always these signs that he wanted to increase the number of guest workers, or when he said in a State of the Union address that “I want people to come into our country in the largest numbers ever.” Trump contained multitudes. The simplest definition of Trumpism is that it’s all about personal loyalty to the former president rather than a fixed body of ideas.

But there is definitely a contest for the future of the center right. My sense is that there’s an emerging right-of-center politics that is deeply pessimistic about the prospect of a diversifying America, explicitly anti-urban, and increasingly willing to embrace redistribution and centralized power than the movement conservatism of the pre-Trump era.

Then there’s what many of our scholars are advancing: a more practical, results-oriented approach that focuses on core quality-of-life questions; a belief in the potential of urban life; an unapologetic defense of educational excellence and public order; a healthy skepticism toward centralized power; and an opposition to race essentialism that’s rooted in the realities of living in a culturally dynamic, pluralistic and individualistic society. I suspect this sensibility speaks to more Americans, and especially to more young people, than what I take to be the alternative.

Both tendencies are about breaking the country out of economic and cultural stagnation, and both have an anti-elitist streak. But our vision is just not as bleak, pessimistic and enervating, and that’s why I’m confident it can compete and win.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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