American conservatives have always been skeptical of centralized power and government authority. Today, conservative leaders like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump are challenging these notions.
Since the days of President Ronald Reagan, Republicans have relied on free market forces and an emphasis on constitutional rights as key tenets of their platform. At the same time, Democrats were not afraid to wield government power to achieve their end goals, whether it be in government, universities, or the media. A one-party and increasingly singular pervasive ideology has resulted, and it has chilled free speech, inhibited progress, and led to cultural and economic stagnation.
But a shift in Republican strategy is now underway. A new generation of Republicans is keen on using the power of the state to roll back the left’s takeover of major U.S. institutions by replicating a strategy foundational to the modern left.
Some argue that conservatives should create their own media outlets and cultural and business institutions—take, for example, private businesses like The Daily Wire or Black Rifle Coffee—to counter the influence of the left, utilizing the free market instead of using the left’s tactics against them. Others believe it might be advantageous to adopt the left’s strategy of taking over societal institutions. Some believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle.
Using the left’s ideas to defeat them
In the 1960s and ‘70s, American left-wing activists began their “long march through the institutions.” It’s a technique based on Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci’s (1891-1937) “war of position,” through which anti-capitalists aimed to gain influence in key societal institutions in order to promote their ideas and values. After gaining control and winning the “war of position,” a Marxist revolution could take place almost seamlessly and without violence.
Institutions are the systems that create and bind a society’s customs, values, and structures, like universities, nonprofits, corporations, and the press. The institutions that the Left aimed to take over did not just encompass government organizations. Similar to Marxist movements in Europe, the American Left’s march through the institutions aimed to revolutionize society as a whole. **
Some 50 years since this march began, a steep **decline in values Americans once held dear—like faith in God, patriotism, and contributing to one’s community—proves that the left has been largely successful, according to new polling released this week.
To better understand how this ideological march through institutions worked, let’s consider the state of American universities in three key areas—admissions, professorships, and bureaucracies.
- University admissions deprioritize merit. Merit-based admissions have been replaced in favor of demographic considerations, despite the fact that most Americans are against these “affirmative action” policies. Affirmative action, a result of various judicial decisions, has become the norm in university admissions offices, prioritizing equity over test scores and academic qualifications. A student body chosen along racial lines reinforces the importance the left has placed on demographic characteristics and intersectionality rather than ability and work ethic.
- University professors monopolize ideological instruction. While higher education has always skewed liberal, it has undergone a seismic shift in the last 50 years. In 1969, approximately one in four professors identified as conservative. By 2019, only one in 17 was conservative. And tenured professors who question liberal orthodoxy are threatened with removal.
- University bureaucracies enforce ideological uniformity. In recent decades, the number of administrators employed at major universities has ballooned, leading to more social rules, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and student policing that bureaucratizes student life. Yale, for example, saw a 45 percent increase in administrators from 2003 to 2019, rising “three times faster than the undergraduate student body.” And data suggest administrators are even more liberal than professors.
The university should be a bastion of free speech, expression, and reason. But without proper safeguards, it has become a bastion of leftist ideology. When conservatives realized there was a problem in higher education, it was too late. Even by 2015, over half of self-identified conservatives still believed that American universities had a positive impact on the country. Without any real opposition, this framework—which trains and creates the professional class—has spread across all sectors of life, including the government, public health, entertainment and media, finance, private industry, and public education.
As the culture wars of 2015-16 erupted, conservatives’ views on universities shifted, as did views on other major institutions that had been captured by liberals, including tech companies, the media, banks, and major corporations. Now, some on the right believe that the party can use the same strategy to counter what they see as the dominance of left-wing ideas in U.S. institutions like academia and the media.
Republicans are changing strategy
Republicans have realized that a hands-off approach to culture and media may not always lead to desirable social outcomes—the last half-century of leftist takeovers of major institutions illustrates this. Ends (preserving the structure of the American family, for example) may, in fact, justify the means (using tools of statecraft to promote family formation, child-rearing, and home ownership).
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has become the poster child for this kind of conservative counter-march through the institutions, using government power to achieve certain social ends. He’s banned diversity agendas at state universities, ousted liberal members of state education boards, and fought against the environmental, social, and governance (or ESG) agenda.
Notably, DeSantis revoked The Walt Disney Company’s special district status and replaced its board with ideologically aligned members after the company opposed the overwhelmingly popular Parental Rights in Education Law, which barred classroom instruction “about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels.” He also auspiciously fought progressive curricula and wholly restructured the progressive New College of Florida **to become a bastion of conservatism. If Florida’s attempt to promote conservative ideas by gaining influence in key societal institutions continues to be successful, it could mean a new, reactionary blueprint for conservatives at large.
Donald Trump was a precursor to a DeSantis governorship. During his time in office, the former president attempted to replace career liberal government bureaucrats and made it easier to fire them during the final year of his administration. He floated ideas including moving government agencies out of Washington, D.C., so they would better represent the public, punishing social media platforms that censored conservatives, and taking away funding from universities that didn’t defend free speech.
These kinds of proactive Republican policies are not confined to just Trump and DeSantis, however. It’s a movement-wide trend. In the Senate, for example, conservatives recently passed a ban on ESG considerations in Department of Labor investment decisions—better understood as progressive coercion over corporations via Wall Street. State governors have also taken pages out of this playbook. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law in March banning cross-sex hormones and sex change surgeries for patients under 18. Tennessee recently banned sexually explicit “adult cabaret entertainment.”
The war to roll back liberal dominance of American institutions is being waged on many fronts—a far cry from a Republican Party sitting back, not willing to engage.
The road ahead
A counter-march through the institutions is underway, but conservatives face significant challenges in making further inroads in captured institutions dominated by left-wing ideas and in striking a balance between their own values of limited government and social conservatism.
Some Republicans are worried that new factions on the right could compromise the long-standing ideas of small government, free trade, and freedom of expression in the fight to contain the left and preserve traditional social values. Others argue that conservatives have not “conserved” much of anything while letting unrestricted freedom result in licentiousness.
The right may continue to quibble over strategy, but the conservative goals have become more clear: Make American institutions accountable to the people again. Make it easy to raise a family on a single income again. Make it easy to get married, have kids, and buy a home. And reinvigorate an America reflective of its long-standing values of faith, family, and freedom.