On this special episode of 10 Blocks, Manhattan Institute fellow and City Journal contributing editor Charles Fain Lehman is joined by the Cato Institute’s Emily EkinsThe Spectator’s Ben Domenech, and National Review’s Nate Hochman to discuss the public-policy implications of cultural disputes.

Audio Transcript

Welcome back to 10 Blocks. This week’s special episode features audio from a Manhattan Institute event hosted in Washington, D.C., featuring the Manhattan Institute’s and City Journal contributing editor Charles Fain Lehman, the Cato Institute’s Emily Ekins, National Review’s Nate Hochman, and Fox News contributor and Spectator editor-at-large Ben Domenech. We hope you enjoy.

Jesse Arm: Good evening, everyone. I'm Jesse Arm, the director of external affairs at the Manhattan Institute. And I want to welcome you all to the National Press Club this evening. The name of our program tonight is “How to Win a Culture War.” The topic of this evening's discussion raises a question central to American politics broadly and the work of the Manhattan Institute specifically. With corporations, educators, institutions, and lawmakers facing demands to enter debates over race, gender, multiculturalism, the idea of any sort of apolitical entity being allowed to operate in the United States seems to be going extinct. Opinion research that we've conducted at MI suggests that Americans are deeply concerned over a declining quality of life in their communities, the rise of speech restrictions and radical identity politics in government, media, education, business, and the arts. Through extensive polling from last fall, we identified a group that we call the metropolitan majority, a multiethnic block of voters in and around America's cities who care about crime, the cost of living, and the quality of public education.

They embrace proactive policing, school choice, and economic freedom, and they largely reject woke politics. In more recent survey work, MI fellow Eric Kaufmann found that a majority of Americans oppose cancel culture but that a significant minority, about a third, support it. Backing decisions to fire employees for legal speech that they regard as unacceptable, and echoing results of other MI polls, Kaufmann finds that an overwhelming majority of voters of all political stripes oppose teaching methods inspired by critical race theory, such as separating school children by race into oppressed and privileged groups. At MI you'll find our fellows don't shy away from advancing policy ideas closely related to our core cultural disputes.

The work of scholars like Christopher Rufo is inspiring lawmakers to take action on restoring parental rights in education and rooting out racialist indoctrination in classrooms. Look no further than Governor Ron DeSantis successfully championing curriculum transparency in Florida or Governor Doug Ducey implementing first-of-its-kind universal school choice legislation in Arizona. Research from fellows like Heather McDonald, Rafael Mangual, and others associated with our Policing and Public Safety initiative focuses on improving crime control, countering false narratives about policing and the criminal justice system, and introducing evidence-based, tough-love solutions to issues like homelessness, serious mental illness, and public disorder.

Proponents of a more permissive approach to dealing with criminals now find themselves at odds with the voters who must deal with the consequences of de-policing and decarceration efforts in their daily lives. And the scholarship of MI fellows like Leor Sapir is shining a spotlight on issues of gender identity and transgenderism, especially as they pertain to our nation's youth. In a recent response to a Wall Street Journal op-ed authored by Sapir, the President of the American Academy of Pediatrics appeared to walk back the organization's stance on pediatric gender medicine.

We are only a year removed from the 2021 governor's race in Virginia, where Glenn Youngkin won an upset victory for Republicans after consistently invoking parents' rights on the campaign trail. We are a mere few months out from the successful recalls of progressive prosecutor, Chesa Boudin, and a trifecta of hard-left, Covid-lockdown-enthusiast school board commissioners in deep blue San Francisco, California. But in the wake of recent Supreme Court decisions relating to abortion and gun control, as well as new legislation introduced in Congress to codify the legality of marriage for same-sex couples, more than seven years after the Obergefell decision legalized gay marriage in the U.S., many pundits and political practitioners on the ideological left believe the culture war may now be swinging in their favor.

How do Americans feel about the culture war? In an increasingly polarized political environment, can either party's candidates manage to advance its arguments on these issues in a way that broadens its coalition while satisfying the demands of its base? And what does all of this mean with regard to the 2022 midterm elections that are fast approaching? To help answer these questions and more, we've invited the Spectator editor-at-large and Fox News contributor Ben Domenech to moderate a discussion on the subject. Ben co-founded The Federalist and served as its publisher for nearly a decade. He also co-founded the conservative group blog Red State and is a former speech writer for HHS secretary Tommy Thompson and Senator John Cornyn of Texas.

Most importantly, he is also a former Manhattan Institute fellow. Our panelists includes...

Ben Domenech: A once and future fellow, I hope.

Jesse Arm: Our panelists include experts who conduct policy analysis, journalistic reporting, and opinion polling in the political arena. Charles Fain Lehman is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute working primarily on our Policing and Public Safety Initiative and a contributing editor of our affiliated magazine, City Journal. He also co-hosts the podcast Institutionalized with Aaron Sibarium.

Emily Ekins is a vice president and director of polling at the Cato Institute. Her research focuses on public opinion, American politics, political psychology, and social movements. Nate Hochman is a staff writer at National Review. His work has appeared in print and online in the American Conservative, National Affairs, The New York Times, City Journal, and other outlets. He is a 2021 Publius fellow at the Claremont Institute. And with that, I'll hand things over to Ben and ask that everyone please give a warm round of applause for our panelists.

Ben Domenech: Thank you very much for that kind introduction. I will dive right into this. And I'll first say that by dint of being by far the oldest person on this stage at least in mentality, if not in fact, I was thinking about the original point at which I first heard the phrase "culture war," because I think we need some definition for this phrase before we begin our discussion this evening.

And as it happens, it was 30 years ago and a month from today. It was August of 1992. And the point that I heard it, it was actually used in a slightly different way. It was a national speech that I'm sure many of you are familiar with. It goes in portion like this: "My friends, this election is about more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe and what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this is a war," say it with me for, "the soul of America."

And he goes on. "My friends, these people are our people. They don't read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but they come from the same schoolyards, the same playgrounds and towns as we come from. They share our beliefs and convictions, our hopes and our dreams. They are the conservatives of the heart. They are our people, and we need to reconnect with them. We need to let them know we know how bad they're hurting. They don't expect miracles of us, but they need to know we care." This was, of course, Pat Buchanan's 1992, address to the GOP Convention. One that became known as the culture war speech and was blamed by the George H. W. Bush campaign for having a disruptive effect on the 1992 process, which ultimately, obviously, ended in the election of Bill Clinton, someone who had had a Sister Souljah moment on the issue of crime, and someone who had essentially come to an agreement with moderate and independent voters that suggested he would not be one of those, as Gene Kirkpatrick called them, San Francisco Democrats.

Today, in many ways, we face a similar situation where the culture war is being used not simply as a reference to guns or abortion, what are typically described as being cultural issues, but a much more expanded version of what the culture war defines and which different elements fall into it. You heard in Jesse's introduction, the references to crime, the references to concerns about education, policing, other efforts regarding reform that are now put into that cultural bucket. And so what I'd like to do with each of our very bright and intelligent panelists tonight is get them to, from their own perspective, define what they think the biggest culture war issues are today. Because I've known her for the longest, and because she is the pollster on the panel, I will go first to Emily. What are the biggest culture war issues today? Are they still guns and abortion, or are they something else?

Emily Ekins: Well, I feel like there's two ways, two prongs to this answer. But first let's talk about issues. Like Ben said, I kind of bring the public opinion polling background to the panel. And when I first read this piece in Politico recently that made the argument that Democrats were winning the culture war, they talked about issues like crime, guns, abortion. Immigration may have been in that article. I forget, but my first response was, oh, that's interesting. I mean, those are culture war issues to some extent, but I almost view them as kind of old culture war issues. Right now I feel like there is a new set of culture war issues, especially as it pertains to things like transgender athletes participating in high school sports, issues about Covid restrictions, how we respond to type one and type two errors when it comes to the pandemic. I mean, racial issues have kind of taken on a new form as it pertains to how we teach about race in public schools and the American founding. There's a whole new set of issues.

One more I would add is about speech issues and technology and social media companies. So it's kind of like they're the old culture war issues, and then there's the new culture war issues. But even these old culture war issues take on new dynamics, especially when it comes to abortion with the overturning of Roe V. Wade that has renewed conversation about what new abortion laws should look like in this country. And so I think that when we talk about these issues, these are kind of like the issues that we could poll about. But I actually think that there's a broader set of issues that is really driving a lot of what's going on today. And I think it's kind of a meta issue that you're not going to see on a poll, but I think that there are some cultural changes that that drive a lot of what we're seeing on these issues, these concrete issues that I just mentioned.

And the way I would describe that is I think that there is a change in the cultural zeitgeist towards externalizing. This idea that we should encourage people to look to external sources to explain what's happening in their lives. And then also to look to external sources to solve the problems in their lives. So to give an example, concretely, if you're looking at external sources, if there is something that goes wrong in your life, do you look for reasons of identity to explain the reason why something didn't go right?

On social media, I see a lot of the problems that we have there have to do with looking to a third-party source to solve the problems that people find in social media. Is there spread of misinformation? Instead of just letting people be responsible adults, we want a third party to come in and regulate and ensure that other people are not being exposed to misinformation. So I think that's the meta theme that I hope we also have a chance to talk about, which is not just the concrete issues, but the zeitgeist that's changing that is telling Americans that they need to look external to themselves and kind of jettison personal agency and how that's trickling through all of these other issues.

Ben Domenech: Nate, the interesting thing about that Buchanan speech is that he went on to talk about essentially issues of class and employment and then issues of crime and the L.A. riots. In other words, he went from talking about declaring that there was a cultural war in America to something that doesn't, from the perspective of the media today, encompass a culture war event. And yet these do seem to be cultural issues on a deeper sense. Do they not?

Nate Hochman: Certainly. I mean, in many ways it's almost a cliche at this point. But the culture war is a kind of class war. It doesn't always map onto a perfect sort of class hierarchies. But it's very clear to anyone who follows these cultural debates that the sort of progressive, liberalizing forces are almost always college educated or even sort of grad-education, degree-holding, upper-middle-class folks who work in the education bureaucracy and the federal bureaucracy, the kind of diversity equity inclusion consultants who often staff corporate boardrooms, Silicon Valley, et cetera. That is where the locus point of the left side in the contemporary culture war is driven by an ideology that is staffed by a particular class of the upper one-third of American society. And their values and their worldview is often increasingly starkly at odds with the values of the sort of great middle.

And there's any number of different cultural issues that are proxies for this clash. But it almost always falls along the lines of folks in coastal areas or in metropolitan areas in the middle who have college degrees and are aligned with a particular class of people who are committed to this ideological project, which is at odds with working class, American values. I would say in response to the first question of what the overarching issues at hand are in the culture war, again, you can point to specific issues; critical race theory and gender identity in the education bureaucracy, crime, the old-school issues of abortion and sexuality, the immigration borders. These are all sort of attendant issues. But from my perspective, the fundamental question at the heart of the culture war is, is America and more broadly the west good, and does it have the moral right or even the moral obligation to defend itself?

And that fundamental question really is what drives the division in any number of these issues. So if you look at defund the police, crime, policing, et cetera, the fundamental First Principles Division is, is the American policing and criminal justice system systemically racist? Or is it not? And does it have the right to actually defend itself? Critical race theory, the same thing. Is American history the story of oppression, grievance, et cetera, and that's the way we need to teach it? Or is it the story of this glorious, proud history that we should teach our children to be proud of?

You can go down the list to immigration and borders. Do we have an obligation to South American migrants to let them into the country because of neocolonialism, imperialism, et cetera? Or do we have a right to defend our borders as a sovereign nation state? So all of these cultural issues can be traced back to fundamentally a question of whether or not we deserve to be proud of our history as Americans and as members of Western civilization or not. And again, that to your point, Ben, falls along class divisions, as well as ideological ones.

Ben Domenech: Charles, talk to me a little bit about the nature of how much the conversation about crime, education, and race in America has become this animating feature in the wake of the summer of Floyd and everything else, and how it plays into these class divisions. Because certainly one of the things that we saw borne out in a lot of polling about that was that defunding the police was most popular with those people who are infrequently in need of police.

Charles Fain Lehman: I mean, overwhelmingly, the reason Emily alluded to a political article making the argument that Democrats are winning the culture war by moderating on the issue of policing, among other issues. My response to that was, that's a sign of comprehensively admitting defeat. They tried a proposal. They floated a crazy idea, more importantly, a subset of the Democratic activist coalition saw an opening for a crazy idea. They went for it. It was a dramatic failure. You can get 20 percent of people say you should defund the police on a good day. You can get 11 percent of people, 10 percent of people that say you should abolish the police. You can't get majority of any age group, any party, any racial group, any ethnic group to say that you're in favor of this. But I think that's actually telling about the broader dynamic.

I sort of resist a little bit Nate's characterization in so far as it presents that there’s the broad American middle, and then there's the radical left that deviates from it. But there are, of course, positions on which the right, in which I would count myself, dramatically deviates from the American people. My view, the view of I suspect many people in this room, is that abortion should be prohibited in basically all circumstances with maybe some narrow exceptions. That puts me out of lock and step with the overwhelming majority of Americans. That's not a popular opinion. It's the right opinion. But my view, it's not a popular one.

Ben Domenech: Well, it is your opinion, so, of course, you would think it was good.

Charles Fain Lehman: Yeah. But I think just to go back to Buchanan, part of what Buchanan and a sort of whole cadre of people, a whole movement of people were responding to in the early 1990s was 20 years of progressive excess—30 years, arguably—of progressive success, starting with the riots in the late ‘60s up through the early ‘90s. I think a lot of the dynamic of a culture war is when there are polls of people who have internally consistent, often, therefore, very radical viewpoints. And when they see openings, they move toward them. They take what ground they can, and then ultimately there's going to be reactions in the other direction.

And I think that dynamic is at play now. What we are seeing in areas like policing, public education, the response to critical race theory, which has been overwhelming, is not even so much a grand civilizational struggle, in my view, as people recognizing the excesses of the prior order that's falling apart, the prior poll that's falling apart. Look. So much of this is motivated not by one side is one grand theory, and one side is another philosophical theory. Ultimately, it's motivated by everyday people going, "Well, that seems crazy to me. Critical race theory, that seems crazy to me. Teaching my kids that, that's crazy to me." And I think that poll, that centralizing tendency towards sanity is a driving force in culture war struggles, insofar as when something insane happens, there's a response to it.

Ben Domenech: So Emily, in the experience in Virginia that Jesse made reference to, there certainly was an overwhelming effort on the part of democrat candidates in campaigns and their supporters in the media to make an argument that essentially any conversation about critical race theory was bogus, was some kind of fake news being advocated for by Glenn Youngkin and his associates. And yet as it played out in terms of the final days of that campaign, which saw Randi Weingarten ever present, that was not what the voters interpreted. They interpreted things differently. The overall takeaway being that you saw Republican candidates overperform among particularly Hispanic voters and Asian-American voters to a degree that made a lot of Washington Republicans quite happy. My question to you is, how much of that was accidental? How much of that was simply, you weren't the one with the teachers’ union person who shut down our schools on stage with you in the final days of the campaign? And how much of that was an actual demonstration of a culture war win?

Emily Ekins: So I think that that jury is still out. If you look at the data, it tells a couple of different stories there. I think a lot of it is about the pandemic, and about the economy, and a pushback on that. But another thing is that many Hispanic- and Asian-Americans are very positive on America. They are upwardly mobile. And in polling questions where you ask them about America, is this a place where they can find opportunity, where hard work breeds success; the answer is yes. Much more so than white liberals, which is kind of their own category in public-opinion polls. And so there's a lot of differences that put Hispanic American and Asian American voters in a very different group than white Democrats on these issues.

And it's not clear yet, is it issues related to the economy, kind of bread and butter issues? Is it about school closures? Is it about mask mandates, things like that? Or is it more about this broader interpretation of America? Is America a good place? Is this a place that you chose to be, which for immigrants it was. Right? Or is it maybe a combination of both? And I think ultimately it has to do with overreach. I mean, to your point as well, which is that where the American public stands is not really with one side or the other on any of these issues. It's kind of in the middle, and you kind of have to thread the needle. So for instance, on critical race theory in schools, most people don't know what that is. They don't know what you're talking about. If you ask a poll, Do you favor or oppose the teaching of critical race theory in our public schools?" They don't know what you're talking about.

If you were specific, if you were to say, "Do you favor or oppose teaching that the American Revolution was actually fought to preserve slavery?" Americans don't want to teach that. But if you ask them, "Do you want to not discuss bad things that have happened in American history? Do you not want to talk about slavery? Do you want to teach, do you not want our children to learn about these things?" They would say, "No, I want our children to learn about the good and the bad." They want them to learn both. And so it's about threading that needle correctly.

And you'll notice that when people talk about some of these state-level bills, they'll frame them in the most extreme way possible. They'll say, "Oh, well, critical race theory isn't happening." Or they'll say advocates at these bills want to whitewash history. They don't want you to know what actually happened. Well, sometimes when you read some of these bills, it kind of reads like they're telling university professors that they can't talk about some of these issues. And that's kind of, in my view, that's too far. University professors have free speech, but it's a totally different question when we're talking about kindergartners. Right? And so I think that it's all about how the issue is framed. And when Democrats step too far, they lose. And when Republicans step too far, they lose too.

Ben Domenech: Nate, how much of the current cultural war dynamic is being driven by the fact that many Americans feel that corporate America and big tech have picked sides within the debate, where before they were happy to stand on the sidelines, maybe do some hand-waving, endorsements toward whatever month it's supposed to be? But they weren't actively taking aggressive stances or saying they wouldn't do business in states or pay for people to go to certain places based on whoever happened to be a governor and doing sort of typical Republican things in those states. How much of it is driven by these corporations picking sides?

Nate Hochman: Or pay for sex-exchange surgeries for minors, which 20 MLB teams now do.

Ben Domenech: Yes.

Nate Hochman: Well, for Republican voters, for the Republican base, it's clearly a top issue. It's a priority, and there's a sense of urgency among red America. There's a sense that businesses which were either apolitical or maybe even center right, sort of the 1990s-era chamber of commerce, has embraced very rapidly, without ever anyone sort of having a real conversation or a debate about it, a variety of pretty radical, aggressive left-wing cultural initiatives. And you can see this in polling. There's always some danger in speaking authoritatively about polling on a panel when you're sitting next to a pollster. So Emily can correct me if I'm wrong, but at least what I've seen is that Republican voters’ view of Big Business has just dropped drastically over the course of the last five or six years.

And Democratic voters’ view of Big Business, which started lower, has dropped slightly. I mean, Emily can correct me if I'm wrong. But the shift is much more radical among Republican voters precisely because of this correct and legitimate, in my opinion, view that Big Business has stepped completely into the culture war, into the most divisive, political, cultural issues that contemporary Americans are dealing with, and has taken a side. And it's not the right side. And you can attribute that to any number of things; diversity, equity, inclusion, consultants, ESG, et cetera, et cetera, the power of powerful left-wing activist groups, but it's clearly happening. And that's something that the right is reacting to. In terms of where the sort of average American falls on that issue, I've heard the term "the exhausted majority" used before. And I think that's probably closer to what this sort of average opinion is, where the problem with Big Business inserting itself into these really divisive, fiery cultural debates isn't necessarily that they're taking a stance that makes conservatives angry.

That makes conservatives angry, but the average American is sort of further left of the doctrinaire conservative opinion. But it's more than it just politicizes yet another sphere of American life. Right? So you have all these business interests that traditionally would stay out of the most divisive cultural issues, which are now putting their fingers on the scale. And that means that you can't go to Walmart anymore without having to get hit over the head with the debates over transgender kids, or abortion, or whether or not America was founded in evil and slavery. Right? There's all of these apolitical spheres of American life, whether it's business, sports teams, et cetera, et cetera, have become sites of political struggle. And for Americans who are just exhausted by all of these things, that is distressing not for any particular ideological reason, but simply because there's very few places in American life now that you can go which is actually a reprieve from the culture.

Ben Domenech: Well, just to follow up on that, wouldn't it suggest that the left is really prevailing within these spaces? Just this weekend, obviously, you saw the NFL premiering all of its games and still having the various messaging about ending racism and the like on everybody's helmet and, obviously, in the end zones, which has yet to work. But let's keep up hope.

Nate Hochman: We haven't ended racism yet?

Ben Domenech: And you also have, of course, the simple fact that the vast majority of conservatives presumably are still shopping at Walmart, and Target, and Amazon and all of these other places. They may complain about specific things, and you may not be able to sell them woke programming via Disney+, or something like that. But they're still going to pay for it, because their kid watches Finding Nemo every morning. And so that's the kind of thing where I think doesn't that suggest that the left is actually prevailing within that space?

Nate Hochman: Yes. No, I think you're absolutely right.

Ben Domenech: I see Charles shaking his head, and so I'd like to go to him. What do you think? Let me just suggest this. Conservatives are generally better at paying for things as opposed to not paying for things, right? So when your chicken sandwich company insults the left, they're very good at going out and buying all your chicken sandwiches and not the reverse.

Nate Hochman: Or actively depriving the chicken sandwich company of funds, which is the more aggressive response.

Charles Fain Lehman: This is right. And this is in some sense is Richard Hanania's thesis that the difference that liberals care about politics, and conservatives don't. And I think he's right about that. I would say a couple of things. One is that yes, in general, people's revealed preferences are very different from what they say in polls. I don't even remember who I'm supposed to be boycotting. Am I supposed to like Goya? I don't recall. And I'm a professional conservative, so if I don't remember, nobody remembers.

No, but I think it's right that people's preferences are far more sticky than their professed goals. That tells me two things. One is that maybe they're more amenable to policies that are hostile to these particular actions. They may like some of the stuff Ron DeSantis wants to do. Two, that ultimately what they say they want and what they're actually going to act on are going to be very different. I think it is right that liberals are more internally consistent. There's a selection there. On the other hand, I think the other thing that we've learned is that companies are actually pretty skittish about pushback.

Netflix no longer dealing with its internal woke employees, quietly getting rid of them. Disney, I talked to my colleague, Chris Rufo. He's pretty convinced that he put a serious dent in their earnings and revenue, and they're going to pay attention to that. They're going to ratchet back. The NFL, pro sports in general. They have a very specific bargaining structure, labor structure. But I think if you look at many other firms, even weak dissent from consumers, even weak objection from consumers is going to make them skittish. Because at the end of the day, your bottom line, it's not worth taking a political stand. Let me rephrase. The reason that they take political stands is because midlevel employees want them to. There's a lot of evidence I can talk about if you'd like me to.

Ben Domenech: Certainly that's what Chris's research has found.

Charles Fain Lehman: Lots of that. The reason they take the stands is cause midlevel employees want them to. You only do that if it is you're getting something out of that, and it's not costing you something on your bottom line. It may cost a little bit on the bottom line. I don't know. There are a lot of college-educated people out there you can hire. You can find somebody who's less crazy. You can fire the crazy people. It's really possible. And I think firms are already learning this. Some 10, 20 years of internal corporate activism, it's a relatively new strategy. I think firms are figuring out how to respond to it more effectively than they did. Point being I both suspect that it's right that consumers are more apathetic than they say they are in polls, but also think that even a slight objection has some substantial impact.

Nate Hochman: So why haven't Silicon Valley companies reaffirmed themselves?

Charles Fain Lehman: They have.

Nate Hochman: Well, have they?

Charles Fain Lehman: Yeah. Coinbase did.

Nate Hochman: Okay. Sure. The major social media companies, Twitter, Facebook.

Charles Fain Lehman: Okay. Basecamp.

Emily Ekins: Is it no talking about politics on the internal side?

Nate Hochman: There are standards.

Charles Fain Lehman: Yeah. there's great success.

Nate Hochman: But those are only noticeable, because they're exceptions to the rule. Right?

Emily Ekins: First movers. First movers.

Charles Fain Lehman: I think, right. A, it's first mover. B, I think that the internal politics of Silicon Valley companies are weird.

Nate Hochman: They are pretty radical.

Charles Fain Lehman: Sometimes, yes. I think that's been true in recent months or in the past several years. I think that some are shifting away from that specifically because if you're big from Facebook or Twitter or Google, you'll do some of the signaling. But you know that there are lots of people on the hill who hate you. And so their willingness to take even the stands that some other major corporations, Google's not pulling out of the state of Georgia. Apple's not. I don't think Apple's in the state of Georgia. They know that they're under heightened scrutiny and that there's a bipartisan consensus that they're bad. So I think that they are certainly, you can find people leak internal documents of James Damore, but the guy who complained of James Damore also got fired. I think that they recognize that it's in their interest to get along a little bit more. So they've gotten out over their skis.

Ben Domenech: Emily, I'm curious as to your response to what both gentlemen have been saying regarding the corporate world. But to me there's kind of two levels of engagement in the culture war from the corporate perspective. Particularly I'll just use an example from the big tag perspective. If there's one level that says you're going to put a new banner behind your Raytheon logo or something like that, "We support trans rights," or something like that, just for the sake of it. There's another level that says we are going to actively police things according to the priorities of the woke, cancel-focused left, meaning that there's a difference between, say, knocking an individual person off of Twitter and completely ripping out the guts of the internet from underneath the ability of a website to even exist within the app store or online, period. Is this a situation where that is something that people are even aware of? Or is it just something where it's sort of people are generally aware that corporate America doesn't share my values, or Silicon Valley doesn't share my values, something like that?

Emily Ekins: Yeah. People aren't even aware that those things are happening, because it's happening to it. There's not that many people that run a large website or have a newsletter. And when that happens to them, there's just not enough of them for people to have personally known someone that that's happened to. I think in this room, there actually are quite a few people that know about how this happens. But generally people don't know. But in some of the polling I did, I wanted to find out how many people supported the second layer, which is firing employees for their political beliefs or even who they donate to privately. And generally speaking, there is not majority support for firing people based on their political beliefs. And I asked wide, very specific things like someone who believes that transgender identity is a mental disorder, or someone who believes that all white people are racist, or that the police are racist, things that would offend liberal and conservative sensibilities.

And you really only get about 20 to 25, maybe 30 percent of Americans saying yes, that person should be fired. And again, there's a difference to your point about how there's a difference between saying someone should be fired and actually trying to fire them. This is just more of a, "Yeah, I disagree with what they said, and I want to punish them." Most people say no on almost, I think everything that I asked about. And then I used specifics. I used actual things that had gotten people fired like the James Damore thing, Larry Summers, things that Charles Murray said at Middlebury College.

I did all these things that had actually gotten people in trouble or fired. And none of them, not a single one did people want to fire someone for. So when companies feel like they have to fire someone because their bottom line will suffer if they don't, maybe it really is about mid-level management. And that's why they're doing it, but it's not because of their bottom line. They don't have to go along with this. And I think for people to kind of promote that would be very useful in helping companies know they can weather the storm. Twitter is not a representative sample of America.

Ben Domenech: Well, that's very true.

Nate Hochman: And comforting.

Ben Domenech: Yeah. I'm curious, just for the three of you, about your definition of what winning culture wars looks like, because that's the title of our event this evening. And it does seem to me that there are certain areas where quite unexpectedly you have kind of socially traditionalist elements or those who certainly are opposed to a revisionist history of America winning. But I'm not sure how much of that is organic and instinctual versus something that's borne out because of a particular strategy of response to the arguments that the left is advancing. It seems to me, for instance, that the 1619 Project was a mess of academic work in addition to being sort of an argument about revisionist history. There's lots of other things kind of going on there. And so Charles first, and then down the rest of the panel, what does winning a culture war look like to you? And what do you think are the key elements of that assessment of victory?

Let me just suggest, just to give you a moment to think about this. From the perspective of a lot of voters today, one of the things that they say about the former president of the United States that they love so much about him is that he fights. And from my perspective, I believe, yes, he does fight. And usually he loses. Sometimes he wins, but oftentimes I think that fight doesn't necessarily move the ball as much. It seems to me that a lot of this ball movement has been happening in part because of the fact that the left has overstepped its bounds, that it's gotten too aggressive. It's created a backlash among Hispanic and Asian voters, and essentially it thought that it was going to prevail on redefining gender in a way that they essentially prevailed when it came to redefining the legal definition of marriage. That was way too fast, and certainly over their skis, and something that the vast majority of Americans don't seem to be down with. So is victory here really just kind of an illusion that they are trying to go too fast?

Charles Fain Lehman: No. So I think, and this being glib a minute ago, but I really do think that there are two wind conditions for culture war. One is that people agree with my currently extreme beliefs. If I can convince everyone that they should be pro-life, that's a victory in the culture war. It's great. I love it. But then there's the other wind condition, which is that people who believe extreme things on the other end of the spectrum like that America is constitutionally racist, or we should castrate all children at birth, or whatever. That those people do not believe that they can be successful in the public sphere. Victory there is that those ideas are so comprehensively repudiated that they shift out of the mainstream possible, even mainstream discourse. That can take lots of different forms. That can happen at the polls. That can be if you raise the salience to defund the police, it's really good for the Republican house majority. It's really good for Glenn Youngkin, as it turns out.

If you talk a lot about, one of my favorite examples here, poll after poll, year after year, vote after vote, three out of four Americans think affirmative action is bad. Doesn't matter how you phrase it. It matters a little how you phrase it, but really you can squeeze, not just a majority. You can squeeze three and four out pretty easily. You raise salience to affirmative action. Make it clear that 10% of Americans, the progressive vanguard wants racial quotas in the United States. You're doing pretty well. So I think that matters, but I think that there are also substantive policy responses. We're talking about the Vanguard within corporations. One response is, as my colleague Chris Rufo has done, to embarrass these people and make it clear how insane they are so that people rethink their consumer behaviors.

But another one is to ask what are the legal structures that are permitting their continued operation? All of these things emerge out of DEI groups within firms like Google or Twitter or Facebook, seemingly innocuous things that are in many cases, if not mandated by law, then strongly suggested by it. But the one institution conservatives can still control is the one that makes the laws, which means that on top of thinking about how you foreclose, you highlight insane ideas to foreclose them from the discussion. You also think about how you disempower the people who genuinely believe in those insane ideas not by literally crushing them or putting them in jail or whatever, but certainly by no longer giving aid and comfort through the system of government to them.

Emily Ekins: So when I was listening to your question, I was thinking about how to lose a culture war, not just how to win. I think that one way to lose a culture war is to push too fast and to go too hard. So I'm thinking about the Florida bill in particular, because there was some interesting polling. And it's just really interesting to see how people thought through the Florida bill.

This would ban teachers from talking about sexual, gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, and there were a few other things. But when you ask people about that, do you favor or oppose this bill that would ban teachers from talking about gender identity and sexual orientation from kindergarten to third grade, people support that. Yeah. When it gets to older ages, then there's a little bit of a drop off where people think, more people think fifth graders and sixth graders can handle it. But by the time you get to high school, most people think it's fine to talk about it then. But then you ask should parents be allowed to sue teachers if they break these rules about talking about gender identity. People are like, "No, I don't want to sue. I like my teacher. I like school teachers. I don't want to sue them."

Then they're going too far. What about critical race theory? Most people don't know what that is, but in the polls where they try to explain it, people generally lean in favor of not talking about things, not rewriting American history in a way that is false. But if you say, "Do you want to sue teachers who violate these rules?" And people say, "No, I don't want to sue the teachers," because then they think, well, what if they genuinely made a mistake. And there have actually been some points made, which is if you had a gay teacher, and he said, "What if I talked about my husband? Am I going to get sued?" I mean, those are the things that got people very sympathetic to the opposition to the Florida bill. So the whole thing is about how extreme are you going to go now.

I think if the activists, the progressive activists who push for things like this in schools had only done it at the high school level and we hadn't seen evidence of this happening at younger levels like kindergarten, third grade, I don't think there would've been as much support for pushing back. So I think it's to your point then that the progressive left push too fast. If they'd just done, if they'd just said, "Look, we're just going to talk to older kids about these issues." Then it would be a lot harder to push back. But they took too much too fast. And on gender identity, most Americans are totally unaware of what's going on, of this new view of gender that's largely come out of universities and colleges.

So if you've been to college recently, you're probably familiar with all of this work. But for most Americans, they have no idea what people are talking about when people in the Democratic debate talk about pregnant men or how you can't talk about pregnant women, most Americans have no idea what they're talking about. So that's where they're going too far. There are ways to go not so far.

Nate Hochman: There's a basic set of consensus views and issues that most Americans, whatever, between 70 and 85 percent have shared for most of history. And obviously those things and how they are articulated have changed over time. But I think to both Emily and Charles's point, the way that the right is now situated to win or not, victories in the culture war, eight times out of 10 has to do with just a backlash to the left's overreach. But to me, that's not really victory. It's just a slowing of our rearguard-action defeat. It would've been incomprehensible to nine out of 10 Americans in 2015 when Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same sex marriage that in seven years we would be talking about whether or not men could become pregnant. And yet we are. Right? So our victory against the idea that men can become pregnant is not really a victory in the sort of metaphysical existential view of things. It's a slowing of the left's insane progress that they've made over the last seven years, but that progress has still happened.

Ben Domenech: Nate is perhaps intentionally or maybe unintentionally endorsing a criticism of National Review, the place that he works, which says that it is in favor of conservatism as leftism going the speed limit. Something that I've heard quite a lot. Why is conservatism not that? Or how can it not be just that?

Nate Hochman: Well, of course, the flip side is Buckley's famous quote, that conservatism is standing before our history yelling stop at a time when no one else is motivated to say so. But I mean, if you actually take that seriously, that as a command, it doesn't just mean going the speed limit. Right? It means actually saying this entire overarching cultural, metaphysical, moral trend is wrong. Stop. So that doesn't just mean saying, okay, male athletes at the age of 10 or 15 or 20 can't compete in women's sports. It's saying the idea that men can become women fundamentally is wrong. And that requires actually undoing the progress that the left has made in a much more aggressive way than just pushing back against the overreach that the left has made.

Charles Fain Lehman: I think Nate is being too conservative by half. Really, and I mean, he's being a little Richard Weaver in that I do not think that most Americans have a coherent philosophical world view.

Nate Hochman: I agree.

Charles Fain Lehman: Yeah. Which means that when you're talking, do I think that there's a rational connection, there's a deeper structured worldview that links Obergefell and the current trans trend? Yes, absolutely. Do I think that most Americans think about it that way? No, not really. I don't think that they see that framework. The thing about same-sex marriage, part of the reason that the left got so out over its skis in the post-Obama era and the post-Obergefell era is that same-sex marriage is too generous, right? It's insane. That's not even a normal judgment. It's a positive description of the sudden opinion and version that happened over about 20 years. It's same-sex marriage and marijuana legalization. They're just these sudden transformations in the population. Nothing else looks like it. And I think that what activists decided in the wake of Obergefell was it's really pretty easy. We can run this playbook for anything. We can be successful at radically altering public morality like nothing. And it turns out that's not true.

Ben Domenech: Well, I disagree with you slightly. I think one of the things that is so important to understand about so many of the efforts that the left has made successfully when it comes to culture war battles is participatory and pro-American. Meaning you have a good thing here, and we would like to be part of it. As opposed to saying you need to reorder your entire way of living and doing things in order to adjust to our worldview. Meaning that essentially, what did gay Americans try to do? They said, "We like the Boy Scouts. We would like to be able to be leaders. We like what marriage looks like. We would like to be part of it." Not you must reorder your entire way of talking about these things in accordance with our pronouns and allow men who look like Leah Thomas to swim against little girls in order to activate our worldview.

Nate Hochman: Which is inclusion versus transformation, right? Really quickly. It's just, I mean, this was a divide even in the gay-marriage push between the radicals and the integrationists where the integrationists who ended up winning the day and convincing, what, 80 percent of Americans that we want gay people to become part of white-picket-fence, bourgeois norms. The radicals lost who said, "We want to abolish the institution of marriage altogether." But long term, if you look at what's happening now, it seems clear that the radicals actually are having their moment right now.

Ben Domenech: So I would like to ask you all a final question, and then we can take about 10 minutes or so of questions from the audience. I believe that there's a couple of folks who will have microphones, who you should wait for, so you can raise your hands. But as the last question I'd like to ask the three of you is this. Let's just stipulate that the political article is wrong. There is actually no real evidence that the left is winning the culture wars, but is there something tactically, strategically or in terms of its prioritization that American traditionalists, conservatives, center right, whatever, however you want to define it, ought to change about their approach to the culture wars? And you can pick whichever topic or whichever aspect of this that we've discussed to highlight its response when it comes to the management of cities, it's relationship with corporate America, et cetera. And Nate, I'll start with you. And then we can go down.

Nate Hochman: I mean, I think on the sort of first-principles level, it's realizing that Andrew Breitbart was wrong when he said that politics is downstream of culture. There are obviously plenty of examples where politics is downstream of culture. It would be naive to argue that there aren't plenty of instances where our political culture is downstream of cultural developments, but both politics and culture are not sort of mutually exclusive spheres. They are constantly in conversation with one another. And any number of major policy or political developments has had profound effects on American culture, right? Roe V. Wade did not exist in a vacuum. It changed American culture. The Civil Rights Act changed American culture. The Obergefell v. Hodges changed American culture. So for a long time, conservatives have sort of taken this hands-off approach, at least when it comes to public policy and government when it comes to the culture war, because they've sort of implicitly or explicitly imbibed the idea that well, culture, that's something for sort of private enterprise or civil society to deal with.

There's nothing we can really do in terms of public policy makers to address it. Our job is to do occupational licensing reform or tax cuts. And that's not true. The future of America depends on American culture, and the future of American culture depends on the public policy framework that informs American culture. And I think someone like Ron DeSantis is at least a start in terms of a model of someone who's actually willing to use public policy to engage with the cultural issues of today, rather than assuming that there's nothing he can do.

Ben Domenech: Politics is culture there. They're not downstream from each other. It's a snake that bites its tail, calls itself eternity.

Emily Ekins: Charles, you go next. I'm going to answer a slightly different version of that question.

Charles Fain Lehman: Yeah. I mean, in one sense, I agree. I more or less agree with Nate, but I sort of want to offer a complimentary claim. I said, walking into tonight, my brief was there's an en vogue concept on the very narrow subset of the left that's both politically engaged and moderate, which is popularism. People should do things. Candidates should practice the message just when they're talking about things that are popular and not talk about things that are unpopular. This is immensely challenging for the modern Democratic party, obviously, but it's actually also pretty hard for the Republican party. So I think the reason that we are hopefully seeing a conservative revival after some period of time of liberal dominance, the reason we saw conservative revival in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the reason that conservative revivals happen is because the issues, the salient issue has become ones on which conservatives sound like sane people. Part of what you run on and what you do in power are not necessarily exactly the same thing.

And as I alluded to earlier, there were lots of political changes that can make it a little harder for my culture war enemies to exercise power. But when you talk about retaining a nascent Hispanic conservative coalition, Asian conservative coalition, incorporating people who have been Democratic voters for 20, 30 years into the conservative coalition, you've really got to focus on sounding like normal people. It's something that both sides really struggle with, because anyone who is interested in politics is not normal almost by definition. It's a freak behavior, but I have a whole spiel about political donations. I won't do it right now. It's a freak behavior, but it's actually very important to sound normal and to focus on things that sound not insane in order to be successful. And I think Republicans are doing okay at this right now. So keep doing that.

Emily Ekins: Yeah. Those are some interesting points. It reminds me in political science of this idea of issue ownership. Both parties have issues that they own. And I was actually looking at polls today, where if you ask which party you trust more in healthcare or immigration or policing or whatever, it really is, whichever party talked about it the most, that's what voters say they trust on the issue. That's really what it is. So it's just whoever talks about it the most and in a sane way. That's true. So I wanted to answer the question just a little bit differently, which is, I think that there is a temptation when there's a culture war for both sides to want to get their way. And I'm thinking about, I've done a lot of polling on free speech and self censorship. Most Americans today and it's increasing are not sharing their political views, because they fear social and professional repercussions.

And there's good reason for that, cause a lot of people actually do support professional repercussions. I looked back at the polling data from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and things were reversed. The people who were worried about political repercussions were on the political left. So a majority of Americans at certain points in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s said that someone who was gay should not be allowed to be a university professor. They shouldn't be allowed to publish a book and have it be in a public library. A feminist or a communist, they asked about different groups. The tables have turned where now just someone to say, I don't know, the opposite of those things would not be allowed to speak at a university. And if you look at the list of speakers who have been canceled in recent years, they're almost all on the political right. The point that I make here is that censorship is a problem, because it prevents us from having conversations and debates about important societal issues.

And the only way we can solve them, the only way we can kind of shake out the truth is to be able to have an open conversation about it. So one thing that I worry about when it comes to winning a culture war is, you don't want to just have your side win and then try to shut down the other side, because sometimes both sides have good points. And so what I'm hoping for is a society where people aren't so worried about getting fired from their jobs or losing friends because they talk about what they think about police funding. That is a rather banal topic of a couple years ago, and now it's something that people might be afraid they get fired over it. So I think that that's what we want to be working toward is that no one group has final say on the truth. Religion is a separate topic from politics. But in politics, no one group has final say, and we want to encourage an environment of openness where people can really openly engage and debate these important issues.

Ben Domenech: We will have time for two questions. So let's see. This gentleman and then this gentleman over here.

Audience Member 1: I have a tough question for Nate I guess based off of the answer you just gave, because you talked about political events changing culture; Roe v. Wade, Civil Rights Act. And those are good examples. Roe V. Wade created the religious right. It wouldn't exist without it. Civil rights, all the stuff we talk about, those things were very unintended. I don't think that people who passed Roe v. Wade intended to create the religious right. The people that didn't pass it, that gave that judgment. So I guess, given that all the examples you use are ones where the culture effects were not intuitive, did not follow from what people thought would come from these things—

Nate Hochman: Well, what about the Civil Rights Act?

Audience Member 2: Well, so if we're following the whole thesis about the Civil Rights Act that you've written about before.

Nate Hochman: Well, not necessarily. But I mean, regardless if you're talking about intent.

Audience Member 1: Right, right. It just seems that a lot of these effects were not seen at all. So my question to you, this is the question is why, what gives you the confidence to think that you'll know what will happen? What gives you the confidence to say, okay, we can engineer from the top? We'll be able to pass the law and know what the effects will be. It seems odd given our history.

Nate Hochman: Well, you can't necessarily. I mean, one of the basic insights of conservatism is that every policy has trade-offs, and you don't always know them. And there's always side effects. So it's not like this sort of hubristic, utopian idea that you can centrally plan the culture based on your public policy whims and have things go exactly as you want. It's just a basic recognition that public policy does have an effect on culture, but I would even take it a step further and say that there are plenty of examples of public policies which were intended to do a thing to the culture, which more or less did do that thing. And I think one of the things we were talking about is the Civil Rights Act. The Civil Rights Act effectively made it impossible to explicitly, racially discriminate in the public square when it came to things like public accommodations, business, et cetera.

And over the course of the next three or four decades, that effectively eradicated. You can point to any number of counterexamples, but overall it meant that you in Alabama, you as a restaurant owner, could not kick someone out of your restaurant for being black. That had a profound effect on the culture of Alabama. Same thing with something like Obergefell. It changed the definition of marriage, one of those sort of fundamental bedrocks,of the West. That is the explicit intent of the people who wanted to pass Obergefell and wanted to legalize same-sex marriage.

So there are plenty of unintended consequences or holes in the explicit intent of the people who passed all of these public policies, but there are also plenty of consequences or results that were the explicit intent of the people who passed these policies. And again, the broader point that I was just making wasn't actually on that specific point about whether or not people who passed these public policies were exclusively or 100 percent correct about what the results were. It was simply that public policy does have an effect on culture, and the public policy debates we have and the policies we pass aren't, again, they don't exist in this sort of vacuum or this mutually exclusive sphere from culture. And culture's informed by the policies you pass.

Ben Domenech: I think it's fair to say it's not a binary.

Emily Ekins: Can I just add to that?

Ben Domenech: Yes, absolutely.

Emily Ekins: So Nate, in your writings, you mentioned some data about the drop-off in religious participation. And that really started in 1992, 1993, 1994. I cited that in some of the work that I've done. And if you look at the data, the number of people that attend church each week, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, it's pretty consistent. In 1994, it just starts to drop off. There's just been a dramatic increase in the number of people that attend church weekly. And you have to wonder what happened around 1992, 1994. And one explanation is that was kind of the rise of the Christian right and the moral majority. And one potential explanation is, it goes both ways. I know. But one potential explanation is the kind of religious groups engaging the political process may have turned some people away from religion, which is not at all what I think, to your point of your question, which is what if something very unexpected happens? I don't think the religious right had expected that there could potentially be a drop-off in religious participation because they got involved in politics.

Nate Hochman: No, really, really quickly. Just a sentence. That is, there's a bunch of really interesting studies. I'm sure you've read the same studies I was talking about. I forget if that made it into the piece I wrote about this, but there's some really interesting evidence to show the religious right's politicization as a mobilization as a political force actually drove theologically conservative Christians out of the pews over the course of the next two decades, because the politicization of a faith that they had previously viewed as outside the political sphere turned them off from Christianity. So again, that wasn't the religious right's intent, but it was a sort of further proof that politics moving into these spheres that had previously been viewed as apolitical had intense effects on those spheres.

Ben Domenech: I must respect our sponsors here and take one more question. So the very, finely dressed British gentleman in the front here.

Audience Member 2: I would ask the panel if they've considered human resources and how one combats that. In the United Kingdom, the long march the institutions took came through the human resources departments. I don't know of a single institution that hasn't been tanked or destroyed. How do you deal with that? The other question is, have you actually considered where this is all going? System failure? I've actually seen systems fail in the United Kingdom. We're far more progressed down this road. I wouldn't attend an event like this in the United Kingdom. And it certainly wouldn't take place at moderate, center-right institutions. It would be somewhere obscure, and you wouldn't go, because you'd be afraid to even have this discussion because you'd lose your job if colleagues saw you there. Have you considered the end game? Will this lead to system failure? And how do you combat HR and the total takeover of the woke left?

Charles Fain Lehman: The short answer is that its existence is legally mandatory, not in its current form. And there's a much longer conversation to be had here about the way in which the institution propagates itself. Just sort of cliff notes, cause I know we don't a lot of time. It is both that those institutions establish themselves in order to comply with legally mandated rules, regulations, and norms. And then they expand their own ambit in the same way that any institution does. And then that expansion of ambit gets reified back into law, into a continuous process. This happens through private entities and executive agencies. And there's a huge amount there, but the reality is, this is a function of law. So the two things that you do, one is that you make it easier not to comply.

And two is that you make going beyond basic compliance more expensive. What I mean by make it easier not to comply is, in the 1980s when Clarence Thomas back in the good old days was in charge of the EEOC, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he said, "In my capacity as chair of the EEOC, we're going to go after individual discrimination. That's what was contemplated in the formation of the EEOC. We're not going to do these big systematic discrimination cases. We're going to take our foot off of the gas a little bit." There's a little back and forth about how well that worked, but I think it worked to some degree. There's no reason you can't do that at the next EEOC. The big problem of the Trump White House was staffing. The same is true of the office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which by the way, if you're a federal contractor, the rules get set by the federal government, which means that a Republican can set the rules in a different direction.

On the other hand, a lot of this stuff is informal. And so explicitly clarifying capacity as a regulator that people don't have to. One of my favorite examples of this is that you cannot provide, as a realtor, you cannot provide information about crime in a neighborhood to a client. There's no rule that says this is true. Everyone just assumes that if you do it, HUD will come after you. HUD has never come after somebody for doing this. It's just accepted that you don't go near that one. And so there's no reason that the next Ben Carson can't say, "No, really you can tell people about crime. It's okay. We're not going to say that it's racially disparaging in its impact. That's not our priority. We're not going to care about that." All of a sudden you've weakened substantially the grip of the people who compel compliance with these things. So my view is, look, it's made ultimately, if not exclusively, by law, it is made initially by law and is reinforced over and over again by law. But that means by law, it can be disassembled.

Ben Domenech: I want to thank you all for coming this evening for this conversation and would ask you all to thank our panelists and applaud them.

Photo: Nuthawut Somsuk/iStock

More from 10 Blocks