In the first few pages of his rigorous and incisive book The New Civil War: Exposing Elites, Fighting Utopian Leftism, and Restoring America, Bruce Abramson sets out the features of America’s current crisis, and it’s not pretty. An authoritarian utopianism, he writes, has swept through America’s ruling institutions, carried on there by a “credentialed elite” that has become religiously attached to a particularly corrosive version of progressivism. This has led to a civil war, pitting progressives “hell-bent on transformation” against “patriots loyal to the American constitutional tradition” who “are locked in a struggle for the nation’s soul.”
The ineffectual shutdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the doctor-approved George Floyd riots, and the anomalous presidential election of 2020, writes Abramson, were the events that revealed the depth and breadth of the gentry’s institutional capture. “In fact, the United States jettisoned the rule of law and ceased functioning as a republic in mid-March 2020.”
In another context, such sweeping indictments of America’s leadership class might plausibly be dismissed as the angry hyperbole of a writer who, by his own admission, “failed” as an academic and card-carrying member of the credentialed elite. But with this book, Abramson, a widely published strategic consultant and proud member of the class of citizens he calls the “renegade elite,” has clearly found his footing. The case he makes that an American nobility has emerged, consolidated its power at the highest levels of society, sealed off these institutions from ideological opposition, and adopted a worldview substantially at odds with foundational principles of the republic, seems chillingly tenable.
Abramson’s thesis, at least in its broad outlines, has received formidable backing from other, less “renegade” critics. Former New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan has puzzled over the “sudden, rapid, stunning shift in the belief system of the American elites” that “has sent the whole society into a profound cultural dislocation.” David Brooks, who wrote admiringly about his own social class in Bobos in Paradise (2004), admits he had no idea that the meritocrats would coalesce into an “insular, intermarrying brahmin elite,” or how aggressively this overclass would “impose elite values through speech and thought codes.”
“I underestimated our intolerance of ideological diversity,” Brooks confesses.
These critics might not agree with Abramson that the Russian collusion smear against the 2016 Trump campaign exemplified the progressive elite’s use of “deconstruction, fabrication, and projection” to conduct a coup. Nor, despite Abramson’s powerful j’accuse, would they agree that the progressive elites “suppressed news, changed rules,” eliminated security measures, and held “secretive tabulations” in the 2020 presidential election “to generate a preordained result—nominally in favor of Joe Biden, but actually in favor of oligarchic progressivism.”
But like Abramson, Sullivan and Brooks are reacting with appropriate alarm to the cascade of once unfathomable developments: millions of Americans being subject to “antiracist training” stipulating that equal application of the law, merit-based advance, colorblindness, and even math and science perpetuate white supremacy; the federal government and large corporations proudly announcing vast programs of undisguised race and sex discrimination; biological men competing against women in sports; airline CEOs and professional sports leagues boycotting their own clientele for passing laws with majority support; and a Centers for Disease Control commission opposed to prioritizing the elderly for COVID vaccination because there are too many whites among them.
Say what you will about these precedents, there is little question they reflect a deep aversion to principles that undergird American life, or that they have occurred with little popular consent.
While Abramson’s book is a call to arms for American traditionalists (he calls them “restorationists”), complete with Alinsky-like strategies for turning back the tide, its real value lies in its answer to the most obvious and perplexing question: how has a nation once proudly defined by its muscular, sharp-elbowed liberal pluralism become captive to an illiberal oligarchy? Abramson deftly ties the answer to the credentialing function of universities.
For Abramson, the universities are the key to the cultural and political domination of the country by progressive elites because they “alone can grant credentials” and “determine who can join the Credentialed Elite.” Universities had long served this credentialing function, but its importance increased dramatically with the transition from an industrial to an information economy, which confers enormous advantages to those who can demonstrate cognitive ability. Accordingly, the number of adults with a college degree grew from 8 percent in 1952 to 36 percent in 2019. Civil rights laws putting cognitive tests for employment under “strict scrutiny” only tightened the university credentialing monopoly.
As it happens, at around the time that a college degree became the “default hiring device,” Marxist radicals started their “long march through the institutions,” cramming into universities to avoid and protest the Vietnam War. By the 1980s, when Abramson went to college, progressives had almost completely replaced the G.I. Bill liberals on college faculty. The final step took place with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990, which, Abramson notes, “created an opening for a new aristocratic leftism of the Credentialed Elite.”
Ideological uniformity became so prevalent among faculty that even students in the sciences and engineering were leaving college imbued with progressive notions and attitudes, as well as the specialized jargon by which members of the credentialed elite are identified. It was only a matter of time before progressivism graduated academia and influenced other industries, aided by the advent of social media in the 2010s. Universities acted as a funnel for ideologues who eventually gained control of not only academia, but of “K-12 education, the media, Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and the Deep State,” says Abramson, and they have quickly moved “toward dominance of Wall Street, the legal profession, the judiciary, and most professional societies.”
There is likely more complexity to the story of America’s “great awokening.” Christopher Caldwell has emphasized the role of the punitive civil rights regime in convincing large organizations of all stripes to kowtow to identity politics. Others see secularization and affluence as critical in sending elites in search of status and meaning toward the most publicly articulated moral code: “social justice.” Abramson himself notes progressivism had long been a “cult of elitism and expertise,” but is now verging on a full-blown religion.
Whatever the causal factors, there is little doubt that the universities have delivered and continue to replenish a large cadre of progressive influencers who command what Jonathan Rauch has called the “epistemic regime,” the ubiquitous web of knowledge workers that disseminates the narratives widely considered to be true. Hence, “racism” has evolved from overt behavior into invisible “systemic racism,” “equality” gets cast aside for “equity,” and gender is no longer linked to biology. Abramson points out that if “there’s a conduit for creating a narrative, writing a rule, telling a story, or circulating information, voices committed to progressivism overwhelm those committed to traditional American ideals and values.”
While progressivism had always believed in the empowerment of altruistic experts trained in the natural and social sciences, it was not incompatible with liberalism. Abramson points out that the progressive formula for perfecting society was simply: “trust the experts!”
But progressivism has become what Wesley Yang has called the “successor ideology,” a barely recognizable cultural Marxism that insists liberalism must be replaced, that free speech, freedom of association, merit-based advance, and objectivity are all part of the same “structural oppression.” For this, Abramson blames the incentive structure of universities, or what he calls “Incremental Outrageousness.”
At the heart of the problem for the university is its faculty governance, which creates the perfect “insider/outsider” problem. Faculty decide who gets hired, fired, and promoted, the appropriate fields for research, which articles appear in prestigious journals, and the availability of funding. Thus, for a young academic, only peer approval matters, and the key to impressing peers is to laud their work.
The commitment to orthodoxy and the fear of challenging ideas is baked into the academic incentive system. Success flows most easily to those who can push the conventional wisdom of their fields one half step further in whatever direction it’s already moving—incremental outrageousness.
In this way, Abramson argues, older, perhaps less radical professors set the direction for research, which over time becomes more extreme as younger academics seek to gain a name for themselves by going a step further, becoming increasingly detached from real-life accountability. This may sound simplistic, but it jibes well with recent research by political scientist Eric Kaufmann, who found in his report Academic Freedom in Crisis that younger professors and graduate students are more likely to support “canceling” academics with heterodox views than the older cohort. “[Y]ounger academics are twice as likely to endorse a dismissal campaign as older faculty . . . suggesting the problem of political intolerance is likely to get worse,” Kaufmann reported.
Strangely, perhaps, if Abramson is right about the perverse academic incentives, there is reason for optimism. Incentives can be changed more easily than beliefs, especially those held on to so righteously. Abramson recommends greater accountability and transparency in higher education, first by strictly limiting tuition revenue to instruction and tying federal tuition assistance to transparency about the expected monetary value of degree programs. He also recommends minimum teaching loads for faculty, and reductions in administrators.
Like other suggestions Abramson makes to begin the restoration—in government he suggests focusing on reducing the size of public unions, strengthening election integrity, and reducing regulatory complexity—they are unobjectionable but likely insufficient. It is difficult to see how fiscal accountability in higher education by itself will put a stop to “incremental outrageousness” or expand viewpoint diversity.
But Abramson’s account is not primarily a policy manual. It is a political manifesto, brilliantly prepared and forcefully argued, telling the story of how American democracy is imperiled by a large class of self-dealing patricians no longer beholden to the banalities of self-government. Abramson’s achievement is to show that trust in the neutral institutions that adjudicate knowledge has collapsed, and to adroitly locate our universities at the center of this calamity.