Why we're talking about Critical Race Theory

Remember when the right kept going on about Saul Alinsky?

You don’t hear much about it anymore, but about a decade ago the US right was absolutely obsessed with the book Rules for Radicals and its author, Saul Alinsky. If, like most people, you haven’t bothered to read Rules, it’s mostly just a guy giving some general advice to people involved with local activism. A lot of it is hilariously banal and intuitive — stuff like “keep the pressure on, with different tactics and actions”. Some of it is the sort of meaningless mysticism you find in books like The Art of War for the Modern Retail Manager: for example, “if you push a negative hard and deep enough it will break through into its counterside; this is based on the principle that every positive has its negative.” There is also some good but pretty innocuous advice here as well, like Alinsky’s point that you should find ways to make activism fun so that people don’t get burned out. In general, however, I don’t think there’s much here that you wouldn’t learn from a year of working in a leadership role in any small political organization.

Hilariously, this is not how the right understood Rules at all. The standard take was that Alinsky had written some kind of dark tome that laid out the satanic ambitions of the left — and our nefarious strategies for achieving them. If you did not know about Rules then you could really never really know what we were up to, since the enemies of the right were liars, and secretive, and carrying out alien intellectual theories that no normal person would ever think of. But if you knew about Rules, then you would instantly understand what all of these demonic weirdos were up to — and you’d be able to stop them. For years, a mainstream premise in right-wing rhetoric was that you could interpret just about anything leftists did as following the orders laid out for them in their handbook, Rules for Radicals. This was true not just of leftists but of liberals as well — from Parenti to Pelosi to your next door neighbor Pete.

Mercifully, around the end of the Obama era, this line finally became passé on the right — but by then, a new one had started to gain steam. Rhetoric about something called “cultural Marxism” had been floating around for a long time by then, but in the mid-10’s it moved from AM talk radio platforms like The Michael Savage Show into the mainstream. Around the same time, this rhetoric also began to concentrate around a specific fixation on the Frankfurt School.

But once again, the right’s analysis did not actually seem to have very much to do with the actual texts in question. You did not see a lot of commentary about how policymakers were reading Fromm’s discussion of the Protestant work ethic, or how the praxis of Bernie Sanders was informed by Barthes’ semiotic theory of mythology. Nor, of course, did you see much talk on the right about how the Frankfurt School is in many ways at odds with some basic points of orthodox Marxism.

Instead, the mysterious Frankfurt School mostly played the same role in our discourse that Rules for Radicals did a few years before. In both cases, we were presented with relatively obscure texts which, if you understood them, exposed all kinds of profound occult truths about the otherwise unknowable machinations of leftists.


Matt Bruenig has written a nice little explainer about Critical Race Theory (CRT) — that is, about what CRT actually is. But this, of course, does not answer a second, equally interesting question: why in god’s name is the right obsessed with this? At this point, the standard answer on the left seems to be “racism,” but that really only explains why CRT is on the table as one of many things that reactionaries could get mad about.

If you want to know why the right is melting down about CRT in particular, I think the history I’ve sketched out above provides us with a good explanation.

Every few years, the American right discovers a relatively obscure text or theory that, we are told, lays out the secret governing plans and doctrines of the anarchomarxistliberaldemocrat conspiracy. This narrative coalesces spontaneously because it does all kinds of useful things for the right:

  • It reminds us that we cannot trust socialists to tell us what they are really up to. That’s why there is usually a “gotcha!” inflection to this narrative; CRT is something that has been “exposed”.

  • It characterizes socialist politics as bizarre and alien. They don’t rely on plain old common sense and simple values like ordinary Americans do; their politics revolve entirely around secret texts written in unreadable academic gibberish.

  • It explains away the right’s persistent failure to defeat socialism and fix society, even though they have the truth and the silent majority on their side. It turns out that defeating us just required a crucial piece of intelligence that was missing in the past, forcing the right to try to defeat The Death Star without knowing about its exhaust vents.

This last point also explains why particular iterations of this narrative eventually fall out of favor. You can only say so many times that we can defeat socialists by learning about Rules for Radicals before folks on the right start asking “why haven’t we won yet?”

Over the last year or so, talk about the Frankfurt School finally went out of style as well, and if you watched closely you could see pundits and intellectuals on the right fishing around for the newest Dark Secret of the Left. Seems pretty clear that CRT is filling that role, but if you find this whole debate annoying don’t worry — we’ll presumably get to our next Dark Secret of the Left in 2024, 2026, or 2028.

Image still from CNN.