The two countercultures: Who will speak for ordinary Americans?

The left counterculture—what critic Wesley Yang calls the “successor ideology”—sees the United States as fundamentally corrupt and irredeemable, a zone of grotesque violence against racial and sexual minorities, a systemically racist polity desperately in need of censorship, reeducation, and massive government intervention to rectify centuries of brutality and oppression. The left counterculture’s alienation from mainstream society is expressed in its polemics and jeremiads. Its indignation was manifest in the riots over the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020. Its revisionist attitude toward sexual codes is evident in the Black Lives Matter platform’s (now revised) call to “disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure,” and in the centrality of transgenderism to its worldview. The left counterculture proves time and again George Orwell’s dictum that there are some ideas so foolish that only intellectuals will believe them.

The right counterculture, meanwhile, sees America as on the verge of collapse, on the brink of secession and civil war, a frightening place ruled by a bureaucratic-woke-medical-corporate “regime” not unlike the former Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. The alienation of the right counterculture from modern America is apparent whenever its spokesmen demean and defame their fellow countrymen, say their country is lost or not worth saving, and look to foreign strongmen for guidance and succor. “Indignation” cannot begin to describe the right counterculture’s outrage at the direction of society, at the limits and frustrations of politics, at the bewildering tempo and fevered temper of current events. This rage at modernity, along with corrupt leadership and social media conspiracy theories, produced the riot in the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. The right counterculture’s uneasy conscience over the events of that day is visible in its attempts at historical revisionism and blame-shifting. It too is focused on the family, peppering its discourse with references to the baby bust, lack of male marriage prospects, and threats to childhood innocence and traditional religious values.

Our two countercultures, separately and together, correctly identify weaknesses and flaws in twenty-first century liberal democracy. But they mistakenly view these problematic conditions not as discrete challenges but as totalistic indictments.