But there is an academic version of critical race theory that goes a great deal further. In this variety of postmodernism, all power structures are rotted to the core by white supremacy. The ideals of democracy — pluralism, freedom, the rule of law, even reasoned debate itself — are myths or narratives serving the privileged. In this view, politics is no longer a contest of ideas. It is a fight for power, a zero-sum struggle between oppressor and oppressed. This type of wokeness involves seeing through the pretensions of a free society and favoring the oppressed in every instance.
The distinctions here are not minor. There is a difference between using critical race theory as a tool to understand unjust power structures and believing that every outworking of Western democratic theory is inherently unjust. There is a difference between examining the disturbing truths of American history and denying the existence of objective truth and the possibility of persuasion.
In contrast, the nightmares of progressives are currently dominated by the growth of right-wing authoritarianism and fascism. In these fears, there is more than a grain of truth.
Large elements of the American populist right mythologize the nation’s past rather than face its failures. They dismiss real news as fake and embrace obvious propaganda. They are anti-intellectual to the point of denying lifesaving scientific truths. They fear diversity and target racial, ethnic and religious minorities for resentment. They cultivate a sense of victimhood by warning of arrogant elites and vast conspiracies. These are not isolated ailments; they are the textbook symptoms of a fascist political infection.
Some on the left want to use these trends to discredit the entirety of modern conservatism. They contend that authoritarianism and fascism are the logical, necessary outgrowth of the political approach that emerged with the presidential nomination of Barry Goldwater. In this view, Goldwater is Richard M. Nixon, who is Ronald Reagan, who is Jack Kemp, who is George W. Bush, who is John McCain, who is Mitt Romney, who is Donald Trump. This is a raving, slanderous absurdity. The existence of a principled, tolerant, constructive party of the right in American politics is not only a possibility; it is a crying need.
In comparing the right’s fear of extreme critical race theory and the left’s fear of fascism, it is not really useful to ask which horror would be worse if implemented. Both ideologies are ultimately at war with liberal democracy — the pursuit of a common good, the practice of incremental reform, the cultivation of social trust and the acceptance of democratic outcomes.
But it is crucial to ask which nightmare is currently most likely to be implemented. And here there is no question.
Extreme wokeness — the enforcement of ideological sameness through intimidation, the illiberal silencing of competing voices, the canceling of human beings for relatively minor infractions, the forced, ritual renunciations of previous views — is a problem on some college campuses, in some newsrooms and within some corporate cultures. And I don’t want to minimize such excesses.
But seriously now. Only one of these nightmares has taken over a major political party, which is in the process of purging all dissent. Only one of these delusions is the governing vision of a former president who just might be president again. Only one of these developments has turned the backbones of the minority leader of the House, the minority leader of the Senate and almost every other Republican leader into gelatinous goo. Only one of these ideologies produced a crowd that sacked the U.S. Capitol and threatened violence against political leaders. Only one of these movements is working in state legislatures across the country to make electoral systems more vulnerable to manipulation and mob rule.
It is important to confront every source of illiberalism in American life. Social justice leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis shared a common belief. They saw solutions to America’s worst sins in the more radical application of America’s highest ideals, not in their abandonment.
But this does not mean that all such challenges to democracy are equal. Right-wing authoritarianism is the force that could undo the American system. In a contest of nightmares, it is not even a contest.