Almost 60 years ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter described what he saw as the true goal of McCarthyism. “The real function of the Great Inquisition of the 1950s was not anything so simply rational as to turn up spies or prevent espionage,” he wrote, “or even to expose actual Communists, but to discharge resentments and frustrations, to punish, to satisfy enmities whose roots lay elsewhere than in the Communist issue itself.”
I also find this precedent to be instructive, though I think the implications might lead in a somewhat different direction than many other culture-war enlisters would like to take it.
During the McCarthy era, liberals widely grasped Hofstadter’s point that McCarthy’s main target was not communism but liberalism. He wished to use allegations of communist subversion to discredit the New Deal. In that sense, the episode was very similar to modern culture-war issues: an emotional hot-button appeal that allows the Republican Party’s right wing to change the subject into more favorable topics than popular liberal economic policy, on which Democrats enjoyed solid majority support.
But liberals, just like today, were split bitterly over what to do about this. The question that divided them was how to defend liberalism by separating it from communism — or by standing in solidarity with communism.
The underlying dilemma they faced was that while McCarthy was a compulsive liar who massively exaggerated the scale of communist subversion, the problem was not entirely phantasmal. The Soviets did have an active spy network, and it did penetrate the U.S. government. Indeed, one reason the public was so easily whipped into a frenzy of paranoia is that news stories revealed disturbing instances of Soviet penetration. Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs helped Stalin develop a nuclear weapon much faster than his government could have on its own — or that the West expected it to. Communist agents working for Moscow made real headway in left-wing political movements ascendant in the 1930s.
One of the main flash points of the culture war of this era was a State Department official named Alger Hiss. Conservative Republicans accused Hiss of being a Soviet spy, a charge he indignantly denied. Hiss’s legal travails provided a captivating forum for the broader culture war over communist subversion. Liberals, including Cold Warriors like Harry Truman, defended Hiss’s honor and bitterly attacked his accusers.
But the fact is that Hiss was a communist spy. This became evident to many people at the time when he was caught lying in his defense, and it was ultimately proved beyond all doubt decades later when the Soviet archives were opened after the Berlin Wall fell.
Democrats like Truman did not always dismiss charges of communist subversion. He and Congressman John F. Kennedy often erred in the opposite direction by supporting the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation into the issue.
But the debate within liberal circles never quite ended. And some liberals did not want to concede any ground on the communist issue, because doing so would force them to break ranks with their progressive allies, some of whom were communist or worked closely with communists. The 1948 Henry Wallace campaign, a left-wing splinter faction that opposed the Democrats but which stirred a fervor on the left, was run largely by members of the Communist Party.
Some progressives were communists. They had allies who were merely anti-anti-communist. The path of least resistance between them was to insist the entire issue of communist espionage was a lie. The existence of a loud liberal faction that hesitated to forthrightly denounce communism made it easier for reactionaries like McCarthy to tar the whole New Deal as a communist front. The most effective liberal response involved simultaneously demonstrating that liberals stood opposed to McCarthyism and communism alike. (Many liberals of the era treated the two evils as functional allies of each other — it is the explicit message of The Manchurian Candidate.)
The lesson here is that winning a culture war contains both an offensive and a defensive component. You can’t assume that you can frame the fight on your own chosen terms. If your allies are taking unpopular positions that the voters notice, you are giving your opponents an opening.
On the broad suite of issues the right is using today to wage a culture war, its accusations, like McCarthy’s, mostly consist of lies. Indeed, to the extent that Republicans endorse clearly hysterical claims about grooming, or open the door to wild lawsuits against teachers who tell their students they’re gay, they give Democrats an opportunity to turn these attacks to their advantage.
On the other hand, there are some examples of schools embracing radical pedagogy or whacky DEI concepts. Christopher Rufo might be an utterly unprincipled operative, but his nationwide search for examples of government agencies, states, and school districts incorporating radical ideas does turn up some real examples. One of the lessons of the McCarthy episode is that smear artists occasionally manage to accuse the guilty along with the innocent.
When these examples do materialize, temptation on the left is to withhold criticism of any of this excess and fight Republicans on their lies. This no-enemies-to-the-left tactic makes Democrats hostage to the most radical positions within their coalition.
The intracoalitional sweet spot is to deflect criticism of your radical allies. Deflection simultaneously gives uncomfortable moderates permission not to take any stance on the thing in question while allowing radicals to defend it as a positive good. But the price of intracoalitional peace is that it disables any brakes on the extremists.
One way to lose a culture war is to refuse to fight it. Another way to lose it is to let your allies do a lot of unpopular things and then allow the country to believe the only way to stop them is to vote you out of power.