Last November, voters in California, one of the most reliably Democratic states in the Union, defeated a ballot initiative that would have restored the state’s ability to use race as a factor in government hiring and employment. Affirmative action, a supposedly positive form of discrimination, could not win over the public even in a deep blue majority-minority state. Over 57 percent of California’s voters opposed it.

So it’s little surprise that ‘critical race theory’ and other forms of racial indoctrination promoted within businesses, universities and primary schools have engendered revulsion among Americans nationwide. Children are being taught to sort and rank one another by color and ethnicity. The fact that this is being done in the name of ‘anti-racism’ only adds an Orwellian tinge to the abuse.

A remarkable thing is not the swift rejection of progressive racialist ideology, it’s that this became a major news story thanks largely to one man, Christopher Rufo, who publicized abuses that a battalion of conservative think tanks and media outlets had somehow overlooked — much as the Republican party tends to overlook the results of racial-preferences referenda in California.

More telling still is the way in which CRT and other racial ideas took root in America’s boardrooms and classrooms in the first place. Schools are meant to be controlled by local school boards, many of which presumably have a few conservatives or Republicans serving on them. Public universities are subject to legislative supervision, and corporations are not without their own transparency and accountability protocols. Yet the rot seeped in with little notice, or at least none able to break through to national consciousness. Rufo, however, found that as soon as he began to tweet about the subject, whistleblowers provided him with stories and the documentary evidence to back them up.

This is where the culture war is won or lost. But conservatives for too long have been fighting it the way Washington has fought the war in Afghanistan, without any idea of what victory would look like. This is partly because of the limitations of the conservative coalition itself. A large proportion of the Republican elite and upper echelons of movement conservatism merely want a milder version of the prevailing progressive culture. Race rankings in schools might be too much, but as long as economics lessons aren’t advocating socialism, the rest of the progressive agenda is not too alarming. David French’s mild attitude toward ‘Drag Queen Story Hour’ at public libraries is emblematic of this outlook, as is his anti-anti-critical race theory position: opposing laws to curtail the use of CRT in public institutions.

What these comfortable conservatives are aiming for is a live-and-let-live cultural federalism, which seems, on its face, both feasible and in line with the American character. Some people will spend their Sundays in a Tennessee megachurch; others will take their tykes elsewhere to hear sermons about the demonic pathology of whiteness. No mainstream culture need exist beyond an agreement to disagree, and a shared perception that those who don’t agree to disagree are socially toxic and incipiently dangerous illiberals. The marketplace of ideas and/or God’s plan will take care of the country. And if the market and/or God wants the megachurches to dwindle as public schools preach a new faith, who are you to protest, ignorant as you are before the omniscient?

This ideal of cultural laissez-faire rests on a foundation of profound misunderstandings — about the cultural left, about human nature, about markets. The left correctly perceives the culture war as a war: not a shooting war, thank God, but a program of conquest. It’s a program of spiritual conquest, and every young person who is primed by progressive schooling is capable of being a soldier. The most basic infantry are sensitized to detect the enemy’s movements, meaning that the average college graduate knows wrongthink when she hears it and knows how to report it up the chain of command. Even high-school students know what to record when a classmate of the wrong color sings along with a rap tune. This is not really a bottom-up cultural revolution — the classroom is entirely top-down, of course, though the likes of David French seem not to know it — but in a loose parallel with another cultural revolution, the young are taught to denounce and inform as a way of earning praise and advancement. There is no marketplace of ideas here, and with political controls applied by private companies (again, China offers a loose parallel), simpleminded libertarianism is worse than useless.

Most people can become moderately strong individuals, but only a few are ornery by birth. Usually humans have to acquire the habit of thinking robustly and shunning moral servility as a grave vice. Under safe conditions, most people are conformist. They may cover themselves in tattoos, but they can’t form an identity without a clique.

Progressives fight for the culture by the rules of war, combining propaganda and political power with economic superiority. Conservatives fight for the culture by imposing rules on themselves: the rules of those NeverTrump Christian leaders who counted character so high that they were content to see abortion-supporting Democrats take over the country; or the rules of those libertarians who find corporate support for left-wing legal and political ends unthreatening, and right-wing use of government power as a defense against such a private-public hybrid left absolutely unacceptable on principle. The objective for the right often seems to be self-congratulation over maintaining rules that have nothing to do with real-world conflicts.

Yet if the right will take a stand against the new racial obsessions, the American public stands ready to give its support, even in some of the bluest parts of the country.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s August 2021 World edition.