by John Ellis
The leaders of the anti-CRT/anti-social justice movement’s game plan relies on the effectiveness of scare-words as a control mechanism. I debated adding a charitable qualifier to my accusation, something like “many” or “a vocal contingent,” but after thinking through it, I concluded that even those who are operating in good faith are unwitting participants in a power struggle that supersedes/undermines even their best of intentions. The game’s stakes are incredibly high, as are the consequences, and the primary actors are playing for keeps. To that end, the list of their scare-words is long and getting longer. That list’s effectiveness banks on many in the anti-CRT/anti-social justice crowd lacking literacy of the terms and concepts. This results in many well-meaning, scared people being swept along by their side’s worst instincts and actors. I mention this because to get to my thesis, I’ve got to go straight through one of these scare words – hegemony, or cultural hegemony. As in, – my thesis – losing cultural hegemony leaves fascism as the most promising option for retaining power and privilege for those who insist on viewing and interacting with the world via the lens of a cultural war. The Republican Party is increasingly embracing fascism as their epistemological and ethical framework. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that scare-word is going to be an insurmountable obstacle for my intended audience.
I’ve alluded to my thesis in other articles and have expressly articulated it in conversation with friends. Up to now, though, I’ve avoided putting it explicitly in print because I’m afraid (because I know) that I’ll be misunderstood and that my arguments will be waylaid by that misunderstanding. In short, what I have to say runs the high risk of being unable to penetrate the epistemological and ethical framework of my readers because they’ve been catechized into a certain definition of human flourishing that keeps them distracted from what’s actually going on. But I must try, even though the risk exists that some, if not many, will only hear what I’m not saying and be unable/unwilling to hear what I am saying.
This embrace of my Quixotic task is being partially fueled by some recent news about the governor of the state in which I live. Ron DeSantis is continuing his anti-woke crusade. This time – well, more of a continued extension of last time and the times before – he has set his sights on so-called woke corporations (again, to be redundant). Quoting a news article from Spectrum News 13, a Central Florida news station, during a speech in Tampa DeSantis proposed a series of laws that, “aim to prohibit companies from making discriminations against customers for any religious, political, or social beliefs.” He specifically referenced an organization that had their funds frozen by PayPal.
There’s a lot to unpack in the Governor’s statement as well as several needles to thread. In a vacuum, I’m not entirely opposed to ensuring that people aren’t denied access to resources and tools based on what they believe and how they choose to live … within reason. And therein lies the rub – or, better, one of those needles that needs to be threaded – not all beliefs and/or lifestyle choices are of equal concern and/or detriment to society. But that’s a needle that’s threading will take my eyes off my thesis. So, I’ll say this: DeSantis’ definition of woke is nuance free and chock full of red herrings and straw men. It also demands a heavy-handed approach for policing those who violate his vise-like rules. In a word, fascism.
For DeSantis, it’s not wrong for corporations to exert pressure on both employees and customers; how and why are the key, though. For example, if a business includes as part of their training the 1776 Project, DeSantis will applaud that (and possibly/probably reward it with tax benefits and other goodies dispersed via the State government). Putting the shoe on the other foot, though, and how do you think DeSantis feels about corporations including the 1619 Project as part of their training? Well, in a bill passed by the Florida legislature earlier this year and signed into law by DeSantis, that company now runs the risk of being sued by employees, and that’s just the beginning of the penalties and punishments that will crash down on companies (and eventually individual citizens) that run afoul of DeSantis’ personal beliefs and/or goals. You see, the question isn’t a libertarian view of running one’s business how one sees fit; the question is, do businesses conform to DeSantis’ views and beliefs? If not, he’ll bring the hammer of the State down upon them. And the hammers he keeps picking up and wielding are increasing in size.
Around the country, examples abound of Republicans wielding fascism to accomplish their ends. In Pennsylvania, Lancaster County Commissioner Josh Parsons argued that the local YWCA should be stripped of its funding because one the organization’s leadership spoke out against the county’s plan to remove the ballot drop box. On the national level, Trump’s widely reported plan to utilize Schedule F if he’s reelected in 2024 is a predictable albeit (very) frightening threat of fascism for all those wary of a totalitarian State. However, my objective isn’t to document a litany of fascist moves by the GOP. Frankly, I don’t need a long list to make my argument because my argument rests on fascism being the most viable option for power once cultural hegemony is lost. The examples are flair on the drab uniform of fascism (I deleted a bunch of examples for the sake of my word count).
The question must be answered, though, what is cultural hegemony?
The Italian (Neo) Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci is credited with the development of the concept/theory of cultural hegemony. To better understand cultural hegemony, it’s important to grasp Marx’s theory that society exists in two main parts – the substructure and the superstructure. The substructure (or base) is everything in society related to the means of production, including the relations of production (employer/employee, bourgeois/proletariat, class systems, etc.). The superstructure includes things like a society’s aesthetics, religion, politics, family relationships, media, etc. While there’s somewhat of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” argument within Marxism, Marx taught that while the superstructure does influence the substructure, the primary driver of influence was the other direction. You can see this circular influence, and its emphasis on the base influencing the superstructure, in his argument, “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political, and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.”
For his part, Gramsci took Marx’s two-part theory of society and reworked it into cultural hegemony – the belief that those in power exercise control over society in a way that preserves their power. In other words, the ruling class uses things like religion, pop culture, media, etc. to shape the prevailing mores of society in a way that prevents the oppressed from gaining power (or makes it really difficult for them to do so). The social structures of society (tend to) serve those in power. Ergo, the social structures do not serve (to varying degrees) those who do not have power.
To distill all that into less academic terms, cultural hegemony is accomplished when the populace believes, by and large, what those in authority want them to believe. Within this structure, the worldview of the elite becomes/is the default worldview of the populace at large, even if that worldview works against their best interests. What are our collective values? Our collective definition of flourishing? What are our priorities? How do we define ourselves and our community? Even if we believe otherwise, even if we believe we have epistemic autonomy, the answers to these questions are largely provided us by outside forces that are pursuing their own objectives that are often at odds with what should be our objectives. The elite’s retention of power is dependent on the populace at large buying into a meta-program. Don’t look at the man behind the curtain, just enjoy the show.
Gramsci taught that accomplishing the wholesale buy-in of the populace is accomplished via institutions like schools, the media, and churches. Ideological control is important for the legitimation of those in power.
The social structure of society is a complex topic with competing theories of how social stratification is accomplished and to what ends. And so, I want to move even further away from the academy and into a view of social praxis that most of us easily recognize. I’m well aware that much of what I wrote above likely steers some into the scare-word terrain mentioned above. If that’s you, please keep in mind that as you (likely) nod along in agreement with what I’m about to write, you’re agreeing to at least some understanding and acceptance of cultural hegemony.
Most conservative Christians bemoan Hollywood’s influence on our children as well as society at large. I’ve heard it my entire life; more so than most because I grew up in strict Christian fundamentalism. We intuitively understand that culture catechizes people into beliefs.
The Soviet Union understood this. Western cultural expressions were rightly viewed as a threat to the Party. Rock music, Western movies, books, etc. catechize people into a specific, decadent worldview that was anathema to the Soviet’s objectives. Likewise, and, to be frank, not necessarily incorrectly, my authority figures knew that Motley Crue and KISS would catechize me into beliefs/a worldview that’s contra what they wanted for me. Republican friend, I know you get this. Please cling to this truth as a touchstone for your interaction with and response to this article. It’s the foundational core truth on which my argument is based.
Now, and those who are better versed in Gramsci than I am, please correct me on this point if I’m wrong, but one of the things I think he missed was how much politics are downstream from culture. I think he understood it intuitively, but his larger program of figuring the “chicken and egg” balance of Marx’s substructure and superstructure created a blind spot, I believe. Of course, his goal was to provide a more fleshed out theory of what Marx was teaching. While he accomplished that goal, his anthropology was too material to fully grasp how much weight culture is pressing its finger on the scale of worldview.
Rightly understanding that humans are not primarily thinking creatures, he taught that humans have a dual consciousness which works against the full accomplishment of cultural hegemony. Our material conditions – our living conditions including, of course, lack of food, poor access to medicine, etc. – also play a role in the formation of our beliefs. Rejecting the economic determinism of many “old school” Marxists, this chink in cultural hegemony’s armor is where Marxists could attack, Gramsci believed. He knew that merely pumping ideas into heads would never be enough for the elites to gain complete mastery over the populace. There’s a point where all the best pedagogy in the world isn’t going to keep your stomach from reminding you that you’re starving.
There is much truth in that. We are epistemologically affected by our material conditions. We never interact with the world in a vacuum; intention is always a part of it. In his masterful and helpful foreword to Heidegger’s Being and Time, Taylor Carman writes, “We inhabit a world not simply by confronting objects in perception and judgment, but by pursuing ends, participating in practices, occupying social roles, establishing at least presumptive identities. A world is not an object standing over against a subject; it is where we live our lives, the milieu in which we dwell [emphasis kept].
But, as good, right, and helpful Heidegger’s phenomenological insights are, we are more than intentional creatures. Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith convincingly argues, “[humans] are liturgical animals – embodied, practicing creatures whose love/desire is aimed at something ultimate.” Humans are lovers. Smith adds, “The question is not whether we love but what we love. That structural orientation, operative for the most part at the level of the adaptive unconscious, can take different directions and be aimed at different ends or different visions of the good life. This model of the human person gives us new eyes to see the function of desire in our culture [emphasis kept].”
This is why I used the word “catechize” multiple times already. Culture catechizes our beliefs because it shapes what we love. I believe that Gramsci missed that there is a hierarchy within the forces of cultural hegemony. The institutions that best feed (and control) what we love serve to exercise (whether they should or not is a different discussion, see footnote 6) at least some level of control over institutions like religion and politics. And those love-shaping/serving institutions run roughshod over traditional educational models. Worldview is only partially shaped by the head and (sorry Gramsci) the stomach; the heart reigns supreme.
The left, the Democrats, the progressives, whatever you want to call them have won the war for cultural hegemony because they control the mechanisms that best catechize our beliefs. They’ve found the key to our idol-making hearts. I’d be surprised to find a conservative evangelical who disputes that the left is shaping our society’s beliefs via movies, music, TV, etc. By and large, the Republicans have lost the ability to catechize the beliefs of society and this is reflected in the popular vote as well as in shifting beliefs about sexuality, gender, religion, economics, et al..
Now, this doesn’t mean that the GOP hasn’t carved out a space to have its own limited cultural hegemony. FOX News and other far-right media platforms, churches led by the likes of Robert Jeffress and John MacAthur, educational institutions like Liberty and Hillsdale, and a publishing industry that churns out popular level books aimed at worldview formation work are all part of how the GOP clamps down on their base. That base, though, is not reflective of broader American society. Republicans are increasingly out of step with the larger populace on hot-button policy and cultural issues. This is why a popular joke on the left is disingenuous. Predicated on the fact that FOX News receives higher ratings than their competitors, it’s popular on the left to mock FOX News’ attacks on the mainstream media. You are the mainstream media owing to your ratings, is the heart of the joke. Except, that misses the point. True, FOX News regularly trounces their competitors, but their high ratings reflect a couple of points: 1. Their viewers are brand loyal, because … 2. Unless you count OAN, their viewers don’t have the options that the viewers of ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, etc. have. FOX News is out of step with the larger cultural drumbeat; they are not part of the mainstream media.
This brings me back to my thesis. How do you retain power if you’ve lost the ability to control the worldview/beliefs of the population at large? It’s undeniable that the Republicans slice of the cultural influence pie has dramatically shrunk over the last decade. Yet, they still retain power – a lot of it! How? Well, exercising cultural hegemony over their base, for starters. But that’s not enough to retain power on the national level. What’s left, then, is fascism. A willingness to change and/or ignore rules that are obstacles to their goals (see Mitch McConnell’s flat-out and open duplicity between Merrick Garland and Amy Coney Barrett).
The Republican Party is about power. How it gains and retains that power lands in a fungible ethical land and ultimately must steer into fascism. If you can’t get people to comply “willingly,” force is all that’s left, and they’re demonstrating that they are quite willing to wield the sword as well as exert unjust pressure on the scales of democracy to retain power and accomplish their goals. Another example of that is the absurd gerrymandering that carves up communities of color in order to maximize the white vote. Another example is the flat-out dishonest narrative (and embrace) of Jan. 6. Calls for the Wisconsin Supreme Court to decertify the 2020 POTUS election, anyone? The list of egregious acts of violence (physically and/or politically) against the rule of law by Republicans grows by the day.
Followers of King Jesus are not called to compromise our ethics, least of all for an earthly kingdom that is going to perish. Aligning ourselves with bullies and tyrants because those bullies and tyrants will protect us from the other side’s bullies and tyrants is faithlessness. The spiritual warfare we are to engage in centers on our sanctification not the preservation of earthly power and esteem. While we’re not called to cower before persecution, we’re also not called to wield the sword in defense of ourselves. We are called to faithfully endure persecution for Christ’s sake and as faithful witnesses to the Resurrection.
Swearing our fealty to power-hungry demagogues is not the Way of the Cross; it’s the way of Satan. The Republican Party is hell-bent on demonstrating that their faith and their kingdom is in the here and now. Their definition of flourishing doesn’t allow for an eschatological perspective; it demands a wholesale commitment to power.
It’s undeniable that the GOP no longer holds the reins of cultural hegemony, but their lust for power and privilege is no less. Their increasingly violent and fascist rhetoric and actions as they pursue and protect power should be ethical red flags for Christians. We need to start trusting fully in Jesus, no matter what comes, and stop trading our heavenly birthright for a pot of earthly porridge.
Soli Deo Gloria
 Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy trans. N.I. Stone (Delhi: Lector House, 2020)
 Trust me, I’m aware that this is a Marxist statement. But, as I argue in the body of the article, this is a Marxist statement that contains much truth and one that is accepted and believed by conservative Christians. They’re just unable (or unwilling) to turn that light back onto themselves.
 Taylor Carman, “Forward” Martin Heidegger Being and Time trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008) XIX.
 James K.A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 40.
 Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 75.
 This exposes a failure of churches, but that’s a different article for another day.
 Don’t give me any whataboutism. Whataboutism is childish and contemptible in adults. Wrong is wrong, no matter what the other side does.