The Death and Rebirth of Radical Chic

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Once the left loathed the establishment and lived vicariously through the mob. Now our politics has inverted.

Peace protesters taunt a line of soldiers with the military police during an anti-Vietnam War protest outside the Pentagon in Washington DC. Credit: Getty Images

What’s cool in politics these days? God knows it isn’t me, a thirtysomething right-winger living in a suburb who remembers when libertarians used to be hip and also Tamagotchis.

One thing that’s undeniably cool is to oppose the “establishment.” And not just the establishment as in the governing class, but the more enlarged and amorphous establishment first defined by the conservative writer Henry Fairlie in 1955. Fairlie coined the term to scorn those in power who defended two British officials who had defected to the Soviet Union, and he included under its rubric prominent politicians, members of the press, and influential socialites. Yet not everyone shared Fairlie’s opprobrium. In early 1960s America, the establishment even became stylish, as Jack and Jackie Kennedy ascended to the White House and ushered in a new faith in well-coiffed educated elites.

It wasn’t to last. The storm of the 1960s was brewing, and as Kennedy was assassinated, as Lyndon Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, the establishment quickly lost its shine. The “kids” of that decade came to see it as corrupt and bloodstained, handmaidens of death in Indochina and enforcers of white supremacy at home. The pervasive (if haunted) conformity of the 1950s gave way to a Rousseauian impulse to turn any kind of establishment inside-out and upside-down. Deference to elders was replaced by “don’t trust anyone over 30”; sexual convention gave way to the button once flaunted by Bernardine Dohrn: “cunnilingus is cool, fellatio is fun.” Freedom of expression was in too, demanded and treasured by the ’60s radicals as they inveighed against those in power.

It was during this time that the journalist Tom Wolfe coined another term: “radical chic.” The title of an essay he published in 1970, Radical Chic documented a party thrown by the famed composer Leonard Bernstein at his lavish Park Avenue duplex for a delegation of Black Panthers. It was the kind of scene that the mischievous (and more than a little conservative) Wolfe craved: social tension between unalike classes of people that threatened to erupt before ultimately descending into absurdity. “Radical chic” quickly entered the lexicon. Its approximate definition was: when elites identify with revolutionary left-wing causes in order to feel cool and egalitarian. Or: when an establishment claims to oppose itself while making no meaningful changes whatsoever. To be radical chic was to signal that you weren’t like those other stuffy squares, you supported the emancipation of the underclasses (just as soon as José finished cleaning the pool).

We might also add that you backed sexual liberation, you donated to the ACLU, you were all in favor of affirmative action, you were appalled by police brutality. Up from the 1960s came a new generation of leaders who had absorbed the decade’s ethos. And while the Panthers might have gone dormant, while Richard Nixon might have begotten Ronald Reagan, the radicals won in one very important sense: the counterculture became the culture. The children of the ’60s came to occupy powerful idea-molding institutions, among them journalism, academia, Hollywood, and the Democratic Party. Yet even as they assumed these altitudinous roosts, they never let go of the notion that they were crusading against established power. The establishment somehow remained systemically racist, aligned with the patriarchy, prostrate before billionaires, in need of the flame, even though it was now dominated by those who claimed to oppose such things.

Radicalism was still chic, and radicalism always needs an establishment to detest, no matter how exaggerated or fictional. Yet the temptations of power were also setting in. Having once supported free expression full-throatedly, the left began to enforce its own parameters: hate speech censorship, cancel culture—how easily classical liberalism falls away when one is no longer in the minority and doesn’t need its protections. The Obama administration ushered into government a new generation of progressives, less concerned with trying to topple the system than with using it to achieve their own ideas of justice. The license of the 1960s was giving way to a kind of technocratic paternalism, as the left assumed the cockpit of the managerial state. They were more wonkish now, more composed, more focused on gradualist economics than flash-bang ideas of liberation and freedom.

That wasn’t to say radical chic had died; it still reared up now and again. The most notable example came last summer with the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, as academics and CEOs leapfrogged over each other to express solidarity with the often violent protests that followed. (Though even then the line du jour was that the demonstrations were “mostly peaceful” rather than that the militancy was justified, denial rather than solidarity.) At best, radical chic coexisted uneasily with a left that had abandoned even vicarious participation in fist-raised revolution. The funniest example of this tension came from Vox writer Ezra Klein, who after Floyd’s death wrote a long essay fantasizing about how wonderful it would be to have a totally nonviolent state. This was the same Klein who had spent the past decade cheerleading for Obamacare and its individual mandate, none of which would have worked without the implicit threat of government force.

If the Obama administration had changed the left, the Trump administration shifted it even further via a polarizing effect. Trump railed against the deep state; they embraced it. Trump hated the establishment; was John Brennan really so bad? Even if many on the left supported ostensibly radical goals—the abolition of gender, for example—that thinking was still far more accepted among elite organs than even the most casual Trump support. They didn’t need men in berets stomping all over the living room carpet anymore. Even the Che Guevara shirts had gone out of fashion, replaced by Black Lives Matter tees available on Amazon in black and navy. The left had won, and to defend the society they’d reshaped, they’d become institutionalists, even a little Burkean.

Then came the insurrection at the Capitol, the horrific images of carnage, five people slain including a police officer. It was the kind of scene that, minus a few million stars and stripes, might have exhilarated the 1960s left. The radical Weather Underground had bombed the Capitol five decades earlier, cheered on by the cool kids. Four years before that, in 1967, leftists had touched off a riot at the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War. (Abbie Hoffman, with his usual floridness, declared their intentions this way: “We will dye the Potomac red, burn the cherry trees…girls will run naked and piss on the Pentagon walls, sorcerers swamis, witches, voodoo, warlocks, medicine men and speed freaks will hurl their magic at the faded brown walls.” Calls to mind a certain Viking cosplayer, doesn’t it?)

But our politics had changed since then. Progressives no longer sought to rally the working class against their own country; instead they’d carved up the proletariat along racial and gender lines while holding some of them under suspicion of white supremacy. The change they desired came now from elite institutions, not fantasies of revolution from below. And so they chose correctly. They sided with the man, extolled the Capitol Police, demanded the National Guard be called in. Radical chic suddenly seemed an anachronism, though its hypocrisies still lingered. It was less than a decade ago that Robert Redford made a movie called The Company You Keep, a nostalgic puff piece about the Weather Underground terrorists. It was only five months ago that NPR feted author Vicky Osterweil, who wrote a book called In Defense of Looting.

So maybe radical chic will return on the left, albeit with a fainter pulse, once the fist-raised crowd again aligns with a pre-approved cause. In the meantime, I think what we can say for certain is that radical chic has changed sides. The past four years have seen conservative elites throw open their French doors to those they know only as the deplorables. Prominent Republicans wash down bites of filet mignon with pours of Chivas before giddily relaying their latest plans to take on the establishment. The right, like the left during the ’60s, has splintered into strange and ideologically boutique factions (“I’m a postliberal ultramontane Catholic integralist!”). Each of these sects claims some kind of solidarity with the working class yet each would also be completely inscrutable to anyone who’s ever worn a hardhat. (Try explaining the libertarian/nationalist divide to your average Michigander and he’s likely to throw you out of his house. Try explaining it to your average West Virginian and he’ll probably shoot you.)

In other words, we’re the radical chic ones now. Except unlike those Pentagon rioters, our immediate cause, that of a single presidential ego, is neither just nor true. January 6, as Andrew Bacevich said, was our Altamont moment; the question now is how much more radicalism are we willing to countenance.

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