Memo 04.28.2021 5 minutes

The Struggle for Owned Space

Deadwood, South Dakota

Retake Main Street or prepare to be homeless.

In his review of Bronze Age Mindset, Michael Anton zeroed in on “owned space” as perhaps the key theme of that bizarre book. “Space,” for author Bronze Age Pervert, writes Anton, “is owned when it is mastered or controlled. This can either be accomplished by you—or your herd or pride or clan or tribe or nation—or by others.” 

One need not agree with nor even read Bronze Age Mindset in order to understand the usefulness of the owned space concept in understanding the plight of today’s conservatives. If you don’t have owned space, if you live or build on space owned by others, then you are putting yourself in a highly disadvantageous and vulnerable position, subject to cultural eviction and spiritual homelessness.

The easiest way to illustrate this is to look at businesses and creators on social media sites like YouTube, Instagram, or Twitter. They have no influence over the platforms and don’t even own their relationship with their fans or customers. They add immense value to the platforms but have essentially zero rights and can be kicked off or downgraded in the algorithms at any time. As finance writer Byrne Hobart noted, “if you build a business on someone else’s platform, in the end you’re either doing R&D for features they’ll add or you’re setting yourself up to cede them your margins.” Or to be targeted for virtual elimination if you fall afoul of them politically.

It’s notable how little owned space conservatives have in any domain. This can include physical space as well as social and cultural space. One of the biggest problems faced by conservatives is that they exist almost entirely inside space owned by others—legally owned in many cases, but as importantly socially and culturally owned.

Virtually every major corporation, major education institution, and major cultural and media institution in America embraces and promotes the values and preferred policies of the left. So does essentially every major American city and economic center. The left owns them. There are remarkably few genuinely conservative institutions in America outside of politics and religion (where they are actually many deeply conservative state governments and churches). This means in their basic day to day existence of life in America, whether that be going to work, shopping, reading the news, or watching sports or mass entertainment, conservatives exist largely inside space owned by others—space from which they can be expelled at any time, often with significant negative personal consequences.

The typical conservative response to perceived problems of growing leftist ownership of space is to leave—to move to a red state, a suburb, etc. This establishes a mindset of retreat and running away. Conservatives have ceded not just territory and institutions to the left, but those of highest value, some of which can never be replicated. 

Having failed to defend their old territory, there’s little reason to believe any of these conservatives will successfully defend their new one either. Indeed, we see the suburbs, for example, like the cities before them, now trending left in many cases.

It’s difficult for conservatives to even imagine what seeking to obtain owned space looks like. But there are examples. A great case study of creating owned space, even in the midst of hostile territory, is what the community around Christ Church and its pastor Doug Wilson has been able to build in Moscow, Idaho.  Moscow is Idaho’s State U town, a blue city in a red state, not a compound community in the wilderness.

The defining characteristic of Wilson’s community is that it had from its founding a mentality of advance and not retreat. They are not in Moscow to run away from someplace else. The origin of their community was when Doug’s father Jim picked the area out on map as a location for his ministry sight unseen. He chose it because it satisfied the military doctrine of the “strategic point” he had learned in the Navy. A strategic point is one that is both important and feasible. Moscow and nearby Pullman, Washington are home to two major universities, which made them important. The area was small enough to make it feasible to influence.

The Wilsons attracted a large number of like-minded people via Doug’s polarizing blog. They were not content to exist in physical and cultural space owned by others. They built their own institutions. Doug Wilson was an inventor of classical Christian education with the Logos School he helped to found. The community also created a liberal arts college called New St. Andrews, a training program for pastors, and a media company called Canon Press.

But beyond building parallel institutions, which many conservatives have done, they did several other strategically smart things. They focused on business entrepreneurship, which built community wealth and provided jobs in a friendly environment for community members. That wealth enabled the church and people associated with it (not necessarily operating according to a central plan) to acquire a significant amount of strategic real estate on Moscow’s Main Street and in the core of downtown. This real estate is home to many businesses owned by church community members, including a number of top-quality retail businesses like a coffee shop and restaurants that are better than those owned by the college-associated crowd.

This means they can’t be physically evicted from their spaces, because they own them. And if progressive business owners decided to ban them from their shops and such, the church community already has their own, often better alternatives.

The Christ Church community thus has physical ownership of space and economic and social ownership of their own businesses. This allows them to exert a powerful cultural presence in the town because they have the community confidence to exercise it. They may be a minority. They may not be liked. But they are there, they are visible, they bring a lot of attention to Moscow of the type many locals might not prefer—and they are very difficult to get rid of or intimidate (though the local police and prosecutors are doing their best).

A handful of other religious communities have accomplished similar things. The Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area, just north of Moscow, has become home to a large number of traditionalist Catholics who joined the pre-existing conservative community there. A group of people associated with the Catholic SSPX movement have taken over the small town of St. Mary’s, Kansas.

These examples are all too rare. It’s much more common to see the reverse. Gentrification is the colonization of new territory by upscale urban progressives, often in neighborhoods that were once home to the parents or grandparents of people now voting Republican from some distant suburb or Sunbelt state. Or go visit any small Midwestern town that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The old downtown and historic housing have likely fallen into decay, and to the extent that people are rehabbing grand old homes or opening a coffee shop or bookstore on the Main Street, it’s very often people on the left doing it.

The failure of conservatives to fight to maintain the historic fabric and locally owned businesses of their own neighborhoods or hometowns has let most of what they or their forebears built decay into ruins or be captured by people who don’t share their values. This is a conservatism that’s never conserved anything.  This isn’t just a matter of feckless politicians or bad leadership. It also reflects the mentality of the average American conservative, which is one of abandonment or retreat rather than a sense of ownership of space.

If conservatives are to have any future, they have to change their mindset and start staking a claim and fighting for owned space—physical, social, cultural. Maybe not everywhere, but at least somewhere. The Moscow community provides a template for others to adopt: be a culturally confident community, have a mentality of ownership, focus on wealth-generating entrepreneurship, buy real estate in the commercial and residential center, create top quality consumer-oriented businesses, and reform or create key institutions like schools and churches. This is package that benefits not just a subgroup but the community at large, too.

There are many basically conservative historic but struggling towns within easy driving distance of a major city all over this country where a strategy like this could be started. If not there, it has to be somewhere. Because unless they start taking ownership of space seriously, it’s only a matter of time until there’s nowhere left for conservatives to run.

This article was adapted from The Importance of Owned Space.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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