Salvo 05.05.2022 6 minutes

The Dunk is Not Enough

Overhead view of high school basketball player leaping for a slam dunk

Conservative journalists must seize the Elon moment to win.

Through the well-known transitive property of online trolley, Elon Musk—space cowboy, environmentalist, and brain hacker—is being hailed by conservatives throughout the land as the eternal owner of the libs, sailing in as a messianic savior to rescue the digital public square from Leftist domination.

But this is not the dawning of the digital Age of Aquarius. The response to Musk’s $44 billion purchase shows that free speech, like every other supposed “norm” of our society, is not a shared common principle. Instead, it’s an object lesson in how deep our divisions go.

On the Left, commentators and journalists alike decried the notion that a single billionaire would control one method of communication with impunity. This horror was often expressed in articles published by the Washington Post, then posted to Facebook—an irony that was lost on their authors. One particularly unaware critic raised a worst-case hypothetical scenario: that single-handed control of our online public square could lead to certain groups being censored. Just imagine

On the other hand, conservatives were generally delighted. But why? Musk—by his own admission—is not a conservative. So why has Elon Musk been positioned as the overnight conservative darling? Well, some are excited about Musk for good reasons, others for bad. 

The good reasons go something like this: conservatives like Musk, even though he’s not himself a conservative, because what they want is not to replace liberal bias with conservative bias, but to foster a genuinely open public square. Since Musk shares this value, he’s on “our side” in a deeper, structural sense.

But then others just want to watch the liberal tears flow. These conservatives like Musk almost purely because he makes the other guys mad. And true enough, it can be fun to watch the enemies of free speech “cope and seethe.” But it would be enormously short-sighted to stop there. Because though we may not realize it, “dunking” is what you do when you’re losing, not winning. 

We’ve been underdogs in the media game so long that we think all we can do is fire off zingers at the other side—we think that’s victory. But it’s really just a consolation prize. Unless we set our sights higher, we’re not really winning.

This attitude has become endemic in conservative journalism: we’ve given up all hope of real success, so now we just want the short-term gratification of “owning” the other side. Our goal is not to present good ideas, but to “slam” bad ideas. Not to convince others to join our ranks, but to “walk away” from the ranks of our opponents.

It’s fairly simple to understand how we found ourselves in this situation. The Left does dominate every institution in American life—albeit partly due to our own lack of foresight and unwillingness to fight. Media, education, finance, tech, medicine: all are dominated by cathedral functionaries who ensure that—regardless of whether there is a Republican or a Democrat sitting in the White House—each one of these institutions is sliding leftward.

This cultural and bureaucratic dominance means that conservatives are routinely the underdog in many cultural battles. And what’s the one good thing about being an underdog? No one really expects you to win. Simply putting up a good fight is often seen as enough. This breeds a complete lack of desire and ambition. Why bother trying to win when you can make such a good living as a perpetual underdog?

This unfortunate attitude is so ubiquitous we almost take it for granted. It’s the default stance of many conservative politicians and—more disturbingly—of many in conservative media. It’s a comfortable position because it keeps us grading ourselves on a curve: for underdogs, we’re doing great. But all the while, we’re stuck in a profitable cycle that offers no incentive to ever really win. 

So we redefine “winning” to mean “owning the libs” for clicks. This form of victory requires conservative media to be entirely reactive, voyeuristically sitting on the sidelines and simply responding to the world the Left continues to control. But that is a position that depends on losing—a sort of domesticated opposition that takes Leftism’s ideological supremacy as a premise of its business model.

To break this cycle, conservatives have to start offering real substance, beyond reactive, viral tweets. In this respect, Elon Musk’s embrace of free speech on Twitter can be a potential catalyst for change. Yes, content engagement is an important factor in building the platform required to provide objective reporting. But engagement alone cannot be the goal if we want to spread conservatism beyond our ideological borders. When “owning the libs” is the metric of success, the pre-existing conservative market is large enough to turn a significant profit. 

The answer is not to give up our conservative principles altogether, or to stop presenting the news from a point of view. All journalists must choose what to report and what not to report, and part of conservatives’ critique is that certain stories are suppressed and ignored by virtually every legacy outlet (witness the speed with which the Waukesha massacre disappeared from the news after it was revealed as an anti-white hate crime).

So conservative journalism doesn’t mean abandoning conservative convictions. But in this, we have one unbeatable advantage over the Left: the facts are on our side. As the absurdity of the Left’s falsehoods become more apparent, the security of the Right’s core truths remains as steady as ever. Progressivism, by definition, must involve constant progress. So each new victory requires more arcane and fantastical claims. For the Left, after a while, the absurdity is the point.

And herein lies the ultimate opportunity for conservative media to step out from the comforting and profitable cycle of simply “owning the libs.” As the ideological extremism of progressivism grows, factual reporting alone can bear monumental political fruit. Consider last year’s exposé of Loudoun County’s alleged cover-up of a sexual assault in a Virginia school. This didn’t rely on grandstanding or witty takedowns. It relied on focused reporting which simply put what was happening in front of the people’s eyes. Not only did that story uncover the true dangers of gender theory in public education, it also swung an election. Honest reporting by conservative journalists brought conservative and moderate parents under one banner, and achieved a true victory.

This story alone should light a fire under the seats of conservative media outlets across the country. The conservative bias is just a bias toward objectivity, insofar as it is possible. Yes we have a point of view. Yes we want to tell certain stories—stories our opponents try to hide. But whereas the Left’s fantasies are based on keeping the facts hidden, all we need to win is to bring the truth into the light. 

Objective truth itself is built into the genetic makeup of conservatism: it’s part of what we value, and what the new Left increasingly denies. When we settle for owning the libs from the sidelines, we do ourselves and our movement a damaging disservice. Get off the sidelines, and tell the truth: that’s how we win.

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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