The minor prophets of conservatism may be past their sell-by date.
The Flight 93 Election Crashed
The Right has yet to Re-Form the Culture.
Republicans have controlled the presidency for 32 out of the last 52 years, a time during which they have appointed 15 of 19 Supreme Court justices. In the last 25 years, they have controlled the Senate for about 15 of them, and the House for 20. For a party to be so remarkably successful politically while losing on practically every issue requires a deep rethinking of where things have gone wrong.
Conservatives for two generations now have worried that immigration was turning the country more liberal. Yet even while it has continued, the massive leftward shift of college educated white women has emerged as much more electorally significant in the short term. In 2016, President Trump won the election and had both houses of Congress, yet his only legislative accomplishment of note before losing the House was tax cuts.
Many Trump supporters were motivated by his taking on political correctness and the collection of myths about identity-related issues that distorts practically every political debate. Yet social media censoriousness continues unabated, so much so that the sense of urgency to actually deal with the issue has faded away. And now banks have gotten into the act too, recently cutting ties with companies that support ICE in its mission to detain illegal migrants, and even with individuals who violate PC orthodoxy. This level of oppression would have been unthinkable in the McCarthy era, and yet the best we can hope for in any particular case of censorship from our “Flight 93 President” is an ineffective tweet.
Trump may squeak by another electoral college victory in 2020. Yet even if he does, there is little actual hope that he will fundamentally change the trajectory of the country. Conservatives thought that they might take their nation back in 2016; that hope is now gone. Electing more Republicans means at best getting a few-years-long reprieve until the next time Democrats control Washington. At which point we will see universal healthcare, the release of violent criminals, open borders, the stamping out of religious liberty, and a government that sees its citizens less as the American founders did, and more as communist leaders who divided the population into classes of oppressors and oppressed for purposes of implementing policy.
In other words, in the Flight 93 election, the passengers seized control of the plane and it crashed anyway. Why are things so hopeless? If the mistakes of the past are not to be repeated, we need a clear-eyed understanding of the American conservative movement of the last several decades.
Why Conservatism Failed
I am a social scientist by training and have never been involved in electoral politics. Yet when I look at the American conservative movement, what I am struck most by is what an oddity it is from a historical perspective. Practically every significant movement—whether ancient or modern, religious or secular, totalitarian or liberal—knew that to succeed in the long run it needed to gain control of the institutions that manufacture public opinion. Yet from this perspective the American right has not simply failed in its efforts to build a more conservative society; it has not even tried.
There is nothing mysterious about its lack of long-term success. It was predetermined given the ideological commitments and priorities of movement leaders. One does not need to read ancient or modern philosophy or social science to understand what practically all political theorists throughout history have agreed on: most people do not have the time, motivation or inclination to think deeply about political and social issues. They will take the opinions that have been prepared for them by higher status individuals and institutions. If these opinion shapers are liberal, the public will be liberal, and this includes intelligent people naturally inclined to live in accordance with moral ideals.
Gramsci famously promised that society would change through his “long march through the institutions.” But we’re conservatives, you say? “We believe in freedom!” Aquinas worried in his Summa Theologica (Book 2, Part 2, Question 64) about men who through their ideas were “dangerous and infectious to the community” and therefore needed to be stopped. Are you an American constitutionalist? John Adams declared in his 1798 letter to the Massachusetts militia that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The implication is that, should the morals and religious character of the people degrade, it would be a crisis for American democracy.
The Levers of Power: Media and Education
There are two major cultural institutions which have generally been used to shape public opinion: the education system, and the media. In America, both have been wholly dominated by the Left.
Public education never was, and can never be, a neutral space. Indeed, it was largely created for state propaganda purposes. A desire to install nationalism in the “undifferentiated masses” upon defeat by Napoleon was what motivated the leadership of Prussia in the nineteenth century to expand the system of compulsory education started by Frederick the Great. European rivals came to realize that they needed to similarly prioritize indoctrinating their populations in order to mobilize effective mass armies. Since that time, no regime, whether democratic or authoritarian, has neglected to at least try to pass on the ideology that it believes in and that justifies its existence. The fact that neither modern Republican presidents nor officials at the state level have reformed the education system—the fact that they have barely even tried—is a clear sign of the movement’s failure.
Besides education, the media is the other dominant force in the hands of the Left. Readers of The American Mind will not need examples of media bias, and statistics on the matter are likely superfluous. Nonetheless, the effect of the media is such that many political scientists basically see public opinion as little more than a fabrication by media elites, a view that is so well established that it has been called the Almond-Lippman consensus.
While rising partisanship and the availability of conservative options have led scholars to temper this view a bit—those inclined to dislike the media for whatever reason can now easily find alternative sources—as a first sketch and for a substantial portion of the population this view still generally holds. Zach Goldberg, the young scholar who documented the “Great Awokening,” finds an almost perfect correlation over time between discussion of racial issues in the New York Times and Democratic attitudes towards race.
Social science confirms what practically every political leader and thinker in history who is not an Anglo-American conservative has known. On moral, cultural, and spiritual issues, the masses will follow those with disproportionate status and control. The question of why conservatives lose thus becomes a very simple one. Liberals have the megaphone and conservatives do not. An intelligent conservative movement that hopes not to repeat the mistakes of the past needs to start from that premise.
Modern Conservative Mythology
Neglecting the importance of cultural influence can lead to an almost comical misunderstanding of what it takes to achieve political victory. An example of this can be seen in part of a recent exchange between Candace Owens and Steven Bannon. According to Bannon, “once the millennial generation gets a taste of true capitalism and sees the benefits in their own lives, they’re not going to sit there, and have 56% of you say I choose socialism.” Thus, politics can improve people’s material circumstance, and once you do that, they support you.
In political science, this is called the “self-interested voter” hypothesis. It is generally considered a myth. This makes sense from a purely rationalist perspective: one vote will never change the outcome of an election, so people have no incentive to think very deeply about public policy and instead choose based on emotional and psychological factors. Bannon is like the conservatives who are scratching their heads and wondering why blacks continue to vote Democrat given the state of the inner city. Kim Jong Il, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein all produced true believers through propaganda despite immiserating their populations. Liberalism is not so self-evidently false that it can’t do the same.
We can see the disconnect between objective material interests and public opinion throughout American politics. Southern states, led by Texas, have been booming economically thanks to their adoption of free market policies. Yet in the last few elections, states like Arizona, Georgia, and Texas itself have gone from safely red to perhaps red-tinged purple. Everyone understands that it is a matter of time before they are toss-ups, and there seems to be very little stopping them from turning blue. One would think economic success would lead to more conservative populations, yet that has not happened. Immigration tells part of the story, but it far from all of it. Booming economies attract not only immigrants, but educated professionals, the kinds of people most likely to have gone to be college and be plugged into elite media discourse, and this shift can sometimes be of greater short-term consequence than changes in ethnic composition.
In ¡Adios, America! (2015), Ann Coulter famously claimed that immigration was the only issue, because if demographics change enough then there is no hope of accomplishing any other conservative goal. In 2018 the Trump administration did in fact reduce net migration by 70 percent over the year before. If this is maintained, and Trump gets another term, this may well make the country marginally more conservative over the coming generations. Yet the main story of public opinion over the last five years has been the radical shift among white liberals toward positions on race, sexuality, and gender that most conservatives once believed would forever remain isolated to a few crazy people on college campuses. This can be attributed to greater censorship and consolidation of media voices, facilitated by big tech censorship and woke capital responding to Democratic interest groups; far left ideas trickling down from colleges to high schools and even earlier; and a media that itself has become more radical in recent years.
We are marching towards a more violent and divided version of Germany or Sweden.
Beyond Frenchism: The Megaphone Assimilates
If conservatives are to make lasting gains, they must think strategically about how to assert influence in public education and the new media. This is not easy, and success is far from guaranteed even with the best strategy. Yet a continuing, endless shift to the left is guaranteed if Republicans run on nothing but economic issues and foreign policy into the foreseeable future. Economic determinism on these things, whether in support of libertarian or more statist policies, is a mistake. We need serious thought regarding how to go about changing the media and universities.
What is called David Frenchism is guaranteed to lose. Yet the critics of French reveal how far they have to go to present an alternative. When French asked Sohrab Ahmari what he would do to stop drag queen story hour, he replied that he would call for congressional hearings to “make the head of the Modern Library Association or whatever sweat.”
If such a trick were tried, before long the press would manufacture a new conventional wisdom about what drag-obsessed weirdos Republican politicians are, and how trans lives are now in danger thanks to GOP hate. Once parents are bringing their children to drag time story hour, the battle has already been lost. And don’t kid yourself waiting for the mysterious, forever-delayed “backlash” that conservatives have been counting on for decades as the country has continually moved left.
While conservatives are losers when it comes to how culture and policy have moved with regards to issues such as the family, economics, sexuality, race, free speech, and gender, they have had a few isolated policy successes. The two issues that the country has actually moved right on are guns and (possibly) abortion. This is thanks to narrowly focused interest groups that prioritize their cause above all else. They have been somewhat successful despite unremitting media hostility, though even in the case of abortion judges continue to nullify most of the accomplishments of the pro-life movement.
The lesson here is that having a narrow focus is important, and conservatives should look for the policy area in which they can have the biggest impact. If the best you can hope for is victory along some very narrow lines, what if you can find a lever that, once pulled, affects every other issue? This was Ann Coulter’s argument regarding immigration, and led her to become one of Trump’s earliest boosters.
Yet immigrants vote Democrat for the same reason that educated white women do: the media and education system. Some conservatives talk about “balkanization” as a major threat to the country. But that phrase refers to circumstances in which there are multiple tribes competing with one another. The identity politics coalition on the left gets along pretty well and focuses its ire squarely on one enemy. Ilhan Omar writes a letter to a weightlifting federation calling on them to allow trans athletes to participate (so much for “Islamization!”), while Julian Castro worries about trans women getting abortions. These politicians may dress differently and be of various skin tones, but on all substantive political questions they are practically indistinguishable from one another or white people in their own party.
Contrary to the claims of many conservatives, the American regime’s capacity to assimilate immigrants is absolutely awe-inspiring. Our system takes the sons and daughters of Somali refugees, Mexican day laborers, Chinese oligarchs hiding their wealth, and Ethiopian store owners and, upon the completion of a college education, has them all spouting the exact same talking points and adopting identical political views. Even more impressive, some of these views, such as sympathy for criminals and the interchangeability of the sexes, have no basis in any of the cultures from which these children of immigrants came. This indicates that the problem is not the lack of assimilation; it is assimilation into the wrong values. The optimistic story here is that if a different group of people had the megaphone, the results would change.
Unquestionably, there is no shortage of books, essays, and grift paying the bills by complaining about universities and the American media. Yet you will find little in the way of concrete proposals on how to change our current situation. A media and education system that better represents conservative views is not simply a nice luxury to have, one of a countless number of things we might wish for. Rather, it is a basic requirement for any kind of political victory, and needs to be prioritized as such. A full discussion of what this means can be taken up in a later essay, but a few points of note will be put forward here.
First, online speech is an existential issue, and needs to be treated as such. Before 2016, social media had the effect of democratizing the conversation. But because liberals, unlike conservatives, actually think about and intuitively understand power, they reorganized swiftly to put an end to the old free internet after the election. All tech investigations pertaining to other issues, such as allegedly anti-competitive behavior and privacy violations on the part of these companies, should have as their end goal consent agreements that take us back to the free internet of earlier in the decade.
Selling data is the entire business model of these companies, and, for conservatives, the paramount issue is censorship. A grand bargain should be relatively easy to strike. You don’t censor us, and we protect you from Elizabeth Warren. If anger over this issue morphs into simple hatred towards Facebook and Twitter and a desire to destroy them, we will gain very little. Small tech companies can censor just as easy as large ones; in fact they can probably do so with less oversight. Hurting these institutions should not be a goal in and of itself.
On education, conservative wonks have many of the right ideas. But, once again, prioritization is key. For example, a few years ago the state of Arizona banned ethnic studies in its classrooms, which the 9th Circuit declared unconstitutional. This was barely mentioned in the conservative media, yet the law in question should have served as a template for other state legislators. Vouchers and other attempts to take money away from the public education system and put it into the hands of parents should be wholeheartedly supported, even if they are championed by the kinds of libertarian wonks disliked by many Trumpists.
Finally, attempts to reform the mainstream media might run into First Amendment problems, but this cannot be an excuse not to act. When the Constitution poses difficulties for the left, they develop new theories of interpretation that tell them they’re actually allowed to do what they wanted after all. How we design laws and institutions that reform the media is a topic that needs to at least be thought about as an issue that is of vital importance for conservative ideas to have any chance of being implemented. Going back to a free internet can help here, as traditional media sources can lose market share to new content creators.
From the perspective of social science, the issue with non-interventionist, culturally acquiescent conservatism is not that it is right or wrong on moral or “legal” grounds. The problem is that it is wrong as a scientific and empirical matter. Cede the megaphone to your enemies, and you will lose.
Yet critics of the conservative approach have been too abstract and unfocused in terms of what they want. If there is any hope for moving society to the right, it is going to involve winning over more intelligent people to our worldview, and one does that by controlling institutions that create and shape public opinion. Reasonable minds can disagree about the best ways to go about doing so. But as long as that power rests wholly with the left, conservatives should see themselves as having only one job. That is, if you have any desire for a movement that can deliver something besides tax cuts and war.