I have heard people talk about a “post-Christian” world but it would be more appropriate to talk about a post-conservative world. Despite the many problems with the Christian churches, which I have sought to catalogue, the word “Christian” is so ancient and meaningful that it has no “brand” to tarnish. It is not a label, it is a calling. Even as the leftist and rightist church folks bicker, the Christian witness will live on.
I cannot say the same about the term “conservative.” It had a moment of vogue in the second half of the twentieth century. For a while it signified a sober and thoughtful response to the upheavals of the 1960s, particularly in the deconstruction of the American family. But the myriad organizations and commentators, from William F. Buckley to Ben Shapiro, who have banked on their identity as “conservative,” have rendered the term empty.
As I discussed in yesterday’s podcast with Denise McAllister, we know now that the “conservative” movement was a lie for at least thirty years. While Ronald Reagan’s generation spoke of a three-legged stool, uniting anti-Communist capitalism with militarism and Christian values, the triple nature was illusory. It was not a stool but a tool, and it was really only economic.
News from the recent Conservative Political Action Conference confirm what I have suspected since the heyday of Mitt Romney’s swaggering play for the presidency. Michelle Malkin and Ann Coulter were conspicuously de-platformed. Gavin McInnes and Owen Shroyer were kicked out. I already wrote two years ago about the depressing signals coming from CPAC because of Mass Resistance’s being barred from attending at the same time that conservative drag queens, conservative atheists, and a host of libertine libertarians were welcomed with open arms. Friends of mine who managed to remain in the conference this year report that the drag queens and homosexuals have multiplied, ever more shamelessly claiming that sexual morality has nothing to do with this movement, while marijuana advocates, atheists, and juvenile partygoers have seemed to eclipse any presence of social conservatives at all.
Of course because of recent polling results many conservative organizations, including a number of pro-Trump ones, brandish anti-abortion slogans and say they’ve paid their social conservative dues. That they never seem to make much headway in banning abortion does not deter them from capitalizing on news that younger generations are more pro-life than Generation X or the Boomers. Everything with conservative activism is opportunistic vulture-fund behavior. Speculators see wreckage caused by leftism somewhere and swoop in to rake in profits by appealing to the victims of liberal excess. They did this with college students traumatized by the left-wing mafia running higher education. They did this with the ever-present issue of “free speech,” and recruited whoever has been de-platformed or censored or canceled, with little particular regard for censored people who are actually conservative. (I still recall vividly the whirlwind tours that Laura Kipnis took with boosts from conservative activists for her crusade against Title IX, while she stayed on with her tenured post at Northwestern and I went on to lose two academic posts because of left-wing attacks.)
Perhaps no drôle de guerre exemplifies the increasing vacuousness of the conservative label than the eight-year fixation with Christian bakers refusing to make wedding cakes for gay weddings. The photogenic angels (quite helpfully small business owners rather than wage-earners, which renders them Mitt Romney’s “makers” rather than “takers”) made for nearly a decade of photo op gold and endless red meat for readers of Daily Signal, Blaze, and myriad other right-wing magazines. The crusade against lesbian grooms and gay male brides took up untold funds and countless hours of activism, while sexual education, same-sex abuse, the epidemiological disasters of gay sex, and innumerable other causes were left by the wayside.
By the early months of Obama’s second term I became profoundly aware that the conservatives who were fighting against gay marriage had far more in common with the left-wing lawyers pushing gay marriage than they had with the millions of everyday American families affected–quite often, devastated–by rampant homosexuality and its multitude of destructive influences. The conservative movement picks its poster boys and causes célèbres carefully. This movement will complain about Ben Shapiro being protested or banned from an elite college but will rarely take on the tenure system or doubt the academic integrity of Ivy League administrators. This movement will cry foul every time Planned Parenthood gets funded but will never expose or denounce the Republican politicians who make dirty back-channel deals in legislatures and courts to protect Planned Parenthood. The conservative movement does all these things because it is run by people who were roommates of those who run the liberal organizations back in their college days. Conservative leaders are part of a cosmopolitan elite that has many reasons to wish for good standing in the eyes of their liberal peers, and few reasons to fear any backlash from the traditional people in the grassroots over the basic fact that conservative movements rig the game to make money by losing to the left gracefully. Every. Single. Time.
Trump changed all this not because he showed that the conservative movement could respond to the hopes and dreams of everyday Americans; but rather, because Trump showed that “conservatives” served very little purpose and people could push back against elite institutions simply by rallying behind common-sense causes irrespective of phony political labels. In 2016, it dawned on me one day when I found myself kibbitzing with a right-winger who said, “but Trump is not conservative.” I said, “I don’t care if he is or isn’t.” I didn’t care about that. I wanted someone to change things.
The fact that Trump isn’t perfect and hasn’t done many things he promised takes little away from what he changed. He changed the options for people like me who care about social traditions, the dignity of life, and the integrity of families. We had an option other than donating to and glomming on to famous pundits who only tolerated us because we had the populist numbers they needed to complement their libertarian money. We had the option of going our own way and organizing on our own.
Nearly everything that has passed for conservative has really been free-market libertarian. Free-market libertarianism is all about amoral means of amassing capital among ambitious people who find themselves in some fortunate circumstance that requires no assistance from society. These libertarians are the magical creatures who always seem to have money stashed away so they don’t have to worry about going bankrupt without healthcare or getting screwed out of a job by nasty corporate abusers. I used to believe their up-by-the-bootstraps stories about not being born with silver spoons in their mouths. I eventually realized most of them had trust funds or were such exceptional sycophants that they had patronage from some untouchable caudillo of Conservative Inc. The realization came when I saw that nothing they fought for, for which I had contributed my own efforts, could actually protect my family when leftists went after my tenured post in California or my seminary job in Texas. And these libertarians really don’t care about someone like me because they don’t care about people motivated by social traditionalism. They only care about free-market solutions to everything from orphans to organ transplants, with their usual bromides about Ayn Rand and working hard.
The conservative label has lost any value because of a two-word slogan emblazoned on black T-shirts all over Politicon: “Socialism Sucks.” This is really all the conventional conservative movement has to offer. They talk about socialism with the assumption that young people will recoil with horror at the thought of socialism. The assumption’s wrong. Socialism doesn’t scare people who didn’t reach adulthood during the Cold War. Yes, you can tell them about Venezuela, Cuba, or North Korea. But they also see free-market nightmares in places like the Philippines, India, and Mexico.
When you see conservative commentators talk about socialism you see a passion that is absent when they talk about LGBT issues, drag queen story hour, abortion, the American family, or the importance of staying true to Biblical ideals. Where their heart is, there will their treasure follow. The one thing they care about is stopping socialism because it means that the corporate giants who pay their bills will have to pay taxes and possibly cut their funding.
This was the only leg of the stool that really mattered. That’s why you have gay partygoers, marijuana vendors, drag queens, pro-choice atheists, and Tomi Lahren welcomed with open arms at conservative gatherings while CPAC will kick out anyone labeled “anti-gay” by GLAAD or the Human Rights Campaign. If your cause doesn’t affect corporate bottom lines, your cause is always provisional and can be jettisoned at a moment’s notice.
Nothing in socialism appeals to me, but fighting socialism matters less to me than fighting cultural and social issues that point to our character as a nation and as human beings created by our holy Creator. “Socialism sucks” cannot a movement make, especially when the young recruits wearing the T-shirt have so little understanding of what socialism is or why social and cultural values matter.
There is no point now in fighting over what conservative means, who is or isn’t conservative, or who is going to champion conservative values. By itself, it’s become a hollow and callous word. And a post-conservative world won’t be that bad if we are still fighting for tradition, godly values, dignity, and cultural honor.