conservatives are wrong about everything, except predicting their own place in the culture
Social conservatism (that is, the conservative attitudes regarding the family, romance and sex, and adherence to conformity with the community) is wrong on just about everything, from my perspective. It’s also, thankfully, been in full-out retreat for several decades. I am glad about this because I reject the moral and political arguments of social conservatism. But there’s one thing social cons get right: they are correct when they predict the consequences of the next social change. The thing is those consequences are usually good or, at least, not bad in the way they think. But their predictions, as predictions? Usually correct.
Social cons said that no-fault divorce would read to vastly higher divorce rates, and it did. Social cons said that ending the norm of the two-parent family would lead to more single-parent households, and they were correct. Social cons said that widespread access to birth control would lead to sexual licentiousness, and they were right. Social cons said that legalized abortion would decouple sex from procreation, and that happened. Social cons said that decriminalization of gay sex would lead to social acceptance of gay people, and so it was. Social cons said that social acceptance of gay people would lead to gay marriage, and that was true. Social cons said that efforts to end stigma against trans people would lead to a general rejection of the gender binary, and so it has.
Again, these are mostly all good consequences, which is the difference between me and them. I mean divorce isn’t good, obviously, but a higher divorce rate isn’t something that we should be working to prevent with public policy. Decline of the two parent household isn’t good, but it also isn’t something we should fight by keeping people in bad marriages. The rest of the stuff? Good. Sex without fear of procreation is good. Troubling the gender binary is good. Abortion on demand and without apology is good (and the success the pro-life movement is bad). On substance, we’re right, they’re wrong. But still: as far as making predictions that turn out to be correct goes, social conservatives have done a better job than progressives. This isn’t universal. (Sorry, Rick Santorum, your man-on-dog fantasies have not come true.) But it happens with enough regularity to be notable.
(Some of this is generational. Young progressives have no idea how common it was for liberals, up until the late 1990s, to say shit like “I am as pro-gay as anyone, but of course we’re not asking for gay marriage.” Demanding gay marriage was seen as the kind of thing that would result in a backlash and was thus strategically impermissible. It was the era of High Clintonism. Now all those people pretend they were always on board.)
Now I look around and, again, predictions that conservatives have made for years seem to be coming true. The media’s almost universal disdain for Donald Trump is the most obvious part of this. I’ve been denying the idea of a liberal media for my entire adult life, and the media is still not left-wing in any sense. But how can anyone look out there and deny broad antipathy to Trump and his administration and policies in our news media? I mean… come on, you guys. Clearly, old school newspapers and magazines are opposed to Trump and his voters. Clearly, the average journalist is deeply antagonitsic to Trump. Again, on balance I think that’s a good thing. I am not a fan of the View From Nowhere. But it’s a thing that’s happening that liberals have insisted for decades would never happen.
And so too with campus, which is my world, where I grew up and now live and where I intend to stay until I die. For years and years I have denied the idea that campus is a space that’s antagonistic to conservative students. I thought Michael Berube’s book What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? was the last word on the subject. I still reject a lot of the David Horowitz narrative. But as a member of the higher education community I just have to be real with you: the vibe on campus really has changed. I spent years teaching at a university in a conservative state recently and I was kind of shocked at how openly fellow instructors would complain about the politics of their students, how personal they go when condemning their students who espoused conventional Republican politics. I encounter professors all the time who think that it’s fine for a student to say “I’m With Her” in class but not for a student to say “Make America Great Again” — that’s hate speech, see — despite the fact that both are simply the recent campaign slogans of the two major political parties. Yet those profs recoil at the idea that they’re not accepting of conservative students.
I hear people say that they won’t permit arguments against affirmative action in their classes — hate speech, again — despite the fact that depending on how the question is asked, a majority of Americans oppose race-based affirmative action in polling, including in some polls a majority of Hispanic Americans. The number of boilerplate conservative opinions that are taken to be too offensive to be voiced in the campus space just grows and grows, and yet progressive profs I know are so offended by the idea that they could be creating a hostile atmosphere, they won’t even discuss the subject in good faith.
And while I think conservative students can mostly get by fine on the average campus, I really can’t imagine going through life as a conservative professor, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. Is that a problem? That depends on your point of view. But if it’s happening, shouldn’t we talk about the fact that it’s happening?
Ann Coulter, I’m told, not only should be barred from campus, it is so stunningly obvious that she should be barred that no one feels compelled to tell me what the rules are about who should be banned and who shouldn’t be. “Ann Coulter is not here to actually exchange ideas!” But then some would say the same about Michael Moore, and the idea that he would be disinvited from campus is unthinkable. They say Ann Coulter is a fringe figure. But surely Condoleeza Rice, as odious as she is, is the definition of a mainstream figure, and she faced her own disinvitation campaign. What are the rules? Who can say what on campus? I have no idea, and when I ask, people act as though it’s offensive that I’ve asked — I am supposed to intuit the rules, and a failure to do so shows that I too am offensive.
When I say “there are some legitimate free speech concerns on campus,” people immediately say “you’re saying professors should be able to shout racial slurs at students in class?!?,” leaping immediately to such absurd hypotheticals that there’s no ability to discuss the actual tough cases. (Another thing we’re antagonistic towards these days: the idea of hard political questions.) The very idea that there should be conservative representation in the New York Times op/ed space has been roundly mocked. The idea that we need any intellectual diversity at all invites immediate incredulous statements like, “you’re saying we should debate eugenics?!?,” as though the only positions that exist are the obviously correct and the obviously horrible. The idea that you’re supposed to read the publications of the antagonistic viewpoint has been dismissed as a relic. People call for conservative books to be pulled from library shelves; they insist that the plays of conservative David Mamet have no place in the contemporary theater; they call for the resignation of some video game exec dude because he donates to Donald Trump. These are all the sorts of things that for years we said we weren’t doing, and now we’re doing them.
Conservatives have been arguing for years that liberals essentially want to write them out of shared cultural and intellectual spaces altogether. I’ve always said that’s horseshit. But I’m trying to be real with you and take an honest look at what’s happening in the few spaces that progressive people control. In the halls of actual power, meanwhile, conservatives have achieved incredible electoral victories, running up the score against the progressives who in turn take out their frustrations in cultural and intellectual spaces. This is not a dynamic that will end well for us.
Of course by affirming this version of events from conservatives, I am opening myself to the regular claim that I am a conservative. Which is incorrect; I have never been further left in my life than I am today. But you can understand it if you understand the contemporary progressive tendency to treat politics as a matter of which social or cultural group you associate with rather than as a set of shared principles and a commitment to enacting them by appealing to the enlightened best interest of the unconverted. That dynamic may, I’m afraid, also explain why progressives risk taking even firmer control of campus and media and Hollywood and losing everything else.