by Matthew Boose
As America enters a new decade, a political realignment is happening. The Left, traditionally the party of the working class, now represents urban, liberal elites more interested in the latest permissive fashions than they are in what they see as the parochial concerns of their less affluent countrymen. In reaction, conservatism has aligned to an increasing degree with the working class.
Is this a lasting shift or a final gasp of dissent from liberalism? Only time will tell, but for the country’s sake let’s hope for the former. In spite of Donald Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again,” American conservatism today is not worth taking seriously. MAGA may have served as a kind of national awakening, but a host of conservative nonprofits, think tanks, pundits, and news outlets comprising “Conservatism Inc.” have worked tirelessly to restore the pre-2016 status quo.
For obvious and compelling reasons, American conservatives have begun to reject the elite “consensus” of Conservatism, Inc. Reason number one: it hasn’t done much actually to conserve anything.
Americans have seen millions of jobs leave the country and entire communities change or die out in mere decades. While wealth has trickled up to a tiny minority, common life has become more precarious for the average person.
Birth rates are way down, and basic milestones from getting an education to starting a family are increasingly unaffordable for young people. This is not exactly the portrait of a thriving nation. Yet the people in charge keep fiddling with the knobs while insisting that everything is fine. The system, they assure us, is working as intended.
But the voters never chose any of this stuff.
Many Americans have begun reacting to the excesses of leftism, and the negligence of official conservatism to stop it, by electing flagrantly offensive populists. These new conservatives have more in common with Teddy Roosevelt and Benjamin Disraeli than with Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher. To the “forgotten” conservatives, decades of “fiscal conservatism” haven’t made their lives any better, and the establishment’s inability or unwillingness to confront social liberalism have made them strangers in their own country.
Dissent as a Commodity
This is a problem for the institutions that comprise Conservatism Inc., which is less a movement than a corporate enterprise. To prevent change, Conservatism Inc. has attempted, with some success, to capture the rebellious energy of the Trump movement and turn dissent into a product. Indeed, like the activist Left, Conservatism Inc. sells a commodity: outrage, not virtue—the feeling of winning without anything to show for it.
Rather than encouraging dissent, Conservatism Inc. merely keeps the status quo intact while making rebellion into a spectacle.
This spectacle follows a now familiar pattern. In 2015-2016, it became popular for conservative figures to make fun of “sensitive” liberals by confronting them on college campuses. The act of “triggering the snowflakes” to expose their “irrational” and emotional drives soon became a humiliation ritual. Then it became a commodity. Conservative figures who opposed Donald Trump in 2016, such as Ben Shapiro and others, made triggering snowflakes and “owning the libs” part of their brand. Some did this while embracing Trump in name, even as they remained hostile to the Trump movement and what it stood for.
Some anti-Trump “conservatives” openly oppose Trump and his supporters, but others read the temperature of the nation and figured that the best course of action was to join Trump’s side while doing everything possible to water down the MAGA movement until it was just a reflection of the status quo. These conservatives jumped on the Trump Train for the same reason they treat political confrontation like a circus act: they saw a career opportunity.
In three years, they have largely reduced the dissident energy of the Trump moment into an embarrassing and unappealing corporate spectacle.
Groups such as Turning Point USA think that using memes to defeat the Left constitutes political action, which goes to show how serious they are about fighting the culture war. Rather than addressing the problems that young Americans face, they try to appeal to them by aping an idea of what Millennials and Gen Z are into—hip hop music, “meme culture,” and so on. The result is anything but cool.
If someone can explain what this nightmarish display has to do with conservatism (not safe for work, or your soul,) I would love to know.
A Political Dog and Pony Show
In a sense, Conservatism Inc. needs the Left the way a “baby face” needs a heel (the bad guy) in professional wrestling. Without the leftist enemy to humiliate and “trigger,” Conservatism Inc. wouldn’t have any commodity to sell. In this way the Left serves an important and essential theatrical purpose. Confronting the Left with essentially harmless “memes” and ritualistic “debates” consisting of trite talking points is essential to the spectacle, however inept it might be politically.
It’s all a show, but there’s also a deeper kinship in play.
Like a trust at work to squash enterprising new competitors, Conservatism Inc. is more hostile to challengers on the Right than actual leftists, with whom they have formed a silent compact to keep the status quo—that is, rampant progressive experimentation married to corporatism—intact. They are more concerned with keeping free markets loosely regulated than with preserving morals and protecting the family from the forces that besiege it, whether it’s new forms of social perversion or vulture capitalists and pharmaceutical companies.
They share values in common with the Left, the way two professional wrestlers, ostensibly enemies on the stage, work toward the same end. This is why when it matters, Conservatism, Inc. will denounce fellow conservatives with controversial viewpoints as racists and bigots, rather than talking to them earnestly about their concerns. The punchline is that they do this while styling themselves brave and beleaguered champions of free speech.
Conservatism, Inc. doesn’t engage with people who fall outside the “script,” which has a pretty obvious formula: trigger leftists, call them “snowflakes,” claim victory. and move on. There’s less entertainment value—not to mention there are dangers of being exposed as fraudulent—in engaging with conservatives who challenge what they’re selling.
So they’ll talk to leftists who support late-term abortion but smear conservatives who are concerned about demographic change. They’re more concerned with maintaining the reputation of being “respectable” conservatives—that is harmless pundits who follow the terms of discourse set by the Left—than with actually conserving the nation.
The Dated Ideology of Conservatism, Inc.
Cringey spectacles of “dissent,” not surprisingly, have failed to turn young people away from socialism.
A recent poll found that 36 percent of Millennials now approve of Communism. When confronted with this kind of information, Conservatism, Inc. has little recourse but to blame young people with diminishing economic prospects for their sense of “entitlement.” Haven’t they heard of Holodomor? Are they not aware that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wants to steal their hamburgers?
Conservatism, Inc. is preoccupied with the concerns and priorities of a previous era. Young people are not moved by Cold War anxieties about international Communism. The threat of socialism appears to them less a concern than the very real material precariousness in which they now live. Gen Z is facing the real prospect of growing up to be poorer than their parents, and for Millennials and the often ignored Generation X, this already is reality. Housing, health care, and education have become prohibitively expensive, millions of good jobs have already left the country and laborers across the skill spectrum face global competition from visa holders and outsourced labor. This doesn’t account for the assault on their culture and communities by Leftists hellbent on reconstituting the nation.
Conservatism, Inc. has no response to the problems America now faces because it’s not trying to solve them. It’s an enterprise, not a political movement, and it uses fig leaves of dated ideology to cover up an underlying emptiness.
Conservatives can agree that Ronald Reagan was a good president for defeating the Soviets (maybe not so much for the amnesty). Back in the Cold War, dogmatic free market capitalism, foreign interventionism, and “rugged individualism” made some sense because socialism really was America’s enemy.
But times change. Conservatism, Inc. is still hung up (almost exclusively) on the threat of socialism while Americans have grown more concerned with mass immigration, rapid cultural shifts, and vanishing economic opportunity. The irony is that Conservatism, Inc., in refusing to take these concerns more seriously, is making socialism more appealing to young people.
The truth that socialism is bad does not excuse conservatives from having to come up with a plan for America’s future. The alternative to socialism still has to be appealing—it can’t just be “not socialism.”
The conservatism of Conservatism, Inc. doesn’t reflect where most Americans really are. The “movement” remains fervently libertarian—fiscally conservative and socially liberal—while conservatives increasingly reflect the mirror image, economically liberal and socially conservative. This gap will surely continue to grow. Admonishing people for feeling like their lives have gotten worse can only work for so long.
Then again, Conservatism, Inc. is powerful. Conservatism is in flux, but power remains firmly on the side of the status quo ante Trump. In its current state, conservatism remains a joke—a corporate spectacle that is unequipped and unwilling to respond to the threats to America’s continued existence.
The Left isn’t losing any sleep because conservatives know about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s secret plot to end meat consumption and commercial air travel. If anything, it tells them that conservatives aren’t serious. They wouldn’t be wrong in this opinion. Conservatives should be concerned by that.
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Matthew Boose is a Mt. Vernon fellow of the Center for American Greatness and a staff writer and weekly columnist at the Conservative Institute. His writing has also appeared in the Daily Caller. Follow him on Twitter @matt_boose.
Photo “Ben Shapiro” by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0.