Conservatives Will Never Get the Respect They Crave. They Don’t Deserve It.

Despite holding nearly every lever of power in America, conservatives are still very upset that no one likes them:

With his victory, Republicans held more power than they have had in nearly a century. Conservatives had control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House, and held a majority of the country’s governorships. Conservatives also now have a majority on the Supreme Court, in no small part because of Trump’s election.

But beyond politics, Hawkins said, the average American conservative feels bombarded daily with disrespect.

“He turns on a TV show where he’s insulted, and then he’s like, ‘well, maybe I’ll just unwind and watch an awards show’ — the Oscars or something — where he gets trashed all day long,” Hawkins said. “He goes to Twitter and he’s got some you know guy calling him in a-hole … this is sort of like a pervasive all-out attack if you’re a conservative. And it’s all the time sort of thing.”

At the core of the problem for many American conservatives is a feeling that the culture war has been irrevocably lost to their ideological opponents.

Millions of words have been written about the conservative persecution complex, and how despite holding power and wielding it brutally for centuries, conservatives—and white Christian men in particular—have a constant sense of grievance that the world is treating them, per their leader’s favorite term of art, “unfairly.” Part of this is the result of con artistry by a never-ending series of manipulative hucksters scamming them to get votes for policies that benefit the wealthy. Part of it is bigoted anger that the world is not centering Christian white men quite as much as it always did.

But at a certain level, this tired conservative whine is correct: the people who lead and create culture don’t respect them. Artists, actors, inventors, comedians, entrepreneurs, academics, musicians, journalists and professionals across almost all creative industries have no patience for what passes for modern conservatism. And why should they?

Conservatism is fundamentally about preserving current in-group power structures and maintaining established social hierarchies. It keeps the powerful in power, and keeps the downtrodden underfoot. Insofar as government helps keep rich, powerful white men rich and powerful, conservatives love it and rally around the flag. Insofar as it helps equalize the balance of power, they despise it and want to drown it in a bathtub. This has always been the case for conservatism throughout history across the globe (replace “white” with “relevant regional powerful ethnic/religious majority” and it applies in all cases), and it has never been more true than of American conservatism today under Trump.

Promethean culture-bringers tend to stand in opposition to this ethic. Artists deconstruct and challenge paradigms of power. Inventors disrupt established orders. Comedians provide a softened way to speak harsh truths that would otherwise go unspoken. Academics poke holes in established doctrines and question the nature of accepted reality. Journalists afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. And so on. This is the process by which, slowly but surely, societies change and wrongs are righted if only over generations. It’s the method that gives us the confidence to assert, despite frequent steps backward, that the moral arc of the universe does bend slowly toward justice. Conservatives and totalitarians of all political stripes frequently attempt to coopt culture bringers toward their own ends–and certainly some in these professions possess conservative political instincts and agendas–but even the tightest regimes aren’t proof against creative cultural subversion in pursuit of justice.

Like a classic Rodney Dangerfield character, conservatives feel like they can’t get no respect from the “liberal elites.” The more conspiratorial among them assert a grandiose plot to deny them their birthright, often with anti-Semitic overtones. But what really annoys them is that they aren’t taken seriously by the people who create and change culture. That’s where a large part of the sense of grievance comes from.

And they never will be. Culture is created mostly in urban environments, where traditions and ethnicities and influences mix and merge, often in conflict and often in cooperation, creating new understandings and new experiences. Goods and ideas are traded. People are more free to express their identity than elsewhere. Cities are also economic powerhouses. Large companies are centered there, picking the best possible talent. Artists congregate for inspiration. Universities absorb and interpret these influences free of old doctrines.

This is not a perfect process, of course, nor is it free of its own prejudices and blind spots. But the overall result is music, art, film, media, scholarship, journalism and commercial products that push boundaries and threaten many established social hierarchies–some more than others as many an economic and anti-war progressive would be quick to point out, but still enough to more than discomfit a stodgy traditionalist.

And just what are these traditions the modern conservative wants respected? They’re very rarely stated out loud, and when they are it’s usually in code: family, God, country. But dig deeper and it’s the sort of deplorable stuff that no one involved in the creation of culture would ever want to countenance: that women should serve as obedient reproductive vessels; that white men are biologically and culturally superior to others; that the ability of corporate executives to get rich from polluting air and exploiting workers is a greater freedom than that of communities not to be poisoned and abused; that it’s the inherent right of powerful countries to bomb less powerful ones and steal their resources; that being rich is a sign of divine favor, and the poor deserve their plight; and so on.

These are bad ideas. They are deplorable. They appeal to our baser instincts, and they preserve the power of society’s abusers at the expense of its victims. In every case, the hindsight of history looks with displeasure on those who defended such things. And in every case, the heroes are not only the activists, but also the culture bringers who pushed slowly but surely to drag societies into a better place.

It doesn’t matter how many elections conservatives win, or how much power they hold. Politics is downstream of culture, and they will never get the cultural respect they crave.

They don’t deserve it, those who shape our culture will never give it to them, and with the rise of a more progressive generation than ever, even corporate power is shifting to acknowledge the views of its customers on most major cultural touchstones. The battle for the soul of America is already over until the next realignment, and today’s conservatives know it. It’s just going to take a few more elections for it to filter through the system.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.