In this age of dull-witted Fox News propaganda, Q-adjacent conspiracy nonsense, and sophomorically glib Quillette contrarianism, it’s not easy to find truly thoughtful conservative writing on American politics. So it was with some pleasant surprise that I read this morning an excellent essay by Tanner Greer that, while written from a political perspective very different from my own, hits on some important points about the culture wars, the currents of history, and conservative politics. And yet, even Greer misunderstands the nature of the moment and the danger of the reaction from his own side.
The thrust of Greer’s argument is that culture wars are long wars staged over generations to win the hearts and minds not of adults but of children and grandchildren; that liberals set the stage for winning the culture wars decades ago just as Hayek, Goldwater, and other conservative activists had done before them beginning in the 1950s; that liberals have definitively won those culture wars by making Americans under the age of 45 unabashedly progressive or even socialist; and that conservatives have no plan to fight back on a generational scale. Greer rightly despairs the foolish optimism of his colleagues in believing Millennials or Zoomers will grow more conservative. He bemoans the short-term rearguard tactics of Republican politicians using culture wars to win elections decided by the old rather than fighting for the hearts of the young. These points are far more intelligently argued than most conservative essays.
But still, Greer makes two fundamental errors. The first is in believing that the left’s victory for the young arises from a determined manipulation of academia, media, and cultural spaces, rather than a mostly organic reaction to the horrific conservative policy and politics. Greer notes that younger generations will always seek new ideas to deal with problems beyond the ken of older orthodoxies:
The rising cohort has many reasons to thirst for new ideas. Old orthodoxies, designed to solve the problems of a past age, will have difficulty explaining crises in the new one. These events will be formative for the new generation; a group of insurgents who can explain these formative events in terms of their own program will win converts to the cause.
But Greer fails to acknowledge just how catastrophic those older orthodoxies were to those who have grown up in the shadow of the Southern Strategy backlash to Civil Rights, obscene inequality, the climate crisis, the Great Recession, two forever wars (one of which was predicated on deliberate lies for which no one was held accountable), and unsustainable healthcare, housing, and education costs. Conservative orthodoxy hasn’t just failed. It has failed so miserably that people under 45 have an abysmally low share of the nation’s wealth, will never have it half as good as their parents did, are burdened with massive healthcare and education debts, work jobs that pay less with less reliability while requiring more education and experience, and cannot afford mortgage or rent because prices have been launched into the stratosphere by their elders who refuse to allow any more housing supply. They have watched their elders fail utterly to address the climate crisis that threatens to destroy human civilization while using their voting power to elect first George W. Bush and then Donald Trump of all people, and refusing to allow the left pole of American politics to veer any farther left than Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden. Conservatives should consider themselves lucky that young people have found champions in people as decent, responsible, and tolerant of the obscene status quo as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Bernie Sanders, rather than much more destabilizing figures.
Insofar as liberals did attempt to bend institutions of learning and media to their will, what did conservatives expect thoughtful people to do in response to Lee Atwater’s political program? What did conservatives expect moral people to do about LGBT issues after the Stonewall riots and after Reagan Administration officials allowed AIDS to become a worldwide pandemic because they thought it only killed gay people? What precisely did conservatives expect intelligent people of goodwill to do in response to a movement that elevated Newt Gingrich and Dick Cheney to the heights of power? Doesn’t the apotheosis of Donald Trump among conservative voters prove that liberal academics were correct all along about the roots of base conservative politics?
But Greer makes another even more serious error: he believes that his colleagues don’t understand that they have lost the culture war and that they don’t have a plan for an upcoming progressive Millennial orthodoxy:
Understanding this is equal parts clarifying and frustrating. Clarifying, because it gives us a clear idea of what must be done and of what cannot be done. Frustration comes from that second item: as culture wars are long wars, there are no quick victories. If you reject the quickly crystalizing orthodoxy of America’s millennials, your short-term options are limited. The millennials are a lost generation; they will persist in their errors to the end of their days. Theirs is a doomed cohort—and for most of the next two decades, this doomed cohort will be in charge.
But like all orthodoxies, theirs will eventually stumble. Today’s orthodoxy will meet events it cannot explain. Today’s hopes will be the source of tomorrow’s sorrows. When those sorrows arrive, a rising generation will be looking for alternatives. The job of today’s insurgents is to build a coherent critique of this orthodoxy, a compelling vision of a better way, and a set of networks that can guard the flame until the arrival of that happy day.
In reality, they do. It’s just an evil plan that Greer refuses to acknowledge, the culmination of the same logic that began with Nixon. They don’t intend to win the hearts and minds of Generation Z or Generation Alpha with new ideas. They don’t intend to win a majority of the votes of Americans today. They don’t believe that a democracy that does not privilege socially conservative white evangelicals has a right to exist in America. They don’t see this graph as a persuasion challenge; they see it as a crisis in need of theocratic totalitarian response.
The Trumpian ethos, and those who adhere to it, are not about winning the culture war. They have only the intention of ruling, and inflicting as much pain to their enemies as possible from a minority position. Conservatives intend to dominate the Senate forever with an increasingly extremist minority of white evangelical votes despite representing less than 30 percent of the country. They intend to enforce regressive policy with Federalist Society Supreme Court justices appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote, using different rules for bringing nominations under Democratic presidents than Republican ones. They intend to suppress liberal votes and then refuse to certify Democratic victories when they happen anyway. They intend to gerrymander legislatures forever to hold supermajorities while winning far fewer votes.
Conservatives see no reason to back off of this plan, no matter how much generational replacement occurs. They have no intention of moderating themselves or their ideas to meet new challenges–in part because it’s impossible to imagine a “conservative” response to the climate crisis, housing costs, or radical inequality that does not decenter conservative white evangelicals who have no intention of giving up ill-gotten power.
They only intend to rule–no matter what it takes, and no matter how many lines they cross.