Is There a “Liberal Ascendancy” and Why?
The Crack-Up of the Conservatives and Liberal Hegemony
On his Substack, Richard Hanania tries to answer “Why Is Everything Liberal?” The question is why, even though society is roughly divided in half among liberals and conservatives, every major institution in civil society is dominated by liberals, or “woke” to his phrase. The answer he comes up with is that liberals care more about politics, are more likely to be activists, and therefore dominate the more easy-going and tolerant conservative masses. Hanania’s piece makes extensive use of statistics and charts, I think to make some points that are little specious, but I will not try to refute them here: I promised my readers I would follow Auden’s dictum “Thou shalt not sit with statisticians nor commit a social science” and that a chart or graph will never appear in one of these posts. I will also put aside for the moment the assertion that corporations are overwhelmingly “woke” now, which I think is debatable. I want instead to address the conspicuous lack of a historical perspective in the piece, as well as some structural issues with the argument.
As a writer who focuses on the history of the American right, it’s a little strange to hear conservatives described as the less activist group in politics. The entire official narrative of the movement, from the 1950s to the victory of Reagan, is usually presented as the triumph of a small group of dedicated visionaries who pitted themselves tirelessly against the suffocating liberal consensus of the country until they were able to gain mainstream support and triumph. In the traditional story, the ground was prepared by the vanguard of National Review and then exploited by the New Right activists in the 1970s, who were less intellectuals than committed ideological fighters forming a coalition among a number of disparate conservative issues. There are, of course, many problems with this history. It has trouble fully explaining the interplay of the elite and the mass, and separating out who belongs in each category, but it does tell the truth in an important respect: modern conservatism is the project of a highly-motivated minority who built an apparatus of civil society organizations to sway public opinion and staff state offices when the opportunity to fill them arose. This is this not just limited to the past: the conservative apparatus has recently seized control of the supreme court, validating a long-term strategy to affect policy without having a democratic majority on the side of the issue, in this case, abortion. The image of the passive conservative and the active liberal is belied by the long and storied history of vigorous conservative organization and activism, which is still very much with us.
It may be true that conservative activists may be having more of a trouble getting a foothold in mainstream civil society and find the gains of the 80s and 90s reversed in certain ways. I think there is a sense of immobilism and demoralization among conservative ranks, which Hanania’s piece is an example of. But the explanation for this does not come from the intrinsic temperament of liberals as the more activist sect, but in the counter-mobilization of liberals to a perceived right-wing breakthrough. From the liberal and left perspective, the politics of the right have become increasingly worrisome since Obama, and greater efforts of organization and activism are required to stave off a catastrophic reversal of the gains in building a multi-racial democracy that have been accomplished since the 1960s. Whatever your opinion on the matter, Trump, and to a lesser extent certain the Tea Party before him, was earnestly perceived to represent not only a threat to liberal policy priorities but to a democratic form of government itself. Masses of people quite literally poured into the streets and into activist organizations to resist this onslaught. Liberals are often accused of fomenting backlash through their excesses, but in this case the opposite was true: the rise of Trump occasioned a massive liberal backlash and interest in activism and politics.
The extremely unattractive, and indeed quite menacing, form right-wing politics has taken is both making it both broadly unpopular and activating a motivated cadre to resist its growth. Trump is viewed by many as a symptom, prompting a zealous need to root out the underlying causes in the pathological conditions of American society. From the conservative perspective, this may sound wrong or exaggerated, but the view honestly held by many on the left of the spectrum is the Republicans mean to do away with American democracy and then who knows what else afterward. This perception is validated by the broad Republican acquiesce to Trump’s demagogy, the Capitol riots, the outbreak of extreme police violence in response to the George Floyd protests, the voter restriction laws, and the increasingly paranoid and conspiratorial tone of right wing media and intellectuals.
There’s a great deal of demand for conservative journalism among the general public, but few competent conservatives who want to be journalists given what the profession pays relative to what else smart people can be doing. Thus conservative media tends to see the rise of completely incompetent outlets like OANN, which posts fake COVID cures when it’s not arguing the whole thing is fake.
I wonder if that’s really the case. I think the problem is that OANN, Trump, etc. represents what the constituency and market actually wants and the alternative is just not very viable. Competent or even just less batshit conservative media has to, at the very least, make some compromises with the so-called lunatic fringe to stay relevant and to not entirely lose their reader or viewership.
I believe Hanania’s article participates subtly in what I previously called the “politics of cultural despair,” borrowing from the title Fritz Stern’s book. Essentially the situation he describes is of utter liberal dominance and dwindling hopes for conservatism—they are at a permanent disadvantage, the cards are stacked against them. The political solutions contemplated (although to be fair, not quite endorsed) are the same combination of desperate expediency and hope for a providential solution that typified Trump’s appeal:
To put it in a different way, to steelman the populist position, democracy does not reflect the will of the citizenry, it reflects the will of an activist class, which is not representative of the general population. Populists, in order to bring institutions more in line with what the majority of the people want, need to rely on a more centralized and heavy-handed government. The strongman is liberation from elites, who aren’t the best citizens, but those with the most desire to control people’s lives, often to enforce their idiosyncratic belief system on the rest of the public, and also a liberation from having to become like elites in order to fight them, so conservatives don’t have to give up on things like hobbies and starting families and devote their lives to activism.
I’m not suggesting this is the path conservatives should take; they might feel that a stronger, more centralized and powerful government is too contrary to their own ideals. In that case, however, they’ll have to reconcile themselves to continue to lose the culture into the foreseeable future, at least until they are able to inspire a critical mass to do more than just vote its preference
First of all, the problem is that right wing populism, in the United States, is not really that popular: Trump was unable to get a majority on his side. This conservative “majority” is imaginary: a true citizenry in the midst of a false one. Second, this contemplation or back-handed justification or sympathy with the rise of a “strongman” to use the “centralized and powerful government” who better represents the interests of a more virtuous citizenry against a corrupt elite starts to make liberal worries about fascism, which Hanania elsewhere in the piece dismisses, sound more plausible.
I don’t know how to fix the conservative movement, nor do I really want to because its struggles are my own successes, but probably adopting politics that are less overtly menacing would be a start. This would go someways to both making conservatism less unpopular and to not fomenting the same militant reaction among the left activist class the right so hates and fears. The problem is that conservatism is wedded to its oppositional and countercultural stance now: the feeling of being besieged, a valiant minority in an unfair system, is a central part of the political consciousness of the right that gives it political coherence and makes it attractive to all those who feel alienated by liberalism. Its vaguely or overtly threatening and paranoid airs and its ability to shock and horrify respectable liberals are now key sources of appeal for its constituencies. If you made conservatism culturally palatable you might take all the fun out of it for the conservatives: the attraction of the revolt is fueled by the ability to be a little revolting. It may also be just structurally impossible for the right to become popular without losing its coherence as an ideological movement. With the victory of Reagan, both the New Right activists who helped get him to the White House and a group of “paleoconservative” intellectuals felt Reaganism represented a squishy compromise with the liberal establishment. They launched a raucous internal revolt that I believe we are still coping with the consequences of today. In any case, it’s my belief that the despair or hopelessness felt by conservatives might have more to do with the intrinsic nature of their chosen ideology than the particular political situation they find themselves in today.