Like the movement of the '60s and '70s, social conservatism is a genuinely countercultural phenomenon, but seems unlikely to achieve the same success.
Several months ago I made what I thought at the time were a handful of self-evident observations about the future of the Republican party and its much-abused handmaid, the conservative movement. To my mind there was nothing especially striking or novel about what I had to say; indeed I had made most of the same points a year earlier, in an article about the shifting nature of the so-called “culture wars.”
Because I made the mistake of applying a label to the phenomenon I was describing—“Barstool” conservatives, though I might just as easily have prefixed “stonks” or “porn”—I find that my piece has given rise to a handful of apparent misunderstandings. The first is the idea that the phrase “Barstool conservatives” somehow implies that all or even a majority of the writers and personalities associated with the eponymous website share such views or attitudes. The second is that the phenomenon somehow emerged directly out of Barstool and that its fortunes are ultimately bound up in whether, say, Dave Portnoy runs for president. Finally, there was the implication that I in some sense approved of “Barstool” conservatism or welcomed its displacement of the old fusionist consensus. While I do not regret the destruction of the latter, I see it as inevitable rather than the result of conscious intellectual effort on the part of its critics.
Which is why I am in fact more interested in a related question: What is the future of old-fashioned social conservatism? While libertarian assumptions about political economy that already find a home in both of our major political parties will live on in the new dispensation, what will become of people who believe that outlawing abortion is the single most important issue in American politics and who, unlike a majority of Republicans, disapprove of same-sex marriage?
Following Ed West, I think there is some value here in distinguishing between these two groups by referring to “social” as opposed to “cultural” conservatives. It is not an exaggeration to say that most people throughout human history have been cultural conservatives in some broad sense. This is simply human nature. Americans with vague objections to so-called “cancel culture” or critical race theory, who have strong feelings about Dr. Seuss’s contributions to American literature and Colin Kaepernick and the integrity of women’s sports while being mostly indifferent to or even approving of same-sex marriage, legalized pornography, embryonic stem-cell research, and legalized cannabis are scattered throughout the country, across class and, as we learned in the 2020 election, even racial lines.
Social conservatives on the other hand, who—whatever their views about passing skirmishes in the culture war—continue to hold fixed, religiously inflected opinions about abortion, same-sex marriage, and other issues that animated the Bush and Obama-era conservative movement, have equally definite characteristics. They are, for one thing, overwhelmingly white. To the extent that they exist at all in cities, they are concentrated heavily in the professions (especially law) and, in some cases, in journalism. (I have always found it amusing that with the exception of transsexuals, no discrete group enjoys more influence in our national conversation relative to its actual numbers than Catholics who attend the traditional Latin Mass.) They tend to be well educated and have incomes higher than the national median. Their objections to much of contemporary popular culture are as likely to be aesthetic as they are moral, and their families are, of course, much larger than the average one in this country. They are turned on, tuned in, and have definitely dropped out.
Like the broadly defined movement of the 1960s and ’70s, social conservatism is a genuinely countercultural phenomenon. In the ensuing decades, the old counterculture was absorbed into the wider one, and today most of its basic assumptions form the mental equipment of the vast majority of Americans, including social conservatives.
For any number of reasons, the new socially conservative counterculture seems unlikely to achieve the same success. Instead of quietly insinuating themselves into the universities, politics, and even commerce, I expect them to continue more or less as they have for the last several decades: gratefully accepting whatever meager concessions are offered to them by the political establishment while contenting themselves with what amounts to a kind of recusancy. If I say it is easy to imagine a country in which religious conservatives will be excluded from virtually every area of civic life, it is only because we already more or less live in one.
Should social conservatives despair about what seems likely to be their lot for the foreseeable future? I think the answer is no. For one of the accidental advantages of having been thoroughly defeated is that we will find ourselves less tempted to compromise our witness in keeping with the exigencies of political coalition-building. We can accept this unwelcome state of affairs precisely because those truths to which we are committed are ones that cannot be defeated by the fecklessness of the Supreme Court or the roguery of politicians. Our cause may not triumph in our lifetimes but by definition it can never be destroyed.
Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp magazine and a contributing editor at The American Conservative.
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