Millennials have come of age with a conservatism that was as much a subculture as it was a political movement. It has been defined by its various media nodes from The New Criterion and National Review on one end to more popular venues such as Fox News and conservative “bestsellers” on the other. Conservatism, we were told, wasn’t an ideology, but a way of life. And many of us living in “flyover America,” bought it as we bought everything from vintage Reagan t-shirts to radio-host sponsored “universities.”
Our thoughts, when we had them at all, came prepackaged in the holy trinity revealed to us circa 1955: national defense, free markets, and traditional values. The famed conservative stool that we were told gave us Barry Goldwater and later, Ronald Reagan. It was a winning formula that only needed slight repackaging every few years to win elections and win back America.
It hasn’t worked. American politics has drifted steadily left and and the repackaging of conservatism has, in fact, been a step-by-step acceptance of the Left’s Marxist assumptions about culture and politics as well as their policy victories. Conservatives fight when the Left proposes some new program or policy only to acquiesce to it in 10 years and then adopt it in 20.
Today, most of my colleagues are #NeverTrumpers, who either mouth tired platitudes about him not being a “true conservative,” or else lecture me in libertarian laments about Trump’s hostility to capitalism.
We are conservatism’s “middle children,” blindly accepting a moribund husk and filling it with the Ikea furniture of impotent ideological idols. Our great battle is a spiritual one, one that gets to the very soul of who and what our country can be.
This battle isn’t about principles, but a people.
Conservatism by Numbers
In a recent interview, Decius complains that millennials learn conservatism as “a checklist”:
They don’t really read books, except recent ‘conservative’ bestsellers. They read excerpts from the Federalist at a summer fellowship and think that’s an education. Not to knock summer fellowships, but they are supposed to be gateways, not complete educations.”
Conservatism as a checklist, or conservatism by the numbers, is a plague on the mind of any thinking person. How many fellowships or job applications have asked the young conservative the same tired questions about abortion, free markets, al Qaeda, and the number of entitlements that our debt-ridden nation can possibly endure?
In its most banal form, conservatism by numbers is typified by books such as The Conservative’s Handbook or Dinesh D’Souza’s equally trite Letters to a Young Conservative. Both books are symptomatic of a mentality that has constructed cardboard edifices and called them concrete. The movement poohbahs on the Potomac use “the American people” as little more than mannequins to dress up in their threadbare “principles” and “ideals.” Familiarity with the actual people who inhabit parts beyond the Acela corridor seems increasingly rare. For this reason, it has been a generation since their understanding of the political situation has translated into real political change. Conservatives keep whistling, but the Leftist train keeps rolling on.
Almost every right-winger under 30 has had some kind of flirtation with libertarianism, whether it’s some attempt to breathe life into a dead “fusionism,” or full-on embrace of the ideology, the Millennial right is steeped in libertarian arcana.
I was a doctrinaire libertarian for many years until I realized what the ideology had been telling me all along: the market doesn’t shape morals, but is shaped by them. It is shaped by the values of those who participate in it and takes on the character of those who compose it. This is Libertarian doctrine 101 is that the: the free market system allows for all of us as individuals to pursue our own moral ends as long as they don’t result in harm to anyone else.
This is the great Millennial dream, the “it’s-fine-as-long-no-one-gets-hurt-bro” line of reasoning that we all imbibed during our slacker-infused ’90s childhoods.
What woke me from my dogmatic slumber was the rise of so-called left-libertarianism or lifestyle libertarianism. It deduced from the axioms of individual liberty a right for absolute freedom of sexuality and identity. It is nothing more than a privatization of one’s identity down to making one’s own passions a marketplace for competing lusts. But it does have a kernel of truth.
That truth is that the market, when made up by what Decius calls “ Millennial identity politics,” becomes nothing more than a reflection of the childish culture we’ve imbibed.
Moreover, it presents no real opposition to liberal hegemony or to the managerial class. In fact, it proposes that everything a social justice warrior wants can be more effectively achieved by harnessing the efficiency of the market instead of the lumbering leviathan of the state. Thus libertarian millennials have joined arms with the cultural Marxist Left (that’s basically the entire Left at this point) differing on means, perhaps, but not on ends.
The sad truth about Boomer and Millennial conservatism is that everything they profess to love wants to kill them. Global corporations impose speech codes and “diversity” training, professional sports are a theater for the Left, and even America’s military has become a vanguard of liberal cultural hegemony. Today’s generals have more in common with the board of directors of Pepsi than they do with the soldiers they lead.
To embrace old style libertarianism today is to embrace the ideology of a loser ready to go gently into that good night.
Conservatism of Kitsch
Any young conservative who is bold enough to call himself a “traditionalist” or who actually thinks about the problems of‘“liberalism” is inevitably co-opted into what I call conservative kitsch. Conservative kitsch comprises a type of “young fogey” aestheticism along with an intensive interest in such topics as “new urbanism,” “localism,” and extravagant displays of supposed religious devotion, usually of a high church variety.
This is what American Conservative columnist Rod Dreher once called “Crunchy Conservatism.” But it is really just another choose-your-own-adventure brand of escapism unique to movement conservatism. Sure, it’s worried about city centers and saving old buildings. These may be admirable pursuits, but this sort of thinking cannot be done without taking into full account the coming demographic tsunami that will engulf our nation.
There is a void in middle America, one that is currently being filled with heroin, hooch, and despair. Sadly, it is not a void that can be filled by farmer’s markets, school choice, or slow eating. This is the ultimate blind spot of kitschy crunchy cons. They don’t see the forest for the trees.
For better or for worse, the white working class has comprised the backbone of conservative politics in our country from Barry Goldwater to Ronald Reagan. That America is dying, and fast. To refuse to stand up for them, even if it means voting Trump, is at best embracing your status as the current year’s losers and at worst is a betrayal of the people who have made your success since 1964 possible.
As for the “high-church” types, there is something admirable about many of their stances, be it in standing firm against modernist Vatican edicts, or continuing to fight a cultural war long since abandoned by most on the American right. However, those battles are lost.
Today, they fight rearguard actions to defend “religious liberty,” essentially hoping for carve-outs within the all consuming managerial state of the 21st century.
Most of them, too, would rather squabble to their right, instead of confronting the demons to their left. Increasingly their protests look as if they’d rather silo themselves off in some sort of “Benedict Option” than fight Leftism head on. They’d do well to remember Lindisfarne.
Back of the Class
The siren song of Millennials, conservative or not, has always been to be a member of the “creative class.” Essentially this is the ruling cast amongst our cohort, and challenging it has never been a top priority for conservative youth. Instead, we sought to “uber everything,” or repackage stale ideas from the 1980s in hipster glasses and skinny jeans. But the masters of the (cyber)universe pose a bigger problem than we thought.
This creative class is roughly analogous to what Daniel McCarthy, following political theorist James Burnham, refers to as the “New Class” in the American Conservative. Of the new class of managerial elite, Burnham wrote:
I have felt that this ‘new class’ is, so far, rather thin gruel. Intellectuals, verbalists, media types, etc. are conspicuous actors these days, certainly; they make a lot of noise, get a lot of attention, and some of them make a lot of money. But, after all, they are a harum-scarum crowd, and deflate even more quickly than they puff up. On TV they can out-talk any of the managers of ITT, GM, or IBM, or the administration-managers of the great government bureaus and agencies, but, honestly, you’re not going to take that as a power test. Who hires and fires whom?”
In some ways, Burnham’s explanation of the New Class is dated, but it provides an essential spine to put on the Millennial class angst of today. Our new class is the “creatives” who write listicles for Buzzfeed or tell us about the latest hipster trends in Vice.
Our creative class draws its power from what it can declare in and out of any conversation. This has made for startling effects in the last days of the so-called culture wars where we went from civil unions to children’s gender reassignment surgery in less than a decade.
Conservatism, Inc. has its own creative class. It is made up of various young “conservatives” eager to implement the newest innovation of their much hipper peers on the Left, but with a wave of a flag and an invocation of “capitalism, bro.”
Yet even those of us who occupy such stations are really nothing more than the creative’s b-squad.
We can do better.
New Voices, New Right
As Violet Wister puts it, today’s Millennials are restless and their “primary question is that of identity. They’re asking the same question that Samuel Huntington asked: ‘Who are we?’ They live in an America that seems entirely fractured by warring tribes.” Yes, for those of us growing up in the shadow of 9/11 the question of who we are has played on repeat in the decade and a half since.
We were told by our president that we were attacked because of who we are, because we were free, and that the best way to beat our enemies was to go out shopping the next day. For years, our American identity has been bound up with what we consumed, from so-called “nerd culture” to our favorite sports teams. Never has there been a generation so in thrall to a search for identity.
After the 2008 crash, we learned that the stuff we own isn’t us; that there’s something deeper.
It’s our task as Millennials on the Right to answer the question posed by Huntington at the alleged “end of history.” Our counterparts on the Left already have their answer. They’re building a new America that is antithetical to every traditional conservative or libertarian ideal.
Not only is supporting Trump an attempt to stop this emerging America, but it’s the first step in relearning how to fight, how to question, and yes, how to become a people.
Mark Steyn said, “the future belongs to those who show up.” Well, fellow Millennial right-wingers: Will we?