The Black Hole of Modern Conservative Rhetoric

At one of the big summer events that enthrall those who dwell inside the D.C. bubble, interns from Conservatism, Inc. square off against interns from Libertarian, Inc. at a debate hosted by the libertarian Cato Institute. The annual event, which occurred earlier this month, once again exposed a problem that has hounded conservatives for quite some time: they’ve forgotten how to persuade. They speak in clichés. And even the youngsters sound like old fogeys.

“From what I observed,” writes Maria Beiry, an editorial assistant for the American Conservative who reported on the event, “millennials at this debate—many of whom will go on to be leaders in Washington—were not taking to conservatism.”

Why not? While the libertarians “favored data” and used it “to not only drive home their points but also to call into question the conservative argument,” conservatives spurned those arguments and “favored philosophy.”

“At the mention of philosophers such as Aristotle,” Beiry reports, “audible ‘what’s’ and ‘heh’s’ could be heard among the students.”

Jargon and Checklists
These difficulties flow from a central problem: conservatives seem to go out of their way not to be understood. More and more, there appears to be nothing of substance behind the jargon they employ.

Just as “Christianese”—used increasingly in Evangelical Christian circles—has had a tendency to crowd out biblical orthodoxy, “conservatese” has similarly tended to push aside anything of intellectual substance in political conservatism. Words and phrases that have been carefully crafted in the conservative echo chamber sound a false note when they’re used in front of audiences who aren’t predisposed to nod their heads in agreement.

And over time, such language has had a wearing and wearying effect on those who use it, dulling their minds in the process. Conservative rhetoric has become full of slogans and shortcuts for arguments—mere boxes on a checklist—rather than invitations to dialogue and debate.

As Paul Gottfried points out, vague sentiments such as “the permanent things” and words like “values” appropriated and defined in the popular imagination by Progressives have come to define conservative rhetoric. It’s become a bit of a joke that’s apparently over the heads of those who regularly speak in such dreary ways.

Modern conservative rhetoric also has a penchant for the non-political, attempting to drain political life of its vitality and seeking to replace it with the contemplative life simply.

For instance, the notion that “beauty will save the world” heard on many a serious liberal arts campus offers no real guidance for politics and can be harmful for the young, especially because they are so likely to misunderstand it. Children, after all, are typically moved by their untutored passions rather than by reason and often mistake ugliness or fads for beauty. On an intellectual level, this kind of rhetoric is imprecise, sloppy, and undermines the philosophical foundations upon which the conservative project is built. Cut it out, already.

Conservative Rhetoric on Race
Not all conservative rhetoric, however, is quite so self-defeating.

The argument from some conservatives that the “Democrats are the real racists” should not be so easily dismissed. It is an understandable attempt to turn the tables on their foes, pointing out that Republicans have a much better track record on civil rights and simultaneously laying bare the Democrats’ grim legacy on race.

Gerard Alexander, for example, has demolished the narrative that the Republicans’ rise in the South in the latter half of the 20th century was due to racism. In a deep dive into the research, he shows  

the GOP finally became the region’s dominant party in the least racist phase of the South’s entire history, and it got that way by attracting most of its votes from the region’s growing and confident communities—not its declining and fearful ones.

The GOP, of course, was founded on anti-slavery principles. The Republican Party platform of 1856 opposed both slavery and, interestingly, polygamy, calling them the “twin relics of barbarism.”

Democrats, in contrast, historically have been more opposed to the principle of natural human equality than not. From Alexander Stephens, who as the vice president of the Confederacy argued that the principle of equality was an “error,” to Barbara Norton, a Louisiana state representative who said that the founders were “teaching . . . a lie” when they wrote “all men are created equal,” Democrats have habitually been on the wrong side of human equality.

And Democrats today, just as the Confederates of yore, are driven by a form of identity politics that makes race the central feature around which their project revolves. However ironic it may be, there is something in common between the doctrines of critical race theory voiced by Black Lives Matter and the pro-slavery political theories of John C. Calhoun.

But such an argument quickly can be taken too far. The modern Democratic Party is different in many obvious respects from its partisan forebearers. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for instance, would have had no time for transgender bathrooms. Uber-progressives such as Woodrow Wilson and John Dewey would have rejected the modern Left’s war on marriage as inimical to the basic foundations of civil society.  

The “Democrats are the real racists” argument can also have the unintended consequence of furthering the Left’s war on history. Why would a liberal tearing down statues care what Andrew Jackson thought about race? Point it out to him and he would happily denounce Jackson’s racist past and want you to help dismantle his sordid history brick by brick. Simply consider the fervor among liberals for getting rid of Woodrow Wilson’s name and image at Princeton. They have no solid intellectual foundation in the thinking of their forebears. Progress marches. It does not pause or ponder.

Whatever good past Republicans did, it wouldn’t come close to satisfying the modern Left’s view of justice today.  

The argument, then, depends heavily on the prudence of the one making it, and the level of progressive commitment of the person hearing it. It is an argument that is particularly vulnerable to abuse and misunderstanding. While it should not be employed in the sweeping form that many today use it, much like Aristotle’s discussion of the virtues, it can still be useful at the right time and stated in the right way—that is, if the person making it knows his stuff and if the person hearing it is still open to reason.

Breaking Out of the Echo Chamber
In order to reverse the steady decline of conservatism since Ronald Reagan left the White House, conservatives need to make clear arguments bolstered by evidence and unencumbered by “conservatese” argot. Though appeals to philosophers or the fathers of the modern conservative movement may strengthen an argument, they should not be invoked in lieu of an argument.

Prudential judgment, which takes into consideration the audience, current realities, and the ends of rhetoric in a democratic republic, is vital if conservatives want to have any sustained success in the future. The concerns of voters (i.e., those who are sovereign and whom you wish to persuade) need to be in the forefront of their minds, not those of the ruling class (which, in any case, is not numerous enough to do more than assert their authority).

The key for cultural conservatives is to argue forthrightly for unpopular positions such as traditional marriage and not mince words. Pastor Tim Keller, for example, has seen exponential growth in his church in the heart of liberal New York City by preaching orthodox biblical positions that go against the grain of modern culture.

By its very nature, the argument to conserve civil society for future generations is going to be much harder to make than simply affirming the libertarian ethos that currently consumes us. To meet this challenge, conservatives need to do hard intellectual work but they also have to find the courage to say what they mean and mean what they say, without assuming obtuse jargon is going to substitute for either work or courage. There are no shortcuts ahead.

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About Mike Sabo

Mike Sabo is a writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio and a graduate of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College.

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21 responses to “The Black Hole of Modern Conservative Rhetoric”

  1. The article is empty of facts. The author needs to stop speaking in “authorese” which is the tendency to make huge generalizations while providing no specific examples. Philosophy is exactly where conservatives need to go to make cogent and compelling arguments. Aristotle is a great resource, if he is properly explained to the young empty skulls whose ignorance has been the goal of the past three generations of public educators. So, author, learn to give real, detailed examples so your argument is focused. And don’t trash conservative philosophy, which after Christianity is the best hope for mankind.

    • “The author needs to stop speaking in “authorese” …”

      That’s what liberals and RINOs do, pretend to know what they’re writing about.

  2. This article left me queasy.
    The author often sounds pale and repetitive and guilty of the things he complains about. Very Beltway. Though he says he deplores spongiform language, his style is often gassy, spineless and complicated — and free of examples to clarify meaning.

    No marks for courage, either. To pick on interns is to pick the low hanging fruit. By definition interns are eager to please and demonstrate the right ‘chemistry’; those headed for the Beltway are afflicted more than most. Pundits who are already entrenched are in a poor position to judge.

    Isn’t it true that marbles-in-the-mouth-disease always starts with teachers who lead by bad example?

    Courage and clarity go together — lose one, lose both. Isn’t it obvious?
    Not in the Imperial City it isn’t.

    • The media as a whole, including what many would regard as ‘conservative’, has moved so far left it is difficult (though not impossible) to quantify. And that includes the author of the article above.

  3. I don’t know! This article sounds to me like an excuse for GOPe think! Conservatives, true Conservatives, tend to base all answers on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights! These two things do not “grow” or change in anyway. They are set in cement guidelines.

    • Indeed, it is the RINOs politicians who use the buzz words, and cliched approach to obtaining votes. It appears as though we maybe at a cross roads though. The election of Donald Trump has shown, for at least the RINOs that we are tired of their nonsense. The list of candidates for the Republican nomination was long, but not one politician survived.

      I am hopeful that during the mid terms many more patriotic adherents to the Constitution throw their hats into the ring for office….

  4. Great, some sort of face-off between Conservative, Inc. & Libertarian, Inc., sponsored by CATO! After reading this absolutely useless article, jam-packed with nothingisms, I suppose I’ll try to track down audio/visuals of the meeting to find out what in hell Mr. Sabo is babbling about!

  5. “The Black Hole of Modern Conservative Rhetoric”

    Riiiiiight … like liberalism’s one and only policy of “tax and spend” doesn’t represent the blackest of black holes.

  6. Conservatives and Conservatism Inc. have conserved NOTHING. The state just grows and grows and grows, no matter who has the federal power. The Bill of Rights has been just about nullified. There is no free association anymore. The 1934 NFA and 1968 GCA eviscerated the Second Amendment. The 16th Amendment turned the entire productive population into tax donkeys who are burdened with supporting the useless and the malignant, an alliance of welfare cheats and Lois Lerners bent on destroying the middle class. The 17th Amendment killed any last vestige of the power of the States, creating a doubly-corrupt senate full of careerist cartel bagmen. And from the conservatives, do we hear a voice of abolition and destruction of these horrible institutions? No. There is only tweaking the margins, but leaving the whole tyrannical beast intact. There is no vision of freedom, liberty, or opportunity coming from conservatives. They have no energy. No vitality. No courage. No solutions. Their spinelessness and track record of failure reveals them for the useless charlatans they are. In the vacuum created by their failures, libertarians and alt-righters are rising. They have fire in their bellies, visions of true freedom, and determination to rip out this socialist state and its constructs by the root for eternity and to replace it with laws and institutions that protect the individual and the family, and to restore American federalism as the founders envisioned.

    • Conservatives and Conservatism Inc. have conserved NOTHING.

      A big part of the reason why “Conservatism Inc” has conserved nothing is that it’s been taken over by Neoconservatism Inc and Libertarianism Inc.

      • Agree. I also think that Libertarianism, Inc. underwent a schism into the small “l” version that is more closely aligned with paleoconservatism and the capital “L” version that embraced SJWs and decided that gay marriage and legal drugs were the most important issues of the day. That’s when the LP committed Seppuku with the Johnson / Weld ticket.

        Above all else, the neocons are pure, unadulterated cancer.

    • Conservatives do not dare speak in facts, because to state facts will result in being called racist, bigot, homophobe, etc. Worse you run a high risk of losing any possible career in DC or anywhere in bureaucratic academia. Both the liberal and conservative gangs run from facts. Liberals out of fear their fantasy will collapse if truth is known. Conservatives out of fear they,themselves, will be destroyed. Liberals protect their fantasy by destroying conservatives and other conservatives join the lynch mob. Facts are to be denied at all cost.

  7. The author seems to suffer from the same problem as the wonks he analyzes at the Cato Institute’s annual debate. Arguing conservative ideas and ideals without current-day context often goes over the heads of regular people, and Sabo is case in point.
    For example, Sabo’s lame defense of the conservative argument that “Democrats are the real racists” dwells on the history of the political party’s racial attitudes and accomplishments, but not on their current practices.
    Admittedly, a keen respect for history is what guides the best conservative ideals, but in this example, history of who supported what and when is far less important than who is doing what now.
    Identity Politics has become the mainstay of the Democrat’s platform and promoting that their main political power strategy. However, what could be more racist (or sexist or whatever identity-ist) than categorizing people based upon their differences and then addressing them in that way? It’s racist from it’s initial motive, despite their rationalizations to justify their obsessions.
    The non-racist position is one that is color-blind and for the sake of our country emphasizes those things that unify rather than divide us.
    Anyone interested in improving conservative rhetoric would be well-advised to do so in the context of practical solutions to current challenges people face and why they are better than those being promoted by their opponents.

  8. I’m not aware of what was said by whom at this “conservative vs libertarian” debate, but based on long experience I can tell you that it is the libertarians who substitute slogans and dogma for hard data. Ask libertarians to explain how their dogged belief that all people are equal and interchangeable units can be reconciled with observable reality and you’ll get “What?”s and “That’s racist!”. The practical result of applied libertarianism is bigger government. And that’s a necessary consequence of libertarian dogma intersecting with human nature.

  9. It is typical of the elites that a ‘debate’ between ‘conservatives’ and ‘libertarians’ would be important enough to have at all. The predicates of such a ‘debate’ are already so constrained as to be worthless to anyone outside these intellectual tribes. If the ‘libertarians’ or ‘conservatives’ win, who cares? Neither group seems to hold views that would allow one to win elections or to govern effectively if given the reins of power. In America today, ‘conservative’ is a brand, not a philosophy. This is why ‘conservatives’ cannot speak ‘philosophically’. As for contemporary ‘libertarians’, they may as well just rename themselves ‘Randians’ as they have so little in common with the founders of ‘libertarian’ thought. The difference is between Pepsi and Coke. There’s a difference to the cognoscenti, but to outsiders who are looking for a root beer, it’s not particular important.

  10. I’ve *never* heard a sensible lecture at CATO INSTITUTE.
    Talk about eyes-glaze-over BLATHER!
    This article sounds more like projection of libertarians’ own problems.

  11. I have nothing but pity for the poor bastard who had to sit through “muh bong” vs. “muh principles” debate.

    That person should get a medal.

  12. Mike Sabo’s writing reminds me of a poor man’s Andy Rooney. The “Center” for “American Greatness” should utilize him in such a way. I am sure his rants against the “establishment elites” on the “American Greatness” youtube channel would create additional revenue for this blog.

  13. Okay examples. I agree that graduate seminar discussion in political philosophy may not be a vote winner, but any review of Ronald Reagan’s speeches showed a great ability to connect first principles with specific, voter concrete concerns. No one in the current conservative movement is doing that, and neither are you – at least not so far. Reagan also noted that libertarianism was the heart of conservatism.

  14. I’m sorry, but this was just alot of chin stroking and navel gazing to me.