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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