The Exasperating Survival of Conservatism

November 14, 2021 Updated: November 24, 2021


One of the remarkable facts of our time is the endurance of a conservative outlook in the United States. Not the conservatism of libertarians and free-market types or the conservatism of classical liberals who champion free speech and the right to privacy, but social and religious conservatism that upholds the traditional family, staunch patriotism, and religious principles in the public square. The latter is the belief of people with misgivings about same-sex marriage who regard the United States as a beacon of hope and freedom and regard a society without God as a fallen and failing condition.

That blunt enumeration of their ideals shows just how uncongenial the social and religious position currently is in our country. If you work in the media, academia, the film/music/entertainment realms, Silicon Valley, corporate America, the health care industry, or governments small and large, you just don’t say such things. They’re not just wrong and wrong-headed. They’re inappropriate, unprofessional, offensive, backward, and ill-mannered. Their falsity is settled, and there’s no doubt about that.

No discussion of the merits of social conservatism ever happens. It doesn’t have to. The social impropriety of them is enough to do the work of expulsion. In holding those beliefs, you prove that you don’t belong in enlightened spheres and polite society. Everyone there is bien pensant. You’re mal pensant. This is a case of membership, not of truth. It’s not even a moral matter, but rather a group identification. Utter a social or religious axiom on a college campus, newsroom, or film set, and the people around you think, “Uh-oh, this guy’s not one of us.”

The fact that liberals in these elite zones no longer bother with defending their liberalism against conservative opinion—instead merely shunning the individual who voices it—shouldn’t be understood as a weakness. If the public square and elite workspaces were debating societies, then yes, that would be true. Ideas of all kinds would have to be faced and defeated. But with liberalism in control of U.S. institutions, why bother fighting a war of ideas? Just keep the conservative people out. If you can determine all of the personnel, you don’t have to contend with contrary opinions.

And it has worked. The disappearance of conservatism—authentic conservatism of the God-country-family type—from elite halls and pipelines has been well-nigh wondrous. The gatekeepers and accreditors have indeed managed to purify their institutions of people who believe what a majority of Americans have believed for the first two centuries of the nation’s existence—amazing.

They didn’t do it actively, one must note, only rarely hounding conservatives out of workplaces. Generally, they used a slow process of replacement, letting an old conservative of some stripe retire and finding a young leftist to fill his spot. It took a long time, but we know that the left has a long-term vision of things and that it’s happy to move slowly and under the radar. An added benefit of the creeping tactic is that moderates in the institution who didn’t mind some conservatives around weren’t inclined to oppose a transition that worked so slowly.

The result is everywhere around us: media outlets that have become leftist propaganda machines; a Democratic Party descending into shameless Machiavellian stunts such as the Trump impeachments; academics who make job candidates submit diversity, equity, and inclusion statements that amount to loyalty oaths that no conservative would ever accept; corporate America donating millions to Black Lives Matter; nighttime TV hosts who have turned a relaxing end of the day rite into an unfunny leftist soapbox; and so forth.

How in the world in this sweeping takeover has conservatism survived? Or, to put it this way: How did Donald Trump ever get elected?

I speak as a partisan of the right, a little amazed (in a good way) that conservatism has held on, however tentatively. But the left has been asking the same question, although they do so in a different mode. Their tone is incredulity. “I can’t believe that these backward cretins are still around”—that’s the sentiment our enlightened leftist mutters. He understands the rapacious capitalist who pushes free-market conservatism in order to line his pockets, but he can’t get his head around the ordinary Americans who really believe in God, country, and apple pie.

Having come so far, having overcome so much injustice and prejudice, our educated leftists can only wonder why any of these hidebound creatures even exist. Racists, sexists, homophobes, and xenophobes: that’s the best that they can say, and they sputter it in exasperation. It’s the 21st century, they’ve won. They’ve conquered all of the institutions. So why is the whole field not theirs to cultivate as they wish? Who are these parents showing up to school board meetings? Why is the despicable Tucker Carlson still on the air? Who does this Florida governor think he is?

They have a point. They have control of the airwaves; the classrooms; movies and TV shows; museums, libraries, and galleries; and studios and presses. And that control should stamp out all opposition, right? These lingering conservatives are galling—they don’t make sense. History moves in a liberal direction, so hurry up and leave!

You can hear that note of urgency every time a conservative resistance surfaces. The victory of Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin in Virginia brought it out, as has the reaction to critical race theory and, most of all, that shock of November 2016, when Donald Trump achieved the impossible.

After Joe Biden entered the White House, we might have expected it to soften, but my experience regarding leftists in the wake of Trump’s fall has revealed that their joy and confidence as brittle and fleeting. Behind their triumphant cries, you could sense an anxiety, a fear that the abhorrent situation that they had just overcome—a man in the White House who built walls, took gender identity out of Title IX, and mocked them for their political correctness—might emerge once again at a later time. What took place four years ago surprised them. It was inconceivable, and they haven’t gotten over the shock. They’ve seized all of the institutions, and they still haven’t reached that final termination of the bad guys. Why? WHY?

Deep down in their hearts lies a troubling suspicion: that nature favors the God-fearing man over the secular liberal; that nature prefers the old-fashioned, heterosexual nuclear family to all of the experiments in living that the left celebrates; and that people who love their country are happier than the people who harp on its sins.

For all of their dominance of man-made institutions, they worry that reality may not be so easily denied. That explains why the “Woke Revolution” has had to arise. The screws need to be tightened and the surveillance of citizens needs to be expanded. The list of forbidden words and thoughts must grow. These are the actions of anxious winners, not secure ones. Woke is an expression of desperation. Keep that in mind. The more aggressive it gets—and it surely will in the coming months and years—the more it fears that it will lose.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein is an emeritus professor of English at Emory University. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Post, the TLS, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.