As the cancellation of conservative people and ideas proceeds, leaders of longtime conservative institutions find themselves in a steadily tightening bind. They have their principles, but they have to run the ship, too.
No matter how much integrity they have, and no matter how firmly the institution holds to conservative beliefs, the ordinary operations of the institution inevitably entangle them in anti-conservative forces.
First and most obviously, any social media that the institution issues must pass the censors at Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. Those media giants have resolute identity-leftists within their own ranks who diligently screen out content on controversial matters of sex, race, COVID-19, climate, the 2020 election, trans individuals, immigration, family formation … (the list will continue to grow) that falls well on the right side of opinion. Facebook has just updated its “hate speech” rules that effectively make the criterion of “hate” the feelings of oppressed groups, for instance, same-sex couples who are said to be demeaned by arguments for traditional marriage.
The prospect of shutdown is intimidating. An institution that has its Twitter account suspended loses what is now a necessary avenue of communication, marketing, and branding. It’s embarrassing, too, and it imposes costs, not least of which is the labor needed to get back into Twitter’s good graces.
It makes some donors nervous as well. Many supporters of conservative institutions come from the business world, where people prefer to avoid mixing business with politics. It’s only recently that companies have decided to get political, and they’ve almost always gone left. Zealous activist groups such as Human Rights Campaign have CEOs and board members on their radar, telling those people in warning tones that failure to affirm progressive outlooks will bring boycotts, loss of advertising, waves of angry emails, and bad press.
Big businesses have proven nicely compliant. (See this Forbes article for the impressive list of corporate donations to racial justice programs alone last year). A board member exposed as a supporter of an organization that opposed Black Lives Matter will find himself in trouble. It only takes one or two cases of a business leader taken down, as Brendan Eich was in 2014 because he had made a modest donation to Proposition 8 in California six years earlier, for everyone else to get the point.
Conservative institutions need those donors. They can’t survive without them, and when it comes to survival versus firm, upfront conservative action, a leader knows what must be done. He has bottom lines to consider. If a fight is in order, it must be carried out by conservative intellectuals who maintain some legitimacy and standing for conservatism in the public sphere, though the intellectuals may have no direct connection to the organization. They do battle in the marketplace of ideas, writing books and articles and op-eds, appearing on radio and talk shows, and speaking at meetings and on college campuses.
There, they can lay out data on kids in single-parent families, the records of various welfare programs over the years, political bias in classrooms, and other empirical evidence that undermines progressivist claims. That’s what neoconservative and libertarian social scientists did in the 1970s and ’80s when they submitted Great Society programs and policies to an analysis of their outcomes. Charles Murray’s study of welfare, “Losing Ground,” was a prime example, and it played a role in welfare reform in the 1990s.
In order for that kind of change to happen, however, conservative intellectuals and researchers need media and a publishing industry open to their submissions. The op-ed pages of major newspapers may lean well to the left, but they would admit a conservative argument often enough to uphold a claim to pluralism. If you had to select the one book that infuriated progressives the most in the past 50 years, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” might be the one, and it was published by the Free Press, an imprint of trade publisher Simon & Schuster.
As I observed in my previous column, there’s no way in the world Simon & Schuster would publish “The Bell Curve” today. Newspapers and trade publishers don’t want it, or anything like it. When The New York Times published Sen. Tom Cotton’s (R-Ark.) op-ed on using the military to quell the rioting of summer 2020, employees at the paper went into a rage, the editor apologized, and the entire issue of military intervention was closed. What was surprising wasn’t the uproar, but the appearance of the law-and-order argument in the first place, which happened only because the author was in the Senate. A conservative intellectual without that kind of backing couldn’t do it.
This removal of conservative argument from the public square leaves the conservative executive at a loss. His intellectual allies do have conservative media and presses open to them, yes, but those outlets are far outnumbered by liberal ones. He has to acknowledge that the latter have a lot more power in American life than the former, however much conservatives have won one debate after another, and those outlets have never been more anti-conservative than they are at the present time.
The old marketplace of ideas doesn’t exist anymore. A conservative executive understands that the public square is tilted against him and that the moment his institution is labeled racist, nativist, and so on, there’s little hope of reversing the charge. He feels the walls closing in, doors being shut, microphones turned off.
The result is a new fissure on the right. On one side, you have conservative executives who wish to sustain their institutions. That’s their job. Their method is to go a little soft, to shy away from those issues the left feels most strongly about, especially the identity issues and Donald Trump (and his fans). They will push traditional positions on small government, low taxes, school choice, and free markets, but stay silent about the upheavals of last summer, “systemic racism,” and transphobia.
On the other side are conservatives who needn’t worry about protecting any institution. They’re free agents, they’re angry, they say what they think. They didn’t agree with all that Trump advocated, but his outspoken political incorrectness pleased them more than anything they heard from the Republican Party in the past 21 years. They are where the energy is on the right, and they don’t worry about how the left will react to them. They don’t care about how the media, academia, elite Democrats, or any other liberal force will respond. They’re beyond intimidation.
For this reason, they make institutional leaders nervous. Will the latest words out of Tucker Carlson, which bring outrage from the left, draw the institution into controversy? Will Trump’s next speech force the institution into a statement of agreement or disavowal? It’s a lose-lose proposition: Either renounce the outspoken conservative and anger the many Americans who like what that figure said, or defend the figure and suffer the smears of liberal columnists and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Better to take a third way, to pretend it hasn’t occurred, that the mouthpieces who hit hard at social issues that are sacred to the left simply don’t exist. That’s the preferred tactic, a play-it-safe approach, and maybe it makes sense as an institutional plan. But it’s not going to work. The problem isn’t the loud ones on the right. It’s what we began with, the highly successful movement of the left to squeeze strong social and religious conservatism out of every public and private space. Conservative executives aren’t going to save their institutions by avoiding those zones that spark the ire of the left and sticking to less-heated issues.
The individuals and groups pushing the cancellation of conservatives don’t make much distinction between outspoken conservatives and soft-spoken conservatives. Charles Murray is a thoughtful, careful social scientist, an atheist who leans libertarian and who criticized Trump, yet he has been attacked just as vigorously as was Steve Bannon. To a true believer on the left, all conservatives are equally abhorrent. Identity-leftists aren’t liberals, they aren’t pluralists, and they snort at political and intellectual diversity. They refuse to share public space, and once they remove the outspoken conservatives, the soft-spoken ones are next.
We can only hope that as more cancellations happen, those conservative executives realize that the best they can expect from the left is a delayed attack, and that if their days are numbered, the best course is to go down fighting.
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.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.