David Brooks, the center-right Cassandra of the New York Times, reckons that a GOP apocalypse is coming. The data predicted as much in 2016, when all the smart pollsters predicted a Clinton landslide, and I predicted as much when mourning the fact that Trump was the new Republican standard-bearer. But tinsel didn’t rain forth from Hillary’s near-anointing at the Jacob Javits Center. The end of the world is deferred, yet again.
Trump is not conservative in the strict sense of the word; he’s a libertarian and a libertine. So you could plausibly argue that despite Trump’s victory, conservatism did not win in 2016. You could even argue that conservatism didn’t really compete at all in 2016, or, if it did, that it lost. But the Republican party, which has a passing familiarity with conservatism, did compete, and it did win. The odds may still not be in the GOP’s favor, but it’s far too early to write off the durability of the GOP and the beliefs it has historically championed.
Brooks points to data from a recent Pew study which, to his mind, suggests that the Republican party will simply die out. Neither of us have been gifted with clairvoyance, but his assessment strikes me as missing the forest for the trees.
We don’t need data to show us that young Americans are over-represented on the left. But it was a wise someone — not Winston Churchill, who usually gets credited, but the French historian and prime minister François Guizot — who coined the Burkean insight that anyone who is not a liberal at 20 years of age had no heart, and anyone who is still a liberal at 40 has no head.
Especially in an America in which moral status and the right to speak on any and all issues seems to be predicated on just how progressive or under-privileged you can claim to be, it’s natural that our universities produce graduates who identify as pretty far to the left. Those graduates, rather than getting hit on the head by the realities of the real world when they finally enter it, are currently trying to remake the real world in their image. Good luck with that, as Winston Churchill probably said at some point. The question is: can it last?
Brooks entirely elides the distinction between leftism and liberalism. Within the confines of a two-party system, it’s baffling to theorize about the death of conservatism when there’s been no resurgence or new dominance of liberalism. The forces in control of the American left are decidedly illiberal — and they will only get progressively more illiberal. Brooks seems to believe this snowball effect can continue on forever, uninterrupted. I disagree.
Revolutions, Burke famously reflected, inevitably eat their own. What’s happening on the American left is nothing short of a revolution. And the revolutionaries, as usual, are the young.
This is why preference for 2020 Democratic primary candidates reflects voter age. Older Democrats and younger Democrats increasingly have very little in common. While the party historically championed minority rights, the young Democrats now see the world as an oppressional hierarchy in which value is inversely proportionate to skin color and socio-economic background. While the Democrats of yesteryear championed free speech and free expression, the party’s current iteration isn’t so sure. In a world where everything is relative, principles, even ones derived from the First Amendment, depend on context. In the past, the Democratic consensus on abortion was that it should be safe, legal, and rare. Today, there is no trace of the latter moderation. Abortion is celebrated on the left as a virtue. The slight mention of it as a human tragedy — even if the one doing the mentioning is ‘pro-choice’ — is met with accusations of misogyny and a hidden desire to uphold the patriarchy. Make no mistake: this isn’t your grandmother’s abortion, and it isn’t your grandmother’s Democratic party either.
Even conservatives accept that change can be good, and even conservatives would prefer that, as Dr King said, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But the extent of change, and the pace at which it’s been happening, are entirely unsustainable.
As the Democratic party grows less liberal and more socialist, its little Robespierres will, in the fashion Burke identified in France after 1789, excise the party’s still-numerous moderates. Those exiles might abhor social conservatism, but they would be wrong to define conservatism purely by a handful of socio-religious issues, some of which exercise only the GOP’s powerful but numerically small Evangelical wing. It’s those other conservative specialties — defending free speech, championing a diversity of opinion and faith, defending free-market capitalism — that are the issues that can win back the voters.
Brooks sees a ‘conservative way to embrace pluralism and diversity’ as well: ‘It’s to point out that there is a deep strain of pessimism in progressive multiculturalism: blacks and whites will never really understand each other; racism is endemic; the American project is fatally flawed; American structures are so oppressive, the only option is to burn them down.’
But to survive and thrive, the GOP will eventually need to do more than make that case against nihilism. It will need to stand for positive virtues and values. And it probably will. Sotto voce at first, then shouted loudly for everyone to hear. For many disillusioned Democrats, that appeal will be a revelation.
Daniella Greenbaum Davis is a Spectator columnist and a senior contributor to the Federalist.