AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
In 2023, something that has not happened for decades is occurring: Conservatives are on the verge of victory in the “culture wars.”
One of the most common questions posed to students is whether history is driven by great men or wider social forces. It is hard to watch coverage of so-called “woke” issues in 2023 without reaching the conclusion that some greater social shift is at work. Something has changed.
It is no longer just conservative outlets shouting about “CRT” or “men in women’s bathrooms.” The New York Times, a bastion of liberal respectability, is running weekly articles questioning schools hiding student transitioning from parents. Left-wing, African American professors are telling tales of being canceled by students. Five Democrat State Representatives in Connecticut have proposed banning the use of the word “Latinx” by the state.
The idea that wokeness has gone too far is not just a conservative view. Increasingly it is becoming a mainstream one among many moderate liberals. The question is whether conservatives, who are used to losing, can adapt to the unexpected vindication and consolidate their victory, or will instead alienate those who are rapidly moving toward their side.
It is important to put what is happening in context. The backlash against excessive identity politics in general, and the “purity” approach the left adopted in the 2010s is real and broad. It can be seen in the failure to boycott the newest Harry Potter game over charges of “transphobia” by its creator, J. K. Rowling, and the backlash against the bullying tactics online against anyone who did not join. It is evident in the almost universal revulsion with which HBO’s woke Scooby Doo remake “Velma” has been met, with even left-wing outlets suggesting the show is anti-white, a charge which was considered a “racist dog-whistle” a few years before.
Perhaps more stunningly, the New York Times recently published an op-ed entitled “What Liberals can Learn from Ron DeSantis” suggesting that the Florida governor’s attacks on politicalized curriculum might have a point. The pivot by the Times is particularly notable. When its coverage of trans issues was condemned in an open letter by a collection of contributors and advocacy groups who questioned not its accuracy but its political impact, the Times not only refused to bend but shot back. “We do not welcome, and will not tolerate, participation by Times journalists in protests organized by advocacy groups or attacks on colleagues on social media and other public forums,” declared executive editor Joe Kahn. To ensure the point could not be missed, on the day following the release of the letter, the Op-Ed page featured an article entitled, “In Defense of J.K. Rowling.”
These seemingly isolated incidents reflect a broader pattern of liberals and left-wingers themselves turning against and even laughing at the positions and attitudes they promoted for years.
Watching these second thoughts, there is a strong temptation among conservatives to gloat, mocking these liberals and leftists who never considered that the excesses of wokism would turn against them. This reaction would be justified and understandable, as would scorning these late converts who have only seen the light when the darkness smacked them in the face. These arguments have been made on the right about Harry Potter’s J.K. Rowling who, though a committed liberal, has clashed with the trans movement and Labour’s far-left former leader Jeremy Corbyn. She is not a conservative, but has shown the fractures within the liberal establishment.
While understandable, gloating is a foolish approach for conservatives. To quote an old saying, “a conservative is a liberal mugged by reality.” To put that in a more realistic setting, imagine telling New York Democrat voters that they deserved high crime rates or to be mugged because of the candidates they voted for. That is only slightly less offensive than the left-wing suggestion that the crime they suffered is atonement for their privilege built on the backs of white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. Both suggestions are unproductive.
This is not to say that the connections should be ignored or denied. But the election results in New York this year, where Republican Lee Zeldin won 47%, and Republicans gained enough U.S. House seats in the state to win a majority nationally, demonstrated that many voters are aware of the causal relationship between their votes and public policy.
The key point is to avoid the moral charge that a person’s voting behavior or beliefs mean they deserved outcomes like violent crime. No one deserves to be a victim of crime, which is why conservatives oppose policies which promote crime. In a similar vein, no one deserves to be canceled for their beliefs, which is why conservatives oppose cancel culture.
One reason there is a tendency to relapse in schadenfreuden when ex-liberals become victims of their own policies is that the political stakes are often so low. While liberals have been being mugged by reality for decades, the number has generally been too low to swing the electoral tide. Misery loves company, and so does political impotence, so there is a strong temptation to respond to their realization with “join the club.”
Occasionally, something different happens and a critical mass has second thoughts sufficient to change the course of politics. America and Britain saw that in the 1970s. The excesses of the 1960s when it came to unrest in cities, protest movements, and attacks on all forms of authority and values provoked a backlash. While this backlash involved a genuinely socially conservative element, especially with an engaged evangelical community in the U.S., that was itself powered by converts. The Reagan and Thatcher Revolutions would not have been possible without discontented liberals who staffed those movements, right up to the candidates themselves, including the former Democrat Reagan.
Those conservative revolutions were also defined, like most politics in Western societies, by majority culture. The Reagan Revolution of the 1980s may have represented a restoration of American greatness and values, but it did not represent a reversal of the changes of the 1950s. It was led by people who recognized that there had been a reason why the 1960s had happened. It had not been a conspiracy by Communists or Marxists which had triggered the existence of a civil rights movement, or allowed women into the workplace, but actual injustices which ideological opportunists hijacked. The conservative movement of the 1970s-90s featured Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas, which would have been unthinkable in the 1950s.
If the 2020s are to represent a similar conservative revolution, then there needs to be a reckoning with what that should look like. It will involve keeping the changes to what didn’t work in 1992, while rejecting the excesses which allowed for the restoration. The degradation of social and gender norms has created a lost generation, where teenage boys feel isolated, and men feel they are not valued, and where an increasing number of Americans resent the role they are ascribed in racial grievance politics. This drives insularity, and a desperate search for identity or escape, whether in gender or ideology.
But at the same time, we do not want merely to restore the norms of the 1990s. The world has changed.
Conservatives are in a unique position in 2023. After decades of society silencing and dismissing social conservatism, suddenly large segments of the population are willing to concede that conservatives may have had a point about a few things. They are willing to listen. That provides a chance not just to win an election or two, but to forge a new national consensus which the Democrat Party will be forced to abide by while in office, because it will be unable to win office without doing so. Ronald Reagan won 49 states, and while Bill Clinton won, he was forced to accept the Reagan Revolution as legitimate in order to do so. That meant that even when he won, the changes Reagan instituted were not undone.
Changing culture cannot be done with one election or laws. It requires changing the center of gravity of both parties so that it does not matter which wins a specific election. Toward that end, social conservatives need to recognize that while these issues can be used to help Republicans win, and perhaps should be, there is a bigger prize at stake: the culture itself. And specifically, converting the Democrat Party. It will not change America if a Republican defeats a Democrat for state senate in Texas running on the banning of “Latinx.” It will change the country if Democrat legislators in a blue state like Connecticut call for the term to be banned.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.