Original artwork by Marisa Draeger
Part of my motivation for launching Saving Elephants was the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Prior to the election, I believed the greatest risk for the long-term viability of the conservative movement to be the ability of the Republican party—the primary vehicle for instituting conservative policies—to survive the rapidly changing demographics in the United States. I was only half kidding when I’d tell people I could lower the median age of local Republican gatherings just by showing. I believed then—as I do now—that unless the GOP can find a way to appeal to Millennials they won’t be a viable party much longer. And since we Millennials are the most diverse generation in American history, appealing to Millennials includes offering a more inclusive message.
Let me be clear: when I speak of the need for inclusion and appealing to minorities I do not mean caving to the Left’s demands for thought-policing tolerance, open borders, or expanded entitlement programs. Much ado has been made about how Millennials are somehow inherently more progressive than generations past. Nonsense. No generation is inherently any more conservative or progressive than the next.
Had we transplanted a group of American Millennials to the Congo the day they were born and had them raised by Tutsi rebels, it is doubtful they would have come of age chanting “We are the 99 percent!” and demanding the use of gender-neutral pronouns. Time and circumstance may make some worldview more appealing to an entire generation over competing worldviews, but that doesn’t make the generations themselves any more or less “conservative.” Rather, historical trends and circumstance may make it more advantageous for one worldview or another. Conservatism—which promises no utopia and demands each individual take responsibility for their own lives and character development—can often start with a decided disadvantage; but this era is particularly rife with challenges for the Right.
Such as? Kristen Soltis Anderson, author of The Selfie Vote and polling expert with a special focus on Millennials, summarized it well:
“There are massive political challenges awaiting Republicans in the future. As a party, we have relied on older voters, white voters, religious voters, married voters, voters in rural or less-dense suburbs. All of these groups are shrinking. This is happening gradually, of course, but trends that have been in motion for years are slowly going to make it harder and harder for Republicans to continue to have the same coalition. They will need to win a new group of voters: today’s young voters.”
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, common conservative “branding” that has been used over the past half-century is an ill-suited marketing technique for today. Most Millennials weren’t born when Ronald Reagan—arguably the most conservative president of the last century—was in office. Yet his name was invoked over 45 times in a single Republican presidential debate during the 2016 elections. The Great Recession has led to widespread discontent with the free market among Millennials unable to find suitable careers. Yet the Republican party has failed to rise to the occasion and craft an appealing message for Millennials perplexed by the economic collapse—meanwhile, socialists like Bernie Sanders have filled the vacuum with a strong appeal to central, socialize control.
Perhaps the greatest disadvantage conservatives face with Millennials is the lack of a coherent adversary to engender them to the conservative cause of national defense and unity. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it ended the Cold War. It also ended the single most unifying element in the conservative collision of the 20th century. The term neoconservative refers to 1960s liberals who became disenchanted with the Left’s stance on Communism and the Great Society and found a new home in the conservative movement. The term Reagan Democrat refers to 1980s Democrats who voted for Ronald Reagan who advocated a policy of defeating the Soviets. Millennials today face no such threat that would unify them towards this conservative impulse.
But none of this means that conservatism as a worldview or a philosophy is no longer valid. A worldview doesn’t become invalid when we turn the page of a calendar. At issue is whether or not the conservative worldview is right, not whether it’s currently pragmatic. As G.K. Chesterton put it: “You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays. You might as well say of a view of the cosmos that it was suitable to half-past three, but not suitable to half-past four. What a man can believe depends upon his philosophy, not upon the clock or the century.” The circumstances surrounding worldviews and the messaging that may appeal to each generation are constantly in flux. The worldviews in general, and human nature in particular, is not.
So here we sit, massive disadvantages at every hand and the largest, most diverse generation of Americans whose demographic changes are completely at odds with the voting coalition Republicans have long relied upon quickly coming of age, and the conservative must somehow convince this generation they have something to recommend it if the conservative movement is to survive and thrive in this century. Could things get any worse?
Enter Donald Trump.
I believe that conservatism, properly understood and articulated, IS the most appropriate means of appealing to Millennials. What I do not support is the hostility with which Trumplicans advocate a “conservative” agenda (quotation marks very much intended.) It’s not conservative for the Vice President to stage a political stunt to pressure citizens to stand for the National Anthem (for that is an inappropriate abuse of his power.) It’s not conservative to try to “save jobs” by giving a company tax incentives to stay in the United States at the expense of the taxpayer. It’s not conservative for a president to tweet that an American citizen should be in jail who isn’t on trial. It’s not conservative to announce “I alone” can fix America.
These actions represent an authoritarian enforcement of a red-state culture. The kind that smacks of Southern Baptist potluck dinners, Civil War reenactments, bluegrass and chili festivals, Branson-style entertainment, Blue Lives Matter police officers, gun-toting NRA members, Southern gospel quartets, blue-collar steel workers, large homeschooling families, Christian alternatives to pop-culture, and selfish country-music loving ladies. Yours truly is a product of this culture. It’s deeply rooted into my soul and I’m well versed in its complex web of shortcomings and merits and—as such—feel a strong sense of belonging to it.
But no amount of fine feelings for that culture means I confuse the defense of the culture with the defense of conservatism. The former is a cultural preference, the latter a worldview. The former prescribes adhering to the norms and customs of the culture, which may exclude certain demographics. The latter does not take into account your race, age, or gender, but instead attempts to persuade you to believe in certain truth-claims. The former says you must behave in this way and believe these things to belong with us the latter says it is in your best interest to behave this way and believe these things. The former is not a value.
Much of our modern political infighting isn’t a debate about values, but a debate about whose culture is the best. That is a very important and admirable debate; but it should not be a political policy debate. And political enforcement of cultural norms—being non-voluntary—is precisely the opposite of conservative values.
Conservatism has a much more difficult road ahead today than it did even a couple of years ago. For it must not only overcome the demographic challenges facing the political party that’s been sympathetic to conservative values, it must now deal with the fact that political party may no longer be sympathetic to conservative values. To be clear, Trump is not the primary threat to conservatism—the mindset that elected him is its primary threat. And, while the collision between the worldviews of your average Trumplican and your average traditional conservative are complex, I’d like to focus on one of those differences in this series: the weight of values.
To be fair, most of what the Trump administration does from a policy perspective is something I can support as a conservative. And many of my Right-leaning friends have expressed—some with belligerence—that I should simply be satisfied with that. They don’t understand why it matters what vile things Trump says or does, so long as the end result is the kind of policies we wanted. And that is a legitimate point.
But it begs the question, are conservative values the same as conservative policies? I contend that they are not. And, if they’re not, what is the appropriate thing to do when they’re not in harmony? That is, at what point is it no longer “OK” that Trump passes something like a modest tax reduction plan if he’s making a mockery of our values and eroding the confidence of our civil institutions and creating instability in our foreign affairs? At what point do values trump policy? And—here’s the real question—are values still worth upholding if they’re getting in the way of achieving those policy objectives? What are they good for if they don’t get us what we wanted?
These are the very questions I hope to address in Part 2.