Discover more from Richard Hanania's Newsletter
Conservatism as an Oppositional Culture
How a sociological concept explains the "Scam Right"
In the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson signed a series of historic bills to address poverty, racism, and the legacy of slavery. This was soon followed by an explosion in crime and dysfunction with no parallel in American history. Liberals today blame lead poisoning. Of course they do, since the only alternative theories for what happened imply that liberals are wrong with regards to everything they believe about the causes of social problems.
A 2021 paper conducted a meta-analysis and found that popular claims about lead poisoning are probably exaggerated. You can blame all the usual suspects, including publication bias. When the authors eliminated the studies that have an endogeneity problem, they found the effect of lead can only be at most a very small part of the story in explaining homicide trends, and may in fact have no impact at all. Regardless of whether liberals are correct, we eventually removed lead from the atmosphere, and yet never went back to the low rates of divorce, illegitimacy, drug use, and crime that we saw before the Great Society and the left-wing takeover of institutions.
Back when academics used to be able to write interesting things touching on race for a mass audience, the authors of Freakonomics pointed to work by Roland Fryer and noted that until the early 1970s, there was still a great deal of overlap among names given to black and white newborns in California. Since then, there has been a massive divergence. Writing in 2005, the authors note that,
[m]ore than 40 percent of the black girls born in California in a given year receive a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 baby white girls received that year. Even more remarkably, nearly 30 percent of the black girls are given a name that is unique among every baby, white and black, born that year in California. (There were also 228 babies named Unique during the 1990s alone, and 1 each of Uneek, Uneque, and Uneqqee.)
Moreover, the person most likely to give their child a black name was “an unmarried, low-income, undereducated teenage mother from a black neighborhood who has a distinctively black name herself.” Unsurprisingly, such kids have pretty bad life outcomes. Given that distinctly black naming practices rose at about roughly the same time as the explosion in crime and illegitimacy concentrated in the same communities, there’s a strong case to be made that all these phenomena are the result of what scholars have called the rise of an “oppositional culture,” that is, an active rejection of the rules and norms of mainstream American society.
Liberals have traditionally blamed past or present racism for the problems experienced by black Americans, while the oppositional culture thesis is usually associated with conservatives.
I think this term is a useful heuristic to understand why lies, fake news, and scams are so much more prominent on the Right than the Left. Consider that Trump in partnership with the Republican National Committee raised $250 million from his followers in the eight weeks after losing the 2020 presidential election, based on fundraising emails that promised to overturn the results. This has apparently become a business model, with former Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake currently suing for a new election, and the failed Republican candidate for secretary of state who was on the ballot alongside her asking his supporters for money to “bring election offenders to justice & fix the 2022 election.”
I am often annoyed by debates over the definition of “democracy.” To me, public sector unions, where the government takes money from the paychecks of state employees and gives it to one political party, sounds pretty undemocratic. But Freedom House thinks that a Supreme Court decision taking power away from public sector unions was itself undemocratic. I have no problem with gerrymandering. Why are straight lines used to draw congressional districts more legitimate than squiggly ones?
But denying election results is in its own category. In any kind of social system, some things are optional and can be negotiated, but a few fundamental rules make civilization possible. In the context of international relations, I’ve written that “sovereignty” is a mushy concept while “don’t invade, and if you do, don’t annex” is more of an absolute rule that it’s important to ensure everyone follows. The idea that you should accept election results falls into the latter category. And yes, I know Stacey Abrams didn’t concede her 2018 loss and that’s bad, but you’ve got partisan blinders on if I have to explain to you the difference between that and accepting election lies becoming a fundraising strategy and litmus test for running for office among Republicans.
Stop the Steal is only perhaps the most blatant, lucrative, and obvious fraud. But if you ever make the mistake of giving your email to a conservative news site or political campaign, you will be flooded with emails that seem like they’ve been designed in order to prey on the mental frailties of the aging portion of the public. This is something I’ve been documenting for a while on Twitter. I’m somehow on lists for Democratic campaigns too, and they’re not nearly as dishonest. One might say that this is because Democratic voters are younger, more educated, and higher IQ, so they’re less likely to fall for transparent scams like promising an 800% match on donations. But Republicans became the low IQ party in part because of their greater shamelessness in manipulating the weak and vulnerable. This is why they’ve accepted anti-vaxxers into their coalition, when they were traditionally on the Left and it would’ve made more sense for them to stay there given that the vaccine can be credited to Trump.
Spend some time consuming conservative media, and you’ll see it’s all just one scam after the other: “commemorative” gold coins, something about refinancing your house, Ben Carson brain pills. Often, there is barely any line between the straight reporting and scams, with the theme of the news coverage blending right into the messages of sponsors, both spatially and psychologically, as can be seen in two recent emails from Breitbart and Daily Caller.
The reader needs to squint in order to be able to tell which are the news stories and which are the ads, particularly when you cater to a demographic composed of individuals at the stage of life when their vision is deteriorating.
My favorite story in the genre of conservative scams is how Newt Gingrich after he left Congress would ask businesses to pay an annual $5,000 fee for him to name them an “Entrepreneur of the Year.” This would pop up in the news when the awards would occasionally go to a strip club or adult video store, at which point they would be kicked out of the club and refunded their money. During the Obamacare debate, Gingrich repurposed the scam so that for $5,000 doctors would get a plaque declaring them a “Champion of Medicine.” Potential recipients were told by fax that they were among an elite 100 physicians selected, without informing them that hundreds, if not thousands, got the same message. None of this mattered when Gingrich ran for president in 2012 and ended up with the fourth most delegates in the Republican primary. The best reporting on conservatives scamming their own supporters is, of course, published by liberals.
The question isn’t why corrupt people exist on the Right. Rather, it’s why there are so few norms on the political Right against telling blatant lies to your followers and scamming them. Or, to put it in another way, why aren’t conservative journalists ashamed to see their work being used to sell overpriced gold bars to retirees who don’t know any better? One theory is that even those that don’t profit from lies are afraid to confront those that do. Ann Coulter has lost influence in recent years due to having too much self-respect to pander to anti-vaxx or go along with the election fraud narrative. Knowing and talking to many smart conservatives, however, makes me think that it’s not simply a matter of individual or partisan self-interest. Those who defend conservative lies seem to have hatred for the Left as their animating principle. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate into wanting to do what will actually hurt the Left the most, which would be for Republicans to stop denying election results and nominate sane political candidates instead, thus giving them the best chance to win office. Rather, they support whatever makes liberals angriest in the short term, or at least refrain from challenging it. Everything else in the world of politics is something of a distraction, especially if it reflects poorly on their own side.
Personally, I’m not that morally outraged by these scams. I suspect people stupid enough to fall for them would otherwise blow their money on something else, and it’s society’s fault for redistributing so much wealth to the elderly in the first place, giving them more money at the stage of life when they’re least equipped to use it wisely. If scamming a few old people gets society fewer labor or civil rights regulations, then I would probably be for it. But if you want a healthy political movement that can effect change in the world, it helps to have more idealists and fewer conmen. The Scam Right makes that extremely difficult.
Oppositional culture only manifests itself in communities that are considered low status. I know many right-wingers probably think blacks have more status than whites in American society, but that’s not how most people perceive things. For this reason, blacks think about American politics in racial terms. Whites don’t think much about blacks, but consider their status in terms of relationships to other whites. Similarly, liberalism is the higher-status ideology, so it experiences internal competition, with MeToo cancellations and woke purges within the non-profit sector. Internal competition within conservatism is relatively muted, which is why the official ideology can fluctuate so wildly depending on who represents the movement at a particular time.
Starting in the 1960s, elite institutions started to encourage black communities to take a hostile attitude towards mainstream American society. The lower classes sunk into higher levels of illegitimacy, crime, and despair. Yet the ideas that motivated these changes took hold throughout the community. Middle and upper-class blacks, even when embarrassed by the inner-city ghetto, ignored its problems except when they were used as a way to pressure and guilt white society into supporting left-wing policies. For the more intellectually active among them, encouraged and shaped by elite culture as represented in academia, the media, and NGOs, hostility towards white society was the guiding heuristic for thinking about social and political issues.
Modern conservatives find themselves in a similar position with regards to Stop the Steal and other right-wings scams. As part of the low status tribe, they are driven by resentment towards those above them. This has become the emotional core of much political activism. Within an oppositional culture, we see low IQ members of the community engaging in inexcusable behavior, and high IQ members ignoring such conduct when they’re not enabling it. The ultimate results of this dynamic can be observed in the inner cities of Chicago, Detroit, and Baltimore. And also on cable news, talk radio, and at the meetings of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
In the end, oppositional culture tends to be self-defeating. It’s ironic that conservatives can see this when it comes to understanding the connection between urban disorder and the poisonous ideas being taught throughout the education system. Rather than taking a consistent stand against the cult of victimhood, populism can be understood as conservatives trying to join it.
When the crime wave was at its peak in the late 1980s and early 1990s, black politicians finally started supporting tough on crime policies. It was ultimately to the benefit of their own side, as Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president to serve two full terms since FDR. Republican failure in the 2022 midterms might similarly serve as a wakeup call. Across the board, election denier candidates did worse than other Republican politicians. A desire to beat the Democrats might lead to some self-reflection with regards to what path to take in the future, and ultimately better behavior. Hating the libs got conservatives into this mess, and it might also be what gets them out of it.
Richard Hanania's Newsletter is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.