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Conservatives Win All the Time
Understanding one of the founding myths of the New Right
On the right, there’s a self-pitying narrative that’s taken hold, in which democracy and conventional political activism are hopeless, and the conservative movement has been doing nothing but losing for decades. The 1990s thinker Sam Francis has recently enjoyed something of a resurgence. Writing in 1994, he argued,
American conservatism, in other words, is a failure, and all the think tanks, magazines, direct-mail barons, inaugural balls, and campaign buttons cannot disguise or alter it. Virtually every cause to which conservatives have attached themselves for the past three generations has been lost, and the tide of political and cultural battle is not likely to turn anytime soon.
While Francis’ argument about the neo-conservative domination of the right is now dated, modern writers echo his pessimistic understanding of the history of the movement. An author for The Federalist writes “the conservative project has largely failed, and it is time for a new approach.” This new approach usually involves being more willing to play tough in order to defeat the left. This understanding of why conservatism has failed is today associated with what David Brooks calls the “New Right.” Instead of gathering a bunch of quotes myself, I’ll just quote from his profile of the movement:
Don't take my word for it. In a recent symposium published by The American Conservative, editor of American Affairs Julius Krein (echoing his colleague Gladden Pappin) complains that “contemporary conservatism” lacks “a serious approach to wielding political power.” Hillsdale College’s David Azerrad argues that conservatives must learn to be “manly,” “combative,” and “comfortable” using “the levers of state power…to reward friends and punish enemies.” And Claremont's Matthew J. Peterson insists that “conservatism must not merely make arguments…it must act on them, wielding ‘regime-level’ power in the service of good political order to do so.”
How much of this is true? One problem with these debates is they often aren’t exactly clear what is meant by the “right” or “left.” There is also a tendency to observe what is happening at too general of a level, since it’s possible for the right to win on certain issues and the left to win on others. What this means is that the idea that “conservatives always lose” is falsifiable. One simply has to find a number of issues on which public policy has moved right in recent decades.
Below, I show that such examples are not hard to find. I then explain what I think is really going on when New Right types say conservatives always lose. They are in effect restricting their view towards a handful of issues and cultural changes mostly related to race, gender, and sexual orientation. Yet the path to “winning” on these issues is the same as what has worked in other areas: having intelligent policies that address the relevant problem, and prioritizing enacting them. It all sounds very boring, but it’s true.
A Brief History of Conservatives Winning
Here’s a short list of important public policy battles that the right has won over the last several decades.
The right to bear arms has become a reality over the last several decades, as the two charts below show.
In 1988, Vermont was the only state in the country that had an unrestricted right to carry a firearm, meaning without a permit, and 16 states had no right to carry at all. Today, every state has at least some right to concealed carry, thanks in no small part to the Supreme Court. But most states have gone even further than judicial decisions have required. Fully half the states now have unrestricted concealed carry, and most of the rest require a license but grant one to almost anyone who applies. A once extreme position has now become the norm. It’s quite remarkable to note that Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas did not allow concealed carry even with a permit only a generation ago.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, within 100 days of the Dobbs decision, no fewer than 66 clinics across 15 states stopped offering abortion services. Even before that, the trend in abortions was downwards, in part due to restrictions red states were placing on providers. The number of abortions in the US peaked at 1.6 million in 1990, and it’s declined to fewer than 1 million in recent years. Since Dobbs, 13 states have enacted full bans on abortion, with a handful of others creating new limits.
Schooling and Parental Rights
In the 1960s and 1970s, parents who wanted to homeschool their children ran into legal difficulties. Starting in 1982, 34 states passed laws allowing homeschooling, finally making the practice legal in all 50 states only as of 1993. The maps below show how much the law has changed.
The degree of regulation tends to be extremely light. In some states, you’re not even required to teach your kids math or English. Only a few stipulate that the parent has to at least have a high school diploma or GED. Meanwhile, homeschooling is illegal under virtually all circumstances in much of Europe. About a decade ago, there was a story about a German family that was seeking asylum in the US on that basis. Thanks to the conservative movement, the US really has become an outlier in how little the government cares about what you do with your own kids.
Between 1999-2000 and 2015-2016, while the number of children enrolled in private schools and traditional public schools was flat, the number in public charter schools increased from 0.4 million to 3 million, and the homeschooling population went from 0.9 million to 1.7 million. On top of this, the covid-19 pandemic has led to an exodus from public schools that they still haven’t recovered from.
One reason only a limited number of children have left traditional public schools is that it’s expensive to do so. Taxpayers are required to pay for them, and then make their own arrangements if they want to check out of the system. But Republican states are making it more financially feasible to do so. Even a year ago, not a single state had universal school choice, meaning that parents get money directly from the state to spend on the education of their kids, which takes resources away from public schools and gives them to families. DeSantis is about to sign a bill making Florida the fourth state to adopt this kind of program, and a handful of others look like they may soon follow.
As someone who considers public education one of the greatest disasters in the history of Western Civilization, this seems to be an underrated development. Conservative states are in the process of moving towards a dismantling of the child gulags. The fact that media figures on the right aren’t talking much about this shows that the discourse has an extreme negativity bias.
When Reagan came into office, the top marginal tax rate was 69%. It’s now 37%.
It’s not just the rich, as the overall individual federal tax burden decreased throughout the 1980s and has since stayed steady.
True, American conservatives haven’t rolled back public welfare programs or significantly reduced the size of government. But no one else in the developed world really has either. This seems very difficult to do in a democracy. But Republicans at least have been able to keep government spending lower than it is in other rich countries.
Why So Angry?
Conservatives have been winning on abortions, guns, schooling, and taxes. That list is not all-exhaustive, as I could have also talked about the decline of organized labor and, in some ways, expanded religious liberty. So why do they feel like they are losing? I think a few things are going on here.
First of all, some conservatives are just closet (or subconscious) white nationalists. Sam Francis was at least open about it. If you want to preserve a white majority, then yes, the last few decades have been a disaster, and that battle is lost.
But that’s only a minority of the New Right. Mostly, the anger is about cultural and identity issues. And here, indeed, there has been a sea change. Affirmative action has been with us for decades, but only recently have major institutions become openly anti-white and anti-male. Gay propaganda in schools has exploded, as has the percentage of young people identifying as LGBT. School libraries basically now carry porn, and since it’s LGBT porn instead of heterosexual, the media considers any attempts to keep it away from minors to be fascism. There are now fat women in underwear ads. And so on.
How can conservatives “win” on these issues? Does doing so require a new kind of politics, a rethinking of traditional assumptions, or even a revolution in our governing system? I see no reason why. Take the gun and abortion issues. What conservatives have done goes beyond simply appointing their own judges and passing new laws at the state level. Rather, the entire movement, from top to bottom, prioritizes preventing the government from engaging in left-wing activism in these areas.
To take one minor but telling example, Congressional Republicans have for decades stopped the CDC from looking into gun violence as a “public health issue.” They understand what liberals are doing here. Any attempt to “study” gun violence easily shades into gun control activism, and so they nip it in the bud. Meanwhile, every year Republicans make sure that Congress reauthorizes the Hyde Amendment, which prevents federal funding from going towards abortion.
Contrast this to race and gender issues. Wokeness can clearly be traced to left-wing government policy that the right has provided virtually no pushback against. Much of it could have been undone through the executive branch alone had the last few Republican presidents not been asleep at the wheel. Every part of our government discriminates against whites and men, and the private sector is forced to do the same. Even the LGBT explosion is likely more related to policy than one would think. Leo Sapir has written about how the obsession with minority sexual preferences and identities in public schools to a large extent has its roots in “anti-bullying” and Title IX initiatives. Republicans in Congress don’t like this stuff, but they’re not putting a lot of political capital towards fighting it either.
A federal agency that started advocating against the conservative position on abortion or guns would quickly see its funding threatened. But diversity trainings, affirmative action, anti-harassment policies, and other hallmarks of wokeness only inspire collective shrugs from lawmakers, and even Republican presidents.
Predictably, this has led to everything becoming woke. But that doesn’t mean that this was a natural consequence of liberals inherently knowing how to use power, the system being rigged in favor of the left, or any such nonsense. It’s just what happens when only one side prioritizes a policy area, and the other rolls over.
I was talking to some conservative lawyers not that long ago and they attributed Republican passivity on race and gender issues to them being scared of the media. I replied that this struck me as highly unlikely. Doesn’t banning abortion also anger journalists? Liberal elites seem much more committed to abortion rights than, say, eliminating standardized tests. I see anti-affirmative action articles in prestige media outlets all the time, but never a pro-life article. And because conservative politicians and voters actually care about the cause, major corporations tend to stay out of the abortion debate, at least compared to how they behave on identity issues.
The image of Republican congressmen living in fear of what the NYT says about them is a few decades out of date. Conservative elites are today much more responsive to the concerns of right-wing media and their own activists and voters. The problem is there simply isn’t an anti-woke equivalent to Grover Norquist or the NRA. Right-wing resistance to the left on identity issues tends to be dominated by talk show hosts and online “influencers” rather than people who think seriously about policy and how to change it.
Conservatives that talk about giving up on normal politics because things have become woke and advocating for a coup or some kind of revolution are like a man who decides it’s impossible for him to lose weight through reducing his caloric intake when he’s never tried going on a diet.
On a long list of issues, the right has won through normal politics. It can win on culture and wokeness too. In a few months, I will show the way.
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