Why Conservatives Lose: A Case Study

About six years ago, I wrote a piece at the Federalist called “Conservativism is Obsolete.”  I received a grim reminder of that fact in a pair of recent Tweets from conservative Princeton law professor Robert P. George.

In 2021, I don’t think “old-fashioned” is an adequate description of this kind of folly. There is so much wrong even in such a short statement that it’s difficult to even know where to begin.

First and foremost, I suppose, is the misplaced sense of fair play we find here. It’s one thing to suggest that an institution must not privilege truth over falsehood so that truth can win in a fair contest. There is a measure of naivete even to that. After all, reasoned debate in order to discern truth necessarily privileges theories that are actually concerned with truth and see reason as a way to find it. Even so, there’s certainly an important place for debate of that nature in academics. But fairness does not require offering a seat at the table to someone who wants to smash the table to bits and beat you with the wreckage. Nor does it require opening your institution to people who quite openly wish to take it over and throw you out of it.

When we speak of Critical Race Theory–or really any branch of critical theory–we’re no longer speaking of a competing view or even an error but rather a kind of anti-truth. How exactly can there be a fair contest to find the truth when “truth” is deemed a matter of raw power, “fair” a matter of entrenched privilege, and “contest” a matter of total war? George speaks of “the proper currency of intellectual discourse” but CRT deems that entire economy to be an example of systematic racism that must be torn down. Proponents will use reason or evidence as a tool of that warfare when useful, but they’ll just as quickly discard it when it provides no tactical advantage. Inviting CRT into an academy is is like inviting a tribe of cannibals to play a friendly game of basketball.

Despite how often conservatives use the term “culture war”, precious few act as though they are actually in one. After all, nobody is as content with winning a war as they are with losing one, as conservatives seem to be. They fall into this trap for a reason that seems noble at first glance–they want to stand by their principles at any cost. The problem is that it’s not really a mere willingness to do so, which would at least be laudable for it’s courage. In truth, it’s actually an eagerness to do so borne from a desire to be seen as courageous.

There’s nothing noble about virtue-signaling of that kind, and the result is a strangely extensive list of “principles’ for which  conservatives are willing to lose. That list now extends far beyond things like God, moral absolutes, or Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. In their eagerness to signal their supposed courage, they also wish to lose for things like fairness, civility, and courtesy. As I’ve written before, these things are social contracts rather than moral absolutes. They generally aren’t worth dying for.

When one party breaks a contract, the other party isn’t “sinking to their level” by refusing to uphold their end of it. If you contract an employee who refuses to show up for work, no principle compels you to continue paying his wages. You owe fairness to the fair, civility to the civil, honor to the honorable, and so forth. When you instead offer such treasures promiscuously, they become meaningless. And any academy that needs to debate over whether objective Truth is even something that can be pursued has become similarly worthless.

So what about George’s contention that we shouldn’t shield students by refusing to expose them to the arguments and counterarguments for CRT and other poisonous ideologies?

In a way, I actually agree. Presenting such things to your students is all well and good if you’re training them to resist. After all, people need to be equipped to evaluate rubbish philosophies so that they don’t fall prey to them. They also need to be able to protect others by effectively denouncing them–both dialectically and rhetorically. The trick is that one cannot truly understand such philosophies well enough to accomplish that end without taking them seriously enough to understand why they’re appealing in the first place. And generally, the best way of doing so is indeed to study primary sources so you can understand what the proponents of that philosophy actually contend. By way of analogy, at some point, shepherds do need practice dealing with actual wolves.

But that doesn’t mean you put the wolves in charge of training shepherds. And that’s why George’s first mistake poisons something that would otherwise be good advice.

The goal should never be to shelter students from falsehood, but rather to prepare them to contend against it. I, for example, am very grateful to have taken a class on atheism at seminary–one in which I read a lot of arguments against Christianity by prominent atheists. I also found another class’s trip to the temples of various other religions quite useful. But as you might suspect, Christianity was still given a place of privilege over atheism and false religions in those classes. It wouldn’t have been a seminary otherwise. Likewise, for an academy to be a true academy, it must privilege views that honor truth and wisdom over views that wish to deconstruct those entire concepts.

What’s more, those of us who confess that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom have absolutely no excuse for not similarly privileging Christianity in our academies. This isn’t because Christianity is frail and needs the university to protect it, but because the university is frail and needs Christ to avoid treading the path of folly that Western academia has become all too familiar with. There’s a difference between exposing your students to challenging ideas and entrusting them to intellectual and spiritual predators. If conservatives cannot discern that difference or aren’t willing to establish and defend that kind of privilege, then they shouldn’t be academics.

And that leads us to the final issue to consider here. As ridiculous as these two problems with George’s tweets may be, they aren’t the worst part. The worst part is an irony that makes the fair play issue entirely moot. After all, conservatives have pretty much zero influence over which views are or are not banned in Western universities. They no longer have a say in whether any views are privileged or welcomed. The leftward drift of academia over the past 60 years or so is well-documented, so I won’t rehash it here. Suffice to say that while there are exceptions, it’s become rather difficult to openly teach or even possess any substantial measure of right-wing thought in most universities.

And how exactly did that happen? Well, conservatives decided that it wouldn’t be fair to privilege any particular view or approach, and so they invited a bunch of their enemies to run their institutions and were subsequently ousted by them. George is literally promoting the strategy that has already lost them the war.

There may be decent vocational schools or research centers hidden within them sometimes, but ideologically speaking, most secular universities are a lost cause, and conservatives already know it. They complain all the time about how they’ve become indoctrination centers for progressive politics and grievance studies. And yet, conservatives still donate to their alma mater, support public funding for them, and even send their children off to be taught by their enemies. The right needs to stop feeding institutions that are committed to destroying them and instead start finding ways to replace these fallen academies with faithful ones.

And when we do, we should never trust conservatives enough to be put in charge of them, lest history repeat itself.

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