“Intellectually respectable and politically palatable.”
That’s how George Will describes the conservatism pioneered by William F. Buckley — and which is apparently threatened by a certain Republican presidential candidate.
In a scathing Wednesday op-ed, Will attacked Donald Trump for making the conservative brand unrespectable and dragging it down to the gutter.
The implication here is that conservatives should be very concerned with respectability.
But who or what bequeaths this virtue upon the right? It certainly isn’t the general voting public or fellow conservatives.
It’s actually a far less-conservative group that determines respectability: liberal elites. They dominate the media. They set the tone in the culture. And they are the vocal majority in cities like New York and Washington.
What is seen as appropriate for political discussion is often determined by the opinions of these elites. If they thought Will was too much of an extremist, his columns would no longer run in The Washington Post. More importantly, he would no longer be respectable.
But that doesn’t mean the American public would not hear his views or find them repulsive. Au contraire, millions of people have views that are sharply out of line with liberal elites and have no problem giving an ear to one of the outcasts.
And it bears mentioning that it’s hard to keep conservatism in good graces when liberals keep pushing polite discourse further to the fringes of the left.
But political palatability or advancing principles is not the main goal here. It’s all about gaining that respect for too many conservative establishment types. And Will is not the only pundit in this boat.
This obsession with respectability goes all the way back to Buckley himself. Even though the man who’s responsible for forging the conservative movement certainly had many admirable qualities, respectability was one of his cardinal virtues. Buckley lived in New York City and moved through some of the most exclusive social circles, which meant he had to stay within the good graces of liberal elites.
But that didn’t necessarily mean he was able to push forth conservative ideas to his upper-crust pals. Rather, Buckley played the entertaining reactionary to the progressives who allowed him into their parties. Of course, these highfalutin liberals saw the National Review founder as their intellectual equal and gave him respect.
But the Faustian bargain came at the cost of challenging our culture’s liberal orthodoxy.
While conservatives have won on foreign policy and taxes over the last 50 or so years, they have completely lost on the cultural. When America society resembles a conservative’s worst nightmare, it’s hard to say that the movement Buckley created was successful in its mission.
A likely culprit for this failure is this desire for respect.
It forces conservatives to conform their beliefs to prevailing liberal biases. It makes the right focus on fiscal issues at the expense of hot-button cultural ones. And it dissuades conservatives from fighting for principle if it means getting labelled a bigot.
There’s no better example of this mentality than the issue of same-sex marriage. Ten years ago, it was acceptable to oppose gay marriage as an assault on the traditional family. Today, liberals say it is akin to supporting segregation and has no place in polite society.
Many conservatives, including George Will, are now waving the white flag and wanting to move on from the topic.
After the Supreme Court made the unions legal throughout the land, Will wrote a column saying conservatives shouldn’t become “unhinged” about the decision and should essentially accept it.
Needless to say, you can’t challenge the left, or even stand athwart history, when you’re desperately trying to curry its favor. The constant updating of conservatism makes it seem less like a real ideology and more like a delayed form of liberalism.
It also doesn’t help when Will and other commentators serve the function of determining who’s respectable and who’s not on the right. In the past, the columnist called Ann Coulter the “enemy” of reputable conservatism — at Yale University of all places.
It’s not hard to glean what kind of conservatives Will doesn’t like. It appears to be anyone who uses colorful language, attacks the left too forthrightly, champions scary issues like immigration and is able to reach people who would otherwise not be engaged in politics. These are the enemies of conservative respectability because they upset liberal elites too much.
What these establishment conservatives don’t get is that politics in America is no longer a parlor game for upstanding gentlemen. For the left, which is the force that shapes our discourse, politics is war. It’s not about making the other side nod in approval or coming to a glorious compromise. It’s all about pushing forth a progressive agenda and transforming America.
The left doesn’t care about acting as gatekeepers for their side as they let in all kinds of fringe beliefs into the mainstream, from the Black Lives Matter movement to normalizing transsexuality. Progressives set the tone, and establishment conservatives grudgingly follow along.
Will’s WaPo conservative colleague Michael Gerson laments that Trump’s rise has come at the price of civility. But civility departed from politics a long time ago. The left wields civility to drive their foes into the ground. That’s why they’re able to set the pace for American politics.
Especially when their “opponents” care more about their approval than actually winning.
If the right wants to influence opinion and gain power, it has to fight the left — not seek its approval. The goal of politics should be to win, not to get a seat at your opponent’s table.
Otherwise an ideology built on standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” will be merely crying “Wait for us!”