Where Have All the Conservatives Gone?

I grew up in a solidly red Rust Belt town that has consistently elected conservatives to state and national offices. Many of my friends from college were not just right-leaning kids parroting their parent’s views on taxes and patriotism, they were politically active Republicans. From 2000-2016, these folks were loud. In person and online, they let the world know what they thought of foreign policy decisions, social policy, cultural debates, school funding, and any other issue that made its way in and out of the 24-hour news cycle. In 2017 these voices largely fell silent. I wonder if I’ll ever hear them again.

Some drop-off was to be expected. 2016 was a Presidential election year. That always riles up the partisans as our competition for the support of casual political observers injects a great deal of energy and focus to our old and tired debates. While there might be some winners hangover of gloating (of which I’ve seen plenty) and conciliation (of which I’ve seen little), typically we settle back into our routines. The non-political retreat to whatever it is they normally talk about (sports? weather? tv?) and the wonkier among us get back to arguing about root causes of societal issues and possible pitfalls of new policy proposals. This isn’t what happened in my social network. Rather, liberals have been in ascendance– puffing out their chests and going on the warpath in defiance of Trump on one hand, while trying to consolidate and grow their base by appealing to moderate conservatives who are repulsed by Trump on the other. Meanwhile, conservatives have become almost invisible. Suddenly, hundreds of lifelong Republicans I know for whom politics has been a hugely important part of their life (foundational in some cases) have lost all interest in the subject. And judging from what I’ve observed across social media, college campuses, and the political news world, my experience isn’t anecdotal. Conservatives are disappearing from the public sphere.

The schism on the right is real. And it isn’t JUST about Donald Trump. The coalition Goldwater envisioned, Nixon created, and Reagan empowered has been fraying at the seams for some time. The collapse of the neo-cons during the disastrous second George W. Bush term effectively killed the “modern” conservative movement. Their foundational policies all failed, from state-building to trickle-down economics. The culture war they used to inflame their base (and sell hokey products on their radio, tv, and internet programs) was lost despite Republicans holding much of the state and national power over the period. It was hard to say just what it meant to be a conservative in a post-Bush world. For eight ‘glorious’ years, it simply meant opposing Barack Obama. Then they got one last year to hate the Clintons. With the Democrats banished, conservatives had to sit down and look at what they had become and where they wanted to go. It is that introspection that seems to have driven many from the board.

This isn’t all idle speculation from a wishful liberal. Many prominent Republicans and conservatives have written just that. David Frum, George Will, Erick Erickson, David Brooks, Ross Douthat, Conor Friedersdorf, Jonah Goldberg, and Bill Kristol have all penned or voiced something to that effect. This is a unique moment in American political history. A strong political party in control of all three branches of the federal government (and many state legislatures and governorships to boot) that has no coherent ideology is unprecedented (and almost impossible to believe). Led by a vacuous and duplicitous man in Donald Trump, the excesses and hypocrisy of the modern conservative movement have been laid bare. Rage all you like against the idea that the movement has its roots in white supremacy– Trump will make explicit that the current coalition is tied to it. Feign offense at the idea that that liberals have accused you of pandering to conservative Christian values– you just elected a man who is an open philanderer, covetous by any definition of the term, consumed by greed, a braggart who puts his name on everything, and who couldn’t even be bothered to memorize one Bible verse after having the audacity to tell the world that it was his favorite book.

“The whole Bible is incredible.” Profound stuff from a man who has clearly read his favorite book in a deep and meaningful way.

Coming to terms with this is difficult. For some, like Erickson, it has meant doubling down on the parts of conservatism he thinks are most important (notably, subverting his politics to his faith rather than what he perceives as subverting faith to politics in the current GOP and Christian evangelical movement). Others, like David Brooks, shrug their shoulders and lament the destruction of their once noble party, pointing to Trump and his populist predecessors in the infotainment world as usurpers rather than the metastasization of cancer that has always been lurking within the body politic. What these commentators all share is an opposition to what the Republican party and conservatism have become in this country. They are offended by the vulgarity and stupidity. They oppose the flaunting of norms and the destruction of our institutions. They see that they contributed to the problem by making bedfellows with charlatans like Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Mark Levin, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and the like. They acknowledge that the tools they used to animate their base and beat the Democrats have been turned against them and they have no idea how to stop it. Frankenstein is loose and the villagers are marching with him!

For my longstanding conservative friends and family, this process has been less clear. To be clear, I know a good many who feel no conflict at all– they are all in on Trump and feel like he’s doing a great job. But these folks never really vocalized their political beliefs before (and mostly don’t do so now, other than to say people should be nicer to Trump and how happy they are to not have Hillary). The people I knew who were College Republicans at Miami or active members of the Republican party campaigning in Cleveland, Chicago, Columbus, and a whole host of cities across the Midwest are conspicuously silent. I’ve pressed a few of them on the topic. The responses can be categorized in two ways: 1) withdraw and 2) exile.

The withdrawn conservatives have simply left the field. From what I can gather, they seem to be in a state of denial. Until a plausible narrative can be formed that doesn’t indicate that all their political activity in the 90s and 00s created this disaster (or Trump and the weak-willed GOP members of Congress somehow become something they are not ashamed of), they prefer to leave politics behind. As I’ve grown out of my obsession with sports in adulthood, they too are leaving the childish pursuit of politics behind. Given all the responsibilities of adulthood– careers, child raising, the hard work of preserving and growing your marriage/relationship, and family commitments– they simply don’t have the time or energy for politics. Some of them may return to the field if things normalize, the parties realign, or a viable third-party emerges that more closely represents their views. Others have likely been lost for good.

The exiles are rarer (and more interesting). They still follow politics closely, if much more quietly. Denied the convenience of talking-heads they instinctively agree with, they have begun the tough work of editorializing news and politics for themselves. They reject the populist Trump movement and the corrupt establishment Republicans he defeated alike. Most still parrot the lines they memorized about Obama, but have also begun to recognize that he was far from the extremist they made him out to be. These folks are free agents. It is hard to see them joining the Democratic party today, but it is not hard to imagine the kind of candidate or platform that would reel them in. Conversely, the GOP could consolidate their gains if they distanced themselves from Trump this year and folded his populist middle class/working class message with a commitment to small government that protects small businesses, minorities, regulated (but open) borders, and free trade.

Here is the problem. None of these options, from realigning the parties, to restructuring the GOP, to building a viable third party can happen if educated and committed conservatives refuse to participate in the public sphere. Abandoning ship because you have to ask yourself some tough questions about prior commitments or because you feel like you no longer fit into our current political alignment is doing untold damage to the country. The delicate balance of our political ecosphere is catastrophically altered by your absence. Your voices are needed to moderate the excesses of the right and to push back against overreach and dangerously untested ideas on the left. You must abandon the tribalism that got us to this point and return to being the dealmakers of the right. The ability to reach across the aisle is the only thing that keeps us from being hijacked by intraparty extremists. The longer you abstain from politics, the worse this will all get.

Please come back soon.

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