Bill Kristol whipped up a debate on NeverTrump Twitter this weekend by writing that the best immediate path forward for moderate conservatives is to help the Biden administration succeed and to bolster the centrist wing of the Democratic party. Adopting the term “Red Dog Democrats” that Tim Miller rolled out post-election on the Bulwark, Kristol argued that supporting Biden is the prudent thing for conservative intellectual thought leaders to get behind. Miller’s point– one I have made many times– is that this is already a fait accompli with the voters. Educated suburban voters, especially women, have been irreversibly lost to the GOP at the national level. All Kristol is really arguing for here is to make semi-permanent what is already true in reality: the only place moderate conservatives have any hope of a voice in government moving forward is inside the Democratic party.
Kristol doesn’t go as far as I would. He finds the efforts to save the GOP admirable and is engaged in such movements himself. Count me out– there is simply nothing left to save. CPAC this weekend showed that pretty clearly. The overwhelming majority of the voters in that party are enthralled to Trumpism and all policy must flow from that. There is no market for what Bill Kristol, David French, or Jonah Goldberg sell in the new GOP.
Likewise, calls to start a conservative third-party are Quixotical, at best. If every person who has more in common philosophically or policy-wise with the GOP of George Bush and Paul Ryan than Donald Trump or Joe Biden were to join the party would be lucky to poll at Ross Perot levels. Again, there just isn’t any market for this.
The “ugh. No.” response from NeverTrump twitter to Kristol’s call to work with Biden underscores how deep the culture war stuff is to their DNA. Nearly all of the “hard no” responders have spent a lot of time in the last several months repeating the same over-heated “cancel culture” nonsense you’d see on Tucker Carlson. They all agree that Donald Trump is awful. To a man, they will admit that Trump lied for months about losing the election and it led directly to a violent coup against our government. They all lament that this “Big Lie” is now being supported by nearly the entire establishment GOP and their media mouthpieces. Despite all this, the idea of working with Joe Biden is beyond the pale for them. At their core, they are more concerned with whether or not they can call transgender people mentally ill and the unfairness of people born as male playing women’s sports than they are with preserving democracy.
For me at least, the proper debate should be about the country and the preservation of the democratic order. And the most important question is: What is now achievable and beneficial for America?
“I adhere to conservative principles so I can’t take this step” is an understandable reaction to my suggestion. But I’d say it’s not really a conservative reaction. A conservative considers the real-world consequences of her principles. A conservative considers how adherence to—or deviation from—certain principles would help or hurt the goals conservatism seeks to achieve. Because it is these goals—liberty, justice, good government, democracy, stability, and so on—that matter. Not the “-ism.” Conservatism is a means to those goals, not an end in itself.Bill Kristol, “The Facts of Life,” The Bulwark, 3/1/21
Kristol’s response is very diplomatic. I’d put it more bluntly– most members of this crowd are the same people who said for years, with no hint of skepticism in their voices, that whatever outrages being committed by the Jim Jordans or Steve Kings of the world the real threat was the onslaught of liberalism/socialism. “Sure, the House Republicans are saying racist stuff and defending the indefensible, but have you seen AOC’s twitter???!” They lost their party to a con man leading a movement based on white grievance and fantasy indulgence because their culture war addiction blinded them to the growing threat on their right. And yet they are still doing it. They’ve completely lost the thread on what really matters. They are obsessing over slippery slopes like “Big Tech censorship” while their former comrades literally tried to invalidate the election and continue to play up the idea that they were cheated. Kristol identifies, correctly, that preserving our democracy should be priority number one. If you could muster up the courage to pretend Paul Ryan was a serious economic thinker in order to pass tax cuts I’d think you could stomach supporting Joe Biden in salvaging our democracy.
American society will not fall if a transgender athlete wins a high school or college women’s sporting event. It didn’t fall when integration happened, haltingly over the last half-century. We didn’t collapse into Bacchanalian degeneracy when we finally allowed gay couples to be legally married. These culture war inflection points were supposed to be the last bulwark against the raging horde of godless liberalism. Cultural conservatives have lost, decisively, each of these battles and simply pivot to making exactly the same argument against whatever their next bugaboo is. As best as I can tell, they haven’t had any serious plans for stopping or rolling back any of these liberal gains in the last twenty or thirty years. It is Dreampolitik all the way down for this crew. Clutching on to these last culture war shibboleths is their way of holding on to a long-dead movement. Conservative politics cannot move forward with the same failed dogma that lost them the GOP in the first place. Let the culture wars die so that conservatism can live.