Near the top of the list of hoary writer’s formats, just below the open letters and pseudo-Swiftian “modest proposals”, sits the “Letter to a Young ________” format. The template is flexible enough that it can be used to condescend to any group that is more unseasoned than the author. There are letters to young poets and young priests, letters to young Catholics and young Calvinists, and letters to young mothers and young brothers. My favorite type is the letter to young conservatives since it combines two of my favorite undertakings: talking about conservatism and giving unsolicited advice to young people.
“Good advice is always certain to be ignored,” said Agatha Christie, “but that's no reason not to give it.” Likewise, just because no young person has asked me to share my wisdom with them does not mean that should be deprived of my prudent counsel. Here, then, is some advice for those young conservatives who should have asked what I thought:
Don’t hide who you are — If you are conservative, don’t be afraid to be a conservative. There is nothing inherently immoral, shameful, or unsophisticated about being culturally or politically conservative—so don’t give the impression there is hiding what you really believe. Fooling yourself into thinking there is an advantage in keeping quiet until you have job security is a frequent failing of ambitious but inwardly tepid young conservatives. For thirty years they have entered the academy with the idea that if they manage to hide their true selves until they gain tenure, they will then be able to speak boldly for the cause of conservatism. It never happens. If you are too sheepish as an adjunct to be honest about who you are, you won’t become leonine speaker of truth when you become the department chair.
If you can’t fathom the appeal of liberalism then you probably don’t understand it well enough to effectively rebut it — Contrary to the bluster you hear on talk radio, the vast majority of American liberals are not evil, out to destroy our nation, etc. Mostly they want the same things you do (love, clean drinking water, an explanation for the final episode of Lost, etc.). In fact, I would say that roughly half of the center-left in our country differ from conservatives on only one key point: how much involvement the government should have in providing the essentials necessary for human flourishing. That’s a significant and impassable point of difference, to be sure. But it isn't a reason to vilify our fellow citizens.
If you truly want to engage liberals then it is helpful to understand the emotional appeal of liberalism. Most non-ideological liberals are proverbially nice people and think that liberalism is a correspondingly nice political sentiment. And it is, in a sense, a nice philosophy. The problem resides in its tendency to produce not-so-nice outcomes. Knowing why it is appealing can be extremely useful demonstrating to others where it errs. Also, a word of advice for any argumentation—stick to pointing out the flaws in the philosophy rather than the flaws in your opponent's motives. If you're lucky, they may return the favor.
Be leery of libertarians — Even before the libertarian Barry Goldwater had his (conservative) ghostwriter title his book The Conscience of a Conservative, it has been popular to consider libertarians to be a subset of conservatives. They are not. The two camps share, as Russell Kirk said, a detestation of collectivism. What else do conservatives and libertarians profess in common? “The answer to that question is simple: nothing” says Kirk, “Nor will they ever have. To talk of forming a league or coalition between these two is like advocating a union of ice and fire.”
While conservatives and libertarians may not be natural allies, they can be productive cobelligerents. But you have to be wary of taking libertarians too seriously. As gadflys and provocateurs, they can be charming and fun. But seduction by their brand of utopianism may lead you to find yourself talking about seasteading, dubbing your live-in paramour as your “consumption partner,” and explaining to friends why blackmail should be considered a “victimless crime.” That’s no way to live.
Avoid media that make you stupid and mean — By this I don’t just mean gangster rap and slasher flicks, though those forms should be avoided, too. I have in mind the type of media that encourages thinking in the form of clichés and a manner of disdain for for others. The example par excellence is just about anything ever written by Ann Coulter. Her entire shtick (I suspect it’s a put-on; how venal can she really be?) seems to demand being preemptively stupid and mean because, after all, that is what liberals are like.
Regrettably, Coulter has become something of an icon among the Young Republican, CPAC-attending crowd. They even try to justify her antics by noting that they can glean some insights from within her rancid redmeat. No doubt this is true. But it is like drinking the water from elephant dung. It can be done, but why would you want to?
You should not refer to yourself as a conservative until you are clear on what it is you want to conserve — My own response is the one offered by my intellectual hero, Russell Kirk: The institution most essential to conserve is the family. If the only thing that you can think of that you want to conserve is the "Bush tax-cuts" then you may be a Republican, but you are not yet a conservative.
What do you have to say about virtue and ordered liberty? — If that question stumps you then you have some reading and thinking to do. You might want to refrain from opining on policy or politics until you have this one figured out since every important issue is essentially about virtue and ordered liberty.
Don't become infatuated with politicians — Save the crushes for actors, rock stars, and the cute blonde in your U.S. History class; romantic affections have no place in politics. Once you start swooning over a candidate or incumbent, you become willfully blind to their flaws, faults, and follies. Choose a candidate who appears to have a commendable character and that best represents your views and values. If you later realize you have misjudged them, be willing to admit you were wrong. Defending them as you would a lover merely makes you look naive and foolish.
Also, avoid the historical corollary of venerating hagiographic caricatures of great leaders. Reagan was one of the greatest presidents of our era. Yet his political record and positions would make him unelectable among many of the people who now claim to worship him.
If you are considering a career in politics — Reconsider.
If you are considering a career in politics and have reconsidered the decision — Carefully and honestly assess the reasons politics attracts you. Chances are you have the wrong motivations and you’ll only be miserable once political life takes shape.
If you are considering a career in politics and have reconsidered the decision and will not be dissuaded — If conservatives cared less about power and more about principle, we would send our best and brightest political minds to serve in local government, our mediocre but capable to the state level, and the lackluster yet satisfactory to the federal. If you have political ambitions and believe that you are called to serve in government, ask your most brutally honest critic where you fall along that spectrum and dispatch yourself accordingly.
Never, ever, ever sacrifice your integrity—I can all but guarantee you that if you take a job in media, academia, policy, or politics, a time will come that tempts you to compromise your integrity. Never sacrifice your rectitude for a job. Have an emergency back-up plan for how you will feed your family if your standing on principle means you lose your livelihood.
I keep a shovel in my garage as part of my exit strategy. Worse case scenario, I’ll go dig ditches for a living. I pray it never comes to that because I love what I do because my girlishly soft, uncalloused hands are no longer suited for manual labor. But I’ve resolved to choose integrity over a cushy job, so I have a plan. You should have one too.
Never write an “Advice to Young Conservatives” letter — Seriously, it’s a hackneyed format that no one wants to read. Be more original than that.
Joe Carter is the web editor of First Things. His previous articles for "On the Square" can be found here.