Why do so many people these days sound like conservatives but still insist they are liberals? I recently had a conversation with a female lawyer who spoke as if she had just finished reading Oswald Spengler. When she learned that I was a college professor, she unleashed a torrent of vitriol against leftist academics. She knew more about the high-handed politics, the corrupting conformism, and the stifling relativism of humanities professors than any dean in America would be willing to admit to knowing. When the subject of the media came up, she understood instinctively that most journalists are out of touch with Middle America, and she had nothing positive to say about Hillary Clinton’s blatantly ingratiating turn toward a softer, more moderate rhetoric.
So I applauded her common sense and congratulated her for being, like me, a good conservative. "Conservative!" she cried. "Never! Why would you think that?" Well, I explained, her enemies were my enemies, so I assumed we were political allies. Besides, I continued, her culture criticism was straight out of the book of conservative commonplaces. "Just because I recognize that there are some problems out there," she protested, "doesn’t make me a conservative." Well, then, I hesitantly inquired, what are you? "A feminist, of course," was the retort.
In fact, it turned out that she was a feminist for life, firmly on the side of restricting access to abortion, though even this was not enough to prod her to change political labels.
OK, I said, I’ve told you why I think you are a conservative. Now you tell me why you think you are a liberal. At that point, a string of vehement blathering about how horrible Bush is came out of her like a broken doll whose string had been pulled one too many times.
This was not a new experience for me. Many of my liberal friends in the professional world¯doctors and lawyers, mainly¯talk like conservatives but still vote like liberals. They are what I call ABCs (All But Conservatives), still fighting the good fight of social justice through the government’s redistribution of wealth, even though, when you talk to them over a drink, they readily admit that social change takes place on a personal and moral level first or it does not take place at all. Many of my friends outside the academy are not even all that surprised about the horror stories I tell about being a conservative spy in the camp of leftist commandos. They’ve read the websites that document academic stupidity, and even if they haven’t, their common sense tells them to assume the worse about eggheads insulated from economic reality cracking their moral pieties over the heads of a captive audience.
So why don’t these people just make the switch? I think I have an answer to that question because I am speaking of my peers, a generation that came of age in the seventies. I should have said that I came of age in the sixties, since most of the sixties happened in the seventies. The earnest rejection of institutional authority in the sixties became, when mainstreamed, a cultural and moral mess in the seventies. It is one thing for a few alienated college students to read Norman O. Brown, but it is another thing for the middle class to embrace the liberating promise of promiscuity. In the nineties, the middle class recovered its senses, but the poor, who are always more vulnerable to the ravages of immorality, paid the price for the seventies slide into recklessness. You know you are a liberal if you think that the poor need money more than they need moral discipline.
In the seventies, it just wasn’t cool to be a conservative. The generation gap drove a wedge between the old-fashioned values of our grandparents and our naive exploration of moral limits. We were on the front seat of a roller coaster ride through the thrilling ups and downs of transgressive behavior. Most of us grew up, but we still try to avoid being identified with the groups that were outcasts in high school.
So here’s my theory. ABCs were, in high school and college, ABC in another way. They were All But Cool. They were not quite with the "in" group, maybe because they were too smart or too prudent. But they were also sufficiently aware and ambitious to have felt the pain of exclusion. If they had been cool then, they would be conservative now, given how conservativism has become so radical and hip for the best and the brightest students these days. The ABCs, as they grow older, with families and careers and mortgages, act and talk like conservatives, but they do not want to identify with the wrong social group. Their last act of rebellion, their last chance to extend their teenage years, is to insist that they are not conservative. ABCs are the last people in America to still think that liberalism is cool.
(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)