There’s a lot of hand-wringing in Washington over the dramas of the Trump
administration, not to mention the tug-of-war over congressional seats and
jobs in the bureaucracy. But when this period has passed and tomorrow’s
conservatives look back on it, it may seem obvious to them that these were
distractions from one important fact built into modern American
conservatism from the beginning.
This fact is the philosophical difference between libertarianism and social conservatism, a difference overcome only by the existence of a common enemy. Before, that enemy was communism. Today, that enemy is identity politics. In the ten months since I began working in D.C., I have been asked to relate the embarrassments of high-profile leftist protests at my alma mater countless times, and each time my story has operated as a bonding ritual for an eager audience. Universities are the new Iron Curtain, which makes the steady trickle of conservative millennials from elite colleges into jobs on the conservative side of D.C. prize defectors, witnesses to the evil empire of progressivism.
But within this band of witnesses, in particular among those committed to Christianity and social conservatism, the question of who’s driving the conservative-movement bus has not slipped from anyone’s mind. The young social conservatives I’ve gotten to know recently do not accept that social conservatism and libertarianism are natural allies, and they regret the outsized influence libertarianism has on the Republican party.
Consider what this group says about two specific issues: free speech and abortion.
Campus free speech is purportedly important to young conservatives because of its relevance to young people generally. It’s the hot topic in education circles at the moment, especially on the self-identified “center-right,” where media outlets from Campus Reform to The Daily Caller to Fox News regularly discuss the issue. Meanwhile, a number of states have started legislating over it at the prompting of Betsy DeVos, as Orrin Hatch leads the charge to do the same at the federal level.
But on the ground, the conservative consensus breaks down. Social conservatives, I’ve found, are unimpressed with the free speech crusade. Criticizing the Columbia University College Republicans’ “Free Speech Month” speaker series—which brought to campus InfoWars’s Mike Cernovich and English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson—in an undergraduate conservative journal, a friend of mine wrote “G. K. Chesterton said that tolerance is the virtue of a man without convictions. And what is the virtue of a campus political club without convictions? Free speech.” His essay, titled “Conservatives Have No Party,” explains this paradox—that a group can be outspoken but lack conviction. The leaders invited controversial speakers, but insisted they didn’t endorse the speakers they invited. They tried to position themselves as neutral facilitators of a marketplace of ideas, “as if the community should commend them for either lacking a concrete political agenda or being too cowardly to tell about it.” Free speech does not require any commitment to real positions, and the club’s combative defense of it only underlined its historical reluctance to take stands on social issues.
A friend from Yale explained the paradox another way, telling me that the libertarian spirit of the free speech movement did not strike him as meaningfully distinct from “liberal identitarianism,” as “both reject the community in favor of ‘autonomous’ individual preferences.” In a university culture where rules are broken left and right in the name of personal freedom, it takes no special bravery to flout rules and spark controversy.
The sense among socially conservative millennials that libertarianism vs. leftism might be a false choice comes into sharper relief in their conversations about abortion—which they care about far more than free speech. The self-proclaimed “pro-life generation” is cooling on classical liberal arguments for life that focus on the individual rights of children in the womb in favor of arguments that an ethic of life promotes the common good of mother and child. I began to notice this change at meetings of my school’s Right to Life club, the leaders of which were deeply interested in cultural perceptions of life and family. They saw at the core of the abortion problem a false view of family life as “contractual” or “transactional,” as consisting of rights and preferences mutually recognized by all members, to be dropped if the relation proves inconvenient or otherwise undesirable. Another former Ivy League pro-life leader told me “neither side’s liberal arguments are especially convincing.” Even when employed against abortion, “pro-life ‘rights’ language doesn’t do what I want it to,” she told me. “A framework in which we view the fetus as a stranger allows the mother to treat the fetus in an unacceptably shabby way.”
As liberal rhetoric of rights and autonomy loses its luster among young people, Republican elites seem to be losing interest in the pro-life cause. One friend who works in the movement expressed suspicion that it only receives establishment support “because we get Republicans elected.” She also told me about a meeting she had attended between pro-life activists and a Republican congressman who “wanted lots of photos but also only wanted to talk about other issues, for some reason.” By her account, the electoral power of the pro-life movement does not match the level of attention it attracts from conservative leaders.
To get a broader view of the organizational side of the pro-life movement, I spoke to Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America. She was considerably less cynical than my friend, but still understood why young pro-lifers distrust the conservative establishment. She said that pro-lifers of my generation “are less inclined to feel that they have to agree with an entire agenda,” and they “don’t want to be tied to someone else’s constructs,” whether religious or political. While many millennials might share their conservative principles, she explained, Republicans make the mistake of “trying to force this generation into the box of the conservative movement, including allegiance to every particular policy point. It would be better to build common cause where there is agreement, and stop asking for allegiance to things that they don’t really care about yet.”
Insistence on issues of lesser importance to pro-lifers, however, is only one cause of the “branding problem” that Hawkins sees. The bigger problem, in her view, is political impotence: “Consider that even after the explosive videos showing Planned Parenthood officials laughing about the money they were making selling the body parts of aborted infants, we still can’t defund Planned Parenthood.” She summarized the situation in this way: “The pro-life generation has no confidence in the conservative establishment. The good news is that they don’t have confidence in political types in general.”
The young pro-lifers I spoke with suspect there’s more to it than millennial nonconformism and Washington gridlock. One said, “I think the political failure primarily serves to expose an underlying philosophical failure,” an incongruity between the values of social conservatives and those of the elites making political decisions.
One could see how recent news stories might create that impression. For instance, now-former representative Tim Murphy’s scandal last October (in which the Pennsylvania Republican representative resigned after it came out that he had pressed his mistress to procure an abortion) was not especially surprising to my pro-life peers—not because they suspected Murphy in particular, but because, as one put it, “Republicans clearly don’t care about life as much as their base.”
Murphy’s scandal and the recent failure to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act and defund Planned Parenthood motivate closer scrutiny of outwardly pro-life Republicans. One veteran of my college’s Right to Life group declared that any Republican who votes for a budget that allocates a single cent to Planned Parenthood (that is, any of the budget bills passed since 1970) is insufficiently pro-life to earn his vote. I mentioned this declaration to a Georgetown friend, who replied, “That’s kind of absurd, but it’s also absurd that Republicans would shut down the government over Obamacare but not over abortion.”
All this adds up to a suspicion that Republican loss of ground on social issues is systematic and intentional, and that social libertarianism cannot be separated from the economic libertarianism to which the party is committed. My Yale friend, upon departing his job in Washington, recounted his frustration that whenever social conservatives try to pick up the slack and make the arguments that Republican politicians seem to give up on, “the libertarian establishment is silent or openly hostile. We’re tired of being treated like our issues are of secondary concern.” If an issue “can’t be solved with a new tax rate,” he said, the establishment seems not to care.
As young as they are, socially conservative millennials find concrete examples of this treatment in their own memory. They remember the abrupt abandonment of the defense of traditional marriage on the part of Republicans around 2014. “Who really believes,” one pro-life Columbia graduate asked, “that they all discovered at the same time that they have this one LGBT relative that they love so very much in what just-so-happens to be the same way that liberals define love? It’s ridiculous.” A Princeton graduate concurred, recalling that within conservative circles, social conservatives argued for years that gay marriage was not a value-neutral, taste-dependent, market-style option, but “the liberal establishment didn’t deign to engage with these arguments.” She added that the experience of being “absolutely ignored” in the recent past by the same people now calling for “viewpoint diversity” and free speech “isn’t one that inspires confidence.”
Of course, it could be said that quibbles with classical liberalism aren’t important, so long as everyone finds identity politics repugnant. This may be so, but it’s worth noting that social conservatives are not bothered by identity politics in the ways that other conservatives are. Liberals of left and right tend to dismiss identity politics for highlighting personal identity over state, class, and economic power. I’ve found that this isn’t so much of a problem for social conservatives. “What we need right now,” a D.C. resident told me in a conversation about identity politics, “is a Christian anthropology.”
In contrast with liberalism, the identity politics I encountered in college does not see the self as freely self-constructing or dependent only on personal choice. All the talk about liberation exists only to remove assumed barriers to self-expression. To “identify” as white, black, gay, straight, or any of the genders is to be bound to something which defines one’s desires and situates one in a category of similarly self-identifying people. Identity politics tries hard to depict the human person not as a rootless and rational consumer browsing lifestyle options, but as a bundle of meaningful attributes whose desires are neither arbitrary nor arrived at by utilitarian calculation, but are rooted in his personal nature and fulfilled in something like a community. Of course, it falls short in almost every respect: It desires community, but can only offer broad abstractions like the “LGBT community”; it desires a connection to history, but only knows clichés about repression and colonialism; it desires solidarity, but can find no basis for it other than the exclusion of “privileged” groups, and so on.
These desires need to be grounded in a theory of the self better than the one identity politics uses now. A Christian anthropology, perhaps, which asserts that our need for community does not come from particular attributes but from something deeper in our nature and common to all. Many have observed that identity politics resembles a religion—Elizabeth Corey and Mary Eberstadt have done so recently in the pages of First Things. That resemblance can be interpreted optimistically: Adherents to identity politics operate on the assumption that human beings need something like a religion. That assumption is not shared by libertarians. Young conservatives are beginning to suspect that dismissing or insulting identity-obsessed college students for the purposes of shoring up the conservative coalition is the wrong move. The same friend who referred to identity politics as “a kind of religious reaction” spent the next few minutes denouncing pundits on the “right-wing web” who, in his view, fail to see the desires behind activist rhetoric.
The relationship between social conservatives and libertarians looks to be as fraught as ever in the near future. The young insist that the first fact of fusion conservatism—the fault line that runs beneath it—has not disappeared and will ultimately prove more important than any Trump-induced drama. The extent of their influence on the future can’t be determined yet, but if they have their way, the establishment donors, politicians, commentators, and experts who spend much of their energy tallying tariffs and House seats could find themselves facing a tough question: Who’s driving this bus, and who should?
Philip Jeffery is a Public Interest Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C.