OPINION: How conservatives can start a youth revolution
Editor's note: This article was written by political strategist Arnold Steinberg and originally published by The American Spectator. It has been republished with permission.
More than a half century ago, amidst the tumultuous ’60s, the great thinker and National Review senior editor Frank S. Meyer questioned what there is for conservatives to conserve.
“In a revolutionary age,” Meyer wrote, conservatism “can lead only to the enthronement of the prevailing power of the revolution,” and conservatives should not be “committed to conserve … simply whatever happens to be.”
If Meyer were apprehensive then, what about today?
America has been uprooted, its rapid disintegration mourned as a “tsunami” by no less an anti-traditionalist than liberal Bill Maher.
But velocity is not the issue.
Nor is Biden. He is merely, in Lenin’s phrase, “a useful idiot.”
What is now happening so quickly has been long in the making.
For Meyer in his time, the status quo seemed unworthy of conserving; ironically, it is now history, as the status quo ante. By today’s standards, what Meyer confronted as the “New Left” is tame. Then formative and precursor, its latest iteration is falsely branded as “progressive” — a nice-sounding word for a consolidation phase — the existing condition (if not affliction) — that we cannot, must not preserve.
In that embryonic decade of the 1960s, many liberals defended conservatives against the New Left, including its violent SDS leaders invoking Herbert Marcuse’s “repressive tolerance” to deny young libertarian-conservatives such as myself the right to speak on campus. Those liberals approach extinction.
Thus intellectual seeds were planted for political correctness and group-think, censorship and banning books, the bullying and intimidation of cancel culture and the denial of history. The obsession with exaggerating America’s flaws is not simply sloppy or anti-intellectual, but deliberate. “Who controls the past controls the future,” wrote George Orwell in 1948, reversing the digits to title his book 1984. “Who controls the present controls the past.” Long ago Bill Buckley debated well-meaning but misguided liberals. Intrusive do-gooders, perhaps, but not akin to today’s aspiring totalitarians, who, masquerading as “progressives,” wipe out the past to control the future.
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As Dennis Prager has noted, liberals are distinguishable from the Left. For example, liberals who believe in civil rights equality, not racial preference equity, have more in common with conservatives — who should now partner with them.
The decadent and complicit media have abandoned journalism to unabashedly promote today’s New New Left. At major newspapers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, the “progressive” inmates have taken over the asylum. Bernie Sanders, who praised communist regimes, is romanticized as the oxymoron “democratic socialist” or, worse, the trendy euphemism “progressive.” (Bernie never claimed to be a liberal; liberals were anti-communist.)
The dual tragedy is that Bernie — now mainstream — nearly won the presidential nomination, and his agenda is Biden’s. Orwell’s 1984 would describe this administration as full of “newspeak.” For example, Biden condemns “hate speech” against Asian-Americans whom Kamala Harris says are “scapegoated,” yet Biden–Harris and their Department of Justice condone such bigotry in supporting racial quotas that deny Asian-American students admission to universities and public schools. This is illiberal.
So, what does the word “liberal” mean?
Nobel Prize–winning economists F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman are celebrated by conservatives. But back in 1960 Hayek presciently wrote in his famous essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative” that “most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty” (italics added). And in his classic The Road to Serfdom (1944), Hayek explained that socialism and communism, Nazism and fascism are similar collectivist elevations of coercive state power, thus denying the popular left–right paradigm.
Given that racism itself is collectivist, how can it or white supremacists be part of American conservatism? For example, both Stalin’s (socialist) Soviet Union and Hitler’s (fascist) Germany identified Jews. Toxic groupings by religion or race remain an historic phenomenon of the Left, especially now in America.
Many Americans, especially the young, misconstrue the political spectrum as circular, with “extreme left” (communists?) and “extreme right” (fascists?) coming together. Even Ronald Reagan erred in saying that “the extreme right and the extreme left … curve to a common meeting point”; more aptly, Reagan later observed, “There is no such thing as a left or right … only an up or down.”
In fact, the spectrum is linear, possibly vertical. The scale best defined as individualism is at one end and collectivism at the other, so that communism and fascism, indeed socialism and Nazism, are together. We have failed miserably to educate; the epithet “fascism” is thrown at conservatives who are, in fact, its enemy.
Perception is reality, especially for a young person who believes the choice is between a “progressive” who wants progress and a “conservative” (or, worse, a “right-winger”) who does not. We should never have accepted, and now should rebrand, “a progressive” as “a regressive.”
Many college students oppose government restrictions on personal behavior and ambiguous U.S. land wars. For them, libertarians who oppose “statism” can offer an alternative. Some eventually become “fusionist” conservatives favoring ordered liberty, in Meyer’s words, “to guarantee freedom, so that men may uncoercedly pursue virtue.”
As currently understood on campuses, the word “conservatism” seems anachronistic. Yet nearly any variation of conservatism, properly marketed, has a nascent, if unrealized, appeal. That’s because students are naturally skeptical, typically dissenters, and normally question authority and the prevailing orthodoxy. Tell them that the Establishment is surely not the conservatives.
Is there any doubt that we are — remain — in a revolutionary age? If it started more than a half century ago, we are closer to the endgame, so that the answer, paradoxically, is not a counter-revolution. The Left has succeeded beyond politics; long before you realized it, their revolution harmonized as the Establishment. Thus our young people who are conservative and libertarian now truly have this destiny — to be revolutionaries in intellect and ideas — starting now!
This may be confusing for some, but know this: The Left, if it ever were revolutionary, is so no longer. The role reversal, if not finished in Meyer’s time, is now complete. Conservatives are not trying to conserve; they are in revolt, or they should be.
The young conservatives who love liberty are, even more than in the ’60s, the true radicals, not in the sense of incivility and intolerance, coercion and violence, but for ideals. On the campuses, I long ago argued with success that the so-called New Left was hardly revolutionary. I said that the “participatory democracy” of SDS was a slogan to disguise old-style socialism, with brute force its inevitable corollary. The New Left was merely impatient with the pace of change, not with the direction. They simply wanted to move faster.
Today, more than ever, young conservatives, however they may brand themselves, must be the true change-agents who want to alter America’s tragic direction.
For many adults, it is too late to inoculate against the virus of an alien ideology. With all facets of society under siege, booster shots are not readily available. Inoculation through education by parents is still possible to give some degree of immunity to the young, though even elementary-school kids are prey for government-sponsored, even mandated indoctrination.
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We need a major change in the freedom movement. It’s the culture, stupid. Instead of talking to ourselves or pursuing business or engineering, our youth also must expand their horizons and contacts and get into what’s left of journalism, art and music, fiction and film, and more. This is where the action is. For electoral victories in the future, write a screenplay with impact now.
Whether young conservatives will call themselves something else remains unsettled. But it’s long overdue to dispense with calling ourselves “the Right” — a pejorative. Stop giving raw meat to dishonest polemicists. We can still call opponents “the Left” without accepting the reciprocal term. I’m not a fan of labels, but why did we ever accept their word “progressive”? The correct word is “regressive.” If “leftist” is outmoded, try “collectivist” — and explain why.
Friedman in his influential Capitalism and Freedom (1962) noted that political and economic freedom are inextricably linked, perhaps explaining why liberalism in Europe and initially in the U.S. favored individual liberty. “Because of the corruption of the term liberalism,” Friedman wrote, “the views that formerly went under that name are now often labeled conservatism.” Yet because he would not “surrender the term” to those who would “destroy liberty” — Friedman chose to use “liberal” and “liberalism” in their “original sense — as the doctrines pertaining to a free man.”
But even in Friedman’s time, modern-day liberals believed in civil discourse. The American Civil Liberties Union actually supported, get this, civil liberties. But “progressives” push a dogma antithetical to progress. And they control the government, the universities and schools — public and private and even religious — the media and the arts, major foundations, the internet and Big Tech, Big Business, Big Money, Big Labor, Big Cities, even Big Religion.
We must appeal to the natural rebellion of youth. Make clear that conservative students are the anti-Establishment radicals. Our campus outreach must challenge the powerful, and I don’t mean those in elected office. I mean that there must be no “safe spaces,” inside or outside the classroom, for brainwashing. Challenge all aspects of society the Left controls.
Call out the corrupted universities. Oppose hikes in tuition. Criticize the many bumbling and overpaid college presidents and their bureaucratic enablers. Ridicule the diversity–equity–inclusion profiteers, who themselves are racist. And go after the teachers unions, which, like police unions, protect their own and resist change.
Confront Big Government. Show that crony capitalism is, as venture capitalist Tim Draper told me, crony socialism. Explain that when corporations do the government’s bidding, they resemble fascist Mussolini’s corporate state.
Use satire and humor and go beyond the usual suspects to make the conservative case. We have plenty of students who are real people, not from central casting, with the credibility to confront the cynical obsession with gender and race. Adopt the successful tactics of the Left, such as single-issue focus before other issues, or media events like the teach-ins of the ’60s.
I could go on and on, but the details require collaboration, not simply among conservative and libertarian youth organizations, but with liberals who have been, as Irving Kristol once wrote, “mugged by reality.” Bari Weiss, Andrew Sullivan, Leo Terrell, Alan Dershowitz, and Tammy Bruce — the list is growing quickly — reject the “progressive” anti-intellectual ethos against free thought.
There are also colleges and universities that celebrate intellectual inquiry and academic freedom — the epicenter is Hillsdale College.
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Many organizations trying to reach students also deserve support. A few examples (of many) include Foundation for Economic Education, the Fund for American Studies, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Leadership Institute, Prager University, Students for Liberty, Turning Point USA, and Young America’s Foundation.
But, to paraphrase comedian Rodney Dangerfield, “we get no respect.” Our side did the pioneering research and led the movement to end the draft. Our economists spurred airline deregulation, creating competition and affordable airfares. Conservatives and libertarians galvanized criminal justice reform (not the George Soros kind), and red-state governors made it reality.
Who knows about all this, and so much more?
For decades now, high tech has made life more productive and enjoyable, especially for the young. With instant knowledge, consumers decide efficiently, if not optimally. But this great teaching moment for what free men and women can do has been squandered.
Moving ahead for our allied organizations requires more than strategic unity, shared research, a collaborative calendar, and an accessible war room operating in real time. We need to market who we are and what we stand for with precision and nuance in coordinated messaging.
For example, we must in high profile challenge Big Tech for its invasion of privacy, exploitation of identities, and intrusive censorship as we harness the natural impulse of the young to resist Bigness and Big Brother.
Yet there is more to the story.
Economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942 coined the words “creative destruction” as the “essential fact about capitalism” to describe innovation. In an age when globalism has displaced many manufacturing jobs, it is no easy task to explain Schumpeter. But the young celebrate high tech for its disruption. Freedom-loving youth must (a) be “creative disrupters” in the world of ideas, (b) extol the “disruptive” virtues of the free market, and (c) explain high tech’s “disruption.”
The Zoom generation likes smartphones, the internet, streaming and the shared economy — Uber, Lyft, Airbnb. We must explain how “progressives” resisted these innovations because they oppose “the free market” (arguably better words than “capitalism”), which fosters creativity and innovation. “Progressive” governance limits competition and protects the entrenched. High tech is a testament against socialism, not for it.
We have failed to relate the free market to the lifestyle of the Zoom generation. The inability to leverage what young people like about high tech characterizes the inertia and inbreeding of American conservatism. In small part, it oddly illustrates why and how we have lost the culture wars and, in the process, through twists and turns, lost the soul of America. If we cannot even speak the language of the young, how can they in turn understand, for example, what kind of nation treats people of faith as second-class citizens?
The Founders advanced the First Amendment to prevent the government from favoring an official religion. They never expected the removal of religion from the public square. Perhaps if schools still taught civics, students would know what America is about.
And related frothed semantic infiltration is consequential. Consider, for example, that not only does government mandate that biological men compete in women’s sports, but opponents are condemned, and a new word is coined — “transphobic.” We erred years ago in accepting politicized language, including the “phobics” — homophobic, Islamophobic — and other words to limit, when we should embrace, discussion. Yet when “progressives” overreach, they give us a coalition issue, in this case, to draw in not only the girls and women who compete, but their parents, coaches, and spectators.
Don’t let the enemies of freedom control the campus narrative. Put them on defense. Reject the use of loaded language like “racist” and “systematic racism,” used in a way that has no meaning. Challenge self-serving phraseology like the nonsensical “people of color” when we have a multi-racial society.
Critical race theory (CRT), soon at a public or even private school near you, poisons young minds with self-hatred, hatred of others, or both. CRT manipulates kids into racial boxes as oppressors or victims. As part of the culture, CRT epitomizes a forward-looking indicator; these children will “drink the Kool-Aid” and grow up to become indoctrinated voters. In contrast, actual election results are a lagging indicator, akin to looking in the rearview mirror to see how the culture influenced electoral behavior.
How long can we use politics to plug one hole after another in a dam whose foundation has been sabotaged?
The solution is not nostalgic appeals to the old but communicating openly to the young.
Let all know that we cannot conserve what is gone but must fight for what is good.