“It’s not unusual to be a conservative. But it is unusual to be an intellectual conservative.”
— Roger Scruton
I am a conservative. And although there is nothing unusual about being conservative, I hope there is something unusual enough about my particular path to conservatism that it will prove edifying.
For most of my life, I was a member of the left. I voted for Democrats in every election. But around 2015, I started to change. (The left started to change as well.) I became much more skeptical of the left, especially its increasing embrace of woke ideas and its denial of elementary facts about human nature. Because I still clung to the fragments of my old political identity, and because I found Trump’s boorishness alienating, I voted for Hillary in 2016. She is almost certainly the last Democrat for whom I will ever vote.
Since then, I have become even more alarmed by the left’s slide in the world of wokeness. And I have become even more persuaded of the virtues of conservatism. For a while, I called myself a centrist because, although I largely identified with social conservatism, I was not (and still am not) a fan of libertarian economics. And, in fact, my apprehension of liberaltarianism is what repelled me from conservatism at an early age.
I always care about inequality and wanted to inhabit a society that shared prosperity broadly among everybody who was willing to contribute. I was a “working class” Democrat. I thought that they had better ideas and potential solutions to economic problems. And although I thought markets were quite useful for many things, I was generally turned off by free market fundamentalism. Healthcare and education, for example, don’t work the way consumer goods do in a market. In addition, I was pro-union because I saw labor unions as an indispensable counterweight to business power.
I maintain many of these attitudes, but I have left the left and even the center to stand firmly on the right. Three things most contributed to this journey. First, I started reading history seriously and listening to podcasts from all over the political spectrum. Second, I became acquainted intimately with the progressive left in academia. And third, the progressive left became more extreme and abandoned the very working-class people I had championed.
Before carefully reading and thinking about history, I had adhered more or less to the left’s pessimistic message about Western Civilization. It was rapacious, bent on world domination and the exploitation of other peoples; and even today it is rife with injustice and intolerance and bigotry. Some of this is true. But only some.
Yes, the West has been brutal, but all civilizations have been brutal. This is not a unique failing of the West; it is a unique failing of human nature. Blame original sin. Furthermore, the West has, in fact, done a remarkable job accepting its crimes and attempting to rectify the injustices it perpetrated. And it has pulled millions out of poverty and repetitive toil and drudgery.
Today it strikes me as comical to maintain that the West is a den of bigotry and intolerance. In fact, it is the most tolerant, most individualistic, and most universalistic civilization on the planet, one that should inspire awe and admiration, not fulminating denunciations.
From listening to podcasts such as Econtalk with Russ Roberts, I began to understand the dangers of top-down solutions and intellectual arrogance, and about the importance of diffuse social knowledge, knowledge that is contained in social institutions but that we can’t necessarily articulate. The idea that if we just worked hard and elected the right people, we could solve long intractable problems became silly. The left appears to believe that almost every bad outcome is the result of a moral failure of society. Thus, if people are poor, then it is because our social system is immoral. And if people are in prison, it’s because our criminal-justice system is immoral. And so on.
But this ignores stubborn facts about human nature, individual differences, and incentive systems. Some people will exploit and victimize others, not because they have been abused and left behind by a cold and unfair world, but simply because they can. And they need to be locked up. And some people will refuse to work, not be they are concerned with fair remuneration, but because they simply don’t want to. And they will be poor.
Before I entered academia, I didn’t know how widespread bias against conservatism was or how hostile to free speech and inquiry the left had become. Although I was on the left, I also accepted the basic conclusions of a Darwinian view of human nature: Humans are not infinitely malleable and human individuals, populations, and sexes are slightly different from each other both physically and psychologically. I saw absolutely nothing controversial about these positions, although I knew that talking about certain differences around the wrong people might cause hurt feelings.
Therefore, I was not prepared for the strange world I entered in graduate school. First, almost everybody thought conservatism was not just wrong, but pernicious — a disease that had to be studied so it could be eradicated. And second, there was an odd and disconcerting dualism between what some professors said in public and what they said in private. Most professors, of course, were on the left. But some professors, even those on the left, held heretical views about cognitive sex and race differences that they would talk about openly in private. But most wouldn’t dare to talk about them in public. And, in fact, I was warned multiple times by professors not to discuss them either because it might injure my career (which it did!).
My experience in academia coupled with my reading and learning about Western Civilization and conservatism started pushing me away from the leftism to which I had adhered since I was old enough to think about politics. Thus, over time I changed. And that would likely have been enough for me to leave the left behind like a childhood toy, not with hostility but with mostly fond feelings. Sure, I was no longer certain of the moral wisdom of the left’s policy positions and sure I was dismayed by the left’s constant denigration of the West and its increasing suppression of free speech and inquiry, but I wasn’t wholly alienated. But, the left kept mutating. And each new incarnation became less appealing.
I still care about inequality. And I still support a working-class socioeconomic system, one that strives to create a society that works for those willing to work regardless of their intelligence. Unfortunately, the left has sacrificed this vision at the altar of the woke politics. The left, more and more, is the party of the hyper-educated. It is the party that promotes cultural inequality and denigrates ordinary Americans.
The new class war is not between the proletarian and the capitalists; it is between the hyper-educated and everybody else. And the Democrats have become the party that promotes the interests of the hyper-educated by allowing them to signal their moral and cultural superiority over average Joes.
Much of wokism, I believe, is a signaling system, a series of “luxury beliefs” that function to distinguish white educated elites from other people. And so the left has become more and more alien to average Americans. It promotes ludicrous beliefs that even many liberal people who are not among the initiated find distressingly bizarre. Many of my older friends who are Democrats are horrified and astonished by how strange the party sounds today.
I now believe that conservatism is better for the interests of the average American than left liberalism. Tradition and order and religion. The things that are mocked by extreme leftists are actually what most ordinary people value the most. And these extreme leftists often take an especial glee in their mockery. But I look around communities in West Virginia, and I don’t see anything to mock about the nationalism and the faith that hold them together.
I want to promote a society that works for all people and that doesn’t belittle those who don’t have college degrees or IQs of 125 and above. This is the vexatious irony about many radical leftists. They attack the construct of IQ, often quite loudly. But they are actually obsessed with signaling their own intelligence. Perhaps, indeed, their attack on IQ is meant to be a display of their own. After all, only a mind “thoroughly debauched by education” could possibly believe that humans don’t vary in intellectual ability. It’s a luxury belief. And ultimately it hurts people who are less intelligent.
I still like unions, because I like mediating institutions. And for the same reason, I like churches and community groups. I think we need to promote more of them. And we need to recognize that the rootlessness that characterizes much of the educated elite doesn’t work for most Americans. They need community. And they value tradition. And they love their country. And they love their church. And they don’t want to apologize for that. And I think that’s good. There is nothing bigoted about loving one’s country or having an attachment to one’s community or, indeed, about having an attachment to current demographics. The left should engage these complicated issues instead of using moral accusations and attacks.
So, I have left the left. And now I am a conservative. And I will try, to the best of my ability and limited understanding, to promote and preserve the traditions and the values of the West. And I will remain grateful for the gifts of freedom and prosperity that our forebears bequeathed, remembering to temper my criticism of their views and behaviors with a full recognition of human frailty and fallibility.
Some believe the West is so riddled with sin that it needs to be purged and purified. But I believe that the West is fundamentally noble and that its sins, although real, are often amplified by a left that is fundamentally ignorant of the darkness of human nature. They thus curse the past and the present because they can imagine a future paradise. I, on the other hand, praise the past and the present because I fear that the effort to create such a paradise will end, if unchecked, where such efforts always end: the hell of good intentions.