While the conservative must access a whole library of great books to make his case for the Western tradition, the leftist can just recite mantras in his call for a clean-slate utopia. In musical terms, the conservative must compose a great opera while the leftist responds with a pop song. So how do we conservatives combat this problem?
In memory of his work and example, many conservatives have passed around the following statement by the late Sir Roger Scruton from his How to Be a Conservative:
Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the twentieth century. It is also one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring, that of their opponents exciting but false.
This quotation encapsulates the conservative experience all too well. Any discussion or argument that a conservative has with a person on the Left feels like an uphill battle where one must explain the reason and purpose of everything under the sun. Today’s institutions are the products of so many centuries of thought and labor, and the conservative seeks to defend them while the leftist invariably seeks to destroy them in some way.
While the conservative must access a whole library of great books to make his case for adopting the greatest ideas and practices of Western tradition, the leftist can just recite the lines from John Lennon’s song “Imagine” and make the case for a clean-slate utopia where everyone is unburdened of responsibilities and free from prejudice. In musical terms, the conservative must compose a great opera while the leftist responds with a pop song.
Predictably, the vapid pop songs have overcome the great opera in today’s increasingly superficial culture. Nearly everyone today is subjected to progressivism’s tireless simplicity and repetition. Even if the latter is so much better than the former by all objective measures (measures which leftists conveniently reject), this is usually the only choice for most people. They will consume bad economic systems like socialism, bad art like bananas taped on walls, bad music like the hip-hop dreck of Cardi B and Lizzo, bad cinema like the idiotic videos on Tik Tok, and bad philosophies like postmodernism—not because any of them are true, but because they are easy and ubiquitous.
When these bad ideas are adopted en masse, they will, like Scruton indicates, quickly destroy the good things that previous generations took so much time to create. Just as junk food ruins the body, bad ideas will ruin the whole culture. Collective ignorance is bliss for only so long before it inevitably leads to chaos. In today’s terms, it leads to isolation, poverty, and shallowness.
So, what is the proper response to this attack on the culture? With complex arguments, digging into the minutia of public policy and conservative philosophy? This has too often been the approach of conservative intellectuals and elites, who continue to lose ground with the public. In response to demagogues like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, they get ahead of themselves and write lengthy commentaries for their think tanks in defense of free markets, limited government, and the Enlightenment. In themselves, these writings and arguments are wonderful and important to building a coherent conservative movement; as a strategy for turning public opinion and normalizing conservative thought, they are insufficient.
Because of this, it becomes all too natural for many of these conservative apologists to assume that the masses are stupid and that making these arguments is futile. Unlike past times, it is just assumed that no one today will have the education and training necessary to accept and live out conservative ideals. With broken homes, broken school systems, a compromised university system, and corporate algorithm-driven media, most people simply lack the capacity to resist the slogans, the cartoons, the pop songs, and the spectacles.
Fortunately, this kind of resignation is mistaken, and conservatives can reverse this trend if they want. When people are denied real alternatives of thought for so long, the answer is not imposing difficult ideas on them, but finally educating them. People who adopt bad ideas need to be taught how to think and analyze—and then they can finally understand and support the good ideas. Conservatives need to become teachers ready to meet their audience where they are and bring them up in the tradition that has enriched them in so many ways. And, fortunately for them, the majority of people are eager to learn.
How else does one explain the enormous popularity of people like Ben Shapiro, Dennis Prager, Jordan Peterson, Steven Crowder, and now Senator Ted Cruz, whose impeachment podcast “The Verdict” started last month and is already wildly popular? These are people who are routinely censored, dismissed, and stigmatized by the mainstream Left, and yet they have massive followings and are bringing up a new generation of conservatives. They do not achieve this by dumbing-down or glamorizing their message, but by taking up the work of teaching. Every podcast, Prager U video, recorded lecture, or “Change My Mind” episode is a lesson in conservative thought. The arguments might be obvious for the already initiated, but for people who never anything else except leftist propaganda, they are revelations.
More strikingly, this aspect of teaching has fueled the popularity of President Trump. Never have Americans learned more about how politics work and what forces are in play than during Mr. Trump’s tenure in office. This is because Donald Trump, as a populist who breaks presidential norms with his transparency, met people where they were and did the work of educating them in the benefits of conservatism. Mostly, they have learned with him more than from him, as he has dealt with impeachment, foreign conflicts, economic issues, border security, and the rest. Like a teacher who reads a story aloud to a class of struggling readers, Mr. Trump led the country aloud (one reason among many to be grateful for his tweets) for a population of uninformed or misinformed Americans.
Though conservatives who opposed candidate Trump cited his character, it would probably be more accurate to say that they resented him giving the gift of conservative ideas to normal people, like the titans hating Prometheus giving fire to human beings. They feared he would dumb down conservatism and ruin it forever. Instead, through his willingness to learn and teach, he has made it popular—which is why leftists continue to despise him and his supporters. If Mr. Trump hopes to win reelection this year, he needs to continue his work of teaching Americans so that they can resist the “exciting but false ideas” of the Democrats.
And if conservatives want to save the West from decline, they need to do the same. As Scruton suggests, their ideas may be “true and boring,” but this is a challenge of any teacher. The success of today’s conservative spokesmen and Donald Trump’s presidency should give hope to those who have doubts. More importantly, they can offer some helpful strategies of educating those who align themselves with destructive ideas because they really don’t know any better.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.