American conservatives have grown fixated on the cultural opprobrium they face in elite institutions, both from old enemies, like universities and Hollywood, and new ones, like K-12 schools and even some corporations (“woke capital”). Eric Kaufmann, a professor and fellow at the right-wing Manhattan Institute, wants to do something about it. Conservatives need to “overcome their squeamishness about government,” and use their power to protect the right from social ostracism in universities, business, media, and elsewhere, he argues in a long National Review essay.
Kaufmann makes the strange choice to begin his essay with a factoid that he thinks will shock the reader into believing he has identified a serious crisis, but in fact makes his entire argument look ridiculous. The fact in question is that only a tiny minority of Ivy League females would consider dating a Trump supporter. This putatively appalling statistic, he argues, “reveals the predilection among many young elite Americans for progressive authoritarianism.” Not wanting to potentially spend your life with a supporter of arguably the worst human being in the United States is not only unfairly discriminatory in Kaufmann’s mind, but a sign of authoritarianism. The mind reels.
Kaufmann does not actually propose using the law to force anybody to swipe right for Trump fans. Instead, he argues that the disdain for Trump fans in the dating market — which clearly bothers him a great deal — indicates a broader prejudice that seeps into workplace behavior.
Despite veering off immediately into absurdity, Kaufmann actually does identify a real problem. Many elite American institutions, most dramatically but not exclusively in academia, are becoming ideological monocultures in which commitment to progressive goals is becoming a formal or informal criteria for membership in the community. Without permitting some range of political opinions, institutions can develop a stultifying culture of conformity, and drive people out of their jobs over political disagreements, even if those jobs are in acting or young adult fiction or something else that has nothing to do with politics.
Conservatives complain about their cultural marginalization all the time, of course. When it comes to prescribing solutions, they usually settle for angrily shaking their fist at blue America, perhaps a consumer boycott, or a wan hope at building their own right-wing alternative (like Hillsdale University, or Ben Shapiro’s forays into the movie business).
Kaufmann’s proposal is more audacious: He wants the government to step in. “Employers should not be permitted to fire employees for legally protected speech unless the firing is justified by the core aims of the organization and authorized in an employee’s contract,” he suggests. Also, “publicly funded organizations would be required to be politically neutral in their communications and operations except on matters directly pertinent to organizational aims.”
Conservatives normally take a highly skeptical view of extending government authority into such prerogatives as an employer deciding whom to hire and fire. Kaufmann argues that this robust new government authority will merely be used to enforce “neutrality,” not to coerce institutions into becoming active supporters of the Republican agenda. Putting aside the difficult, if not impossible, task of designing and enforcing workable rules to this end, the goal of politically neutral spaces that permit political disagreement is sympathetic.
But there is also a cynical power calculus here. There is a Republican bias built in to nearly every level of elected government, from heavily gerrymandered state legislatures and Congress to a Senate that massively overrepresents white rural areas, to an Electoral College that overweights white voters without a college degree. Kaufmann (a Canadian conservative who has an American fellowship and is writing in an American magazine) doesn’t even acknowledge this Republican advantage. Instead his plan is to leverage it into forcing parity in the institutions that lean left. The fairness principle only applies when Republicans face a disadvantage: What’s mine belongs to me, and what’s yours belongs to us.
The most striking facet of Kaufmann’s argument is his inability to even consider the possibility that Republicans might themselves bear even some of the responsibility for their own cultural marginalization, and might possess the wherewithal to redress it on their own.
If Trump supporters don’t want to be seen as racist, one easy remedy would be to stop supporting a politician who utters slurs — like saying Ilhan Omar has no business critiquing American policy because “her country” is a mess — so routinely that it no longer even rates press coverage. But somehow, the problem of Trump fans being seen as racist is a crisis enormous enough to justify the creation of vast new government powers, but not large enough to justify steps like “let’s stop supporting a huge racist.”
A related, somewhat more longstanding stigma attached to conservatives in elite spaces is their hostility to science and empiricism, which have become more significant cultural barriers between conservatives and business in the age of Moneyball and big data. Trump has deepened that association: If you support a candidate whose stream of cartoonishly transparent lies practically screams that he doesn’t want or need any thinking person’s vote, whose fault is that?
The cultural stigma attached to right-wing thought isn’t purely due to Trump; an enthusiastic George W. Bush fan might have had a bit more trouble getting hired or moving up the ranks at a hip software company, not to mention a prestigious tenure-track job. But the choice to make “Republican” a useful heuristic for “meathead ideologue who refuses to accept evidence” was not made by liberals. Conservatives spent decades insisting the mainstream news media, government bureaucracy, and academia were hopelessly biased, and built their own counter-establishment to affirm their belief that climate change is fake, tax hikes always reduce revenue, and so on. Now that they’ve spent generations mocking pencil-necked nerds, they realize the nerds run a lot of institutions they would like to join, after all.
Kaufmann’s plaint deserves a bit of sympathy. After all, not every Trump supporter is a racist moron; and anyway, institutions need some intellectual diversity to challenge weak points in their own assumptions and avoid retreating into their own ideological hothouses.
Still, it is a bit much for a movement that disdains both big government and “structural bias” arguments to publish a case for aggressive government to root out new categories of bigotry that happen to target them. If supporters of a racist demagogic buffoon who tried (and is still trying) to destroy democratic government are upset about facing private social consequences, maybe before they go running to the state for legal protection, they should try a little personal responsibility.