The talk of the day on the American Right seems to be the rise of a so-called “Barstool conservatism”, in what has been described as the intersection between frat culture and cultural conservatism. That which constitutes the main focuses of this insurgent coalition are the aggressive advances of wokeness, cancel culture and over-politicization. Barstool conservatives, named after the popular sports and pop culture media empire of the same name, have little care for traditional religious values. By looking to bro culture, they instead embrace a colorblind Epicureanism that has the net effect of encouraging perpetual adolescence.
Mostly young and male, they are well represented by former President Trump, whose track record of sexual vice and cartoonish nouveau riche persona defined his style. This shared disdain for political correctness allowed Trump’s palatability to thrive with these normal 20-something-year-old “Barstool-type” men. Like most of the Appalachian base that Trump brought into the party, as Tanner Greer argued, they are fueled by a certain “live and let live”, quasi-libertarian mentality.
In other words, Barstool conservatism is a “defense of the normal”, to borrow the expression of Micah Meadowcroft’s The American Conservative piece. Radicalized liberals, imbued with Critical theory, want to tear down structures and radically change our lives; conservatives, on the other hand, just want things to stay as they are, free from the yoke of wokeness.
Conservative Disposition and Liberal Imagination
In the 20th Century, Michael Oakeshott coined the term “conservative disposition”. To him, to be conservative meant “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible (…) present laughter to utopian bliss”. Conservatism is not an ideology, but a worldview, or a way of reacting to things around you. Naturally, that’s a very limited vision of conservatism – but it stands some tests. When one man’s political philosophy is compared to their “Big Five” personality test results, Oakeshott’s theory is vindicated: the main predictor of conservatism is a low score on “openness to new experiences”.
In this sense, there’s no denying that Barstool conservatives are, indeed, conservative. Their defense of the normal against the new intruding rules of the Leftist orthodoxy that pervade their way of life is certainly a manifestation of such an inclination. In fact, that will always be a major part of the base of any conservative movement, as long as it deems itself conservative. And while having support from such a large and reliable base might be a strength, it is also a weakness.
In his Why is Everything Liberal piece, Richard Hanania called out this weakness; people of a conservative inclination, either because they are more satisfied, less politicized, or simply not as committed to a certain ideology, will always be less activist. Even, as Hanania points out, their votes still control the government, every other non-democratic institution will tilt to the other side. Imagine, for example, that politics is a dialectical game: player A chooses to move in one direction, player B chooses to move in another, and the result will be in the middle. If conservatives, as it is natural of their disposition, chose to stay in the same place, it is obvious that in the long run, after multiple rounds, the other player will have achieved his goal. In another essay of his, Why Conservatives Always Lose, Hanania hits the mark:
“Why is this the case? People haven’t given the issue enough thought, but it is likely related to liberalism being the higher status ideology. In high school, the unpopular kids will often be obsessed with the cool kids, who are focused on other things. At the activist or media level, liberalism is an ideology, or maybe a coalition of ideologies, while conservatism leans more towards being a movement based on opposition to a dominant group. The movements are not symmetrical; in many ways the psychology of our politics is more analogous to the relationship between colonizer and colonized than the relationship between two ideologies competing on equal footing, as is more the case in other democracies. The culturally dominant group, the colonizers, always has more influence on the colonized than vice versa. That’s why colonized people often relied on ideologies created in the West, like Marxism and nationalism, to justify their political activity even when resisting the colonizers. Relatedly, conservatives use liberal arguments about women’s rights to talk about trans in sports, or will argue for school choice, etc. on the grounds that Democratic policies are racist. In the long run, when we’re living in the same country, the colonized end up being assimilated, though the colonizers can always go a step further with a new thing that people become required to believe and start the cycle over again.”
Conservatism as long as it defines itself as opposed to change is always doomed to lose in the long run. Just consider that all cultural practices of Barstool Conservatives are, in essence, the standard liberal practices of little more than a decade ago. Before Gamergate and BLM, many of today’s conservatives would have opposed the religious conservatism of the last decade – itself a reaction to the large-scale secularization of America during the last 50 years. In contrast, liberalism was always propositive, always “visionary”, and even if today’s vision would offend the vast majority of liberals from the 60s or 80s, the trends are undeniable:
Above: via Pew Research Center and Gallup
Whatever the reader’s thoughts on the merits of each side of culture war battles, the fact is that one side has been consistently winning – and, as Hanania points out, going a “step further” after that. Barstool conservatism, in its attempt to recreate 2000s liberalism, is an iteration of the old cycle. They forget that 2000s liberalism was the root of 2010s social justice and 2020s wokeism. Whenever a liberal imagination confronts a conservative disposition, regardless of the short-term victories of either side, the former will prevail.
The Dilemma of the Right
Most of us consider Right and Left in the terms established during the French Revolution. One side, the “Left”, was made up of revolutionaries, egalitarians, liberals, people who urged for change and for the implementation of a novel, radical vision of society. To be on the “Right”, on the other hand, was to defend the status quo and the unequal Ancien Régime that predicated a higher status for the Church and the nobility. However, in this two different worldviews were conflated: one of them being the aforementioned “conservative disposition”, the resistance to the new; the other, the belief in the fundamental inequality of people.
The problem with this arrangement, naturally, is that throughout most of human history those two inclinations were more often than not opposed to each other. If history, as it used to be believed, moves through the acts of “great men” – the visionaries of their times – then it will be more often than not that we will find people of a conservative disposition resisting them. It was so, for example, in the murders of Socrates and Jesus, two figures that proposed radical change. As long as history was understood as a “catalog of greatness”, those who wanted to further civilization through exploring new boundaries did so inside and according to the tradition of the West. A tradition of transgression upon transgression, by the words and acts of great men, followed by great men.
What’s therefore so striking about modernity is that it rejected the idea of history as the work of great men, and instead imputed it to that mysterious force of progress. To the moderns, the future is always a superior consequence of the past, and no remembrance of an attempt at greatness done in the past is worthwhile except for what it portends in the future. Memory and transcendence through time, once the major themes of poets and statesmen, were traded away for promises of utopia. As Irving Kristol points out, “all pre-capitalist systems had been, to one degree or another, Aristotelian: they were interested in creating a high and memorable civilization even if this were shared only by a tiny minority.” Modernity “lowered its sights”, exchanging the sublime goals of greatness and virtue for the lower goals of comfort and freedom.
The ambitious and the visionary turned against liberalism. Many sought refuge not on the Right, subsumed by the conservative disposition, but on the Left. What followed was that young souls were drawn not to the side of tradition, of leaving their mark on history, but of a utopian, material transcendent progress. The Left became more attractive to those more engaged, and the result was its “high status” in the academy, as Hanania mentions.
The Right, therefore, sees itself in a conundrum: on the one hand, it is progressively becoming the standard-bearer of greatness – the defender of classics against the assault of progress and of virtues against the stampede of barbarism. On the other hand, it is supported by a conservative mass who does not particularly care about those things, instead opting for the comfortable “not changing too fast”. Fast or not, things will change. The question is whether they will change in the same direction as they have for the last two hundred years.
New Classicism and the Noble Lie
Suffice to say, none of these considerations have much to do with electoral politics. Electoral politics rarely change society on its own. Real change happens in the institutions, those that, according to Hanania, are increasingly liberal. Elect a “Barstool”, socially moderate president, and in 8 years he is out of the office with the woke movement as strong as it has ever been. Then maybe in 20 years, Republicans elect another president, who is vehemently against the use of genetic engineering to make people vegetarian. Eventually that agenda, too, will be won by the progressives. For progress is on their side.
If the Right wishes any chance at salvaging civilization, it must articulate a vision that is more than just “be normal” or “live and let live”. The Right must articulate a vision that effectively competes with the emerging political theology of the Left. One with moral value, orthodoxy, the power to “cancel” and to “punish” within the confines of our ancient Christian mores. This is a “new classicism”: to reject history as evident progress but to strive for greatness nonetheless. To accept change and creation as a necessary part of life – not “with the innocence of the child” but with the wisdom of the ancients.
How can you put forth an ideology of change to a constituency who is essentially allergic to it? The answer lies with German American philosopher Leo Strauss – and before him, Plato. The project of restoration and of overcoming liberalism cannot be done openly. It must be done in the dead of the night when no one sees it. It must be a gradual, but cohesive, reinventing lost images. It must be done under the guise of normalcy; as he said, a noble lie that conceals an even nobler truth. The noble lie might be Barstool Conservatism, who knows? Leave that for campaign managers. But the nobler truth is the sanctity of our national traditions.
3 thoughts on “Against Barstool Conservatism”
Appreciate the write up, but this is hopelessly contradictory. “Articulating a vision that is more than just be normal” and “overcoming liberalism… in the dead of the night when no one sees it” are two admonitions that stand at cross purposes. Either you can present a vision that a movement can build around or you cannot. Even your countermarch march through the institutions you actually believe matter requires something coherent, substantial; you will look in vain in the history of this country for any change in culture, politics, or institutions that did not have an open face. Plato was no statesmen; his was a republic of air and dream. Move from the ideal to the real, and it all falls apart. Any movement that must retreat to the philosophers is already dead.
I see what what you mean but consider this: during its march to cultural hegemony, the left had at same time a pragmatic, technically moderate wing that was focused on winning politics, and a radical wing that was focused on winning the academy and on building a vision for what a leftist “utopia” should be. And even if they were unaware of it, the intelectual radicals that animated the left inspired the end-goals of many moderate liberals in government and inspired policies that resulted in bringing society closer to their utopia.
Even today neoliberals critique socialism not as much on the grounds of being morally wrong as in the grounds of being impractical, even if is an ideal they admit being worth getting closer to.
That’s my point: the *intelectual right* needs an intelectual program aimed at articulating a vision that is “more than normal”, o sort of radical, utopian program that animates visionary people; at the same time, the *political right* needs to do win its political battles and elections and to enact policies whose long term consequences will bring society closer to that vision – the political right must recognize the intelectual radicalism as the right as a dignified, even if unpractical goal.
The problem is that the only animating vision the right has ever had in those last years was libertarianism. Libertarianism, for all its cringe aspects, is a prepositive and utopian vision, despite being intellectually much weaker than socialism and specially post-modern leftism. The left always had its radicals and held them in high esteem even if their ideas influenced policy mostly indirectly. If the right is to succeed it should do the same.
Much of this was good but Leo Strauss is not who we should be looking to. His biases against religion lead to a misreading of much of intellectual history, among other issues.