Today, the Washington Post ran a lengthy opinion piece by Eve Fairbanks titled “The ‘reasonable’ rebels” that pilloried so-called “reasonable” conservatives as kinsman of the antebellum southerners who defended, maybe not always slavery per se, but at least one’s right to voice support for slavery. She targets many well-known conservative intellectuals who even the left, from time to time, finds respectable, if uncouth, pushers of boundaries: Bari Weiss, Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson. Drawing flowery comparisons as Fairbanks does is an easy way to help readers grasp your argument, just as it is an easy way to give artistic cover for making points that simply aren’t defensible.
Her contention is that the whole lot of them are just wolves in sheep’s clothing. Sure, they may say words like “freedom” or “liberty” but what they really mean is some -phobia that they’ve masked with pretty language. These authors and speakers and hosts aren’t intellectually transgressive – they’re just dressing up old, bigoted ideas in a new suit and duping anyone who believes otherwise.
Of course, the article misses the point that Shapiro and many others are trying to make. It isn’t exclusively the actions of the progressive left that make people into conservatives. Like any other ideology, conservatism rests on certain precepts about the world and how it works. The point they’re trying to make is that there is a certain strain of woke, new-age liberalism – aided and abetted by many voices in the media policing what is and isn’t acceptable – that is so absurd, so crazy, that it pushes a lot of reasonable people away, which, in turn, empowers bad behavior on the other side.
But there are a lot of the author’s own points throughout that are dubious. The most interesting is the piece’s ultimate conclusion. After castigating noted-conservative Nicholas Kristof for believing that we should listen to ideas that we don’t even like, the author ends the piece, suggesting that anyone questioning modern liberals’ commitment to traditional liberalism is a born-again George Wallace:
If somebody says liberals have become illiberal, you should consider whether it’s true. But you should also know that this assertion has a long history and that George Wallace and Barry Goldwater used it in their eras to powerful effect. People who make this claim aren’t “renegades.” They’re heirs to an extremely specific tradition in American political rhetoric, one that has become a dangerous inheritance.
It’s a classic case of heads, I win, tails, you lose. Either you concede that the cancel culture common within the vanguard of the progressive movement is not, in fact, illiberal, or you’re taking up the torch of the segregationist. Dissent isn’t just wrong, it’s immoral. Even the best conservatives are no better than klansmen.
Which, of course, makes precisely the point the author accuses conservatives of overreacting to; one of the nation’s largest papers giving voice to the idea that there are no “good” conservatives, that there isn’t a single righteous man in the Republican Party, that we’re all not just wrong but evil.
Many of the conservatives Fairbanks targets have been – rightly – critical of President Trump and the Republican Party when they have shown moral cowardice as leaders and acted in ways that run counter to our country’s values. We can argue whether or not they’ve gone far enough in that criticism – by and large, I certainly believe they haven’t. But to draw the position that all of them are as morally compromised as the defenders of chattel slavery isn’t just blindingly unfair, it’s an attack against the pluralism our democratic experiment rests on. It’s the darkest aspects of cancel culture come to life.
This one opinion piece is just that – one person’s opinion, in print, in isolation. But it has struck many conservatives not because it’s new, but because it breaks through the fourth wall of wokeness and lets slip the philosophy’s real aim; using the bully pulpit to silence those (overwhelmingly conservative) voices who disagree.
While democracy may, in fact, die in darkness, its demise is hastened along when its cultural gatekeepers paint half of its citizens as thoughtless bigots, without any hope of redemption.
Drew Holden is a public affairs consultant in Washington, D.C. and a former Republican congressional staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives.