It’s hard out there being a secular conservative

A personal note. People often ask me if I’m really a conservative. Old friends, some of them not particularly liberal themselves. The reason is in large part my sociodemographic profile. I’m an atheist. I’m scientifically educated and inclined. I don’t hate France and appreciate fine foods. Often people will push me and ask if I’m a libertarian, rather than a conservative. I simply respond that I’m a conservative who happens to have some libertarian views, not a libertarian who happens to align with conservatives for tactical purposes. As an individualist in my personal life who has no deep need for conformity to the norms of my social circle I have no great interest in becoming a Left-liberal or libertarian to forestall the future queries I’ll no doubt receive. I’m satisfied with that.

But the bigger reality is most people are not like me. They conform and are shaped by the wisdom and norms of their subculture. Positive feedback loops of agreement naturally emerge with these networks. To be a liberal or conservative in the United States results in the acceptance of a wide set of beliefs which one has not closely examined, or which one is not even very well informed about. I believe this explains the nearly mindless contempt for Europe which sometimes is taken as a given on the Right. I understand that there are real substantive reasons for a distaste for European ways on the American Right (e.g., social democracy, elitism on cultural issues, lack of muscularity on foreign policy, etc.), but it is reflexive to a great extent. I thought of this when I listened as the conservative commentator Matt Lewis expressed support for birthright citizenship by jus soli because Europeans don’t tend to use that method (on bloggingheads.tv)! I’m not saying this was the only reason that Lewis had, or it was well thought out. Rather, it expresses the group wisdom, the heuristic, of looking to Europe to judge whether a policy is correct or not.

For conservatives:

if (Europeans == X) { Americans = -1 * X } else { Americans = X }

For liberals:

if (Europeans == X) { Americans = X } else { Americans = -1 * X }

It’s an illustration of a general human tendency. Political beliefs are socially mediated. The personal is often the political. A singular instance of this is Bob Inglis. Inglis was a conventional conservative from South Carolina, so I had been curious about his peculiar stylistic and symbolic heterodoxies in the latter aughts. A new chronicle of his personal journey in The Wall Street Journal makes things much clearer. Consider this:

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Inglis found new interests. Influenced by his son, then a Yale student, Mr. Inglis took a look at conservation and climate-change policy, seeking what he called conservative solutions to problems long the province of liberals.

If Bob Inglis’ son had not gone to Yale, but rather Clemson, this may not have happened. Which brings me to a recent analysis which shows quantitatively how powerfully to the Left students at elite universities have shifted over the past 40 years. There are likely many reasons for this, in particular demographics. But, I suspect one major reason is a positive feedback loop of a social norm that to be an elite university student entails an adherence to a particular set of liberal political beliefs. Of interest for the purposes of this weblog, I think Kevin Drum has identified a major point:

Just to be clear: my guess is that this is primarily a reaction to social conservatism. Students at top universities just can’t stomach the anti-gay, anti-feminist, anti-civil rights, anti-religious-tolerance attitude of the current GOP.

In particular, it is a social conservatism of a flavor rooted in New Right Evangelical Protestantism, which has had an oppositional relationship with the elite universities since the 18th century (Princeton was originally founded to offer a more orthodox alternative to Harvard, though it naturally was co-opted by religious liberals in its own turn). The emotional aversion of elite university students and graduates to American conservatism has more to do with the amygdala than the neocortex.

Why does this matter? Consider economics. One can be a Left-liberal and orthodox on economics; many economists are. But many elite university graduates (though thankfully not most) waste their time being attracted to what is basically “junk economics.” Ill-thought out anti-globalism and primitivism. Economies of scale and specialization are promoted by the “other side” after all. Additionally, because the staunchest defenders of conservative institutions couch their defense in a tribal language of conservative Low Church Protestant Christianity many elite university graduates who practice the bourgeois virtues  in their own life deny their centrality and necessity in a well ordered society. One can go on in this vein (and also frankly flip the identities and policies around).

One reason I began to contribute to this website is to work in my own way to decouple the tribal associations of conservatism with conservative Protestant Christianity. I have no expectation that atheist liberals will become conservatives. But, I hope that they will examine some conservative ideas, rather than dismiss them without inspection because they’re clothed in the language of the cultural and social enemy.

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