Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression
Conservative claims of cultural oppression are well known to followers of American politics. They are being aired whenever conservative culture warriors bewail the liberal elites’ dominion over media, academia, Hollywood, or public education. They are also at play whenever we hear of the hegemony of secularism and marginalization of Christians, the New York Times’ animus toward conservative public figures, the preening censoriousness of the campus Left, or the assault on the traditional family. Conservatives’ alleged cultural oppression is not always labeled as such, but it is the perennial subtext of many ostensibly narrower controversies. If liberals accuse conservatives of perpetrating the oppression of women, blacks, and gays, conservatives rejoin that liberals perpetrate that of traditional, salt-of-the-earth “ordinary Americans,” who are slandered as barbaric atavisms of a benighted past by those who now control the commanding heights of the culture. These claims assume many forms and are marked by internal disagreements, but they are unified by an underlying ethos and spirit that have become readily recognizable.
Thomas Frank observed in What’s the Matter with Kansas? that conservatives deem liberalism to be “in power whether its politicians are elected or not,” seeing it as “beyond politics, a tyrant that dominates our lives in countless ways great and small, and which is virtually incapable of being overthrown.” Liberalism is not merely a family of policies or principles but a hegemonic cultural ethos and narrative whose many insidious tentacles now hold a beguiled populace captive. Its aura of universalistic virtue is merely a sophisticated social illusion, the hypocritical secular facade for covertly sectarian impulses that ordinary give-and-take politics cannot appease. Liberals may march under the banners of freedom and equality, but conservatives insist that the liberal dispensation is culturally and morally thicker than these neutral abstractions acknowledge. Seen in their true nefariousness, the liberal virtues are gestures of subterranean identity assertion that always come at conservatives’ expense, a campaign of psychological warfare to enervate the conservative culture and supplant it with the liberal one. Liberals dismiss such anxieties as thinly veiled authoritarian rancor. But where liberals see rancor, conservatives see their long overdue resistance to liberalism’s many unacknowledged usurpations.
Conservatives’ raft of cultural grievances may seem hackneyed by now. But for all their easy familiarity, they have yet to be systematically investigated for the philosophical questions they harbor. Conservative claims of cultural oppression are what becomes of conservatism once it absorbs the moral and intellectual reflexes of the Left and becomes countercultural. Yet the inner meaning of this appropriation remains opaque, and this treatise seeks to uncover it.
While these claims appear outlandish and conspiratorial when read literally, they admit of a more sophisticated interpretation that cannot be so easily dismissed. Grasped on this deeper level, they reveal conservatives’ visceral, often inarticulate but ultimately correct, intuition that liberalism is a historically constructed identity rather than the inevitable byproduct of Enlightenment. Contemporary liberalism is not simply that which remains upon discarding the illusions of a benighted premodern past but rather the apex of the disciplinary impulses that shaped modernity, the latest and most ambitious outgrowth of the secularized asceticism from which the modern disciplinary society emerged historically. If conservatives discount liberalism’s ostensible universalism as false consciousness and ideology, that is because they grasp intuitively that liberalism is psychologically underwritten by these overlooked wellsprings of progressive sensibilities.
Today’s culture wars are a contemporary recapitulation of the conflicts through which the modern emerged from the premodern, a clash between elites striving to inculcate the disciplines and repressions of the modern identity and the unwashed masses resisting this assault on their traditional, often disordered, folkways—a role now filled by “traditional American values.” Viewed through this historical lens, what conservatives decry as their cultural oppression by liberals is really the badgering, scolding, and bullying by means of which modern elites have always striven to tame and reform a still unruly populace atavistically clinging to its more embodied understandings of the self. Conservative claims of cultural oppression represent a spiritual revolt against that civilizing mission, and this insurgency is always lurking there as the quiet yet all-powerful backdrop to all the official, ostensibly narrower, bones of contention, imbuing these conflicts with a special symbolic resonance that is always amplifying the stakes. Exasperated liberals reflexively dismiss these claims as intellectually muddled histrionics, as merely symbolic grievances that only distract from real issues measurably connected to tangible human welfare. But this spiritual revolt is what the grievances are symbolic of and the reason liberalism can resonate as “beyond politics.”
Conservatives can style themselves a subaltern social class trampled underfoot by a haughty coterie of elites because the elitism in question consists in the secularized asceticism of the modern liberal identity, one of whose defining features is a certain visceral disdain for those perceived as not having properly internalized it, such as the archetypal gun-toting, Bible-thumping yahoo conservative. Although ostensibly egalitarian, liberalism is covertly committed to an unspoken social hierarchy that elevates those having internalized its ascetic discipline above those who obtusely resist this. Whereas the former are credited as self-aware, reflective, and cosmopolitan, the latter are stigmatized as benighted, parochial, and authoritarian. Conservatives serve liberals as premier social symbols for the unhinged impulsivity and obstreperousness of the premodern self lacking the disengaged self-control and self-possession of properly civilized human agents. Because liberals have defined themselves in opposition to a barbaric past and its contemporary vestiges, they must pathologize all that would remind them of that past. Conservatism and conservatives are replete with such reminders, the wellsprings of liberals’ perennial “conservaphobia.”
Hence conservatives’ posture as a quasi-ethnic group encroached upon by a foreign colonial power contemptuous of its indigenous traditions. Liberals’ position at the vanguard of the modern West’s civilizing mission necessarily thrusts them into the role of disciplinarians and colonizers, in reaction to which conservatives have cultivated their own special kind of emancipationist ethos and class struggle. These are not simply contrivances of devious Republican strategists co-opting progressive lingo but contemporary manifestations of cultural forces that predate America itself, what Charles Taylor calls the “sedimentation of the past in the present.” Conservative Claims of Cultural Oppression excavates these subterranean layers of social meaning.