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Colleges are hostile environments for young Americans on the rightward end of the political spectrum. Like any living being in a hostile environment, these students have developed a wide variety of strategies for surviving. These strategies affect the way they think and act. The different strategies end up defining certain subcultures of “conservatism.” And in many cases, these Americans continue being part of that subculture long after college. Examining these subcultures and their associated strategies will help us understand the state of the Republican Party and the conservative movement as a whole.
You will immediately recognize him by his bowtie, incessant need to talk about Aristotle, and grandiose elocution. He believes that he is one of the last bulwarks against the complete destruction of western civilization. He is a bookworm conservative.
When he came to college, he realized that his classmates thought that conservatives were stupid. So, he quickly enrolled in the most prestigious humanities programs he could find to prove them wrong. Swaddling himself in the western canon, he convinces them that he is not like those redneck conservatives in the rest of the country. No, he is principled.
In fact, he is ashamed to be associated in any way with the rubes in the heartland and works hard to differentiate himself from them. He is constantly trying to get validation from his classmates and will quickly jump on bandwagons that allow him to show them that “smart” conservatives aren’t all that bad. He is a proponent of capitalism and believes that the free market can fix most problems, though he may make allowances for environmental regulation at the local level—because after all, he isn’t one of those stupid conservatives who doesn’t believe in science. And when it comes to social issues, he will largely defer to the liberals.
A Cheap Substitute for Respect
Liberals largely tolerate bookworm conservatives and may even use them as token conservative friends. But tolerance and conditional friendship are not the same as respect. And since bookworm conservatives are looking for respect and prestige to validate their intelligence, they must find each other and form organizations with stately sounding names. They then go to alumni and convince them that they alone can save western civilization, provided that they are given some money to maintain their somewhat lavish lifestyles. After all, how can one invite a scholar from a right-wing think tank without taking them out to an all-expenses-paid dinner at a chic restaurant?
If the alumni are still unconvinced, the bookworm conservatives promise that they will name a lecture series after them or add them to the “Frank Meyer Circle,” whatever that means. Typically, they invite donors to fancy dinners or debates to meet the current students—they make the donors feel special and give them a taste of being in college again.
Ironically, they actually like the crazy antics of the far left on campus—it gives them fodder for fundraising and helps convince alumni that their organization is the last bastion of conservative thought at the college. They don’t mind losing the battle on the campus. Their donors have deep pockets.
Having obtained their pseudointellectual right-wing credentials, the most politically savvy bookworm conservatives start working in local politics somewhere in the country so that they can shed the carpetbagger cocoon and run for office. Others quickly land a well-paying job at a prestigious think tank in a large city where they continue to survive using the strategies they used in college; after all, these think tanks need donations as well and they could use some of the most effective fundraisers they can find. And some of the harder working bookworm conservatives will go into finance, business, or management consulting—these are the ones that will most likely become the next generation of donors.
Motivated by Embarrassment
Bookworm conservatives largely support establishment politicians who come from their own circles and effectively speak the language of a principled conservative—they want candidates who won’t embarrass them in front of their liberal friends. They also want candidates who will be good for them economically. Given that most of them work in the intellectual services economy or at elite corporations, both of which are helped by globalization, they use their economic principles to argue for complete free-trade. They don’t mind when China manipulates their currency to outcompete our manufacturers in our own market—after all, this doesn’t affect their jobs and it makes their cost of living cheaper. They believe that manufacturing is an industry of the past and muse that the rednecks from the heartland might stop embarrassing them if they had to educate themselves to get a job.
Bookworm conservatives are largely motivated by embarrassment—they see that the policies of the Left are crazy and will fight strenuously against socialism, but they still want to be liked by their classmates. They have carved out a socially acceptable niche at the campus and survive by being so boring that most liberals will just leave them alone. They largely operate in their own political circles and stay out of the fray. They will occasionally speak out on matters of principle, but for the most part, they keep quiet. They gain brownie points from the liberals by being shocked and appalled at Trump’s behavior. But the approval never seems to last.
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