Conservatism is the counterculture. It’s time conservatives act like it.
Recently, I was talking with my college freshmen about definitional arguments. As an example, we were discussing the question of whether flirting qualifies as a form of cheating. As they struggled to define the characteristics that all forms of infidelity share, some cleverly proposed that the matter of whether flirting is cheating depends on the level of commitment in your current romantic relationship.
At this point, I held up my hand with my wedding ring: “So flirting is out of bounds for me?” Most laughed and said yes, but a few weren’t ready to concede this—they suggested that perhaps my wife and I might be engaged in what the leftists are fond of calling “consensual non-monogamy” (or “swinging” in the parlance of the Beforetimes). I assured them that my wife and I are traditionalists, and so she is my one and only. At this, one student said, “I want to say something, but I think it might be mean.” After some reassurance that I wouldn’t be offended, the student continued: “You’re vanilla.”
After I stopped laughing, I confessed that I am, in fact, “vanilla.” This accusation meant that I don’t appear to be open to sexual experimentation with “alternative lifestyles.” It is telling, though, that my students saw “vanilla” as a kind of slur. It is evidence that what was once counterculture (i.e., the values of the sexual revolution) has now been normalized as culture.
Many of the students bristled as I suggested that it is people like me—not secular left progressives—who exemplify the “counterculture.” Counterculture, of course, involves deliberate transgression of norms. For many people (especially those under 30), what being “cool” and “edgy” entails is performing these transgressions. My students seemed uncomfortable as they realized that when mainstream culture affirms and celebrates all the ideas, beliefs, and behaviors that used to qualify as transgressive…well, engaging in those “transgressions” makes you a conformist. And you certainly aren’t “countercultural.”
College students today skew left politically, but many on the right are no less confused about how the relationship between culture and counterculture plays out in 2022. The most important thing for everyone to grasp is that the revolutionary culture war that gained steam throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s was decisively won. The purpose of public displays of “counterculture” is to change the prevailing norms and values of a society. Understanding this reality is critical for the prospects of recovering the importance of traditional values in our era.
When a countercultural element succeeds in making those changes, it ceases to be countercultural. It takes on the status of the new paradigm, inherits the power that the defeated norms used to wield, and commands the same respect and genuflection from the public. Over the last 60 years, the countercultural left has successfully changed the norms on every topic of political concern: from family formation, to the role of religion in public life, to drug use, to sex, to criminal justice, to war, to education. In short, the culture we have now is the culture that the counterculture wanted. The leftist counterculture has become our dominant culture, and it is supported and enforced by the most powerful institutions of our society.
These developments have produced some psychic trauma for both the left and right. The modern left has always thought of itself as synonymous with counterculture. They view their political action as a part of a world-historical force, waging a battle against an order that they believe purposely suppresses the full expression of the autonomous individual. They see themselves as transgressors, as the underdogs who “speak truth to power,” and as the brave people who will defy repressive norms to live as their “authentic selves.” These ideas are so central to their self-conception that many are simply incapable of seeing that they now hold the positions of power to which they say the truth must be spoken.
But with the entire lot of countercultural ideas now endorsed by the state, they feel lost: what is left to oppose? What norms remain to be transgressed? They look and find none, which forces them to take ever-more-extreme positions on issues on which they have already conquered. Their revolution was successful, but to acknowledge this would entail committing oneself to playing defense rather than offense: you need to shift from revolting against norms and transgressing them to enforcing norms and affirming them. This goes against the very essence of the left’s self-conception (which is inherently “revolutionary”), and so they must continue a charade where they pretend to be raging against a machine that they actually control. But the left cannot see how this charade ultimately limits them from using that machine at its maximum efficiency and productivity.
The cognitive dissonance on the political right is just as profound, but different in character. There are some conservatives who are still trying to play defense. These are the people who don’t yet grasp that their enemies won the culture war on traditional American values. They rant and rave about violations of norms that are obsolete. Their values are not obsolete, but those values no longer operate as norms because the state and other institutions openly support the new norms (which only a few decades ago were the values of the left counterculture).
Others on the right grasp that the old counterculture has become the new culture—that it now dictates the norms of our society. But many of them have not yet come to grips with the fact that this makes us the new counterculture. Some try to quietly maintain traditional values in their personal lives, but will pay lip service to the new culture when required at school, work, or elsewhere. These people are intellectually conquered.
Their silence is one more testament to the fact that the political left now holds the power to enforce observance of and respect for their norms. They could openly oppose the new norms, but they hesitate. Sometimes this is due to the risks involved in doing so, but their hesitance is partly out of habit. They are unaccustomed to defending what they believe because they have enjoyed decades where the powers of our society shared their own values. A further hindrance is that the institutions now controlled by the old counterculture of yesteryear are often ones conservatives have been raised to respect: the FBI, the CIA, the public schools, the news media, the academy, etc.
Conservatives are habituated to playing defense. But this moment requires offense. Conservatives are naturally reluctant to attack an established order. But the old counterculture is the new establishment. It is rapidly consolidating its power, and it is bent on wiping away whatever remains of the traditional culture of America. If Biden’s primetime speech about the “MAGA extremists” didn’t awaken people to this, nothing will. And because the culture of our institutions is now a leftist culture, electoral politics remain important but are of limited utility. We could elect a Republican Congress in 2020, and a conservative president in 2024. But that would not suffice to reclaim the culture. In other words, if the only thing you’re willing to do to defend your values and assert their public legitimacy is cast a ballot, we’re going to lose. The left didn’t win their power simply by voting: even more important to their victory was their unflagging willingness to express countercultural values collectively and publicly.
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If people on the right are to make any progress in reasserting traditional norms, they need to recognize a few essential truths. First, the countercultural left won. Their offensive against America’s traditional culture overwhelmed our defense, and now they sit in the seat of institutional power. Secondly, traditionalists and conservatives are now the counterculture. It’s our job—if we care—to play offense and undermine the new culture wherever we can. Third, we must understand that voting alone is insufficient as members of the counterculture. We need to be willing to openly live and express the norms that oppose the left’s cultural paradigm.
For many conservatives who remember the cultural climate in mid-20th century, the new forms of activism will be uncomfortable. But we’re beginning a new fight, not continuing an old one. We are switching to offense, after many decades on defense. Even if we play well, we might still lose the battle because our opponents enjoy many advantages, the greatest of which is the cultural high ground that we used to occupy.
But if we’re not even willing to grasp our status as counterculture or exercise whatever power we do have, we have lost already. People on the right need to learn to relish being part of the counterculture, and to jettison the bad connotations that this term implies. Counterculture can be bad, but that depends on the virtue of the culture that it opposes. Our cause is just. In 2022, being vanilla is about the most transgressive identity you can inhabit. In a culture that openly opposes the very notion of virtue, counterculture becomes a moral obligation.