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The Peril Of Conservative Culture-War Complacency

Eric Kaufmann's blockbuster talk warns Right of doom if it doesn't make culture top priority
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A few years back, Hungarian PM Viktor Orban said to a group of international visitors of which I was part that he hoped we would consider Budapest our “intellectual home.” I’ve thought about that a lot over the years since, most recently this past weekend at the Danube Institute’s excellent one-day academic conference, titled The Post-Liberal Turn And The Future Of British Conservatism. 

Eric Kaufmann, the academic I was most looking forward to meeting, had to cancel because he came down with Covid, but he did manage to deliver his lecture by Zoom. And what a lecture it was! When the video recording goes up on the DI’s website, I’ll post it, because you really need to hear it to get the force of its urgency.

Kaufmann’s main point was that conservatives have to make fighting the culture war their most important goal — more important than economics, taxes, or anything else. Why? Because his research on the attitudes of younger generations shows that they are illiberal leftists who don’t believe conservatives have the right to participate in society. “I don’t think we are ready for what’s coming,” he said.

Kaufmann based his remarks on recent research he carried out for the Manhattan Institute; he discusses his findings in-depth in this City Journal article from earlier this year. Excerpts:

The clash between socialist and liberal economics defined the late twentieth century, and this century brings a cultural version of that struggle. Today’s culture wars pit advocates of equal outcomes and special protection for identity groups against defenders of due process, equal treatment, scientific reason, and free speech. Our political map is taking shape around this new divide between what I will call cultural socialism and cultural liberalism.

Cultural socialism, which values equal results and harm prevention for identity groups over individual rights, has inspired race-based pedagogies and harsh punishments for controversial speech. Rooted in the idea that historically marginalized groups are sacred, this view is no passing fad. Lettersassociationsuniversities, and media defending free speech notwithstanding, the young adherents of cultural socialism are steadily overturning the liberal ethos of the adult world.

Survey data from my new Manhattan Institute report, “The Politics of the Culture Wars in Contemporary America,” show the scale of the challenge. While the American public leans two-to-one in favor of cultural liberalism, a majority of Americans under 30 incline toward cultural socialism. For instance, while 65 percent of Americans over 55 oppose Google’s decision to fire James Damore for having questioned the firm’s training on gender equity, those under 30 support the firing by a 59–41 margin. Similar gaps separate young and old people on similar instances of cancel culture, such as the oustings of Gina Carano (an actor fired from Star Wars for social media posts) and Brendan Eich (the former CEO of Mozilla forced out in 2014 for opposing gay marriage in 2008). Only part of this disparity stems from the fact that young people lean left: centrist young people, for instance, support Google over Damore by a 61–39 margin, while centrists over 55 support Damore over Google 58–42.

On the use of critical race theory in school, a similar divide emerges. Eight in ten people over age 55 oppose teaching schoolchildren that the United States was founded on racism and remains systemically racist, or that the country and their homes were built on stolen land. A slight majority of young people support teaching these notions. While opposition to critical race theory in schools can take an illiberal form, compulsory CRT violates two key liberal principles: first, that pupils in a classroom or employees in a diversity training session should not be forced to agree with ideas they don’t believe in; and second, that people should not be treated differently because of their race. Recent attempts by state governments to limit whites’ access to Covid-19 medication are another manifestation of this tendency.


Another front in the culture war is censorship of speech, usually justified on grounds that such speech would inflict psychological harm on minorities and that power should be redistributed to “marginalized groups.” Activists pushing for such censorship organize online flash mobs and pressure campaigns, wielding accusations of racism, homophobia, or transphobia to ruin a person’s reputation and have them fired from their position. The problem is especially acute in higher education: the number of academics targeted for cancellation has exploded in recent years.

Young people are especially afraid of cancel culture. Forty-five percent of employees under 30 worry about losing their jobs because “someone misunderstands something you have said or done, takes it out of context, or posts something from your past online.” Just 29 percent of those over 55 have the same worry.

This fear, however, doesn’t appear to lead young people to oppose cancel culture. Most millennials and members of Generation Z are not cultural liberals too scared to say what they truly believe. Instead, many privilege cultural equality over freedom. By a 48–27 margin, respondents under 30 agree that “My fear of losing my job or reputation due to something I said or posted online is a justified price to pay to protect historically disadvantaged groups.” Those over 50, by contrast, disagree by a 51–17 margin. Younger age brackets are both more fearful of cancel culture and more supportive of it than are older age groups.

He concludes:

America still has two cultural liberals for every cultural socialist. Questions of cancel culture and CRT split Democrats and unite Republicans, putting pressure on both parties to resist cultural socialism. Twenty percent of Democrats, one-third of independents, and nearly half of Republican voters now rank culture-war issues as a top concern, my survey finds. The classical liberal inheritance that underpins our legal system does not live in the hearts of younger generations because it has not been brought to life in stories, film, or education. We urgently need to revive this lost tradition—but the hour is late.

Read the whole thing. 

This is the point of Live Not By Lies — that this stuff is coming, and coming hard, and we have to be ready for it. Kaufmann’s research provides strong evidence of the magnitude of the coming darkness. Yet Kaufmann believes that we can still fight it off, but not if we keep failing to take it seriously. And by “take it seriously,” he doesn’t mean merely being alarmed by it, but doing anything substantive.

In his Saturday talk, Kaufmann said that American conservatives are pretty good at talking about culture war issues, but terrible at coming up with effective policies to fight wokeness. UK conservatives, by contrast, have some good policies, but are very bad at talking about it. He praised activist Christopher Rufo and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for bucking the habit of conservative complacency about the culture war.

Kaufmann added that conservatives have to have plans to retake public institutions, as well as to bring political scrutiny to public institutions (e.g., universities) to force them to be fair and neutral. Defending the rights of individuals is more important that respecting institutional autonomy. If the state will not intervene to protect political and religious minorities from discrimination, and to ban woke policies on speech, and so forth, it will only get worse.

He made it very clear that, based on his research, conservatives are going to face a fight for their right to exist within institutions and in the public square. Kaufmann later added, in the Q&A period, that conservatives are either too “stupid” (his word) to see the seriousness of the threat to wokeness, or are too stubbornly distracted by the things they prefer to talk about (like cutting taxes) to recognize that if we lose the culture, we will have lost the opportunity to argue for anything else.

Kaufmann was followed by James Orr, a lecturer at St. John’s College, Cambridge, and a bruised but unbowed veteran of the culture war in that university. (It was Orr who initially tried to bring Jordan Peterson to campus to speak, was shot down, then fought back, finally succeeding.) Orr told the audience that conservatives should not make the mistake of thinking that wokeness is shallow. No, he said, it’s deep, and it’s a very serious threat to the free society. Only the State is strong enough to regulate all this and to defend liberty and sanity. Conservatives would be foolish to think that we can get by with modest responses to this threat.

Prof. James Orr

Indeed, in talking to various UK academics this weekend between sessions, I was shocked by how very far wokeness has gotten in British culture. It’s even worse than in the US. I am not sure how much of what I was told was confidential — though I know some of it is — so I’m not sure what I am at liberty to repeat here. I’ll just say that these warnings from Kaufmann, Orr, and others are in no way exaggerated.

Orr added that conservative attempts to reform existing institutions have generally come to naught. We need to create counter-institutions and networks, so our ideas can thrive. See, one of the reasons I think US and UK conservatives can learn from what Viktor Orban and the Fidesz Party are doing here in Hungary is that they are pretty effective at using the State to fight for conservative values, in ways that complacent US and UK conservatives are generally not. Plus, Orban and Fidesz understand the importance of culture more than their western counterparts do.

For example, here is the précis of a 2017 academic paper talking about how Orban and Fidesz laid the groundwork for their 2010 political victory, and the subsequent twelve years of Fidesz leadership (which will extent to sixteen years if, as expected, Fidesz wins another majority on April 3), via cultural organization:

Starting in 2010, the Fidesz party achieved in a row six (partly landslide) victories at municipal, national, and European Parliament elections. Not questioning other explanations, my ongoing research traces the remarkable resilience of the ruling party above all to earlier “tectonic” shifts in civil society, which helped the Right accumulate ample social capital well before its political triumph. This process was decisively advanced by the Civic Circles Movement founded by Viktor Orbán after the lost election of 2002. This movement was militant in terms of its hegemonic aspirations and collective practices; massive in terms of its membership and activism; middle-cIass based in terms of social stratification; and dominantly metropolitan and urban on the spatial dimension. Parallel to contentious mobilization, the civic circles re-organized and extended the Right’s grass-roots networks, associations, and media; rediscovered and reinvented its holidays and everyday life-styles, symbols, and heroes; and explored innovative ways for cultural, charity, leisure, and political activities. Leading activists, among them patriots, priests, professionals, politicians, and pundits, offered new frames and practices for Hungarians to feel, think, and act as members of “imagined communities”: the nation, Christianity, citizenry, and Europe.

Here is a link to a full 2021 academic paper analyzing how Fidesz did it through a variety of strategies.

And here is a link to a full 2020 paper analyzing in-depth how Fidesz built their political movement by focusing on civil society organizations. Over the weekend I went on three separate occasions to a couple of the three Scruton coffee houses in Budapest. These clean, cozy gathering places for coffee, wine, beer, and food, and named after the late, great British conservative thinker Sir Roger Scruton, are part of the contemporary Fidesz strategy to encourage the building of conservative communities.

(A side note: one of the visiting UK academics this weekend who was close to Scruton told me that Viktor Orban flew into Britain from Indonesia to attend Scruton’s funeral. He said Orban came quietly, with no fanfare, like an ordinary mourner. Such was the Hungarian PM’s esteem for Sir Roger.)

As I have repeatedly said in this space, it’s neither desirable nor possible to pick up everything that Orban and his party have done in Hungary and transplant it into American life. We are a different people, with different ways of living, and different traditions. Nevertheless, there is so much to learn from the way Fidesz does it here. Heaven knows American conservatives have to try some new things. They’re probably going to get Congress back this fall, owing to Joe Biden’s failures. But for once, they ought to try deserving power by using it to do big things — none more important than fighting back hard against wokeness, with positive legislation. Beyond pure politics, it’s time for innovative conservative activists and thinkers to get beyond grifty, tired Conservatism, Inc., strategies, and try to devise something like Fidesz’s Civic Circles movement from the early 2000s. What would that look like in an American context? I’d like to know. I really would love to see a growing stream of curious US conservatives beating a path to Budapest to learn from these folks.

What have we got to lose? Well, talk to Eric Kaufmann about that. He can tell you.

UPDATE: Should have mentioned the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, and its Republican legislature, for going to war against the ghouls of the transgender industry. Here’s an article about how the state Attorney General ruled that transitioning children is a form of child abuse, as it certainly is. And here’s a story from the Texas Tribune about Jeff Younger, a father who lost a famous child custody battle, and whose son is now being medically transformed into a pseudo-female; Younger’s case helped move the Texas legislature to go after clinics that transition children. The Tribune, a liberal paper, writes of Younger and his GOP supporters as a villain, but you still get the idea that it was the grassroots that compelled Texas GOP politicians to act.

The Texas governor and legislature are being roasted by the media, but so far, are taking the heat. More like them, please.