The Perils of Lifestyle Rightism
Conservatives shouldn’t mistake good habits for good politics.
It’s the beginning of the new year, the season of personal resolutions. For many American conservatives, younger ones especially, the resolutions might include lifting more, eating wholesome foods, saying farewell to harmful vices like smoking, embracing moderation all around, slashing screen time, reading Scripture and the classics and transmitting them to children, maybe even moving across the country if it means more culturally hospitable climes.
If you are setting out to make good on such resolutions, I wish you every success. And I ask for your good wishes, too, since I’m trying to do better on some of these fronts. But as we strive for these noble goals, there is one crucial fact to keep in mind: None of these things is a substitute for political action to improve our communities. Pretending otherwise risks fortifying an unhelpful recent trend, what might be called “lifestyle rightism.”
To understand lifestyle rightism, it might be helpful to discuss lifestyle leftism. The term was coined by Sahra Wagenknecht, a former leader of Germany’s Left party, in her 2021 memoir, Die Selbstgerechten (“The Self-Righteous”). In it, Wagenknecht railed against what she sees as the decline of the left, from a movement that sought to empower workers in relation to capital to one that too often lectures and disciplines workers.
Today’s leftists, she wrote, “no longer place social and political-economic problems at the center of left-wing politics. In the place of such concerns, they promote questions regarding lifestyle, consumption habits, and moral attitudes.” Progressives once strove to make working-class lives more abundant and easier. Today, they too often do the opposite, whether by shutting down nuclear energy because it is too efficient or, in the case of traffic-blocking Extinction Rebellion protesters, quite literally preventing workers from commuting. The identity left’s ever-shifting diktats on language, meanwhile, are a boon to management. They constantly create “separate and distinct groups,” Wagenknecht observed, and thus “undermine solidarity in workplaces.”
Forcing endless conversations about melanin content and genitalia, lifestyle leftism leaves intact the lopsided distribution of income and power along the lines of social class. It creates only a mirage of change and radicalism.
Lifestyle rightism, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as sinister. For one thing, owing to the right’s relative cultural and institutional marginalization, it is often found on the online fringes. Lifestyle rightism doesn’t have the H.R. department's ear. Quite the opposite, in fact. Even so, its message is often strikingly similar: namely, that political change can be brought about by making better personal, investment, and consumer choices. In this way, it misdirects its adherents, shifting them away from collective action and the shared pursuit of common goods toward essentially private goods (some of which aren’t good at all).
Consider some examples:
There was, of course, the movement that rose around the ex-kickboxer and online personality Andrew Tate. Whatever his alleged crimes, Tate clearly spoke to the frustrations of many young men amid declining rates of marriage and family formation. Yet rather than mobilize politically against the political-economic and cultural forces behind their discontent, Tate taught his followers to strive for individual wealth and the domination of women—in his own case, through a seedy webcam business. As Emily Vermeule has noted, “the worship of a philandering overclass” hasn’t “led to an improvement in the situation of men.” And it never will. Lifestyle rightism transmutes political alienation into a feeling of rebellion—a feeling you, too, can tap into for the low price of just $99 a year.
The crypto sphere, and the ideology that undergirds it, share similar characteristics. As I’ve written in these pages, echoing the antitrust writer Matt Stoller, the cryptocurrency market is fueled by a younger generation of investors’ righteous antipathy for the mainstream financial industry. Having watched Big Finance burn down the economy with dangerous speculation and get away scot-free, they have turned to an asset class even more speculative and dangerously under-regulated than any of Lehman's mortgage-backed securities. And here again there beckons the promise of escaping politics and institutions, another anti-political gesture masquerading as political rebellion.
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Finally, there’s what I call New Frontier-ism (not to punch down to mostly anonymous accounts, I’m editing actual tweets that speak to a wider sentimentalism): “Admit the reality that the contemporary landscape is irreparably corrupted; find a likeminded community, fight for individual solutions that work for your family, moving if you have to.” Or: “A hundred years ago, it was possible to just go off somewhere, start your own farm, and live clean. You can still do that, if you fight for it.” The obvious fallacy here is a historical one. The American frontier closed long ago, and even before that, the American yeoman was no yeoman at all; rather, he lived at the mercy of the “money power”—the credit system. His condition improved, dramatically, thanks to reforms demanded by agrarian populists in the late 19th century and later enacted by New Dealers.
The larger point is this: Historical reveries—ahistorical reveries, to be precise—are no answer to crises posed by complex economies and societies to individual and family life. Law reform and better administration are. Lifestyle rightism is a fundamentally romantic tendency that resists this hard reality.
To criticize what I call lifestyle rightism isn’t to dismiss the importance of self-improvement at the individual level: Any movement should want healthy, wholesome individual members; it is why the labor movement put such an emphasis on workers’ education. Nor am I, in this criticism, wallowing in pessimism about the intractability of big social problems. On the contrary, the lesson of the successful movements of the past—labor populists, progressive farmers, and the like—is precisely that it is possible to solve collective problems through the application of power. By all means, lift and eat clean, gather power over the slothful self. But don’t mistake these things for politics.