What if the Lincoln Project were run by undergrads?
Now there’s a question nobody wants answered. But it’s a question that 2020, in its infinite unmercy, insists on bringing before us. gen z gop—whose most compelling appeal to its young target audience is apparently a refusal to capitalize—is the latest in a long, sad string of youth-oriented conservative groups that are actually oriented towards the old.
That’s not to say that these are highly traditional groups, with a deep allegiance to what Kirk—Russell not Charlie—called the “permanent things.” They are, rather, committed to certainties set down a generation or two ago: the vicious hawkishness of the mainstream GOP, the soulless capitalism of the transpartisan elite, the fierce aversion to anything resembling a public moral good. All these things and more are presented nearly free of the sugarcoating and equivocation with which the Boomers managed to furnish them. We are seeing, in real time, a new generation playing out the predictions of the last century’s prophets that our devil’s bargain with liberalism would not end in our favor.
In the late stage of the foretold devolving process—as the libertarian impulse overtakes the conservative one—a facade of conservatism remains, but the well it draws from is a shallow one. The things it seeks to conserve are all things born, more or less, in living memory: just old enough to not be new, not quite old enough to have stood the test of time. It is the kind of conservatism that harkens back sadly to “the good old days”—a genuine nostalgia for its older adherents, a bit of aspirant role-playing for their adolescent imitators—while unmaking the world of memory at every available turn. Its Golden Age can be located in either 2004 or 1984, and the farthest reaches of its pseudohistorical ken turn murky around 1660.
Its founding myth is baffling. John Olds, the new group’s political director, provides a brief overview of the supposed history of conservatism on an early episode of gen z gop’s flagship podcast. His opening is one for the books: “So we should start at the beginning here, with John Locke.” What exactly is conservative about the eminently liberal Locke is never explained, but he conceived a theory of rights which exercised a bit of influence on the American founders. (He is also taken, without evidence, to be the founder of empiricism.) This is the beginning of conservatism: a liberal, Enlightened conception of the individual circa 1660. “To understand Locke,” says Olds, “is to understand America.”
Of course, this libertarian streak must be tempered by a traditional one. Enter Edmund Burke. Burke, a liberal less radical than Locke, provides in the minds of gen z gop’s theoreticians a counterweight to Locke’s revolutionary potential. The liberation offered by Locke’s fantasies, plus Burke’s disapproval of beheadings and whatnot, equals a kind of conservatism that needs to conserve nothing other than our commitment to not beheading people. This reading of history, which sprang into being amid a postwar panic to affirm our liberal devotions, is all too familiar.
But Olds asks an important question: “How do Burke and Locke bring us to where we are today?” (The answer, of course, would be entirely unpleasant to our friends at gen z gop.) After a brief detour to Piety Hill and the obligatory nod to Goldwater—“the first high-profile, modern conservative in the Senate,” Olds claims as Robert Taft rolls in his grave—gen z gop’s resident historian arrives at Ronald Reagan.
In Reagan, all the wildest dreams of Locke, Burke, Kirk, and Goldwater coalesce and materialize. His administration is, to Olds, the beginning of conservatism in practice—and in many ways its peak. A renaissance follows a few years later when George W. Bush adds a humane touch to Reagan’s original conservatism, and undertakes the noble task of spreading it to foreign shores. All through the decades-long history of the Great Tradition, our liberal-conservative values are upheld by heroes committed to freedom and principles, only to be smashed by the Orange Man on his entry into the Oval Office.
Throughout the fantastical narrative, the young Mr. Olds displays historical illiteracy of the most outrageous kind. But he cannot be blamed for this. It’s not as if he conjured the myth out of thin air: this is the philosophical history that has been taught in schools and touted by the right-leaning intelligentsia for decades. It’s a myth that upholds the GOP’s status quo: functional public liberalism, with occasional gestures at a private conservative disposition.
The focal points of the group’s nostalgia are telling, even outside of the formal historiography. Ian Stevens, a member of gen z gop with a focus on foreign policy, is itching for the halcyon days of 2008:
Who wishes elections were still like this? pic.twitter.com/YhQjHB13Bw
— Ian Stevens (@ianstevensc) September 11, 2020
Another group member laments, “The Republican Party that I grew up following is a party no more.” Given the age-orientation of the organization, this is a eulogy for the GOP of the noughts—not exactly conservatism’s shining moment.
In fact, it was kind of the low point. Social conservatism had been hollowed out, and after three decades theoretically fighting, Roe remained untouchable; Obergefell was creeping up quickly, if quietly. Though not yet applied, “Zombie” had become an appropriate and necessary prefix to “Reaganism,” and a devastating recession was in the offing—on top of a good bit of destruction already visited on the American middle class. But, hey, the GOP held the White House and a majority in Congress for most of the decade. What’s more, they used that power to wage massive imperial wars in a reckless and fruitless attempt to deliver our quasi-Lockeanism to the Middle East. That’s what we call winning.
This nostalgia for the nadir of conservative history—when the gen z gop’ers (and I) were all in elementary school—is shared by the NeverTrumpers and neocons whose figurehead, then as now, is Bill Kristol. On a personal level, Kristol’s nostalgia is understandable: the ideas he had championed for years came to dominate this country (and a few others) for a brief, shining moment. It was, for the neoconservatives and many of the fusionists, the culmination of a decades-long fight for control of the public arena. This dream, and any potential of returning to it, was ripped away from them when Trump took control of the party. gen z gop is the flip side of that coin: their first experience of politics was the neocons at the top of their game, and they weren’t yet old enough, on that first experience, to grasp the dark underbelly of the neocon machine. In short: they see 2004 Bill Kristol the way 2004 Bill Kristol saw himself.
And it can’t be overstated just how much this hinges on appearance. Mike Brodo, gen z gop’s executive director, explains his repudiation of Trump’s GOP: “I oppose some of the policies of this administration for what they are, but what really matters more is how they go about implementing them.” Never mind the outcomes of Trump’s policy; he didn’t go about it very nicely. We need wide smiles and soft words—the kind we used to get from principled conservatives like George Will and George W. Bush.
That word—principled—bears the same magic power for gen z gop as it does for their aging counterparts. On the podcast, Brodo puts his theory of politics into words, kind of. The three tenets of gen z conservatism: principles, policy, opportunity. We are treated to a rambling explanation of how opportunity is achieved by means of policy that is informed by principle that leads to principled policy for opportunity; the words loop around and swim together in a fog of confusion that seems more the speaker’s than the listener’s.
This is all a grand effort to reintroduce facts and nuance into our political discourse. We need to do away with black-and-white classifications of such nebulous things as politics and morals. We ought to dive into the gray area, and stay there. They’re fond of calling their efforts nuance signaling. “Nuance is interesting,” Brodo opines, “because nuance itself is quite nuanced.” Hm.
Presumably, one manifestation of this nuance—heretofore absent from American politics—is the complete abandonment of any pretensions at social conservatism. gen z gop is unabashedly pro-LGBTQ+, and wants you to know that they know Black Lives Matter. They’re suspiciously reticent about the moral status of abortion, but insistent that the practice is enshrined in our constitution—either in the 1st or the 14th amendment, depending on who you talk to.
These are areas where the youngest generation of liberal conservatives think they are forging a new path. Brodo, for his part, is convinced that we are crawling toward a brave new world: “I understand these perspectives are new. I did not arrive at them overnight, and people are not going to understand them overnight.” (The kernel of truth here being that nobody will understand them.)
But they are just playing out a predictable game. Genuine conservatism—which belongs primarily in the social realm—has taken a backseat to economic liberalism and political globalism for as long as any of us can remember. These very disordered priorities have dissolved many of the preconditions for functional conservatism in the social domain. As anyone could have warned us (and many people did) we are left with a generation of right-wingers whose only concept of conservatism is liberalism—if we’re lucky, in slow motion. If they see anything worth conserving, it’s a bloated military—“strong national defense”—and a palatable tax rate. On nearly every issue of genuine concern to the right, they simply go with the current.
It is not so much that they stand at the beginning of a new path as the end of an old one. They are not the the successor to the dead consensus; they are the culmination of it. They are the neo-neocons.
Nihil sub sole novum.
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