AMAC Exclusive – By – David P. Deavel
For Americans, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia has been yet another terrifying but clarifying wake-up call this year about our own country. After selling Joe Biden to the American public on the basis of his supposed moderation, the Democrats have been spending money the country doesn’t have on bills we don’t need, dividing the country with unneeded health mandates, attempting to divert attention from the disastrous rises in crime that are tied to their policies, and kneecapping our energy production in the name of environmentalism—among other things. The last item on that list is no longer ignorable for many precisely because of its tie to Putin. After all, because of our diminished energy production in the U. S., we are now buying very expensive barrels of oil from Russia—and thus directly funding their invasion. Like the Afghanistan debacle of 2021, the Ukraine invasion of 2022 is tied to a lack of leadership, especially in the Democratic Party that has caused or exacerbated so much of our current chaos.
That’s where the clarifying comes in. It may seem an odd world when conservatives are sharing the wisdom of figures on the left such as Bill Maher, Glenn Greenwald, Bret Weinstein, and others who have judged rightly that today’s woke progressivism is insane—while only sharing the thoughts of formerly conservative figures such as Jonah Goldberg, Bill Kristol, and David French to lament or laugh at the latest “conservative case” for something crazy. But it’s not unexpected that people start to think differently when the world starts shifting. Just as no battles are ever permanently won or lost in the political realm, so too are there no permanent alliances. The task for conservatives these days is to think about some ground rules for dealing with those who are fellow travelers and possible converts to the conservative cause. We need to be welcoming but not slobbering, prudent in how we work with others, and aware that our alignments may not always last. But we also have to be smart and welcoming to those who do join us.
Welcome Wagon Ready. Glenn Reynolds has for years advocated that Republicans in red states offer a “welcome wagon” to those who have moved from blue states. The goal is to convince people that the reason red states provide a place to live is because they do not follow the blue state model—so those moving should not vote the way they did before or they will end up turning their new home into a version of their old one.
We need this welcome wagon approach for everybody. And we have plenty of issues on which to connect with those who are dissatisfied. There are plenty of parents who have reconsidered their political worldview because of the way that public schools have been behaving with regard to CRT, transgender activism, and Covid policy. More specifically, there are many minority parents among this group who have also long supported school choice and other policies really more connected with the right than the left. And yet the failure of conservatives to broaden their base has been palpable. Black votes have largely gone to Democrats for the last sixty years, but it need not be that way. Larry Elder’s excellent documentary Uncle Tom was not only a depiction of a number of fascinating black conservatives, but also a lament for the failure of conservatives to reach out to them. In the film, Carol Swain, an academic and intellectual, recalled asking for support in getting black voters in a mayoral race in Nashville and being told by GOP bigwigs, “Don’t waste your time in minority communities. Hunt where the ducks are.”
Here’s the thing. These days a lot of people you might have called loons in previous years are looking like ducks and quacking like ducks. Maybe not all the time, but often enough that you might want to think about taking a shot at them.
Be a Happy Warrior. Perhaps the first thing necessary to say about this is that though we might connect with people based on their dissatisfactions, we need to be able both to sympathize and to show that there is a better way. Conservatives can sometimes give off the Apocalypse Now vibe so much that they are not attractive. Don’t get me wrong: I too think that apart from Joe Biden causing supply chain problems with handbaskets, we’d be traveling to hell in them. But what is attractive to people is not just diagnosing the ills of our age but showing that we have hope of recovery and a plan for healing. An old rule has it that the candidate who appears to be having a good time is much more likely to win.
Prudence on Collaboration is the Key. Even if we sympathize with the world wrought by woke and have a Reaganesque smile, many of these people dissatisfied with their old party or political friends will not necessarily be willing to jump into the Republican Party or conservative groups immediately. Bill Maher is still a liberal who thinks Trump was a disaster, Joe Rogan is still interested in Bernie, and plenty of other dissenters have their own views.
That’s perfectly understandable for them and for less famous people. Most of us don’t change our minds on big topics between dinner and dessert—even if the dinner was atrocious and the chipper people bringing dessert are whispering about a different restaurant. We need to keep talking to those people who are tired of the old but not quite convinced of the new. They may not be for everything on the platform, but if conservatives can cooperate with them on public school transparency, school choice, or more and better policing in their neighborhoods—just as we applaud and use the times when Bill Maher attacks CRT-infused education and Greenwald attacks our corporate media for its dishonesty—we will both have more success on these issues and also increase the possibility of convincing these fellow travelers on others.
Don’t Make Them Our Guiding Stars. Because many of these fellow travelers are so attractive and so useful, it can be tempting also to look to them for leadership even before they have fully embraced the conservative movement. But it is important to remember that they may well disagree with us on the badness of woke and still disagree with us on what it means to be awake to the truths. John McWhertor and James Lindsay are great on tearing apart the absurdities of the diversity-crats, but they do not evidence a deep understanding of what kind of conservative foundations are necessary for a society with liberal institutions and politics. McWhertor, for instance, rightly diagnoses wokeness as a religion but fails to understand that the problem is that it is a bad religion and that good religion is necessary. He seems not to grasp the point John Adams made in a 1798 letter: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Let Political Converts Really Convert—and Don’t Hold Their Pasts Against Them. When such fellow travelers do have a road to Damascus (or perhaps Philadelphia?) experience, it’s still a good idea to let the conversion sink in a bit before making them bear the hopes of the movement or the party. Republicans are still paying for giving too much influence to some of those earlier converts in the Neo-conservative movement in the area of foreign affairs. While their intellectual godfather, Irving Kristol, was the type of sensible figure who could give “two cheers for capitalism,” some of the godchildren gave three cheers for interventionism to the country and the Republican Party’s regret.
And yet, just as conservatives can err in allowing converts too much influence too early, so too others can hold it against others that they were not “right from the beginning.” A 2020 essay by a young black Wisconsin conservative named Chris Lawrence gets at this point well. Lawrence, whose views changed as an adult, tells the story of another conservative convert, Jessi Ebben, whose political changes came after the attempted 2011 recall of Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Because she had signed the petition in her college days, Ebben was being attacked by other conservatives during a primary bid to replace Democratic Congressman Ron Kind. Lawrence notes that such attacks are a way of—well, let’s use a Trumpism here—making Republicans losers. “It is foolish and self-sabotaging for Republicans or conservatives to punish people for converting to conservatism, and for signing a recall petition as a young college student—especially when they can eloquently describe why they are a conservative today.”
Our alliances aren’t always going to be permanent. But sometimes they are. We need to take advantage of a difficult time in our history to help those who are open to real change for the better. We need to be happy warriors who welcome temporary teammates and work toward making them permanent ones—if possible. And if we can’t, let’s enjoy the shellacking they give to their own party—and use their critiques to open people to our side.
David P. Deavel is editor of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, co-director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy, and a visiting professor at the University of St. Thomas (MN). He is the co-host of the Deep Down Things podcast.