To be conservative in California can be frustrating. Republicans haven’t won a statewide election here in a decade. Conservative policy prescriptions—such as they are—don’t have much of a constituency where most Californians live. And the place is thoroughly, maddeningly, insufferably, sometimes stiflingly “progressive.”
Which, if you think about it, makes those of us on the political right something of a counterculture. Far out!
More than that, California conservatives apparently have an outsize voice in national politics. Vox, the self-styled explanatory journalism website, published a story Monday that attempts to explain how California conservatives came to form the intellectual impetus for Donald Trump’s unlikely political ascent.
Reporter Jane Coaston “traveled the length of the Golden State, stopping at conservative outpost after conservative outpost”—which seems to have spanned from the San Fernando Valley to Claremont, about 50 miles east of L.A.
Never mind the geographical quibbles. What she discovered is a conservatism of defiance, “isolation,” and “powerlessness,” articulated by people “who believe their views will never become the view.” Sounds like a bummer.
Yet somehow, Coaston contends, “California conservatism” has become “simply conservatism writ large.”
That seems to be the thesis anyway. As explanations go, however, it’s puzzling. It doesn’t really work. Here’s why.
For one, there is not a single “California conservatism.” The right-wing populism of L.A.-based Breitbart News is not in the same intellectual neighborhood as the Claremont Review of Books, which published Michael Anton’s influential (and highly controversial) “The Flight 93 Election.” Mashing them all together is like grafting cat legs to a dog’s body.
Also, some of these conservative thinkers don’t know what they’re talking about—because they don’t really understand politics.
Coaston leans heavily on the highly quotable Ben Shapiro, whose Daily Wire website gets 100 million views a month. “All we do all day is talk about ideas because we lose,” Shapiro told her. “We’re living in an area where no policy prescription that you have will ever be implemented in this state.”
Shapiro gets it exactly backward. Conservatives in California lose because all they do all day is talk about ideas—ideas untested by experience or utterly rejected by voters. If the purpose of politics is to win, then maybe the ideas are no good? Maybe come up with better ideas? Maybe California conservatives should talk to actual people?
But in the course of so much unsatisfactory explaining, the Vox story performs an unintentional service. Coaston’s reporting underscores just why our political vocabulary is so outmoded and lame.
What do we mean when we say somebody is “conservative” anyway? What are conservatives “conserving”?
If it’s just about shoring up the status quo, forget it. That’s about losing the game slowly. Sixty-two million Americans didn’t take a chance on an amateur politician because they were happy with the status quo. Unless you’re in tech or banking or you have a government job, the status quo sucks.
Trump isn’t a “conservative.” Not really. Setting aside the fact that the man changed his party affiliation seven times in 13 years, Trump is best understood as a disruptor. Disruption is not conservative.
To a NeverTrump Republican, the charge alone is enough to convict. But for many of us, the disruption is necessary. It’s clarifying and refreshing, too.
Trump’s ascent in 2016 made it possible to ditch the old right-wing checklist, to rethink old prescriptions and even to indulge in a bit of ideological heresy now and then.
Low taxes can be good, but in case of an emergency -- a world war, for example, or a natural disaster -- taxes might have to go up.
Regulations often prevent new businesses from forming and protect big businesses from competition. But when tech firms like Facebook and Twitter begin censoring political content, and Amazon prices out its competition, maybe some 21st-century trust-busting is in order.
Raising tariffs on bad actors like China is not a sin; it’s an instrument of statecraft, a tool in the political toolbox, aimed at correcting an imbalance that hurts middle-class Americans.
Immigration can help the country solve labor shortages and help spur innovation. Excessive or illegal immigration drives down wages and can lead to social unrest.
Those are policy questions, not matters of settled doctrine. All of them are debatable.
“Conservatism,” for want of a better term, can’t just be about recycling ideas that disintegrate in the face of real life, and it can’t just be about “owning the libs” on social media. For that matter, conservatism cannot be about the political fortunes of one man.
It’s about making the country a better place to live and work and raise a family. It’s about winning the votes.