Social conservatives, I’ve found, are unimpressed with the free speech crusade. …[A] friend of mine wrote “G. K. Chesterton said that tolerance is the virtue of a man without convictions. And what is the virtue of a campus political club without convictions? Free speech.” His essay, titled “Conservatives Have No Party,” explains this paradox—that a group can be outspoken but lack conviction. The leaders invited controversial speakers, but insisted they didn’t endorse the speakers they invited.
They tried to position themselves as neutral facilitators of a marketplace of ideas, “as if the community should commend them for either lacking a concrete political agenda or being too cowardly to tell about it.” Free speech does not require any commitment to real positions, and the club’s combative defense of it only underlined its historical reluctance to take stands on social issues.
The self-proclaimed “pro-life generation” is cooling on classical liberal arguments for life that focus on the individual rights of children in the womb in favor of arguments that an ethic of life promotes the common good of mother and child. I began to notice this change at meetings of my school’s Right to Life club, the leaders of which were deeply interested in cultural perceptions of life and family.
They saw at the core of the abortion problem a false view of family life as “contractual” or “transactional,” as consisting of rights and preferences mutually recognized by all members, to be dropped if the relation proves inconvenient or otherwise undesirable.
Another former Ivy League pro-life leader told me “neither side’s liberal arguments are especially convincing.” Even when employed against abortion, “pro-life ‘rights’ language doesn’t do what I want it to,” she told me. “A framework in which we view the fetus as a stranger allows the mother to treat the fetus in an unacceptably shabby way.”
All this adds up to a suspicion that Republican loss of ground on social issues is systematic and intentional, and that social libertarianism cannot be separated from the economic libertarianism to which the party is committed. My Yale friend, upon departing his job in Washington, recounted his frustration that whenever social conservatives try to pick up the slack and make the arguments that Republican politicians seem to give up on, “the libertarian establishment is silent or openly hostile. We’re tired of being treated like our issues are of secondary concern.” If an issue “can’t be solved with a new tax rate,” he said, the establishment seems not to care.
As young as they are, socially conservative millennials find concrete examples of this treatment in their own memory. They remember the abrupt abandonment of the defense of traditional marriage on the part of Republicans around 2014. “Who really believes,” one pro-life Columbia graduate asked, “that they all discovered at the same time that they have this one LGBT relative that they love so very much in what just-so-happens to be the same way that liberals define love? It’s ridiculous.”
A Princeton graduate concurred, recalling that within conservative circles, social conservatives argued for years that gay marriage was not a value-neutral, taste-dependent, market-style option, but “the liberal establishment didn’t deign to engage with these arguments.” She added that the experience of being “absolutely ignored” in the recent past by the same people now calling for “viewpoint diversity” and free speech “isn’t one that inspires confidence.”
“What we need right now,” a D.C. resident told me in a conversation about identity politics, “is a Christian anthropology.”
In contrast with liberalism, the identity politics I encountered in college does not see the self as freely self-constructing or dependent only on personal choice. All the talk about liberation exists only to remove assumed barriers to self-expression. To “identify” as white, black, gay, straight, or any of the genders is to be bound to something which defines one’s desires and situates one in a category of similarly self-identifying people.
Identity politics tries hard to depict the human person not as a rootless and rational consumer browsing lifestyle options, but as a bundle of meaningful attributes whose desires are neither arbitrary nor arrived at by utilitarian calculation, but are rooted in his personal nature and fulfilled in something like a community. Of course, it falls short in almost every respect: It desires community, but can only offer broad abstractions like the “LGBT community”; it desires a connection to history, but only knows clichés about repression and colonialism; it desires solidarity, but can find no basis for it other than the exclusion of “privileged” groups, and so on.
These desires need to be grounded in a theory of the self better than the one identity politics uses now. A Christian anthropology, perhaps, which asserts that our need for community does not come from particular attributes but from something deeper in our nature and common to all. Many have observed that identity politics resembles a religion—Elizabeth Corey and Mary Eberstadt have done so recently in the pages of First Things. That resemblance can be interpreted optimistically: Adherents to identity politics operate on the assumption that human beings need something like a religion. //