Want to Save America? Don't Act Like a Conservative
Chest-Thumpers and ‘Aw, Shucks’ Conservatives Personify the Right’s Love Affair with Losing
Chris Rufo is doing something so spectacularly unconservative, he may need to update his political affiliation: he’s winning.
Last week, Rufo’s successful legislative efforts to ban critical race theory in the classroom found critique in the New York Times. The guest essay conspicuously avoided naming him; then again, it didn’t have to.
Rufo, a journalist and advocate, has become so synonymous with both the effort to alert Americans to the racism their children are imbibing in public school and the legislative efforts to stop it, that he’s become the person we think of whenever “Critical Race Theory” is mentioned. For the first time in years, Ibram X. Kendi and Nikole-Hannah Jones face actual pushback to the white-hatred they peddle and division they feast upon. Parents have someone they can turn to for evidence, argument and reassurance of their marrow-deep sense that the racial essentialism in their kids’ classroom is wrong and that it’s not racist to say so. For the first time in years, the rejection of “Critical Race Theory” is gaining ground.
And while academics and other pedants quibble over whether “Critical Race Theory” is the right term, Rufo is out there identifying the problem, alerting the public, and sounding all available alarms. If he hasn’t yet slain the beast, he has at least awakened American parents from their coma, convinced them that they cannot trust the teachers and administrators and school boards who treat children, not as students, but as recruits for their revolution.
How did Rufo do it? By gathering evidence and pointing out the glaring harm in clear, unapologetic (but never crass or rude) language. He speaks not to the elites, but to Americans, and he makes an intelligible argument: “Anti-Racism” is just racism in progressive clothing; it’s teaching our kids to hate themselves and each other.
Rufo engages with the culture in the straightforward manner of a gentleman soldier. He neither grovels to the intellectual class nor strains to fit his arguments into the warped mold of their lingo. And he doesn’t pick fights for their own sake.
In other words, Rufo has thus far sailed clear of the Scylla and Charybdis conservatives so often pinball against: hyper-polite fecklessness on one side of the boat and chest-thumping ignorance on the other. When parents ask me how to combat Gender Ideology in their schools, this is the course I tell them to follow as well.
Contrast this approach with Republican Senator James Lankford’s June 10th questioning of HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. Mr. Lankford noted that the HHS had “shifted in places from using the term ‘mother’ to ‘birthing people’?”
Why the change? Senator Lankford wanted to know.
“I’d have to go back and take a look at the language that was used in the budget,” Secretary Becerra said, as if this were a technical matter of budget arcana—“But I think it simply reflects the work that’s being done.”
“I definitely get that,” Senator Lankford replied affably. “I would only say the language is important always. We don’t want to offend in our language. I get that. But would you at least admit calling a mom a ‘birthing person’ could be offensive to some moms?”
“Senator, I’ll go back and take a look at the terminology that was used,” Secretary Becerra replied.
Consider the scene: The HHS deletes the word “mother” and the Republican response is to muse aloud about this—as if the HHS has done nothing more than referred to “cookies” as “biscuits.” It’s a clip worth watching because it exemplifies decades of Republican failure in culture wars that have seen Leftists wipe the floor with them.
The deletion of “mother” is just one more reflection of the government’s adoption of Gender Ideology, which insists sex is irrelevant (and sex-based rights, dispensable): you are what you say you are. It marks one vital front in an aggressive campaign to peel back all of the legal protections for women that took generations to establish.
So, yes, “mothers might be offended too”—but that is hardly the point, and if this is the best Republicans can muster, they deserve to be trounced over and over. The way forward is not to enter a victimhood contest with intersectional Leftists (“We’re offended too!”), because the victimhood contest is a degrading distraction—and one all non-Woke are destined to lose. But it’s also disingenuous: because the mothers who are pulling the freight train of America’s next generation are not victims and society doesn’t see them as such.
They are too busy raising a family to enter victimhood contests with overgrown children. What women need—what we deserve—is a forthright defense of our rights, everywhere they are threatened. Dear Members of Congress: Mothers are not “birthing people,” and to call us that is a disgrace. To refuse to call us mothers is an abomination, too. Sex-based rights are not yours to give away.
And if Republicans can’t say that, they should pack up their things; at least they won’t be in the way. The last thing America needs right now is more wallpaper over cracks. Time to toss out the “Aw Shucks Conservatism” of navy blazers and boat shoes, the sort that believes matching jammies on Christmas suffices to save a country on the brink. That approach may have excelled when churches and civil society were strong and conservatives needed only to get married, raise a family, and perform the simple heroism of showing up. Today, it’s a loser.
Its mistake is not in any of the hand-written niceties it revels in, which make life orderly, cozy—even lovely. Its mistake is that it treats Leftist ideologues like quirky out-of-town guests arriving for brunch. It assumes we all want the same things and are equally devoted to the perpetuation of bedrock American commitments: free speech, free exercise of faith, equal protection, rule of law.
But the Woke are not zany guests. They are home-invasion robbers. The structure they intend to leave behind will contain but a handful of the cultural artifacts they encountered. Bringing down statues of Abe Lincoln, books by Dr. Seuss and schools named for the country’s founders? That’s just their casing the joint. The large-scale heist hasn’t even started.
Aw Shucks Conservatives are willing to disagree with the Left, but they first want to get all the terminology right—“Now, which is it again: is ‘non-binary’ the same as they/them? Or ‘she/they?’” They don’t understand that the chaos is the point. While they strain to avoid a faux pas, they don’t even feel the dagger going in. They chuckle with their buddies that Woke beliefs are “nonsense upon stilts,” to use Bentham’s term—and that voters will surely respond in the next midterm election. They do not fight Silicon Valley—they are confused about whether their belief in free market economics allows it. They do not fight for women—not if it means any mud splashed on their full-break trousers. They have lost every important cultural battle and - if given over to their protection - we would lose America.
They pine for a return to debating the Kiddie Tax or privatizing Social Security. They are polite and naïve. To the activist Left, they look like a meal.
There is another sort of conservative, of course—the youthful, chest-beating, triumphalist sort. It lacks neither fight nor heart. It relies heavily on mantras. Some of its instincts are correct—but it rarely seems to know why.
Chest-Beating conservatism offends on purpose, as if offense itself were an argument. It ham hocks the Left’s grist—CRT or Gender Ideology—into an overstuffed and unappetizing conservative burrito: “This is all because of gay marriage!” “This is all because of Roe!” “Ban in vitro fertilization!” “Blame Caitlyn Jenner!” and the like.
Think what you want about abortion or same-sex marriage, but neither has anything to do with the crisis at hand—or how to repair it. Abortion is an important moral and political question—but not every other serious issue we face bears upon it or derives from it. And neither same-sex marriage nor Caitlyn Jenner poses any threat to children.
Conservatives were handed a political gift they did not win and do not deserve—the disaster of the Left’s ascent. The activist Left’s policy agenda is widely disliked. Its positions veer between unreasonable (Defund the Police), unlivable (indulge looters, larcenists, and vandals), unsustainable (open the borders), and untenable (transwomen are women). Almost no one actually agrees with any of this. But rather than find common cause with moderates who would join the fight, Chest-Beating Conservatives would rather heap contempt on moderates, score points for Team Red, and sully themselves in rudeness. They can have no lasting impact on a culture they are quick to condemn but lack the curiosity to engage.
The Left wages war every day, in every school system in America and, no doubt, many a summer camp. It knows the stakes are high and it comes prepared to fight. It has an uncomplicated revulsion for Judeo-Christian religion, American traditions, American symbols, our founders, and individual rights. It despises the nuclear family, like good Marxists do—which is the real reason it cannot abide the words “mother” and “father.” (It understands no one was ever moved to family formation by the dream of becoming a “gestational parent.”) It does not disguise its plan to replace all of these things.
The Aw Shucks Conservatives meet the Left reluctantly and meekly, praying like hell the other side will forfeit. (It won’t.) They allow themselves to be convinced that the current madness will burn itself out, or that they could not possibly respond to even the most outlandish of Woke claims—like whether biological men’s participation is healthy for women’s sports—without a PhD in kinesiology. They dream that America will come to its senses.
The Chest-Beating Conservatives at least do not underestimate the task at hand. But they lack discipline and restraint and occasionally even seem to revel in ignorance. They find their personification in Marjorie Taylor Greene, the greatest thing to happen to the Left since Roy Moore.
Far too impatient to comprehend America’s current crisis, they howl “This is insane!” over and over, until they are the ones who seem unhinged. It is no accident that they are error-prone: they do not believe facts are important and they never bother to learn them. They think the gist of an argument is enough. They win claps from the same smarting-red hands and never manage to persuade a single open mind.
Here, then, is a solution for conservatives: Stop playing the Left’s game of victimhood, stop straining to adopt its lingo. I’m not suggesting that you speak disrespectfully. I’m suggesting that you’ll never win a victimhood contest, in part because you don’t believe in victimhood contests (to your credit) and it shows. The point of the Left’s quick-changing lingo is to confuse, to make it impossible to form an argument or respond to one. The lingo is very much a trap, and if you’re straining to master it, you’re already caught.
Speak as plainly as you can. When discussing issues of biological males competing in women’s sports, don’t say “transwomen in women’s sports”—because the entire question at issue is whether these biological men who identify as transgender are a kind of woman; they aren’t, and pretending they are forfeits the argument. In such context, talk about “biological males in women’s sports” because that is both accurate, clear and essential to making the argument our daughters need you to win.
Nor should you accept that the point of public dialogue is to avoid offense. That has never been the point of language, though it is often the point of its opposite (silence). The goal of language in the public sphere must always be to speak truthfully and as clearly as possible. If you can avoid offense, so much the better. If you cannot, then at least you’ll have been understood.
When a member of the Administration replaces the word “mother” with “birthing people,” you don’t Aw, Shucks, as if you’ve encountered the last native speaker of Etruscan. You’re faced with a direct assault on women and the family. And you respond in kind.
But you also don’t appeal to the rights of the unborn when it isn’t relevant, like some sort of Republican robot gone haywire. You don’t insist that our cultural depredations are the fault of Democrats, because you were there too; you let it happen. You don’t insinuate that transgender people are a threat to America, most importantly, because transgender people are in no way a threat to this country. And because your sloppy talk tars crucial issues with the hog-bristle brush of bigotry.
But you do tell Secretary Becerra, and anyone else peddling progressive misogyny or progressive racism, that reducing mothers to one of our biological functions (like reducing people to their races) is degrading, derisive, and unacceptable. You call it what it is: an outrage. You say that the mothers of this country deserve better. That you will not apply to a woman any foul term invented by the ‘inclusive language’ factories. That biological men do not belong in women’s sports for reasons so obvious, only a fool would doubt them. You don’t object on the basis of victimhood—because American women, for the most part, are no one’s victims. You object on the basis of dignity.
And you must dislodge from your heads the misguided notion that the point of standing up for what’s right is to “Own the Libs.” If conservatives exploit the Left’s radicalism cynically or naively, if they approach thoughtful and courageous Americans of other political stripes with the defeatist mentality that there is no point trying to win over anyone else, they will lose. Which is a damn shame, because these fights might actually be won.
Just ask Chris Rufo.
Excellent piece. I would hasten to add another very effective strategy in this war to take back our classrooms - Woke-proof your kids! My kids have developed a keen radar for woke nonsense, not that it's hard to detect.
When a transgender activist (a man posing as a woman athlete) was invited to speak my kids' high school, my daughter told her teacher that she was not allowed to attend - and referred the teacher to me if he had questions. And to my surprise and delight, the teacher (an assistant boys football coach) sent me an e-mail explaining, "Mr. Campbell, trust me, I completely understand." He added that he would ensure that my daughter (and as it turned out, other kids, who also objected) had productive time to study and catch up on assignments during the assembly.
The angry rejection of woke radicalism in classrooms is widespread. It includes parents, teachers, non-white minorities and yes, our own kids. My youngest daughter has a strong conservative political (and Christian) worldview and she has strong support among her school friends. They find a certain belonging within their group.
It's also important to remember that this is NOT a "white people vs the world" scenario. One boy in my daughter's little conservative friend clique is from an Indian family - They're Hindu. He tells my daughter that his parents are extremely traditional and have no use for bizarre and dogmatic claims about gender identity and sexual morality. And my own wife, who is Latina, is livid over the word, "Latinx." She has already informed me that if, (her words) "some chicken-lipped, woke white chick says 'Latinx' to me, you better get some bail money together because I am going to beat her unrecognizable."
The left is big on making you an "anti-racist" ally. Well, we have more natural allies than they do. And we need to fully engage our own children and the families of their friends in this fight. Woke-proof your kids.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Substack is how it has unleashed thoughtful writers left, right, and center to write intelligent, well-argued, long form pieces dissenting against wokism and other aspects of corporate media monoculture. (Quillette too.) During the Trump years I took uneasy shelter on team Maga. Now these thoughtful dissenters have made me feel like I have finally found my team again.