The latest iteration of the right-wing culture war is fueled by a messianic, seemingly unshakable terror that the all-powerful cultural left is laying waste to all our institutions, putting it on the cusp of something akin to Rome’s absolute subjugation of Carthage. In the right-wing imagination, this might be an Armageddon from which the country will never recover.
Some of the right’s leading culture warriors are boasting new successes. There are fresh indications that Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — who is using state power to punish Disney’s opposition to his law restricting classroom speech — is seriously considering a run for the GOP presidential nomination.
And this week, GOP primary voters in Ohio may very well nominate J.D. Vance to run for Senate. Vance has zealously called for maximal tactics against the leftist cultural enemy, and he might now be in the lead.
What’s strange is how rarely you hear conservatives seriously question the underlying premise of this form of politics: the idea that cultural conservatism is facing an emergency so dire that only a serious escalation in the use of the state against the cultural left can rescue it.
One exception to this is David French, the conservative Christian writer and First Amendment lawyer. He has quietly carved out a niche as a leading foe of these new right-wing crusades, arguing that they betray classically liberal principles and liberal democratic constitutionalism.
I reached out to French because he grasps what’s really driving the cultural right at this moment and why the tendencies it is unleashing are cause for profound concern. An edited and condensed version of our exchange follows.
Greg Sargent: In recent days you’ve strongly dissented from some current obsessions on the right. You’re deeply skeptical of laws limiting classroom discussion of race, sexual orientation and gender identity. You’ve attacked DeSantis’s use of state power to punish Disney for expressing its views on one such law.
What is it that you see as alarming in this as an overall trend?
David French: Look back at the last 20 years of the conservative legal movement, and you’ll see a host of lawsuits brought against speech codes on campuses. You’ll see a long-term effort to vindicate the free speech rights of private corporations. You had a long-running effort to protect the free speech and free exercise rights of public school teachers.
In about a 12-month span, you’ve seen a dramatic reversal. You see an increasing effort on the part of red-state legislators to adopt speech codes, most applying to K-through-12 schools. You have seen an effort to regulate the speech of private corporations.
What you’re beginning to see is a broader embrace of state power to punish enemies and reward friends.
The root of it is a kind of cultural panic, a thought that conservative political views, religious views and cultural views are in retreat everywhere. That the culture wars are irretrievably lost. That all that’s left to the right is the exercise of raw political power.
Sargent: You are rare among conservatives in this sense: Unlike those who constantly bewail the supposed hegemony of liberal cultural power, you are willing to say that conservatism itself retains a great deal of cultural power.
French: What do cultural conservatives care about? They’ll say they want intact families, less teen sex and teen pregnancy, less divorce, less abortion, more kids being raised in two-parent families.
On every one of those fronts, I say, “Good news!” Divorce has been decreasing. The percentage of kids being raised with their parents is increasing. The abortion rate is lower. If you look at these markers of cultural health, time and again you’ll see they’re actually improving.
That is not to say that society is as healthy as anybody wants it to be. But to hear the cultural right talk about the United States of America, it’s been a march to chaos. The opposite is true.
Sargent: You’ve also talked about cultural conservatism residing pretty robustly in various institutions, such as the church.
French: The Southern Baptist Convention — for example, where I live, outside Nashville, Tenn. — is far more culturally influential than Harvard or Yale or all the combined institutions of the Ivy League or the elite academy. It touches far more people directly.
In more culturally conservative areas of the country, the percentage who identify themselves as very religious far outstrips the percentage even in countries that the most panicked far-right-wingers embrace, like Hungary. Even the least religious American state is more religious than Hungary.
Yes, there has been a decline of church affiliation. That’s a matter of real concern. But to say that all the instruments of cultural power are in the hands of the left gives short shrift to a church that in many ways is so hands-on in people’s lives.
From the small groups, to Sunday schools, to church meetings, to retreats, to camps, to the entire infrastructure of the Christian and religious publishing industry and music industry — it’s an immense counterculture. It’s just immense.
Sargent: When you say this kind of thing, you’re telling many conservatives — particularly of the New Right variety — things they do not want to hear. You got viciously trolled the other day when you suggested that conservatives are actually winning some cultural victories.
French: I’ve encountered people who get actively angry at the mere recitation of statistics indicating that catastrophe is not imminent.
Sargent: There’s an active desire to make the grass roots feel victimized, to harness the political masses and create a justificatory framework for the use of state power to fight the culture wars.
The fight itself is the thing, right? The perpetual state of Total War against the liberal cultural enemy is the essence of the story that’s being told.
French: What makes the state of Total War even worse is that it’s motivated by a sense of perpetual persecution and victimization. What is the injury that Disney has inflicted? The injury for which Disney must be punished is opposition. It’s just speech.
Disney’s speech is not victimizing Florida.
Sargent: Even more serious right-leaning thinkers are too charitable towards this feeding of mass victimization. You have Vance running on a call to purge the administrative state of heretical liberals.
And writers like Ross Douthat and Christopher Caldwell politely suggest Vance is merely trying to harness anti-establishment energy or just making an effort to viscerally reconnect people with politics. They don’t seem to ask whether there are dangers in demagoguing people into believing they face cultural Armageddon. What do you think?
French: The campaigns of harassment and intimidation and threats that have been leveled against conservative opponents of the right — or against Republican politicians who had the courage to stand up for the American republic itself in the aftermath of Jan. 6 — should tell us that people are taking these declarations of emergency with deadly seriousness.
Sargent: I’d like to ask about a glaring contradiction. The populist-oriented right likes to see itself as championing the law and politics as a way to inculcate virtue in citizens. Yet this sort of hyping-of-the-enemy politics arguably does the opposite.
French: If you talk to Republicans who are involved in grass-roots politics — school board members, longtime party officials, city council members — and you ask them if this New Right energy is being accompanied by an outbreak of civic virtue, many of them would just laugh at that.
Sargent: You see this at play in Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover. The right tells us the Big Tech oligarchy is exercising overbearing liberal cultural hegemony and wants to break up that oligarchy.
But Musk has a tendency to use his power over the discourse in a base, decidedly non-virtuous way. Yet now that he has promised to be the right’s own tech oligarch — while feeding the right’s desire to believe that Big Tech is carrying out an extinction event aimed at cultural conservatives — they hail him as their hero.
French: The reality of Big Tech at present is that more conservatives have more ability to reach more human beings than at any time in the history of the United States.
That is not to say that Twitter hasn’t made mistakes. They have exercised their moderation power in ways that are unfair and biased in many respects.
I don’t oppose Musk buying Twitter. But the idea that Musk is coming in and ending some sort of tyranny is just laughable. In fact, the entire idea that Twitter is imposing a tyranny is just one more manifestation of the cultural catastrophism that we’ve been talking about.