The Anti-Utopian Instinct and the Conservative Revolt

The discontent in the GOP electorate reflects a growing suspicion of starry-eyed idealists.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

What do today’s conservatives believe, beyond their longstanding conviction that the U.S. would prosper if there were more stable families, lower taxes, and fewer regulations? In an attempt to pinpoint what’s morally distinct about their outlook, Damon Linker dismisses their reverence for political liberties and parts of the the U.S. Constitution, which liberals and conservatives can both plausibly claim in their own ways, and focuses on a conversation that he overheard at his local barbershop.

Said a customer to the barber:

You know, at least Trump and Carson and Cruz—they get it. Kids today think everyone on the playground deserves a medal. Parents think every kid should get an A. Their feelings are so precious. Life isn't like that. You've gotta work your ass off, and then you'll succeed. And if you don't, you're gonna fail, and that's the way it should be. All this babying, it's gotta stop. If not, the whole damn country's gonna end up going down the tubes.

For Linker, that’s the core of conservatism today.

“It presumes that life is a competition or race, that people are unequal in talent, drive, and ambition, and that those who end up on top deserve their victory and rewards—and those who come out on the bottom deserve their failure and hardships,” he declares. “Any attempt to overturn or even mitigate this moral order—whether through government regulation or changes in habits or assumptions in school or on the playground—amounts to an offense against justice itself.”

And while finding strains of the thought of Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, and social Darwinism in that outlook, he argues that it is a poor match for the contemporary world. Yes, he grants, helicopter parenting, campus speech codes, and calls for trigger warnings may point to a distressing increase in emotional fragility.

But what about countervailing trends?

I certainly don't recognize my children's experience in the description offered by the author of this American Interest essay or by my fellow customer in the barber shop. My kids are subjected to a constant battery of tests in school that rank them, sort them, and track them. They are encouraged to rack up accomplishments in extracurricular activities to stand out from their peers. Many of those activities involve tryouts and cuts in which they are once again ranked, sorted, and tracked.

My kids know that college is essential if they hope to get ahead—and that they will only get into a good school if they begin compiling an impressive record at a young age. And they know that no matter where they go to school, they will likely graduate into a working world without any form of job security. The rat race starts earlier than ever in America today. From school to sports to college applications to the job search to dating and hookup apps, meritocratic standards and expectations increasingly prevail, turning ever-more dimensions of social life into a ruthless competition that raises up some to glory and leaves many others crushed in the dust.

This is the country that conservatives think has become soft, whiny, and wimpy? The truth is that America has never come closer to realizing the very ideal from which today's conservatives are convinced we've fallen so far.

And yet they appear not to see it.

What they notice, instead, is any sign at all that someone, somewhere might be doing something to alleviate the struggle and the anxieties it breeds.

This critique does apply to some conservatives.

But while granting that present trends include both the coddling of the American mind and lots of intense competition for a place in the elite or even the middle class, I think that there’s a more charitable interpretation of the barbershop rant quoted above and that its speaker may not be as out of touch with reality as Linker imagines.

In this telling, the man in the barbershop isn’t expressing opposition to any safety net for the poor or any social insurance for those who wind up unemployed at one time or another. He didn’t, after all, himself express opposition to any attempt to alleviate struggle. Rather, he is rebelling against the fantasies that feelings matter more than facts; that there need be no struggle; that inequality is all explained by flawed or not-yet-perfected policies; and that equality of outcome could ever be fair in a world where some work long, hard, and smart, and others make lots of bad choices. That there is much struggle in America doesn’t refute his outlook, it is consistent with it.

The man mentions Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Beyond their outsider status and populist appeal, those are very different men. What do they have in common? Besides gaining much of their electoral support with vapid rhetoric, they are both winners in realms more meritocratic than politics––unlike, say, Jeb Bush––and share at least one substantive quality: Both seem like world-weary pragmatists averse to utopianism, at least in comparison to their rivals.

They’d make terrible presidents and a lot of what they say is factually incorrect.

Still, one is a man of business, the other a man of science. Both say the Iraq War was a mistake. And they do so without the ideological priors of Rand Paul, who gives the impression, to supporters and opponents alike, of having his own starry-eyed streak.

To me, Ted Cruz gives off the impression of being an ideologue and fits less easily with this theory. Perhaps Linker had the man in the barbershop pegged correctly after all.

But if writing an essay rather than ranting off-the-cuff, the man might say that what drives him crazy isn’t liberals who want a bigger safety net so much as utopianism. He might say he actually supports Social Security and food stamps, but that the more he considers it, the more he believes that many problems are rooted in fanciful thinking and the string of establishment politicians engaged in it.

I certainly see such an impulse in other rank-and-file conservatives.

They now think that a utopian streak in George W. Bush’s foreign policy, with its wild notions of ending tyranny and installing democracy in Baghdad, wrought disasters, and that any future attempts at “nation-building” would produce similarly dismal results.

They think that the financial crisis would never have happened if the ruling class wouldn’t have pushed this utopian notion that everyone ought to own a house, that this would be possible if only the government created incentives to lend them money, and that “financial innovations” could somehow turn subprime assets into gold, a theory that Wall Street bankers and regulators alike seemed to share at the time.

They think the idea that everyone should go to college is equally naive, especially if young people think that borrowing $200,000 to get a communications degree from a third-tier private college will or should guarantee them entry to the upper-middle class. And they think it’s naive to believe that competing more directly against laborers in China or new immigrants to America won’t harm their chances at success, no matter how many economists from the utopian class tell them otherwise.

No worldview is perfect. And I have my disagreements with this one. I believe, for example, that as counterintuitive as the economics may seem to many, free trade and immigration really do make the United States and the world much better off.

But I agree with parts of the outlook, too. Almost all the successful people I know are hard workers. Working your ass off doesn’t guarantee success, but it makes it much more likely. If you don't work hard and adhere to what are commonly called middle-class values, you’re far more likely to fail, whether that ought to be true or not. Competition and economic insecurity are ​obviously stressful all on their own. But it seems to me that hard-working millennials are stressed out at least in part because they feel as though they’ve been promised a world that does not, in fact, exist.

And an anti-utopian impulse is a not-unreasonable reaction to a bipartisan establishment that gave the United States a series of failed wars of choice, a financial bubble, a Wall Street class that leeches off assets better than it allocates them, a college bubble, and federal costs that have far exceeded revenues for decades. America’s fed-up populists are very light on coherent solutions, in part because common sense unmoored from empiricism can lead one astray. But they’re not wrong that there’s a problem, and some of it is utopian thinking in the ruling class that runs through significant parts of the conservative and progressive movements.

I say that as someone who finds value in both America’s utopian and anti-utopian traditions. Both have helped the nation thrive as surely as Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton both made useful contributions to the nation they competed to shape.

The nation’s heritage includes John Winthrop, who aspired to build “a city on a hill”––and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who once quipped that “the founders of a new colony, whatever Utopia of human virtue and happiness they might originally project, have invariably recognized it among their earliest practical necessities to allot a portion of the virgin soil as a cemetery, and another portion as the site of a prison.” It includes 1920s progressives whose utopian outlook inclined them to embrace eugenics and 1950s conservatives who resisted the civil-rights movement by declaring that ending segregation was an excessively utopian social reform.

In the barbershop conservative, I don’t hear a neo-social Darwinist ideologue who is clearly out of touch with reality so much as someone who might believe, for reasons both sound and unsound, that the pendulum has swung too far toward fanciful thinking; that it does more to create and exacerbate suffering than to alleviate it; and that the establishment forces responsible for it must be turned out before it is too late.

But what to replace the establishment with? There he goes farthest astray.

“When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service,” Edmund Burke declared in a reflection on the French Revolution that applies well to populists like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Ben Carson. “They will become flatterers instead of legislators...” he continued. “If any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular. Suspicions will be raised of his fidelity to his cause. Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards; and compromise as the prudence of traitors; until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper, and moderate, on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines, and establishing powers, that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.”