Conservatism’s Generational Civil War

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I have a new essay out in the National Review which extends some of yesterday’s thoughts on the limits and attractions of the “common good” conservatism to a new topic: the generational divide that currently divides thinkers on the American right. The Sanders/Biden primary has drawn attention to the parallel phenomena on the left, and much (probably too much) has been written about the origins of the left-wing generation gap. Far less has been written about same fracture on the right—even though this generation gap is central to the larger story of American conservatism’s current intellectual civil war.

My piece is a formal response to Yuval Levin and Ramesh Ponnuru’s recent National Review print piece, “The Next Coalition of the Right:” As I explain,

Their essay is a postmortem of sorts: It sets forth an explanation for why the reformocon attempts to redefine the conservative agenda failed, and seeks to draw lessons from this failure for the future. The trouble: Levin and Ponnuru have learned the wrong lessons from the fall of their movement. At the zenith of the reformocon moment, reformocons were fiercely critical of the Republican establishment for mistaking the problems of the present with the problems of the past. Now the mandala has turned: Today it is the reformocons themselves who are trapped in the lens of a generation out of date.[1]

The reformocons—a portmanteau for “reform conservatives” that has been in use for several years now—were the subject of two dozen glossy magazine profiles between 2012 and 2016. Their ideology revolved around four planks:

  1. The need to reorient conservatism around working class interests 
  2.  An argument for decentralizing American politics, ending culture war controversies and economic wrangles by removing these issues from the purview of the federal government
  3. Policy reforms that unapologetically had an increase in family formation and child-rearing as their goal
  4. A commitment to gradualist, pragmatic, and wonkish policy solutions to the problems of the day.

In the piece I describe these planks and the ideology that holds them together at some length. I encourage you to read the full account there, but for the purposes of this post it is enough to note that the reformocon movement arrived dead on arrival. How extraordinary! In this moment when conservatives are engaged in the most serious war of ideas they have had since the ’60s, the reform conservative movement disappears! And this has happened despite the fact many of its central concerns (say, working class Americans) are at the center of current conservative debate, and their diagnosis of what will happen to American society if their policies were not been adopted has been absolutely vindicated by actual events! What happened?

I ask this question in my essay; here I will ask an even darker version of it. Why is it that all of the young conservatives I have met in the past three months have read Bronze Age Mindset, but none have read either of Yuval Levin’s two books? Why is BAP selling more volumes than the lot of the reformicon wonks combined? Why will the American Mind‘s round-up of response essays be read more, and prompt more serious conversation, than all of the responses written to Levin and Ponnuru’s essay (mine included) will ever hope to? The question is not just “why did the reformocons lose the battle of ideas?” but “why are they losing the battle of ideas to undisguised fascism?”

This should disquiet. If you are an American conservative who believes in statements like “all men are created equal” or “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” you should be disquieted. These ideas are losing, and their loss is only tenuously related to the election of Donald Trump.

This is Levin and Ponnuru’s first problem: they believe that the election of Donald Trump was the event that ended their movement. From the perspective of a millennial or zoomer on the right, a different story can be told:

From the perspective of the young conservative, the defining event of the last decade was not the election of Donald Trump but the revolution in morals and manners now dubbed the “Great Awokening.” This secular revival has blessed its adherents with a scheme of ethics, aesthetics, eschatology, and soteriology all their own. Essayist Wesley Yang’s thumbnail sketch describes the new dogmas well: The awokened “metastasize a complex and rebarbative set of critiques of power into an active parapolitical program seeking to transform the world along a sweepingly utopian line” that overthrows all orders, hierarchies, laws, and norms that stand between the privileged and the justice the awokened believe they deserve. The zeal of the converted has carried these notions far; the system of ritualized language and punitive surveillance pioneered by young leftists has carried it even further. Its reach now extends well past the realm of the fervent faithful. Few in young America are untouched. Even those who have never formally studied the doctrines of the Great Awokening echo its view of truth, virtue, and evil. It is the default ethos of America’s future — and for the young, America’s present.

It is worth emphasizing that the stunning advance of the woke had very little to do with the federal government. Barack Obama was not the author of the Great Awokening; the former president was a liberal of the old sort, a man who believed himself the living incarnation of the American creed. He was left frustrated and mystified by a generation of young progressives who had left behind their — and his — ancestral faith. No government forced them to leave. The agents of the Awokening made their case the old-fashioned way: In lectures, essays, and op-eds, they convinced; in newspaper headlines, music videos, and YouTube montages, they suggested; in campus protests and corporate HR codes, they coerced. But only rarely was this a matter of state coercion. Social pressure, not federal tyranny, keeps the young woke.

Older conservatives are well placed to understand why this has happened. For decades they have been predicting that a people unmoored from tradition and community will throw themselves at the first totalizing ideology to come along that promises to give their lives a shred of purpose and meaning. For decades they have warned that the gradual secularization of American society, slow collapse in American social capital, and incessant attacks on America’s heritage would produce such a people. As they foresaw, so it has been. What these older conservatives struggle to understand is that the future they imagined does not just describe the world the young conservative has inherited — it describes the young conservatives themselves. The young conservative knows enough to reject the woke vision of the common good. But for what? The young conservative has no answer to this question. Indeed, he is not really a “conservative” at all, if by that we mean someone intent on conserving inherited values, traditions, or culture. None of those things are part of his inheritance. He feels their loss. He too is desperate for something that promises to imbue his life with a shred of purpose or meaning.

What could the reformocon platform ever offer such a person?

In the face of Barack Obama’s political program, conservative debates revolved around an urgent, yet very specific, question: “What must be done to keep the federal government from interfering with our way of life?” The reformocon platform was a laudable attempt to answer this question. It provided tools to keep the federal government at bay in a form that a wide swath of Americans — including those who did not consider themselves conservatives — could endorse. But the problem posed by the Great Awokening to the American Right is more urgent and more fundamental. The central question that absorbs the young conservative is not “How do I stop the government from interfering with my way of life?” but “What should my way of life be in the first place?” [2]

 Bronze Age Mindset has an answer to that question. So do the Catholic integralists. So do the Benedict Optioners, the Intellectual Dark Web types, the rationalists, and the the Thiel-esque techno futurists.  They

are oriented toward resisting not leftist politics but leftist culture. The story of next-generation conservatism, in other words, will be the story of a counterculture. Debates over what shape that counterculture should take cannot be resolved by a more “disciplined” policy environment.


Little wonder then that the reformocon vision of the future struggled to take hold! Reformocons argued for the centrality of community without endorsing any concrete vision of communal life. They described the need to build new institutions without committing themselves to any specific institutions. They authored wonkish proposals to strengthen family formation but painted no picture of families worth forming. The visions of the reformocons were colorless and empty. This was by design: Like a coloring book, every community and family could fill out the pre-printed designs with whatever color palette they treasured most. That worked when conservatives had an organic set of treasured traditions, values, and relationships to fill the blanks in with. Now they do not, and the reformocon platform is found wanting.[3]

 Some reformocon types were a bit better about this than others. In the essay I highlight Michael Lotus and James Bennett’s America 3.0 as one of the best books written in the reformocon tradition even though neither author ever identified as a reformocon (I reviewed it here, with high praise). Lotus and Bennett open their book by imagining what a community of Americans in 2040 would look like if their vision was implemented. But that took thirty pages to describe. It is very hard to boil those thirty pages down to a slogan, a chant, or a meme. But of course this is exactly what a successful political movement requires.

The movements I described earlier—those popular with millennial and zoomer intellectual types—have done more than this. They have created an entire aesthetic language to paint their vision of the good. This is why trad accounts spend so much time retweeting images of old french villages and classical architecture; they understand that ideals are felt, not argued for. They do not promote ideas. They promote an ethos.  If defenders of America’s heritage cannot develop a vision of the good, an ethos, as compelling as those on offer elsewhere, and find concrete ways to show others this vision at the emotional level, then they too will dwindle into obscurity.

If this post on American conservatism and the millennial crisis in meaning was worth reading, you might consider some of my older posts on the problem:”Questing for Transcendence,” “On the American Football Game,”  and “Tradition is Smarter Than You Are.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] Tanner Greer, “Learning the Wrong Lessons From Reform Conservatism,” National Review (17 March 2020).

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

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Thank you for the shout-out. I had no idea that we were reformocons. I don't think I knew the word, or at least did not pay attention to it. American conservatism arose out of unique historical circumstances. The personalities (William F. Buckley, James Burnham, William Rusher, Whittaker Chambers, Frank Meyer, Barry Goldwater, RonaldReagan) were at least as important as any theory. When the Cold War ended another critical personality, Pat Buchanan, opined that the glue that held the factions together was gone and it was mission accomplished for Postwar Conservatism, and it was time for a big rethink. He was right. But the Conservative movement had taken on institutional life of its own, and it had jobs and careers and funding and letterhead and publications, etc. So it chugged along. It is long overdue for a major re-think. Our book was one attempt to do that. But we did not have an institutional home, or independent personal wealth, so we were unable to force ourselves into the ongoing conversation for long. Sad! Maybe pundits who do this for a living will all come up with something good even if they don't know about our brilliant ideas. You are absolutely right that the old presumption of Postwar conservatism, that there is a Christian and culturally conservative America that exists to be conserved, is not even remotely true anymore. The conservatives are in the weird position of having to make something radically new to conserve. They should just call themselves radicals and get the glory of being revolutionaries. And to try to stay current, I should probably put aside reading Winston Churchill's six volume history of the Second World War, and read Bronze Age Pervert, and most of all, get to the gym and lift. The future of conservatism will belong to young men who are buff and don't give a shit what anyone thinks. We could do worse.

As somebody who spent the 2010s journeying from off-the-shelf Obama liberalism to some sort of reformocon David-Frenchism-for-agnostics, this puts into words quite a bit that I have been struggling to articulate myself.

I think I would start by noting that in practice a movement is most defined by its enemies. What did Irving Kristol, William F. Buckley, Barry Goldwater, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (for expansive definitions of postwar conservatism), Richard Nixon, Pope John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher have in common? The biggest common denominator wasn't necessarily social conservatism (Nixon, Goldwater and Thatcher supported legal abortion), or faith in unfettered capitalism as such (even JPII admitted Marx struck something close to Christ's vision that Adam Smith had not), or an expansive foreign policy (isolationism was never far away from the right wing of the GOP, and several of the original neocons (!) were opposed to the Vietnam War)–it was opposition to international communism.

But what happens when your enemy gives in and invites McDonald's to open a branch in Red Square? You splinter. I think 9/11 and the War on Terror essentially gave postwar conservatism a chance to regroup and wring another ten years or so out of the original coalition, but some impoverished schmuck blowing himself up in a nightclub was never quite going to be the existential threat Moscow was, and he's much harder to defeat by conventional means. It seems pretty clear that as early as Buchanan and Gingrich a faction of American conservatism had transferred the preferred outgroup from international communism to American liberals, though that faction did not finish taking over the mainstream GOP until 2016. American liberalism has followed suit with a time lag; the Great Awokening is predicated on the construction of an outgroup that is always and everywhere oppressive but for some strange reason never lurks in corporate HR departments. "Safe, legal and rare" had some tolerance for social conservatives built in, but contemporary rhetoric about abortion has none whatsoever. Thus your culture war.

If we are lucky, Beijing will provide a new outgroup to re-form American political sanity around. This week has offered some encouraging early signs.

You're losing because we're tired of you. Of your bowties, your think-tanks, your sedate articles in unheard-of magazines that you think are actual work for your TruConservative™️ cause. We're tired of your globalist, America-comes-second surrendering of the USA's job markets to everyone but the people who built the USA, who now get to watch H1B's take the jobs that they intended to see their own American children take. What, in all these post-WW2 decades have you actually _conserved_ for the American people Mr. "Conservative? You see, what we are most tired of is your constant insistence on being defeated gracefully. Some of us are not afraid of the names that the Left calls us. Some of us want to win. Meanwhile, it's the moderates who attack their own side. Stop punching right. Get out of our way. Get thee to an ice floe.

Tanner, excellent essay. Nice illustration of Andrew Breibart's dictum that politics is downstream of culture. The 'conservative' political class generally is completely hopeless at cultural politics. Especially outside the US.

the link in note [1] inadvertently points to another post on this blog instead of the article from National Review

Welp, the Woke vs. the Fascists it will be, then (with traditional liberals and the even tinier, in fact, well-nigh non-existent faction of traditional conservatives allying with them as they have no home in the other 2 camps) playing the role of the SD in '30's Germany. Though the Fascists overrate their chances. They seem completely clueless about their relative position.