The latest iteration of the right-wing cultural war is driven by a messianic, seemingly unshakable horror that the almighty cultural left is destroying all our institutions and putting it on the brink of something resembling Rome’s absolute subjugation of Carthage. In the right-wing fantasy, this may be an Armageddon that the country will never recover from.
Some of the leading culture warriors of the right wing boast new successes. There are new indications that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis – who uses state power to punish Disney’s opposition to his classroom law restricting speech – is seriously considering running for GOP presidential candidate.
And this week, the GOP’s primary voters in Ohio may well nominate JD Vance to run for the Senate. Vance has zealously called for maximum tactics against the left-leaning cultural enemy, and he can now be at the helm.
The strange thing is how rarely do you hear conservatives seriously question the underlying premise of this kind of policy: the idea that cultural conservatism is facing an emergency so serious that only a serious escalation in the use of the state against the cultural left can save it.
An exception to this is David French, the Conservative Christian author and lawyer in the First Amendment. He has quietly carved out a niche as a leading enemy of these new right-wing crusades, claiming that they betray classical liberal principles and liberal democratic constitution.
I reached out to French because he understands what really drives the cultural right at this moment and why the trends it triggers give rise to deep concern. An edited and compressed version of our exchange follows.
Greg Sargent: In recent days, you have strongly distanced yourself from some current occupations to the right. You are deeply skeptical of laws that limit classroom discussion race, sexual orientation and gender identity. You have attacked DeSantis’ use of state power to punish Disney for expressing its views on such a 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 will see a host of lawsuits filed against speech rules on campuses. You will see a long-term effort to defend the freedom of expression of private companies. You had a long-standing effort to protect the freedom of expression and freedom of exercise of primary school teachers.
In about 12 months, you have seen a dramatic turnaround. You see an increasing effort on the part of the red state legislators to adopt speech codes, most of which apply to K-to-12 schools. You have seen an attempt to regulate the speech of private companies.
What you begin 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 on the decline everywhere. That the cultural wars are irrevocably lost. That all that is left to the right is the exercise of raw political power.
Sargent: You are rare among conservatives in this sense: unlike those who constantly mourn the supposed hegemony of liberal cultural power, you are willing to say that conservatism in itself retains much of cultural power.
French: What do cultural conservatives care about? They will say they want intact families, less teenage sex and teenage pregnancy, less divorce, less abortion, more children being raised in two-parent families.
On each and every one of these fronts I say, “Good news!” Divorce has fallen. The proportion of children growing up with their parents is increasing. The abortion rate is lower. If you look at these markers of cultural health, you will see time and time again that they are actually improving.
That is not to say that society is as healthy as anyone wants it to be. But hearing the cultural right talk about the United States, it has been a march into chaos. The opposite is true.
Sargent: You have also talked about that cultural conservatism lives quite robustly in various institutions, such as the church.
French: Southern Baptist Convention – for example, where I live outside of 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 affects far more people directly.
In more culturally conservative areas of the country, the percentage who identify themselves as highly religious is far higher than the percentage even in countries embraced by the most panicked right-wingers, such as Hungary. Even the least religious American state is more religious than Hungary.
Yes, there has been a decline in church affiliation. It is a matter of real concern. But to say that all instruments of cultural power are in the hands of the left gives short time to a church that is in many ways so practical in people’s lives.
From the small groups, to Sunday schools, to church meetings, to retreats, to camps, to the whole infrastructure of the Christian and religious publishing and music industries – it’s a huge counterculture. It’s just huge.
Sargent: When you say this kind of thing, you tell a lot of conservatives – especially about New right black – things they do not want to hear. You were viciously enchanted the other day when you suggested that conservatives actually win some cultural victories.
French: I have come across people who become actively angry at simply reciting statistics indicating that disaster is not imminent.
Sargent: There is an active desire to make the grassroots feel victims, to exploit the political masses and to create a justification for the use of state power to fight the wars of culture.
The fight itself is the case, right? The eternal state of total war against the liberal cultural enemy is the essence of the story being told.
French: What makes the Total Wars condition even worse is that it is motivated by a sense of perpetual persecution and sacrifice. What is the damage Disney has caused? The damage for which Disney is to be punished is resistance. It’s just talk.
Disney’s speech is not a victim of Florida.
Sargent: Even more serious right-wing thinkers are too charitable in the face of this mass sacrifice. You have Vance running on a call for cleansing administrative condition of heretical liberals.
And writers like Ross Douthat and Christopher Caldwell politely suggest that Vance is simply trying to harness anti-establishment energy or just makes an effort to viscerally reconnect people with politics. They apparently do not ask if there are dangers in demagoguing people into believing that they are facing cultural Armageddon. What do you think?
French: The campaigns of harassment and intimidation and threats that have been directed at conservative right-wing opponents – or at Republican politicians who had the courage to stand up for the American Republic itself in the wake of January 6 – should tell us that people are taking these emergency statements with deadly seriousness.
Sargent: I would like to ask for an obvious contradiction. The populist-oriented right wing likes to see itself as an advocate of law and politics as a way of instilling virtue in the citizens. Yet this kind of hyping-of-the-enemy policy does the opposite.
French: If you talk to Republicans involved in grassroots politics – school board members, longtime party officials, city councilors – and you ask them if this new right-wing energy is accompanied by an outburst of civic virtue, many of them would just laugh at it.
Sargent: You see this at stake in Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover. The right wing tells us that the Big Tech oligarchy is exercising an overbearing liberal cultural hegemony and wants to break this oligarchy.
But Musk tends to use his power over the discourse of one base, decidedly non-virtuous way. But now that he has promised to be so the right wing’s own tech oligarch – mens nurtures the right wing’s desire to believe that Big Tech is carrying out an extermination event aimed at cultural conservatives – they pay tribute to him as their hero.
French: The reality of Big Tech right now is that more conservatives have a greater ability to reach more people than at any point in U.S. history.
That is not to say that Twitter has not made a mistake. They have exercised their moderation in ways that are unjust and biased in many respects.
I’m not against Musk buying Twitter. But the thought of Musk coming in and ending some form of tyranny is just for laughs. In fact, the whole idea that Twitter is imposing a tyranny is just another manifestation of the cultural catastrophe we have been talking about.