Most conservatives have experienced it at some point: On college campuses, in big cities, and even at family reunions nationwide, right-of-center politics often stand out. Everything from minor slights to major fights can ensue.
In I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican, Harry Stein presents an entertaining series of anecdotes in which conservatives suffer and confront dominant liberal elites. This makes for a good read, but Stein fails to dig beneath the surface: He doesn’t try to assess how bad the problem truly is, offers little advice for conservatives stuck in “blue” areas, and takes a few too many cheap shots of his own.
The stories here are usually amusing, and sometimes heartbreaking. Stein profiles a conservative talk-show host who broadcasts out of Madison. He gives a New York lawyer who defends landlords several pages to tell horror tales. Stein even shares personal stories, including that of his strained relationship — partially due to political differences — with his father.
But unfortunately, Stein never works these anecdotes into a larger point about how pervasive anti-conservative bias is. Simply reading the stories back-to-back, one may get the idea that anti-Right prejudice is a rather large problem, but this impression almost certainly does not square with reality.
My own adult life has taken me from the journalism school of a liberal university to two liberal big cities, and I’ve been an outspoken (and in college, somewhat obnoxious) conservative the entire time. I’m not particularly social, but I’ve interacted with professors, New York schoolteachers, poverty activists, run-of-the-mill lefties, etc. For me, the bottom line has been that being a conservative in a liberal setting just isn’t that big of a deal. Yes, most people will disagree with you on politics. True, unless you’re up for a long, spirited, and potentially mean debate, it can be best to smile and nod when someone you don’t know well makes a snide, politically charged comment. Certainly, liberals who lack social graces will make such comments at inappropriate times, such as during lectures in front of impressionable students. Occasionally, a leftist will even act on his dislike of private property (stacks of the conservative paper I worked for in college were thrown away from time to time) — but in this, he will not have other liberals’ blessings (our student government voted to condemn the thefts).
When it comes right down to it, the vast majority of liberals are more than willing to accept people who don’t think as they do. As I wrote on Phi Beta Cons about my college years: “I made liberal friends, met the liberal I’m marrying, and got decent grades from liberal professors.”
And as NRO’s David Kahane wrote of Hollywood:
While I don’t go out of my way to start political discussions, my sentiments are freely shared with those I work with (mostly producers and agents) if and when the subject comes up. Sometimes, true, they’ll stop a dinner-party conversation in its tracks, as happened one memorable evening in the Hollywood Hills with a once-famous but now has-been TV and movie star, but they’re generally regarded as a kind of weird affectation, like Wiccanism, that can be overlooked if said producers and agents want to get their hands on the story material.
Stein’s failure, aside from the occasional admission along the lines of “few such encounters end badly,” to put these experiences in their proper context wouldn’t be a big deal were it not for the paranoia that’s gripped many conservatives. In many cases, right-wingers simply clam up, convinced that speaking out will get them into not only a debate, but also career, social, or academic trouble. In this way, overly zealous conservative critiques of liberal bias actually hurt the conservative message.
But what should conservatives do to mitigate the effects of liberal prejudice? Again, smiling and nodding can smooth over conversations with people you don’t know well. But in college classes, and in other situations where it’s appropriate to challenge others, why not take free-speech lawyer David French’s advice and “cowboy up”:
If you are not actively being censored . . . speak up! If you don’t like the current stable of conservative groups, create a new one or speak on your own. If you are afraid professors won’t grade you fairly, put them to the test and respond appropriately if their bias manifests itself (you’ll be surprised how well you might do). If you don’t think people will like you, grow a thicker skin and see what happens. I still have dear lefty friends from my law-school days, and I never pulled any punches in my conversations with them (and still don’t). But, above all. Stop whining. Please.
The final issue with I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican is that Stein shows the same attitude toward liberals that he accuses liberals of showing toward him. He claims that “conservatives think liberals have bad ideas, while liberals think conservatives are evil,” and that liberals are “impervious to reason.”
Perhaps unwittingly, Stein here strikes at the fundamental truth of the matter: Most people are at least mildly intolerant of others who aren’t like them, and will express this intolerance if they’re surrounded by enough people who are like them. In conservative areas of the U.S., secular liberals face the same low-level disapproval that conservatives face in liberal areas. If you’re in the minority, whether that means you belong to the NRA or the Sierra Club, all you can do is cowboy up — or clam up.
– NR associate editor Robert VerBruggen edits the Phi Beta Cons blog.