The older I get, the more firmly I’m convinced of a fundamental psychological fact. We never really leave high school. Of all the forms of pressure that one can apply to a person — political pressure, market pressure, moral pressure — the one that matters most of all is the one that mattered in the lunch room when you were wearing your class ring and letter jacket. It’s peer pressure, the unbreakable bond of the high-school clique.
No reasonable person thinks Samantha Bee would still have a job at TBS if she used the same terrible language to insult Chelsea Clinton or Michelle Obama. No reasonable person believes that MSNBC would stick with a conservative for so long in the face of anything like the steady drumbeat of outrageous revelations (excused, in part, by dubious claims of hacking) about Joy Reid’s old work.
From the outside, looking in, the easy explanation is to simply say that it’s pure ideology. Progressives are more forgiving of fellow progressives. They’ll look for reasons to excuse their behavior when, if the tables turn, they’ll look for reasons to magnify their opponent’s offense. Yesterday, I was a guest on Wisconsin Public Radio, and a caller challenged my comparison of Roseanne’s racist tweet and Bee’s grotesque expletive by saying that Roseanne was calling back to centuries of oppression. Yet, as my colleague Charlie Cooke notes today, if Sean Hannity had used the same language as Bee did, it would be cast as The Handmaid’s Tale come to life, reflecting some sort of deep-seated conservative desire to subjugate the female body.
Yes, ideology is part of the equation, but only part. Combine ideology with culture and culture with relationships, and you get not just an ideologically uniform peer environment, but also one that is bonded by deep friendship and shared history. Human nature locks in powerfully.
This is how you understand corporate activism. This is how you understand media double standards. When conservatives cry foul and demand accountability for Samantha Bee or Joy Reid, they’re communicating with executives and colleagues who have known and liked “Samantha” and “Joy” for years.
It’s hard to see your own flaws and mistakes when basking in peer praise or uniting in bonds of friendship to oppose the out-group.
When you see corporations launch into political activism, that’s not a market-tested response to the popular will. More often than not, it’s an expression of collective executive purpose, reinforced by the applause of spouses and friends — the people who matter most in any person’s life.
When you see a publication like The Atlantic jettison Kevin Williamson within days of a controversial revelation — and then watch its editor-in-chief declare that he’d “die” for writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, a man who’s written his share of heartless words — you’re watching a high-school-level morality play. We love our cliques. We have little patience for the out-group, and we can always reason backwards to justify our bias.
I remember my days teaching at Cornell Law School. I liked my colleagues a great deal. They were some of the kindest and more considerate people that I’d ever worked with, but as one of the only conservatives on the faculty (perhaps the only social conservative), I knew that I was working against a set of presumptions, and the ice beneath my feet was thinner than the ice beneath my colleagues. I’ll never forget one of the toasts at my going-away party just before I returned to private practice.
“To David French, the person who taught me that conservatives are human.”
Progressives talk a great deal about privilege, and it’s a concept worth exploring. But it’s a concept worth exploring fully. At elite levels of American society there exists a very real progressive peer privilege. It doesn’t attach to the broader Democratic public. It doesn’t attach to the average black man or woman on the street. It doesn’t attach to the average Hispanic or Asian immigrant. But once you break into the academy, the boardroom, or the newsroom, then you are in.
The ramifications extend far beyond political double standards. Why did it take so long for the #MeToo revelations to burst onto the American scene? There’s no single reason, but the power of the peer bond contributed to the conspiracy of silence. Why are people often so blind to their own biases? It’s hard to see your own flaws and mistakes when basking in peer praise or uniting in bonds of friendship to oppose the out-group.
Time and again, conservatives fight cultural battles — against, say, progressive corporate censorship — that were truly lost a generation ago. They were lost in the admissions committees and internship programs that don’t just define the new generation of leaders, they forge powerful friendships. They create shared purpose.
Yes, you can win here and there — when the market pressure is great enough or when the peer group fractures under the strain of its own corruption — but don’t think for one moment that you can drain this swamp. You can create your own competing institutions (subject to their own peer-group problems), or you can ultimately try to be the swamp. Young conservatives can take the steps today that will help them win battles that are a quarter-century away.
On that front, there’s hope. A decade ago, when I spoke to conservative law students, I noticed a troubling trend. At school after school, virtually every student I encountered expressed an interest in becoming a professional conservative or a professional Christian — working for activist groups and politicians to win elections and change the law.
Now, I see a much broader range of interests. Students want to be on the board of the next Facebook or become general counsel for the next Google. Or they want to write screenplays for the next Batman reboot. In other words, they want to change the peer group so that it’s not exclusively progressive. It’s a hard road, one fraught with temptations to conform, but the Left’s long march through cultural institutions can be countered by a long march of our own.
Simply put, if life is high school — and, sadly, it often is — we need more conservatives in more cliques. It’s the best path towards meaningful cultural change.
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