The dominant assumption in conservative circles is that college campuses are left-wing echo chambers with little room for dissenting opinion. But this assumption misses a host of previously apolitical or liberal college students who are voluntarily seeking out conservative thought as an alternative to the contemporary liberal-arts curriculum.
The leading figures of this movement, known colloquially as the Intellectual Dark Web, are a loose assortment of young intellectuals who have gained notoriety for articulating opposition to some aspect of what they see as the porous narratives of identity politics, The IDW has become an industry of sorts — Ben Shapiro, Jordan Peterson, and Joe Rogan are wildly popular — and it is leading something of a quiet grassroots insurgency against campus intelligentsia throughout America. As a collective, the IDW provides college students with an alternative to the intersectional narrative that is the foundation of the contemporary progressive belief system. Identity politics is not gospel, they say, and it is not mandatory to accept its premises as unquestionable truth. To be sure, so far there is no readily available evidence that demonstrates the ubiquity of this movement, but the explosive popularity of many IDW members — particularly among young people — makes it difficult to conclude that their influence is not significant.
At first glance, it may be difficult to identify any uniform ideological trait they all share. The IDW contains religious conservatives and liberal atheists alike; its diverse cohort includes traditionalists, rationalist liberals, gay comedians, libertarian potheads, and others. Jonah Goldberg wrote last year that members of the IDW are unified only by their objection to the corrosive dogmas of trendy discourse and by the fact that they have all provoked the ire of those who espouse them.
Yet this new class of intellectuals serves for many as the new gatekeeper to the Right. Through them, many college students — myself included — have found their way to Edmund Burke. And to the convert whose access to the conservative tradition came through this cohort of thinkers, it is no coincidence that, despite the variety of political beliefs espoused by individual members of the IDW, they often lead many of their followers to a more traditionalist conservatism.
Though not all in the IDW are conservatives in the contemporary political sense, and not all of their young acolytes wind up identifying as such, the IDW reflects a deeply conservative impulse that is more fundamental than surface-level disagreements about one’s political sympathies or policy preferences.
For many young converts, the path to conservatism begins as a knee-jerk reaction to the contemporary Left: a feeling that its assertions must be wrong, with little understanding of exactly why. Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and others in this new intellectual movement offer the most coherent, thoughtful, and eminently rational explanation for this disposition. In many ways, the Intellectual Dark Web provides an intellectualization of the “reactionary” impulse that opposes the radicalism of modern left-wing campus culture. In this way, they have much in common with Burke, whose philosophy was articulated as an opposition to the Jacobin radicals of the French Revolution. To Goldberg’s observation that the IDW is merely united by its rejection of leftist thought, I propose that opposition to radicalism is, in and of itself, an ideology. If conservatism begins as a disposition — what Michael Oakeshott described as “a propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else; to delight in what is present rather than what was or what may be” — then the reactionary impulse is also a deeply conservative one.
Identity politics, intersectionality theory, and the other fashionable theologies that have become commonplace in college classrooms are explicitly aimed at radical change of the worst order, dedicated to tearing down much of what makes the American project unique. Anyone who spends time on college campuses is familiar with talk of “dismantling,” “subverting,” or “deconstructing” any manner of cultural, economic, or institutional superstructures that are thought to reproduce and propagate oppression. The philosophies of perpetual grievance that dominate campus discourse insist that we must look at our cultural heritage as the sum total of its faults, reducing every moment of our history to a Hegelian relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed.
An instinctually negative reaction to this reductionist worldview is natural, but the members of the IDW provide a vital service in offering an intellectual defense of this initial impulse. This is, in many ways, what Burke set out to do in Reflections on the Revolution in France, providing a philosophical defense of the natural conservative disposition: the desire to preserve, protect, and be attached to the imperfections of the present rather than to seek out potential utopias of the future. For many, exploring this is the first step to political conservatism.
There is ample historical precedent for this phenomenon; whenever youthful radicals become too powerful, they unwittingly create a new generation of conservatives. Earlier this month, Christian Gonzalez wrote that the IDW are the new neoconservatives, and this is an apt comparison in more ways than one. In the same way that neoconservatives were a group of previously liberal students and professors who moved rightwards in reaction to campus radicalism, the IDW and their followers are composed of many on the Left who find themselves identifying more with conservatives than with their previous political allies, who seem suddenly taken with moral relativism, postmodernism, and the elevation of gender and racial identity over honest intellectual combat and the pursuit of truth.
Conservatives should look more closely at this phenomenon; it seems that, thus far, they have viewed it from afar with little more than bemused curiosity. Like any movement, the IDW is far from perfect, and the jury is still out as to whether or not its ascendance and subsequent association with the conservative movement is something we should be excited about. But it is clear that they have become far too significant to ignore. The influence they exercise and the sheer number of followers at their command should, at the very least, motivate conservatives to pay more attention.