Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Harvard Salient on April 29, 2023 and is crossposted here with permission.
The modern conservative has lost control of most of the major institutions of American life. It was therefore no surprise that most were glad when Elon Musk purchased Twitter; it seemed like a step toward a recovery of cultural influence. More broadly, conservatives have been pursuing two approaches to regain a foothold in the culture: competing within existing institutions and isolationism (that is, the erection of parallel institutions). The isolationists despair of winning the political battle; unable to retake the culture and unwilling to live with those whose worldview is irreconcilably different, they pray and wait for utopia. But concrete political action should not necessarily deal with idealized goals when doing so inhibits us from winning short-term cultural battles. Political action might orient itself toward these goals, but it should not be arrested by them; the conservative project will fail if the work necessary to retake institutions is left undone. Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter provides a meaningful opportunity to push back against liberal hegemony, but not if the platform becomes home only to the right.
Sensible conservatives have long demanded from social media companies a commitment to free speech akin to that espoused by Musk. Others, perhaps resentful over years of online persecution, called for a role reversal—when a couple of mainstream media journalists were banned by the new administration, the online right, only semi-jokingly, proclaimed a new era where it would be doing the banning.1 Having acquired (illusory) power, conservatives were excited to exercise it.
This approach, however, shows a comprehensive misunderstanding of the present balance of political power. One cannot stop being a dissident overnight. No matter how many billionaires or influential figures switch sides to this new countercultural current, we still live in a profoundly left-leaning society where the mainstream discourse and institutions are oriented against conservative thought. How does Musk’s acquisition of Twitter change that? It can, but only if Twitter does not adopt a new identity as merely a safe space for dissidents. Instead, it ought to return to its roots as an open forum where all ideas are openly presented. Proponents of progressivism, whether journalists, academics or online influencers, live with their ideas unchallenged by the mainstream media: excising them from one platform won’t change that. ‘Original Twitter,’ on the other hand, genuinely practiced free speech; it was a place where all of those figures could be brutally mocked for their hypocrisies and lack of insight. Purges of dissident figures on Twitter were powerful because they removed this challenge. Therefore, conservatives need to realize that one victory—one new ghetto—won’t change anything. Rather, anyone who disdains the current order needs to challenge it openly.
The failure to realize this fact hints at the prime tragedy of the conservative movement. Conservatives are happy to identify cultural problems, but rather than advance a positive vision for society, they all too frequently retreat to friendlier ground until they find themselves having ceded all power to their opponents. The consequences of this approach can be seen in the story of Yoel Roth, the former Head of Trust & Safety at Twitter. For years, conservatives gleefully rejected the liberal arts, asserting that their STEM degrees would make them money while liberals would struggle to pay off six-figure loans with gender studies degrees. Those that did find a job, they said, would work in useless HR departments, shuffling papers for all eternity. The result of this short-sighted and arrogant position was not only a tragic surrender of the humanistic disciplines to liberals but also a massive strategic misstep. As it turned out, those credentials were not as useless—at least in terms of advancing one’s career—as conservatives claimed. As a result, using his supposedly impractical degree—a Ph.D. in communications—Roth found himself in charge of editing and censoring content on one of the most visited platforms on the entire Internet. You can be certain that there are many more such individuals at Google, Goldman Sachs, and the federal government. Even now, how many of them remain at Twitter in order to stymie Musk’s reforms? Had conservatives not mocked academia, perhaps the bureaucracies of the companies and institutions that, like Twitter, govern social norms, would not be so one-sided. We might believe that these companies make strong efforts to hire progressives or that there is some ideological nepotism involved, but the imbalance is at least in part due to the conservative inclination to self-segregate. The conservative’s inattention to the instruments of cultural influence often makes him his own worst enemy.
Is there a better approach? Of all people, right-wingers should know the value of competition. Setting aside the intellectual bankruptcy of the current regime, conservative inaction has played a role in the stale culture and lack of innovative art that pervades our age. If conservatives really have an alternative order that works better than the current one, they should prove it. They should show us how conservative media is superior, how the countercultural elite is more profound, and how their order can bring prosperity to the country. Make new movies, write new books, and show that the rot we have now is not worthy of the civilization we inherited. The public will recognize the value of such things long before they join the chorus of conservative lamentation. Banning their enemies on Twitter will not help the right in this mission. Instead, Twitter must remain a public square so that the failures of the mainstream may stand in stark contrast to grander visions of national restoration.
A version of this article originally appeared in Fine Print, the April 2023 print issue of the Salient.
1Nikolas Lanum, “Liberal Networks Previously Unbothered by Twitter Censorship Cry Foul over Musk Suspending Journalists,” Fox News, Dec. 17, 2022.
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