William F. Buckley described his mission with the then-new National Review as “standing athwart History, yelling stop.” On an institutional level, for the last several decades, the old man’s yelling has been understood as “public education”; owing to tax laws that benefit supposedly non-partisan non-profit institutions, Buckley’s yells and shouts translated into an industry of conservative magazines and think tanks, functioning with varying degrees of effectiveness and sincerity.
Many have written exquisitely rendered accounts of our decline. Cutting and perceptive tweet threads, articles, and books appear daily, taking a scalpel to our current situation. Chronicles of civilizational collapse go back to the Bible, or earlier. We have lost faith, corrupted ourselves and our society and, consequently, everything we love and believe will turn to ash. I understand the appeal of this doomsaying, both temperamentally and intellectually. It’s not shocking that this genre is a specialty of a movement which calls itself “conservative,” for the desire to hold on to the old ways presupposes a love of those old ways, and defense of them against the onslaught of History. Such a movement is, tautologically, both fearful of and disgusted by the future—if, as they say, “current trends continue.”
Suffice it to say that, for the present audience at least, this case about the fracturing of the United States and its recent, post-constitutional regime, has already been made. (And if, for reasons of ignorance or the congenital inability to know what time it is, the reader needs more convincing, he can turn to Michael Anton’s excellent book The Stakes: America at the Point of No Return.)
But “yelling stop” takes place in our personal lives, as well. Those of us on the Right who are interested in politics or in the sorry state of our civilization certainly do our share of yelling. “Wake up,” we say with each tweet, group chat, article, or phone call with friends who might be slow to realize the gravity of the situation. “You need to know what time it is.”
You might, right now, belong to several Signal chats, email listservs, Twitter or Facebook threads, or other forms of group correspondence that make you feel like slamming your head against the wall. Your interlocutors may be wonderful friends, and the chats may be cordial and erudite. Just as often, though, these chats are not so nice; these conversations are even more frustrating. You’re fighting with your sister-in-law’s roommate on Facebook because you want to convince her, or to hone your rhetorical skills—but you’re wasting a tremendous amount of time and energy.
Even putting aside issues of social media censorship, deplatforming, or worse, the risks involved in having earnest, thoughtful political discussions and debates with non-intimates today clearly outweigh the rewards. Do you draw a paycheck from owning the libs on college campuses or on T.V. chat shows? Probably not.
Many of these conversations take place on what, for us, is already well-trod ground. For example, it’s been a half-decade since we’ve debated the trajectory and realignment of the priorities of American Right in the time of Donald Trump. The positions have hardened. By 2021, your Never Trump friend is not going to be convinced of the dangers to what’s left of the founders’ regime and the urgency of the moment. He will keep whining about “authoritarianism” and “nativism” and cite the corporate media’s tired mythological view of the last half-decade.
This is one of the most common dead ends on the Right, even in high-quality American conservative punditry. Very little is left to gain by continuing to fight this battle as if it was an honest debate. If your goal is to convince your interlocutor, and convince him to abandon the fundamental, often emotion-derived premises by which he organizes his political opinions, you are wasting your time.
(Shitposting (as it’s known), on the other hand, is an exception—and far more productive than it seems. It is, by definition, not intended to convince; it’s a MOAB rather than an intellectual volley, and it serves the key communications function of bolstering your side. The more biting, the more effective and entertaining. Remember Alinsky’s Rule 6: “a good tactic is one your people enjoy.”)
Even more important than your time, however, is your political mind, given the surprisingly limited amount of focus it is capable of maintaining. Your political mind is like an Overton Window, which is a way of understanding the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream at a given time. On either end of the window are radical conceptions which come to gain mass public appeal as you come toward the middle. The goal of the political communicator, strategist, or ideologue is to nudge the window open, moving a once-unthinkable policy into the mainstream center. Political professionals can do this in an infinite variety of ways, from public relations campaigns to media bombardments or expressions of power from woke capital. It shifts all the time, but only with intention.
It’s much the same on the personal level, as well. The space within the window can be understood to be your political imagination—but it could also be thought of as your attention. This is a finite resource, and the “location” of your battles within the range of that open window is important. By constantly fighting over the same turf, you are reaffirming the political location of your center.
These debates waste a tremendous amount of productive energy by constantly retracing arguments that have been long settled in your mind. Cut this habit out of your life. Agree to disagree and don’t engage further. (This isn’t an admonition to cut people out of your life based on politics, or to make more enemies; you can talk about gardening, or music, or how fast the kids grow up these days.)
Then, the first step in the right direction is to clear your mind of pointless political conversations by selecting interlocutors with whom you don’t have to have mindless, basic fights on irreconcilable issues. Find a group of friends and colleagues with which you have a relatively close shared understanding of the problem, both the problems of the past and the likely future. The people in your tribe are those with whom you agree in most philosophical respects but may differ with when it comes to tactical considerations. You don’t have to agree on everything, but you need to be able to speak (or type) in a kind of shorthand and have a baseline level of agreement that doesn’t cause the same argument about the same basic concept to break out again and again.
By establishing a new, more productive baseline for political discussions, you will be able to nudge the window open wider in the direction of your choice. This effort to detach isn’t walking away from the battlefield; it’s forcing you to husband and refocus your resources and time into making political change on a practical level.
Because this new baseline—this mental real estate—is necessary in this crucial moment.
Under the sway of a fashionable woke ideology, the Left’s politicization of all aspects of society won’t let up. What is coming will require considerable collaborative effort, focus, and interpersonal trust. It will involve the creation, eventually, of entirely new ecosystems and industries, from finance to culture. The vast scale of what needs to be created is daunting—build your own: social media networks; payment processors; banks; server farms; book publishers; supermarket chains; universities; dating apps; and on and on. At the same time, the Big Sort will intensify, as Americans relocate to states with which they’re more politically aligned. If we hope to combat a now-galloping Blue state anarchotyranny, Red America must be as autonomous as possible—culturally, politically, and economically—either within the context of federalism or under another type of construction.
There is much work to be done. So much, in fact, that even surveying the scope of the problem becomes overwhelming, and a cause for inaction. Tackling this problem, however, requires a shift in political mindset, and allowing the space for thoughts and conversations that maybe, not so long ago, seemed unthinkable.
You can only get there with friends.
Originally published at The American Mind.