The Agonist Journal

When I attended my first CPAC a couple of years back, which was held just across the river from my new home, the first thing I did was head to a seat in the press area just as one speaker finished in the main hall and the crew prepared for the next one. That’s when the music started, BOOM!—pop hip-hop at maximum volume.

“This contribution needs a pullquote”

It was just filler while people in the audience checked their phones and workers rearranged the stage, but it was all wrong. CPAC, I was told, was the most rousing and forthright declaration of conservative principles and politics out there, so why were the hosts blaring this noise? If you closed your eyes at that moment, you might think you were in an outfitted car with four 18-year-olds cruising slowly down the boulevard with the windows down on Saturday night. Who selected this brazen, aggressive, pounding clamor? It was the opposite of family values and public decorum and bourgeois norms. The contrast with speaker content was jarring—limited government, patriotism, a strong but cautious military, President Trump, how-to-stop-the-Dems vs. a crude, hammering bass rhythm.

And there was another question to raise, a political one. Why would a conservative leadership choose to entertain the crowd with musicians that despise them? Rappers hate Trump conservatives. Eminem’s album Revival trashed Donald Trump, and he went so far as to denounce any of his own fans who had voted for the President. ( I just checked Snoop Dogg’s music video showing a mock execution of a clown-faced Trump and see that it has more than 12 million page views. ( Kanye West is an exception.

This feature of CPAC was as bad as Chris Christie’s well-publicized love of Bruce Springsteen’s music notwithstanding the fact that Springsteen declined to perform at the Governor’s inauguration in 2010 because he opposes Republican policies. An article in the Atlantic in 2012 stated that Christie was not discouraged, as he “dances at Springsteen’s concerts in front of many thousands of people without giving a damn what they think.” (

It’s one thing to enjoy in private the art of people who loathe you, but another to deliver a public statement. It makes people think that the conservatism of our leaders is only a political thing, a few policies and tax plans and budget preferences, not a fuller vision of society. It divides political philosophy from cultural taste. Liberals, on the other hand, are unified on this matter. Rock ‘n roll, hip-hop . . . they go with do-your-own-thing outlooks that power liberal progress and undermine the conservative trio God-family-country. Pop music was a primary carrier of the sexual revolution, and most of it still is. It highlights present pleasures over reverence for anything old. Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow,” with its firm reminder “Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone,” was the perfect theme song for the campaign of our first Baby-Boomer president. ( And when pop music gets socially conscious, that usually doesn’t draw it any closer to conservatives. When George Will and Ronald Reagan praised Born in the USA during the 1984 campaign, Springsteen openly wondered if they actually heard the words on his album. In this list of 35 musicians who demanded that politicians stop using their songs, nearly every target of complaint is a Republican. ( How did those politicians not realize that Isaac Hayes, Sting, Jackson Browne, the Foo Fighters, Heart, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Journey, Tom Petty, Neil Young, etc. didn’t like them and would happily embarrass them?

When CPAC amplifies the sound, the organizers must not be aware that they spread liberal/libertarian oxygen through the convention hall. It is, indeed, astonishing how naive conservatives are in the culture sphere, but it has rational causes. It stems from what happened to those conservatives when they were young and forming their tastes. If they did have strong interests in the arts and literature, where could they go to find inspiration? Liberals and leftists control Hollywood, PBS, museums, YouTube, the art world, the humanities and fine arts in higher education, Broadway, the music industry, libraries, trade presses, the Pulitzer/Grammy/Tony/Oscar/National Book/Emmy awards, most magazines and newspapers, and the fashion industry. Young conservatives who wanted to make a career in those realms soon realized there is a conflict. Some softened their beliefs and became semi-liberals; others drifted elsewhere. Those who held to their conservatism and ended up in right-of-center organizations such as CPAC thus lacked exposure to the materials and knowledge those cultural institutions would have imparted to them had they stayed.

A dozen years ago, a kid popped up in my upper-division English course who was not an English major. He needed a humanities class to meet his general education requirements and landed in my class because he’d heard I was a conservative. (He told me this in office hours.) I remember him well because, though only a sophomore, he had the verbal skills of an experienced literature student. He wrote fluently and read astutely. He handled the hardest poems on the syllabus as well as the students did in my other class, a senior seminar for English undergrads who were working on their honors theses.

I asked him once to consider an English major. “You’ve got the talent for it,” I said.

He looked at me, smiled, and shook his head.

“What?” I asked. He proceeded to explain that he had one other English course as a freshman and that was enough. I pressed further, not to get gossip on a colleague—I didn’t ask who the teacher was and didn’t care—but only to find out what turned him off.

“The liberal bias,” he answered, “it was too much.” He didn’t elaborate and I didn’t probe further. There was no reason to continue. His remark was a little formulaic, but I didn’t want to dispute his experience, and it had already been many years since I had urged students to become English majors or go to graduate school. Take basic humanities classes, yes, art history from ancient to Renaissance to modern, literature from Beowulf to James Joyce, American film from the silent era to the 70s, plus a few years of a foreign language . . . but don’t make them your primary course of study.

Still, it was disappointing to see an adept student avoid the humanities from then on and head to the undergraduate business school, his eventual destination. I didn’t regret the loss of a right-wing individual in my field. I regretted something else: the progress of a conservative kid through college and graduate school with little involvement in cultural affairs. He would have two years of accounting and management and marketing, but no Shakespeare or Mozart or Manet. He would enter an MBA program, most likely, and get more logistics and theory, but no verse or opera or film. He would enter the world highly trained in business and lowly trained in beauty.

His acute mind wouldn’t help him on this matter. He had the vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing ability to score well on the GMAT, but the kind of seasoning needed to avoid the error of the CPAC organizers requires more than that. Mental dexterity alone will not prompt him to distinguish Madame Butterfly from “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It doesn’t always mark the difference between Mad Men and The Bicycle Thief. Political discernment and aesthetic discernment are independent faculties. I saw Governor Christie in person at the height of his popularity, and his mastery of New Jersey intrigues and crisp eloquence were arresting. No way could this shrewd politician be a fan-boy for Springsteen—unless he never developed a sensibility as advanced as his administrative judgment.

This is the thing about cultural acumen: intelligence and skill alone don’t promote it. You have to read and see and hear a lot of superior creations, over a good portion of time, before you obtain a feel for the mediocre, the better, and the best. It’s a process of assimilation by contact. You recognize the cheap tricks of pop-movie cinematography by studying closely the cinematography of the last seven minutes of City Lights and the drawn-out search for Anna on the island in L’Avventura. The dull repetitions of rap are laid bare by the haunting repetitions of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes. Read the first chapters of Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, Frederick Douglass’ Narrative, Great Expectations, and Huck Finn and you wonder how anyone could be enthralled by Harry Potter beyond age 14. It is familiarity with first-tier objects that enables you to place second-tier efforts such as The Sopranos and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, not to mention vulgarities such as CPAC’s music, where they belong.

Conservatism depends on this distinction, but young and middle-aged conservatives came along after the left seized the cultural and educational institutions, thereby depriving the rising generations of this truth. The ensuing cultural relativism that liberal educators, editors, artists, and intellectuals espouse sets all the works on the same level when it comes to aesthetic quality, as we saw when they expelled the term civilization from the curriculum and put diversity and multicultural in its place. (The political value of works of art is, of course, a whole other matter.) It destroys the traditions, too, which always appear exclusionary and suspect in their eyes. As a prominent reading researcher replied to me in a meeting convened in DC by an influential education group when I insisted we create a reading list for high school English, “Mark, you have to acknowledge that any formation of a canon is a political act.”

That puts to rest any division of High Culture and popular culture, or what used to be called “mass culture.” High Culture implied an elite social group, and that’s a conservation that had to go, especially as, in our country, the group was historically made up of white Christian men and women. High Art would never appeal to mass audiences, either, which made it contrary to egalitarian myths.

And so the division is gone now, and the CPAC example shows the damage. Too many conservatives have undergone a rigorous political-legal-economic education and a weak cultural education. They eschewed the arts and humanities side of things in college and in society because they were told in one way or another that they didn’t belong. Hence, they never learned the ideological implications of choosing one work of art over another. Culture, for them, is just entertainment. When they do pay close attention to art and literature, all-too-often they apply the same criteria as their leftist rivals.

Take a look at this list of Best Conservative Movies compiled by Ben Shapiro in 2009 and published at Breitbart. ( It is an embarrassment. Shapiro speaks with the confidence of a savvy critic opining masterfully upon the full corpus of film history, but he selects unexceptional midcult (and worse) Hollywood films and hails them for narrowly partisan reasons. He calls The Dark Knight “Clearly one of the top conservative films ever made.” Got that? Shapiro ranks this superhero film right up there with anything Vittorio di Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Frederico Fellini, and Ingmar Bergman ever created (many of which have powerful conservative themes). He praises Taken, the schlock pursuit/vengeance movie with Liam Neeson, admiring it because it makes “No apologies for being pro-American.” Could the bar of greatness get much lower? And he calls L.A. Confidential a “Brilliant movie from all sides,” though a little background in old noir films quickly reveals how hokey that film really is. Everything depends on manifest political implication; artistic genius doesn’t matter. Without realizing it, Shapiro adopts the very leftist position that art is political and should be appraised as such. That there could be a conservative aesthetic as well as a conservative politics doesn’t occur to him.

This more recent list from Young America’s Foundation is even worse. ( It tries to single out moviemaking excellence, but the authors have no standards except simple-minded elements such as the fact that the youths in Red Dawn fight valiantly against brutal totalitarians. They should, instead, consider these elements that make for a superior conservative film:

  • Critical engagement with artistic tradition;
  • Cultivation of beauty and sublimity independent of politics;
  • Resistance to consumerist values;
  • Dextrous and inventive handling of form (light, perspective, foreground/background, juxtaposition, color . . .).

But, once again, a formation such as the one Ben Shapiro and the smart and ambitious individuals at YAF received didn’t prepare them for these criteria. When they encounter a tax hike or some zealous social engineering, they react swiftly. When they come across a bit of pop expression with no overt liberal messaging, they don’t even blink.

This is to capitulate to liberal culture—and, soon enough, to liberal politics. Our young conservatives have forgotten Moynihan’s wise axiom: “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society.” Apparently, young conservatives extend the purview of culture no farther than family, patriotism, and self-reliance. They need to learn that it covers music, film, literature, and fine art as well.