There are still many realists in America, but can we join forces?
In a recent interview with Brian Stelter on CNN Bari Weiss voiced the concerns of many:
When we’re not allowed to acknowledge that rioting is bad and that silence is not violence, the world has gone mad. When, in name of progress, children are segregated by race, the world has gone mad.
Weiss’s straightforward statement of blindingly obvious, yet widely suppressed, truths resonates with many in America today. We know that our political and cultural elites live in an alternative universe where basic facts about the world don’t seem to matter.
That is why it is so refreshing to come across someone, anyone, with the fortitude to say what we all know is true.
We long for the simple realism expressed in Weiss’ words. And ever fewer in our day can be relied to speak such foundational truths. Strident progressivism is obviously lost to reality, but are things any better on the right?
Status Quo Conservatism
There is a rising movement on the political right that questions whether the label conservative is a helpful, or even valid, self-description. If being a conservative means simply maintaining that which has come before you, then conservatism could simply mean baptizing the status quo in any age. Many right-leaning critics of the label conservative make this point: conservatives are merely progressives at a slower pace. Let’s call this kind of conservativism status quo conservativism.
Status quo conservatives have accepted the massive, intrusive federal bureaucracy with its rule-making, memoranda, guidance, and all the rest of its democratically unaccountable decision making that de facto has the force of law in America today.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) directive on Covid is a case in point: while in an airport recently I was struck by the precise wording of an announcement I heard over the intercom to the effect that CDC “guidance” made mask wearing mandatory, and that a refusal to do so was thereby a violation of federal law. No one elected the leadership of the CDC, nor can anyone in the CDC be easily removed by democratic means. And yet their decisions bind us just as much as our actual laws, passed by our elected representatives. That our representatives gave the CDC this power seems beside the point.
Conservatives, so the argument goes, have also accepted nearly every aspect of the sexual revolution, only doing so less quickly. Most prominent Republicans, whatever their personal views about sexual morality, if not broadly supportive of every letter in the LGBTQ alphabet, are at least unwilling to speak out publicly against them. There are many such issues.
If this is conservatism, then frankly what’s the point?
There is, however, another way to understand conservatism, namely, as a way of life. In this way of thinking conservatism means being cautious about change and transformation. It means recognizing and preserving what has been shown over years (even centuries) to work well for people. It means not replacing what has stood the test of time with something that merely promises in theoretical terms to be better, the many consequences of which are unknown, and likely disastrous. Let’s call this kind of conservativism classical conservativism (one can quibble about the names, but that would miss the point of this essay).
Roger Scruton, the British philosopher and political thinker, describes this kind of conservativism well:
Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull.
While not requiring a Christian framework, this kind of conservatism fits very well into one. God has revealed much truth in the world even apart from Scripture, according to what Christians call the natural law. He has revealed a basic order in the world, and in human relations, although this order is fragile in a fallen world. People can sometimes grasp this order intuitively (though sin clouds the picture), but have also come to recognize this order over time as one that works, that provides for genuine human well-being in a well-ordered world. Christians too know how easily this order can give way to chaos so they are vigilant to preserve it.
This is all somewhat abstract. Let’s make it concrete. Classical conservatives recognize that healthy, intact marriages are at the heart of social well-being and stability. Humans have known this—and more importantly—lived this out for millennia. Children need the unique contribution of both their father and their mother and they need their parents to stay married. The societal consequences of marital breakdown are well known, even though the sexual revolution has made the voicing of many of these consequences a cancelable offense today. Christians would simply add that this empirical observation of human behavior reflects God’s design for human families and society more generally. Marriage is worth conserving, both because it is a divine institution, and because it has been shown throughout the ages to be the necessary bedrock for societal flourishing. The classical conservative recognizes that any action or law (such as making divorce extremely easy through no-fault divorce laws) that weakens healthy marriages must be rejected. One need not even know anything about the Bible to come to this conclusion. It is empirically obvious and undeniable, even though Scripture adds much greater clarity and specificity to this conclusion.
There are many pundits and thinkers today who reject the label conservative, but who consistently seem to those on the right to be arguing for classically conservative positions, at least at times. The list is long, but would include people such as Thomas Sowell, Glenn Loury, Dave Rubin, Shelby Steele, Joe Rogan, Bari Weiss, and John McWhorter. McWhorter speaks for many such figures: “I am not a conservative. . . I am a cranky liberal. Not a leftist, but a liberal.”
These thinkers often take positions that would fit well into the mold of classical conservatism described above, but are also often uncomfortable with the label conservative. What should we call such people? Classical liberal is one common descriptor applied to them (by others and by themselves), but liberal is increasingly just as slippery a term as conservative.
I would propose another label, one that helps make sense for why there seems to be so much common ground between many disparate thinkers today, all of whom are likewise unified in their opposition to strident progressivism.
They are realists.
A realist is one who observes the world, who sees what does and doesn’t work, and acts accordingly. Often the realist is not particularly ideological, although they will be accused of being such, along with all the favored epithets of progressives. They are not ideological in the sense that they do not subscribe to any overarching framework that attempts to explain every facet of life according to infallible and inflexible laws (all human authority is a manifestation of unjust power, white Americans are inescapably locked in a framework of white supremacy, free markets always bring blessing to the world, etc.).
Thomas Sowell is a realist when he observes that minimum wage laws have historically hurt black Americans disproportionately:
Historically, lower skill levels did not prevent black males from having labor force participation rates higher than that of white males for every US Census from 1890 through 1930. Since then, the general growth of wage-fixing arrangements: minimum wage laws, labor unions, civil service pay scales, etc. has reversed that and made more and more blacks unemployable despite their rising levels of education and skills: absolutely and relative to whites.
The reason for this, Sowell contends, is that “in short, no one is employable or unemployable absolutely, but only relative to a given pay scale.” In other words, mere observation of reality reveals that an employer will be able to employee fewer people the higher the cost of employing them becomes. This is basic common sense, but it is anathema to ideologues and theorists who claim to know—independently of observation—what will and will not happen in the world. The realist sticks with the facts on the ground.
Shelby Steel is a realist when he writes about affirmative action policies:
Certainly minorities, like whites, deserve to be led by the best available officers rather than by officers of their own race. Double standards always stigmatize precisely those they claim to help, so it will be minority officers—not white officers—who will be seen as second-rate under such a system.
The progressive ideologue says that affirmative action has to be good for minorities because it gives them preferential treatment. The realist looks at the results, minorities condescendingly given such treatment by whites, who see themselves as saviors of black Americans:
Whites needed responsibility for our problems in order to gain their own moral authority and legitimacy. So they set about—once again—to exploit us, to encourage and even nurture our illusions, to steal responsibility from us, to take advantage of our backwardness just as slave traders had once done on the west coast of Africa. Suddenly, in the age of white guilt, we were gold again.
Steele, the consummate realist, continues:
Yet, despite all this commitment to diversity and racial preferences, I am not aware of a single institution that based its call for preferences on a careful analysis of why so many minorities were not competitive enough to win places in their institutions unaided by racial preferences. Again, if we can’t specifically name the problems that make so many minorities noncompetitive, how can we argue that racial preferences are a remedy.
Steele’s fundamental commitment is to looking at what does and does not work, regardless of what people wish worked, or what their theories about human relations say will work. He has never been comfortable with the label conservative, although he accepted it reluctantly, even though he recognized that it was simply a label used against him due to his divergence from acceptable progressive viewpoints.
Glenn Loury is a realist willing to stare uncomfortable truths about crime and imprisonment in the face and speak accordingly:
[W]e should all want to stay in touch with reality. Common sense and much evidence suggest that, on the whole, people are not being arrested, convicted, and sentenced because of their race. Those in prison are, in the main, those who have broken the law—who have hurt others, or stolen things, or otherwise violated the basic behavioral norms which make civil society possible. Seeing prisons as a racist conspiracy to confine black people is an absurd proposition. No serious person could believe it. Not really. Indeed, it is self-evident that those taking lives on the streets of St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago are, to a man, behaving despicably. Moreover, those bearing the cost of such pathology, almost exclusively, are other blacks. An ideology that ascribes this violent behavior to racism is laughable. Of course, this is an unspeakable truth—but no writer or social critic, of whatever race, should be cancelled for saying so.
Loury then points out that:
Activists on the Left of American politics claim that ‘white supremacy,’ ‘implicit bias,’ and old-fashioned ‘anti-black racism’ are sufficient to account for black disadvantage. But this is a bluff that relies on ‘cancel culture’ to be sustained. Those making such arguments are, in effect, daring you to disagree with them. They are threatening to ‘cancel’ you if you do not accept their account.
Realists like Loury, Sowell, and Steele have come to conclusions like these on empirical and observational grounds. The reason more people in America aren’t willing to affirm the same truths has nothing to do with the strength of arguments. It is simply the fear of what will happen if you say these things in public. Sadly, such silence does not lead to thriving among poor minority communities. It certainly leads to the thriving of rich, powerful activists and politicians.
Realists are active on the front of sexuality and gender as well. Jordan Peterson and Gad Saad have refused to deny the evidence of their senses which shows them the many ways men and women are fundamentally different. Realist therapists insist that gender dysphoria, while real, is greatly exacerbated by peer pressure, social media use, personal trauma, and much more. Realist researchers—the few who are brave enough to say so anyway—continue to find evidence that many, if not most, women “prefer a mix of work and family life and some . . . largely prefer the latter.” Prominent realist doctors, despite intense pressure to conform to the orthodoxy of the Sexual Revolution, still insist that puberty blockers, affirmation of gender confusion, and so on, is extremely harmful for children.
A Realist in Loudoun County
A particularly striking example of what realists are up against was seen recently in the case of Scott Smith, a man whose daughter was sexually assaulted by a high school boy who entered a girls’ bathroom at Smith’s daughter’s school wearing a skirt. It turns out that the Loudoun County (Virginia) school board was suppressing the evidence of the assault on Smith’s daughter. Smith (a registered Democrat) subsequently got into a dispute with a progressive activist during a Loudoun County school board meeting in June of this year and was arrested and treated with extreme malice and lawless zeal by a radical prosecutor.
Smith, as he has said in numerous interviews, is an apolitical man in the sense of being mostly unconcerned with the details of political parties and philosophies. But he is a realist. He knows that boys should not be allowed into girls’ bathrooms. He knows that parents should be allowed to express their concerns vigorously at school board meetings, because parents are the ones who know what is best for their own children.
His realism, like that of countless thousands of others in America no longer finds a place among the leadership of the Democratic party. Thus, an opportunity presents itself: realists can work together, regardless of party, regardless of label. They can work together because they are united in refusing to pretend that the obvious is unsayable, that time-tested truths are forbidden, that reality must die so that justice may rise.
A Realist Alliance?
This kind of realism is in some ways similar to classical conservatism. It is empirical, observational, extremely cautious about governmental and societal changes dictated by ideological presuppositions. Most of these realists eschew the label conservative, although probably because they assume the first definition discussed above, that a conservative is merely someone who maintains the status quo, whatever it might be. They rightly reject this version of status quo conservatism because it is not grounded in reality and truth. It is instead grounded in complacency and aversion to conflict.
America stands on the precipice of cultural and political disaster. Law and order is rapidly breaking down across the country (the murder rate jumped 30% in 2020, the highest spike since data has been collected). We face a refuge crisis not only at our national borders, but even within the U.S. as realists flee failed states en masse for free ones. The federal government, in collaboration with the vast majority of social and traditional media outlets, is attempting to silence all dissent from the narratives that they (progressives all) deem acceptable, although this narrative changes hourly.
The Democratic party has been mostly taken over by non-realists, people who believe that men can become women, who at the same time believe that there is no difference between men and women, who insist that allowing men into women’s bathrooms will have no negative consequences, who say that defunding police departments will lead to justice and greater civic harmony, and who believe that diversity will magically make our military stronger. The list of beliefs that strike against the fabric of the universe—against reality—is long and will continue rapidly to bring about societal dissolution.
What is to be done?
Realists, classical conservatives, and Christians do not agree on everything and should not pretend that they do. This essay, in other words, is not another tired appeal to the “mere tolerance” variety of classical liberalism (on which see this article by Ryan Anderson). This is why I have spoken of a realist alliance rather than of a realist ideology. Many pressing issues in our world cannot be decided on the basis of observation alone. “Is abortion morally permissible?” is an inescapably metaphysical and theological question, as are basic questions about marriage and sexual morality.
However, on many of the pressing issues of the day I think there are still enough realists in America to come together to do much good. Christians are certainly realists: in line with a long tradition of natural law thinking we recognize that God has made clear his design for the world and for human relationships, in Scripture for sure, but in nature as well. We can truly, though not infallibly, understand this design. In other words: our observations of the world reveal what is real (see Romans 1:19-20; 2:14–15). And a large number of Americans who don’t identify as conservatives or Christians, even if they are afraid to speak up in public, remain realists opposed to the corrupting ideological forces rampant in our nation.
As Abigail Shrier puts it, speaking for this group of Americans:
The activist Left’s policy agenda is widely disliked. Its positions veer between unreasonable (Defund the Police), unlivable (indulge looters, larcenists, and vandals), unsustainable (open the borders), and untenable (transwomen are women).
There is, therefore, a large amount of common ground upon which to fight side-by-side. Realists, recognizing the destructive racial and sexual ideologies proliferating in K-12 education can band together to take over local school board and then replace all of the leaders and teachers necessary to excise that ideology from those schools. In many states, where the governors appoint the boards of regents for the state university systems, these regents likewise could be replaced and then could proceed to remove university administrators and faculty who refuse to desist in promoting the implementation of these poisonous ideologies. Merely securing affirmations from administrators that such things will not be taught is insufficient. Realists—as is happening across the country—can unite (often forming PACs for this purpose) to take control of local governments, which is a much more realistic goal for most Americans than taking control of national political power. Realists can support law and order, the breakdown of which always hurts poor, minority communities more than anyone else.
Right ideas, in other words, are not sufficient. To quote Roger Scruton again, “Rights are not secured by declaring them. They are secured by the procedures that protect them.” Or, to put it in everyday terms: talk is cheap.
Perhaps one of the most important things that can be done, is simply to recognize the common ground that still exists. Realism could then be the catchword of the day, the rallying cry in defense of sanity, common sense, and adherence to truths so outwardly obvious that only arcane, hyper-sophisticated ideologies could dislodge them from the minds of normal people.
At the very least we must refuse to tell lies about the world, no matter what the cost. We must “live within the truth.” There are, no doubt, many things that can be done. The consequences of not working together appear dire.
Realists of the world must unite.
 Roger Scruton, How To Be A Conservative (New York: Bloomsbury, 2019), viii-ix.
 I’m using the word realism here in its mundane, everyday sense, not in the sense of the Christian political theory associated most notably with Reinhold Niebuhr (for a summary of this political philosophy see here).
 See this study, for example (cited in aforementioned article on Sowell), which concludes that “our preferred estimates suggest that the Seattle Minimum Wage Ordinance caused hours worked by low-skilled workers (i.e., those earning under $19 per hour) to fall by 9.4% during the three quarters when the minimum wage was $13 per hour, resulting in a loss of 3.5 million hours worked per calendar quarter. Alternative estimates show the number of low-wage jobs declined by 6.8%, which represents a loss of more than 5,000 jobs.”
 Steele, White Guilt, 68-69.
 Steele, White Guilt, 129.
*Image Credit: Unsplash
Ben C. Dunson is the Editor-in-Chief of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.