“The Ordered Liberty” podcast co-hosts David French and Alexandra DeSanctis stopped at Weill Hall at the Ford School of Public Policy to record a live episode on Wednesday night. While their main focus was conservatism on campus, they also touched on populism, abortion, democratic socialism and free speech. The University of Michigan’s American Enterprise Institute’s Executive Council, along with the National Review Institute On Campus and Young Americans for Freedom at the University of Michigan, sponsored the segment titled “Liberty with Integrity: How consistency and civility are inseparable from the conservative case for freedom.”
The podcast covers religion, culture and politics. French is a veteran and an attorney, as well as a senior fellow at NRI, and DeSanctis is a staff writer for National Review.
After making jokes about Michigan State and Ohio State, French introduced the main topic.
“In the age of Trump, (conservatism on campus) is a huge topic for conservatives who are trying to figure out how to be ambassadors for their point of view and their movement on college campus in particular,” French said. “It sort of boils down to… can you be civil and decent and still own the libs? And this is something that you begin to see a lot in our hyperpolarized times — that we live in a world where it seems as if persuasion is gone and what we’re doing is we’re trying to stoke our own bases as a way to win.”
In response to the Chick-Fil-A Bans controversy, in which the chain has been banned from certain locations because of a “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behvior,” French said the culture war is worsening as progressive intolerance is extending to big companies and corporations.
“The Chick-fil-A problem sums up the issue that conservatives are dealing with in a lot of places, especially college campuses,” DeSanctis said.
DeSanctis said she believes “punching back” is the wrong approach to the culture war.
“What we should be talking about is substance,” DeSanctis said. “We should be talking about why Chick-Fil-A should be allowed to be in airports, why Salvation Army is not a hateful group, why it’s not just a problem of just a poor conservative group that doesn’t make you a hateful organization. But instead, people are fighting about whether or not we should be writing mean tweets or stoking the flames of the culture war.”
According to French, American citizens are constitutionally freer than ever before.
“As of right now, you have more rights to speak and to freely exercise your religion that any time ever on free speech rights and in more than a generation on religious liberty,” French said. “And that’s not secured by 5-4 majorities of the court. The leading religious liberty case of the last 20 years was decided 9-0.”
French said the current issues are based on culture rather than laws.
“It’s not because of the government,” French said. “It’s because of your peers. It’s because of your employers. It’s because of the Twitter mob. It’s the shame campaigns. And that’s not judges, okay, that’s culture… so, the question that I’m consistently asking is what is the mechanism, what is the plan for conservatives to be ambassadors to a culture that is increasingly turning its back on free exercise, free speech, and locked in the enormous battle?”
DeSanctis tied this uncertainty back to conservatism activism on campus. She said young conservatives often feel they do not have a voice, especially when they are the only conservative in a classroom.
“You probably have situations where you feel like in class either the professor is going to shut you down or your peers are gonna think you’re insane if you actually say what you think,” DeSanctis said. “The purpose of a college education in my mind is to seek the truth and you can’t do that if you aren’t able to say what you think is true because you think you’re going to be shouted down.”
French said there is constant and widespread confusion between manner and ideology among American society, saying Trump was one of the most centrist candidates put forward by the GOP since President Gerald Ford in the 1970s.
“For example, would you call Trump moderate? Most people now would say ‘Trump is not at all moderate,’” French said. “He is extremely aggressive… he is extremely contentious in his manner (and) his demeanor. But in many ways, he is the least ideological, most moderate political candidate that the GOP has nominated since Ford maybe.”
French emphasized the importance of mainly focusing on and targeting persuadable opponents.
“If you aim your expression, and you dictate your expression by your communications with the unpersuadable opposition, you are going to be more frustrated and more angry and often deceived as to the effectiveness of conservative communication,” French said.
French provided an example from when he was in law school in 1992 and his professor would not refer to an “unborn child” or “fetus” but rather a “clump of cells” or a “biologic product.” Out of frustration, he raised his hand and asked why she would not use a term such as “fetus,” and he was shocked by the reaction of his classmates.
“(They were) hissing and booing… screaming ‘ahhh’ and yelling,” French said. “(They were) trying to drown me out from saying this.”
DeSanctis said this story teaches people to be tolerant of and to react calmly to ideas they disagree with because it will send a message conservatives can tolerate diverse ideas.
“If we are transitioning to a model of ‘well, I also should try to shut down or mock or troll people who I disagree with,’ suddenly you’re not sending the message that conservatives can tolerate dissenting ideas,” DeSanctis said. “Suddenly we’re becoming like people on the left who don’t want to hear the truth… I think it says so much that they can’t even hear a basic truth… and about the weakness of their argument.”
While recognizing major progress in America, they agreed toleration of ideas has worsened on college campuses.
“I think a lot about why that is and one big area where that seems to be the case is shutting down speakers who come to campus and the university administrations being complicit in shutting them down,” DeSanctis said.
French said in addition to the temptation for conservatives to fight back, the Tucker Wars began to show the Horseshoe theory, or the right and left becoming more alike, in American politics as populism becomes more prevalent.
“Right and left are not so much competing over fundamental ideas of the role of the state as they’re trying to compete over who’s technocrats should rule,” French said.
Clare Ath, campus outreach coordinator for NRI, is not a student at Michigan but advocates conservative ideas on college campuses. She said Michigan was the first test-stop on the podcast tour they are launching on the topic of civility.
“How can you further conservative messaging from a point where you’re trying to win over the other side, not isolate it further from the other side?” Ath said.
Ath said that many topics discussed were relevant and interesting.
“There’s a difference between criticism and censorship,” Ath said. “I think people on both sides can do a better job of holding themselves accountable to the principles they say they espouse.”
Engineering junior Conor O’Donnell said he found the identity perception aspect of political discourse to be most influential.
“One of the most impactful things I learned is the way to view political discourse in the way that you view who you’re speaking to,” O’Donnell said. “As opposed to looking at people that are most antagonistic in political debate, you want to focus on the people that are gonna be the most rational and most accepting to your ideas because if that’s your impression of the people who are listening to you, you’re more likely to articulate your ideas in a more calm, rational and intellectual way.”
After the recording finished, there was a question and answer session open to the audience. Some topics discussed were religion, critique vs. censorship, abortion and the Romney family.
One student asked about the distinction between a baker refusing to bake a cake and a company engaging the advancement of political ideas.
“The baker cases and florist cases and wedding photographer cases are in this very specific subset that essentially is saying ‘will the state use its power to force a creative professional to use their talents to advance an idea they don’t agree with?’” French said.
LSA freshman Max Resnick said it was interesting to hear the idea of both sides feeling they are losing the culture war because he previously felt like the right was more likely to be seen as winning.
“But now that I’ve heard that, I look around and I see, yeah, people do feel like they can’t express their opinion because of the culture war,” Resnick said. “Then, it definitely seems to me that the left feels like they’re losing the culture war, as well.”