As Edmund Burke famously observed, “Conservatism is when something triggers the libs, and the more the libs are triggered, the more conservatismer it is.” That insight comes from Reflections on the Revolution in France, or A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, or a funny Internet meme—one of those three, I can’t quite remember which. In any case, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley urges caution. In a speech to students at Turning Point USA’s High School Leadership Summit, Haley asked, “Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted anything online to quote-unquote ‘own the libs.’” When presumably every person in the room raised his hand, she warned:
I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good, but step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this — are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading? We’ve all been guilty of it at some point or another, but this kind of speech isn’t leadership — it’s the exact opposite. Real leadership is about persuasion, it’s about movement, it’s bringing people around to your point of view. Not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.
Haley is right to observe that “owning the libs” is fun and feels good. What person of good will can help but enjoy the triumph of right over wrong, knowledge over ignorance, fact over fiction? Haley errs, however, when she fails to observe the persuasive power of “owning the libs.” “Owning the libs” can take many forms, from the earnest to the farcical. At its most staid, “owning the libs” manifests in a viral video of some conservative dismantling leftist illogic, usually with a title that includes the word “DESTROYS” in all capital letters. In its more farcical iterations, “owning the libs” involves performing or transgressing the logical conclusions of the leftist ideological obsession du jour, such as donning “politically incorrect” attire or depicting the childish character of “safe spaces.” In all of its forms, “owning the libs” reveals the absurdity of leftist dogma through a tool too long neglected by conservatives: comedy.
For decades, the Left has leaned on its dominance of traditional media platforms to silence conservatives and misrepresent their views. Self-appointed cultural stewards wondered why conservatives couldn’t penetrate the left-wing strongholds of late-night comedy and university campuses. The new media shattered that monopoly, and the Left isn’t taking it well. Now, when the occasional conservative manages to find a lecture podium on a university campus, millions of viewers around the world can watch his ideas triumph over stale leftist platitudes. When a conservative provocateur transgresses some frivolous element of leftist orthodoxy, all but those fully indoctrinated in left-wing ideology can chuckle along as the maddened utopians frown and scold.
For the first time in the lifetime of most Millennials, conservatives are the ones having fun, and this capacity for levity is attractive when compared with the relentless, tedious self-seriousness of the Left. As Chesterton recognized, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.” A little bit of joy goes a long way in persuasion and politics. Conservatives are blessed now to have many pedagogical tools at our disposal as we try to bring our countrymen over to our way of thinking. We can instruct the curious, mollify the fearful, and encourage the timid, but to do so we must occasionally humiliate the prideful. Spare the wry rod, spoil the overgrown child. Tough love isn’t tender, but that’s leadership.