Massachusetts Daily Collegian

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A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The growing prominence of Barstool conservatism

Dave Portnoy and his Stoolies are changing the dynamics of the conservative movement
Courtesy of IMDb

Over the past several years, Barstool Sports became one of the most popular media outlets for sports fans around the world. With an audience consisting mainly of younger men, Barstool publishes a variety of sports-related blogs and podcasts along with some pop culture content. Its podcast “Pardon My Take” is the most popular sports podcast in the world.

Barstool, however, has a bit of a reputation. Take Dave Portnoy, Barstool’s president. Over the past several years Portnoy was involved in several controversies for making blatantly sexist jokes and comments. In 2012, for example, Portnoy joked that “Though I never condone rape, if you’re a Size 6 and you’re wearing skinny jeans, you kind of deserve to be raped, right?” Several former female sportswriters also alleged that Portnoy and other Barstool bloggers promote a workplace environment that “[treats] sexual harassment and cyberbullying as a game.”

On other occasions, however, Portnoy struck a completely different note. In response to the recent Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, Portnoy said, “We are literally going backwards in time. It makes no sense how anyone thinks it’s their right to tell a woman what to do with her body. I just don’t get it.” In fact, as Jay Caspian Kang observes in the New York Times Magazine, “Portnoy and his cast of bloggers are largely liberal-leaning dudes from the breeding grounds of the coastal elite.” None of them would consider themselves bigoted or sexist.

This mixture of politically incorrect and, at times, misogynistic behavior with more liberal stances on issues such as women’s and LGBTQ rights has led the writer Matthew Walther of The Week to coin the term ‘Barstool conservatism.” As Politico writer Derek Robertson explains, Barstool conservatives can be divided into groups: outright antifeminists and those who are simply alienated by modern left. They’re united by a common disdain for “newly established progressive social norms around things like gender pronoun usage and diversity, equity and inclusion practices.”

Much of what is interesting about Barstool conservatism is what it says about the modern conservative movement overall. Despite at times appearing to stand for one monolithic worldview, the conservative movement has always been a coalition of groups that would otherwise unsuccessfullly influence politics directly. There are three main groups that have traditionally shared power within the modern Republican Party: social conservatives seeking to uphold traditional values and hierarchies, libertarians seeking to promote small government and free market capitalism, and foreign policy hawks advocating for an active and at times aggressive foreign policy approach.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, the importance of foreign policy to this coalition declined significantly. What’s important to highlight is that these different groups are often in tension with each other. As Jane Coaston explains, social conservatives have felt for quite some time that their interests are sidestepped by the Republican establishment in favor of moderates and libertarians.

Barstool conservatives don’t fit neatly within this framework, but this is more of a reflection of how Donald Trump impacted Republican politics since 2016. As Walther observes, Barstool wasn’t typically associated with this brand of politics until more recently during the years when Trump was president.

The former President was particularly successful in appealing to the large cohort of Americans who hold generally progressive social views while being more alienated by culture war issues.

Walther added that “vague concerns about political correctness and ‘SJWs,’ opposition to the popularization of so-called critical race theory, sentimentality about the American flag and the military.”

This “symbolic mass politics of cultural grievance” allowed Trump to make a fairly heterodox appeal that transcended the traditional divisions between libertarians and social conservatives. Rather, as the phenomenon of Barstool conservatism demonstrates, Trump’s success was in his ability to mobilize a varied group of constituencies who share their resentment for new liberal social norms.

In this sense, however, the affinity between Barstool conservatives and Republicans is more aesthetic than substantive. Barstool conservatives may be happy to join more traditional Republicans to “own the libs,” but Portnoy’s recent comments about abortion highlight how some of the more conservative policies Republicans advocate for could potentially go too far for some Stoolies. Whether Republicans can to appeal to this group depends on whether Barstool conservatives ultimately feel more alienated by the social conservatism of Republicans or by the cultural liberalism of Democrats.

Here lies the biggest shortcoming of Barstool conservatism. While some Stoolies are clearly just antifeminists, most of them simply seem unable to separate the things that annoy them the most about politics from the issues that truly matter. Everyone’s encountered that stereotypical liberal who obsesses over microaggressions in speech to the point of absurdity, but not only is that nowhere near the most important issue right now, but it’s not actually representative of the Democratic Party as a whole.

Liberals only make up half of the Democratic Party, with the other half identifying as moderate or conservative. Meanwhile, a majority of Republicans in the House voted against certifying President Biden’s 2020 presidential victory the same day that a violent mob stormed the Capitol in the hopes of overturning the election—all without a shred of evidence of voter fraud. To equate this with the excesses of some more progressive voices within the Democratic Party is to fundamentally misunderstand our current moment.

Benjamin Schnurr can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Ben_Schnurr.

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