An Interview with Carrie Lukas

Fall 2019 Insider

An Interview with Carrie Lukas

Nov 20, 2019 11 min read

Independent Women’s Forum President Carrie Lukas welcomes an enthusiastic crowd at the organization’s 2018 Women’s History Month celebration at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel.
Independent Women’s Forum President Carrie Lukas welcomes an enthusiastic crowd at the organization’s 2018 Women’s History Month celebration at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. Independent Women’s Forum

Carrie Lukas is one busy woman. In addition to presiding over the Independent Women’s Forum, she toils as a senior fellow at the Goldwater Institute, a contributor to National Review Online and a regular columnist for Amid all that, she found time this year to publish her third book, Checking Progressive Privilege (Encounter Broadsides). Lukas maintains that, if America is to become a truly diverse and inclusive society, progressives will first have to check their own privilege. To learn more, read on.

THE INSIDER: Let’s talk about your book, Checking Progressive Privilege. What do you mean by the term “progressive privilege”?

CARRIE LUKAS: It refers to the privilege that exists and is enjoyed by people on the political left. It’s interesting because we mostly hear the term “privilege” used in reference to people who are majorities within a culture. 

You hear a lot about white privilege, male privilege and heterosexual privilege. And it conveys the idea that society has traditionally labeled members of those groups as “normal” or given them a higher status than others.

As I was exploring this topic, I realized that in our culture today, being considered politically progressive conveys privilege in a way very similar to the privilege that whites, males, and heterosexuals used to enjoy. It’s depicted as what’s normal, better, superior.

TI: What are some behaviors that exhibit privilege or seek to take advantage of privilege?

CL: Well, the obvious place to start is with the phenomenon of liberal media bias. It’s been manifest for a long time. Just think of all the conversations that begin with something like: “Gosh, the Washington Post is so unfair in how they cover Republicans” or “Can you imagine how the press would react if a Republican did that?”

That’s an element of progressive privilege. But I actually think it’s the stuff the media does outside of the rough and tumble of politics that is more important. You know, just open your average women’s magazine. 

You don’t go to Glamour or Vogue or Cosmo or Allure to get information about politics. But if you open up those magazines, you often find very subtle—and sometimes not so subtle—political messages. 

For instance, every year Glamour puts out its “Women of the Year” issue. Invariably, it features female lawmakers and activists—almost all of them are women of the left. Nancy Pelosi, Michelle Obama and other progressive women are routinely celebrated in those pages, while anybody who’s conservative is essentially ignored, or even belittled.

It’s not just politicians. Activists are celebrated too, as long as they’re advocating gun control or fighting poverty in a way that is very much on the “grow government” side of the debate. But people fighting for anything that would be considered libertarian or conservative are pretty much frozen out.

You’ll find the same when you turn on the average TV show. You come to Netflix looking for a drama or crime show and end up getting a not-so-subtle political lecture on gun control or climate change. There’ll be a white, southern guy wearing a flag hat or something gives him the aura of a cartoonish conservative, and he’ll turn out to be the secret pedophile or other villain. 

It’s those types of things that I think are really what we’re talking about when we talk about privilege.

TI: Would the show “Designing Women” be an example of that?

CL: I haven’t seen that one in a long time. But, you know, all you have to do is turn on any awards show. Whether it’s for music, for plays, for anything that’s associated with the media culture, you are going to hear a lecture about a progressive cause.

I mean, my goodness, just listen to the vitriol these people have for President Trump. But it isn’t just Trump; you heard similar screeds when Bush was in office. Yet you would never see someone try to use their platform at the Emmies or Oscar awards to push something with a conservative element to it. And can you imagine the reaction if someone at an awards show criticized Obama for, oh, I don’t know, breaking up families at the border or drone attacks that killed thousands of civilians overseas? They’d never work another day in Hollywood.

TI: How long has this concept of “privilege” been making the rounds?

CL: The earliest discussion I’ve found regarding this concept of privilege was back in 1988. It was sparked by a paper written by Peggy McIntosh—a paper that I found quite interesting and, frankly, very persuasive. She recounts how she had been lamenting how, being a woman, she didn’t enjoy all privileges that men had, when she had a moment of self-awareness and said, “Well, gosh, you know, when I think of it, as a white person, I have a lot of privileges that my black colleagues don’t have.”

She recalled how she showed up at a grocery store without her checkbook, and the girl believed her when she said she’d left her checkbook at home. She was like, “If I had been black, I wouldn’t have been afforded that assumption of innocence.”

I read that and thought: “You know what? She’s right.” In the 1980s, a non-white person would face extra burdens like that. 

[T]urn on any awards show. Whether it’s for music, for plays, for anything that’s associated with the media culture, you are going to hear a lecture about a progressive cause.

And, today, conservatives face extra burdens. Take Mitt Romney’s “binders full of women” remark. Obviously, it was an awkward expression, but it wasn’t sexist. He was talking about his sincere attempt to make sure that women were being represented. Had a Democrat said that, everyone would have understood what it meant and let it go. But because it was spoken by a conservative man, it was deliberately misinterpreted and twisted to show that “he thinks women are things you find in binders” and “he’s objectifying women.“

I don’t think Hillary Clinton is a racist, but she has said things that are racially awkward. Yet she’s given an absolute pass by the mainstream press. 

It’s how one’s words are taken, and it spills over into daily life. For example, even though I work in the conservative movement, I don’t wear it on my sleeve in social situations. I’m careful not to show my political cards to people I don’t know, because too often it’s taken as a sign that I’m racist, or homophobic or some other bad person.

Yet I can’t go to a parent’s night without hearing somebody say how much they hate the president—and they feel very comfortable doing that because it’s so socially acceptable to speak about your political inclinations if you’re a liberal. But if you’re a conservative, you are likely to feel it would be offensive to do that—that others would consider it inappropriate.

TI: In your book, you make a distinction between the concept of privilege and that of bias. Can you explain what the difference is and why that’s important?

CL: The distinction I was trying to make is that privilege involves more than just the way people are treated by the media. Liberal bias colors what stories the media select, what they lead with, and how they frame and phrase their stories. Privilege really goes far beyond that.

It’s manifest in what should be non-political environments—like that parent’s night at school. Conservatives still self-censor—they wouldn’t show up wearing a Donald Trump or a Bush shirt. But people will absolutely show up wearing an Obama shirt.

You see it on television, in your kids’ textbooks and homework assignments, the plays schools choose to feature. Those more subtle, not explicitly political things are easier to look past or not identify, but they really do shape our culture. That’s privilege.

2019_10_0366_InsiderFall2019_4_Interview_B.jpgProgressives need to stop acting as though all conservative ideas are evil, Carrie Lukas says. “It would create a healthier dialogue and, ultimately, better leaders on both sides.” Credit: Independent Women’s Forum

TI: It sounds like your discussion of privilege is just a really nice way of saying that there’s anti-conservative bigotry out there. Am I wrong?

CL: Bigotry is a loaded term and is something that is more deliberate. I’m talking about something else—like the situation in our colleges.

If you walked on campus and couldn’t find a single black person, a single non-Christian, a single gay person, you’d think, “Gosh that’s a pretty limited perspective. It really doesn’t represent modern America.” 

Yet on many campuses today, you cannot find a registered Republican. In almost every academic discipline, liberal faculty members overwhelmingly outnumber their conservative counterparts. That doesn’t mean everybody there is a bigot. It doesn’t mean they are explicitly and purposely biased against every conservative they meet. But they’ve entered a culture that defines “normal” very narrowly—one that produces a very unjust and unrepresentative situation.

TI: Some conservatives have criticized the concept of privilege. They argue that the left uses it as a tool for denigrating and marginalizing their opponents so that they don’t have to engage with them. Is there any truth in that critique? If so, how is your use of the term different?

CL: You know, I agree, in many ways, and today, association with groups considered “privileged” is actually a handicap in many ways. Think about what’s happened with Elizabeth Warren. I think long ago she recognized that being seen as a boring old white Protestant lady was a disadvantage for her in academia. By playing up the idea that she had some possible Native American ancestry, she became more appealing. That lack of privilege is almost a currency.

I still think the concept of privilege is relevant, especially when we look to the past—to the original discussions of privilege back in the 1980s where certainly our culture created expectations for “normal” and left many out of that picture. But the notion of privilege is now widely abused. 

TI: You write that reporters sometimes ask you if it is OK to describe the Independent Women’s Forum as a conservative women’s organization but almost always describe the left-leaning women’s organizations as merely women’s organizations. That’s a kind of privilege you mention. I’m curious how often reporters actually ask that of you as opposed to just describing you that way without asking? What do you tell them when they do ask?

CL: Often they don’t ask; they just put that label on us. And I don’t think it’s an illegitimate thing to call us. We certainly are a conservative- or libertarian-leaning women’s organization.

When they do ask, I say that’s a good shorthand for us. But it is frustrating to see something like the Women’s March presented as “Hey, they just represent women,” when in fact they were completely left. I mean, they were so incredibly, radically left that a lot of radical leftists didn’t want to be associated with them. So now they’ve gone through this great purging to try to clean up their act, yet for years the media just called them the “Women’s March.” 

TI: Other than giving progressives privilege, are there consequences of progressive privilege?

CL: Absolutely. Look at how baffled a lot of people on the left were by the support that Donald Trump received. I think their privilege kept them from appreciating just how many conservatives hungered for somebody who would stand up for them and call the left out for their mistreatment of them. 

Donald Trump is openly pushing back on the media when they try to label everything he does as racist. It’s quite a change from previous leaders on the Republican side who seemed to almost apologize for their existence and for having conservative views. Donald Trump just doesn’t accept it.

I think one reason people got so excited about candidate Trump was that he wasn’t going to take it anymore. He became their champion—and people embraced him and were willing to overlook a lot of other flaws because of it.

I worry that progressive privilege is creating a lack of trust and driving conservatives to rely exclusively on conservative news sources. And that’s not good. Sometimes our guys make mistakes. Sometimes our ideas have flaws. We need honest vetting services—people who will call the balls and strikes fairly, and sources you can trust to police our side, too. 

Progressives need to recognize that giving us a fair shake and not treating all of our ideas as evil would be better for both sides. It would create a healthier dialogue and, ultimately, better leaders on both sides of the aisle.

TI: That reminds me of something called the Taranto Principle, an idea put out by The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto. His argues that, when the media go easy on liberals, it actually makes liberal candidates less capable of handling tough questions and less concerned about their own misbehavior, which ultimately gives the left weaker candidates. Privilege, as you say, can harm the privileged.

CL: Absolutely. And we conservatives need to have our own ideas and candidates scrutinized—but fairly scrutinized, and I think that’s where there’s a difference.

TI: Do you think the problem of privilege is also related to the problem of people de-platforming conservatives and not even realizing that they’re actually exercising bias against conservative views?

CL: Let’s go back to those college campuses, where it’s become OK to censor conservatives. The kids are constantly lectured about the need to be careful and respectful of people with different views. For example, they must be culturally sensitive to the Muslim religion and be sure never to say anything offensive or question any of the beliefs. Yet there’s a very quick instinct to censor Christians.

Think about the way some of the Christian groups have been treated on campus. Or think about the treatment given to the Christian baker in the gay wedding cake situation. Progressives seem to lack recognition that these people have rights, too. Even conservatives have the right to association, to free speech, to religious belief. They have their own dignity, their own human worth, and that ought to be respected. It’s strange that privilege has led so many progressives to lose sight of these basic rights and basic truths.

TI: Final question. Other than the recommendations you’ve already made, what should we do about progressive privilege?

CL: This is a tricky one. It’s going to require a long conversation, because the problem is so pervasive. I think it’s helpful to use this language and to put the problem in the context of the treatment experienced by other groups in the past.

Progressives seem to lack recognition that these people have rights, too.

In addition to context, tone will be important in this conversation. We should encourage our friends and family members to speak with kindness rather than accusation. The conversation can’t devolve into just complaining or—worse—anger.

I don’t think the answer lies in boycotting all biased news sources or trying to create our own alternative culture—a conclave of conservatism in a hostile world. It’s great to have conservative outlets, but we also need to gently but firmly push back on progressive privilege wherever we see it, so that we do have a fair system a decade down the road.