The “Barstool Conservatives” theory is real, and Dave Portnoy just illustrated why. Reacting to the leaked Dobbs opinion on his show this week, Portnoy, an early Trump supporter, was emphatic. “If that’s an issue, I vote Democrat,” he said.
In 2021, Matthew Walther coined the phrase “Barstool Conservatives,” defining the group “as a coalition who share [Portnoy’s] disdain for the language of liberal improvement, the hectoring, schoolmarmish attitude of Democratic politicians and their allies in the media, and, above all, the elevation of risk-aversion to the level of a first-order principle by our professional classes.”
Indeed, when Portnoy endorsed Trump in 2015, he wrote, “I am voting for Donald Trump. I don’t care if he’s a joke. I don’t care if he’s racist. I don’t care if he’s sexist. I don’t care about any of it. I hope he stays in the race and I hope he wins. Why? Because I love the fact that he is making other politicians squirm.”
“I love the fact he says sh-t nobody else will say regardless of how ridiculous it is,” Portnoy added, surely channeling a popular sentiment at the time.
By 2021, Walther’s outline of the “Barstool Conservative” demographic was fully formed and very attached to Trump.
“What Trump recognized was that there are millions of Americans who do not oppose or even care about abortion or same-sex marriage, much less stem-cell research or any of the other causes that had animated traditional social conservatives,” Walther observed. “Instead he correctly intuited that the new culture war would be fought over very different (and more nebulous) issues: 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, the rights of male undergraduates to engage in fornication while intoxicated without fear of the Title IX mafia.”
Walther continued. “Whatever their opinions might have been 20 years ago, in 2021 these are people who, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, accept pornography, homosexuality, drug use, legalized gambling, and whatever GamerGate was about. On economic questions their views are a curious and at times incoherent mixture of standard libertarian talking points and pseudo-populism, embracing lower taxes on the one hand and stimulus checks and stricter regulation of social media platforms on the other.”
As Portnoy sought to make sense of the Dobbs leak this week, he defaulted to the standard libertarian position on abortion, arguing it was a matter of “smaller government.” We don’t, of course, see murder laws as a matter of limited government, so that logic isn’t exactly sound if you believe abortion involves the death of a child.
But Portnoy’s position makes a whole lot of sense in the “Barstool Conservatives” framework. If you detest the establishment and political correctness more than you worry about most GOP candidates’ social conservatism, Trump is a palatable alternative to Hillary Clinton or even Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Thus a coalition was forged of secular libertarians and traditionalist conservatives since both blocs have rightfully prioritized their opposition to the radical left since Trump’s rise. (Democrats have not produced anything similar.) If Portnoy is representative—and he has been so far—Dobbs could expose the weakness that’s always existed in that coalition’s foundation, threatening the GOP’s ability to benefit from it in the future.
This, of course, is not to say Republicans should continue squirming on the question of life. This moment demands strength and clarity: Abortion kills a baby. It is wrong. It is a stain on our society. If that alienates “Barstool” voters, so be it.
Although we don’t often think of our sexual norms this way, Portnoy and Barstool actually exemplify the tragedies of post-Roe America. Janet Yellen and her husband co-authored a study for Brookings all the way back in 1996, explaining how the proliferation of contraceptives and abortion in the late 1960s and early 1970s increased out-of-wedlock births. “Sexual activity without commitment was increasingly expected in premarital relationships,” they noted.
For men like Portnoy who’ve enjoyed this new arrangement, in which women believe commitment-free sex is acceptable and empowering, abortion has served as a crucial safeguard against unexpected and premarital fatherhood. To revoke it is to revoke freedom. Generations of Americans were born after Roe and told by the pro-abortion establishment for years it was settled law, despite the many flaws even liberal scholars found in the opinion. The pro-life position on Dobbs, in this tragic context, feels radical.
Portnoy is an entertaining, often clever character. As the victim of a shoddy piece of #MeToo journalism from Business Insider earlier this year, Portnoy punched back by copping to consensual hookups and publishing a trove of direct messages between him and his accusers that contradicted the report’s allegations.
“Like these girls say,” Portnoy wrote on Barstool, “I video them without consent and I’m too rough for them and then they come back over a week later and we have sex again and I video them without consent again and then they come back over a week later and I video them again without consent.”
In a country where abortion hadn’t contributed to the shift in sexual dynamics described by Yellen and her husband, Portnoy wouldn’t have much luck finding so many women willing to throw themselves at him without a whiff of commitment. It’s worth noting that Gen Z is rethinking the benefits of “sex positivity” the media pushed on them for years. “HBO somehow did a number on me,” one girl told BuzzFeed recently.
By the 2010s, women were more likely to have had multiple premarital sex partners. The percentage of women with zero and one partners dropped from 21 percent to 5 percent and 43 percent to 22 percent respectively. Recent indications suggest younger Americans, who tend to be more risk averse, are less sexually active than earlier generations, so it’s possible premarital partners will begin falling at some point. But if Americans continue marrying less and marrying older, the numbers could climb.
It’s fundamentally unhealthy for both men and women, but it’s also the norm. That’s why departures feel radical and could vault abortion to the top of “Barstool” voters’ priority lists. The popular stereotype of Republicans as puritanical wagers of war on women remains potent when these issues are raised to the forefront.
Democrats’ relentless culture war on sex and race has given Republicans serious momentum, especially in places like Florida or San Francisco where attempts to roll back radical leftism have proven popular with a broad coalition of voters. Democrats will have a hard time shaking off their reputation as crazed culture warriors, meaning “Barstool” voters may continue prioritizing pushback on the left and voting red in particular races.
Plus, Trump’s conversion on abortion may have been mirrored by other conversions over the course of his presidency. The realignment politics of the last several years, combined with advancing science and emboldened conservative rhetoric, opened up some people’s eyes to the realities of the Democratic Party’s position on abortion. The more Democrats talk about the issue, the more new media can highlight instances like the one Mollie Hemingway described below, which I had the misfortune of witnessing outside the Supreme Court on Monday night as well.
Republican support for the overturn of Roe may not single-handedly wipe out the “Barstool Conservative” coalition or stop the GOP’s momentum in the culture war. Portnoy’s reaction to the Dobbs leak, however, is a reminder of how fragile that coalition has been since its inception all the way back in 2015.