Cocooning Is the Wrong Solution for Conservatives
Should conservatives and persons of faith simply withdraw from the public square, live our lives, and quietly await the inevitable collapse of what the indispensible Walter Russell Mead calls Blue State America?
Some people seem to think so. The question was first raised in 1996 in the journal First Things by the late Fr. John Neuhaus. In an essay called "The End of Democracy," Neuhaus talked about the possibility of civil disobedience by persons of faith as a response to unjust laws and court rulings. He was speaking of the Clinton Administration.
As Mark Judge wrote last year in RealClearReligion, however, in light of the Obama administration's open attack on freedom of conscience in the areas of same-sex marriage, contraception, abortion, and euthanasia, Fr. Neuhaus's 1996 musings seem positively "prescient." "If anything," Judge said, "the editors of First Things undersold the degree to which our government and judiciary subverted our democracy."
In the wake of the 2012 elections, the question is even more acute. Which shall it be: resistance through litigation (the course adopted, so far, by the Catholic bishops and others), civil disobedience, withdrawal from politics and the public square, or continued political engagement -- albeit even in the face of repeated defeats? And, of course, in the long run, does it truly matter what we do?
I want to talk here only about the idea of withdrawal.
In light of the November 2012 election, the accelerating vulgarity of our culture (think Kathy Griffith and Anderson Cooper), and the radical secularization of American society, it's tempting simply to decide to "tend one's own garden." That is, we should live our faith and principles (not all of us are religious) by withdrawing from government, society, and politics, because all three have now (rather like Tudor-Stuart England to recusant Catholics) become so illegitimate, tainted, and morally and religiously repugnant that we may not, in good conscience, take part in them. In colonial Pennsylvania, famously, the Quakers did exactly that -- withdrawing for generations from politics after they lost control of the colony they founded to a legislative majority determined to wage war against the Indians.
Better, the argument goes, to beat a strategic retreat -- as people of faith, patriotism, and constitutional principles -- into our own media, our own states, our own towns, our own churches and synagogues, and our own families and homes. When the wheel comes 'round again, we (or our descendants) may re-emerge.
I admit that this argument has resonance -- especially in light of American history. The Pilgrims, the Amish, the Mennonites, the Moravians, and the Quakers all came here from Europe to do exactly that -- flee to a place where they could live their faith unhindered by government. But to do so today would be a grave mistake, if not an impossibility.
It's no longer possible to flee into the wilderness, beyond the reach and the ken of government.
It's also quite clear that the Obama administration has no intention of leaving us alone, with our guns, our religion, and our patriotism. To the contrary, a withdrawal by conservatives, libertarians, and persons of faith from politics and government would almost guarantee the very outcome we seek to avoid. The last thing America needs as this moment is the emergence of conservative Bantustans.
That's not to say we can't do everything in our ability to pass on our values and beliefs within our own families and relations. The precedent for that, of course, is in the Old Testament itself. (Joshua 24:15).
But again, we do not have the option of Joshua. There is no Canaan to go to. For American patriots, this is the Promised Land.
Another option is to choose -- if you are able -- what state you live in. And you can go farther and limit what information and news sources you consume.
Thus, we have "the big sort" of Americans politically in terms of where they live and what news sources they consume -- what Juan Williams of FoxNews calls "narrowcasting." It's very much underway. Some of "the sort" is driven by economics (and state and local tax rates, as well as state right-to-work laws), climate (snow vs. hurricanes), or matters of religious faith.
But the effects, after several decades, are clear.
The separation of Americans into red states and blue states was first detailed in Bill Bishop's The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (2007). Nate Silver, in a piece last week in the New York Times blog, presented an exhaustive update of the acceleration of that trend based on the 2012 election results.
So why not just withdraw to a red state? As the adult son of one of my friends said to him last year when he was debating a run for Congress, "Dad, you can have a good life." Why not simply -- as religious people of conviction have often done when they believe that the state has fallen into the hands of evildoers -- withdraw from public affairs and play no role in government?
The religious answer, of course, is contained in the Old Testament's Books of Maccabees 1 and 2, commemorated every year in the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. The "abomination of desolation" is to be opposed. But that answer speaks only to those of certain religious traditions.
The practical answer is one which everyone can agree on.
Those populating the Obama administration have made it only too clear that they're not going to leave us alone. Rather like with the Dred Scott Supreme Court majority, the Southern Slave Power, and the Democratic Party in 1860, it is not enough for us to tolerate slavery elsewhere -- out of sight. We must allow it into our own homes and public places as well and say we like it.
Finally, there is the political answer, which should be compelling for not just conservatives: as American patriots, we are not allowed to give up on our country -- even when its government does wrong. That is the argument which, 152 years ago, the abolitionists finally acknowledged.
And it's a good thing they did. "Wayward sisters, depart in peace" in 1861 would have meant the perpetuation and survival of African slavery on the North American continent.
For the same reason today, the United States needs its conservative leaders and activists in the public square now more than at any time in our lifetimes. If we hold on, we'll win. Blue State America is doomed, and the blue-staters represented by President Obama and his party cannot save it.
Indeed, in the last year, Wisconsin and Michigan have prefigured what's coming.
The slow-motion (and not-so-slow-motion) collapse of Blue State America and the failure of the blue social model make for the subject of a penetrating series of articles and posts by Professor Mead on his website, viameadia.com, sponsored by The American Interest. The question of whether the red states and the federal government will then be able to rescue, restructure, downsize, and re-orient the failed blue states to create a more perfect Union will, it seems to me, determine the future success of the American Experiment.
The answer to that question will depend on whether the red states or the blue states control the federal government. And for the red-staters to control the federal government, the urge to withdraw and retreat into a biblical "remnant" which will, in God's good time, emerge to re-colonize and re-evangelize a fallen world must be rejected. To the contrary, we red-staters must remain fully involved and fully engaged in American politics and culture.
This is especially true after a year like 2012 -- when we lose. Better to quote U.S. General Joseph Stilwell after the loss of Burma to the Japanese. "I claim," Vinegar Joe said, "we took a hell of beating[.] ... [I]t is as humiliating as hell. We need to find out what caused it, go back and re-take it."
The biggest mistake we can make is to stay in our own echo chamber and to talk only to each other. There was already too much of that in 2012. President Obama and the White House staff are not the only Americans able to live their lives largely within a bubble of agreeable personal contacts and information flow. So can we.
Thus, I dissent from the view promulgated last week by the Heritage Foundation, which you can find here. For politically engaged conservatives, it's not enough to read each other's stuff. We need to read -- and refute with facts -- the other side's stuff as well.
And engage with it.
Facts are bullets in the war of ideas. And to find facts, we have to look everywhere for them -- not just our own outlets. Winning the 2014 elections and beyond means we have to recruit and proselytize young and/or disaffected or unregistered voters.
It is necessary to go out and engage the culture. Join Democratic FB pages. Visit Progressive websites. Proselytize and organize, registering conservative voters, recruiting conservative candidates, joining in canvassing and GOTV efforts. If you live in a safe red state, go volunteer or donate in an adjoining blue state.
If you live and work in a blue state, fly your colors proudly. Every day. At the moment of truth, quote Walter Russell Mead -- who happens to be a Democrat. Here is his most recent essay.
Above all, let us project confidence. Take joy in the battle. And finally, let us prepare diligently for next time. As a middle-aged Illinois lawyer (and failed politician) once told his law partner, Billy Herndon, "I will study and get ready and maybe the chance will come." That chance, improbable at the time, came for Abraham Lincoln.
It appears increasingly probable that, just as at the beginnings of the Republican Party, we and our children will be called upon to save what Lincoln called "the last, best hope of Earth." It's worth recalling that, only thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan and another generation of Republican leaders and the American people did it once again.
We can, too.