The Conservative Mistake in the Culture War
Whenever conservatives get down in the dumps about their seemingly nonstop string of losses, they take solace in a simple trope: politics is downstream of culture.
Coined by the late Andrew Breitbart, the phrase excuses political failure by elevating culture as the predominant mechanism for societal change.
Gay marriage legal in all 50 states? Well, that’s because the public has shed its Christian faith. The national debt $19 trillion and counting? Well, that’s because the culture is too myopic. A decline in trust of civil institutions? Well, the culture is far too individualistic.
Since Roe v. Wade legalized the practice of infanticide, the Right has been stuck fighting the last battle in the culture war. Outspoken conservative Christian presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush failed to repel liberalism’s social tide. The rise in the popularity of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” shows that conservatives (specifically Christians) are no longer fighting to win, but merely negotiating the terms of their surrender.
National Review blogger Jim Geraghty thinks differently. In a recent edition of his “Morning Jolt” newsletter, he expounded an interesting theory: “This Year the Right Is Winning the Culture Wars.”
I nearly spit out my coffee upon reading that audacious headline. Geraghty himself admits the theory is “crazy” and that he’s not sure he believes it himself. Nonetheless, he brings up a few wins conservatives have had in the cultural sphere this year. Target abandoning its trans-bathroom policy; the box-office flop of the all-female Ghostbuster reboot; dwindling donations to colleges that coddle tantrum-throwing students -- these and more Geraghty views as hopeful signs. He makes his best case by citing the well-deserved bankruptcy of Gawker, the tabloidish “news” site that specialized in ridiculing thickheaded conservatives.
With Gawker’s failing comes a realization: liberal media outlets that gleefully wreck the lives of right-leaning personalities are not invincible. They can be brought down, even if it requires the financial backing of a tech billionaire.
And therein lies the rub of Geraghty’s thesis. Gawker didn’t go down because the public demanded its fall. Peter Thiel, the libertarian cofounder of PayPal, was generous -- and bitter -- enough to fund the legal battle that bankrupted the business. He didn’t provide the final nail in the company’s coffin; his riches built the coffin, hired the assassin, and paid for the funeral.
So it is with many of Geraghty’s examples. What looks like a cultural victory by the Right was really enabled by other factors. For Target, the public’s general aversion to men peeing next to little girls forced a change in policy. The new Ghostbusters sucked -- that’s why it failed in theaters. As for the collapse in alumni cutting checks to liberal arts schools, the juvenile protests of the previous year turned anyone but the most diehard of progressives off.
Neither of these examples demonstrated conservative backlash. They were normal human reactions to the Left’s radical limit-testing. If Geraghty thinks the sinking of Gawker augurs a Republican sweep in November, he should put a year’s salary up on ElectionBettingOdds.com and cash in, quick.
Of course, he won’t. Nobody with two eyes and half a brain seriously thinks conservatism is on the ascendant. When Medicaid pays for sex changes, and a television show about a transsexual dad (mom?) wins five Emmys, it’s clear that Edmund Burke is lonelier than ever.
Geraghty’s optimism is mistaken for another reason: The Breitbartian aphorism is not accurate. Although culture can shape politics, the latter has just as much influence on the former, maybe even more.
In a recent essay, Paul Gottfried debunks the comforting mantra of culture gushing downward into the basin of politics. Though the saying has “risen to the status of an axiom,” Gottfried says it is “simply wrong as a description of contemporary Western societies.” How so? Gottfried argues that the U.S. government has been in the business of soulcraft for decades, much to the benefit of liberal anthropology. The arguments we have today over issues like sexual rights and antidiscrimination laws do not spring from our culture. They are pushed by the government, and cut against the grain of what was an informally Protestant nation.
A few recent examples: the federal government transferring poor, inner-city blacks to the white suburbs; the U.S. military ending the ban on transsexual soldiers and covering the cost for sex changes; the Department of Education forcing schools to accommodate gender identity; the Justice Department urging rescue workers not to discriminate when issuing emergency supplies to flood victims in Louisiana.
These measures have a transforming effect on the broader culture. With carrots and a big stick, Uncle Sam promotes a leftist agenda, which permeates throughout civil society. If you still don’t believe Washington has an enormous role in societal shaping, just consider the long-lasting effect of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which abolished the Euro-friendly quotas on immigration. Fifty years and 59 million immigrants later, the law has unalterably changed the demographic makeup of the United States -- and not for the better.
To be conservative in our postmodern era is to feel like, in T.S. Eliot’s terms, “the ghost of youth/ At the undertakers’ ball.” The Right is on the outskirts of American culture. The Left is on the in: in universities, schools, government, media, print, and Hollywood. Liberals dominate our largest culture-making institutions (with the exception of churches).
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. While conservatives have lost the culture for now, liberalism is not sustainable. The maniacal attempt to uproot and transform human nature will eventually fail. Reality kicks back. When it does, the Right will have its chance to recover the cultural lost ground. And that, in turn, will mean a chance to retake elected offices.
That day can’t come soon enough.