Rod Dreher, Ryan Booth And The Future Of Social Conservatism

A fascinating exchange has taken place within the pages of The American Conservative since this morning.

Rod Dreher, opining about the collapse of Wendy Davis’ campaign over the past…well, let’s be honest and say that campaign was in a state of collapse from its inception, took stock of Davis’ signature issue of abortion and her complete failure to turn it into a vote-getter in Texas, and concurred with an assessment by Michael Brendan Dougherty that you can’t build a successful political campaign around a social issue…

A couple of things here. First, it annoys me to no end when conservatives promote themselves and their candidates as “real Americans.” The liberal version of this involves promoting themselves and their candidates as “real women” (or, much less openly, “real [minority group].” Of course it’s insulting, but more than that, it can lead those who embrace that rhetoric to blind themselves to the reality of the electorate and its concerns. Wendy Davis is associated with a national pro-choice “Stand With Texas Women” campaign. It turns out that about half of Texas women are standing with her opponent.

Second, as a social conservative, I hate to admit it, but MBD is right: social issues matter a whole lot to a subset of liberals and conservatives, but most of the public doesn’t really care. (Environmentalism is like this too; it polls very low on the general public’s political priority list.) I vote primarily on social issues, but I’m much less likely to do that than I was in the past. This is in part because I no longer believe that politics is capable of addressing the core of our social and cultural problems, but it’s also — and relatedly — because I am much less willing to sign off on hawkish foreign policy as an acceptable cost for getting social conservatives into office. War is a social issue too. When you see how going to war affects the families and communities left behind, you understand that.

Same deal with economics.

But then in a comment under Dreher’s post, our friend and too-seldom Hayride contributor Ryan Booth, who has withdrawn from politics almost altogether as a protest against the anti-Common Core movement among other issues which have soured him on the fight, offered a rather bleak assessment on society as a whole. Since we’re going to offer a rather extensive analysis of all this, it behooves us to include the entire thing…

As a former GOP political operative and activist who has come to the same conclusion, I am now trying to come with new standards for deciding whom to vote for. One thing that I have decided is that I don’t want to vote for any “Christian conservative” who expresses hatred for liberals, as I now believe such people hurt my witness as a Christian. If someone is running as a Christian, I want to see evidence of Christian love. So, my witness now comes first.

On social issues, I see a very interesting dynamic emerging. Whether they admit it or not, the GOP (and especially the Religious Right) has basically given up on America. Their idea of America has nothing in common with the depth of community Tocqueville found. It’s rather a vision of a lone family, left alone by government and everyone else, in the woods with their guns.

In other words, the rising anger with popular culture has resulted in a GOP move towards libertarianism and an antipathy towards all government. When I worked for the Louisiana GOP in the mid-90′s, we actively worked against gambling expansion. In the George W. Bush administration, we still had an attorney general who actively prosecuted some pornographers. I first really noticed the impact of godless libertarianism in the GOP in this year’s legislative session in Louisiana, when we couldn’t get together a solid opposition to the payday loan industry.

The general feeling seems to be that personal liberty now trumps all other issues. If the government permits everything, maybe they won’t bother us when we homeschool. Maybe we’ll be allowed religious liberty.

I think that hope is wrong, period. When everything is permissible, the only thing that won’t be tolerated is “religious intolerance.” In the meantime, we’ll have legalized drugs, prostitution, assisted suicide, etc.—and a society filled with much more social evil. And of course, a doctrine that everyone should be able to “do what is right in his own eyes” completely undercuts opposition to abortion. It’s already undercut our opposition to gay marriage.

So, I find myself increasingly in opposition to my former compatriots in the Christian conservative movement. They are standing for an overall philosophy which is NOT Christian (see Romans 13 to see that government is a creation of God) and which will ultimately backfire on their pro-life and pro-family goals.

The result of all this is that I now have a hard time finding anyone to vote for.

This, as it should have, piqued Dreher’s attention and this afternoon he came back with a reaction

I agree entirely with Ryan that libertarianism (“rugged individualism”) is hard to reconcile with Christianity and the history of Christian political thought. His comment, though, highlights two ideas I’m trying to work out within my own thinking on religion and politics.

First, to say that Republicans, especially Christian conservatives, have “given up on America” because they no longer have Tocquevillian ideals is, I think, sort of true — but then, is it not the case that America has given up on itself in that regard? Who really believes in the common good anymore? We have become an atomized nation of individual consumers who believe our preferences must be indulged no matter what. It’s true of the Right as well as the Left. The main reason it’s so hard to talk about the common good is that so few people are willing to recognize an independent authoritative standard for determining that good.

Again, I think we are all at some point implicated in this. Think of a liberty that you would be willing to give up for the sake of the common good. Hard to do, isn’t it? We Americans have come to think of “the common good” as “maximal individual liberty.” In fact, individual liberty is a necessary condition for achieving the common good, and for that good to have meaning (because freely chosen). But in America today, it has become our idol. It has become the end of our politics rather than a means to an end. It is so in our personal lives, so why shouldn’t it be in our public ones?

For Christian conservatives, we see the movement to expand marriage rights to same-sex couples, and we don’t see an expansion of liberty; we see the obliteration of the idea of the family as a binding, normative social institution. In truth, it is both — but the American people have decided that individual liberty is more important. On gambling, I see it as a vice that destroys the poor and their families. Others see it as an exercise in liberty. Those others carry the day in America. I expect that it will get more and more this way as the generation taught that the only real sin is to judge others comes into power.

And finally…

I am not a libertarian; if anything, I’m a Red Tory, or a Christian Democrat in the European sense. But ours is not a culture where Red Toryism or Christian Democracy makes much sense. It might have at one time, but not anymore. I have been thinking for a couple of years now that if I’m going to protect my religious liberty rights (the most important right, in my view), I’m going to have to figure out how to do so within a libertarian framework.

A thought that rests uneasily in my mind after reading Ryan’s comment: have I given up on America too? Does this describe me?:

A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.

I think it probably does. It makes it hard to know who to vote for, though. In a time like this, prophets are more important than politicians.

Maybe that makes me an “unpatriotic conservative.” I know what I want to conserve, but I don’t know that it is compatible with what our country is becoming. I’d like to be wrong.

Obviously, there’s a lot to be chewed on here, as we’re considering issues of wide scope and large import. The basic question, though, seems to be whether there is a way forward for social conservatives in a society and culture which increasingly glorifies individual license at the expense of public virtue.

My answer is no. There isn’t.

There isn’t because a social conservatism which seeks to do at the legislature and city council and ballot box that which it has failed to do within the voluntary confines of the culture is but closing the barn door after the horses have all run away.

You cannot run a slate of candidates for the state legislature on issues like fiscal conservatism, economic freedom, jobs, Democrat corruption or national security and then turn around and impose, for example, an invasive sonogram requirement in advance of an abortion. You cannot mount a crusade to force school kids to say “under God” at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance after running for office on reforming welfare.

And as Michael Brendan Dougherty says, you have to run on those pocketbook issues if you want to build a majority coalition of voters.

The voters want policy to reflect the culture, not drive it. This is the very basis of the Overton Window. Fundamentally, voters want holders of elected office to stick to governance of the public sector. That’s why a decade or more of the Christian Right leading the GOP on social issues and “compassionate conservatism” ultimately landed with a thud and produced the wholesale calamity of the Obama Left in charge of the country. Society changed, because the Christian Right was so busy with attempting to legislate over the space of a couple of generations that it completely abandoned the institutions – academia, news media, arts and entertainment – which drive the culture to the Left. And the America social conservatives sought to defend was no more.

Was that America better than the one we have now? In most respects, yes.

Certainly, the America of, say, the 1950’s and early 1960’s had its moral failings. It was too Victorian in its treatment of sex, too restrictive in its treatment of women outside the confines of the home and family, and too unjust in its treatment of racial minorities and gays. Those failings, and the policy failure of the Vietnam War, which became an avatar for the injustice and stupidity of traditional America in the eyes of a spoiled and ungrateful hippie generation, created an opening for the Left to explode that society in the mid-to-late 1960’s and send us on our current course toward wickedness and immorality as a nation.

We have never been perfect as a society and we most certainly never will be. All we can do is strive for freedom, justice and the preservation of some sense of public virtue that a consensus of society can agree upon. I would argue that this is what conservatism is all about.

In bygone days, when more of us lived on farms and worked by the sweat of our brows, the preservation of public virtue and individual freedom was far easier. Less demands were made on government, rugged individualism was uncontroversial because for a majority of us it was the only possible mode of survival and in the absense of great wealth or convenience virtue – and religion as a means of attaining it – was paramount as the measure of a man.

Technology and the interconnected, urbanized society it has produced, combined with an active effort at subverting traditional American culture by the Left to produce what we have today, when a young Justin Bieber replaces a young Frank Sinatra and Father Knows Best gives way to Modern Family.

It might seem that the immorality and barrenness of modern America is a natural outgrowth of our comfort and technology, that the rise of our media culture through cable TV and the Internet has made traditional values obsolete. This is true, to an extent. But it isn’t the full explanation, and too many social conservatives fail to understand where and why they’ve lost.

It’s obviously a whole post – or book – unto itself, but the Left in America adopted cultural Marxism in the late 1950’s when it became clear that the country would never accept Soviet-style economic Marxism – and that communist economics simply could not compete with the post-war capitalist juggernaut. The war against totalitarianism didn’t end with the fall of the Soviet Union and one suspects it never will; the game merely changes, but never ceases.

And while free enterprise and the American spirit could easily put down a collectivist economic worldview, its defenders were not prepared for what has come through the back door.

Bill Whittle gives as good a synopsis of cultural Marxism and what it has produced as can be delivered in a few minutes’ time…

For a bit more on the history of cultural Marxism and how it came to permeate all of the institutions which drive America, see here. Andrew Breitbart’s outstanding book Righteous Indignation is also a must-read on the subject.

Social conservatives utterly failed to call out the Marcuses and Horkheimers and Fromms and Adornos and their intellectual progeny for who they were – communist revolutionaries who sought to tear down a proud society in order to gain power for themselves in the ruins.

Whittle’s indictment of them is 50 years too late.

If the social conservatives want to resuscitate the moral and virtuous America they rightfully see slipping away, they need to work well upstream of politics. They need to launch their own Gramscian March Through the Institutions, or create institutions to compete with those the Left has perverted. That means education, it means news media, it means music, television, movies, art, literature. There is a large and growing audience receptive to art and media which seeks to build American traditional society rather than to tear it down, and there is an audience receptive to the same kind of deconstruction of the politically correct-cultural Marxist narrative the Left in America has done to our great works of art, literature, politics and thought.

And there is a yawning void where moral education of our children is concerned, a void that cannot be filled by the people who run our public schools from kindergarten through graduate school.

In short, social conservatives are going to have to re-fight the battle they ignored over the past 50 years. They’re going to have to become cultural conservatives, or perhaps more to the point cultural revolutionaries, and commit to that battle for a protracted period of time. They’ll need to begin proselytizing Christianity to a society which has grown unfamiliar with it. They’ll need to challenge the stupidity of, for example, a modern feminism which produces six year old girls dropping F-bombs in web ads. They’ll need to create great art to not just entertain but move the mind and enrich the soul.

As Breitbart said, culture is upstream from politics. Social conservatives have been trying to purify the putrid river, and it isn’t working. The source of the pollution must be addressed.

But as that is happening, it is libertarianism which can save social conservatism. A pact between social conservatives and libertarians can preserve the space for the social conservatives – the new cultural revolutionaries – to win the cultural war. Libertarians who create and defend school choice in law, for example, can create the space for social conservatives to build educational institutions that successfully compete with the Left’s monopolistic anti-American public school system. Libertarians, properly engaged, can block the Left’s attempts to criminalize religious observance on abortion coverage in health insurance or faith- or conscience-based refusal to participate in gay marriage. Libertarians can keep the Left from financially penalizing the creation or propagation of civic involvement in socially-conservative causes. In a society which values individual license over public virtue, libertarians can provide social conservatives with the political license to be virtuous. And if the resulting product moves the mind and enriches the soul, the market will respond and the culture will heal.

We can all agree that it’s not the Right who is on the attack on the social issues. It is the Left. It has always been the Left. But the Left’s political attacks on traditional society are but the occupation after the battle. The blitzkrieg came in the culture.

This may not be the comforting answer Booth and Dreher might seek, but it’s reality. The good news is the battle is only over when you stop fighting it, and the Left is only able to drive the culture when it is allowed to freely do so. The fight to reclaim American culture has not yet fully begun, but it must begin soon. When the PC/multicultural/faux-morally superior Left is in full retreat and is derided as uncool by the masses, it will be safe again to promote public virtue in the political sphere.

In the meantime, Dreher is going to have to come to terms with fusing his Red Tory orientation with a libertarian politics – and Booth will have to recognize that in an increasingly wicked society an increasingly wicked government is inevitable, and thus the only course is to tear down as much government as is possible.

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