The Political Machine Needs a Cultural Soul

This past weekend the Center For Cultural Leadership held its annual East Coast Symposium, this year on the topic of political pessimism, realism, and optimism. What follows are my prepared remarks, after which was a stimulating roundtable conversation.

While it certainly didn’t originate with him, the late conservative firebrand Andrew Breitbart was fond of saying that “politics is downstream from culture.” For far too long political conservatives operated on the opposite principle (they still do, in many ways), getting energized every other year for the next momentous election cycle while, in the meantime, the progressive left was busy making influential movies and television shows and increasing their domination in the institutional power centers of American culture: mainstream media, Hollywood, and the academy.

More recently, the indispensable Mark Steyn gave voice to this frustration: 

You can’t have a conservative government in a liberal culture, and that’s the position the Republican Party is in. After the last election, I said that the billion dollars spent by the Romney campaign on robocalls and TV ads and all the rest had been entirely wasted, and the Electoral College breakdown would have been pretty much what it was if they’d just tossed the dough into the Potomac and let it float out to sea. But imagine the use all that money and time could have been put to out there in the wider world.

Liberals expend tremendous effort changing the culture. Conservatives expend tremendous effort changing elected officials every other November—and then are surprised that it doesn’t make much difference. Culture trumps politics—which is why, once the question’s been settled culturally, conservatives are reduced to playing catch-up, twisting themselves into pretzels to explain why gay marriage is really conservative after all, or why thirty million unskilled immigrants with a majority of births out of wedlock are ‘natural allies’ of the Republican Party.

Rhetorically, at least, conservatism seems to be wising up. Today, I want to explore with you the thesis that it isn’t wising up by much.

While there is a renewed emphasis on the need to engage “culture,” the typical definition and understanding of culture strikes me as decidedly thin. What many conservatives seem to mean by engaging culture is engaging pop culture. We need to make more hip, cool documentaries about our policy views, a show to rival Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, or alternatives to popular liberal news outlets. Pop culture is surely an aspect of culture, but it is not the same thing as culture. It is the topmost visible layer of culture. You can make all the wildly popular films and television shows you like, but they won’t by themselves substantially change what political junkies call “the fundamentals,” the subterranean, multifaceted, and broad social organism formed, maintained, and perpetuated by value-forming institutions like families, communities, churches, and education. This intricate web of institutions and voluntary associations is called “civil society,” and generally speaking it is here that the character of a society is formed and fostered. Pop culture, on the other hand, is generally where the character of a society is revealed

Os Guinness puts his finger on squarely on an important related problem in his recent book, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. He writes: “[F]reedom in modern societies must be maintained and assessed at two levels, not just one: at the level of the Constitution and the structures of liberty, and at the level of the citizens and the spirit of liberty.” Guinness argues that sustainable freedom depends not only on the character of those who govern, but also the governed. 

He recounts how the American founders understood that the barriers they were putting into place to curb abuses of power were mere “parchment barriers.” The American system of government is not a self-perpetuating machine that would run by itself. The “nation’s structures of liberty,” he writes, “must always be balanced by the spirit of liberty, and the laws of the land by the habits of the heart.” In other words, the “machinery” of liberty—constitutional governance—cannot adequately compensate for a loss of liberty’s “spirit” in the underlying organism of society. If culture is illiberal, no amount of constitutional casuistry can save it. Simply to say, Andrew Breitbart’s instincts were correct: politics is downstream from culture. The underlying intellectual and moral condition of any given citizenry will determine its political priorities.

Guinness goes on to note the deep irony that 

many educated people who scorn religious fundamentalism are hard at work creating a constitutional fundamentalism, though with lawyers and judges instead of rabbis, priests, and pastors. Constitutional and unconstitutional have replaced orthodox and heretical. But unlike the better angels of religious fundamentalism, constitutional fundamentalism has no recourse to a divine spirit to rescue it from power games, casuistry, legalism, litigiousness—and, eventually, calcification and death.

Here’s what I find deeply ironic about that: Guinness’s description here does not apply, first and foremost, to progressives. In the past it applied with regularity to the social conservatives of the Moral Majority, and more recently it applies directly to Libertarians and various strains of the Tea Party movement, who seem to think that only the structures of liberty count; or at least they are more important on the priority list. Get back to constitutional, limited government, and we’ll have a blessed land of liberty and justice for all. It is they who seem to believe that our system of ordered liberty is a self-perpetuating machine that works regardless of the character of the citizenry it is intended to keep free.

I hope that we can discuss today what I believe are sobering realizations: while conservatives everywhere rhetorically champion the importance of engaging “culture,” (1) they generally mean the veneer of “pop” culture, and (2) arguably two-thirds of the coalition (Libertarians and, to a lesser extent, the “Establishment”) wants to do nothing of the kind. Make great movies, documentaries, and television shows, yes; address the kinds of value-laden “social” issues that comprise culture at the root level? I’ll say this as clearly as I can: if you want to change culture but don’t want to say a word about the erosion of marriage and the institution of the family in this country; if you want to change culture but don’t want to touch the question of abortion and the sanctity of human life with a ten-foot pole; if you want to change the culture while positively championing individual ethical autonomy, you are not really interested in changing culture. You want the machinery of liberty, but not a culture that sustains liberty. 

Ironically, this is sort of a mirror image of Progressivism in the early 20th century. They were the technocratic ideologues, par excellence. The elites, with armies of technical experts at their command, would organize society. It was the machinery that mattered. While the Libertarian vision of what that “machinery” is is antithetical to that of, say, Woodrow Wilson, I wonder if it makes much of a difference at the end of the day?

In the 1960s Progressives wised up and realized that unless culture and civil society itself is changed, they would not succeed in their aims. And since they have advanced a long way down that road—namely, eroding civil society and replacing it with Statism—conservatives need to have something of a “Come to Jesus,” moment and come to a similar realization. For the Libertarian ideal to succeed it must do exactly what Libertarianism by design cannot do—go deeper than the mere machinery of governance to address culture, what they call (with dread) “social issues.” 

The only thing capable of keeping government restrained and small is a virtuous civil society that is big and flourishing. This means that conservative politics cannot succeed without a conservative culture. And that means the dreaded “social issues” cannot forever be shunted to the side or evaded (as Libertarians regularly do) with abstract appeals to “Federalism” or local governance. “Let the states decide what marriage is,” for example, arguably says something about the machinery of governance; it says absolutely nothing about what kind of a society conservatives are trying to conserve or achieve. 

In short: culture creates politics, and wide swaths of the conservative movement are not very interested in culture. That is a pessimistic note, I grant. And since our symposium today is about pessimism, realism, and optimism, let me close by noting what I think are a few encouraging trends.

In the 2012 campaign Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan proved that one can address these issues in broadly appealing ways. In a substantive speech in Cleveland, Ohio, he laid out precisely a vision for a virtuous civil society in a winsome way (Rick Santorum may want to read and learn about that “winsome” part). Sadly, (and now for some realism) the speech got very little attention. The GOP establishment predictably didn’t want to wade deeply into such waters in the heat of the Romney campaign. But the fact that a top-ticket candidate felt free and comfortable to speak in such ways is a positive sign.

Moreover, it is my sense that some of the institutions of conservatism are wising up. The Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute seem to be increasingly aware that focus cannot be solely on policy and governmental machinery, but that a vision for a virtuous civil society must be advanced. National Review still has a few hardcore Libertarians like Kevin Williamson and Charles Cooke (both of whom, when they are good, are really good), but I would say a solid majority of their writers regularly engage cultural and social issues. Jonathan Last of the Weekly Standard (a rising conservative star himself and author of What to Expect When Nobody’s Expecting—how’s that for dealing with a cultural issue!) has just published essays from eighteen conservative writers in a book called The Seven Deadly Virtues, celebrating and casting a vision for the virtuous life.

These things give me hope. I believe there is a coming fracture in the conservative movement between the “social issues” faction and the Libertarian faction; and I really do think the “social issues” faction is going to win. Since the machinery of our system of ordered liberty is possible only when animated by a virtuous cultural soul, we simply have reality on our side.

Brian Mattson