At the outset of this blog, I would like to exploit a political theorist’s prerogative and direct the reader’s attention away from the immediate political concerns of the day by asking a more fundamental question: what is the relationship between politics and culture? In particular, to what degree are changes in one dependent upon hospitable conditions in the other?
All too often, I fear, conservatives tend to focus upon political issues and demonstrate a lack of interest in cultural change. At the risk of superimposing a theoretical coherence over the seemingly haphazard and self-contradictory nature of so-called “mainstream conservatism,” I would suggest that while conservatives today rightly emphasize the stultifying effects government programs can have on American society, they fail to understand that the obverse is also true: that spiritual and intellectual weakness in a society can set a ceiling for what is possible in the political realm.
On its face, this should be a point that conservatives would be quite willing to accept. What could be more conservative than emphasizing that culture does matter, that the character of a people does matter? Are not conservatives the ones prosecuting “culture wars” and continuously opining the precipitous decline in society’s moral standards? Yes, but recognizing the spiritual death of American culture and actively fighting to revive it are entirely different things.
Furthermore, when compared to either locating the Republican nominee on a ballot or sitting in a church pew lamenting the fallen nature of the world “out there,” cultural renewal takes much longer and is much more arduous. Unfortunately, it is also the only course of action for true conservative change: a change of direction in the political arena is impossible without a corresponding change of direction in the society writ large.
The reason for this is deceptively simple: people generally tend to get the government they want. The modern Leviathan state grew in size and strength not, primarily, through force or deception, but because the people of the United States wanted a stronger Federal government more involved in their everyday lives. As a consequence, contemporary conservative attempts to scale back federal government programs are doomed to fail because they do not simultaneously take up the cultural needs that these same programs were designed to address.
The Affordable Care Act provides a valuable case in point. The sheer number of people who have inadequate access to proper healthcare is itself a damning critique of our civilization. If not for the continual decline of local communities and family ties, this crisis would not exist and there would be no need for federal welfare programs of any kind. Individuals would rely on the support of the extended family, the neighborhood, and the church, as they had done for millennia before the advent of the modern state.
Yet today we would rather delegate our charity to a government bureaucrat than be bothered to take care of the “least of these” ourselves. One particularly egregious example of this came up in a recent Presidential debate. The President described his grandmother as living off of Social Security and Medicare checks. Why? In the President’s words so she could “be independent.” Past generations would have no way of comprehending an elderly woman with a Harvard-educated grandson choosing to live off of the public dole rather than rely on her immediate family for support.
This is the culture that has given us Obamacare: a culture that sees itself as a dichotomy between those who are able to be “independent” (with the aid of Social Security and Medicare, of course) and those who are entirely reliant upon the government to provide for them. There is no talk of mutual responsibility, we speak of the people on both sides as autonomous individuals with no obligation to care for each other, save through their taxes. Without simultaneously attempting to change the troublesome elements of this modern culture- to strengthen, for example, the ties of community and family that bind humans together- repealing the Affordable Care Act will simply leave those without insurance in the same precarious position they were in before its passage.
All of this is not to say that conservatives should wait until the culture has been redeemed before attempting political change. The connection between cultural and political renewal is not a one-way street. On the contrary, an unreceptive political environment can preclude cultural renewal. Well-meaning government programs can place tremendous strain on those few tenuous social ties left in society. Modern man’s sense of isolation is only worsened when social engineers- who generally have little patience for philosophical questions concerning the nature of man and society- treat people in need as autonomous individuals and not as belonging to social groups. The Affordable Care Act should be quickly repealed- aside from being patently unconstitutional and furthering the centralization of American political power, it stands in the way of cultural renewal by displacing responsibility and politicizing caretaking.
It deserves mentioning too that politics is an aspect of the culture. As such, any comprehensive attempt at cultural renewal would have to include a political element. In reality, the two cannot be as easily separated as I have been portraying them for the sake of argument. They must be taken up simultaneously. Yet the mentality that I have been trying to address is one which places political action as the primary focus of conservatism- often to the detriment of cultural renewal. Attempting to revive one without the other will end in failure.
Rather, what is required is a full spiritual renewal of society, and this spiritual renewal can come only from weaving the best elements of our heritage back into the elaborate quiltwork of society. Reintegrating tradition into the culture is no easy task- it requires much more than merely appreciating the strengths of a tradition. It requires a full examination of which aspects of the tradition are salvageable and which we can do without. Appeals to tradition for its own sake may fall on deaf ears. It is the duty of the conservative to re-articulate the tradition in a way that it is comprehensible to those who have grown up without it- a category that now includes the vast majority of Americans.
This is one of the underlying purposes of Beyond the GOP: to open up discussion on the braiding of tradition and contemporary culture. Even in this latter Dark Age we are surrounded by the symbols of an enduring tradition. Our political system still bears the marks of the Anglo-American constitutional heritage and, to paraphrase the timeless Flannery O’Connor, we still find ourselves in a “Christ-haunted” society. If we are to effect any true change, it will be through the revitalization of these, and other, elements of our culture.