Pop culture can normalize radicalism with astonishing speed. Conservatives have long known and lamented the truth of Scottish politician Andrew Fletcher’s famous declaration: “Let me write the songs of a nation — I don’t care who writes its laws.” Artists and the media shape our cultural environment so profoundly that their progressivism has become the default, the air we breathe. Wherever the progressive current flows, the people will drift.
Since its birth, the modern conservative movement has fought bravely to create its own counterculture, in hopes that at least some people could drift the right way, and eventually the current would be reversed.
The Right, by contrast, hasn’t truly had time to build institutions, so it has built celebrities. It’s easier to make one man famous than it is to make Harvard, so conservative culture is dominated mainly by a series of personalities, and those personalities are often defined and exalted not so much by the quality of their distinct ideas but by personal charisma, with particular emphasis on anger and “fearlessness.”
And that brings us to the political radicalism of Bernie Sanders and the personal radicalism of Donald Trump. In their own way, they each represent the triumph of culture over politics. They are both men of their cultural moment.
And so Sanders has met his moment. Hillary Clinton is scrambling to get to his left, and her only real hope to stop him is to claim that her radical politics of race are more potent than his radical politics of class. Sanders proposes the largest tax increase and biggest expansion of government power in the history of the United States, and Clinton’s main critique is that it is too impractical to make it through Congress. Revolutionaries care not about such mundane details.
All manner of cruelty and lies can be justified by fury at the Left, by rage at the “GOPe,” or by the cry of “the other side does it.”
The secret of his continued dominance is that he does anger bigger and better than anyone else, and his fans are willing to forgive or even cheer any transgression against conservative principle or simple good taste as a result. All manner of cruelty and lies can be justified by fury at the Left, by rage at the “GOPe,” or by the cry of “the other side does it.” Conservative leaders who were used to being the angriest and least politically correct people in the room now find themselves in the uncomfortable position of saying “no” — of saying that some things shouldn’t be said and some ideas are genuinely offensive. Yet in a movement with few institutions but many personalities, they, too, find themselves swept aside by the largest personality of them all.
At a time when our nation so desperately needs a steady hand to write its laws, the radicals have been writing its songs. Sanders and Trump are merely sailing the cultural currents the radicals created, perfecting the message that they’ve prepared the nation to receive. As William Butler Yeats wrote at another time of existential crisis, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” We’re left with a world where “the best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
When a culture breaks, so does a nation.
— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.