Politics & Policy

Conservatives Must Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

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Our movement faces the ultimate choice.

We human beings are a stubborn bunch. Convinced of the righteousness of our causes and the rightness of our ideas, we’ll often seek every reason and justification for their failure short of our own flaws before we face the truth. It takes a crisis to bring on the necessary self-reflection, and that crisis is upon us as conservatives now.

For years, the conservative movement has been captured by the mirror image of an irritating socialist myth. Remember how dorm-room socialists would argue that true socialism had never failed because it had never been tried? Movement conservatives often did the same thing, arguing that true conservatism had never failed because it had never been tried. So we lived in the land of “if only.” If only the GOP had nominated a true conservative instead of John McCain. If only Mitt Romney had attacked as aggressively in the second debate as in the first. If only conservatives had held out one week longer in the last government shutdown.

How silly are those “if onlys” now? In this cycle we learned that the GOP electorate, which some thought was disillusioned and ready to be mobilized by the right kind of conservative champion, was, in fact, disillusioned . . . but cared much less for the values that movement conservatives believed should animate the GOP than we’d all assumed. Instead, “true conservatives” proved to be a minority within what looks increasingly like a minority party, at least at the national level.

In other words, conservative generals, focused as they were almost exclusively on politics, failed to detect the persistent erosion of their ranks. They misinterpreted voters’ frustrations at a stagnant economy and middle-class and working-class angst as latent support for a conservative agenda, counting on an army that turned out not to exist.

In hindsight, the reason for their error isn’t hard to discern. Indeed, it’s a reason that conservatives have been identifying for years. Conservatives have been competent at winning elections, but they’ve been terrible at influencing the culture. Thus, they’re good at holding down the right side of a leftward-shifting political spectrum, but they can’t arrest the broader cultural shift to the left.

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In 1999, Paul Weyrich — one of the founders of the now laughably named Moral Majority and a co-founder of the Heritage Foundation — penned a notorious letter in which he essentially argued that the conservative movement had failed. In words that echo today, he noted that the Right had become quite good at winning elections:

Looking at the long history of conservative politics, from the defeat of Robert Taft in 1952, to the nomination of Barry Goldwater, to the takeover of the Republican Party in 1994, I think it is fair to say that conservatives have learned to succeed in politics. That is, we got our people elected.

Yet, in spite of electoral successes, the nation kept marching Left. Why? It wasn’t because of “gutless RINO squishes” or the other scapegoats trotted out on comment boards and in radio rants. Weyrich said that “politics itself has failed . . . because of the collapse of our culture.” Read these words, written almost two decades ago, and ask yourself: Are they not more applicable today?

But it is impossible to ignore the fact that the United States is becoming an ideological state. The ideology of Political Correctness, which openly calls for the destruction of our traditional culture, has so gripped the body politic, has so gripped our institutions, that it is even affecting the Church. It has completely taken over the academic community. It is now pervasive in the entertainment industry, and it threatens to control literally every aspect of our lives.

Weyrich turned out to be prophetic, but at the time he was called defeatist. He was roundly condemned for allegedly calling on conservatives to step away from politics (he was doing no such thing), and then he was promptly ignored when George W. Bush won the White House and Republicans gained control of both houses of Congress in 2000. In 2004, the Left panicked over Bush’s re-election, with the famous “Jesusland” map purporting to show America’s new theocracy. In hindsight, the panic seems almost comical, because we know that throughout the Bush years, the culture kept moving Left.

Weyrich’s prophecy held — not on every issue, of course, but in totality. The Right could win elections; the Left won the culture.

#share#It’s not hard to see why. Core conservative voters tend to delegate their activism. They vote for and support champions — people who will go to Washington or march into court and set things right. But when it comes to their business lives or even their charitable endeavors, they will leave their politics at home. Not so with committed progressives: They take their core values into every sphere of existence.

Have you ever served on a board or a commission with a committed progressive? Have you ever sat on a hiring committee where committed progressives have a voice? At all times and in all ways, they are putting their political thumb on the scales. Each and every institution they belong to can (and will, given enough time) become an engine for social justice. And it’s a mistake to believe that they do so as dreaded “scolds” and “social-justice warriors.” Yes, you’ll find those folks, mainly on campus and online. But the most effective progressives also happen to be among the friendliest, most engaging people you’ll meet. Even apolitical colleagues find their idealism infectious.

That’s how you get local bar associations celebrating Earth Day, or third-grade classes doing a whole semester’s worth of art projects on climate change, or corporate HR departments running extended, celebratory profiles of transgender employees. It’s the agenda, always and everywhere.

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Conservatives roll their eyes at the “nonsense,” but often keep their values to themselves. Why? If we believe that our ideas about liberty, individual responsibility, and the value of the family are the ideas most likely to revitalize our communities, why is our own thumb not constantly on the scales? Why aren’t our jobs also platforms for our activism? Why do we not live as if our values are exactly as important as we say they are?

Scripture could not be more clear that you should, “Put not your trust in princes.” Yet the political movement most likely to invoke the Bible consistently puts its trust in princes, delegating the most critical cultural fights to a class of leaders that can’t possibly do all it’s asked to. The result is a crisis, and a sense of pervasive despair where there should be sober reflection, then repentance, and then action.

#related#In one of the most memorable moments in The Shawshank Redemption, an innocent Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) reflects on his hopes and dreams with Red (Morgan Freeman). Andy dreams of a life along the Pacific, and Red offers the counsel of despair. You can watch Andy deflate as the conversation progresses, until at last his face hardens and he utters some of the most famous words in film history. “I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really: Get busy living or get busy dying.”

As conservatives, we face the same choice now. Until we’re willing to make at least the same commitment to our ideals that progressives make to theirs, we may still offer words of defiance, but our actions will show our true intent. Right now, the movement is busy dying. It’s time to get busy living.

— David French is an attorney, and a staff writer at National Review.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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