These are dark times for the Right. Not materially or even politically, but intellectually. Pick any mainstream conservative publication and you’ll get a sense of the total confusion and sheer panic that has gripped the core of pundits and writers responsible for articulating the ideas that drive one half of America’s body politic. What we are witnessing is less a true political revolution or realignment than a profound crisis of faith in conservatism itself.
Such crises are always a perfect opportunity for scapegoats, and there are plenty to choose from: free-trade advocates, “neocons,” people who support immigration of any kind, especially from non-European countries. But none seems riper for attack than that political bloc known as the social-conservative wing, the “red-headed stepchild of the right,” as one Twitter follower of mine put it.
Even before the disgraceful decision of Evangelical leaders to excuse or wave away Donald Trump’s comments on sexual assault, there were those in the Republican camp who argued that it’s time to end the old “fusionism,” which William F. Buckley Jr. helped form, between free-market advocates, robust internationalists, and those who supported family, religion, and moral virtue in American life. Wall Street Republican Ed Conard may have been particularly blunt in calling for cutting ties, but I highly doubt he is alone in thinking that social conservatives are now a political millstone to be tossed aside for other, more profitable Faustian bargains.
The truth needs to be said: Far too many social conservatives have morally compromised themselves this election. I myself was shocked and saddened to see many people I used to look up to as paragons of principle and virtue sell their soul for the Trump Train, and I’ve seen many others express similar sentiments. It broke my heart to see people who used to teach of morality and God not only go for Trump simply because “Hillary is worse” but even whitewash and defend the very antithesis of what they ostensibly believe in.
No doubt much of this betrayal is due to moral rot we refused to confront in our own camp, a prime example being the rise of the so-called alt-right and of their racism and crude social Darwinism. However, anyone who reads the articles of social conservatives will notice that many are supporting Trump because they really do feel that this is the end of the line for their cause if Hillary wins the election. Desperate people can do some really stupid things, and social conservatives in America apparently feel desperate, if those speaking of a “Flight 93 election” or a “Benedict option” are any indication.
Indeed, I doubt I would be exaggerating if I said that social conservatives feel shafted by fusionism. As Tom Nichols often points out, the Left won the culture war, while the right won the political war in the economic arena. No serious politician today speaks of old-style nationalization of the means of production, as left-wing parties of old did. Meanwhile, ideas that used to be politically much harder to promote — school choice, right to work, gun rights, cutting back occupational licensing — are now part of mainstream discourse and policy in many states.
For their part, many social conservatives apparently feel they’ve been left with the short end of the stick. Religious affiliation is in freefall. Marriage is in freefall. The success of free-market advocates in partially undermining the old New Deal and Great Society is of cold comfort to social conservatives, who see nothing but losses and retreats ahead of them until final and ultimate defeat. Put differently: Even if the Left weren’t out to shoot survivors, its victory means the end of the social-conservative cause in the long run, and higher GDP and living standards is not much of a consolation prize.
Plenty of Victories
But here’s the thing: This pessimistic picture of “we never win” is just as false and misleading for social conservativism as it is for the accomplishments of the GOP Congress under Obama or for the conservative cause in general.
Take the pro-life cause. Yes, Planned Parenthood still receives federal funding. However, the 1976 Hyde Amendment barring federal funding of abortions is still in place 40 years later. Furthermore, Republican victories at the state level since 2010 have translated into a raft of pro-life state-level laws that even pro-choice advocates admit will be very difficult to overturn en bloc in the courts.
How about sex? Well, we’re no longer in the Bush era, when abstinence-only education was on the rise. Still, in the sex-ed programs of fully 37 states, abstinence is included, at varying levels of importance and emphasis.
Faith-based efforts? Clinton and Bush pushed the idea of federal funding of religious or “faith-based” groups to provide social services of various kinds, and President Obama has kept this initiative in place and even expanded it.
Has the social-conservative cause suffered defeats? Yes. You can’t win ’em all in politics, especially in a democracy as diverse in origin and opinion as the United States. But I invite you to imagine not not only how many victories have been won but also defeats averted thanks to the very presence of the GOP Congress. Killing bad laws is just as important as passing good ones, as GOP President Calvin Coolidge would say.
Fight for the Center
But what of the culture in general, which always seems to be shifting leftward, against faith and in favor of libertinism?
Cultural wars do not begin in Congress, and they rarely end there.
There we get to a key sticking point: Cultural wars do not begin in Congress, and they rarely end there. Government has limited power to force morality on an unwilling culture. Varad Mehta in this magazine wrote of modern sumptuary laws, and it’s worth noting that even in the über-conservative Middle Ages, those who wanted to get around such laws did. This is all the more true in a constitutional democracy such as the United States, which wisely restricts the power of the government.
To win the culture war or even force a draw, you must fight for the culture, not the government. Sadly, the Right’s “safe-space” approach to mainstream cultural institutions has meant that it has also forfeited any real influence inside these bastions of broader influence. Railing about the leftist nature of universities, the MSM, or Hollywood may feel emotionally satisfying and get the base riled up, but ultimately it comes off as the pathetic lament of the powerless outcast. This is also true in the case of fighting only for “free speech” and not for specific ideas.
If the Right wants to fight the culture war, it needs to fight it on its main battlegrounds. This means that aspiring conservative journalists should aim to work at CNN or Buzzfeed after a stint at National Review, rather than move on to Fox News, or to get a professorship at a major university instead of going immediately to Heritage, and that conservative talent in the entertainment industry should be encouraged and cultivated. Moreover, much as I do in this article, we must move to a policy of celebrating victories, not just lamenting every little defeat, often in deep-blue states where we have no power anyway.
Last but not least, the socially conservative Right must understand that the prize in a culture war is the mass of people in the center, not the diehards on each side. This is true whether the goal is to win over public opinion on a particular issue such as abortion restrictions or, in general, to pull the consensus rightward on values, metaphysical questions, or broad policy. The Left did not shift the culture leftward in an instant, and the Right will not do so either; this is a hard, slow struggle that requires grit and patience.
The death of Buckley’s fusionism has been greatly exaggerated, and, contrary to current jeremiads, both sides benefited greatly from the bargain. Social conservatism does indeed need new, genuinely principled leaders and new tactics to succeed in its greatest challenge yet, but success promises to yield rich rewards: a restoration of faith, not just among those already in the conservative camp but in America at large.