Magazine | March 19, 2018, Issue

Brushing Alone

(Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Here’s a wager: Within five years of this writing, I will be able to determine your political views entirely on the basis of which brand of toothpaste you purchase.

Crest? Strong supporter of school choice. Colgate? Not a big fan of the farm bill. Arm & Hammer? More like Hammer & Sickle, because you want single payer.

You scoff, but I already know that your views on Delta Airlines and Hertz rental cars now strongly correspond to how compelling you found the many cable-news appearances of a teenaged survivor of the Parkland school shooting. Who’s to say that opportunists on both sides won’t, from here on, be able to find some way to drag one’s consumer preferences and brand loyalties into the next tribalist sortie or national tragedy? I think the smart money is that they can and they will. To update Mencken: Nobody’s ever gone broke underestimating the negative partisanship of the American public.

For the last three years, our national conversation has been alternately pessimistic, decadent, and Millenarian in its timbre: Things are getting worse and more profane, and the rate of the worsening and the profaning is accelerating, and at the end of it lies God knows what but it is going to be huge and fearsome and possibly sublime. Against the existential panic and dread of all that — against the Flight 93 election and “Enjoy Arby’s” and the funereal images from Samantha Power’s victory party for Hillary Clinton — conservatism is, by default, Ecclesiastean in its conviction that there is nothing, or at least very little, novel about a given political moment. I try to temper myself with that serenity. But the discourse, such as it is, in the wake of the Parkland shooting does seem to me to have revealed some previously unseen fatigue in the institutional jointure that is now only barely holding us together.

It isn’t surprising that the corporations implicated in the fight between gun restrictionists and Second Amendment advocates have by and large chosen to cut ties with the National Rifle Association. Anyone who has spent time around the public-relations arms of Fortune 100 companies — or worse, their “corporate social-responsibility” teams — knows that these weren’t panicky decisions by c-suites overreacting to hashtags. Nor were they the result of cold-blooded cost-benefit analyses. Rather, and simply, these companies cut loose the NRA because their decision makers agree with the gun restrictionists. They come from the same milieus in the same schools and have been inculcated with the same neoliberal article of faith that what’s virtuous is profitable and vice versa — “doing well by doing good” and all that.

No, what’s surprising is that the fight should have so definitively shifted to this field. That corporations have become our “last association standing,” as James Poulos presciently noted just a few months ago, is less about their suitability to the task of hosting such weighty cultural and political debates and more about the dearth of other options:

Many of us are simply unable to find rest, relaxation, or repose in the social institutions — clubs, churches, unions, even families — that have sharply waned as equality has waxed. And precious few alternatives, apart from the corporation, have arisen in their place. It’s not just civic life that’s hurting. It’s our personal lives — our feelings and our hearts. As institutions have failed to nourish and anchor us, so too have our neighbors and the state. So we now turn to the corporation for shelter.

That corporations — and, to be merely redundant, social media — are pretty much the whole ballgame now means that dominant ideologies can no longer afford to except them from the exercise of raw power politics. To wit, the Republican lieutenant governor of Georgia’s naked Twitter threat: “I will kill any tax legislation that benefits @Delta unless the company changes its position and fully reinstates its relationship with @NRA. Corporations cannot attack conservatives and expect us not to fight back.”

So refracted is our present point of view that the guy from the “government shouldn’t pick winners and losers” party is advocating using state power to punish a private actor while at the same time ending a bit of corporate welfare. (What other bizarre synergies might this moment afford us? Can we find a way, somehow, for white nationalism to reform occupational-licensing laws?)

This withering of our institutions and associations also means we have to ask the ones we’ve got left to do more and varied ideological heavy lifting. Thus we have NRA head Wayne LaPierre sprinting miles afield of his organization’s lane to criticize the “wave of European socialists” taking over the Democratic party. Say what you will on the merits, the NRA used to count scores of Democrats among its friends on Capitol Hill. That its leadership feels it has no other choice but to cash out the purity and credibility that comes from single-issue discipline to shore up its support on the right tells us that our institutional crisis and our Manichaean tribalism are not two phenomena but one.

It should be said that the NRA didn’t start this trend. It barely took all 15 minutes of Milo Yiannopoulos’s fame, after all, to get the American Civil Liberties Union to go wobbly on its very raison d’être so as to stay on the right side of Berkeley’s undergraduates.

In fact, I suspect these two seductions — of the NRA by the MAGA set and the ACLU by the social-justice warriors — will be seen as major inflection points in the constitutional epoch, as our order moves on from institutional pluralism to institutional dualism.

Think Coke versus Pepsi.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster has been news editor of National Review Online since 2009, and was a web site editor until 2012. His work has appeared in The American Spectator, The American ...

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