Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Culture War

Let us enumerate the components of the conservative coalition:
  • There are business conservatives, who advocate that free trade, low taxes, and a streamlined regulatory structure are the principal contributors to the economic health of our society.

  • There are foreign policy hawks, who point out that social health can only occur in a society that isn't besieged with enemies.

  • There are libertarians, who believe that society innovates and flourishes when individuals are restrained only by their own individual morals.

  • There are social conservatives, who believe that society must be protected from itself and that the best way to do that is to oppose any force that might change it.
The business conservatives get along fine with the hawks because muscular foreign policy is good for opening new markets and for corporate welfare. They also get along with the libertarians because their interests tend to be a subset of the libertarians' interests. The hawks like the biz types because they make the technology that drives national security and they like the social conservatives because their posture is defensive all the time. The libertarians have a love/hate relationship with all of the other groups: they hate corporate welfare and big defense budgets and they especially hate government-mandated social engineering. But they love unfettered markets and they love national security when it is construed narrowly. Most of all, however, libertarians understand that their freedom must be grounded in some sort of faith and strong social fabric, even though they're not willing to specify what that faith and fabric should be.

Which leaves the social conservatives. As far as I can tell, they feel like their way of life is under attack from everybody. Their principal agenda are to beat back that attack on whatever front it presents itself. They're mostly happy with the hawks because the hawks are also motivated by defense, albeit on a international scale. Social conservatives are isolationists but the smart ones realize that their society can be changed even faster by international forces than it can by domestic ones. They're suspicious (rightly) of the biz types because they believe (rightly) that the biz types don't care what kind of society we have as long as it's a prosperous one. And they hate the libertarians because the libertarians ultimately are willing to let culture evolve to adapt to changing conditions.

I can't tell what will happen as the dust settles from this election but it's pretty clear that the conservative compact under which these four groups operated is irrevocably shattered. The question now is whether there's a workable coalition to be forged from three of them, and whether that coalition can siphon off some support from the center-left.

The pure social conservatives are the problem. They are, to put it bluntly, reactionary. There are lots of conservatives out there (myself included) who think that slow social change is better than fast social change, but it's only the self-identified social conservative who thinks that stasis is the proper condition. Social conservatives blame liberals for the assault on their families, their beliefs, and their way of life. Social conservatives are now so besieged that they feel that they are at war with the forces ripping through the American social fabric. They're looking for somebody to blame, and then they want that somebody removed from power.

This is, of course, nonsense. Did liberals create the electronic revolution that brought all information, all opinion, into their homes? Did liberals create a culture so vibrant that it attracted immigrants from around the world, and in so doing changing the basic American social consensus? Did liberals produce a scientific worldview so sophisticated that any belief had to be held up for constant scrutiny and re-evaluation? Did liberals create an economy so robust that, for the first time in history, the vast majority of our citizens can live a life of near-idleness and still manage not to starve to death?

The social conservatives are very fond of the term "culture war" but if this is truly a war, they're having a little trouble with identifying the enemy. If they are at war, they are at war with historical forces and they're going to lose unless they manage to turn the clock back to an era without modern media, without global contact, without science, and without wealth. In short, the only way for the social conservatives to win their war is to win it the same way the Islamists would like to win theirs.

There is a conservative coalition to be had but it's not the one that Tony Blankley advocates. It is much closer to the model of the commentators that Blankley so despises. The biz types and the hawks and the libertarians can do just fine without the reactionary social conservatives. The converse is not true.

Conservatives have a big job cut out for them. The Center and the Left don't see any difference between the various elements of the conservative coalition and they're perfectly happy to discredit all of them. If national security is neglected, the US will be seen--rightly--as a nation in decline. If libertarian economic policies are discredited, though, we won't have to worry about being a nation in decline--we'll simply collapse. This is a dangerous time and it calls for seriousness of purpose. Railing that you didn't like how history turned out will have to wait for a better day.

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