Paths From Cultural Despair

Matt K. Lewis of the Daily Caller penned a column for The Week that is getting some twitter-love from progressives. Perhaps it’s the headline: “The culture war is over and conservatives lost.” And yes, Lewis engages in some truth-telling that won’t make many fellow-conservatives happy:

In recent months, it has been especially depressing to be a conservative. In the past, one could more easily endure the ranting of liberal commentators by taking solace that — outside of New York City and Washington, D.C. — most of the country was center-right. Thus, whenever an elite liberal commentator said something fringy, one could always console himself by saying (or at least thinking): “I hope you push that idea, because you’ll keep losing elections in real America.”

Today, conservatives have made a shocking discovery: They are the ones in danger of appearing out of touch with middle America.

But far from suggesting conservatives accept defeat and get on with life in the twenty-first century, or forget about their cultural anxieties, Lewis approvingly quotes the late Paul Weyrich’s lament that America had become “an open sewer,” and then doubles-down on the importance of culture:

Democracy, of course, requires individuals who are moral and responsible. Strong families are the cure for much of what ails us. You pick the problem, and stronger families would probably render the solution moot. Consider a recent debate: We can put warning labels on violent games and movies, but that won’t replace mom and dad being involved in their children’s lives and being aware of what they are watching.

Conservatives have largely lost the culture, and it can’t be won back by passing some landmark piece of legislation. Instead, it’s going to be a long, hard slog.

So Lewis is expressing that familiar sentiment of “traditionalists” in periods of great change, cultural despair. There are several paths you can take from the decision that one’s country is essentially and fundamentally irredeemable (short of emigration). There is quietism, the deliberate retreat from civic engagement in an effort to form a counter-culture of the righteous remnant in a wicked society, which is what Weyrich chose in his final years. There is an effort to pour old wine into new bottles, by reframing culture-war politics with a more positive approach, as Erick Erickson (also quoted by Lewis) seems to be endorsing in a rambling New Year’s post suggesting Rick Santorum is right in calling the decline of the traditional family the cause of every problem.

And then, of course, there’s the option of eschewing normal politics and democracy and waging open war on one’s depraved fellow-citizens.

For good reason, it’s important to note the very large differences between these three paths from cultural despair, and to provide some positive reinforcement for those who shrink from the potentially explosive implications of absolutist ideology, secular or religious. But it’s equally important to recognize that many of today’s despairing cultural traditionalists are united in their contempt for America and a willingness to condemn large proportions of its people as savages. So let’s not go to far in celebrating reactionaries who would if they could force us all back into the nineteenth century or an earlier era of “stability.”

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.