The Cultural Agenda of the Left

In Jeffrey Bell’s article discussed below, he makes an even more important point, one of those obvious-if-you-think-about it points that nevertheless may come as a revelation. The social conservative’s emphasis on culture is crucial because cultural change–not economics–is the main agenda of today’s leftists.

At first it was widely assumed that the collapse of Soviet communism, and of government ownership and/or direction of business as a serious economic recipe, had dealt a devastating, possibly mortal, blow to the left. But after a brief period of licking its wounds the international left found itself far from devastated. The truth is that old-fashioned, state-administered socialism had become something of an albatross for the left, impeding rather than advancing its ability to benefit from the worldwide political and social upheavals of the 1960s.

Indeed, not long after those upheavals peaked in 1968, it became obvious that the enduring, truly revolutionary impact of the 1960s was moral and cultural, not economic. By the end of the 1970s a new and adversarial form of politically engaged feminism not only became all but unassailable among North American and European elites, but also took a central political role almost everywhere the left was strong.
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But when it first arose in recognizable form in Europe in the closing decades of the 18th century, the left was primarily about other things [than economics]. Among these were ending monarchy, eliminating or at least circumscribing the role of traditional religion in society, and liberating humanity from what it saw as repressive institutions. Often included among such institutions was the traditional family, anchored by the Christian ideal of monogamous marriage.
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The striking thing about the history of the left is its singleness of vision amid a breathtaking variety of means. The goal of the left is the liberation of mankind from traditional institutions and codes of behavior, especially moral codes. It seeks a restoration (or achievement) of a state of nature, one of absolute individual liberty–universal happiness without the need for laws.

The proposed political way stations chosen by the left in its drive toward this vision have varied greatly. To name a few: abolition of private property (socialism); prohibition of Christianity and/or propagation by the political elite of a new civil religion to replace it; confiscatory taxation, especially at death; regulation of political speech to limit the ability of certain individuals or classes to affect politics; the takeover of education to instill new values and moral habits in the population; confiscation of privately held firearms; gradual phasing out of the nation-state; displacement of the traditional family in favor of child-rearing by an enlightened governmental elite; and the inversion of sexual morality to elevate recreational sex and reduce the prestige of procreative sex. This is, it must be emphasized, a partial list.

While many conservatives in Europe and the United States focus on free market economics and small government, they do not realize that hardcore leftists do not really care about such things! Meanwhile, they are marching through the culture unopposed. This is why the country needs social conservatives, since there is no one else to counter the left’s assault on the culture.

What do you think of this analysis? How could social conservatives be more effective? To what extent is this a political issue? Might there be other forms of cultural activism that social conservatives might pursue?

What is a social conservative?

Thanks to Rich Shipe for alerting me to this article in “The Weekly Standard” by Jeffrey Bell entitled: “Alive and Kicking: Reports of the Demise of Social Conservatism Are Greatly Exaggerated. Mr. Bell notes that social conservatism has taken hold nowhere but in America, that the conservative parties of other Western nations have acquiesced to abortion, sexual permissiveness, the decline of marriage, and other cultural changes, concentrating instead on economic issues. Then Mr. Bell says this:

But there are several offsetting factors at work that have made and will continue to make social conservatism hard to marginalize. For one thing, social conservatism is the only mass-based political persuasion that fully believes in the core ideas of the American founding. It has taken over that role from parties, professions, and ideologies that used to perform it, and as a result it is touching a deep chord with millions of American voters.

Most social conservatives believe that the central principle asserted in the Declaration of Independence is true: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” While almost all Americans respect these words at least as a sentiment or metaphor, it is a fact that most–not all–social conservatives believe them to be literally true, while most–not all–opponents of social conservatism do not believe them to be literally true.

As long as these key assertions of our nation’s founding document continue to be taken literally by many Americans, social conservatism will resonate among Americans in a way that competing philosophies cannot–and in a way that, given the very different founding narratives of most countries in Europe and elsewhere, cannot easily be replicated beyond these shores.

Does this explain social conservatism? What would you add?

Political disclaimer

Well, Ed Muskie cried in New Hampshire, which finished his campaign; Hillary Clinton cried in New Hampshire, which saved her campaign. This means we can expect more “passion” in the primaries ahead, God help us.

OK, you can probably tell what I think of Mrs. Clinton, as well as some of the other candidates. But, despite our indulgence in political punditry, the Cranach blog is not endorsing any of them. I mean, mobilizing the vast Cranach army with our precinct-by-precinct organization, could turn the election, and that would not be fair to the other candidates. But a presidential election raises so many issues about the intersections of culture, Christianity, and vocation that it is perfect fodder for this blog.

So we’ll look at many facets of these candidates and the issues they raise, for better or worse. And I’ll need your help as we all make up our minds.

What is an economic conservative?

It is said that John McCain is no true conservative because he did not support Bush’s tax cuts. Remember, though, that economic conservatism used to mean cutting spending and balancing the budget. To this mindset, the government should not spend money it does not have, which sometimes means raising taxes. Those old school conservatives would consider the current practice of cutting taxes while also increasing spending to be LIBERAL.

McCain is that old school kind of an economic conservative, being a consistent budget-trimmer and opponent of pork-barrel earmarks. Whether his economic policies are good or bad is a separate question. But it’s not correct to say he isn’t conservative. It just depends on what kind of conservatism you are advocating.


Over the weekend, we saw “National Treasure 2,” the fun-but-ridiculous romp through American history, in which, among many other incidents, the Nicholas Cage figure breaks into the Oval Office and kidnaps the president (sort of). What struck me was that the president in that movie was not mocked or criticized; rather, he was portrayed as a powerful yet benevolent symbol of America. He was respected, even as he was being “kidnapped,” and the movie gave him a strongly patriotic vibe.

I remember that sense of the presidency with Ronald Reagan, and I am old enough to remember it, which I picked up even as a child, with John F. Kennedy. We haven’t known that since then. I believe the nation, torn by so much divisiveness in our government, yearns to be unified and yearns to rally around a president whom they can look up to and who can bring them together. This, I think, is the primal appeal of Barack Obama. The only Republican who might be able to pull that off is John McCain.

This can be a dangerous sentiment, though, the mood that can turn a nation to a demogogue and a tyrant. These candidates are not that way, but I think we are seeing, for better or worse, a turn in American politics away from ideology. This is being opposed, of course, but those of us strongly committed to an ideology who may be swept away.

Barack Obama is said to embody a post-partisan appeal.

He is being lauded even by conservative pundits, including Rush Limbaugh and Bill Bennett.

Obama, alone among the Democratic candidates, is not demonizing Republicans, conservatives, evangelicals, or pro-lifers. Which is infuriating a good part of the liberal blogosphere. “Obama doesn’t fit our style,” says one leftist blogger. “He’s not combative. He’s not aggressive. He doesn’t talk about Republicans the way you’d hope he would.”

Similarly, many of us on the right cannot stand McCain. He is right on the war and on pro-life issues, but he is seen to be wrong on immigration, taxes, and campaign finance reform.

Is Obama’s post-partisanship just a way to sell his liberal program? What concessions will he make to conservatives if he really wants to reach out to them? Is McCain’s issue-by-issue approach a sign of fatal inconsistency or signs of a larger post-partisan synthesis?

Huckabee is similarly making a broad appeal, but will his evangelicalism keep him a polarizing figure, or might he too become a post-partisan president?

Republican Reformation?

Provocative thoughts on the meaning of the Huckabee upset–as well as why cultural issues trump economics–from David Brooks:

Huckabee won because he tapped into realities that other Republicans have been slow to recognize.

First, evangelicals have changed. Huckabee is the first ironic evangelical on the national stage. He’s funny, campy (see his Chuck Norris fixation) and he’s not at war with modern culture.

Second, Huckabee understands much better than Mitt Romney that we have a crisis of authority in this country. People have lost faith in their leaders’ ability to respond to problems. While Romney embodies the leadership class, Huckabee went after it. He criticized Wall Street and K Street. Most importantly, he sensed that conservatives do not believe their own movement is well led. He took on Rush Limbaugh, the Club for Growth and even President Bush. The old guard threw everything they had at him, and their diminished power is now exposed.

Third, Huckabee understands how middle-class anxiety is really lived. Democrats talk about wages. But real middle-class families have more to fear economically from divorce than from a free trade pact. A person’s lifetime prospects will be threatened more by single parenting than by outsourcing. Huckabee understands that economic well-being is fused with social and moral well-being, and he talks about the inter-relationship in a way no other candidate has. In that sense, Huckabee’s victory is not a step into the past. It opens up the way for a new coalition. A conservatism that recognizes stable families as the foundation of economic growth is not hard to imagine. A conservatism that loves capitalism but distrusts capitalists is not hard to imagine either. Adam Smith felt this way. A conservatism that pays attention to people making less than $50,000 a year is the only conservatism worth defending.

Will Huckabee move on and lead this new conservatism? Highly doubtful. The past few weeks have exposed his serious flaws as a presidential candidate. His foreign policy knowledge is minimal. His lapses into amateurishness simply won’t fly in a national campaign. So the race will move on to New Hampshire. Mitt Romney is now grievously wounded. Romney represents what’s left of Republicanism 1.0. Huckabee and McCain represent half-formed iterations of Republicanism 2.0. My guess is Republicans will now swing behind McCain in order to stop Mike. Huckabee probably won’t be the nominee, but starting last night in Iowa, an evangelical began the Republican Reformation.

His third point is the best, articulating well how “it’s not the economy, stupid”; rather, “it’s the culture, stupid.” But do you think the Republican party needs a reformation? And, if so, who is its Luther?