Recently, I entered into an essay contest sponsored by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. The essay I wrote was in response to this question: Is preserving constitutional order sufficient to stem the cultural tide against a free and traditional society? Why or why not?
A quick scroll through the television guide exposes the forces operating against a free and traditional society. Just a few clicks of the remote reveal a not quite juxtaposition between media hosts ripping on conservatives, late night comedians ripping on conservatives, and sports analysts… ripping on conservatives. With the television as more or less the epicenter of modern American culture, the effects of its rampant display of liberalism cannot be good for conservatives. This begets the question of how conservatives should respond. While constitutional order can assist in preventing swift change on a legislative level, ultimately conservatives are only going to be able to stem the cultural tide against a free and traditional society if they fight in the trenches where culture is created.
It is without question that the Constitution is designed precisely for the purposes of slowing change at the governmental level. The complex system of separation of powers and checks and balances forces disparate groups to collaborate and compromise rather than allow a simple majority to enact the laws we live by. The proof is in the pudding. Governmental change occurs at a far slower level in the United States than it does in Europe under parliamentary systems. In addition, the pace of change has only picked up in the United States as the constitutional order has unraveled, with the president assuming a primary role in crafting legislative policy, executive branch agencies enacting their own regulations, and justices and judges veering away from constitutional originalism and textualism.
However, logic dictates that preserving the constitutional order is not in and of itself sufficient to stemming the cultural tide against a free and traditional society. First and foremost, the constitutional order still permits change. If a party holds the presidency, the House, sixty seats in the Senate, and majorities on the courts (though a supposedly nonpartisan institution), then that party can make change as it wishes. Furthermore, if three-fourths of Congress or three-fourths of the states are in agreement, changes to the very Constitution itself can be made. In other words, if three-fourths of the people are in agreement to destroy a free and traditional society, then the Constitution is not going to stop them. Constitutional order can only stem the cultural tide if enough of the electorate wishes to elect tide stemmers. Therefore, a primacy should be placed on ensuring that as much of the electorate as possible believes in the ideas of freedom and traditionalism.
Secondly, laws alone do not create or destroy a free and traditional society. It is not legislation that breeds intolerance on college campuses and in Hollywood. Neither is it legislation that has led to a decrease in churchgoing rates and an increase in divorce rates. Forces operating in the culture have raised a people hostile to the American tradition, with or without the assistance of legislation. There is a reason why the left loves to boycott and protest: It exercises their power in a manner that is free and legal, yet does not always promote the values of freedom in the long run. For example, liberals love to push companies to pull advertising from conservative media hosts when they say something even the least bit questionable. In an environment where this threat is always looming, it is tough for media hosts to express themselves freely. Conservatives do not utilize their tools of boycott and protest anywhere near to the same extent as the left because it is often counter-productive to a free society. The left does not care.
Culture drives the people. The American government is of the people and by the people, so it would make sense that the best way to further a conservative agenda would be to talk to Americans and win the battle of ideas. This is why conservatives should spend more time selling their ideas and principles, especially during election season, and less time moving towards the center. That is what Ronald Reagan did: He articulated the principles of limited government and free market economics beautifully through his speeches and campaigns, and it inspired the nation to vote for him in two electoral landslides. Since then, many a Republican has run on platforms of “compassionate conservatism” or “deal-making” with the other side because they have been afraid that Americans will react negatively to full and unabashed conservatism. The Republican Party needs more articulators in the vein of Mike Lee, Ted Cruz, and Rand Paul, who do not shy away from their principles, because America will only remain America so long as it fosters a freedom-loving and moral people.
Aside from the political arena, the first trench in which to fight the cultural tide is the American family. Responsible parents can instill in their children positive values from a young age that will raise them to be good citizens. There is a reason why the left hates “family values.” The values are antithetical to liberal change because they are naturally ground in tradition. They are passed on from generation to generation without the interference of intellectual and cultural elite. This is the essence of what Edmund Burke wrote about when he described one generation having an obligation to the previous generation and the next generation. The phenomenon is most easily observed at the familial level.
The second trench to fight in is that of local institutions, where conservatives must continue to promote the values of freedom and traditionalism. Schools, churches, charities, and even sports leagues are vital in promoting a conservative culture. Schools give kids the education they need to be productive and civic-minded adults; churches give them their moral center; charities teach them to help others; and sports leagues teach them to work hard, win with humility, and lose with dignity. The forces of liberalism are currently sabotaging all of these institutions. Schools are falling victim to national curriculums; churches are losing their membership; charities are being replaced by the welfare state; and sports leagues are being infested by a participation trophy mentality.
Strengthening the American family and local institutions would be a huge first step in winning back the culture, but it can only take conservatives so far. If conservatives truly want to win back the culture, then they are going to have to create it. This means conservatives need more writers, actors, and producers, more singers, songwriters, and musicians, more reporters, journalists, and pundits, more academics, professors, and scholars, and more of every profession who conservatives have long learned to criticize. These professions speak to large audiences every day and shape the way they think. Liberals work in the battle of ideas, and it is a battle that they have long won unopposed, or mildly opposed.
Imagine an Oscar’s that did not devolve into a constant tirade against conservatism, or a Saturday Night Live that skewered Democratic presidents just as heavily as it did Republican ones. Imagine a comedy channel that offered conservative political satire, or a high profile television series that focused on a Christian narrative. Imagine a New York Times that featured objective and balanced reporting, or a music scene that boasted principles of freedom and traditionalism. With the way things are currently, it might indeed be hard to imagine, but it is what must ultimately be accomplished for conservatives to win the hearts and minds of the electorate long term.
Of course, there are not a whole lot of conservatives out there who wish to enter the culture-creating institutions of media, entertainment, and the arts. This is probably due to a host of reasons. First and foremost, conservatives like to take their understanding of the free market and use it to work hard and make enough money to support their families and have a good life. Jobs in the media and entertainment industries are hard to come by and do not pay well at the lower levels. Secondly, conservatives have a stigma against the “elites,” which media and entertainment people undoubtedly are. But if conservatives want to beat the elites, they are going to have to beat them at their own game. The best and brightest conservative minds need to make an entrance into the culture-creating institutions. A good number can go to work in business and law too, but someone, just someone, needs to be the conservative Jon Stewart.
The other factor at hand is that Hollywood and the media have a tendency to shut out conservatives, even if they are talented. In Hollywood, an organization has developed called “Friends of Abe,” which is an anonymous conservative organization for those in the entertainment industry and totals about 2,500 members. This, of course, is a small percentage of the total workers in Hollywood, and many of the organization’s members are low in the ranks of the industry. However, it is a start. The more conservatives push to join entertainment and media, the harder it will be for liberals to keep them out. The other alternative is for conservatives to develop their own platforms. As Andrew Klavan often points out, it is questionable as to why no billionaire has tried to replicate the success of Fox News with a Fox for millennials, comedy, or drama. There is an audience out there desperate for someone to speak to them; someone just needs to do it.
If the cultural tide against a free and traditional society is to be ultimately stemmed, then the tide must be shifted towards that very society. Conservatives need to be in position to make that happen.
Photo Credit: Shinya Suzuki