In case you missed it, this past Memorial Day weekend began with a continuing back, and forth, and back again between well-respected conservatives Sohrab Ahmari and David French. The debate started on Twitter, then quickly spread to nearly every major center-right online outlet. At its core is the question of how to solve what nearly all conservatives agree is our present cultural crisis.
The central issue is this: conservatives have lost the commanding heights of culture. The media, our education systems, and even the arts used to espouse values that reinforced (or at least didn’t completely attack) America’s founding principles. Then for the last 70 years, we’ve slowly conceded.
So what do we do? I agree with Ahmari that we need to fight back. This isn’t the time for shrinking violets. The nation desperately needs to return to a pursuit of The Good, The True, and The Beautiful. But the critical question remains: how?
Government Force Is Not the Answer
Of all the possible mechanisms to achieve a more virtuous society, my Federalist colleague Liz Wolfe is right that state enforcement should be at the bottom of the list. Surely one of the chief lessons of the last century of political history is that government ruins nearly everything it touches. Believing that the state can inculcate morality is wishful thinking at best and dangerous in the worst case.
Beyond that, is a society truly virtuous if it is forced into being so? The America of the Founding Era was unequivocally principled, righteous, and grounded in the Highest Good. But it was because the people were themselves virtuous, not because the government made them that way.
Any power granted to the state to enforce morality can be wielded by the radical left the moment they control the necessary levers of government. You can be assured that the left will be far more heavy-handed in dictating their warped idea of morality. French’s hypothetical of the state using this power to ban public readings of C.S. Lewis isn’t too far-fetched.
Tocqueville’s Wisdom on Liberty and Religious Virtue
The other side of the coin is that most of us are incapable of “stumbling” into the Highest Good on our own. The most righteous people you know owe it to their parents, an abnormally good education, a strong religious community, or usually some measure of all three. Aristotle was of course right when he taught that both excellence and virtue are habits. They must be worked at, practiced, and reinforced by immersive cultural mores.
Back in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in praise of early New England’s blend of liberty with religion. Tocqueville saw that religion was essential to liberty and vice versa. Liberty and religion are not opposites. In fact, they need each other. Tocqueville wrote that they “move in harmony” and “offer mutual support.” It was not a binary choice then. It isn’t a binary choice now. Tocqueville observed:
Religion sees in civil liberty a noble exercise of the faculties of man; in the political world, a field offered by the Creator to the efforts of intelligence. … Liberty sees in religion the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its early years, the divine source of its rights. Liberty considers religion as the safeguard of mores, mores as the guarantee of laws and the pledge of its own duration. Both, taking man by the hand, guide his steps and show his way in the wilderness.
It would be nigh impossible to recreate Puritan New England, and I doubt even many conservatives would willingly subscribe to their extreme ascetic living standards. There are, however, important lessons in Tocqueville’s observations of how the Puritans blended religious virtue and liberty. Education matters. Cultural mores matter. A strong social fabric matters. And most importantly: these things take a long, long time.
Ahmari rightly points out that libertine public activities that conservatives find offensive, like the now infamous drag queen storytime event, “cannot be sustained without some level of moral approval by the community.” This is undoubtedly true. And a huge problem. But I would argue that the solution lies in shifting the mores of the community rather than turning to government coercion to bludgeon-out-of-existence things we find offensive.
This will be a long, drawn-out battle. But it can be won. Just as the culture took multiple generations of decay to get us to where we are now, it will take consecutive hard-working generations to rescue it. We didn’t lose this battle overnight. We can’t win it back with one presidential election or a Supreme Court seat either.
Start Treating Education Like the Major Leagues
Conservatives need to take back the education of the young. We should champion—in as many ways we can—classical, liberal arts education steeped in Western heritage and Great Books. We must undertake the long quest of creating an informed citizenry that chooses to be virtuous. If the classical education movement continues to gain ground in private schools along with public charters that’ll be a good indication that the culture is shifting. Politicians can help by promoting school choice and ending taxpayer subsidies for higher education.
Conservatives need to get more media savvy and engage the culture without being transformed or tainted by it (the age-old New Testament challenge). I think the media tide is turning. The rise and success of new conservative media like The Federalist and The Daily Wire show that there’s encouraging movement. We need to continue the momentum, and—as always—be ready for the fray.
As Thomas Sowell has noted, “There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs.” The answer to our cultural crisis probably lies between the positions of French and Ahmari. In the wider war to defeat the radical left, conservatives must find unity in a prudent, simultaneous pursuit of liberty and virtue.
A House Divided Cannot Stand
Debate and intelligent discourse are healthy. Fighters like William F. Buckley and Harry Jaffa made the conservative movement smarter and better. They helped sharpen our positions and uncover holes in our reasoning. However, we must always make sure that internecine arguments won’t have an attrition effect on the wider conservative movement.
There’s still merit to Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment. Perhaps the phrase should be amended to “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow conservative,” but the sentiment stands. We must keep our eyes on the prize. As Ben Domenech has pointed out, the larger fight is against the radical left that threatens everything we cherish. If we become a circular firing squad, we only make the work of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her ilk easier.
In 1754, Benjamin Franklin released a political cartoon featuring a snake cut into eight pieces, symbolizing each of the American colonies. Three words were emblazoned at the bottom of the image: “Join, or Die.” Faced with the outbreak of the French and Indian War, Franklin knew that without unity, the fledgling colonies stood no chance against their enemies.
The slogan was taken up again in 1765 in the face of British Imperial oppression. In some colonies, the phrase was altered to “Unite, or Die.” Against the might of the British Empire, a divided America could not hope to win. Numerous philosophical and political differences existed between the colonial leaders. Yet for the sake of survival against a common enemy, these disagreements were prudently set aside to be fought another day.
American conservatives of all stripes joined together in the 1980s against the threat of Soviet tyranny and won a great victory. Today, the most dangerous enemies of the Founders’s version of America aren’t in Moscow—they’re here at home. The radical leftist ideology that has slowly crept into our media, our schools, and our entertainment must be countered and defeated. We cannot afford to get in our own way. We should be looking for friends and allies in this critical fight. The more, the merrier.
Prudence and Balance Can Win in the End
Some of the upcoming battles will be better served by the civil, persuasion-based methods French calls for. Many Americans are waking up to the insanity of the modern left and can be moved to the right-of-center by well-reasoned discussion.
But it’s clear now there can be no reasoning with the extreme fringes of the radical left. Those battles are so dire that they must be waged on the left’s playing field and will require pounding the table with impassioned resistance a la Thomas and Kavanaugh, more as Ahmari advocated. Each situation must be measured on its own terms as the circumstances demand, and the tactics selected accordingly.
No side of the individual liberty versus institutional morality debate will get the entirety of what they want. Politics is, at its heart, about compromise. And it’s complicated.
Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill were undoubtedly the greatest statesmen of the last 200 years. Both defended freedom. Both knew when they had to compromise to secure the final victory.
Few would dare to call either man cowardly. We must recognize what is necessary while still pursuing the final cause of the United States—the preservation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
America must always balance a healthy tension of liberty and government-encouraged virtue. We can debate how the balance currently stands. We can argue over how to correct any lopsidedness. But we certainly can’t lie back and let things continue as they are. For the sake of the country we love, we need to pick our battles strategically, then fight with all of our hearts to win.