Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Telling the Conservative Story

Everyone agrees that we need a better "story."  Yes, we are all postmodernists now, and we are all obsessing on the "narrative."

Over at NRO, Kevin Williamson wants a narrative that recognizes that the Democratic voters are not just people that want to live at the expense of other people.  They are also risk-averse people: women and minorities in particular.  And people do care about inequality--more at least than conservatives are willing to admit.

Over at RedState, Erick Erickson wants a focus on economic conservatism in a new 21st century way that focuses on the family.

All very good ideas, but we should forget the basic problem that conservatives face.  We do not have the hegemonic power over the culture that liberals have.  We don't get to choose the news stories; we don't get to educate the children; we don't get to write the TV shows and the movies.

What does that mean?  It means that conservatives are always on the strategic defensive.  The prime exception that proves the rule is the rise of Ronald Reagan.  He would never have got elected president but for the economic and cultural mess of the 1970s: the inflation, the hippies, the oil crisis, the wage and price controls.  The fact is that, by 1980, it was doable to persuade the moderates of America that liberalism wasn't working.

But conservatives in the Reagan years never obtained anything close to cultural hegemony.  The test of that was the Bork nomination.  Two minutes after regaining the majority in the Senate in 1986 (Reagan's second off-year election) the Democrats demagogued the nomination to the Supreme Court of distinguished jurist Robert Bork into a heap of rubble.  Because they could.

The same applies to the Obama years.  Obama demagogues on the rich paying a little more because he can.

Conservatives are at least a generation away from any hope of cultural hegemony.  At least!  That means that the broad middle of Americans will only vote for conservatism when liberalism, what they learn at school, what they learn from media, has failed, right before their very eyes.

There is a catchphrase for this from Ben Franklin: "Experience keeps a dear school, but they will learn in no other."

Yes, conservatives must speak to the risk averse, because the risk averse are going to learn pretty soon that relying on government is a pretty risky life plan.  It is like putting all your eggs in one basket.  If you think that relying on government to raise your kid or provide for your retirement will do the job for you, I have a bridge I want to sell you.

Yes, conservatives must speak about family, because family is the best insurance you can't buy.  The women and minorities that vote for big government are going to learn just what a bad idea trading the family for government benefits can be--not just for your children but for society in general and men in particular.  George Gilder wrote about this a generation ago in Visible Man. 

If conservatives had something close to cultural hegemony--or even something close to a real cultural voice--then we could persuade millions right now.  We could have persuaded them in 2012 because our cultural power would have ground the Obama campaign into dust.

But the fact is that we can't.  Any time a conservative talks about the culture s/he gets buried.  So the only way is the Ben Franklin school, the school of bitter experience.  We've got to get back to the "liberalism doesn't work" days of the late 1970s.

Conservatism is at bottom a faith about the way the world works.  It says that human society works best when we maximize voluntary cooperation through markets and through civil society, the "mediating institutions" between government and the individual.

Liberalism is a faith that you cannot trust the mediating institutions.  Here are Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their lefty manifesto Commonwealth.  Their vision is a re-creation of the "common."  They realize that socialism and communism, as practiced in the social democratic states and in the Soviet Union, are non-starters.  But so are the "most significant social institutions of capitalist society in which the common appears in corruption form... the family, the corporation, and the nation."(p160)

Oh goodie.  So again, our lefty revolutionaries are going to sweep away the imperfect socialization of today for what? A vision of "life in common" that has no real exemplars.  Not yet.

It's true that the family, the corporation, and the nation are the worst social institutions imaginable--except any and all of the alternatives that have been tried in the last century.  Lord knows they aren't perfect, but the fact is that the two-parent family is the best environment for raising children.  The corporation is the best way for creating products and services, and the nation is the best idea yet for enlarging human sympathy beyond the boundary of the kindred.

Government is force, politics is division, and reason is domination.  That's why humans are social animals, because social animals thrive when they find a gentler course than government, politics, and reason, and manage to avoid bumping into these hard and inhuman extremes.

And here is what conservatives were brought into the world to do: persuade their fellow humans to abjure the false gods of government, politics, and reason, and learn to live with each other in amity and comity.

In the next few years we are going to have a splendid opportunity to do just that.

Beyond that there is the Great Hope.  That one day in America we will be able to talk about family, business, and nation without ducking to avoid the brickbats from the liberal cultural hegemons.

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