Political Animal


January 03, 2013 4:30 PM Paths From Cultural Despair

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • stevio on January 03, 2013 4:43 PM:

    Those depraved individuals cherry picked by the likes of Erickson and Weyrich that are the root of all conservative woes have always been inbeded into our society. Cleared thinkers are just illuminating this fact by allowing these (to them) bottom feeders, an opportunity to sit at the table with grown-ups and to enjoy their constitutional rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness afforded Weyrich via his birthright which, by the way, is the same birth right afforded the closet people that are now able to open the door and smack him in the chops.

    It's not like gays just started loving each other four years ago. Careful of those pesky black and Hispanic types all of you conservatives out there...especially those blaks and Hispanic whom are gay and Lesbian...

  • Josef K on January 03, 2013 4:57 PM:

    Says Lewis: Democracy, of course, requires individuals who are moral and responsible.

    Wrong. All "democracy" requires is voters to show up at the polls on a semi-regular basis. You can get that through subliminal messaging on the tv.

    A positive and functioning society, on the other hand, requires moral and responsible citizens to be engaged in the political and daily life of said society. Lewis and company effectively reject the modern era and its mores, so can they be considered "citizens" anymore?

  • CJColucci on January 03, 2013 5:09 PM:

    Of course strong families are a very powerful force for good. I don't know anyone who thinks differently. But the culture warriors don't have a clue how to create or sustain strong families; all they know is what one looked like in 1953 and they think they can make things like that again. Gay-bashing, theocracy, and censorship are bad in their own right and won't even work.

  • KenZ on January 03, 2013 5:25 PM:

    I like the juxtaposition of this and the lead story. Because nothing solves externality problems like environmental lead or global warming like strong families...

    It's also fun for us in the reality based world to recognize that the highest divorce rates and percentages of homes with single parents are invariably in the those wondrously moral red states.

  • Ted on January 03, 2013 5:27 PM:

    Of course, strengthening the family would involve economic redistribution. Parents can't keep track of their kids if the parents are both working almost-but-not-quite full time on erratic schedules and can't miss work for fear of being fired and anyway they are living paycheck to paycheck and can't afford to lose a day's pay and there's no affordable daycare to use. Stuff like a single payer healthcare system, affordable daycare, protection of worker's rights, etc would go a long way toward strengthening the family.

  • Mad_nVt on January 03, 2013 6:14 PM:

    Okay, . . . "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 how come these traditionalists get so wrapped up in flag-waving. The American flag.

  • joeff on January 03, 2013 7:00 PM:

    If you believe Corey Robin in The Reactionary Mind, this way of thinking goes back centuries.

  • emjayay on January 03, 2013 9:55 PM:

    Ted, this is the stuff I've been ranting and raving about lately and hoping anyone would argue or enlighten me in response. Or at least toss me a bone. Haven't gotten much feedback.

    Unions are going down. Party their own fault: if they were Ghandi and the Dali Lama, no one could be talking about union bosses and stealing pension funds or whatever. But they never were. Pensions and health care for anyone should never had anything to do with them, besides demanding it - just big pots of corrupting money and getting the Mafia in. A lot of stuff that unions used to enforce should be national law instead. Some worker protections are: crappy minimum wages, parental leave (but not paid for like in European countries), Lilly Ledbetter improved equal pay, free kindergarten some generations ago, OSHA, some work rules and overtime pay standards but mostly weak and varying on a state basis, etc.

    The ACA, awkward and Rube Goldbergish as it is, is a big benefit that was first negotiated just for members by unions.

    Worker protection against all the old and particularly the new ways today's employers use to exploit workers today like you were describing should be a huge priority of Democrats, but I never hear anything. It is the modern version of the same sort of Democratic party ideals from the union period.

  • Sean Scallon on January 04, 2013 11:02 AM:

    Conservatives can talk about "strengthening the family" all they want (and its not like they haven't done so before going all the way back to Dan Quayle and 1992) but they've rhetorically trapped themselves. "If government is the problem and not the solution" then what do they honestly think government can do to make for stronger families? Use the tax code to promote social engineering? Censor the internet? Promote nuclear family lifestyle? All of these things require a stronger government which they've said they're opposed to. This is what Weyrich, Chronicles Magazine and even David Frum, realized long before anyone else did whether they were politicians, talk show hosts or the flunkies of the Conservative establishment.

    Lewis is right, it is a cultural problem. But there are no political solutions to cultural problems, nor are their really cultural ones either. If families seemed more stable years ago (which was reflected in the culture of that time) it's because the economy supported such stability for the average person. It doesn't anymore and conservative have only themselves to blame for busting unions or gorging themselves on the ideology of free trade and unlimited immigration.

    Culture is created in the manner in which people live their lives and economics goes a long way in determining how people live their lives. The way in which families will be strengthened again is not going to come from politics or campaigns. Santorum would be better off saving Foster Freiss's money and going a different route if he's really interested in helping families.

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