I’ve been writing more and more about how we might repair and restore a faltering conservative imagination. Last week, my good friend Matt Anderson posted a compelling series on this very topic, offering four distinct theses aimed specifically at social conservatives (1, 2, 3, 4). His reactions come, partially, in response (or relation) to this year’s Values Voter Summit, where I had the pleasure of hearing Matt talk on a subject quite similar alongside Chris Marlink, Eric Teetsel, Andrew Walker, and Owen Strachan.
Given that I view economic issues as being more or less interconnected with the “social” ones, Anderson’s offering is still deeply relevant for conservatives of all stripes and emphases, particularly those who believe, more broadly, that ground-up spiritual and cultural restoration should be our primary aim.
I encourage you to read each thesis in its entirety. Some key excerpts and quick responses are provided below.
Thesis #1: To Sow or to Reap
My first thesis is that social conservatives are entering a time for sowing new cultural seeds rather than reaping their cultural fruits. As folks have recently pointed out, you can’t fight a culture war if you haven’t got a culture. And by and large, social conservatives haven’t got much in that department to pass along to the children. What they do have has been cobbled together by imitating mainstream America and borrowing from Nashville. The net effect is that social conservatives are trying, desperately, to reap legal fruit despite neglecting the difficult work of sowing and nurturing cultural seeds.
…if there is such a thing as cultural flourishing and decline, then we need to carefully discriminate where we are in those seasons and allocate our time and resources accordingly. To do otherwise would be rather imprudent, no? That means redirecting attention, efforts, and (yes) funding away from the particularly urgent political concerns toward seemingly frivolous long term cultural efforts. By way of hypothesis, I suspect it is easy for Christians to raise money for either political causes at home or missions and social-justice causes overseas. But a library, conservatory, or an art studio—institutions that will form the backbone of any permanent culture?
This is a central theme here at Remnant Culture. Culture runs upstream from politics, and cultural formation is a difficult, tedious process of truth-wielding and truth-telling— one that is particularly difficult and tedious when politics is so persistently playing the imposter with “quick-and-fast” pseudo-solutions. Nevertheless, and here redundancy is ever-justified, culture runs upstream from politics. Let us not forget it, lest we fail to beget it (just call me the “rhyme czar”).
Thesis #2: End the Hostilities Against Elites
Consider this bit by Rick Santorum from this year’s Values Voter Summit, which both stunned and saddened me…
…First, the rampant populism fuels a sense of grievance against elites. It’s class warfare, only the classes are divided along prestige lines rather than economic ones… [C]lass resentment—even if its against the “creatives” or the media or academics—will necessarily limit conservatism’s appeal and so unnecessarily throttle its cultural impact.
Second, this sort of statement emboldens conservatives in the wrong places. It’s one thing to highlight conservatism’s populist character and to emphasize the church and family as the wellspring of cultural renewal…But to cut away elites altogether creates the misguided confidence that as long as we get the numbers on our side, things are going well.
Third, it ironically points toward a lack of confidence in our ability to argue persuasively for our positions. If our cause is just and our understanding of human nature is true, then if we motor along doing our thing elites will eventually come around.
Yes, yes, and yes. If we’re going to impact the culture, we can’t write off and demonize elite institutions, nay, elite people, who have some of the most significant cultural influence. Further, as Anderson goes on to mention, posing our predicament as such will likely give those conservatives who do choose to pursue such arenas an attitude of fear or “infiltration.” This will not help us in reaching healthy, long-view cultural development, and will likely result in ideas and art that are forced and combative rather than profound and beautiful (do you need examples?).
Thesis #3: Recover Intellectual Creativity
Having neglected our traditionalist conservative heritage (or having never received it to begin with), social conservatives have also tended to “repeat formulas” rather than reload the “intellectual ammunition.” While there are occasional bright spots—First Things, Public Discourse, Ross Douthat, Ramesh Ponnuru—they don’t get much air time at places like the Values Voter Summit. By and large, the mainstream of social conservatism tends to be relatively intellectually stagnant and formulaic. Which isn’t, if you catch my drift, a sign of its health.
Some of that stems from, I think, the culture war mentality that has pervaded the mainstream of the movement. One of the hidden yet potentially devastating costs of a culture war mentality is that it locks people into a framework and keeps them pursuing the particular questions that emerge from within it. If the point of our efforts is winning, then questioning our own presuppositions is out of bounds. That may be fine for a while, and it may raise more money and ensure that folks are on the team, but eventually intellectual stagnation will set in. It has to: the only way to avoid it is to question our fundamental commitments even while we are holding on to them.
Anderson begins by referencing David Brooks’ recent piece on the conservative mind, drawing (correctly) on Brooks’ critique of conservative “formulas” and his promotion of a more hearty, intellectual vision. Again, Anderson is primarily interested in critiquing the social conservative movement as it relates to traditional conservatism, but as I recently argued in connection to the same Brooks piece, economic conservatives have a bridge to build here as well (though its certainly different than the one Brooks attempts at). For conservatives, recovering intellectual creativity will mean restoring a robust, holistic conservative imagination that ties its social and the economic strains together by grounding them in Kirk’s “enduring moral order.” We should be winning on intellectual creativity, depth, and romanticism, hands down.
Thesis 4: Recover Our Confidence
Here, the “culture war” mentality really does a number on our effectiveness. If the point is defeating our opponents, rather than persuading them to join our side, then why should we work to make our positions sound like good news to them? Why would we spend the ridiculous amount of energy it to see our opponent’s positions from the inside so that we can make the appeal more effectively? I’m not sanguine about the prospects of persuasion here: I don’t think I’ve ever talked anyone out of their position on, say, gay rights. But in one sense, the fact of persuasion doesn’t really matter. Because even in cultural exchanges, one man sows, another man waters.
It is difficult, of course, to be thoroughly confident when in a defensive posture. The work of conservation isn’t the same as defending (with its connotations of hostility and warfare): it is the work of weeding out positions and attitudes that would undermine social stability, of cultivating and tilling the soil so that cultural flourishing can take root. It means something more than merely preserving the status quo: it requires a conservative imagination, a way of seeing how stasis inevitably erodes all that falls into it and working toward the perpetual renewal of all that we hold dear…
… My final thesis, then, is that the confidence of social conservatives comes when we have the integrity within our own movement on the causes that we care about. Even though divorce isn’t as bad within the church as it is outside, our lack of confidence on marriage (fueled in part by that damnable narrative) makes it incredibly difficult to speak with the soft, assured, and authoritative voice that confident people use.
Short form: We’ve become far more reactive than introspective, and although I think many of us have some sense of why we believe what we believe, most of us have forgotten that we need to communicate these beliefs in compelling ways not only if we are to win, but more modestly, if we are to be understood. We are to concern ourselves with faithfulness first, and success second, yet faithfulness demands that we heed Anderson’s call to ensure that the good news of conservatism does indeed sound like the good news.