This post by Eric Teetsel on “winning the marriage debate” has a lot of stuff going on that I think encapsulates some of the central paradoxes of American social conservatism in general, and American social conservatism at this particular moment. It comes in the form of a lament that the the right’s “ideas” have such trouble getting a fair hearing amid the “left’s” onslaught through celebrities and the mass media. Teetsel offers yet another prescription for “rebranding” the conservative position (and I paraphrase generously): gay marriage opponents are too focused on ideas and deep intellectual arguments, and not focused enough on being winsome to all the shallow Americans who will never read their philosophers. So they need to figure out how to be winsome somehow.
I’m not going to say much about Teetsel’s ultimate point, but he makes a couple of moves that illustrate some of the very misunderstandings of ideas, politics, and economics that have contributed to the broad failure of the social conservative vision in 21st-century America. One of these arises from conservative mythology about the quality of its own ideas versus the supposed lack thereof on the left; the other involves social conservatives’ inability to see how big a role their economic commitments have played in the marginalization of their social commitments.
1. The first thing to mention is the pretension that conservatives have all the ideas, and that the “left” only wins its victories through slick marketing to ignorant plebes. This is an old standard that goes back to all the way to Buckley, if not beyond; you can hear it anywhere right-wing ideas are disseminated, from National Review to the Rush Limbaugh Show. To be conservative is to be intellectual, and Americans don’t care about ideas anymore. Here’s Teetsel:
The technological-internet revolution began a new era of entertainment in which everything is a commodity. We are no longer a nation of ideas. Policies are products; people are brands. We pay no attention to intellectual boxing matches such as those between Lincoln and Douglas, or Hayek and Keynes. Instead we have beauty pageants in which contestants primp and pose for the affections of the audience voting from home.
This is supposed to be the reason conservatives have such a difficult time getting a fair hearing:
What are marriage advocates to do? How can marriage—a thorough defense of which requires deep theological reflection or the complex natural law web of anthropological, historical, social, and scientific ideas contained in [Robert George’s] What is Marriage—compete with “all you need is love”?
More broadly, how can conservatism—whose rich intellectual foundation includes philosophers such as James Madison, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith—win in an age when Glee and Lady Gaga carry the real cultural heft?
If Teetsel thinks this is why marriage equality is winning, he hasn’t learned many lessons from the winners. He seems to conceive politics as a simple intellectual debate rather than a complex operation of intellectual persuasion, power struggles, on-the-ground organizing and popular sloganeering. Gay marriage’s assists from TV shows and movies stars have come only at the end of a long and arduous battle that involved vigorous intellectual production aimed at persuading both gay culture and the broader cultural elite; courageous gay men and women who made themselves visible despite the personal price they paid for it, strategic campaigns for offices and legislation, etc. The gay rights vs. traditionalists struggle was not “slogans and celebrities vs. ideas,” it was “strong new ideas vs. strong old ideas.” The gay rights side appealed to a source of authority (the individual’s sacred right to authentic selfhood) that commands much more committed respect in contemporary American life than the one appealed to by the religious right (the theological views of conservative Christianity). And they had a superior political machine—one so good that eventually pop culture started to take its rightness for granted and to be suspicious of its opponents.
So Teetsel can’t pretend that the gay rights movement won simply by circumventing an intellectual debate. They had the intellectual debate when the religious right so took its own position for granted that it thought it didn’t need to argue; when the right finally started playing catch-up, even the most sophisticated versions of its ideas were too far outside the mainstream for a secular democracy. The right didn’t lose because of the “packaging” of its ideas, it lost because those ideas themselves were defeated in battle. (Similarly, Romney lost the election not because he didn’t get the conservative message across, but precisely because he did.)
2. The second interesting thing about Teetsel’s post is the irony-free attack on consumer society as the source of conservative woes, and the implication that the left is somehow responsible for the decline of a culture of ideological debate where conservatives would be on better ground to present their intellectual view. If only we were still a “nation of ideas,” then Robert George’s new marriage book, based on a religious worldview that only a portion of even American Christians find persuasive, would be reviewed in the New York Review of Books like the “seminal” work it is. Instead, “Glee and Lady Gaga” have all the influence.
There are a couple of reasons the conservative “vulgar pop culture drowns out ideas” plaint is silly. First of all, it’s historically dubious; there is no evidence we’re any less of a “nation of ideas” than we were before. Certain people, mostly educated elites, continue to debate ideas deeply and passionately, and one might even argue that these debates are more accessible to more people than ever before. It’s pure nostalgia-fog to imagine that the masses once engaged with theoretical books in order to determine their political views. The media have appealed to popular passions and fashions and crazes since before electricity was ever heard of. Hysterical, demagogic books have always been bestsellers. So the degradation of culture didn’t keep George’s book out of the mainstream. If Teetsel’s real objection is that intellectual elites didn’t debate it, he might be able to say that the American world of ideas is incestuous and narrow-minded (true), but he can’t say it’s because we’re “no longer a nation of ideas,” period.
The other reason this is a silly line of argument for an American conservative is that, if it were the case that consumer society had degraded our culture, no one would bear more responsibility for that state of affairs than the American right. Americans of all stripes are weirdly unable to put capitalism into question, but none more so than conservatives, many of whom have embraced it as part of a broader vision of a patriotic, religious, self-reliant society. Unlike European right-wingers, most of whom are virulently anti-capitalist, they see no contradiction between ancient religious principles and an economic system that depends on rapid change and constant cultural upheaval. The European far-right generally understands that capitalism is destined to commodify and transactionalize human relations, to gradually erode any human practice or value—ideas, art, social and religious customs—that cannot be justified in terms of economic profit. Capitalism erases identity, weakens collectivity, and obliterates cultural values. European reactionaries are (rightly) unable to comprehend how American conservatives think turbo-capitalism and social conservatism are supposed to go together.
American conservatives have, on the contrary, strenuously insisted that capitalist individualism is the only way to produce a strong, independent people and to avoid the tyranny of statism. If they see any threat to traditional values from capitalism at all, they believe it can be held at bay by religion (something that has proved devastatingly false in the United States, where religion has quite often intensified the capitalist ethic and produced even sleazier forms of exploitation). But what is the “technological-internet revolution” Teetsel decries if not the latest and most intense phase of an economic system he passionately defends? He seems to want us to think it’s some sort of leftist conspiracy, rather than the direct result of the radical individualism his own side (and even his own organizations) have triumphantly promoted. There’s a deep irony in any besides the most heterodox of American conservative posturing against the “lowest common denominator” aspects of consumer society, where “people are brands.” If they support any plausible program to reign in the cultural havoc wreaked by capitalism, they’re doing a great job keeping it a secret.
This unresolvable contradiction is the reason so many of these “what’s a conservative to do” musings tend to have an overhanging air of futility. In the U.S., social conservatives embraced a hyper-modern economic system and somehow expected it wouldn’t de-legitimize pre-modern metaphysical principles. Instead, they got the fragmented, unmoored society their economics demand, which turns out to be a society in which their refusal to compromise and evolve with the times seems intransigent and even anathematic. It’s unclear to me how the intellectual arguments they believe are so essential to their case, no matter what package they are presented in, are going to turn back that clock.
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