gagaThis 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.

About The Author

David Sessions

David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol, and is currently a doctoral student in modern European history at Boston College. His writing has appeared in The Daily Beast, Newsweek, Jacobin, Slate and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.

30 Responses to The Strange Paradoxes of Conservative Self-Pity

  1. John says:

    Helpful observations, but this presentation needs some corroboration – especially on how “capitalism” has taken over “conservative” thinking. If conservatives in Europe are still “virulently anti-capitalist”, there must be reasons why and how “conservatives in the US” no longer believe this.

    Having been a grad student and library staff at The University of Chicago for many years, I would suggest some research on the influence that the econ dept and business school and major faculty here have had.

    In short, we did not arrive in our current turmoil by blind chance. Ideas have been promoted by “conservatives”, ideas that have had unanticipated ill effects. When “markets” supposedly take care of all the problems, ethics in business and business school is dismissed as unnecessary – until we get the Enron, mortgage, et al. crises.

    The article on the “Chicago school of economics” at Wikipedia lists some of the major figures in this brand of “market economics” and concludes with a paragraph on “Criticisms”. Here is one place to start, though much more is needed to understand the current mess.

  2. Fitz says:

    Nice David, and the only thing I’d add is that this notion that we were once a nation of ideas but alas no more actually was better elucidated by Neil Postman in the 1980s. He was actually quite conservative as well, but did not make an exception in his thesis for conservatives.

    I think it is true that we are less concerned with the world of ideas as a result of entertainment culture but Eric doesn’t go far enough back when he blames the internet. This has been a long time coming. And, it is not an ill that effects only liberals; we’re all in this together.

    As you point out, this just means that the debate over an issue like gay marriage will span a variety of fronts. It has been and will continue to be worked out through the traditional means of typographical culture, but it is also going to be “discussed” via entertainment culture as well. For better or for worse, that’s where we’re at.

  3. Sue Sponte says:

    Rush Limbaugh is a connoisseur of philosophy? LOL, he’s the prime avatar of what H.L. Mencken derided as the “booboisie”. Babbit as an intelletual, A sage for those whose intellectual horizon doesn’t go much past Monday Night Football.

  4. Malte says:

    Good article. As a European, I’d add that there is a division in our far right between neofascists (the BNP in Britain, the NPD in Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece) and national populists (e.g. Ukip in Britain, Partij voor de Vrijheid in the Netherlands, the Sweden Democrats). The former are indeed ostensibly anti-capitalist, whereas the latter are hostile to regulation and the welfare state and praise ‘free enterprise’ (they’re often dissidents from the major conservative parties). Both contribute to the worrying mainstreaming of racism in European politics.

    • Glad you pointed out some of the complexity there. The Front National in France, for example, was anti-capitalist until the last few decades, and now is pro-protectionism (anti-globalization) so as to effectively still be a form of anti-capitalist. They’re a diverse bunch, but I think as a “tradition,” if there is any such thing, they tend to be very suspicious of capitalism.

  5. toddh says:

    Great post. I think the odd thing is that near the end I felt like you were getting close to an idea that could move conservatives forward, even while you seem to disagree with their positions. There’s some call to consistency there for conservatives that can help them actually gain a message that could appeal to a broader swath of people than simply their usual dead-ends of American exceptionalism, fear of immigrants, hatred of big government, and the big 2 conservative Christian social issues. What that message is – I don’t know. But I felt like you were close to suggesting something.

  6. John says:

    Here is an intriguing news report this morning, telling how Republican governors in Ohio and Michigan are struggling to make a case for expanding Medicaid for the many poor people in their states – a case they are making on moral and religious grounds.

    “”When you die and get to the meeting with St. Peter, he’s probably not going to ask you much about what you did about keeping government small, but he’s going to ask you what you did for the poor. You’d better have a good answer,” John Kasich, a Christian conservative and Ohio governor, says he told one Ohio lawmaker last week.”

  7. John says:

    Here is the link for that report, by David Morgan, writing for Reuters.

  8. Dan Allison says:

    The pro-gay side has only one intellectual merit: The fact that what other people do is none of my business.

    If you want to get “intellectual,” the fact is that ALL the merit is on the anti-gay side. God made a universe of complementary opposites: light and dark, hot and cold, male and female. If it were hot ALL THE TIME, we’d all be dead. And if everyone were gay, no one very quickly would be anything. While believing that homosexuality is “not God’s best,” I am TOTALLY opposed to any scapegoating or denial of civil rights to anyone. The SCOTUS chickened out — they should have struck down every anti-gay-marriage law in every state so that we can get past this. And frankly, in a world where half the kids are starving to death, where the US has declared endless war on dark-skinned people, where cancer ravages and famine is always near, it REALLY is time we got past this first-world problem that affects about 2% of the world’s affluent white Americans. I’m done — even to talk about ther issue, really, is narcissism.

    • AC says:

      Dan – you bigot! you phobe! How could you say such things- LOL!!!!

      😉 God Bless!

    • Wygrif says:

      The anti-gay side did have all the intellectual arguments in the 19th century. Interestingly, our knowledge has progressed since then. (1) Male & female are not “complementary opposites” they are a solution (one of many possible) to the problem of parasitism*. They are not some deep principle of the universe, many species get along just fine without sexes, some species use more than two. See e.g. Eulimnadia texana

      (2) The universalism argument is just silly. If everyone were a roman catholic priest “no one very quickly would be anything.” It doesn’t follow from that that being a priest is inherently wrong.

      *King KC, Delph LF, Jokela J, & Lively CM (2009). The geographic mosaic of sex and the Red Queen. Current biology : CB, 19 (17), 1438-41 PMID: 19631541

      King KC, Jokela J, & Lively CM (2011). Parasites, sex, and clonal diversity in natural snail populations. Evolution; international journal of organic evolution, 65 (5), 1474-81 PMID: 21521196

  9. […] As David Sessions points out in this article for Patrol, […]

  10. Patrick Sawyer says:


    You said, “Capitalism erases identity, weakens collectivity, and obliterates cultural values”. With that line I had a flashback to my plethora of “rah rah for social justice situated in leftist politics” classes in graduate school that were high on maintaining the dominant, hegemonic narrative of the academic left but low on authentic critical thinking.

    Never mind that Marx would have most likely recalibrated his perspective on capitalism if he would have anticipated the advent and expansion of a prosperous middle-class made possible by the crucible of non-crony capitalism AND if he would have anticipated the expansion of the consumer credit industry that, when used prudently, would allow the masses to significantly close the gap between themselves and their heretofore “alienated labor”.

    From a more contemporary standpoint what do you make of the popular “Conscious Capitalism” from John Mackey and Raj Sisodia and the more robust “Free Market Fairness” from John Tomasi? Tomasi is a 20 year scholar out of Brown who makes a decent case for the synergy of capitalism and genuine social justice concerns.

    It seems these works reveal your above statement to be significantly flawed and overly simplistic. If you are familiar with these works where am I wrong? Thanks.

  11. Dan Allison says:

    Actually you could not be more wrong. I remember turning on a television to see Norman Mailer or Marshall McLuhan on the Dick Cavett Show, and that was normal. Now you have a “History Channel” that gives us Bigfoot and Erich Van Daniken. If you really believe that intellectual debate in this civilization hasn’t declined — in fact collapsed — you’re part of the problem.

    • Malte says:

      Any evidence for that beyond anecdotes? Erich von Däniken has been publishing his theses since the sixties, after all.

      • Dan Allison says:

        Off the top of my head, a look at bestseller lists from the 60s and today would be good evidence. Writers topping those lists in the 60s consistently included Mailer, Heller, Vonnegut, Roth, and Bellow. Bestsellers today are crap. Music too — the Beatles, Dylan, as opposed to the nonsense of today. Lists of top-grossing films would deliver the same evidence. Sure, von Daniken published in the 60s, but his disciples did not control overnight radio and several TV networks.

    • eriol11 says:

      Your comment–if accurate–would actually confirm the nature of capitalism, and that since the sixties intellectual discussion has become less homogenous with the collapse of the monoculture. You can think that modern top radio has become less profound since I Wanna Hold Your Hand, but top 40 is listened to by fewer and fewer people, and the Beatles were never as profound as Neutral Milk Hotel. Your comment also displays selection bias as it ignores the 99% of fluff historically played on pop radio (this is what led to AOR in the seventies), and ignores what I can be watching. I don’t have to turn on some misnamed tv channel for intellectual stimulation. Instead, I can go to youtube, where I can choose to watch cat videos or I could watch a lecture by Zizek, or I can watch those old videos of Mailer.

  12. AC says:

    Good points about capitalism – I’m not so big on stone-cold capitalism as I am on free enterprise, strong work ethic & honest supply & demand where if you produce a good product you will be rewarded with loyal customers – as for wallstreet & big business – that’s just not my bag, baby!

    As for some of your other points – here’s my take on the bigger picture

  13. AC says:

    As far as self-pity goes – I’m all about self-pity – I’m very frustrated

    The problem with the whole gay marriage debate is that we tried to hard!

    This is what it should have amounted to –

    “Marriage should be defined as what based on what?”


    “Exactly – lets move on!”

  14. AC says:

    Webster Says:

    Main Entry: free enterprise
    Function: noun
    Date: 1890
    : freedom of private business to organize and operate for profit in a competitive system without interference by government beyond regulation necessary to protect public interest and keep the national economy in balance

    – makes sense to me! At least upon face value – obviously it gets complicated

  15. oran says:

    I hope that I can add a little something to the ongoing confusion of the gay-marriage topic. Being ‘grown-ups’, we must suspend belief every time politicians and their groupies say anything, especially when they try to sound sincere. Secondly, whatever one’s sexual direction, living with another in the same household is so much more about everything else beyond sexual relations. Being married for 40 years to the same person, I confess to being knowledgeable on the latter topic. Sex is a tiny part of it all. It is small and only the concern of those engaged therein. Why so many think incorrectly about it, why these ingrates think, no, believe, it has to do with themselves is simply baloney. May they only keep watch on their own damn family values first, and leave us alone.

  16. AC says:

    People who believe SSM doesn’t effect those who are not SS need to be slapped….. Repeatedly…..Then slapped some more….. Because its the biggest piece of BS going these days….

    • Alex says:

      I see… physical violence against those who disagree with you is the best argument you have for your position. Got it. In the highly unlikely event that I ever have a political argument with you in person, I’ll be sure to give you a preemptive beat-down before making my own points, then.

    • B Blankin says:

      Well, AC, this is exactly where I got “lost” as a vote. Five years ago I had a strong bias against SSM, based on my upbringing and predispositions and whatnot. I waited and waited for someone to make a single cogent argument, preferably backed with a little research, that allowing SSM would have some negative impact on our society. I’m still waiting. I’ve read any number of good arguments, many backed by research, in favor of SSM. All I’ve seen in opposition is “it’s not Biblical” and “it’s yucky.” As a Christian and an American, I cannot support using political power to enforce Christian beliefs on nonchristians. And that leaves me with “it’s yucky.” That may be enough argument for you, but it’s not enough for me.

  17. […] “In the U.S., social conservatives embraced a hyper-modern economic system and somehow expected it wouldn’t de-legitimize pre-modern metaphysical principles.” […]

  18. Lee says:

    What all of this “nation of ideas” BS boils down to in the end is the age-old question, “Why are these hoi polloi allowed to vote?” When someone starts talking about deep engagement with philosophical arguments, you have to remember that throughout history, this has been a pastime largely limited to the aristocratic classes. I play the world’s tiniest violin for Mr. Teetsel and his cronies.

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  21. […] childlessness as a mean of personal liberation, which amusingly illustrates their blindness to the incompatibility of their economic commitments with their moral outlook. Liberalism, secularism, the pill, the sexual revolution—none of that gave us an individualistic […]

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