One of the defining myths of movement conservatism is that of inherent liberal totalitarianism, or “Liberal Fascism”—the notion that the true aim of American liberalism is to wipe out all dissenting views and impose a uniform, godless secularism on the whole country. It has been a strong theme of social conservative punditry during the rise of gay marriage, as conservative writers imagine a “post-Christian America” where their views are stigmatized or even criminalized, and keep lurid tallies of the all the ways liberals are intent on “bombing the rubble.”
I’m not sure when it seemed like to me that the notion of liberals drunk on culture-war victory achieved some kind of mainstream traction. Perhaps because it’s become a frequent topic for Ross Douthat, who addresses the mainstream by virtue of writing for the Times. The “cocky liberal” thesis was also endorsed earlier this year by Damon Linker in another mainstream publication. (I’m borrowing that term from him.) But whether or not this idea is actually traveling beyond the usual conservative suspects, the important question is: is it true? Or more precisely, are there instances where it is true, and other instances where it isn’t? Do the instances where it is true matter anywhere besides the conservative imagination?
It’s easier to support the Cocky Liberal Thesis if you look only at liberal rhetoric, especially liberal rhetoric on gay rights. There’s no doubt in my mind that the escalation of conservative alarm about the left “bombing them to rubble” correlates with liberal Twitter gloating when, say, another state legalizes gay marriage, or a pro athlete comes out. These tend to be moments when the entire oxygen of the American media is consumed with celebration of liberal victory, and almost always produce some breathless, hyperbolic Twitter pronouncements from liberal journalists and celebrities about the end of the culture war, or the defeat of the bigots, or whatever. Of course it’s stupid to treat the 140-character comments of a few thousand people who write on the internet as reality, but nonetheless a lot of us do so, even if we mean not to.
The results of both the 2008 and 2012 elections were broadly heralded as the end of the religious right, and by extension the end of the culture war. But if you look back, it’s surprising how much that conclusion came from conservatives themselves; it surely achieved its status as gospel because so many conservatives advanced it—and have continued to do so. While this is not applicable to all of those conservatives, the socially conservative ones have tended to let gay marriage stand in for the entire culture war, and allowed their self-pity about losing the that fight to narrow their vision. There’s no doubt that drumbeat of defeat and negativity helped convince liberals it really is all over but the crying. (Watch the link chain here: Dreher says it’s over, Linker mostly agrees, and then a liberal takes it all as fact and adds a few hubristic claims of his own.)
Leaving the realm of people writing on the internet, what about the more concrete episodes of the past few years that have helped convince conservatives that liberals are ugly triumphalists? For example, the disinvitation of an evangelical minister from praying at Obama’s second inauguration after old comments about homosexuality came to light; the resignation of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich under pressure from activists over his financial donation to the Prop 8 campaign in California; the uproar that crippled the Susan G. Komen cancer research foundation after they briefly decided to stop funding Planned Parenthood; and, biggest of all, the mandate of the Affordable Care Act that required most employers to provide employees with insurance plans that cover contraception. All of these provoked outcry from social conservatives that liberals were engaging in “moral McCarthyism” and demanding “unconditional surrender.”
These examples fall into somewhat different categories. The Louie Giglio affair, for example, was clumsy politics on the part of the Obama administration; it wasn’t a sign that conservative views are beyond the pale, but rather the simple fact that a president shouldn’t have someone in a highly symbolic position who holds a view his strongest supporters consider noxious. The Komen and Mozilla episodes were textbook examples of legitimate political pressure. A few liberals were uncomfortable with the idea of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich being punished for making a personal political donation, but they tended to be people who can never stomach genuine political conflict. Eich wasn’t forced out by the state or by his employer, he chose to resign based on pressure from activists who objected to his donation to a very controversial political campaign. He was a high-profile tech CEO, not a random nobody targeted for their beliefs, like the people who were politically persecuted for signing the petition to recall Scott Walker in Wisconsin.
Now the big one. The Hobby Lobby case has been transformed into the ultimate hill on which religious freedom in the United States might have died. The contraception mandate that spawned the case is seen as an all-out “war on religion” or “weaponized secularism,” rather than as part of a broad attempt to bring order to the incoherent American health care system in one of the only ways politically feasible. It doesn’t matter that the Hobby Lobby case was manifestly cynical, in that the company that filed it manufactured a conscience violation out of thin air—based on false information about contraception—once they were already in talks about filing a suit against the Obama administration. It doesn’t matter that, as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig illustrates so well here, the company’s logic snaps when you extend it in virtually any direction. No government would be possible at all if exemptions so broad and incoherent were applied equally to every religious faction, and every corporation that claimed a religious conviction. (The Supreme Court arbitrarily decided the same exemptions couldn’t be granted for more extreme religious views, but there is no legal logic supporting that limitation. So they essentially created a special constitutional protection for one kind of religion.) It’s mind-blowing that smart people have gotten on board with the idea that this partisan case was really about religious freedom, or that this sort of writing of religious favoritism into the constitution is something liberals should “cheer.”
All this to say that even though conservatives succeeded in turning the Hobby Lobby case into a narrative of outrageous overreach by a secular liberal administration, they ultimately won. They won pretty much everything at the Supreme Court this term, including getting buffer zone for abortion clinics in Massachusetts overturned. Add that to the past several years of successfully passing the most stringent restrictions on contraception and abortion since Roe v. Wade, and actually making contraception, which somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 percent of American women use, a fixture of political debate. Conservative legislative activism has assured that public school science classes and sex education in many states are riddled with religious views and factual errors. It’s true that these things provoke negative media backlash, and that the American public is becoming generally LGBT-friendly and largely supportive of access to birth control. But unless gay rights are truly the extent of the culture war, this doesn’t look at all to me like liberals stomping social conservatives’ faces into the turf. Hardcore social conservatives have done their political organizing well and have fought hard, and are on the offensive on some of their key issues, even if they are a pretty small minority of the American people.
So is the Cocky Liberal Thesis supportable? For the most part it’s not. On one issue—gay rights—it’s possible to claim that liberal rhetoric, in its impatience with religious views that continue to support discrimination, veers into “sides of history” triumphalism and, when we’re talking about journalists on Twitter, immature self-righteousness. But this “intolerance,” if it can even be called that, is largely cultural and rhetorical, not legal and political. It’s hardly different from any other issue in American politics on which there is a clear majority, and as Alexis de Tocqueville said, American majorities almost always treat minority factions horribly. It’s a reality of the liberal system: it pretends to be about pragmatic compromise, but really, somebody’s vision wins, and the others lose. The losers have to play by the rules until they win again.
But when it comes to actually making the rules—and not just arguing about them on the internet—conservatives are not doing nearly as badly as they often seem to believe. On the other issues that make up the culture wars, liberals have had their former confidence chastened, and are anything but “cocky.” When conservatives win routine victories in state courts and legislatures, and a twice-elected liberal president can barely accomplish any of his agenda even by executive order, we’re not talking about a one-sided fight. On the ground, where it actually counts, it’s still as much of a contest as ever—and liberals who aren’t morons know that well. Even if things were going better for liberal secularism, religious people in the United States have and will retain protections and exemption from broadly-applicable laws that are unheard of in most Western nations.
In sum, I think the Cocky Liberal Thesis is a mixture of two things: conservative whining and liberal anti-politics. Conservatives have always fed their movement on paranoia about the eventual totalitarian takeover by liberal secularism, and they’re doing it more than ever as gay rights become the norm. It’s to be expected that their charges of “liberal triumphalism” would escalate as they lose on a big issue. Complaining about the “Bomb-the-Rubble-Left” is a way of complaining about losing, and they really should grow up. It doesn’t help to have liberals acting like there’s something wrong with exulting in victory—especially when it’s all mostly rhetorical, and the victory is as limited as it is.
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