Late last year, I criticized the notion that Barack Obama won re-election by buying off voters with "gifts."
In case you've forgotten, many conservatives had sought to explain away Mitt Romney's loss by reasoning that we had finally reached a tipping point where Americans were voting for candidates who supported the welfare state, based solely on their own pecuniary interests. And I argued that voters do want to be given something by Republican politicians: Hope, optimism, and vision.
But while I dismissed that premise, there may be an even larger fundamental problem that should alarm conservatives even more: Too many Americans simply no longer agree with them on the merits.
We should have seen it coming. Back in 1999 — on the cusp of George W. Bush's presidency, and as Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress — conservative leader Paul Weyrich issued a controversial open letter declaring that conservatives "probably have lost the culture war."
As Weyrich wrote:
In looking at the long history of conservative politics, from the defeat of Robert Taft in 1952, to the nomination of Barry Goldwater, to the takeover of the Republican Party in 1994, I think it is fair to say that conservatives have learned to succeed in politics. That is, we got our people elected.
But that did not result in the adoption of our agenda. The reason, I think, is that politics itself has failed. And politics has failed because of the collapse of the culture. The culture we are living in becomes an ever-wider sewer. In truth, I think we are caught up in a cultural collapse of historic proportions, a collapse so great that it simply overwhelms politics.
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.
Weyrich, it turns out, might have been a Cassandra. At the time, of course, his letter was criticized by many of his conservative friends, who had, after all, toiled in the trenches for years to elect Ronald Reagan. They were still optimistic that we were on the verge of some sort of permanent governing majority that would allow a new leader to finish what Reagan started. But today, it looks as though Weyrich was quite prescient.
To be sure, his idea wasn't entirely original. Years earlier, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan observed, "The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society." Years later, Andrew Breitbart would popularize this notion, and introduce it to a new generation of conservatives. But Weyrich was making an observation at a time when it would have been easy to dismiss such reflection as premature — or even pessimistic. (Indeed, many of his contemporaries did exactly that.)
Predictably, conservatives tended to ignore this inconvenient truth about the culture, persuading themselves that winning elections — and ostensibly passing conservative laws (though they did that less frequently) — were what mattered. (Or maybe it was that they convinced themselves that because they could win elections — because the American public supported their politics — it implied a "silent majority" of Americans were still traditional, salt-of-the-earth types.)
In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, Republicans did quite well electorally. Simultaneously, however, our society became coarser, more permissive, less traditional, and more socially liberal. And while politicians won elections, our young people turned to Hollywood for guidance. For every Republican elected, there were 10 films or songs (many of them quite good, actually) selling sex, drugs, and violence. Of course, this all comes down to that clichéd line about the breakdown of the family unit. It's clichéd because it's true.
Now: In the wake of the House GOP's capitulation on the Senate-passed fiscal cliff bill (which does nothing to rein in entitlement spending), some prominent conservatives are beginning to notice that today's electoral and public policy defeats are a natural byproduct of having lost the culture war.
For example, over at Red State, conservative commentator and blogger Erick Erickson argues, "Republicans should turn their attention toward — family." Erickson quotes Rick Santorum, who, during a 2012 Republican primary debate said:
The bottom line is we have a problem in this country, and the family is fracturing.
Over 40 percent of children born in America are born out of wedlock. How can a country survive if children are being raised in homes where it's so much harder to succeed economically? It's five times the rate of poverty in single-parent households than it is in two-parent homes. We can have limited government, lower tax — we hear this all the time, cut spending, limit the government, everything will be fine. No, everything's not going to be fine.
There are bigger problems at stake in America. And someone has got to go out there — I will — and talk about the things.
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. The good news is that, though conservatives typically hate the term "reactionary," most conservative victory is first predicated on liberal overreach.
It may be that if things get bad enough, America will finally start looking inward.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 10 things you need to know today: September 2, 2014
- What would a U.S.-Russia war look like?
- How American businessmen are ruining American business — and the U.S. economy
- The Obama era is over. The presidency continues.
- Russia's giant spy ship was a high-tech disaster waiting to happen
- Fall movie guide: All the films you should see in September
- The 10 best networking tips for people who hate networking
- Scottish independence is another financial crisis waiting to happen
- 11 scientific studies that will restore your faith in humanity
- America created the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria? Meet the ISIS 'truthers'
Subscribe to the Week