by CLAES G. RYN
Who has the power to shape the future? American conservatives think they know. They have always been single-mindedly focused on politics. Nothing is more important than to elect presidents and members of Congress. That’s where the real power lies.
William F. Buckley’s National Review was an intellectual magazine, but its main concern was to capture the presidency. People in the National Review circle played a central role in getting Barry Goldwater nominated as the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. What became known as the conservative “movement” started out as the Goldwater movement.
When Ronald Reagan won the White House, the movement congratulated itself on having finally achieved its objective. Conservatism had “triumphed.”
But the “triumph” was more imaginary than real. General developments within America’s national culture (within academia, the arts, and entertainment) were pointing in a much different direction. These developments would have a greater impact in the long run than the Reagan presidency.
Preoccupied as they were with political victories and strategies, movement conservatives were not very attentive to how the deeper beliefs and sentiments of people were evolving in the United States. Yet, political power is circumscribed by the culture of voters and what it will make them accept or reject.
People live according to deep-seated hopes and fears, which tend to reflect the moral, intellectual, and aesthetic sensibilities that predominate in their society. They will vote for politicians who seem to support their dreams and vote against others who rouse their anxieties — which raises the question of what gives human beings their notion of which is which?
There is no simple answer, but this much should be evident: If there are people who can strongly influence the basic worldview of others, they have the power to shape society’s future. It should be a central task for students of society and politics to know who they are and what views they advocate and to offer criticisms of and alternatives to dubious ideas. But movement conservatives were largely uninterested in what informs the deeper beliefs of human beings. Their eyes were firmly on the need to win political victories.
The outlook and aspirations of human beings are affected from childhood onward by influences that color their views and tastes: the example and guidance of parents, children’s tales, music, novels, movies, teachers, and preachers. We all have had experiences that we know to have affected our view of life permanently. In persons of refined sensibilities, great works of art may permanently color their outlook. Who really familiar with the impressionist painters can see blue skies, fluffy clouds, and water and trees without to some extent viewing them through their eyes? Who familiar with Shakespeare can be unaffected by his view of humanity?
Although we are never just passive recipients of such influences, our sense of what life is like is affected by how others have interpreted the world. We tend to absorb the sentiments and perspectives of creative people who capture our minds and imaginations. Those who are able to enter the innermost selves of millions of people and affect their idea of what will produce happiness and self-worth will have a power unmatched by politicians.
A particularly good example of this kind of power is the profound effect that Hollywood has had on the public. In the last few decades especially, this influence has, for the most part, been deeply subversive of the moral and cultural habits of traditional American civilization. Becoming attuned to the Hollywood view of the world and of the entertainment industry in general has rearranged the values and priorities of many people in the U.S. In the media, the perspectives of news programs and talk shows have conveyed a new notion of what is newsworthy and not, admirable and despicable. Situation comedies and late-night shows have taught people what to laugh at and what to ridicule. Even the churches have absorbed a new type of moral sensibility. The overall result is a way of reacting to politicians and daily events.
In the intellectual life, universities and schools have “deconstructed” American and Western civilization. What might be called the Boston-Berkeley axis and the Hollywood-New York axis have interacted and mutually reinforced each other. Campus teaching and academic books in the one axis and entertainment and news media in the other have, over time, produced a powerful new cultural substratum deeply at odds with traditional American moral-spiritual, intellectual, and artistic life. The now-ubiquitous virtue-signaling pays tribute to America’s new cultural regime.
The counterculture and the New Left of the late 1960s and early 1970s grew out of cultural developments in the preceding decades. The demonstrations, burnings, and violence associated with them subsided, but the radicalism was carried forward and extended in the universities, the arts, music, Hollywood, book publishing, advertising, the corporations, and the churches. It soon permeated the mass media.
Reagan benefited from a grassroots resurgence of earlier American civilization, but the moral, intellectual, and artistic radicalism continued its long march through American institutions.
For students of the sources of human conduct who have also been attentive to the mentioned developments, nothing could be less surprising than the current woke rebellion and cancel culture. This is precisely what could have been expected from what has already happened in “the culture.”
Some intellectuals did warn of the radicalization of the professors. Not as many have warned of corresponding developments in entertainment and the arts, which penetrate even more deeply into the heart of hearts of persons.
But movement conservatives never quite understood the centrality of what lies outside of politics narrowly understood. They assumed and stubbornly persisted in believing that what really matters is political power. They did not realize that once America’s cultural trendsetters had transmitted their radicalism to the general public, it would overwhelm and transform politics.
Will it finally dawn on movement conservatives that, in the long run, the culture leads the way?
Claes G. Ryn is a professor of politics and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at the Catholic University of America.