Of course, these thoughts were spurred in part by the results of the recent presidential election. Frankly, the self-identified Social Conservatives didn't do so well this time around. Part of the problem, of course, is that this was not a good year for conservatives in general, of any stripe; and part of the problem is that the Republican party, which has been the political home of the SoCons since at least the Reagan administration, has become fractious lately.
This last point is a challenging one. The old Reagan coalition succeeded because it managed to find common political ground between several varieties of "conservative": there were the defense hawks, who were dismayed at the state of American power and influence in the late 1970's; there were the fiscal conservatives and the libertarians, who were dismayed at the levels of taxation, regulation, and spending; and there were the social conservatives, who were dismayed by the erosion of their values in the public square--from open denigration of America and its symbols, to breakdown of the family, to breakdown of public order, to abortion on demand, to marginalization of Judeo-Christian values in academia and intellectual life. Reagan presented a program that appealed to all of these constituencies simultaneously.
But now, it almost seems that these various factions are trying to kick each other out of the party. They don't say that, of course; what they actually say is that if we want to be a big tent, then we have to reach out to people outside the party who don't agree with that faction over there. Of course, this is equivalent to saying that the party shouldn't champion the causes that are dear to the hearts of that faction, which is to say that that faction's values aren't as important as mine....
The trouble that the social conservatives are having, is that there are so few others in society who find common ground with them. Back during the Reagan years it was easy for them to find common cause with, say... the libertarians. To pick one example among many, the libertarians and the fiscal conservatives tend to be opposed to funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, based on the argument that this is not what Congress was designed for, or that the Constitution doesn't authorize this. The social conservatives tend to be opposed to funding it for a different reason: because it supports garbage, and I don't want my tax dollars funding that. There were enough issues around during the Reagan years that were like this: the SoCons and the libertarians, even though they had totally different worldviews, were still on the same side of many political issues. But now the issues are different. Consider the question of whether the schools should support abstinence-based sex education. The SoCons are just about the only ones out there saying Yea, and nearly everyone else says Nay--especially the libertarians, who were allies with the SoCons on so many different issues in the 1980s.
Thus we had something of a spectacle in this last election. There were very, very few people in this country who were unenthused, one way or another, about the V.P. candidacy of Sarah Palin. Among the Social Conservatives, she was a phenomenon. She was much, much more exciting to this big chunk of the Republican base than was the presidential candidate, John McCain--and had McCain picked just about anyone else, I suspect that large numbers of the SoCons would have sat the election out, and Obama would have won in an absolute landslide. And yet, while Palin's support was very deep and intense, it didn't seem to me very wide--it didn't extend much outside the SoCon base. Indeed, many of those in other factions within the Republican party loathed her.
And I say this--full disclosure--as someone who was, in fact, more excited by Palin than I was by McCain. (Actually, in the Republican primaries, my candidate dropped out before I had a chance to vote. Yup, I was a Fredhead. Y'all should have listened to us....) But it seems to me that while Palin gave McCain a fighting chance at covering his base, her appeal outside that base was very limited.
The SoCons are a sizable group, no doubt, but they aren't a majority, and right now they don't seem to have enough fellow travelers so that they can put together a majority voting block. Now, I don't mind so much about the political losses--in any well-designed democracy every side eventually loses, and then eventually wins, and then eventually loses again. But social conservatism as a social (instead of a political) force, on the other hand, is very important, and I'm not so sanguine about the ways things are going on that front.
Why? What's the problem? They're just one more political faction looking to control policy, right? Who (aside from them) cares if they win or lose?
Well, to answer the so what, we have to take about four steps back and look at what exactly social conservatism is.
Here's a little pattern. See if you can trace it out.
First item: there was a 14th century North African intellectual named Ibn Khaldun, who believed that there was a natural rhythm to history. It went like this: some nomad tribe, living out on the fringes of civilization, would rise to become a military and social force. The nomad tribe would come upon wealthy yet divided cities, and would beat them militarily and loot them. The tribe could do this because it was unified, and disciplined; the towns were full of soft, weak people who didn't know how to defend themselves and were disinclined to lay down their lives for their hated rulers. So, eventually the nomads would conquer the cities, and would become the rulers. They would continue as rulers for perhaps a few generations, becoming ever wealthier and more comfortable. Eventually science and the arts would flourish under their descendants. But then, they would one day become like their soft, weak predecessors; and then some other nomad tribe would rise up on the periphery of civilization. The now entrenched rulers find they no longer have the social cohesion or the discipline of their ancestors, and eventually they and their society become prey for the new nomads--just as their predecessors became prey for them.
Second Item: In his famous work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, historian Edward Gibbon advanced his theory for why Rome fell. As summarized by Wikipedia,
According to Gibbon, the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens. They had become weak, outsourcing their duties to defend their Empire to barbarian mercenaries, who then became so numerous and ingrained that they were able to take over the Empire. Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, "manly" military lifestyle. He further blames the degeneracy of the Roman army and the Praetorian guards. In addition, Gibbon argued that Christianity created a belief that a better life existed after death, which fostered an indifference to the present among Roman citizens, thus sapping their desire to sacrifice for the Empire. He also believed its comparative pacifism tended to hamper the traditional Roman martial spirit...
Third item: In the Biblical book of Judges, you see a rhythm that is repeated numerous times. It goes like this. The people of Israel gain prosperity, victory, and security. Then, they become complacent and decadent, and fall into idol worship. Then, God sends the Philistines, or the Amalekites, or the Midianites, or some other miscellaneous Canaanite foes to subjugate them. They are destroyed and enslaved, until a "judge"--a religious reformer and military leader--turns them back to God, and drives out their foes. Then, they become prosperous and secure for another generation or two, before they become complacent and corrupt....
You see the pattern, don't you?
Civilizations, and nations, have a life cycle. While no two stories are exactly the same, there are patterns that appear over and over again. Of course, no two historians agree on what exactly the cycles are. For example, I've seen Malthusian theories about how the driving forces of history are economic and resource-based, with the collapse mechanism having to do with the depletion of resources. Incidentally, I don't buy these theories; they don't, for example, explain the collapse of the Roman empire very well. I suspect that Gibbon and Ibn Khaldun are closer to the truth.
Here's the pattern that both of them (and to a degree, the Book of Judges) outline:
Starting at point 1, you have some tribe, or community, or city-state--one among many--which, for some reason or another, adopts some set of values--some virtues--that sets it apart. This tribe begins to grow in influence and power. It begins to subjugate its neighbors; it begins to take land, and exploit the resources that once belonged to its neighbors to become even more powerful.
Now, it is certainly true that natural resources are very unevenly distributed over the face of the Earth's surface, so some peoples have an advantage right out of the gate. And this has been advanced as a possible reason for why some societies advance and others do not. But while that may be a factor, it is also true that there have been resource-poor nations which have grown into mighty empires and defeated much more resource-rich ones. The classic (no pun intended) example of this, of course, was how resource-poor Greece triumphed over the mighty Persian empire--both when the Persians invaded Greece under Xerxes, and then when Alexander and his (numerically inferior) army destroyed the Persian empire under Darius III.
I think the key here is culture. Not in the sense of music and art, but in the sense of worldview, and social roles, and social values. The fact is, the way you, individually, think about money and about work and about sex and about religion and about power and about responsibility, has a huge impact on where you go in your own life. But if it affects your own life that much, think about how it can affect an entire society! When an entire society thinks that work is a gift from God, to use one example, and when that society teaches the same to its children, you tend to get a productive society--much more so than one in which people are taught that work is a sucker's game, and you should get out of it whenever you can. Likewise, when you have a society where everyone believes that raising the next generation, and instilling our values, is the most important mission in life, that society is going to wind up with children raised completely differently than a society where everyone believes that children are not as important as career and self-actualization.
Well, to go back to the model above, let's say you get a civilization with some set of values that allows them to succeed, thrive, and expand. What does this civilization look like? Well, when you look at most of the great empires and nations throughout history, at the time when they were rising, you see a lot of similar social structures, and a lot of similar traits. These include, in no particular order:
- Societal honor of the warrior, and of the martial ethic;
- Highly defined gender roles, with Manly Men and Womenly Women;
- An austere sense of justice, with antisocial types executed or exiled frequently;
- Great reverence to the concepts of duty, honor, loyalty;
- Strong social cohesion, to the point that many (even most) would proudly die for their tribes or countries;
- Willingness to endure a struggle for the common good;
- Strong societal institutions for instilling all these values in the young.
18th-20th Century America? Check.
Ok, continuing: eventually the civilization's influence and power spreads abroad, into a great empire. All enemies are defeated or held at bay; commerce, art, and science flourish; peace and prosperity reign. What then?
Well, we're about at point 2 on the graph--in the middle of what often are referred to as Golden Ages. The trouble with Golden Ages, is that the societies start to slip when it comes to passing the virtues and traits from the above list on to its progeny. After all, when it's been a couple of generations since anyone had to worry about dying in war, when you've got the family business running well, when everyone's fat and happy, it's a whole lot harder to teach the young about "sacrifice" and "duty". As the Wikipedia quote on Gibbon said, describing the later Romans, "They had become weak, outsourcing their duties to defend their Empire to barbarian mercenaries.... Romans, he believed, had become effeminate, unwilling to live a tougher, 'manly' military lifestyle."
One more point here: this period of decadence, which Gibbon and Khaldun and Judges all mentioned, most definitely includes decadence of the sexual variety. I don't want to get too deep into the topic here, but I will briefly touch on it: rising societies tend to have strict, austere gender roles on sexuality, often with severe penalties for those who deviate. Sexuality in the rising societies is primarily for childbearing, and for the strengthening of the marriage, which these societies generally deem crucial for the proper raising and training of children. Societies which enter their Golden Ages tend to become much, much more lax about sexual mores. Sex becomes primarily about pleasure, and only secondarily about procreation. This change is accompanied by the relaxation of societal penalties against "deviant" sex. Not surprisingly, starting during a society's Golden Age, the birthrate starts to plummet. This was true well before the invention in modern times of reliable birth control, I might add; this phenomenon was noticed and commented upon by the Romans, among others.
What happens next? Well, eventually the virtues and values that helped propel the society to its power and prosperity get rejected by the population. Now, this doesn't all happen at once. Interestingly, the decay generally starts at the upper levels in society. The rulers, and those in positions of power, usually become corrupt and decadent before the general population does. And at the beginning the rulers have to hide their behavior for fear of causing a scandal. They become nihilistic and cynical about their society's values first, while the people are still dutifully training their children to grow up to be Real Men (and Real Women). But eventually the cynicism and nihilism of the ruling classes becomes more and more public, and more and more accepted. The old values become a thing of mockery, as they become associated more and more with the lower classes and the non-urban "provincials". Eventually, even the lower classes start to reject them--with the rural farmers often the last to give up.
What do you have then? At that point, you have a society of people who have rejected, and who actively discourage, all the values they held to earlier:
- They dishonor the warrior who defends them, and instead celebrate those who keep them entertained;
- They obliterate all gender roles, and become what C.S. Lewis termed (in The Abolition of Man) "men without chests".
- Justice is thwarted, with the criminal often celebrated, and the law abiding citizen the subject of abuse and mockery;
- Open mockery of the concepts of duty, honor, loyalty;
- No social cohesion, to the point that many side against their country or empire;
- Little or no willingness to endure a struggle for the common good, especially since no one agrees on what the common good is anymore;
- Systematic destruction or subversion of those societal institutions that used to instill the former values in the young.
Eventually pieces of the empire start to be lost. Sometimes the final collapse comes suddenly and violently; other times the empire declines into a slow, degraded senescence. But either way, those nations that have had their day in the sun rarely get a second chance. I doubt Italy will have the world trembling under her pointed, heeled boot again, for a very, very long time....
So do you start to see what Social Conservatism is, and what role it plays in a society?
Go back and take a look at the graph again. Let's pretend for the moment we're at point 2 on the graph. Now think to yourself: what role are the Social Conservatives trying to play here? What are they trying to do?
The answer: more than anyone else, they're the ones trying to keep those virtues alive that got us here. Take a look at that list again; is it not the Social Conservative, more than anyone else, who champions each one of those virtues?
- Societal honor of the warrior, and of the martial ethic;
- Highly defined gender roles, rejection of the modern "gender is a social construct" mantra, and pushback against sexual libertinism;
- An austere sense of justice, with stiff penalties for lawbreakers;
- Great reverence to the concepts of duty, honor, loyalty;
- Strong social cohesion, to the point that many, even today, would proudly give their lives for their country (even though they don't like where it appears to be headed);
- Willingness to make sacrifices, of time and money for what they believe to be good causes;
- Strong support for churches and schools--so long as the schools aren't attempting to undermine their values. If they feel they are, they leave and establish their own schools, or they homeschool--because passing on their values to the next generation is one of the highest priorities of the Social Conservative. It's the mission on which all the values on this list hang.
Note that I haven't gone much into a discussion of religion here in this post, even though Faith is very, very important for the American Social Conservative. My point here is that even if one doesn't accept the faith of the SoCon, one should still be able to see that the SoCon is playing a very, very important role here. That role, if I may quote the words of Jesus, is to be the "Salt of the Earth"--in the sense that Jesus most likely originally intended it: SoCons are the preservative that keeps the rest of society from going bad. SoCons are the Inheritors and Guarantors of the traditions, for better or worse, that caused this country to become as wealthy, as strong, and as free as it is.
And the most important thing to understand about SoCons is that they do not primarily operate on a political level. Their Social Conservatism can be a political force, but that's not what it's primarily there to do. The SoCons are much more interested in making the next generation and passing on their values to in, and doing so in a way that the lesson sticks. They're more interested in what goes on in their homes, and in their churches, and on the streets of their towns; and if many of them (Huckabee types excluded) had their way, Washington would get out of the way and mind its own business. Much of their political involvement, in fact, comes about precisely because they fear that the intellectual classes are attempting to use governmental power to undermine and thwart the values they hold so dearly.
So when Thomas Frank writes the question, What's the Matter With Kansas? lamenting that somehow the extreme right wing is using cultural wedge issues to distract the working class from their true economic interests, he really, really doesn't understand the phenomenon he's up against. What he calls cultural wedge issues are rightly seen by SoCons as matters--literally--of life and death, both for our next generation, and for our entire society.