Core Debate

This article appeared in the National Review on July 3, 2007.

In his reply to my article "A Farewell to Culture Wars," Ramesh Ponnuru concedes the main point I was trying to make. Specifically, he admits that "[i]t really is pointless to pine for the social order that existed prior to the late 1960s," and that "most conservatives would not want to go back if they could."

Ramesh makes this concession almost casually, as if it were no big deal. But I'm sorry, it's a very big deal indeed. After all, a great deal of intellectual and emotional energy on the right has been expended over the years in precisely the kind of pining Ramesh now regards as pointless. Conservatives have defended, with great conviction and moral passion, positions on race relations, the role of women in society, and sexual morality that most conservatives today would disown as ludicrous or offensive. I don't think it suffices to dismiss these glaring errors of judgment with an Emily Litella–like "Never mind."

Conservatives are understandably dissatisfied with where they now stand. But if you don't like where you are, it makes sense to look carefully at the path you've taken to get there. That was the purpose of my article: to encourage conservatives to reflect on the culture–war decades, inventory what they got right and what they got wrong, and apply the lessons learned to plotting a constructive path forward.

If conservative errors exhibit a pattern, and I believe they do, it consists of underestimating the cultural resiliency of a free society. There is a marked tendency among people on the right to conceive of the "moral capital" that makes ordered liberty possible as a one–time bequest from the pre–modern, pre–liberal past. According to this way of thinking, modernity is one long, inexorable slide into decadence — and the more we stray from age–old truths and ways of doing things, the faster decline and fall will be upon us.

The evidence of recent years shows that this rigid, brittle vision of social order is wrong. The '90s witnessed no revival of traditional religious beliefs, no return of premarital sexual restraint, no reassertion of patriarchal authority — yet the statistics on crime, divorce, fertility, abortions, teenage pregnancies, and welfare dependency all began showing marked improvement. Ramesh accuses me of complacency about the current state of the culture; I plead not guilty. I fully recognize that American society today is bedeviled by a host of ills — how could any parent be blind to that? But the recovery experienced in the '90s, even if only a partial one, remains a fact that the traditionalist worldview is incapable of explaining. What it shows is that a free society doesn't just spend a dwindling cultural inheritance; it contains an internal capacity for regeneration.

As I describe at length in my new book The Age of Abundance, the advent of mass prosperity in the years after World War II gave Americans much wider freedom of choice than any people had ever experienced before — as a result of both mounting wealth and, relatedly, eroding traditional restraints. This unprecedented state of affairs led, unsurprisingly, to many foolish and destructive choices, as evidenced on the macro scale by various indicators of social breakdown. But the old cycle of liberty–license–chaos–authoritarianism was avoided. Instead, Americans collectively learned from their mistakes and began to handle their newfound freedom more wisely.

What allowed American society to right itself wasn't resubmission to ancient authority, but continued commitment to what I call core middle–class values: the personal and family values that sustain active participation and upward mobility in commercial society's ever–expanding division of labor. The Aquarian rebellion of the '60s mounted a frontal assault on this commitment, but communes and free love proved no more than passing fads. In the '70s, Daniel Bell imagined that affluence–induced hedonism would destroy the work ethic through the "cultural contradictions of capitalism" — but he never saw the yuppies coming.

It turned out that the American Dream retained its vitality even in an age of abundance, because Americans still wanted more — more comforts, more conveniences, more opportunities, and more challenges, all of which were best provided through continued economic development. The strength of this desire, and not the fading hold of old cultural forms, provided the basis for ongoing commitment to middle–class self–restraint — self–restraint as a means to exuberant self–expression. Which in turn, after excessively permissive attitudes toward crime and family breakup were given an extended and harrowing tryout, provided the constituency for the ensuing conservative correction.

So, looking ahead, I advised in my article that conservatives should return to their "core competency" and focus on defending the liberal institutions of limited government and free markets. Further, they should make a culturally inclusive case for those institutions by celebrating the all–American, bourgeois virtues of personal responsibility, commitment to family, hard work, and enterprise. And they should leave the rest for free people to decide for themselves. In particular, they should abandon the now–discredited fear of a liberal order's fragility that currently motivates the right wing's divisive tizzies over gay marriage and Mexican immigration.

Ramesh accuses me of "solipsism," as if I had claimed that all my personal druthers on public policy would make for a winning political program. I suggested nothing of the sort, as I am all too aware of the distance between my own political opinions and those of the general public. Nevertheless, I do maintain that the political values at the center of American public opinion today are broadly libertarian, combining a firm belief in personal responsibility with an equally firm belief in tolerance of cultural differences. The open question at present is whether conservatives or liberals will do a better job of constructing policy agendas that advance those values.