Thesis: For social conservatism to thrive, it needs to end its hostility toward elite institutions that are currently opposed to it.
Consider this bit by Rick Santorum from this year’s Values Voter Summit, which both stunned and saddened me:
Now, I’m a Rick Santorum fan. I like the fellow. Yes, he has a penchant for occasionally putting things badly (a problem rampant in social conservatism, and if I ever talk more one I’ll probably suffer from). But when I first heard him speak, I came away thinking that he was presidential material. Is he perfect? No way. But there aren’t many folks out there who can make a decent case for why family-friendly tax policies are good for America, and he’s one of them.
But still, if this is a snapshot of social conservatism, the movement is in far more trouble than we realize. Let me be really tough on Santorum for a second and count the ways in which this statement goes wrong:
First, the rampant populism fuels a sense of grievance against elites. It’s class warfare, only the classes are divided along prestige lines rather than economic ones. The “smart folks” in the university aren’t ever going to be with social conservatives and judging by much of the standard rhetoric about Hollywood, neither will they. I’m open to that being an honest assessment of the situation at the present: There are plenty of tweed-wearing academics who wouldn’t be caught dead at the Values Voter Summit. But class resentment—even if its against the “creatives” or the media or academics—will necessarily limit conservatism’s appeal and so unnecessarily throttle its cultural impact.
Second, this sort of statement emboldens conservatives in the wrong places. It’s one thing to highlight conservatism’s populist character and to emphasize the church and family as the wellspring of cultural renewal. I’m all for that project. But to cut away elites altogether creates the misguided confidence that as long as we get the numbers on our side, things are going well. We’ve seen this dynamic play out in the marriage debate, where conservatives have won vote after vote—and lost court case after court case. And while we might like talking about our slight margin on marriage and how important it is, we should not forget our Plato: Crowds tend to be unsteady, unreliable guides that tend toward despotism rather than liberty.
Third, it ironically points toward a lack of confidence in our ability to argue persuasively for our positions. If our cause is just and our understanding of human nature is true, then if we motor along doing our thing elites will eventually come around. And if they don’t, well, then I suspect conservatives will eventually become them. Intellectually troubled positions can’t borrow capital forever. Eventually, they’ll go bankrupt. And if social conservatives were actually confident in their positions, well, we wouldn’t foreclose the possibility of persuasion simply because our views are currently on the “outs” in those communities. We ought to roll out the welcome mat for those who recognize that liberalism has been tried and found wanting. Because if conservatives are actually right about this, then their ranks are going to swell.
One more frustration: What happens to those younger social conservatives who are talented enough to enter elite institutions? They certainly aren’t encouraged to go in that direction. (I was cautioned this weekend by a friend not to forget Jesus while studying at Oxford. And that after telling him I’m doing a degree in theological ethics!). Instead, because the “media will never be on our side,” those who might be able to play at that level will be perpetually cordoned off to the secondary conservative institutions, that may or may not be as good. That may actually have some advantages, but it also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Hollywood will never be on conservatives’ side as long as social conservatives spend their time railing against it and keeping their young people as far as possible from it.
Thriving as a movement might not mean entering into these institutions as a way of “infiltrating” them or trying to make a difference in them for conservative principles. As James Poulos ably points out, that mentality may be part of the reason why conservatives are no good at pop culture. What’s more, to attempt to cover the gap through strategy is simply another sign of the movement’s lack of confidence. If our understanding of the world is actually the best on offer, then all we need to do is calmly and patiently point toward it with a cheerful and engaging smile. To do otherwise would be simply vanity.