End the Hostilities Against Elites: Four Theses on Social Conservatism (#2)

Note from Jake: We are re-publishing Matt’s old series from the fall of 2012 on social conservatism:

Part 1

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.

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  • BHunter

    Mr Anderson,

    Excellent post. We need more of this. Neoconservatism’s retreat into an anti-intellectual, anti-ideological foxhole is an untenable position. If there really is media bias (and I think there is very little serious contention that there is not), such a retreat only strengthens the media’s shrill cries that conservatives are “on the fringe,” “out of the mainstream,” “reactionary” “swimming against the current of history” and antithetical to rational thought (the tragic paradox is that that’s clearly not the case). Let’s not forget that William F. Buckley hatched modern conservatism and nurtured and sustained the movement from its nascence until its ascendance in the 80s. “National Review” conservatism was an intellectually vigorous movement spawned by an intellectual giant, and it put the left defensively on its heals. Ironically, the pseudo-intellectual leftist handlers prey on the emotions and irrationality of an unwitting populace. It is the right’s responsibility to expose the left’s hypocrisy to the light of reason. –B Hunter

    • BHunter

      ^^^ Sorry “heels” (not “heals”).

  • Ryan

    I appreciate your thoughts Matt but I think your view point is off. Your whole thesis is arguing as if they social conservatives have the fire hose when it reality they are the one’s being sprayed by it from liberal academics.

    Look at the case of Vanderbilt in this last year and their “all comers” policy to basically disband orthodox Christian groups on their campus. If anything the message has been loud and clear from liberal universities that you have to be tolerant about everything except social conservatism.

    If you are willing to look carefully you see that these universities have tossed out higher thinking for liberal ideology. Try questioning and critically think about evolution or the effects of gay parenting for kids and see what happens…even if the data seems to be interesting.

    I find it sad Matt that you take the side of the bully in this case rather than the group being shunned, silenced, and marginalized.

    • Um, with all due respect…..huh?

      Where exactly did I side with Vanderbilt and against orthodox Christian groups? That reading is so laughable that….I laughed!

      Matt

  • Ryan

    Did not say you did Matt. Nor am I sure why you are laughing. I was simply highlighting that your thought process of thinking it is social conservatives who are at fault in the strained relations with liberal universities, is wrong.

    I don’t see social conservatives as the antagonists here like you do. Rather, they are often just asking for the right to exist and function on college campuses. I don’t think it is laughable whatsoever. Maybe you do…

    • Ryan,

      Right here: “I find it sad Matt that you take the side of the bully in this case rather than the group being shunned, silenced, and marginalized.” If you think I am taking the side of the bully, I’d encourage you to reread it more closely. Where exactly do I do that?

      As to laughing, I don’t find the marginalization of Christian views within the academy laughable at all. The interpretation that I am advocating for that, on the other hand…

      Best,

      Matt

    • Hermonta

      Ryan,
      I think you are misreading Matt to be saying that the evangelicals are at fault, while it seems that he is simply talking about how we should handle our current situation without getting into who started the conflict. If we have truth and reason on our side, then there is no reason to write off the elites. Even if we agree that the elites threw the first blow, there is still a right and wrong way to respond.

  • Eric E

    Matt,

    Great job so far on this series. Although I question whether the elites-will-eventually-come-around argument is true. You are correct insofar as conservatives shouldn’t just stop making arguments. But 1) being right and 2) making good arguments about why you are right doesn’t necessarily lead to swarms of people taking that position. I am reminded that Kuhn pointed out that in the natural sciences, paradigms generally start to shift when the older scientists start to die off, not when they become persuaded by rational arguments. Again, not saying the arguments shouldn’t be made or that people can’t be persuaded, just saying that intellectually solid positions don’t always win against intellectually troubled positions.

    Also, check out David Brook’s latest column “The Conservative Mind,” if you haven’t already. It intersects nicely with this series you’re writing, I think.

    • A good point—but the flip side to Kuhn’s argument is that someone is being persuaded—not that older generation perhaps, but if no persuasion is happening, why does the change occur? (And granting fully that paradigmatic shifts are complicated things in every way.) The current set of thinkers may not be amenable to persuasion, but the next generation of thinkers is. (Cases like Antony Flew suggest that smart folks of every age are also open to persuasion, though to what extent we never know until change actually happens.)

  • Matt have you read any of Frank Schaeffer’s memoirs? I am reading his “Sex, Mom, and God: How the Bible’s Strange Take on Sex Led to Crazy Politics—and How I Learned to Love Women (and Jesus) Anyway” today. After I originally read your post I read his middle chapter on politics.

    Schaeffer is an odd writer. After being one of the people that really helped coalesced the pro-life movement he has strongly distanced himself from it and ‘repented’ of a lot of what he feels he helped to create.

    My point is that while there are all kinds of places that I disagree with him, both theologically and politically, he spends a lot of time talking about the rise of the politically conservative Evangelical movement and how it was based on the anti-intellectual methods that you are against.

    I am a liberal and Democrat and Evangelical, but I want a strong, intellectually coherent political conservatism that is biblically rooted because I believe that it is important to have real thoughtful Christians on both sides (and the middle) of the political spectrum.

    If you have a chance I would encourage you to reach chapter 6 of the book. You will have all kinds of objections to it, but he brings up some very valid points as well.

  • MRS

    Matthew:

    Thanks for this, very much. I’m a conservative – a WFB conservative is all I know what to say – and I am sick of the constant talk about Georgetown cocktail parties, elite professors, latte-swilling liberals, etc. The result of these distinctions is a very unhealthy “us vs. them” mentality that leads to social, cultural and intellectual antagonism.

    And to the above poster who said that neoconservatism is intellectually stagnant – clearly you’re not well-versed in neoconservatism. It’s current work on domestic policy is very robust.

    • BHunter

      MRS, I think we’re in agreement if we could have this discussion over beers (we both esteem WFB, right?). But if you’re referring to my remarks, I didn’t claim that neoconservatism is “intellectually stagnant,” I said that Neoconservatism has a tendency to “retreat into an anti-intellectual, anti-ideological foxhole.” I was half wrong. I think Neoconservatism is, by nature ideological (what socio-political school of thought isn’t ideological?). What I would argue is that there is an important distinction between intellectual stagnation and a tendency towards anti-intellectualism (and that’s not to say there are no intellectual neoconservatives). I think, though, this tendency towards anti-intellectualism necessarily stems from Neoconservatism’s early preoccupation with anti-socialism (looking for a communist lurking behind every stack in Weidner Library). The criticisms from the right were not just chimerical. Every stereotype gas some basis in reality. Our common hero, Buckley, whom I wouldn’t characterize as a neoconservative, cut his teeth on the intellectual establishment in God and Man at Yale, essentially founding the modern Conservative movement in the process (well he did also establish that magazine, which sadly misses him I might add). Yet he was sharply critical of Bush’s (a Neocon is many important ways) unthinking approach, and linked it, I believe to a vapid understanding of traditional Conservatism. WFB even went as far as to claim that “Bush is conservative, but he’s not a Conservative” (I may be paraphrasing just slightly). I suppose what I’m getting at is that there is a tendency among Neoconservatives to make a convenient straw man of “intellectualism” when subjects get dicey, and I find that a cop-out. It’s akin to pointing at the “egghead intellectual in a tweed coat” and rolling the eyes, at which point things usually devolve to the lowest common denominator. But I suppose we’ve gotten ahead of ourselves: exactly what IS a Neoconservative?

  • MRS

    I don’t want to get in a name-dropping contest (not that I know any of these writers), but what is anti-intellectual about Commentary and the Public Interest? Krauthammer? Kristol? If you’re thinking of people like Michelle Malkin, then fire away, but I wouldn’t classify her as a neo-con by any stretch.

    I agree with your broader point, though I’m not sure WFB was much for beer.

    • BHunter

      As to your last point, that actually crossed my mind as I wrote it. Beer and Bach just don’t go together.

      Again, I didn’t claim that a person can’t be both intellectual and Neoconservative, simply that Neoconservatism has a tendency towards anti-intellectualism.

      Here’s another way to look at it: The biggest “sniff-test” for distinguishing a Neocon from a classical Conservative involves approach to foreign policy. The Neocon is assertive and interventionist (whereas a classical Conservative favors a more restrained approach). This aggressive tendency reaches its ultimate expression in the absurd attempt to “spread democracy” around the globe. Respecting the sovereignty of other countries, however much we might deplore their political systems, should be a touchstone of true Conservatism. Yet this urge to “promote democracy” is a key component of Neoconservatism. It is one that is horribly naive. Such naivety signals a complete failure to account for history and culture, and an assumption that all cultures are really fundamentally alike and respond to the same stimuli. In this regard Neoconservatism is as ill-informed as the complete accommodationist policies of the left, which espouse, for example, that if “we just treat radical Islamists nice, they won’t cause us any trouble.” It makes the dangerous assumption that an Shiite Muslim responds to the same cultural stimuli exactly as a Missouri Lutheran would. The Neoconservative pursued a policy that if we waged an unprovoked war against a dictatorial regime in a majority Muslim country and set up free elections, then friendly Western-style democracy would flourish and the world would become a safer, more peaceful place. Such a pursuit completely fails to take into account deeply ingrained realities such as tribalism, warring Muslim sects, ethnic friction–in other words, if fails to account for 1,000 years and more of history and culture. It might just as well assume that the world was created yesterday and is thus a tabula rasa upon which to imprint ideas. What is that if not anti-intellectual? How can a quick perusal of modern history not suggest that if Queen Victoria’s army was unable to lovingly thrash Sindh into civilized submission and turn them into proper Englishmen, then a “nation building” force from Postmodern America might struggle in its attempts to convince Afghanis to embrace Western democracy?

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  • Jeremiah Lawson

    http://acculturated.com/were-asking-the-wrong-question/
    Since Acculturated shuffled paging a bit there’s the new link to the piece mentioned in the article.

  • hoosier_bob

    This piece and its predecessor make a number of good points. The biggest failing that I see among social conservatives is the failure to be able to distinguish pragmatists from progressives. Yes, both are generally opposed to social conservatism as a political philosophy. But pragmatists typically abide by socially conservative practices, and are quite interested in ensuring that we preserve the private right to organize along such lines. Thus, pragmatists are not opposed to socially conservative practices; they are simply opposed to their promotion by public institutions. Progressives, by contrast, are actually opposed to socially conservative practices.

    Take the same-sex marriage discussion as an example. Pragmatists are generally fine with same-sex marriage. That’s not because they think that same-sex marriage is such an awesome thing. They don’t. In fact, I suspect that most pragmatists have private doubts as to the wisdom of this novel institution. Even so, they generally believe that it’s best to leave the regulation of marriage to the private sphere. They recognize that people marry for a wide range of reasons, and that it’s better not to impose too many public limitations on the institution. Pragmatists feel no tension between maintaining private doubts on same-sex marriage even while we permit it publicly. In that sense, pragmatists and social conservatives may harbor fairly similar opinions about same-sex marriage. The difference is whether those opinions are given credence within the public sphere or in a more limited private sphere. On many questions, pragmatists are content to opt for the latter approach.

    Yes, there was a time when social conservatives were culturally dominant, and they had the political muscle to force public institutions to enforce their social preferences. That world began crumbling in the 1960s and isn’t coming back. Sure, remnants of it remain in the rural South and Midwest. But it’s largely passed. A strategy based on regaining control of public institutions is doomed to failure.

    That’s why it behooves social conservatives to form strategic alliances with pragmatists. Of course, that requires you to have the wherewithal to distinguish between a pragmatist and a progressive. The former group only objects to your agenda procedurally; the latter objects to it substantively. In fact, the whole success of the Benedict Option depends on developing this kind of discernment. I’m not hopeful. Rod Dreher’s basic intuitions are right as to the BenOp, but I doubt that he has the social discernment to implement it. Rod Dreher has a piece up today in which he lambasts Peter Thiel. Yes, Peter Thiel is not a social conservative; he’s an elite pragmatist. But, for Dreher, all that matters is that Thiel is not a social conservative. Therefore, for Dreher, Thiel is no better than a God-hating leftist.

    Social conservatives have to stop attacking elites, and start imitating them. Elites learned generations ago that they would never have the numbers to take over public institutions. And while the definition of what it means to be elite has changed over the decades, elites across the decades have thrived because they operate within a private sphere that is flush with social capital. Ross Douthat addresses this in his piece, “Social Liberalism as Class Warfare.” Yes, elites don’t care about social issues, at least not at the public level. That’s because they operate within a world dense with social capital that rewards socially responsible behavior and punishes socially irresponsible behavior. They have a robust system of implicit moralism, and therefore see no need to invest time and effort maintaining a system of explicit moralism in the public square.

    But there’s no quick fix. It will take decades to pull this off. When I joined evangelicalism in the 1990s, I was encouraged that such a project was underway. People seemed primed to invest in a long-term project of recreating a genuinely Christian subculture. But then the Lewinsky scandal hit, the Culture Wars flared up again, and evangelicals jettisoned the long game. If you’re going to pull this off, you have to have the discipline not to flip out just because a transgendered woman wants to use the women’s restroom. Thiel is right. Such issues are a sideshow, and they take you energy away from what you ought to be working on.