At what point do we need to start calling Progressives “Conservatives”? They are the keepers of the social order, advancing, if not with prudence then at least with consistency, down the path they steered us onto fifty years ago, if not a hundred, if not two hundred. And what exactly are “Conservatives” conserving these days? Limited government? The family? Traditional values? If your tradition is to load up the kids and drive down to the lake for a day of swimming and fishing, you can’t keep calling it a tradition when the kids are grown and gone, the lake is polluted, and fishing is illegal. Even if you’d still like to be able to do it, you can’t. It’s a sign of how confused our labels have become that “Conservatives” espouse a form of government once called Liberal, a conception of society that is essentially agrarian, and an economic model that is progressively more individualistic. Meanwhile, “Progressives” are busy enforcing cultural norms with authoritarian zeal, protecting and expanding the status quo of governmental and corporate power, and consolidating within cosmopolitan metropolises. In our time, whose side would Burke be on? Whose would Robespierre?
I won’t blame you for not finding the common threads in this jumbled mess. These groups’ beliefs and labels can be traced historically, but whatever the reasons, we’ve all accepted the prevailing assumptions of our age, primarily individualism, in our own ways and with our own reservations and political expressions. That’s what it means to have a culture; even dissent is not left unchanged by its influence. The metaphors we use for ourselves obscure the reality of our cultural position. You can draw a straight line from the Sexual Revolution to the Reagan Revolution and on through today. Of course, you can draw many lines, as curved or crooked as you like, but they will all point in the same direction.
Which is not to say our differences are nonexistent or trivial. On the contrary, the bizarro, anti-reality worlds of Trumpism and identity politics, the polarization and balkanization of the media, the utter breakdown and politicization of education and the arts, the deconstruction of literature and language, the hollowing out of pop culture, the memeification of online discourse, the rising economic and social inequality (and much else) are evidence that we are entering the ad absurbum phase of the current cultural argument. How long can we continue to fray before all the threads come apart?
What comes next is not within my powers of discernment (though I doubt it will be a lasting turn toward either Trump’s brand of nationalistic populism or Warren and Bernie’s democratic socialism), but I will note that, despite exceptions, cultures do not tend to continue in absurdity until they disintegrate into anarchy. When a culture becomes weak, like ours, it becomes susceptible to takeover from within and without. New arguments can capture a generation and initiate a change.
For a detailed explanation of how this transition occurs, I recommend To Change the World by James Davison Hunter. To summarize, he says that cultures (the collective beliefs about what is good and bad, acceptable and unacceptable, possible and not possible, etc.) are formulated by elite thinkers, writers, and influencers and propagated to the general public in the form of institutions such as governments, universities, newspapers, churches, corporations, etc. A corollary to this is that change must take place at the upper levels of elite institutions and often comes from people and institutions who are within the elite circle but on the margins, because they are in position not only to challenge the existing order but also to create and maintain a new order with new institutions. Cultures don’t change from the ground up, and that’s why Trump, though an elite in a certain sense, will never affect durable change. He went to Washington like a wrecking ball, which might be satisfying to his supporters, but you can’t build anything with demolition equipment. Maybe he manages to smash up enough for someone else to come in and rebuild, but it won’t be him. Notice his lack of a coherent belief system.
Implicit in this framework is that cultures are a response to and grow out of the previous culture. To become ascendant a new culture must have convincingly argued against some weakness or dissatisfaction in the previous culture. So the Sexual Revolution (in an extremely simplistic telling) was a winning response to the prior overregulation of sex and the hypocrisy of the regulators, and so the Reagan Revolution (in part) was a winning response to the overregulation of the economy and the hypocrisy of the regulators. This does not mean that the resulting culture is necessarily superior in sum than the previous one—it may end up being much worse—only that it was proposed and accepted in order to solve some problem with the previous culture. Therefore, there is no going backward. Even if you prefer the previous culture, you can’t put argue for the old culture as a substitute, because the new culture has already answered and defeated its problems. You have to put forward new arguments that address and rectify the problems with the current culture from within the current culture. You can’t MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, even if you think it was better in the past. You can only work on making America great now. Conservatives may want to change the culture, but cultural change is never conservative.
I don’t call myself a Conservative or a Liberal or a Progressive or a Libertarian. I’m not any of those according to the current formulations. The only label I accept is Christian. I know Christians have been branded as conservative as of late, mostly because of how we’ve fought the Culture Wars (to which Hunter’s book is addressed). To my eyes, these cultural conflicts have taken the form of an online argument, where each side responds to the other’s criticism by reiterating their original points. They were never going to change anything. More recently, some Christian thinkers have advocated a withdrawal from the culture, some have embraced the culture, and some have continued the fight. Hunter argues for a peaceful presence within whatever culture we find ourselves, which is, of course, hard to disagree with. But assuming we see the culture unravelling, people suffering, truth slipping away, changes inevitable, how can we advance a winning argument for a new culture where people and society flourish?
First we must establish an honest accounting of the strengths and weaknesses of the current culture. Pointing at some bad outcome (breakdown of the family, rising inequality, polarization, etc.) is simple, but understanding the causes is complex. Articulating solutions even more so. Further, what makes the current culture attractive to so many? I can’t give you all of those answers, and I’m not advocating for anything here except a change of mindset. The time for Christians to be conservative has long past, if it ever existed at all for our generation. Our mainline friends look to be going down with the ship; if we want to save it, we will need a genuine revolution. The Gospel is the same across the world, but it isn’t a prescription for a specific culture. Everywhere it speaks to different peoples in different manners. We need a new expression of it for the reform of the only society we have.
The first and most obvious step is to shed the political weight we’ve acquired, something frequently said but rarely accomplished, because we’ve locked ourselves into a conservative mindset and made a mortal enemy of all “Progressives,” fearing any loss of political clout within the GOP, but if history has anything to say it’s that the political parties fracture and recombine with surprising alacrity when social dynamics change. The giving up a political power in the pursuit of principled reform could cause one such realignment.
From outside of this dichotomy, we can embrace solutions that make our society more just for the most vulnerable among us and at the same time offer an answer to the ravages of identity, self-actualization, and the resulting anxiety and despair. We can try to build a new vision of community and connection that accounts for the digital and the local. We may have to be prepared to develop a new economic model based on different fundamental assumptions and in light of an environment changing with technological advances. There is little honest doubt left over which economic system produces the largest quantities, creates the greatest wealth, generates the most prosperity, but we might have to question whether those values are the highest priority. How should we allocate ownership and resources in our corporations? How will we deal fairly with low-skilled and displaced labour in a globally distributed, increasingly automated market? How should we distribute land and housing in our cities? Who should have control of our personal data? Why does it matter?
This obviously involves much more than the political. We have to accept both that most problems are not political in nature and also that some are. We need leaders in every area, from business to politics to art to education to television, not holding back the tide but pushing forward change, not cloistering into Christian subdomains but advancing truth and beauty in all its forms and expressions. In short, we need revolutionaries. Any volunteers?