In recent articles I have argued that the method by which the Left has captured nearly complete control of the country over the last century was to radically alter the culture of the nation, after which ‘the politics caught up with the culture.’ One of the goals of this article is to elaborate on that thought.
Most of us have a clear understanding of the different stances of the political Left and Right and what it means to assert that the policies of the Left are in ascendance, while those of the Right are in decline — which certainly seems to be the case in 2009. Just to citethe most conspicuous evidence for that assertion, we observe that: government is expanding, not contracting; taxes and spending are increasing, not declining; government regulation and control of our lives is growing, not shrinking; our defense posture ebbs and negotiations are favored over even the threat of force; secular humanism is on the rise and the observance of traditional religion is weakening; industrial planning and crony capitalism are in vogue while free markets are under a cloud; the Constitution is malleable, its original intent irrelevant; the belief in American exceptionalism withers while the view of America as just another country, moreover one that has made serious mistakes historically, gains popularity; social justice is more important than individual liberty; and multiculturalism is in favor while ‘traditional culture’ wanes.
It is the last mentioned manifestation of the Left’s trampling of the Right that I wish to focus on here. In order to do so, we need to have a clear picture of the massive cultural changes that have engulfed the country during the last century, especially in the last 40 years. In order to identity and understand them, let us try to be specific about what we mean by ‘culture’ or the culture of a society. Consulting my trusty Merriam-Webster, I find that the noun, culture, has the following definition:
the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations; the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time; the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization; the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic.
Distilling that robust definition, I think we can agree that the key point is that the culture of a society or nation comprises the beliefs, social forms, traits, features, attitudes, values, goals and practices that are shared by a majority of the members of the society. A culture is strong if that majority is overwhelming. A culture is weak if the majority is a bare one, and a culture is fractured if the majority does not exist — that is, there are few beliefs, behaviors, etc. that are common to large proportions of the society; or said alternatively, there are competing values, goals, etc., none of which is held commonly by nearly all members of the nation.
The United States had a very strong culture throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. During the 20th century a powerful new culture emerged to challenge the established one. My goal in this article is not only to outline the contents of these two competing cultures, but also to venture an assessment as to the extent of the success of the new culture; that is, does the US have a strong new culture, a weak new culture or is the culture of the United States badly fractured?
The culture of a society has many components, some parts of which are more firmly entrenched than others, and different observers might identify varying pieces as among the strongest or weakest. But I believe that there would be a broad consensus that any description of traditional American culture, from the nation’s birth through 1900, would include at least the following (in no particular order):
- The English language as the mother tongue of the vast majority of citizens, in which virtually all business, politics, literature, entertainment, law, education and discourse of the nation is transacted.
- A Constitutional legal system derived from British common law, epitomized by the rule of law as opposed to the rule of man.
- A reverence for and loyalty to Western Civilization, meaning that guidance for how society is to be organized is sought from the historic tenets established in ancient Greece and Rome as well as during the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods in Western Europe.
- Freedom of worship, but morals grounded in the Christian religions of Western Europe, rebranded later with the designation ‘Judeo-Christian heritage.’
- The United States conceived of as a federal republic — more precisely, a representative democracy in which there is a balance of power between the central government and that of the States, and that the power of the federal government would be kept in ‘check and balance’ by division between three separate branches.
- The traditional family as the center of life and to which the individual owes his primary allegiance.
- A belief in American exceptionalism, meaning that the new experiment in freedom and liberty conceived in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights rendered the United States different from any nation before or since and that America has a special role to play as an example to the rest of the world for how man should be governed and society organized.
- Faith that the people of the nation could govern themselves, and a commitment to the principle that the government derives all of its powers only from the consent of the governed, and therefore that the powers of the government should be limited to those granted it in the Constitution.
- An economy grounded in free markets, laissez-faire capitalism, respect and appreciation for the profit motive and the sacredness of private property.
- An understanding that human beings are flawed creatures, given to greed and other deadly vices, and that the best method of keeping their transgressions under control is through a robust and fair legal system as well as through the moral checks of a common religious faith.
- Similarly, an understanding that nature could be violent, fate could be fickle, and that the method of dealing with life’s vicissitudes was the same two remedies as in the last bullet.
- Admiration for the classic British traits of modesty, humility, thrift, grittiness and the Protestant work ethic, and the elevation of those traits to aspirational ideals that should be taught to one’s children.
- Promotion of science and technology and adoption of the fruits of the creativity of those who practice them, but a healthy skepticism that scientists or engineers have solutions to problems that are primarily spiritual, moral or ethical.
- Three more — harmony of interests, rugged individualism and civil society, all of which I will describe by quoting from Mark Levin’s book Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto:
Like the Founders, the Conservative also recognizes in society a harmony of interests, as Adam Smith put it, and rules of cooperation that have developed through generations of human experience and collective reasoning that promote betterment of the individual and society. This is characterized as ordered liberty, the social contract,or the civil society.
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In the civil society, the individual is recognized and accepted as more than an abstract statistic or faceless member of some group; rather he is a unique, spiritual being with a soul and conscience. He is free to discover his own potential and pursue his own legitimate interests, tempered, however, by a moral order that has its foundation in faith and guides his life and all human life through the prudent exercise of judgment. As such, the individual in the civil society strives, albeit imperfectly, to be virtuous — that is, restrained, ethical, and honorable. He rejects the relativism that blurs the lines between good and bad, right and wrong, just and unjust, and means and ends.
In the civil society, the individual has a duty to respect the unalienable rights of others and the values, customs, and traditions, tried and tested over time and passed from one generation to the next, that establish society’s cultural identity. He is responsible for attending to his own well-being and that of his family. And he has a duty as a citizen to contribute voluntarily to the welfare of his community through good works.
Are these the components of a good culture? Well they certainly were good for the people of the United States, and secondarily of the world. Operating under these cultural axioms, the United States grew to fill a continent, underwent an industrial and technological revolution that made it the wealthiest, most dynamic and powerful country on Earth, saved the world from the scourges of Nazism and Communism, welcomed and assimilated vast numbers of oppressed peoples from around the world, and proved that the concepts of individual liberty and freedom enshrined in our founding documents were viable and a workable model for all mankind.
But it is not a one-sided picture. Certainly there were some warts. Under the traditional culture I’ve described, there also occurred the maltreatment of the indigenous people that we supplanted, the horror of slavery, limitations on the roles that women were allowed to play In society, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, and the blemish that, in retrospect, caused the most consternation: the fact that the culture, with its individualistic and competitive nature ,inevitably leads to winners and losers, success and failure, wealth and poverty, and thus to inequities, which are perceived as unfair and unacceptable.
And so the country harbored many persons and, as the twentieth century progressed, clearly an increasing number of such, who felt that the culture was wrongly conceived and needed to be altered. Beyond the inequities, these malcontents believed that American culture was: too religious and therefore too restrictive, male-dominated and so unfair to women, too unpredictable and chaotic, too materialistic and too dour in its assessment of the perfectibility of humans or nature. They set out to change the culture. And they succeeded. Now, as with the traditional culture, it is a challenge to encapsulate briefly the principles of what I shall call the counterculture that was invented and deployed by the revolutionaries. But here we go; once again I believe the following roster is a good summary of the ingredients of the counterculture that has been battling the traditional culture:
- Recognizing that the inequities resulting from unfettered capitalism impose unfair hardships on too many worthy members of society, the nation tempers those abridgments of people’s rights to a proper education, a suitable home, adequate health care and gainful employment at a living wage by empowering a strong central government to equalize standards of living and to provide affordable access to education, employment and health care.
- The justification for doing so is inherent in the nation’s founding documents, which, properly interpreted by the judiciary, grant the executive and legislative branches the authority to implement laws to guarantee these rights.
- Acknowledges legitimacy in the pursuit of spiritual beliefs by individuals, but decrees that religion has no place in the public square and so no government or government-supported activity can have any religious component.
- Accepts that Western Civilization has made contributions to the welfare of mankind, but is deeply troubled by its egregious failures — namely colonialism, religious oppression, aggressive war, suppression of women’s rights, slavery, segregation and exploitation of labor and capital. Therefore, it encourages the introduction of other civilizations and cultures into American society and believes the resulting diversity thereby created will build a more enlightened and just society.
- In particular, the mass immigration of Latin peoples to the US enriches our culture. Moreover, there is nothing holy about the English language and the emergence of a multinational, multicultural, multilingual populace will improve our society and guard against our perpetrating some of the excesses of Western Civilization enumerated above.
- Claims that the classic principles of Christianity have placed too great a restriction on the nature of human association — in particular, on family formation, and so places maltreatment of homosexuals on par with racial discrimination; therefore, all manner of familial formations can be as constructive and helpful to society as the traditional family.
- While the government has the obligation to do more than level the playing field in society in general, it has no right to proscribe an individual’s behavior in the privacy of his house or with regard to his person — in particular, it cannot restrict abortion, drugs, adult entertainment, etc.
- While it acknowledges the legitimacy of private property, it believes the government has an obligation to control the means of production in its quest to guarantee equalization and the rights enumerated above.
- The nature of modern society is so complex, so multifaceted and so intricate that it is beyond the ken of the normal individual. It is far too complicated to be understood and intelligently addressed by John Q. Public, whether acting individually or as a member of a vast electorate. Only those who are wise, well-trained and accredited, i.e., experts, are competent to direct our affairs. Only those politicians who appreciate this need and who can tap into that expertise are fit to govern us.
- Government has a major role to play in correcting man’s ill behavior toward his fellow man and toward nature. Crime, pollution, obesity, to name only a few of man’s failings, can be arrested by proper government policies and laws. When this is done, man will live in harmony with his fellow man and with nature.
- While liberty and freedom are important, they are not nearly as important as equality and fairness. The pursuit of equality is the noblest endeavor. By doing so we create a society that emblemizes social justice — our highest goal.
Before turning to an assessment of how far America has progressed toward replacing its traditional culture with the counterculture, let me comment on the ‘politics follows the culture’ observation earlier. In previous articles I have spelled out in detail the political agendasof the Left and Right. (See for example, prior articles in this journal, ‘Different Visions,’ or ‘A Conservative’s Thoughts as Obama Ascends to the Presidency.’)
Let’s not rehash those. Readers of this essay will surely be well aware of those agendas. Then the following point should be self-evident. The traditional culture aids and abets a conservative political viewpoint. If you accept all, or even only most of the principles of the traditional culture, it is impossible to imagine that you will want to support a liberal or leftist political agenda. Well, it is just as self-evident that if you subscribe to the countercultural principles as I’ve outlined them, then you surely will support a leftist agenda.
And that is the point of the ‘politics caught up with the culture’ comment. The counterculture is so deeply ingrained in sufficient numbers of the population that they naturally voted for the Obama-Pelosi-Reid team in the last election. In fact, unless conservatives can engineer a reversal of the current cultural tide, the electoral trends of ’06 and ’08 are likely not only to persevere, but actually grow stronger.
The last remark suggests that I believe that countercultural adherents do indeed constitute a majority of the electorate. Actually, until recently I would have said, ‘No, the culture of the country is fractured; neither side has a majority.’ But I was mistaking politics for culture. We are politically divided. But I have come to believe that culturally, although we are divided, the countercultural forces have indeed gained a majority in the nation. And thus my assertion that in the last two elections, ‘the politics caught up with the culture.’ On the other hand, I do not believe the new culture is strongly entrenched yet.
The strength of the counterculture appears to be growing at the expense of the traditional culture. This transformation is aided by the media, the education establishment, the entertainment industry, the legal profession, the foundations and virtually all other opinion-molding organs of society, all of whom are compliant and complicit in the cultural revolution. Thus, we seem to be heading toward a strongly leftist culture which I believe will be a monumental disaster for America and could signal the end of the glorious experiment in human liberty that our country has represented.
But let me not end on a note of despair. Yes, these are grim times for our republic. Levin’s book lays bare how America no longer is a Constitutional republic, nor is it a representative republic or a federal republic, but rather a ‘society steadily transitioning toward statism,’ or as others have christened it, a soft tyranny. He lays out a program for recapturing the culture and the politics (as have I previously). But can there be any hope of succeeding? Our country has seen dark days before — the Civil War, the Great Depression, World Wars, stagflation in the late 60s/early 70s. We coped. We survived three great leaps to the left under Wilson, Roosevelt and Johnson —although with a greatly weakened culture.
Now we are in the initial stages of the age of Obama and the fourth great leap to the left. Can we survive again? What will survive? Perhaps it’s an act of faith over reason, but I believe with Reagan that, ‘God had a divine purpose in placing this land between two great oceans to be found by those who had a special love of freedom and courage ‘ We may have abandoned Him, but I don’t think He is ready to abandon us just yet.