Editor's Desk

Culture Trumps Politics

By From the September 2012 issue

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On November 6, conservatives are going to win big in the elections, but not in the war for our political culture. Why?

Culture trumps politics every time. In fact, culture trumps politics, the law, and even the Constitution. Recently we saw culture trumping the law and the Constitution spectacularly in NFIB v. Sebelius, when Chief Justice John Roberts crossed over to join the Liberal minority and find Obamacare constitutional.

There is in our country a self-styled elite, who propound a culture that is very rarified and very political. Over time it keeps changing, but it remains in the hands of the same elite. The culture is Liberal, cut off from the American demos, but all the more potent because of this segregation. It follows its own eccentric whims unchastened by the demos. Because of its alienation from ordinary Americans and because it pollutes, contaminating all it touches, I call it a Kultursmog.

Up there in the Kultursmog, the Supreme Court was never expected to consider Obamacare. When then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was asked about the constitutionality of Obamacare, she responded with an impertinent: “Are you serious?Are you serious?” Of course, the law’s constitutionality was soon questioned and by a sufficient number of elected officials from state governments that it received a rather lengthy hearing before the Court.

During the hearing, the elites changed course again. First they defended the Commerce Clause and denied that the penalties attached to thwarting the law could be construed as a tax. Then they settled for the penalties as a tax. But more importantly, they began to argue up there in the smog that no selfrespecting justice would invalidate a congressional statute. Doing so would be outré. Certainly Chief Justice John Roberts would not invalidate a congressional statute for the sake of his legacy, notwithstanding that 169 have been invalidated. Eventually he seems to have agreed.

As it turned out, the Kultursmog had chosen just the right set of toxins to pry Roberts from his colleagues in the conservative majority. By the instrumentality of culture he was persuaded to side, however uneasily, with the Liberals. They won a onevote majority, an outcome that the smog had adjudged unseemly when it looked like it was the conservatives who would command such an exiguous margin.

The Kultursmog moves in mysterious ways, but once again culture trumps all else. Today the White House that on Thursday morn, June 28, had hunkered down, fearful of a massive defeat, is proudly proclaiming: “Did anyone ever doubt Obamacare’s validity?” Actually, we all did.

The Liberals have played the culture card very effectively for years. This autumn I predict that conservatives in alliance with independents will sweep to victory. They will eventually overturn Obamacare. Unfortunately, they will continue to lose the culture war. They do not know how to wage it. They are like an audience that is tone deaf trying to appreciate Beethoven.

The Liberals’ domination of American political culture and of high culture in general goes back many decades. It was famously on display in what I identify in my new book, The Death of Liberalism, as the Liberals’ first civil war, waged roughly from 1946 to 1948. Then, the radicals led by Henry Wallace were sent packing. Liberals such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., John Kenneth Galbraith, and Reinhold Niebuhr took hold of Liberalism. They had flavorous terms and appealing titles for their eminently readable books. The terms and titles resonated through the culture for a generation or more.

For instance, Schlesinger’s The Vital Center argued that Liberalism was at the vital center of American life, a notion that would have surprised a Midwestern farmer or a San Francisco longshoreman or a Southern segregationist, say the Democrat Richard Russell. At any rate, The Vital Center continued to be ventilated in the culture until the late 1960s, when another Liberal theme preempted it, namely the Liberals’ alienation from American life. As I say, the Kultursmog keeps changing, though its adherents pretty much stay the same.

CONSERVATIVES CANNOT MATCH the Liberals in the culture war. They do not understand it.Time and again, they have the insights that could be transformed into fetching ideas for cultural battle. They fail. They do not want to take up the ideas of others. They lack the imagination to see an idea’s value unless it is absolutely convincing, though few are. In Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, intellectual reviews, talk radio, and the Internet, they have the institutions with which to spread their culture.Yet conservatives do so, if at all, very haltingly.They are borne down by their apprehensions and—let us face the facts—their intellectuals’ insecurities.

In America today, we have very promising carriers of conservative ideas, ideas worthy of a culture war. For one, there is Stanley Kurtz, who, having researched Barack Obama assiduously, has come up with the very compelling idea that he is the Stealth Socialist. Even at the Heritage Foundation, I am told, the rank and file in Heritage’s vast membership cringe at the idea.

They would rather call Obama a standard-issue Liberal, though Kurtz makes clear he is anything but, and Obama’s recent yawp that “If you’ve got a business— you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that Happen” only confirms Kurtz’s finding. Or take James Taranto’s notion of the Taranto Principle, by which the mainstream media’s tolerance and at times encouragement of the Liberal politician’s extremism only goads him to more extreme behavior and often helplessness at the polls. It is a useful axiom. Or while I am at it, take my idea of the Death of Liberalism. It seems to shock conservative intellectuals, though it will receive further confirmation in the months ahead. This White House is past Liberalism. It is, as Kurtz says, socialist.

This election is going to be a rout. From all I can tell, it is being waged on the proper issues, economic issues. Yet when president-elect Mitt Romney begins gathering around him a cabinet, he will be faced with the same problem that Chief Justice Roberts faced in recent months. The air he breathes, the culture that dominates Washington, is not the air and culture of Salt Lake City, Utah, or of Peoria, Illinois. And most conservative writers are doing little to fumigate it.

http://www.amazon.com/The-Death-Liberalism-Tyrrell-Jr/dp/1595554882

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About the Author
R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. is the founder and editor in chief of The American Spectator. He is the author of The Death of Liberalism, published by Thomas Nelson Inc. His previous books include the New York Times bestseller Boy Clinton: the Political Biography; The Impeachment of William Jefferson Clinton; The Liberal Crack-Up; The Conservative Crack-Up; Public Nuisances; The Future that Doesn't Work: Social Democracy's Failure in Britain; Madame Hillary: The Dark Road to the White House; The Clinton Crack-Up; and After the Hangover: The Conservatives' Road to Recovery.