Can Virtue Heal the American Right?
by Rachel Lu
The modern administrative state and our militant secular culture are like two heads of a single hydra. To destroy the beast, we must deal with the monster in its totality.
We’ve come to that agonizing point in our political process when each political party must choose its champion. Republicans are trying to decide in whose hands to place their party’s fate. Perhaps the uninspired but reassuringly American Scott Walker? The inexperienced but well-spoken Marco Rubio? Rand Paul, a man of intelligence and conviction who nonetheless selected drone strikes as the issue most worthy of a filibuster? Or should we throw everything to the wind and pick a buffoon with a giant wallet for his soap box?
The stakes are high. America sits in the shadow of a militant secular culture that seems determined to subdue everything in its path. Liberal Democrats have lashed themselves firmly to the mast of that dominant culture, and by doing so have won a political edge. Our mainstream cultural institutions eagerly promote their values and often their candidates as well. Meanwhile, on the conservative side, we obsess about messaging, demographics, and electoral ground games, and while those do merit attention, the hard decisions will ultimately revolve around one central problem. Conservatism has become countercultural, and it’s hard to win elections from a countercultural platform.
At the heart of this debate lies a brutally simple dilemma: we can either move ourselves in the direction of the mainstream culture, or we can continue trying to persuade the culture to move back toward us.
As usual, the right choice is also the harder one. Our liberty will never really be safe among a citizenry that disregards virtue. If conservatism throws away its other commitments in order to compete for progressive hearts, it may as well just not exist. However far our compatriots stray from natural law, we must continue to call them back to prudent ways of living, reminding them of the manifold benefits of discipline, self-sacrifice, and virtue. Unfortunately, many of our allies have grown apathetic or even hostile to this fundamental work.
Small Statism and the Lesson of the Tea Party
Within modern conservatism, there is presently a great deal of support for what we might call “small-state minimalism.” Minimalists get enthused about plans to “small up and simple down,” not just our government but also our conservative message and philosophy. Instead of conserving traditional ideals and values, they argue, we should focus our political efforts on preaching small-state principles. Lower taxes, reduce regulations, and try to dismantle the administrative state as much as possible. Throw a bone to the religious by promising to defend freedom of religion, but more generally, try to diminish the government’s intrusion into the lives of ordinary people. Silence our preaching about abortion, marriage, and especially sex.
I understand the appeal of this approach. It revolves around a simple, understandable objective, which resonates with people in an era of intrusive, overbearing government. In a live-and-let-live way, this message still seems attractively principled and focuses on a time-honored conservative principle. And it instills a sense of urgency in grassroots conservatives, given the alarming growth and rank corruption of the state, particularly under the present administration.
Small-state minimalism also promises a neat solution to the still-raging culture wars. By unlinking cultural conflict from the aggressive arm of the state, minimalists think we can dissociate ourselves from politically damaging conflicts that they mostly regard as lost. Religious conservatives are free to continue their efforts to convert the heathen at a grassroots level, but in the meanwhile, shrinking the state may open a space for conservatives to live their lives more peacefully (while also winning some elections).
There is a serious problem with this plan: It won’t work.
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