Politics & Culture
slouches toward St. Paul
By Rod Dreher
Not long ago,
you might have foreseen the Republican pilgrimage to St. Paul, Minn.,
as having all the brio of the Bataan Death March. Surprise! For all the
party's problems, Republicans find themselves with a fighting chance of
holding onto the presidency after all. Yet even if Mr. McCain pulls off
November upset, this
week's GOP convention will still mark the end of something. It will, in
effect, be the last hurrah of the Republican Party as we've known it
for a generation.
The Republicans came to St. Paul to
praise John McCain, but whether they know it or not, they also came to
bury the party of Ronald Reagan.
During the GOP
primaries, the candidates' frequent invocation of the sainted Reagan
name telegraphed how little thoughtful or fresh his would-be heirs had
to say. It has been 20 years since Mr. Reagan left the White House;
imagine how pathetic it would have been had Democrats seeking the 1984
presidential nomination invoked JFK's name at every breath. The world
that produced Mr. Reagan, and Reaganism, has passed into history
(thanks in large part to him and his successes).
survey the intellectually moribund Republican Party today is to be
reminded of Edmund Burke's paradoxical dictum: "A state without the
means of some change is without the means of its conservation."
It's also true of political parties and movements. The
troika of anti-communism, low taxes and less government had a good run,
but its day is done.
The Soviet Union is dead, the
People's Republic of China has gone capitalist (if not democratic), and
an aggressively militarized and moralistic foreign policy has mired
America in the sands of empire. Our biggest economic problem now is not
high taxes, but high deficits – a consequence of Reagan Republicans'
devotion to lowering taxes without concomitant cuts in spending.
Neither Mr. Reagan nor his successors truly sought
hence the unintended honesty in GOP Rep. Mike Pence's pathetic 2006
boast: "We may be the party of Big Government, but they are the party
of Really Big Government." If it's an epitaph for the Reagan GOP you
seek, that's as good as any.
For conservatism, a McCain
presidency would be at best transitional, not transformational. The
question that should be on every thoughtful conservative's mind this
week is: What kind of Republican Party – and what kind of conservatism
– will arise out of the right's crack-up?
The answer, of
course, depends on two related questions: What you think conservatism's
problem is today, and more deeply, what you think the conservative
tradition has to offer contemporary America.
heretical thought: What if the most important work for conservatives to
engage in at this moment has nothing to do with the Republican Party,
or with politics at all? What if the Republicans are struggling to
answer questions that aren't the most critical ones facing our
civilization? In fact, what if the conservative political scientist
Claes Ryn is correct, and conservatives' obsession with politics in the
post-war era has been a massive distraction from the truly important
work before us? As Dr. Ryn wrote in The American Conservative:
problem [for conservatives], simply put, was lack of sophistication –
an inability to understand what most deeply shapes the outlook and
conduct of human beings. Persons move according to their innermost
beliefs, hopes and fears. These are affected much less by politicians
than by philosophers, novelists, religious visionaries, moviemakers,
playwrights, composers, painters and the like, though truly great works
of this kind reach most minds and imaginations only in diminished,
By disdaining to take culture seriously, except to denounce it,
conservatives ceded the field of imagination to liberals, who set the
terms of debate.
"Conservatives really don't understand that
culture trumps politics," screenwriter and novelist Andrew Klavan told
me recently. "A Ronald Reagan can change the political culture for 20
years, but that change can completely vanish, and conservatives will
not even know how they got there. How does that happen? Through the
culture. But we don't even see that over time."
Mr. Klavan, whose most recent novel is the political
thriller Empire of Lies,
faults his fellow conservatives for misunderstanding and downplaying
the importance of culture. Culture puts the ideas in people's heads.
"And not just popular culture, but high culture," he said. "The people
who write TV, they're not watching TV. They're going to the ballet,
they're reading poetry and novels, they're partaking of the high arts."
It may or may not be important to elect Republicans to
office, but conservatives who believe politics will lead to the renewal
of a debased culture are mistaken. In fact, one measure of our decline
is how little understanding most people who call themselves
conservative have of the root causes of our civilizational crisis.
It is to be expected that the liberal party would
support the casting
off of traditional restraints and adopt a cultural politics built
around the autonomy – sexual and otherwise – of the individual. The
conservative party offers only token resistance to "progress," because
if it were to mount an effective countercharge, it would find itself on
the margins of power. The culture is no longer conservative – and there
are and have been few, if any, effective sources of countercultural
resistance from the right.
That must change. That will
change. Conservatives who can read the signs of the times sense that
America is headed for hard times. The current order cannot stand for
long. We have been squandering the cultural and economic capital built
up by previous generations. We're about to be foreclosed on.
As former U.S. Comptroller David Walker tirelessly
points out, the
nation is headed over a fiscal cliff in the near long term. We cannot
afford to make good on the promises our government has made to retirees
and Medicare recipients, which will, among other things, force radical
changes in the way extended families live. We also could be facing deep
and lasting economic crisis because of our individual and governmental
The military that undergirds the
American empire is stretched thin. The volatile cost and availability
of oil, the lifeblood of our economy, puts our collective future into
serious question. The American education system is badly troubled, and
what chiefly ails it defies the ability of policymakers to fix. The
U.S. cannot or will not control its southern border. And so on.
America has faced worse crises, of course. But it is
whether we have ever faced such difficult challenges with so few
collective spiritual and moral resources to draw on. For
traditionalists, the nature of our crisis is not that modern people
don't live up to standards; it's that they deny there are standards to
live up to
Cultural liberalism and individualism – both
of the Republican and Democratic kind – are luxuries society can afford
in times of plenty. Self-discipline and self-reliance are tough sells
when the good times roll endlessly on. Barack Obama called for no real
sacrifices in his convention speech, nor did John
McCain. Realism doesn't sell; blind optimism does. Future
generations will wonder why we were so reckless.
sense, the chief task before conservatives is not to fight the
Democratic Party or prop up the Republican Party. It's nothing less
than to recover what it means to be fully human in a postmodern world
that denies human nature and the transcendent order underlying our
affairs. We must lift our eyes higher than the horizons of the next
election and build the institutions and customs that will create an
enduring culture based on truth and beauty and virtue, even as all that
is false and ugly and corrupt in modernity passes, as it must.
History is cyclical, not linear. America's is not the
civilization to have fallen under the spell of its own power and given
itself over to pleasure. "Luxury, more ruthless than war, broods over
Rome and exacts vengeance for a conquered world," Juvenal wrote at the
beginning of Rome's descent.
Conservatives would do well
to hold this thought when pondering how best to serve a country that
has lost touch with the truths and traditions that made it the most
powerful nation on earth. What happens in St. Paul matters far less to
America's future than what's happening in our families, churches,
schools and other institutions where character and imagination are
Does America need conservative politicians?
Absolutely. But more than that, we need – and conservatives must
produce – poets, pastors and professors of wisdom, honor and creative
Rod Dreher is an editorial columnist
for the Dallas Morning News, from which this article is
permission in slightly modified form. His e-mail address is