David Frum
Facing a serious beating in the upcoming elections, the American right is riven by recriminations and despair. But its poor performance is not because the movement’s basic ideas are unappealing. It’s because the right has ceded to the left the place where ideas are actually formed: the culture.
 And that can change, Mike d’Virgilio writes.

It’s the Culture, Stupid!

By Mike d’Virgilio

Whatever the outcome of next week’s presidential election, the conservative movement is in for a lively debate about its future. Even if John McCain succeeds in snatching the presidency from the jaws of defeat, the majorities for the Democrats will increase in both houses of Congress.

Whether you see this as indicating a significant movement of the country to the left will in large part determine what you believe to be the best direction for the conservative movement to take.

I speak of the movement that encompasses conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals, broadly defined as “The Right.”

A short outline of this debate can be found in David Frum’s recent NRO column, where the columnist has a little one-sided debate with Rush Limbaugh and columnist/commentator Tony Blankley.

No one familiar with the conservative movement will see anything unusual in this. Ever since the days when William F. Buckley was rounding up a group of malcontents and intellectuals to found National Review, the right has never been a monolith.

If you want a monolith, take a journey to the left and join the Democrats. The only “moderates” they tolerate are those in certain congressional districts that help them build up their numbers in Congress.

What Frum and numerous others among the rightward commentariat believe is that the conservatism of Reagan, with its supply-side, limited government views, is passé. The American public has clearly moved left, they believe, and we need a modified conservatism to appeal to them.

To treat big government as the enemy is to alienate the vast majority of voters who are addicted to it, they say.

The course for the right, then, is to use government more efficiently and more effectively for conservative ends, these writers believe. The “government that governs least governs best” just doesn’t sell anymore, they fear.

Thus Frum argues that conservatism should lean back and move left and not be so hung up on ideas from the past that simply don’t apply to the present.

Rush and Blankley, on the other hand, believe that most Americans are conservative at heart and can be convinced of the rightness of conservatism as long as conservatives stick to their principles.

Rush often notes, correctly, that whereas some (indeed, many) self-proclaimed conservatives say the era of Reagan is over, but that liberals never say the era of FDR is over. In that they are united.

Why, then, do liberals not run campaigns that fully embrace their inner leftist? A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Holman Jenkins argues that Democrats, including Senator Obama, are simply less than forthcoming about their true beliefs and plans when they’re out buying—er, stumping for—votes.

I’m sympathetic to the position held by Rush and Blankley, but it’s important to recognize that Ronald Reagan was at the right place at the right time. Reagan’s conservatism won in 1980 because the Nixon and Carter presidencies had left America in such dire straights. Reagan’s was a relatively easy sale, given the circumstances.

If Carter had been competent and there had been general prosperity and peace, Reagan wouldn’t have won. Both Rush and Blankley seem to discount that. (And current circumstances are certainly far from hospitable to Republicans.)

In addition, Rush and Blankley both seem to forget the overriding influence of culture on Americans’ attitudes and beliefs. Given the reality of cultural sources of political attitudes, any approach the Right takes will end up failing absent this critical consideration.

While the culture dominated by the left continues to indoctrinate Americans to accept statist assumptions, Frum and his faction seem to accept that this acceptance is some great, immutable force of history, and thus political success depends on riding that wave, presenting a cheaper, more sensible statism.

The Rush and Blankley faction likewise doesn’t offer an action plan to counter the powerful, pervasive, and persistent messages pounding Americans every day with a view of the world based on the left’s assumptions. Speaking conservatism into an electorate indoctrinated daily with the nostrums of the left isn’t going to be terribly effective, even if such a plan worked well for Ronald Reagan and the Republicans intermittently over the years.

Nonetheless, at least Rush and Blankley understand that it’s the principles that count.

Given that the left dominates Hollywood and other avenues of entertainment, education from K through higher ed, journalism, and most of the media, it’s a wonder the right’s ideas ever gain any traction at all.

Thus the situation calls for a different approach, one that is admittedly a long-term solution and won’t necessarily have great immediate effect (although it could). Instead of ignoring culture or continuing in its antagonistic and critical attitude toward it, the right should boldly and warmly embrace culture.

In particular this reclamation and reform campaign should start with a focused recruitment effort to get right of center individuals into the cultural influence professions.

Imagine the possibilities: Hollywood studio heads that are solid classical liberals; the presidents of Harvard and Yale committed libertarians; verified conservative right-wingers as president of ABC News and editor in chief of the Washington Post.

Imagine right of center individuals entering countless positions of leadership in these professions in the next twenty years, and in other positions from top to bottom as well.

It can happen.

This would truly turn the tide in American society, and for the long term. (That is why the left made such a concerted and successful effort to take over American cultural institutions in the past half-century.)

The alternative is to continue to abdicate the power of culture and snipe at these professions and their output while hoping the people pounded by leftist messages all day and every day will somehow elect the right people who will somehow transform American society. Well, good luck with that, as Spongebob Squarepants says.

To borrow a phrase, it’s the culture, stupid.


Mike d’Virgilio is Executive Director of The Culture Project.