Having conceded that, the fact remains that when it comes to exercising influence on the fundamental levers of American culture, conservatives remain in a pathetically weakened position. ~Stanley Kurtz, The Corner

I remarked on this at Rod Dreher’s blog in a response to an entry on a different topic that hit on the same theme of conservative political power and cultural weakness:

At The Corner, Stanley Kurtz was recently making a similar observation in the form of a lament that sounded increasingly like that of a Viennese liberal c. 1875. (Let’s hope that conservatives don’t become quite the strange, introverted types that 1890s liberals became!) The idea was that DVC was representative of the left’s cultural hegemony (which I suppose is a fair assessment) and that the only things conservatives had going for them was control of the government. Which is one way of saying that we don’t have much going for us at all. There is quite a lot to this, but I wonder if this doesn’t have its source in the generally overly optimistic appraisal of the state of the core of American culture that the conservatives of the ’50s and ’60s gave.

I may have given Kurtz’s lament too much credit. I must not have read it as closely as I should have done. Clark Stooksbury and Dan McCarthy take appropriately less indulgent views of Kurtz’s lament. They make the important and correct qualifications that DVC is an unimportant, ridiculous bit of fluff, which it really is, and more importantly that it has nothing specifically to do with the conservative movement. Mr. McCarthy does ask an excellent question:

How the blazes does Republican control of Congress, the White House, and the Supreme Court translate into a more conservative culture?

Of course, it doesn’t, and it is very easy to argue that this particular period of Republican rule has seen the introduction of more decadent and immoral thinking into the general culture in support of GOP policies than we actually saw in the more “permissive” and allegedly less “patriotic” ’90s. (In fact, the boost of “patriotism” that Kurtz cites has mostly been a boost in nationalist chauvinism that has fed warmongering and the expansion of the state–two things patriotism as I understand it has nothing to do with.)

But if such a preposterous movie (and book) as DVC with its perfectly blasphemous presuppositions can be a best-seller and box-office success, the question is not, as Kurtz framed it, one of the conspiracy of leftist entertainers and media men but of the disintegration of meaningful Christian identity in this country. That is technically separate from the state of conservatism, but not unrelated. As a grand smear of Catholics in particular and all Christians in general, DVC is only the most prominent in a long line of other such products, but what should get conservatives’ attention is how many Christians are reading and, in some cases, even accepting this trash. But that is not the biggest problem here.

Where Kurtz goes very wrong (as I take it as virtually an axiom that Stanley Kurtz goes wrong somewhere, whether on Iran or on anything else) is in his pitiful desire that the conservatives retain political power, as if that has done anything but harm to conservatives themselves and to the country. To retain power, they have sold out practically every principle they ever had, and to continue to retain it would require more of the same. While this is going on, real cultural battles are being abandoned to keep ahold of the increasingly meaningless control of government that, as conservatives, we were always supposed to know was of secondary importance to setting cultural and social norms.

Where he goes even more wrong is when he says this:

By controlling the political agenda, conservatives control the cultural agenda as well (or at least a large part of it).

Er, a large of part of it, excluding the massive, overwhelming hegemony of Hollywood, the media, the academy et al. that he was just complaining about? Which “large part” of the “cultural agenda” (do real conservatives talk about culture in terms of an agenda?) do the current GOP majority and Mr. Bush control? Because if they are in control of a large part of the “cultural agenda,” they are doing an even worse job than we thought. But what sort of nonsense is this? Why do we credit government with this kind of cultural power? Who is Kurtz kidding? Political elites can lend their support to things, possibly make this or that particular issue more prominent, but when we are speaking of cultural changes they are often but the foam on the wave and they are usually playing catch-up. Governments can cause tremendous damage or use force and legislation to reorganise entire patterns of life, but as conservatives normally acknowledge this is wrong, clumsy and unlikely to achieve what the policymakers set out to achieve. Put another way, any “cultural agenda” that politicos in DC set will be a nasty, weed-like culture that will probably displace and ruin the natural growth already in place. Even if “conservatives” of this sort could control the “cultural agenda,” conservatives would not want them to carry out that agenda.

The problem with Kurtz is not only that he is whining and playing the victim, and that he is already reverting to the very tired “liberal media” tropes of the ’90s before the GOP has been kicked out of power (note also the blithe and unthinking identification of GOP and conservative interests and the mistaking of the GOP for a conservative force), but that he perpetuates the “keep the right people in office” mentality that has helped abdicate our cultural responsibilities and focus incessantly on dominating the political scene. If we have lost the culture wars (and no one would accuse us of winning them), it was because we had too many people doing mass-mailings and contributing to think tanks and not enough doing the real work of preserving their hometowns against the ravages of government and state capitalism.

Nevermind that in dominating the political scene even many conservatives have come to talk and think like the left-liberals they set out to overthrow. Rather than pursuing the cultivation of the good life on a local, humane scale and guarding their own against the destructive forces arrayed against them, they fell for the oldest cop-out in history–go into professional politics. I am reminded of a line from the really very good drama Max, where the fictitious art dealer Max says to the young Hitler about his art: “What would you rather do, change how people see, or how they pay their taxes?” Conservatives generally have opted for changing how people pay their taxes, rather than presenting an alternative vision of order. That, and not DVC or any number of other awful programs and movies, is why conservatives are in a bad situation, and they will continue to be in retreat as long as they continue to play the other fellow’s game and pretend that winning elections and setting policy really do have as much power to shape the culture as liberals think they do (and should) have.

Nothing has been more detrimental to healthy resistance to the managerial state and its illegitimacy than the success of conservatives in electoral politics–it has convinced ordinary folk that the system is still basically sound, that it still basically works for them and has predictable rules that the politicos will follow. Surely the Bush years have been a salutary wake-up call with respect to all of these delusions. Or so one might think. God help us, but there may come an ugly time in twenty more years when the social democrats who make up what remains of the “conservative movement” will look back on the Bush Era as a time of true conservative principle as compared to the lackluster period of the Age of Frist.

But all is not lost. Perhaps the bankruptcy of the GOP majority years will show all of us once and for all that the answer does not lie there in the poltical arena and never could have been there. For forty years there was the constant hope, “If only we could get in charge, things would be all right.” Well, “we” had our chance, and things are not all right. They are pretty awful, actually, from a conservative perspective, and they will continue as long as we keep gripping onto the political power that is pulling us down like an anchor.