Friday, November 19, 2004The rise of cultural traditionalism as a major force in American politics is one of the big stories of the era. As of 1970, there was a no organized fundamentalist political movement in the United States. Now it is one of the dominant influences in U.S. politics. The story of how and why that happened has been told many times in many places, so I won't do so here. Instead, I will attempt to explain why this theory of the world is wrong.
First, let me describe cultural traditionalism as fairly as I can. Cultural traditionalism articulates a very clear vision of the Good Life. It is one full of happy 2-parent families where the husband is the primary bread-winner and the wife is the chief home-maker. Children are a must, and their proper rearing is the central focus of family and communal life.
The ideal community is the small town. There is a suspicion of urban sophistication. Communities are tightly-knit and very stable. People don't pick up and move away all that often. Civic involvement is encouraged. People volunteer, go to church, and have cookouts on the weekend.
The personal ethic is conventionally conservative: honesty, fidelity to one's spouse, respect to those in authority, the value of a hard day's work. Again, religion plays a central role. These are a God-fearing people. This God is generically Christian, although we might imagine that one day other religious groups might be accepted in the same way that Catholics were in this century. Following divine tenants is not only the key to personal salvation but also leads to rewards in this life.
The cultural conservatives' conception of the good is superficially very attractive. It also has political resonance because it speaks to deeply held beliefs about what America is and should be. Nostalgia plays a central role in its appeal. Cultural traditionalists of every time and place have looked back to the Golden Age where kids respected their parents and waited until marriage. Today that rosy Golden Age is the 1950's.
Politically, cultural conservatives believe that their way of life is under siege. Everywhere they look the dominant cultural forces in society are rendering their ideal community impossible. Drugs, sex, crime, welfare, atheism, the list just goes on and on. Things just aren't the way they used to be, and they are looking for someone to blame. The Republicans have provided a convenient scapegoat in liberalism, but Thomas Frank has already told that story.
For cultural conservatives, the correct medicine for our society's ills is to restore the social order. Just put everything back the way it was before, make everyone behave, and things will be fine. Folks were happier that way anyway. All liberalism has done is give vent to people's basest impulses, and they are all the worse for it.
So what is wrong with this way of thinking? To put it baldly, it is illiberal. You see, the traditionalist vision is quite fragile, and their preferences other-regarding. It is not enough that traditionalists have a belief. Others must share that belief, and will be coerced if need be. Cultural traditionalism is at its core authoritarian because it believes that its way is the only way.
This intellectual aggression stems from several sources. First of all, traditionalists are just easily offended. They are offended when they see sexual promiscuity, offended when they see disrespectful children, offended when they see God driven from the public square. But there is more to it than that. The substance of the traditionalist belief system is very hierarchical: son respects father, wife respects husband, man respects God. Everyone has a proper place and must stick to it. Confucianism with all its pathologies is really just an extreme version.
It is this hierarchical flavor which makes the traditionalist world so vulnerable. You see, if women decide not to marry, if they enter the work force and assert their independence, if children decide to move to New York and become artists, if they convert to Buddhism, it amounts to a rejection of their entire way of life. It repudiates them. And it also renders their way of life impossible. If women and children resist, the whole system just falls apart. Traditionalism, because of its social integration and other-regarding character, requires not just that its supporters submit but that others do.
Finally, the cultural conservatives have to resort to overt authoritarianism to achieve their vision. They want the government to prohibit ways of life the object to. To use state power to impose one's personal vision on others is just about the definition of oppression.
My wife corrects me every time I refer to abortion opponents as "pro-life." She wants me to call them "anti-choice." I think she is probably more right than I realized. It is not just that cultural conservatives do not want women to have the choice whether or not to reproduce. It is that they do not believe that anyone should be able to make any choices. You see, they know better.