Conservatism Must Not Abandon the Cultural Front (Updated)

My NewsReal colleague David Swindle has been debating Pajamas Media’s Mary Grabar on the subject of drug legalization.  I side with the arguments made by Grabar, Ann Coulter, and others against legalizing drugs, but I’ve honestly never cared enough about the issue to explore it in depth.

I know there’s an argument that true conservatives should recognize that arresting people for voluntary drug use goes beyond the proper role of limited government.  But y’know what?  We’ve got plenty of cases of government overreach and violated rights in this country that don’t involve destructive behavior—stolen property due to eminent domain abuses, innocent babies destroyed in the womb, politicians constantly looking for new excuses to paw through their constituents’ wallets—that frankly, the tribulations of potheads fighting for the right to light up register pretty low on my sympathy meter and priority list.

But hey, maybe the Founding Fathers really would side with the libertarians on this one.  I’ll read with open-minded interest David & Mary’s continued exchanges, but I have to strongly disagree with one of David’s assertions:

John McCain lost to Barack Obama because of politics, not culture. Obama was a more exciting candidate who ran a much more effective campaign. It’s that simple.

A conservatism that can win is one which understands itself and defines itself as a political movement, not a cultural one. To do otherwise is to begin to destroy a functioning coalition that has been vital to defending America since Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley Jr., and Ronald Reagan brought it together in the 20th century. Conservatism must take the same approach to culture as the Constitution does — neutrality. Such an attitude worked for the document which has guided and protected our country for centuries and it will work for the Movement who has the same objective.

Far be it from me to read too much into the defeat of John McCain, the poster boy for almost everything a Republican shouldn’t be.  2008 was the culmination of years of GOP incompetence and lack of principle, and for reasons completely unrelated to ideology, Barack Obama was perfectly positioned to seize upon it.

But it’s another thing entirely to assume that culture played no part in Obama’s ascendance.  A culture that worships gratification (particularly sexual) without responsibility or constraints, that believes truth is personal and relativistic rather than grounded in permanent wisdom, that has been conditioned to expect everyone else to provide for their every need and clean up after their every mistake, that sneers at traditional morality and religious belief…these trends and attitudes cannot help but play into the Left’s hands.

Simply put, a narcissistic, relativistic, secular, ignorant culture will always be receptive to a political movement that promises to give them things paid for with other people’s money, affirms their “if it feels good, do it” mentality, and assures them that supporting statism and “environmental consciousness” are the only forms of morality or compassion they’ll ever really need.

A conservatism that disregards our culture will not win; indeed, its political prospects will only diminish further still.  I grew up in a public school system completely dominated by the Left.  I have seen time after time how easily the average apolitical teen, bereft of solid core values and spoon-feed the consensus of popular culture, assumes the Left’s claims on government’s role and conservatives’ evil to be true, to say nothing of every liberal myth from man-made global warming to the military-industrial complex.

More importantly, I have seen the Right’s feeble response.  This is a battle in which the conservative movement is largely—and the Republican Party is completely—AWOL.  How many conservatives are formulating strategies to break the Left’s stranglehold on education, both K-12 and college?  How many are drawing attention to the corruption of Church teachings on compassion?  How many on Capitol Hill are challenging the Left’s poisonous sexual dogma, or publicly illustrating the connection between the Democrat Party and the cultural forces it cultivates and feeds upon?

Republican electoral failures cannot be attributed to a nonexistent emphasis on culture; indeed, it’s far more likely that our woes are intimately tied to our dereliction of duty on this front.  The same old tactics—conservatives talking to the same radio audiences, writing in the same magazines, and posting on the same blogs, all mostly to each other—will win converts to the Right from time to time, but not in numbers that can even begin to compare to how many people are unwittingly fed liberal presuppositions about the world by stealth in their schools, TV shows, music, and churches, all of which form an echo chamber, reaffirming the messages for one another.

Republican strategists tend to think short-term: what will get us back into power in the next couple election cycles? Say what you want about Democrats (Lord knows I’ve said plenty), but they see the big picture, and play for keeps.  Conservatives need to open their eyes to it, as well, and settle in for the long haul. Any real, lasting return to the conservative values of the American Founding will require comprehensive strategies and solid commitments to oppose liberal encroachments on every front.

David invoked President Reagan in his post; let me conclude by doing the same.  In his Farewell Address to the American people, Reagan said:

I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual. And let me offer lesson No. 1 about America: All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins.

UPDATE: David has responded here. It seems the differences between our positions are less than they initially appeared, and I certainly agree with his central point, that the force of law is not an instrument of value enforcement.  I’ll have more thoughts later, but thanks to David for his thoughtful reply.

Sarah Palin and the Quitter Factor

Following up on my first and second posts about Sarah Palin’s departure from the Alaska governorship, there’s one remaining element to be considered: the “quitter factor.”  Is she abandoning her obligation to her state by not completing the term of office she was elected to?

In theory, you could say so, but in practice, Alaska is still getting the administration they voted for—incoming governor Sean Parnell seems to share Palin’s views and priorities.  Palin argues that stepping down is best for her state, as doing so will spare Alaska the financial strain of further ethics woes (these frivolous charges have cost Alaska nearly $2 million so far, and they’re still coming), and Parnell will be able to focus on state business rather than these investigations.  Again, in practice this is all probably true.  I don’t think Palin’s decision hurts Alaska at all, but it may have other unintended ramifications.

Predictably, some are questioning whether Palin can take the heat of modern American politics.  Unfair though it may be (she showed admirable resilience during the 2008 campaign, and at a minimum, we know she’s going to hit the campaign trail for conservative politicians and speak out against Obama’s policies, subjecting herself to more attacks), it’s a line of argument Palin herself has invited by citing the attacks as one of her reasons for resigning.  Only time will reveal her true mettle, though—if the pit bull in lipstick remains in the thick of the fight, whether campaigning for like-minded pols or especially as a presidential contender herself, it ought to put this meme to rest for good.

Perhaps most problematic is the message her departure may have telegraphed to the Left.  There is a danger that they will look at this and conclude, “we managed to get a sitting governor to resign,” and feel emboldened to repeat these tactics across the country.  That’s the last thing any of us should want, and even if the attacks did factor into Palin’s decision, it was a mistake to publicly attribute her resignation to them in any part.  These people will pounce upon even the slightest appearance of weakness.

I would love to see Sarah Palin prove the critics wrong and to see her post-office contributions to America dwarf anything she could have done as governor of Alaska.  But right now, the best I can say is that time will tell.

More Thoughts on Sarah Palin

A few days have passed since Sarah Palin announced she’s leaving the governorship, more pundits have thrown in their two cents: Mark Steyn seems to think she’s really out of politics for good, while Victor Davis Hanson advances the 2016 theory.  I’d like to expand upon my initial reaction with a closer look at each theory, as well as the pros and cons of what she’s done so far.

Theory: Preemptive damage control for a new, major scandal

We can probably dismiss this one without much concern.  The FBI has said they have “no investigation into Palin for her activities as governor, as mayor or in any other capacity,” and really—what more can be said that hasn’t already been said about her?  I mean, once we’ve crossed the “you didn’t give birth to your own son” threshold…

Theory: She’s leaving politics behind for a permanent return to private life

Steyn floats this theory on the basis that Palin entered public life in a very different, less cutthroat political culture than the one she found at the national level:

In states far from the national spotlight, politics still attracts normal people. You’re a mayor or a state senator or even the governor, but you lead a normal life. The local media are tough on you, but they know you, they live where you live, they’re tough on the real you, not on some caricature cooked up by a malign alliance of late-night comics who’d never heard of you a week earlier and media grandees supposedly on your own side who pronounce you a “cancer.”

Then suddenly you get the call from Washington. You know it’ll mean Secret Service, and speechwriters, and minders vetting your wardrobe. But nobody said it would mean a mainstream network comedy host doing statutory rape gags about your 14-year old daughter. You’ve got a special-needs kid and a son in Iraq and a daughter who’s given you your first grandchild in less than ideal circumstances. That would be enough for most of us. But the special-needs kid and the daughter and most everyone else you love are a national joke, and the PC enforcers are entirely cool with it.

It’s a possibility we certainly can’t dismiss—she’s got a family to care for, and heaven knows she’s been put through hell by the Left—but then how do you account for the fact that her explanation (which, sorry, had a lot of room for improvement) is chock-full of references to taking her fight in new directions and such?  If you believe she’s permanently retiring, then you also have to believe she’s misleading a whole bunch of people whom she knows adore her, and will be crushed to see her disappear.

I’ll have to see more before I accept that.  Sarah Palin’s planning something.  But what?

Theory: She is not interested in the presidency, but believes she can better fight for the country in some other, as-yet unspecified way

Possible, but unless she’s got something very specific in mind, most of the usual non-office routes she could take (book deals, speaking tours, etc.) seem to me a waste of her star power if that’s the extent of her long-term plans.  That sort of thing is good for building goodwill and keeping your image out there, but honestly, I don’t know if its audience would include more than a handful of new converts.  In other words, they can be means to an end, but if Palin intends them as the end, I’m afraid her efforts will yield less than she hopes.  A Senate run?  Maybe, but I don’t think an early leave for one Alaska office is exactly the best foundation for seeking another one…

Whatever she has in mind, I think it’s vital that she reveals it sooner rather than later.  If she wants to be a Republican or conservative leader, she can’t leave her followers in the dark as to her intentions.  They can’t be left waiting in the wings for a cause that’s never going to materialize, and if they’ll need to look elsewhere for leadership, they need to know.

Theory: She plans to run for president

I still think this is the most likely.  But when?  Hanson says:

In the long run, she can lecture, earn a good income through speaking, develop a coterie of advisers and supporters, take care of her family, not have the constant political warring on all flanks, and invest time in reflecting and studying issues, visit the country, meet leaders, etc. She’s not looking at 2012; but in eight years by 2016 she will be far more savvy, still young, and far more experienced. It matters not all that the Left writes her off as daffy, since they were going to do that whatever she did; the key is whether she convinces conservatives in eight years of travel and reflection that she’s a charismatic Margaret Thatcher-type heavyweight.

I don’t think so.  Getting a head start on the next race is one thing, but eight years is overkill—she can still do a lot towards building her credentials and her ally list in three and a half.  Hanson’s comments do highlight the fact that she’ll have ample opportunities even if the upcoming election doesn’t pan out.  But I think that the stars are aligning for 2012, if she wants it.  The Right is clamoring for a true leader to stand up to Obama’s disastrous agenda, and none of the other would-be names in the field are distinguishing themselves (though, for reasons I may elaborate on in a later post, I think Mike Huckabee could be surprisingly formidable).  With the numbers looking worse still for Obamanomics, a charismatic, passionate voice that can unite the opposition and articulate conservative alternatives is The One’s worst nightmare.  Sarah Palin has a gift for communication that could give her just the edge she needs to take him down.

Yes, she’ll need to work on her policy expertise in areas in which she’s had less experience, chiefly foreign affairs and the judiciary.  But that’s certainly doable, as is surrounding herself with high-caliber advisors.  She’ll have to be careful who she listens to—just because some conservatives have constructive criticism to offer doesn’t mean they have sinister ulterior motives (the last thing we need is a repeat of the Fredhead fiasco).  And again, she’s got to make her intentions clear soon.  Forget the conventional wisdom—if you’re running for president, say so.

There’s a lot we don’t know, and it’s too early to crown her the new queen of the conservative movement.  But if Sarah Palin’s willing to put in the effort, Barack Obama’s reign of error could come crashing down sooner than he thinks.

Palin 2012 Begins Today? (Updated)

Sarah Palin just shocked everyone by announcing that she is stepping down as governor of Alaska at the end of the month, before her first term in office is even up.  From what I can tell between her official statement and her brother’s remarks to Fox News, she’s citing the following reasons:

– her administration has largely accomplished in 2 years what they promised to do in 4

– fighting the onslaught of false & frivolous ethics complaints has become so costly to Alaskan taxpayers and consumed so much of her and her staff’s time that state business has inevitably gotten the short end of the stick

– she doesn’t feel she can do any good as a lame-duck governor, and new Governor Scott Parnell will ultimately be better for the state

– she feels she can best serve the country by fighting for conservative causes and individuals in as-yet unspecified ways

We’ll have to wait to see what she does post-office to know for sure, but it smells to me like Sarah Palin is running for President of the United States.

Jim Geraghty says her career is good as dead, and Morrissey & Co. are not amused, while Bill Kristol thinks stepping down could be shrewd.  I more or less agree with Kristol’s high-risk/high-reward assessment.  She’s risking criticisms that she can’t take the heat of the opposition and that she’s abandoning Alaska to her own ambition (between now and November 2010 is long for a “lame duck” period), both charges that could have been avoided by waiting out the rest of her term.  On the other hand, I have no doubt that the cost of fighting the smear campaign, both to the state and to the Palin family, is tremendous.  If she spends the next couple years boning up on foreign policy and genuinely fighting for conservative causes (Mitt Romney made a similar pledge, but his follow-through has been underwhelming so far), it’ll be time well spent, and she’ll be a formidable candidate come campaign season.  The Democrats have surely noticed slipping support for Barack Obama’s policies, and they can’t be thrilled at the prospect of somebody with Palin’s popularity and communication skills, free from the shackles of public office, becoming a regular spokeswoman against The One.

I also want to note one thing that caught my eye: Palin’s pledge to support good candidates regardless of “what party they’re in or no party at all.”  Could that be a warning that she won’t take lightly to liberalizing the Republican Party, and is willing to take her chances as an independent conservative?  Maybe I’m reading too much into a mere rhetorical bone thrown to bipartisanship, but resercons should tread lightly…

If nothing else, we can thank Sarah Palin for this: she got the talking heads to shut up about Michael Jackson for the longest period yet since he died.

UPDATE: Allah thinks she’s out of luck for 2012 but is really angling for 2016.  I doubt it—if she’s waiting another four years, then that would be all the more reason to finish her current term.  Naturally, speculation abounds that this is preemptive damage control for an impending monster scandal (maybe Dr. Sullivan has finally cracked the Trig case!).  I’m skeptical (of course the nutroots are gonna take the most disastrous possible option), but we’ll see.

UPDATE 2: Full disclosure: in retrospect, I think my early declarations that “Palin 2012 Begins Today” (sans “?”) and that there was little doubt left about her presidential plans were impulsive and premature, and I have changed this post accordingly.