At the heart of the challenge facing the conservative agenda lies one simple fact: while we focused our efforts on politics, our opponents on the left focused instead on culture.
Each of us won. Compared to where the conservative movement was the year I came to Washington, 1967, we are today immensely stronger politically. Republicans, most of whom are at least nominally conservative, control both Houses of Congress and the White House. That is success on a grand scale.
Unfortunately, our opponents have won an equally large victory over our culture. Today, what was called the "counter-culture" in the 1960s now controls almost every cultural venue: the entertainment industry (which is now the most powerful force in our culture), the government schools, the media, even many churches. The ideology usually know as "Political Correctness," which is really the cultural Marxism of the infamous Frankfurt School, is using every type of cultural institution in our country to achieve its purpose, which is the destruction of traditional Western culture and the Christian religion. All we have to do is look around us and compare what we see with the America of the 1950s to understand how vast their victory is. The old sins have become virtues and the old virtues have become sins.
The nub of the problem is this: culture is stronger than politics. Despite everything conservatives have achieved in politics, the left's cultural victory trumps ours. That is why even when we win election after election, our country continues to deteriorate.
The next conservatism will have to have solving this problem as its central theme. Conservatives have already taken some important steps in doing so. Starting in the mid-1980s when the Free Congress Foundation introduced "cultural conservatism," parts of the conservative movement have come to realize that if we lose the culture war, we also lose everything else. Culture is no longer at the periphery of conservatives' concerns, although it may not yet be at the center where I think it needs to be. And, I have to add, some neo-conservatives have been quite helpful to other conservatives in the fight to save our traditional culture, while others have had foreign policy as their focus. They ignore the cultural issues.
The question is, how can we win this fight? In 1999, I wrote an open letter to conservatives with a somewhat radical answer to that question. Instead of trying to retake existing institutions from the cultural Marxists, a battle I do not think we can win, I proposed we separate our lives and the lives of our families from those institutions and build our own institutions instead. In that letter, I wrote,
What I mean by separation is, for example, what the homeschoolers have done. Faced with public school systems that no longer educate but instead "condition" students with the attitudes demanded by Political Correctness, they have seceded. They have separated themselves from public schools and created new institutions, new schools, in their homes.
I suggested conservatives should consider doing the same thing in many other areas of our lives (entertainment might be the most important with health care a close second).
At the time, some people misinterpreted what I wrote as saying that conservatives should abandon politics. I said no such thing. Conservatives must remain strongly involved in politics, to prevent the cultural Marxists from mobilizing all the power of the state to crush us. What I am saying is that we cannot reasonably expect to reverse America's cultural decay through politics alone, because culture is stronger than politics. We must continue our political work, but we must also do something more, something that works directly on the culture. I thought then and I think now that building our own institutions, institutions that reflect and reinforce traditional, Western, Judeo-Christian culture, may be the most effective strategy in that regard.
The next conservatism may end up taking this approach or another approach. But unless it offers some strategy with a realistic hope of reversing conservatism's cultural defeat and restoring our country to its rightful mind where morals and culture are concerned, it will not be worth calling "the next conservatism." The decline, decay and seemingly endless degradation of America's culture must be recognized as conservatism's most important and most difficult challenge in any new conservative agenda.