We’ve come to that agonizing point in our political process when each political party must choose its champion. Republicans are trying to decide in whose hands to place their party’s fate. The inexperienced but well-spoken Marco Rubio? Rand Paul, a man of intelligence and conviction who nonetheless selected drone strikes as the issue most worthy of a filibuster? Or should we throw everything to the wind and pick a buffoon with a giant wallet for his soap box?
The stakes are high. America sits in the shadow of a militant secular culture that seems determined to subdue everything in its path. Liberal Democrats have lashed themselves firmly to the mast of that dominant culture, and by doing so have won a political edge. Our mainstream cultural institutions eagerly promote their values and often their candidates as well. Meanwhile, on the conservative side, we obsess about messaging, demographics, and electoral ground games, and while those do merit attention, the hard decisions will ultimately revolve around one central problem. Conservatism has become countercultural, and it’s hard to win elections from a countercultural platform.
At the heart of this debate lies a brutally simple dilemma: we can either move ourselves in the direction of the mainstream culture, or we can continue trying to persuade the culture to move back toward us.
As usual, the right choice is also the harder one. Our liberty will never really be safe among a citizenry that disregards virtue. If conservatism throws away its other commitments in order to compete for progressive hearts, it may as well just not exist. However far our compatriots stray from natural law, we must continue to call them back to prudent ways of living, reminding them of the manifold benefits of discipline, self-sacrifice, and virtue. Unfortunately, many of our allies have grown apathetic or even hostile to this fundamental work.
Small Statism and the Lesson of the Tea Party
Within modern conservatism, there is presently a great deal of support for what we might call “small-state minimalism.” Minimalists get enthused about plans to “small up and simple down,” not just our government but also our conservative message and philosophy. Instead of conserving traditional ideals and values, they argue, we should focus our political efforts on preaching small-state principles. Lower taxes, reduce regulations, and try to dismantle the administrative state as much as possible. Throw a bone to the religious by promising to defend freedom of religion, but more generally, try to diminish the government’s intrusion into the lives of ordinary people. Silence our preaching about abortion, marriage, and especially sex.
I understand the appeal of this approach. It revolves around a simple, understandable objective, which resonates with people in an era of intrusive, overbearing government. In a live-and-let-live way, this message still seems attractively principled and focuses on a time-honored conservative principle. And it instills a sense of urgency in grassroots conservatives, given the alarming growth and rank corruption of the state, particularly under the present administration.
Small-state minimalism also promises a neat solution to the still-raging culture wars. By unlinking cultural conflict from the aggressive arm of the state, minimalists think we can dissociate ourselves from politically damaging conflicts that they mostly regard as lost. Religious conservatives are free to continue their efforts to convert the heathen at a grassroots level, but in the meanwhile, shrinking the state may open a space for conservatives to live their lives more peacefully (while also winning some elections).
There is a serious problem with this plan: It won’t work.
Winning a Battle, Losing the War
Small-state minimalism may win a few battles, but it will lose the war. That’s because it misunderstands the relationship between our militant secular culture and its political counterpart, the modern administrative state. We cannot unlink them; they are the same foe. Conservative minimalists imagine that they have devised a principled and practical way of escaping the quagmire in which we find ourselves. In reality, they are laying down their arms even as the enemy’s most fearsome titans take the field.
The Tea Party teaches some useful lessons here, in both its successes and its failures. It generated a wave of conservative support following the passage of Obamacare. Eventually, that energy ebbed, but it would be quite wrong to suggest that the Tea Party ultimately “failed.” The priorities of the Republican Party were dramatically restructured in response to its critique. Serious Republican candidates are now under considerably more pressure at least to pay lip service to small government ideals. That’s a major accomplishment for a grassroots movement. Americans have become seriously concerned about the growth of the state, and the Tea Party challenged that energy and ultimately brought it more into the mainstream of public life.
In other respects, however, the Tea Party was lamentably unsuccessful. It never matured into a respected, mainstream political movement. Within a few years, the American public mostly came to regard it with suspicion and distaste. We might blame the so-called “establishment” Republicans for this, given their lack of eagerness to mentor their Tea Party colleagues into seasoned legislators. Nevertheless, the movement’s deeper problems are philosophical, not practical.
The Tea Party was a response to a particularly egregious instance of anti-democratic governmental overreach: Obamacare. That reaction was entirely good and proper, but it wasn’t grounded in a substantial conservative vision. Lacking that foundation, the Tea Party’s energy was bound to fade. And its legacy has been an even greater reticence on the part of movement conservatives to create a platform of substance.
Slaying the Hydra
With our secular enemies engineering a coordinated attack on every front (political, cultural, and spiritual), our responses are half-hearted and piecemeal. We can understand better the failures of political conservatives if we draw an analogy between liberal progressivism and that ancient mythical monster, the hydra.
In Greek mythology, the hydra is a large reptilian beast with multiple serpentine heads. If one head is severed, two more grow in its place. A warrior intent on slaying the hydra would understandably tend to fixate on whichever head was actively threatening to devour him, but ultimately this was not a recipe for victory. In order to destroy the beast, it is necessary to deal with the monster in its totality.
The modern administrative state and our militant secular culture are like two heads of a single hydra. The modern state is a kind of secular church, wherein secular progressives pursue the only kind of fulfillment they think possible for mankind. The size and intrusiveness of the modern state mirror the strength and aggression of our secular culture. But the state also helps to create optimal conditions for the further entrenchment of secular ideals, by undermining natural community and fostering vice. It saps the strength and natural resources of its citizens, until they are finally unable to resist its incursions on their liberty.
In short, the state and its supportive culture are part of a single whole. Neither can be killed while the other lives, and by fixating too wholly on one, we risk leaving the other to build in strength, ultimately paving the way for a resurgence of both.
Bush-era Republicans already made this mistake. While their attention was largely fixated on cultural and moral problems both here and abroad, the administrative state was permitted to grow and metastasize. For a time, it seemed that they were making progress. Then came the 2008 election, when the secular faith came surging back under the leadership of a new political Messiah.
While we were distracted with Iraq, and with a nest of thorny cultural issues, the statist component of the liberal monster was gorging itself. This left Barack Obama a roomy and attractively refurbished secular church, even as Republicans collapsed into a morass of doubt and self-recrimination. Of course, Obama showed no reticence in undertaking further renovations once he was in office.
Chastened small-state conservatives think they have learned from the failures of the Bush Republicans. They have not. The lesson they have drawn from twenty-first-century politics is that the state is the true enemy. But the real moral is that a hydra must be battled in toto. If we allow ourselves to fixate on particular heads, it will assuredly kill us in the end.
Small-state minimalists advise us to delete our moral and cultural critiques of secularism from the Republican platform, pursuing instead a non-intrusive and neutral state. But this solution appears principled only to those who have already accepted the secularist’s version of what a “neutral” state should be. Minimalists claim to be interested only in liberty, but they fail to understand that the naked public square is itself a completely secular ideal. In the interests of preserving freedom, they wish to crown secularism as our de facto national faith. Their promises of support for religious autonomy are, in many individual cases, sincere. But secularism will never consent to leave its hated Judeo-Christian parent unmolested.
Ironically, small-state minimalism is a losing strategy even for Republicans with libertarian leanings. Supposing we could succeed in beheading the administrative state, the reality is that a thriving secular culture will never be satisfied with modest, non-intrusive government. Secularism is spiritually impoverished, and its eschatological horizons are all political. Its appetite for re-ordering human society is insatiable. Any setback in its statist ambitions will be but temporary, unless we can revitalize our culture and incorporate a robust appreciation of natural goodness into our political efforts as well as our private ones.
The path of the small-state minimalist leads, at best, to a pyrrhic victory. As conservatives fixate on battling the state, secular culture will be left to gorge itself. Apparent short-term political gains will be followed by catastrophic losses as the liberal monster surges forth with renewed strength and vigor.
Can Virtue Heal the Right?
Human societies tend to be shaped by a multitude of unexpected developments: wars, technological advances, economic or demographic shifts, and so forth. The same myopic shallowness that enables progressivism to encode its philosophy into easily consumable, attractive memes can also prove a liability when challenges arise for which progressives have no ready answers.
Taking a longer view of things, therefore, we should recognize that despair is not yet warranted. We do, however, need to put our own house in order. The American right must renew its commitment to virtue if it is to survive.
This does not mean that we should eliminate all distinction between positive law and natural law, criminalizing all vices and mandating virtue. On the contrary, virtue-interested conservatives have a high respect for personal integrity, freedom of conscience, and the natural community (especially the family). Unlike progressives, we have no expectation that good government can draw the human race toward a shining horizon of politically achieved human perfection. We emphatically do not wish for it to try.
We should, however, try to ground our political institutions in a substantial and realistic view of human good. Our aim should be to construct a society that bolsters the natural benefits of virtue instead of tearing them down. We should cherish our liberty, but always with a sober understanding of what liberty is for, and of the many ways in which vice and corruption can undermine the conditions that make true freedom possible.
This is the true answer to America’s political and moral dilemma. In the face of a fearsome progressive enemy, we must counter with a vision of our own that is equally comprehensive, but demonstrably more pragmatic, more principled, and more grounded in a right understanding of the human condition. Only when we can unite around such a vision will the political right be able to speak with the strength and authority that it needs to reclaim our republic.
Editor’s note: This essay first appeared August 26, 2015 in Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute and is reprinted with permission.