How conservatives lost the culture war

As Americans take their politics to the street, comparisons abound with 1968. It is worth recalling a less kinetic showdown in that summer of urban strife and protest.

In a now inconceivable piece of broadcasting, the ABC network set the writers William Buckley and Gore Vidal against each other in a saga of debates. Buckley, the prince of organised conservatism, drawled the case for order and tradition. Vidal, a hedonist if not a progressive, defended the changes of the day. In retrospect, the two shared much, not least the high-born airs that are more overt in New England than England. Still, theirs was an ominous contrast of world views, prefiguring 50 years of culture war.

Whoever was “right”, the evidence that liberalism won continues to amass. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled to extend LGBT rights. It also frustrated President Donald Trump over the treatment of young undocumented migrants. And this is after the right’s Long March through the judiciary, masterminded by the Federalist Society and other campaign groups. Away from the recent cases, which dealt with statutes, the call for the strictest possible adherence to constitutional text has the romantic aura of all lost causes.

The failures do not end there. Take immigration. When conservatism hardened into a movement in the mid-20th century, 5 per cent of the US population was foreign-born. Now the level is near an all-time high at 14 per cent. Or take the status of gay people. Public opinion on same-sex marriage has flipped from two-to-one against to two-to-one in favour since the millennium.

There have been consolations along the way. The military is more revered than during the Vietnam war, when returning troops donned civilian clothes before braving the streets. Out-and-proud atheists are still amazingly scarce in frontline politics. The abortion rate is at its lowest since it became legal.

In the round, though, “movement conservatism” is most notable for the gap between its political success and actual outcomes, at least in the realm of culture. Its organisational flair, its ecosystem of journals and think tanks, even its elected presidents have stood athwart history, yelling “stop!”, as Buckley suggested. If anything, history sped up. The recent statue-felling is just the outward expression of decades of social change.

The best the movement can say is that, lacking a control experiment, we cannot know how much more liberal the US would now be had the New Right never emerged. As an argument, I suppose it will have to do.

None of this is written with a Vidalian smirk. Even we who tend to his view on things must see that conservatism has bleak truths to impart: about the fragility of order, the perverse consequences of well-meaning change, the loss of the individual in the push for group rights. Zealots for change who give no quarter to conservatism’s insights are prone to over-reach. In fact, it is not obvious on which side a strict liberal, in the old sense, now belongs.

The point here is not to crow, then, but to record the ultimate failure of a movement that has appeared so formidable. And also to explain where it went wrong. It is not teleological inevitability, after all, that societies become more liberal over time. Two mistakes stand out.

First, starting with the presidency of Ronald Reagan, social conservatives threw in their lot with free-market economics. Capitalism is miraculously good at lots of things. Fostering stable communities, a sense of national belonging and deference to the sacred are not among them. Not only did Vidal’s agenda win, then, but, by egging on the supply-siders, Buckley was complicit in his victory.

Second, politics turns out to be far downstream of culture. Doctrinal conservatives stormed the three branches of government handily enough, but not Hollywood, the publishing industry, academia and other trades that form our habits of mind without our knowing it. The best the right did was set up parallel bodies, such as Fox News, and even these often address true believers.

Conservatives resent the infusion of universities with critical theory and other relativist lines of thought. If it matters that much, the burden is on them to clamber into the arena and compete. It is a glacial turnaround job, yes, but only because it was decades neglected in favour of more obvious spheres of power. The movement does not want for lawmakers or jurists. It wants for professors.

Watching back now, Vidal was more lethally epigrammatic, Buckley a shade better in deep debate. In the studio, the culture war was closely fought. Outside, ever since, the same cannot be said.