It’s an article of faith among smart conservatives that politics is downstream from culture, by which they mean, as Andrew Sullivan writes in his October 29, 2021 post, “change the culture and (sooner or later) you change the politics.”
I’ve tried to pin down the origin of the idea, with little success. There’s nothing about it at Quote Investigator. In 2011 The Imaginative Conservative credited the idea to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who reputedly said “the central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” He ostensibly said it in a 1986 New Republic article, but either the article was never digitized, I failed to find it, or it’s a false lead.
Other sites attribute the idea to Andrew Breitbart, a far-right media entrepreneur who died in 2012. I went to the website that bears his name and found an article on the subject from 2011, but it’s not by Breitbart himself, and in the very first sentence the writer acknowledges the idea isn’t his.
I went through all this trouble in hopes of better understanding the intent of whoever first put forth the idea. Because I think it’s wrong.
In democracies, culture may sometimes determine politics. (Wealth is a bigger factor.) But in general, it’s politics that determines culture, and not in the way Moynihan ascribes to liberals. Instead, an authoritarian minority seizes control and uses state power to silence the majority through intimidation and violence. If culture determines politics, you have to argue that most Russians were sympathetic to communism in 1917, most Germans were sympathetic to the Nazis in 1933, etc. It’s not that those movements lacked followers. But they hardly dominated the culture before their leaders seized power. After their leaders took power, however . . .
We’re seeing this very phenomenon in the United States. Right-wing authoritarians are a numerical and cultural minority, and they know it, so they’ve abandoned democracy and persuasion, prerequisites for the premise that culture steers politics, and instead are leveraging their Constitutional advantages (the Senate, the Electoral College, and the Supreme Court), their legislative advantages in the states (gerrymandering and vote suppression), and their willingness to use falsehoods and violence (the Big Lie about Trump winning the 2020 election and the January 6, 2021 insurrection) to impose their will on the majority.
There’s evidence enough of that from the Congressional hearings about January 6. But there’s more from the Supreme Court, which for years has interpreted the Constitution (with a few exceptions, such as Obergefell v. Hodges) in a manner most favorable to the right-wing authoritarian minority. Take this week’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturns Roe v. Wade and gives states the right to outlaw abortion.
There’s no definitive scientific answer for when human life begins, so the question has been left to social and religious doctrine. Polls indicate that a majority of Americans have consistently adhered to the longstanding common law view that life begins at quickening, i.e. when the baby kicks, and the Judeo-Christian tradition that prioritizes the mother’s life over the fetus’s. From that perspective, Roe v. Wade is legally and historically conservative, codifying what has been, until recently, western civilization’s consensus take on abortion.
But Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization rejects all that and allows Christian fundamentalists to force upon others their view that life begins at conception — a legal three-base error that endorses a particular religious conviction (while trampling the religious convictions of other citizens), decreases individual liberty, and endangers the lives of women.
And don’t get me started on this week’s gun control decision. There again, well-established law, history, and public opinion have been discarded to please right-wing authoritarians. Don’t take my word for it, though. Read conservative legal icon J. Lawrence Luttig’s brief instead. (Like me, he writes better than he talks.)
But hey, the right-wing authoritarians are happy! The Supreme Court is validating their most cherished assumptions: that they are the real Americans, the rest of us aren’t, and what they say goes.
If politics were downstream from culture, Donald Trump would be standing trial for sedition, sales of AR-15s would be restricted, and abortion would be legal in every state. So, to whoever came up with that idea: try again.