The Cultural Tail Wags the Political Dog
Posted on November 30, 2013
The text of a talk delivered at the CCL East Coast Symposium on November 23, 2013 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia
Perhaps you’ve seen the movie titled Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro and Willie Nelson. It’s about a president who invents a crisis in the Balkans in order to divert attention from a sexual scandal at home. It came out after President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinski scandal. Coincidence? You do the math.
I suggest it’s an equally apt metaphor for the relation between politics and culture in Western Constitutional democracies like ours. It’s a metaphor that’s not self-evident.
The reason for this is that for decades the West has (ironically) purchased stock in the Marxist idea that all of life is politics (“the personal is the political”). Marx borrowed and developed this idea from French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau made an ingenious offer to 18th century Europeans: I’ll offer you a plan to liberate you from every social authority that you deplore — family, church, guild, caste — as long as you give me an authority strong enough to crush these other authorities. Of course, that all-crushing authority was the state. Marxism bought that premise. In the Soviet Union and China and Eastern Europe and elsewhere it enlisted the state as a crushing authority to equalize all incomes and living standards. Many Western intellectuals and elitists gleefully went along for the ride.
In time, long after the rest of the world knew of the political horrors of Marxism, Western elites turned against this politically totalitarian Marxism (“Why, the Soviet Union is just as totalitarian as the United States!”). But they didn’t abandon Marxism. In fact, they expanded it. They adopted what is called “cultural Marxism” or “libertarian Marxism.” That is, they asked the question, “If what we want is total control over everything, isn’t it better to adopt a bottom-up strategy, so that people willingly embrace our views, rather than try to impose them politically? Why do we need a totalitarian state, when we can have a totalitarian culture?” In short, they turned their attention toward capturing culture: schools and universities, the law and medical schools. the arts, TV and radio and Hollywood, the major foundations and newspapers, prominent web sites, and playwrights and novelists. They’ve been dramatically successful. Their goal has been radical egalitarianism: flattening all differences, not just in the economy, but in sex (feminism, de-masculinization, homosexuality), in the environment (radical naturalism and dehumanization), religion (everything is “spiritual”), even in living existence (abortion and euthanasia and trans-humanism). Western elites never saw a hierarchy they didn’t want to topple — as long as they had a state strong enough to guarantee they could topple it.
Here’s where it gets really interesting: At about the same time that Western elites were turning away from political totalitarianism to cultural totalitarianism (in the 70s), conservative Christians were discovering politics. They wanted to take their country back from the pro-communist, pro-secular, anti-family, anti-biblical forces. They took their strategic cue from Western elites: “Let’s capture politics so we can restore our Christian values.” They learned their lesson in the failure of this strategy long after their enemies did, and many haven’t learned it even yet.
Just as conservatives and Christians were winning political victories — the Reagan revolution, a Republican-controlled legislature, and even a slight majority (sometimes) on the U. S. Supreme Court — they were losing their culture to same-sex marriage, ubiquitous pornography, religious pluralism, intentionally childless marriages, the gradual erosion of marriage altogether, the trivialization of the church, legal nihilism, collectivist health care, and on and on. They’re just learning, if they’re learning at all, that you don’t win cultures just by winning at politics. Quite the reverse is true.
Conservative Christians are often resistant to this stubborn fact. For one thing, political victories are a lot easier — you just need to elect somebody every 2 or 4 or 6 years. Or you simply need to pressure enough representatives to vote for a piece of legislation. For another thing, political victories are a lot more spectacular — what’s more dramatic than standing on the rostrum in a crowded Ritz Carlton ballroom late one election evening with all the major TV and cable news networks shining the camera and bright lights after you’ve just had a concession call from your political opponent? Talk about dramatic.
But these victories are illusory. They’re certainly not long-lasting, as we’ve learned much to our chagrin. It’s only as we grasp that culture is the tail that wags the political dog that we can might begin to turn our political defeats around.
If you want to make a long-term political impact, therefore, let me make some very boring, but very momentous, suggestions: Stay married. Love your spouse. Start a family. Educate your children in the Faith. Park yourself in a Bible-believing church. Immerse your life in prayer. Teach your younger children Christian songs and Bible stories. Expose your older children to TV programs like Blue Bloods and Longmire and movies like Lord of the Rings and The Patriot and books like C. S. Lewis’ space trilogy. Use your personal blog and FaceBook to articulate or share thoughtful Christian truths. Support (or start) sound Christian businesses. In conversation with friends and relatives, expound the virtues of Christian culture in law, medicine, entertainment, technology, economics, business, music, education, and so on. Send money to organizations that foster Christian culture, like CCL, the Alliance Defending Freedom, Jennifer Lahl’s Center for Culture and Bio-Ethics. There is a distinct place for more “top-down” cultural influence, and CCL supports that place, but most Christians will have a more modest, yet no less significant, role.
In a society that prizes autonomy from the Triune God and his Word, these are all culturally revolutionary acts. They are the acts that will produce massive political victories over time.
Am I advising we abandon politics? By no means. If nothing else, we have a vested interest in electing politicians and enacting policies that impede the continued growth of the omnivorous state. More importantly, politics is an area of culture, and we must work to redeem all culture, including politics, for the Lord’s glory.
Meanwhile, we must never forget the importance of culture. The political dog is out front, menacing and barking, but the hidden cultural tail is making it all happen.
I close with these incisive and sobering words from British conservative Theodore Dalrymple in his book Our Culture, What’s Left of It:
I have come to regard intellectual and artistic life as of incalculable practical importance and effect. John Maynard Keynes wrote, in a famous passage in The Economic Consequences of Peace, that practical men might not have much time for theoretical considerations, but in fact the world is governed by little else than the outdated or defunct ideas of economists and social philosophers. I agree: except that I would now add novelists, playwrights, film directors, journalists, authors, and even pop singers. They are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, and we ought to pay close attention to what they say and how they say it