That leading politicians wield great power nobody will deny. What is not so well understood is how limited that power is. Over time, especially, politicians are superceded by forces largely beyond their control. They must yield to those who mold the fundamental ideas and sensibilities of a people, those who affect their hopes and fears, direct their attention, and select and define the issues of the day.


Society’s long-term evolution is profoundly affected by those who shape the mind and imagination of a people. They set the tone in the arts, the entertainment industry, the publishing houses, the electronic media, the press, and academia. When these are pulling in the same direction, not even a landslide political victor can overcome them. For real and lasting change to be possible, first the culture has to change.


In the following discussion, American and Western civilization will be described, for brevity’s sake, as torn between traditionalists—those who stress humanity’s dependence on the achievements of previous generations—and radicals—those who turn their backs on history and want to realize visions bearing no resemblance to actual human experience. That this is a simplified picture of our predicament hardly needs saying. Human beings do not fall into neat categories. Also, traditionalists, for example, could not hope to preserve the ancient heritage that they claim to cherish without restating and developing it in new circumstances. Indeed, at a time of profound dislocation, attempts to preserve and protect traditional insights and patterns of life may, to those who embrace dominant beliefs and practices, look like radical departures.


The power that may be ultimately decisive in setting society’s direction is found in what will strike many as an unlikely place, in the arts and humanities broadly understood: in the arts—from dramatists, novelists, and movie-makers to composers and painters —and in academic disciplines—from philosophy, history, and English to politics and psychology. In these fields, trendsetters have long been chipping away at the moral and spiritual core of what can loosely be called traditional Western civilization. Hence the basic orientation of our society. Putatively conservative political victories here and there have made little difference to the fundamental trends of Western society.


To take up first the role of intellectuals, consider the late 1960s and early ’70s when the New Left and the counterculture attacked not only the military-industrial complex but all traditional civilization. This rebellion could trace its roots at least as far back as Rousseau. These were the radical children of indulgent liberal parents who had already done their part to undermine traditional beliefs by rejecting moral universality and making abstract, “scientistic” rationality the arbiter of truth. The new campus radicalism soon spread into the larger society, partly through sympathetic coverage in the media.


Because the turbulence on the campuses and elsewhere subsided, many wanted to believe that radicalism was petering out. The opposite was true. The campus radicals and their less radical-looking sympathizers did not disappear. Many of them found permanent, congenial homes in the colleges and universities. They stayed—as faculty. Since their days on the ramparts they have, whether as unreconstructed or somewhat chastened radicals, taught millions of students. They or their students are now senior tenured professors, department chairmen, deans, provosts, and presidents. They sit on curriculum and personnel committees. They select new faculty. They influence the criteria for promotion and tenure. They pass judgment on which books will be published or rejected by university presses, which articles will be published or rejected by academic journals. They have profoundly affected standards of scholarship and truth and even define intelligence. By designing SAT, LSAT, GRE, and other tests, they bias admissions.


People do not inquire deeply into what their children or grandchildren will be taught in college. They are more concerned about the relative prestige of a school. And that ranking, too, is determined by the same trendsetters.


Perhaps the most telling sign of the state of academia is that even those most widely reputed to be the defenders of traditional beliefs are also helping to subvert them. The Straussians, for instance, have long sought to persuade unsuspecting traditionalists that philosophy is incompatible with convention and “the ancestral.” To celebrate the American founding, says Harry Jaffa, is to “celebrate revolution.” America, he asserts, is the “greatest attempt at innovation that human history had recorded.”


The professoriate teach all future professors but also all future high-school, secondary, and elementary schoolteachers. Those entering academia are already acclimated because their high-school teachers tend to mimic the professoriate who taught them. In this way alone, professors in the humanities reach deeply into the popular consciousness. The biases of schoolteachers are all the more effectively inculcated because children are exposed to them outside of school as well. Television programs, movies, and music confirm and embellish the ideological and emotional slant that students absorb during the school day.


Of the old campus radicals who did not stay in academia, a large number gravitated toward communications and entertainment. As TV producers, directors, and editors, they decide what is news and how selected stories should be covered. As scriptwriters, they decide what behaviors to admire and detest, what to take seriously and what to dismiss, what to laugh and not to laugh at. As editors at publishing houses, they decide what subjects are of interest and which books deserve to see print. As critics, they decree what is art and what is not. As songwriters, they set society’s musical beat.


Not all people in the communications, entertainment, and knowledge industries are drawn from the old campus radicalism, but each year for decades whole armies of new graduates, educated by a largely radical professoriate, have invaded these institutions and society in general. The business world and the professions are no exceptions.


Over time, the professoriate has evolved ideas even more radical than those of the 1960s and ’70s. Yet many contend that in the 1980s conservative values finally triumphed in America when Ronald Reagan won two presidential elections in landslides. Now the ascendant neoconservatives tell Americans that their society is in good shape and getting better. They have assigned to the United States the ambitious task of bestowing its enlightened values on the entire world, starting with the Middle East.


To refute the triumph-of-conservatism thesis does not even require going outside of practical politics and economics. During this era of alleged triumph, the federal government expanded by leaps and bounds, while state and local autonomy contracted. The 10th Amendment is a dead letter. Laws that extend government’s control over society continue to pour forth from Washington, and Americans are being asked to become the pliant wards of a national-security superstate. Traditional constitutional restraints are barely operating.


In the six years of the current administration alone, the national debt has doubled and the federal budget has grown by 25 percent. The deficits in the federal budget and in the country’s balance of payments are enormous.


And these are merely the political and economic symptoms of larger moral-spiritual, intellectual, and cultural developments. Have those who keep talking about triumph of conservatism no sense of the decline of education at every level, of private and public morality, of family, and of churches? In the movies, on television, in the press, in music, on videos, in novels, and elsewhere, attitudes and behaviors are portrayed as normal or admirable that would have dismayed virtually everyone just a generation or two ago. The institutions of America’s national culture tolerate or welcome almost any denigration of traditional civilization. They teach those who resist to make their peace with inevitable change. The indefensible can always be defended with reference to freedom of expression or tolerance. Those who resent the radical bullying are afraid to speak out because they know the awesome power of the ruling forces to ridicule, intimidate, and retaliate.


Not even the most skilful politicians could reverse this sustained assault on what remains of traditional Western society, because politicians can only marginally change the imaginative and intellectual momentum that fostered the radicalism in the first place. Over time, Washington’s power is dwarfed by the power of the elites in the arts, communications, entertainment, and publishing—the industry revolving around the Hollywood-New York axis—and the academic circles with which these elites are closely intertwined—what may be called the Boston-Berkeley axis.


Deep down, each society lives by a predominant vision of human existence: what life is like and what it should be. All of us have deeply rooted intuitions and ideas that together constitute our basic outlook on reality, our notion of its dangers and opportunities. We approach the world from within a particular sensibility that gives existence its pace and coloration. In our most private recesses, we form hopes for what life might one day become for us. We live on and for such more or less realistic visions. Though this inner self varies with the circumstances and personalities of individuals, societies evolve a predominant state of mind and imagination. Individuals are connected by an emotional and intellectual substratum that gives them similar aspirations. Whatever this predominant pattern of sensibility and belief, it sets the direction of social life in general and of public debate and practical politics in particular. Politicians who violate this mindset risk their political lives.


Enormous power lies with those who shape the mind and the imagination and make others see life through their eyes. Deep in our personalities are the marks left by the imaginative and intellectual masterminds who create the tenor of an age.


Granted, most people are not exposed to high culture and don’t even want to be. But highbrow culture eventually reaches them in diluted, filtered-down, lowbrow form. The sensibility of seminal works of art and thought are transmitted into the general consciousness through popular movies and novels, soap operas, and the imagery of advertising.


When artists really capture our imagination, they make us see the world as they do. What they present as contemptible we, too, begin to despise. What they convey as admirable and intriguing we want to emulate. D.H. Lawrence wrote, “we live by what we thrill to.” Those who enter deeply into our imaginations make us “thrill” to certain goals, make us want to realize them. They help shape our innermost values and our perception of reality.


Contemporary Western society exhibits deep tensions between what remains of traditional civilization and the spreading counter-culture, which by now has its own traditions. These are tensions not just among people but within particular persons who harbor incompatible dreams and have neurotically divided minds and imaginations. In a crunch, the anti-traditional elites can play upon and mobilize radical prejudices that have gained a foothold within many a self-described conservative.


Conservative intellectuals and activists often have an open or thinly veiled contempt for the arts and humanities. The disdain is only partly due to their thinking that this is where the Left hangs out. Many professed conservatives denigrate the humanities primarily because they believe that they have little practical importance, have little to do with “the real world.” To turn society right, you need to win more elections. They have difficulty understanding why purported political victories are repeatedly nullified, though the values and beliefs of the American people continue to slide in a radical direction.


The greater the conservative neglect of the arts and humanities, the greater the grip of the anti-traditional forces. Conservatives have excused their inattention by telling themselves that the radical dominance of the humanities does not really matter in the long run. Who cares about flaky professors, writers, composers, poets, and artists? What matters is politics and economics. These “realists” do not understand that increasingly politicians and businessmen, as well as the general population, resonate with the sentiments of these “flakes.” Inattention to and disinterest in the humanities reveal a failure to understand what really makes human beings tick. They are themselves signs of precipitous cultural decline.


Traditional civilization is threatened with extinction because pleasing but destructive illusions have become part of the way in which most people view the world and their own lives. The hold on society of those who created and fed these illusions cannot be broken mainly through practical politics.


What is most needed is a reorientation of mind and imagination. The great illusions of our age must be exposed for what they are so that they will start to lose their appeal. This can be done only through art and thought of a different quality.


While the so-called Right worried about so-called practical matters, the Left took control of activities that could help refashion society’s imagination. The Left understood the power of directing the mind. Those who wished to dismantle traditional civilization thought and acted strategically and reaped extraordinary advantages. Having managed to dominate the artistic and intellectual life of Western society, they have had little difficulty keeping supposedly conservative political forces on the defensive, even when the latter ostensibly controlled the government. The countercultural forces have kept the Western world at war with itself.

Many conservatives seem to believe that artists and intellectuals are naturally and almost inevitably on the Left. If that were so, all efforts to renew traditional civilization would be condemned to failure. But there is nothing inevitable about the radical dominance of the mind and the imagination; these trends since the Enlightenment are in some respects an historical aberration. The radical mindset was created over many years by committed people. People of equal commitment and creativity could dismantle it over many years by unmasking and replacing it with a deeper, more realistic view of life. Radicalism advanced first and foremost by means of a march through the culture. A renewal of American and Western traditions, if one is still possible, could be effected only by another march through the culture. Such a development would require a surge of inspiration springing not from the political and economic periphery but from the moral-spiritual depths.  


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Claes G. Ryn is professor of politics at Catholic University and chairman of the National Humanities Institute. He is the author of America the Virtuous: The Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire