Ross Douthat has a good post up today explaining why a certain faction of the Right fights so hard over the small government issue. It’s well worth reading the whole thing, but basically he argues that small-government conservatives are really and truly fed up with the relentless expansion of government. Douthat:
So what you’re seeing motivating the House Intransigents today, what’s driving their willingness to engage in probably-pointless brinksmanship, is not just anger at a specific Democratic administration, or opposition to a specific program, or disappointment over a single electoral defeat. Rather, it’s a revolt against the long term pattern I’ve just described: Against what these conservatives, and many on the right, see as forty years of failure, in which first Reagan and then Gingrich and now the Tea Party wave have all failed to deliver on the promise of an actual right-wing answer to the big left-wing victories of the 1930s and 1960s — and now, with Obamacare, of Obama’s first two years as well.
Douthat says this is foolish romanticism, not prudent strategizing, and I think he’s right. That’s easy for me to say because I’ve never been passionate about small government. My conservatism, as you know, is primarily cultural and social. Yet in Douthat’s analysis here I see myself and other social conservatives, and why it is hard for us to give up on our own dreams. For all our analyses, both high and low, of the post-Sixties decay of American cultural norms, we really didn’t change much at all. The counterculture won. I was talking not long ago to a friend who works for a major corporation, and he was telling me that most conservatives are absolutely clueless about how big business works to undermine culturally conservative values. We on the Right (as he considers himself) focus on the government and on Hollywood as the source of creeping moral egalitarianism, but we are ignorant of how many of these same values become institutionalized within corporate cultures. It’s a complicated story, having to do not with the business bottom line, but with status competition among elites. At least that’s my view. But I understood his point, and it was something I’d never thought about.
Anyway, Douthat’s column made me reflect on how little practical headway we on the cultural Right have made over these last decades. At best we have carved out niches for ourselves so we don’t get swamped by the overculture. That’s not nothing! It’s not remotely what we want, but it is better than if we had not resisted at all. Nor is it of no matter that the political Right has managed to retard the expansion of the welfare state, even as it has been unable to stop its expansion entirely.
For me, as a cultural conservative, I see no clear and compelling reason why I should object to an expansion of the welfare state when it comes to providing medical care for the poor and underinsured. I’m not saying I endorse it, necessarily, only that there are culturally conservative reasons to back it. Closer to home, I can understand why libertarians on the Right don’t share the passion we Traditionalists have in opposing SSM and abortion. They might agree with us, but don’t see why it should be a priority. There is no unity on the Right over these things.
I’ve had to make political peace with SSM because it is a cultural juggernaut that makes sense by the standards of the mainstream today. I’m doing this not because I endorse SSM, but because as a conservative, my instincts toward prudence tell me that my energies would be better focused on figuring out how to protect religious liberty and ensure the vitality of traditional Christian teaching in a culture that embraces SSM. That can look like capitulation to some on my side, but I tell you, in a hypothetical in which social-conservative GOP radicals in Congress shut down the government down to get Obama to surrender on same-sex marriage, I could not in good conscience support my side. The destruction to the kind of political trust and shared understandings needed to govern in our system would not be worth anything plausibly gained by the shutdown.
Similarly, the American people, in their infinite wisdom, have made their peace with the welfare state. I have a Tea Party friend who hates “socialized medicine,” but is grateful for his Medicare. Conservatives like that want a small government, but not when it involves cuts to their favorite programs. I think most people intuitively get this. Perhaps this is unsustainable. It probably is unsustainable. Personally, I believe that the ongoing dissolution of the traditional family, of which SSM is a part, will cause a lot of pain in the future to this society, and is unsustainable in the long run. But we don’t live in the long run. We live now, and have to make governing choices in a difficult and imperfect world. One of the hard things about getting older is learning to discern the difference between a principled stand and foolish romanticism, and to learn how not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. This capacity is called prudence. It used to be valued on the Right.