The Paradox of the American Right
“In the end, politics is the servant of cultural forces, not their master. I often wonder if it is much more than a comforting fiction that, by choosing between two parties that frequently operate like large marketing conglomerates, selling much the same product in different packaging, we thereby take charge of the future. It may make us feel free and powerful, in the same way that shopping does, but the one great lesson to be learned from the social history of America over the past several decades is that culture evolves as it will, and it is not the electoral success of a political party, but the verdict of the culture at large, that ultimately determines the shape of civic reality. A political party can hasten or delay the inevitable, volens nolens, but politics is merely an expression of cultural forces far deeper than ideology or public policy can ever reach.
“It has often been noted, for instance, that over the past few decades the political “right” has won the argument on economic issues while the “left” has won the argument on social issues. In either case, naturally, things may now and then dash forward a mite too precipitously, which leads to a predictable but only partial retreat—three steps forward, two steps back—but the general drift of culture is quite inexorable. Ours is a libertarian society that rests upon an economic foundation of consumerism. Late modernity is the triumph of a kind of polymorphous voluntarism, with regard to both material and immaterial goods. Such a culture must necessarily gravitate towards an ever more indeterminate and minimalist view of civic and private morality; its morality is primarily one of toleration rather than prescription.
“It may therefore be no more than a poignant paradox that, on account of the vagaries and historical incidentals of political affiliation, many of those who argue most passionately for the unhindered free market are also those who most keenly lament the decay of the moral and social consensus of the past, the rise of an ever coarser and more permissive popular culture, and the disintegration of the nuclear family. But the modern market is sustained by consumerism, and a consumerist culture thrives on the fabrication of an ever greater diversity of desires that may be guiltlessly pursued; such a culture irresistibly demands that the province of inhibition, prohibition, shame, and local loyalties become ever smaller. Not to sound too Marxist (or, perhaps, too “incarnational”) about this, but the ideological shape of a society cannot be divorced from its material basis…
“Anyway, I expect the course of things is set for the near future: a comfortable combination of authoritarianism and libertarianism; a provident, intrusive, and imperious state allied to a corporate culture that encourages, gratifies, and endlessly amplifies an amoral appetite for the trivial and ephemeral; extraordinary governmental power wielded peremptorily in the name of endless warfare abroad and of ever more perfect civil order and social justice at home; culture replaced by advertising, shared custom by private impulse, community by television; public life reduced to the bare dialectic of state power and individual rights. There may be a path open that leads beyond that state of things—a path not primarily political, but rather cultural and spiritual—but it will not be easy to find, and it will be a very long march indeed.”