For the ‘Modern Family’ Generation, the Culture War is About Liberty – Not Culture

I can’t work out what the culture war means for this election. All this week, I’ve been exploring alternative points of view. As I wrote in the Telegraph, I’m sure it will motivate the conservative base and give Obama trouble. As I wrote for CNN, I suspect most independents and younger Americans will just ignore it. Yesterday forced another rethink. A poll out on Thursday showed that half of Americans oppose the President’s plans to compel Catholic organizations to provide contraception as part of their employees’ health insurance. So does the culture war matter or not?

I think it does, but not in the way that the pundits traditionally think about it. The 2012 culture war isn’t really about culture. It’s about liberty. Culture just happens to be the way that it’s expressed. This is only way of reconciling the paradox that while Americans broadly disagree with the Catholic Church’s position on contraception (which polls suggest that they do by large amounts) they also disagree with Obama’s reforms.

On the one hand, the public’s attitude towards moral and social issues has demonstrably mellowed. Take gay rights. In 1992, 48 percent of Americans thought sexual relations between people of the same gender should be legal. Now it’s 62 percent and, for the first time, a majority of Americans also support same-sex marriage. It’s surely significant that a 2010 poll found that the favorite TV show of Republican voters is Modern Family, which features a gay couple raising a Vietnamese adopted daughter. I would argue that those born after 1975 are part of the Modern Family generation – people who still favor family, stability, self-reliance etc, but who don’t feel that it has to be defined by traditional gender/sexual roles. Whether or not they are right is beside the point: they grew up in a culture that encouraged diversity and doesn’t see alternative lifestyles as a threat.

But that concern for liberty cuts both ways. For, on the other hand, the Modern Family generation doesn’t like it when anyone tries to impose their values on anyone else. That’s what Obama and the Left don’t get about the uproar that accompanied the contraception mandate. One foolish White House aide was heard to remark, “Who are we going to really lose over this? … Catholics who don’t believe in condoms aren’t going to vote for Barack Obama anyway. Let’s get real.” But this isn’t a lifestyle issue – it’s a freedom of conscience issue. Millions of voters aren’t angry at Obama’s support or even promotion of contraception. They are angry at the fact that he tried to compel the Catholic Church to provide it.

That distinction seems to be concomitant with the Tea Party’s ethos. A lot has been written about how the Tea Party is an incubator for religious conservatives – and I am sure this is true. But the movement’s overwhelming opposition to the mandate doesn’t contradict its overall message of liberty, or its earlier insistence that it is uninterested in social issues. That’s because the mandate is a big government issue, yet another example of the federal government going beyond its remit and trying to regulate the very most intimate parts of our lives.

On balance, I’m leaning towards the view that the contraception mandate will be electorally damaging to Obama because it confirms the voters’ impression that he is an arrogant bureaucrat with a penchant for European-style social democracy. That’s why it’s so hard to track precisely the electoral effect of the culture war – for its impact is felt on a largely instinctively level.

  1. Mel Foil

    In Daniel Hannan’s speech to CPAC, he described the disappointment for him, a lonely conservative in Europe, watching Europe headed for the economic cliff, trying to apply the emergency brakes for Europe and the UK at the last minute, and then, turning around to see America blindly following Europe over the same cliff. It’s a sad development, and so unnecessary.

  2. katievs

    Good analysis, Timothy.

  3. Mel Foil

    “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking is freedom.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower

  4. Jeff

    We libertarian-conservatives have been making this same argument for a long, long time. All we usually garner is ridicule from conservatives.

    (Which shows the importance of rhetoric, I suppose. Who says is more important than what is said.)

    The fatal conceit, the pretense of knowing more than one can – it afflicts Republicans and Democrats alike.

    Libertarian-conservatives and Tea Party members know this all too well. The Noble Lies spun by statists, and their academic enablers in both parties, aren’t working any longer. Even in the conservative movement, our self-appointed intellectual emperors have no clothes.

    You’re right, the crucial issue is liberty. And Liberty lives only where government power is strictly limited. But the Republican Party is not a bastion of limited government politicians.

    Free peoples mostly settle into traditional family, social, and cultural arrangements –  because they work. Traditions arise not because they are imposed by Straussian or Progressive overlords but because traditional practices achieve a generally good outcome for people.

    In society, culture, and economics, Obama and the Democratic Party want to engineer what only emerges spontaneously. Sadly, neoconservatives also want to engineer society, culture and economics. They just choose a different design.

  5. Charles Starnes

    You’re right.  However, unfortunately liberty is a word that won’t have purchase with post 75′ers or independents. It resonates with us, not them.

    The word that will work is choice, and the sentiment that will work is that Obama won’t listen.  It will resonate with their developed sense of fairness.

    Obama is robbing us of choice.  Obama won’t listen. 

    Have a legitimate issue with constitutionally protected religious freedoms?  Too bad.  You lose your choice, and Obama won’t listen.

    He will rob you of your choice once cost considerations dictate that the IPAB eliminates drugs, procedures, etc. to reduce costs.

    For instance – worried women’s health is put in jeopardy by denying Avastin for breast cancer treatment or denying mammogram screening for those under 40?  To bad.  You lose your choice.  Cost-containment trumps women’s health issues, and he won’t listen to your pleadings.

    We don’t need to preach to the choir; We need to implore the non-ideological and the independents that their ox will be gored, they will be robbed of their choice, and Obama will not care what you have to say about it.

  6. raycon and lindacon

    ““Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams

    It isn’t all about liberty, it is whether we are a people who can so govern ourselves that we will allow no government to govern our lives.  And that self-government comes from being a Godly, moral and religious, people.

    Seeking the benefits that flow from the Constitution but being unwilling to place the controls upon ourselves will fail.

    It isn’t about liberty, it is about accountability.  To God, to ourselves, and to others. 

    Sorry, no free rides.

  7. Robert Lux

    “Values” . . . “lifestyle” . . .  Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind waxed rather brilliantly about how these very words reveal our growing slavishness. 

    I suppose I could write a whole post, from a tyrannical “Straussian” perspective (we also have secret, retractable fangs), about why it’s no coincidence that the best a “Modern Family” generation can muster in Britain is a David Cameron who cannot turn back the welfare state.  It’s sad that conservatives cannot see that “gay” marriage is intrinsic to the very logic of the welfare state: i.e., individuality run amok, with all the dire consequences as Tocqueville predicted. 

    If people have “mellowed” to SSM — and this is the way things should be and an outcome that is to be defended — then there really is something to the Leftist (and libertarian) critique that opposition to the domestication of the “gay” “lifestyle” is equal to promotion of miscegenation laws. 

    The Left understood long, long ago that the first place to begin in prosecuting their tyrannical, nanny state agenda was to soften up the culture. When I read posts like Timothy Stanley’s one can only feel exasperation as it’s clear the Left really has won. 

  8. Ansonia

    You’re right, Mr Stanley. I don’t believe using birth control is wrong. But I don’t want my government to have the power to force a church to enable a behavior that goes against the church’s teachings.

  9. Leporello
    Robert Lux: “Values” . . . “lifestyle” . . .  Allan Bloom’sClosing of the American Mind waxed rather brilliantly about how these very words reveal our growing slavishness. 

    I suppose I could write a whole post, from a tyrannical “Straussian” perspective (we also have secret, retractable fangs), about why it’s no coincidence that the best a “Modern Family” generation can muster in Britain is a David Cameron who cannot turn back the welfare state.  It’s sad that conservatives cannot see that “gay” marriage is intrinsic to the very logic of the welfare state: i.e., individuality run amok, with all the dire consequences as Tocqueville predicted. 

    The Left understood long, long ago that the first place to begin in prosecuting their tyrannical, nanny state agenda was to soften up the culture. When I read posts like Timothy Stanley’s one can only feel exasperation as it’s clear the Left really has won.  · 30 minutes ago

    Perfectly put, and just how I feel, too.  Apart from economics and constitutional reasoning, libertarians are children of the 60′s.  Unfortunately, many conservatives have also accepted the left’s premises about good and bad (including, but hardly limited to, considering sexual license a natural right).

  10. Jeff
    Charles Starnes: We don’t need to preach to the choir; We need to implore the non-ideological and the independents that their ox will be gored, they will be robbed of their choice, and Obama will not care what you have to say about it. · 5 minutes ago

    Edited 2 minutes ago

    That is one of the most intelligent comments I’ve read on Ricochet.

    Let’s explore why we preach to the choir. We’re a fractured party. Republicans are not all liberty-minded. Most elected Republicans do not practice limited government. The ugly truth is that we’re still trying to convince our own that liberty is good policy.

  11. Leporello
    Jeff Younger

    Charles Starnes: We don’t need to preach to the choir; We need to implore the non-ideological and the independents that their ox will be gored, they will be robbed of their choice, and Obama will not care what you have to say about it. · 5 minutes ago

    Edited 2 minutes ago

    That is one of the most intelligent comments I’ve read on Ricochet.

    Let’s explore why we preach to the choir. We’re a fractured party. Republicans are not all liberty-minded. Most elected Republicans do not practice limited government. The ugly truth is that we’re still trying to convince our own that liberty is good policy. · 2 minutes ago

    Fair enough, but local government was never supposed to be as limited as the federal government, and libertarians like to insist on limiting all government just as much.  Certain of our institutions need support in the law – not in the federal law, but in local law (and sometimes state law).

  12. Jeff
    Robert Lux: I suppose I could write a whole post, from a tyrannical “Straussian” perspective (we also have secret, retractable fangs), [...] It’s sad that conservatives cannot see that “gay” marriage is intrinsic to the very logic of the welfare state: i.e., individuality run amok, with all the dire consequences as Tocqueville predicted. 

    If people have “mellowed” to SSM — and this is the way things should be and an outcome that is to be defended — then there reallyis something to the Leftist (and libertarian) critique that opposition to the domestication of the “gay” “lifestyle” is equal to promotion of miscegenation laws. 

    Libertarians have diverse views on gay marriage. Ron Paul for example, opposes government sanction of gay marriage, opposes government redefinition of marriage from one man and one woman. Paul Rahe said Mr. Paul was homophobic for that position.

    The one thing that unites libertarians is this: society should be free to develop free of the government.

    Neoconservatives and Straussians don’t believe that.

    And you’ve misread Tocqueville. How can collectivist government policies aimed at destroying the traditional family be called “individualism”? It’s a typical Straussian bait-and-switch.

  13. Jeff
    Leporello Fair enough, but local government was never supposed to be as limited as the federal government, and libertarians like to insist on limiting all government just as much.  Certain of our institutions need support in the law – not in the federal law, but in local law (and sometimes state law). · 60 minutes ago

    Agreed. At the state and local level, the people themselves are the best check on the government.

  14. Leporello
    Jeff Younger

    Leporello Fair enough, but local government was never supposed to be as limited as the federal government, and libertarians like to insist on limiting all government just as much.  Certain of our institutions need support in the law – not in the federal law, but in local law (and sometimes state law). · 60 minutes ago

    Agreed. At the state and local level, the people themselves are the best check on the government. · 3 minutes ago

    Oh, well, glad to hear it.  Do you consider yourself, then, an old-time “Federalist” like Madison, or more of an “Anti-Federalist” like Mason? Would you rather have a Swiss-like confederacy of cantons, or a pre-Wilson/TR American government?

  15. Leporello
    Jeff Younger

    Robert Lux: I suppose I could write a whole post, from a tyrannical “Straussian” perspective (we also have secret, retractable fangs), [...] It’s sad that conservatives cannot see that “gay” marriage is intrinsic to the very logic of the welfare state: i.e., individuality run amok, with all the dire consequences as Tocqueville predicted. 

    If people have “mellowed” to SSM — and this is the way things should be and an outcome that is to be defended — then there reallyis something to the Leftist (and libertarian) critique that opposition to the domestication of the “gay” “lifestyle” is equal to promotion of miscegenation laws. 

    Neoconservatives and Straussians don’t believe that.

    And you’ve misread Tocqueville. How can collectivist government policies aimed at destroying the traditional family be called “individualism”? It’s a typical Straussian bait-and-switch. · 12 minutes ago

    Sincere questions:  Have you read anything by Leo Strauss?  If so, was it more than a few essays?  And are you aware that a large number of students and admirers of Leo Strauss are skeptical of or simply opposed to neoconservative foreign policy?

  16. Jeff
    Leporello Sincere questions:  Have you read anything by Leo Strauss?  If so, was it more than a few essays?  And are you aware that a large number of students and admirers of Leo Strauss are skeptical of or simply opposed to neoconservative foreign policy? · 1 minute ago

    When I wrote “Neoconservatives and Straussians” I didn’t mean to imply identity but distinction.

    They both distrust the development of society free of government control, even as they disagree on other matters, particualrly on the aims of government.

  17. Jeff
    Leporello Oh, well, glad to hear it.  Do you consider yourself, then, an old-time “Federalist” like Madison, or more of an “Anti-Federalist” like Mason? Would you rather have a Swiss-like confederacy of cantons, or a pre-Wilson/TR American government?

    I’m more Jeffersonian. A pre-Wilson/TR government appeals strongly to me.

  18. Leporello
    Jeff Younger

    Leporello Oh, well, glad to hear it.  Do you consider yourself, then, an old-time “Federalist” like Madison, or more of an “Anti-Federalist” like Mason? Would you rather have a Swiss-like confederacy of cantons, or a pre-Wilson/TR American government?

    I’m more Jeffersonian. A pre-Wilson/TR government appeals strongly to me. · 10 minutes ago

    Ha!  Splitting the difference, I see, by choosing Jefferson.  Well, I’ve grown more sympathetic to that view as I’ve become more aware of the oppression of Progressive statism, whose underlying principles many Republicans have embraced, as you pointed out.

  19. Leporello
    Jeff Younger

    Leporello Sincere questions:  Have you read anything by Leo Strauss?  If so, was it more than a few essays?  And are you aware that a large number of students and admirers of Leo Strauss are skeptical of or simply opposed to neoconservative foreign policy? · 1 minute ago

    When I wrote “Neoconservatives and Straussians” I didn’t mean to imply identity but distinction.

    They both distrust the development of society free of government control, even as they disagree on other matters, particualrly on the aims of government. · 18 minutes ago

    I agree Straussians are not the same as neoconservatives.  I disagree, however,  that there is much one can say about the political views of Straussians as a group.  In general, the only thing I could confidently say about them altogether is that they believe in reading the works of great minds and trying to understand them as they understood themselves.  Leo Strauss never taught a particular political program, unless you want to argue that merely insisting on the continuing relevance of thinkers such as Plato, Aristotle, Maimonides, and Machiavelli constitutes a political program.  

  20. CoolHand

    Many words expended thus far, but not a great deal of them on anything useful.

    Folks here like to bag on libertarians for some reason.  It’s as if they think we’re to blame for all that is wrong with the country and the culture.

    News Flash!  As you’re so fond of reminding us, we’re a very small group with very little influence in the halls of power.  Ergo, we are by definition not at fault for what has happened in the culture at large.

    I also disagree greatly with the assertion that without God, we’re all heathens who’ll shag anything that’s warm.

    Libertarianism for me boils down to this simple desire:  I want to be left alone.

    I don’t need govt to tell me what to eat, I don’t need a church to tell me not to kill people or drop-kick babies, and I don’t need village of nosy frumps to tell me how to raise my (hypothetical) children.

    All I want from govt is for the roads to only have smallish potholes in them, and for the worst criminals to be caught/killed, maybe fair courts too.

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