I had a conversation the other day with the folks at MTV about why I think the GOP got its voters wrong. Much of it will be familiar to you if you listen to The Federalist Radio Hour, but here’s a portion of it that sparked some controversy.
“I think the real problem is that a lot of the religiously minded [wanted and still want] to use the power of government to try to create the society that they wished [existed] within the United States. This is not something that’s new, of course. Now, there’s a good side to that, which is, of course, the civil rights movement, and the kind of effort that you saw America’s Christians play in that role. You saw it, of course, in the antislavery movement, well before that. But you also saw it in [those who were] basically being busybodies about the way people live their lives. The question I would [ask] to social conservatives is: Are you confident that the way you view a life well-lived is a compelling enough model that it will win on its own merits?
“One of the things we have in this modern, individualistic age is a recognition that happiness can look very different for very different people. Happiness is not necessarily about how much money you make, happiness isn’t necessarily about these aspects of your life. I think that one of the errors that social conservatives made — particularly Christian social conservatives — was a belief that they needed to use the power of government to try to shore up the various things that they believe make up a life well-lived. The whole design of our government policies were sort of engineered toward this 1950s/1960s perspective on what living looks like, and I think the social conservatives basically [tried] to make that something that was very much enshrined and entrenched in our policy. As opposed to recognizing that, hey, if that type of lifestyle is something that is ultimately rewarding to people, and something that makes them happy, then they’re going to follow that path more often than not, and that you don’t need to use the engine of government to push them in that direction.”
I had some critical responses via email about this, but this nice fellow at Ricochet with a jet avatar took it a bit further.
I don’t know if Domenech was trying to sell me, but he failed. The first error is mistaking necessity for desire. By his own admission, using the government to engineer the good life wasn’t the Christians’ idea. It was done in the 1950s and 1960s, right in the middle of the great millennialist withdrawal. Christians as a category didn’t re-enter American political debates until that using of the government to enforce a particular way of life began to infringe on their way of life. Exactly when isn’t clear — we could date it to Roe v. Wade in 1973, or the Silent Majority speech in 1969. There are probably arguments for earlier dates, too — but it is clearly post Eisenhower, and the use of government to enforce a way of life began in the New Deal. So what I want to do is go home, be allowed to govern my city and state as I like, and be left alone. But it is abundantly clear that this is not possible. The government, from the feds to the locals, in every policy area from schools to immigration, is going to dictate a way of life to me. The government is far too powerful, and all attempts to weaken it have failed.
I hear this view voiced occasionally, and it always puzzles me, because the history is quite wrong. Christians entered political debates in meaningful ways at many points in our nation’s history, certainly not “post-Eisenhower” – the MTV interview was edited for length, so it left off a bit where I discussed their positive impact as a movement for abolition of slavery in the 19thCentury, and their negative impact as a force or prohibition of alcohol in the early 20th– and to say that they did not have an organized impact until the end of the 1960s is balderdash. And as for his main point: because of the New Deal and the progressive project, conservatives are supposed to just give up on federalism? Just because the government is powerful, we of necessity should abandon the localist project which existed for the majority of the history of our country? This is absurd and unprincipled.
As for the argument that localism and federalism will not work in a post-Roe environment: somehow our localities and states have managed to remain very different in all sorts of characteristics, despite this often overwhelming federal government. It’s true that being liberal is essentially meaningless now given the array of puritanical political correctness movements and tribalist tendencies on the left which seek to stamp out our differences, and yes, there is far less appetite for a live and let live culture. But this does not necessarily demand a counter response that uses government to impose a way of life on the people, in a way that will inevitably lead to swinging back and forth depending on who occupies the White House.
We should never trust government more than people and markets to work out what the life well lived looks like. I think people should be free to worship their god, teach their kids, buy their guns, grow their pot, sell their raw milk, horde their gold, and freely associate with other people to decide how much gambling, hookers, and blow they want in their neighborhood, so we can all decide where to live accordingly.
One more point: In the responses, a fellow named KC Mulville responded: “Domenech found himself on MTV and tried to ingratiate himself with their audience by indulging them in their prejudices about social conservative hypocrisy.” Actually, no – I’ve been voicing this opinion for years, repeatedly – it was part of remarks I gave at Cato, Reason, and the Heritage Foundation over the years. Here’s what I wrote in The Transom from January 16, 2014.
If you’re confident that marriage and childrearing is better not just in aggregate but generally, at the individual level – that it isn’t just necessary for the country, but is good for people – then people should choose them because they want to have them, not because they’re browbeat into having them. Getting government out of the way and letting the market work is a great approach which allows people to vote with their feet – and that’s not just true when it comes to the economy.
Don’t call it a comeback – I’ve been here for years.
Originally posted in The Transom newsletter, April 19. You can subscribe here.