By Wayne Allensworth
In my lifetime, social trends have inexorably tracked leftward. In a very short time in historical terms, our society’s popular culture, for instance, veered from The Andy Griffith Show to RuPaul’s Drag Race at a disorienting pace. For every apparently good bit of news—divorce rates are down, for instance—we find a dark cloud behind a false silver lining: there are fewer divorces because marriage has collapsed, and with it, the family, the very bedrock of any social order.
Social conservatives have enjoyed few successes in recent decades. It mattered little who was president, or which party controlled Congress, or even who sat on the Supreme Court. Yes, the court’s role in the revolution is clear, but were the justices determining social norms or following already extant trends? Those “conservative” justices—vital to the survival of the republic, we heard again and again—had a way of “growing” in a way leftists did not. Something called “gay marriage” that was unthinkable not so long ago now appears to be widely accepted. It’s difficult to believe that such a sea change in social attitudes took place because of a single SCOTUS decision. The old social norms have evaporated like a glass of water in a desert. The old unmentionables are becoming commonplace: homosexuality, cohabitation, even “trans-gendered” people.
American individualism was unmoored from traditional morality. Richard Weaver’s notion of an individualism limited by duty and responsibility in the “disciplined freedom” of “social bond individualism” is, as they say, ancient history. There are many interrelated reasons for that. Urbanization, industrialization, increased mobility, and cultural homogenization undermined a sense of rootedness in our people. Deracination was the result. Those “little platoons” mainstream conservatives used to celebrate became fractured and atomized.
It’s no surprise that socio-economic structural changes were accompanied by a new zeitgeist that celebrated the myth of a completely autonomous individual, a demi-god unbridled by “oppressive” traditional institutions, a superior being capable of magical transformations. No fault divorce and legal abortion were its products. The zeitgeist of the age promoted a “blank slate” theory of human nature that set the stage for mass, virtually uncontrolled, immigration from lands vastly different from our own.
Real conservatives tend to be wary of technological advancement and the social disruption that might accompany radical innovation. They should be. The sexual revolution, for instance, was not simply a matter of the legalization of abortion and pornography, or easy divorce. It could not have happened without penicillin and the pill. The former ended the fear of venereal disease. The latter ended the fear of an “unwanted child.” Sexual libertines had been around for centuries. The “liberated” world they desired could not have happened without the medical-technological advancements of the 20th century.
What we as conservatives are confronted with is the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity,” a society that is in a constant state of becoming. Our society sees “change” as a wholly positive phenomenon. “Change” has no end point of perfection. There is nothing “solid” in our new reality. “Trans-genderism” and “trans-humanism” are the next realms of exploration for a world that is constantly in flux.
Conservatives lose because what we have to offer—restraint, traditional religious and cultural norms, self-sacrifice, delayed gratification, kinship ties, patriotism—has been unable to compete with “ye shall be as gods,” and the sense of omnipotence that accompanies the seductive power of modern technology. Our young people are afloat in the sea of liquid modernity. What attraction can a life of oppressive restraint, of blood, sweat, toil, and tears, have compared to the false promise of self-realization and instant gratification? They wish to be “happy” and self-determined. Our old notions of fulfillment are unappealing.
All people long for a sense of purpose and direction. Drug addiction, depression, suicide, and the lost sense of place that haunt our society are the consequences of a vast array of structural, social, and economic disruptions. These are disruptions our self-styled mainstream conservatives celebrate, as they celebrate globalized capitalism’s role in creating a post-modern wasteland. If there is to be any positive future for our people, we have to reject the tenets of a “conservatism” that can’t even conceive of conserving anything.
It may be that the present madness will have to run its course, that it will continue until enough people have experienced its destructive nihilism good and hard. In the meantime, the rest of us will have a lot of thinking to do about how to survive, how to rebuild, and how to keep the old ways alive.
Wayne Allensworth is the author of The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel Field of Blood.