Winning the New Culture War: Liberty Versus Autonomy

Conservatives are being told that the recent election results are a sign that we have lost the “culture war” in the United States. 

Gay marriage proponents won state referenda for the first time, in four states. Pro-life candidates became a burden to the national ticket when they offered clumsy explanations as to why they opposed a rape exception for abortion. And two states passed ballot measures decriminalizing the use of marijuana.

But while traditional morality is in retreat, the interventionist state is not. 

Americans re-elected a president whose sweeping health insurance legislation will intrude upon the most intimate medical decisions made by every American, and which challenges the religious freedom of faith-based institutions that do not offer coverage for contraception and abortion. Other Obama regulations, in finance and energy use, are just as intrusive.

The driving force, in both trends, is the “millennial” generation--those of us roughly 35 and under who voted overwhelmingly for Obama in 2008 and 2012. 

We are more tolerant of alternative lifestyles and more protective of abortion. We are more vulnerable to appeals through pop culture and social media, which to us are more real than the physical world around us. We are far more open to utopian visions than our Generation X elders were. 

We inherited Generation X’s obsession with political correctness and moral relativism, but without that generation’s skepticism towards big government and ambitious plans. 

And so while some have lent new energy to the libertarian movement as represented by Ron Paul, many more were swept up in the Obama cult, voting for and lending our skills toward policies that prop up the welfare state and guarantee our future impoverishment.

What many millennials have not yet realized is that the interventionist state cannot leave private life alone, even if so-called “social issues” are off the table. 

In the name of public health, for example, the Democratic electorate of Los Angeles voted for a measure that requires all pornography actors to use condoms. In the hope of slowing global “climate change,” environmentalists want to control the tiniest individual consumption decisions.

Seventy years ago, F.A. Hayek warned the social democracies of the west that their enthusiasm for economic dictatorship would lead to other forms of authoritarianism. That lesson is lost on millennials, who came of age amidst the bounty of the post-Cold War era without learning about the evils of the empire America defeated. Instead, we absorbed a nostalgia for the radical 1960s that pervades millennial culture still today.

In particular, millennials inherited from the baby boomers a hatred of suburban life--what Pete Seeger derided as “ticky tacky.” The new urbanism that began in the 1980s rejected what it saw as the conformity and complacency of the suburbs in favor of a more spontaneous, albeit strenuous, city life. (Barack Obama--educated in a private school before adopting Harlem and Hyde Park--exemplifies the anti-suburban rebellion.)

But the millennials who have flocked to urban enclaves have run into two irresolvable political and economic contradictions. One is that their presence has often reinforced the economic inequality within cities that are largely run by one-party political machines that depend on the persistence of a black and Latino underclass. The other is that they themselves generally cannot afford to raise families in their gentrified areas--and leave.

And so the cultural life of the millennial generation is one of perpetual self-admonition. We are a generation at odds with ourselves, a generation that seeks personal success but believes it carries a moral burden to “give back” to the society from which we took it; a generation dependent on the investments made by those before us, and at the same time required to fund the staggering entitlements that our elders promised themselves.

These contradictions are not easily resolved. Therefore we seek escape in the pursuit of personal autonomy. That is the common theme in Obama’s two memoirs: in searching for himself, he finds a way to navigate the social and political dilemmas he faces. (Often, that sophisticated self-awareness serves as a disguise for crude left-wing clichés. Like the generation that loves him, Obama is both self-aware and self-denying.)

The cultural issues that draw millennials to Obama emphasize personal autonomy--the ability to choose to end a pregnancy for any reason, the demand that any sexual choice be not only tolerated but ratified. 

But autonomy is different from liberty--and it is far from clear that liberal cultural values do anything to shore up the liberty upon which American democracy depends, what Tocqueville referred to as “self-interest properly understood.”

That concept of liberty, shared by the Founders of our Republic, implied an ability to join in self-government. Yet at the moment, our most pressing problems--the runaway debt, the persistence of high unemployment, the increasing dependence on state economic assistance--seem beyond the capacity of our politics to resolve. 

We are, in that sense, no longer self-governing, no matter which party is in power. We are losing our liberty.

The first to realize that danger were the activists of the Tea Party movement, who rose up against excessive government spending and intervention in 2009. The left often mischaracterizes the Tea Party as a movement of social conservatism, when it has downplayed social issues. But it may be true that Tea Party members are more socially conservative, precisely because those values are conducive to an awareness of liberty.

The nuclear family--the model ridiculed by Hollywood leftists, who warned women that Mitt Romney would take them back to the 1950s--balances individual development with concern for others; private property with sharing; love with boundaries to love. As the size of our welfare state has grown, along with personal autonomy, the nuclear family has declined--particularly among the poor of all races, which the state is meant to help.

That does not mean that the personal autonomy prized by the millennial generation can or should be rolled back. It has made life more interesting, and fun; it is not the cause of the problems we are facing. But it is clearly insufficient as an answer to them. 

The great cultural and political challenge for conservatives is to find a way to restore liberty without threatening, or seeming to threaten, the personal autonomy that we millennials prize.

The left’s answer to the millennial dilemma was a return to utopian collectivism. In his 1999 book, For Common Things, Jedidiah Purdy rebelled against the irony of popular culture and exhorted his peers to restore the idea of collective stewardship of the economy, of social life, and the environment. Purdy was mocked for his opposition to pop culture but anticipated the mood of the Obama campaign several years later.

One conservative answer, provided by Glenn Beck, is a return to a politics of values, and faith in particular. Andrew Breitbart disagreed, and among his criticisms of Beck was that his efforts were diverting the Tea Party movement into an insular social niche. 

Breitbart did not reject social conservatives--indeed, he saw the politics of autonomy as a form of “nihilism”--but wanted to take on the mainstream culture, not drop out of it.

Breitbart believed that leveling the political and cultural playing field, by taking on the institutional left and the media, was a precondition for conservative success. Beyond that, he emphasized the power of the individual citizen--the “citizen journalist,” for example--to challenge authority the Internet and social media. He wanted Americans to take control of the media, not just resist it. His remains a vision consistent with liberty.

As the left presses its current advantage, the temptation among some Republicans is to offer a tactical surrender on social issues in the hope of winning support on fiscal ones. That will win support from a few moderates, at the price of losing the support of many social conservatives. 

A better approach is to re-cast the culture war as a battle of liberty versus autonomy, rather than religion versus secularism or tradition versus modernity.

The way to win is not to confront autonomy, but to make use of it--even to defend it. The ambitions of the redistributionist nanny state--from LA’s condom mandate, to Michelle Obama’s “healthy” restaurant menus, to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s push for breastfeeding--is as destructive of privacy and intimacy as the traditionally-minded laws that once governed sexual relations in most states and are now in permanent retreat.

Conservatives should not depend on government to promote traditional values--though need not reject that where it is constitutional and popular--and should focus on offering traditional lifestyles as an alternative, using new media to renew a culture of family and life. 

Meanwhile, the target in the culture war must remain Obama’s statism, which we will hold up for ridicule. Enough millennials will join us, over time, to deliver victory.

They will cross over because liberty provides a deeper and more fulfilling reconciliation of the contradictions millennials face. Accepting the basic truth that individuals bear the ultimate responsibility for their own fate--even if some inherit advantages of wealth and talent--allows us to escape the crippling guilt of success or the paralysis of victimhood--not through the personality of a political leader, but through an embrace of individual potential.

But it will not be easy. Winning the culture war means fighting it--which means piercing the boundary between the separate universes into which American political and cultural discourse has become segmented. It is no longer adequate for conservatives to share quietly the things we believe, and hope enough of us show up at the polls. 

To convince, we must first be willing to provoke and offend, in order to awaken--before it is too late.

Note: an earlier version of this article attributed "ticky tacky" to Joan Baez. In fact the song, Little Boxes, was written by Malvina Reynolds for Pete Seeger. Joan Baez did record a version of the song.


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