It has come to this: Our friend Paul Weyrich, the man who coined the phrase "moral majority," now says the term no longer fits an America where conservatives have "lost the culture war." He says the American people, steeped in the MTV culture, have yielded to "an alien ideology" that celebrates moral relativism and creates "an ever-wider" sewer. Conservatives have no choice but to retreat and "quarantine" themselves from "a cultural collapse of historic proportions."
Those words are from Weyrich's Feb. 16 open letter to conservative leaders. On Feb. 28, in an interview in the Los Angeles Times, Weyrich elaborated on this theme. He was asked, "Are you essentially adopting the model of the 1960s liberals, who dropped out of the political process and sought other ways to influence society?" He answered, "Yes. The left has a strategy called the long march through the institutions, and they took over the culture gradually, institution by institution by institution."
With all due respect to Weyrich, this strategy will lead to disaster.
Weyrich's concerns are understandable, but his remarks illustrate how temporary setbacks sometimes can lead to defeatism. Two fundamental errors mar Weyrich's analysis: It is based upon a bad premise and, even if the premise were true, his strategy would fail.
The problem flows from a flawed understanding of the culture war. Weyrich rightly notes that conservatives have pulled off some impressive electoral gains in recent years but erroneously concludes that this amounts to little when held against the cultural losses of the past three decades. He underestimates the influence of political victories on cultural issues.
Take taxes. Until the cuts of the 1980s, government taxed earnings at rates up to 70%. At the same time, the government provided a cash subsidy to any person with no income and children in the household. Little wonder the economy faltered.
Little wonder, too, that illegitimacy increased and families broke down.
These policies exerted a powerful force on both economic activity and the social fabric of the nation. They affected the most intimate details of daily life, fueling dependency, illegitimacy and other societal trends government was supposedly trying to eradicate. To a large extent, cultural deterioration turns out to be a political phenomenon: High taxes and the welfare state — and the political ideologies behind them — are largely responsible for America's cultural collapse.
Moreover, conservatives have not "lost the culture war" by any measure. Yes, the family is in bad shape, illegitimacy still too high, divorce too frequent, and much of what passes for entertainment in film and television is contemptible. But conservatives cannot ignore the fact that many cultural trends are turning in the right direction. Almost across the board, the numbers are falling on illegitimacy, abortion, divorce, and crime. Conservatives who have fought in the political arena can take much credit for this.
And they must keep fighting if the numbers on illegitimacy, abortion, divorce, and crime are to be further reduced.
Did conservatives give up in the wake of Barry Goldwater's overwhelming defeat in 1964? Did they hide while Lyndon Johnson built a gilded welfare state known as the Great Society? Did they capitulate when Richard Nixon — supposedly one of their own — backed racial quotas, wage and price controls and the abandonment of Taiwan? They did not, and they have the gains of the Reagan years and the welfare reforms and balanced budgets of the Clinton years to show for it.
Conservatives should also remember that the other side never gives up the political fight. Liberals didn't waste time bemoaning their fate during their years in exile from the White House; they kept pushing their agenda. They succeed because they stick to a basic maxim: Never quit.
Conservatives should not allow impatience for final victory to cloud their judgment. To abandon the fight is to abandon the principles and institutions that have made America the world's freest and most successful nation. It is also to abandon one's fellow citizens to the ravages of bad law. Some fights have indeed been lost, but this is no time to follow Weyrich's advice and flee the field of battle.