Many conservatives have become disenchanted with national politics. This disenchantment is understandable. Strong support for Republicans seeking the White House and seats in Congress has done little to conserve the type of society most of those voting Republican wanted to conserve. By almost any measure, American society has moved steadily leftward in recent decades. Social conservatives, in particular, have little to show for voting for Republican presidential and congressional candidates: Roe v. Wade, written by a Nixon appointee, remains the law of the land, and a Reagan appointee wrote the decision requiring all states to recognize gay marriage, something that seemed unthinkable as recently as 2004, when George W. Bush’s re-election was aided by a string of statewide referenda against gay marriage. In addition, there is no denying that national politics has become increasingly ugly.
Rather than waste their efforts on national politics, some now argue, conservatives should focus their political energy on the local communities in which they live and expend most of their energy on the task of preserving and transmitting what remains of traditional American culture, including the Christian beliefs that helped build that culture. As understandable as the conservative disenchantment with national politics is, though, a tactical retreat from national politics poses dangers of its own, because much of what threatens community life in America requires a national solution, and the autonomy needed to preserve and transmit traditional culture cannot be secured without some national political presence.
For most Americans, the economy has been stagnant for decades. Adjusted for inflation, wages are roughly the same today as they were in the 1970’s. A major reason for this is the greatly expanded labor market. In many sectors of the economy, workers compete with virtually the entire planet. In many parts of the country, workers also compete with large numbers of immigrants, both legal and illegal. These effects are particularly acute in rural America. A large metropolitan area can more readily absorb the impact of dozens of plant closures, if dozens remain, than a small town can absorb the loss of the one or two factories that make up its entire manufacturing sector. Economic problems exacerbate social problems, if for no other reason than the breakup of families that occurs when people need to leave home to find work. The harm caused by free trade and mass immigration cannot be addressed at the local level. Communities cannot enact tariffs or immigration restrictions. And until the problems caused by free trade and mass immigration are addressed, many communities across America will continue to wither. Local problems sometimes require national solutions.
It is of course true that the preservation and transmission of traditional culture is more important than who sits in the White House or which party controls Congress. Indeed, in the long term, culture dictates politics, and conservatives are losing political battles now because the left has steadily taken control of most of the culture-forming institutions in America. But a political presence does help to keep issues alive, both morally and politically. No matter how cynically many Republican politicians treat abortion, it is hard to say that the pro-abortion position has become dominant in America when a major political party claims to take the opposite position, its presidents profess to support the opposite position, and at least some of the justices on the Supreme Court continue to dissent from the decision that is the focus of the opposition. Indeed, no one who pays any attention to American life can fail to notice that a substantial portion of the population does not accept the morality of abortion. The same cannot be said for other issues addressed by once controversial Supreme Court decisions that did not engender continuing political opposition.
A national political presence is also required to secure the autonomy needed to preserve and transmit culture. To paraphrase Trotsky, just because you aren’t interested in the culture war doesn’t mean that the culture war isn’t interested in you. Many conservative Christians, for example, now homeschool. But the continued legal existence of homeschooling depends on politicians at all levels of government being willing to oppose legislation designed to kill homeschooling and judges selected through political processes being willing to overturn such legislation. Trying to be inconspicuous instead just doesn’t work. The Mormons, for example, tried to secure cultural autonomy by moving into the middle of what was then called the Great American Desert. But it wasn’t until they gave up polygamy that the federal government largely left them alone. If conservatives don’t remain engaged in politics at a national level, and given the current government treatment of ordinary business owners who refuse to celebrate gay marriage, it is easy to imagine us one day being legally compelled to renounce long-held traditional practices and beliefs that will seem as outlandish to our countrymen as polygamy was to the contemporaries of Brigham Young.