By the time you read this, “the most important election of our lifetime” will be headed for the history books. If the last six most important elections of our lifetime are any indication, however, we will once again have a chance to vote in the most important election of our lifetime in 2020.
Or perhaps not, because some of those who have routinely claimed that each presidential election since 1992 has been the most important election of our lifetime changed their tune this year: This, they said, was the last election that would ever matter. After November 8, the deluge.
In the words of everybody’s favorite pseudonymous paleo-Straussian, the 2016 contest was the “Flight 93 Election.” If we failed to rush the cockpit by prevailing on November 8, this country that we all love so much—even though, to listen to us, we seemingly cannot stand anything about it—would come crashing to the ground. A few months ago, Donald Trump declared that, if he were not elected president, the Republicans would never win the White House again. In mid-October, in a speech in Florida, he upped the ante: “This is not simply another four-year election,” Trump said. “This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization [emphasis mine] that will determine whether or not we the people reclaim control over our government.”
Forget Flight 93; the pseudonymous paleo-Straussian was thinking too small. The 2016 election was the Siege of Vienna; it was Charles Martel at Tours; it was Horatio at the bridge. Pat Buchanan, a veteran of two White Houses and a presidential election of his own, emphatically agreed with the Republican presidential nominee who, in 1999, called him “a very dangerous man” who “has enjoyed a long psychic friendship with Hitler.” Politics, as we know, makes for strange bedfellows, and everyone in this bed agrees that, by 2020, it will be too late to fight back. The demography of the United States is changing too rapidly, and demographics is destiny.
There are many half-truths in all of these statements, but a half-truth, as John Lukacs has often said, is sometimes more dangerous than a lie, because the element of truth makes it easy to ignore the element of untruth. On virtually every measure that true conservatives care about, the country will almost certainly be worse off in 2020 than it is today—just as, on all of those same measures, the country was worse off in 2008 than it was in 2000, a reality that played no small part in the election of Barack Obama.
One definition of insanity, we are told, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Yet that’s exactly what we have done by investing each presidential election with monumental importance—and finally, in this year, apocalyptic importance.
There is a way, though, in which this year was different. Donald Trump ran the tables and defeated 16 other Republican candidates in the primaries, because he was willing to champion issues that no Republican presidential candidate since Pat Buchanan in 2000 has had any desire to touch. Those issues are the very ones that we at Chronicles have advocated for the last 30 of our 40 years of publication. We have known all along that these issues were more important to more of the American people than the things that MSNBC and FOX News, the New York Times and the Washington Post and NPR, spend all of their time discussing and debating, and we—and other authors and editors of Chronicles, especially the late Sam Francis—correctly predicted that any presidential candidate who took them on forthrightly would garner tremendous support.
How could we have been so certain?
Because, at root, all of these issues are neither political nor economic but cultural. Immigration, trade, manufacturing, law and order, even the question of foreign wars and the role of the United States in world affairs—all of these are just as much a matter of culture as are, say, abortion and gay “marriage.” But just as with abortion and gay “marriage,” we tend to forget the irreducible cultural nature of these issues when we find ourselves in the heat of political battles. We begin to act as if politics—especially national politics—is all that really matters. And, as so often happens, thought follows action. So we convince ourselves that abortion can be brought to an end by Congress passing a “Personhood Amendment” or by the Supreme Court taking up another Roe v. Wade and deciding it rightly this time. That a president or Congress can somehow reduce local crime without increasing the federal government’s near-tyrannical powers. That the heads of multinational (or, more correctly, transnational) corporations have shuttered factories in the United States while opening new ones in China and Mexico simply because Congress passed laws and the president signed treaties that made it economically viable to do so, rather than that Congress passed those laws and the president signed those treaties because politicians of both political parties were heavily lobbied to do so by corporate executives who have next to nothing in common with the workers in their factories because those executives long ago quit thinking of themselves as Americans in anything more than a purely accidental way. That the executives of other companies that cannot take advantage of such trade agreements to move their operations overseas because it costs too much to ship a frozen chicken from China have repeatedly chosen to employ illegal immigrants illegally simply because those immigrants are here, and not because the stock grants that their board has promised them if they beat projections on the next quarterly earnings report are more important to those executives than whether the grandchildren of the farmers whose way of life their corporate forebears destroyed in the middle of the last century are able to provide for their families and to remain within at least driving distance of the graves of their ancestors.
As we have said consistently in these pages, there are no political solutions to cultural problems—and every one of these is, at root, a cultural problem. And the greatest cultural problem that we face today is the all-encompassing nature of modern politics, which, especially at the national level, has proved to be an extraordinarily efficient means of destruction of traditional society, morality, and culture. Attempting to harness that destructive power to restore the culture, revitalize morality, and rebuild society is like trying to perform open-heart surgery with a chainsaw. Anyone who tries to do so is just going to make a huge mess.
In the final weeks of the 2016 campaign, an octogenarian grandmother in Indiana vowed to Mike Pence that she would fight a revolution should voters choose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. What that grandmother does not realize—what all of us, to the extent that we are captivated by national politics, do not realize—is that we are living today in the midst of an institutionalized revolution. Hillary Clinton is part of that revolution, and Barack Obama is, too, but as Billy Joel would say, they didn’t start the fire. That fire has been burning brightly in the minds of men for two and a half centuries—and not just a few men but all those who, like the French revolutionaries, elevate ideology above truth and politics above culture.
Russell Kirk used to say that “the American Revolution was no revolution truly, but simply a War of Independence—a revolution (in Burke’s phrase concerning the Glorious Revolution of 1688) ‘not made, but prevented.’” Dr. Kirk was right, of course, but American history did not stop once we had won our independence. The move from the English unwritten constitution to the written Constitution of the United States of America, and the adoption of a written Bill of Rights, were very good things in the context of their time, but they also gave the modern revolutionary spirit something to take and to twist, and by the time of Marbury v. Madison in 1803, the process had begun. Instead of being confined to its proper sphere, as the Framers of the Constitution wished it to be, national politics took on greater and greater importance, and society and culture were deliberately subordinated to politics.
All of this, as I noted last month, is there from the beginning in the writings of the godfather of the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, implicit in his concept of the general or national will that required the destruction of all social and cultural institutions that stand between the individual and the nation-state—especially the family, the Church, and the patriotic attachment to one’s native place and the people therein. But later philosophers of the revolution, such as Antonio Gramsci, were explicit about the need to subordinate culture to politics. The point of the “long march through the institutions” was to subvert the family and the Church and the schools and the news and entertainment media from within, by transforming these cultural institutions into political ones. Once the forces of revolution succeeded in doing that, the revolution would become unstoppable. Because this is the reality of the modern world: Whenever the battle is confined to the political arena, the revolutionaries always win. In politics, ideology always trumps tradition. Why? Because anyone who elevates politics above culture, abstraction above reality, even if he thinks of himself as a conservative, is, from the vantage point of tradition, an ideologue, a revolutionary.
And that is where we are today. Historically, we stand at the apotheosis of revolution. The rapid pace of cultural change over the last few years has been surprising, even astonishing, to most people—not just those of us who are opposed to that cultural change, but even those who are in favor of it. But we make a grave mistake if we think that political action brought about that change more than such action reflected it. Gay “marriage” did not come out of the blue, imposed by the political powers that be, any more than, in an earlier day, no-fault divorce and legalized abortion did. In each case, the courts and the politicians ratified a cultural revolution that had already taken place.
Think back to 2008, when Barack Obama told us that he did not believe in gay marriage. Or to 2012, when Hillary Clinton continued to say the same. To dismiss these statements as mere lies is to fail to understand that even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been driven by the long march through the institutions as much as, or even more than, they have driven it.
One of the best insights that true conservatives have had about the Republican Party over the past 30 years is that, when the Democrats have power, they push the revolution forward; and when the Republicans gain power, they institutionalize the revolutionary changes that the Democrats have made. That analysis is true, as far as it goes; but it doesn’t go far enough. The reality is that Gramsci and his disciples were right: By its very nature, cultural revolution drives political change. All of modern politics, Republican or Democratic, left or right, consists of the institutionalization of a revolution that has taken place, and continues to take place, in the culture.
Conservatives have been warning about “Cultural Marxism” for years while fundamentally misunderstanding the underlying strategy of the long march through the institutions. Rather than resisting any attempt to politicize the institutions of culture—the family, the Church, the schools, arts and literature—we have responded to the revolutionary subversion of these institutions by politicizing them in a different way. But the end result is the same: Those institutions have become thoroughly politicized; truth has been replaced by ideology; the revolution has advanced.
So we fight for “family values” as if this abstract phrase is more important than the family itself; we march under the banners of “academic freedom” and “free speech” when what we should be promoting are truth and beauty and goodness. We blithely import Christian language into our political rhetoric, labeling our political adversaries demons or the devil incarnate and ignoring Christ’s injunction to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and God that which is God’s” by citing the fact that God not only could but did use a Constantine for His own purposes as undeniable proof that He is clearly doing so right now, in the United States, in 2016. We start out by joking about “God Emperor Trump” and end up believing our own joke with a fervor that we should reserve for the clauses of the Nicene Creed.
And along the way we have lost sight of a reality that conservatives of a previous generation understood: that investing secular politics with religious significance is itself a form of the long march through the institutions, a subversion of the Church and the subordination of her divine mission to the revolutionary agenda of modern politics.
In The Screwtape Letters, written in the midst of World War II—long considered an existential crisis of the West, though one, I must admit, that pales in comparison with the election of 2016—C.S. Lewis has the superior demon Uncle Screwtape offer this advice to the novice Wormwood:
I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [God], are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. . . .
Whichever [the patient] adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause”, in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. . . . Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing. Provided that meetings, pamphlets, policies, movements, causes, and crusades matter more to him than prayers and sacraments and charity, he is ours—and the more “religious” (on those terms) the more securely ours.
My point is not to suggest that politics is unimportant—far from it—but that we need to return politics to its proper sphere, to recognize (as I wrote last month) that culture is prior to politics, both in the sense of existing before politics and in the sense of being more important than politics. When we invest politics with religious importance, we profane religion, we undermine the culture, and we become unwitting soldiers in the long march through the institutions, doing the very work to which our political adversaries have devoted their lives.
Let us turn to Lewis once more, this time from The Weight of Glory:
A man may have to die for his country: but no man must in any exclusive sense live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering unto Caesar that which of all things most emphatically belongs to God: himself.
What, then, should we do? After all, no true conservative can deny the element of truth in all of those half-truths I mentioned earlier. The hour is late; the long march through the institutions is nearly complete; we stand, as I said, at the apotheosis of revolution. And standing here, we face a choice: We can choose to continue on the path of revolution, by accepting the domination of politics over culture, and steel ourselves for an unceasing but always losing battle in the political arena; or we can become counterrevolutionaries, returning politics to its proper place by focusing our efforts on taking back the culture. And in doing so, we might just win.
If we choose the latter option, the struggle will not be easy. Nor will it be as exciting as waging political campaigns or watching FOX News or reading political blogs or even tweeting and Facebooking the latest political meme. What it will be is living our lives the way that we were intended to do so, conforming ourselves to the unchanging truths revealed to us by nature and nature’s God. It will mean starting our own long march through the institutions, not in order to politicize them but to restore them. And rather than resembling an army marching in lockstep while wearing redshirts or brownshirts, we will look a lot more like a band of pilgrims, making our way back to the sources of our culture and to the institutions that are closest to those sources—chief among them the family (the natural source) and the Church (the supernatural one).
While the process may be hard, it is also quite simple. If you’re not married, get married. If you are married, stay married. If you can have children, have one. Have another. And another. Keep repeating, not until you can’t afford to have more, but for as long as you can’t afford not to. Baptize your children. Raise them in the Faith. Treat your parish as an extension of your family. Encourage your fellow churchgoers to have children of their own. Educate your children well, in whatever way you need to do so. Make sure they understand that the purpose of education is not to make them good citizens or good workers but to cultivate in them a lifelong desire for goodness and truth and beauty, the critical faculties to discern what is good and true and beautiful, and the imagination to become co-creators with God, increasing the treasury of goodness, truth, and beauty in this world.
Introduce yourself to your neighbor. Introduce your neighbor to your other neighbor. Treat your neighborhood as an extension of your family. If you can share a turkey with Uncle Charlie at Thanksgiving even though he had a Hillary sign in his yard just a month before, you can be civil to your neighbor who had a Hillary sign, too. If you don’t want to share a turkey with Uncle Charlie because he had a Hillary sign, do it anyway.
Shop at that local store run by the young guy with sleeve tattoos and his wife with the multicolored hair and piercings. The jobs they create will never be sent overseas by some heartless corporate executive. Say nice things about the child that they chose to bring into this world rather than to abort. Don’t worry about whether they think of themselves as liberals or voted for Hillary. Pray that they stay married and have more children and continue to live in your town and contribute to your shared economic independence. All of those things mean that their children will be more instinctually conservative—that is, more connected to reality—than they are, just as your children will be more instinctually conservative than you were if you raise them this way.
Every once in a while, turn off FOX News, and MSNBC, and CNN, and NPR. Pick up a book. Read poetry to your children. Read a novel with your spouse. Study history. Learn what an existential crisis really looks like. Watch television shows and movies, but be discriminating. Don’t worry about whether a particular actor or director holds political views with which you disagree; consider whether what he has created is a worthwhile work of art. Listen to music. Make music, if you have the talent to do so. Make music even if you do not have the talent to do so. Encourage your children to do the same.
Subscribe to your local newspaper, no matter how poorly written and edited the stories may be, and how biased the national coverage is. Read it for the local coverage, for the things happening within a few miles of you that will never make the national news. The quality of your water is more important to you and your family than “global climate change” will ever be. Use that water to grow a garden. Plant vegetables and flowers. Plan for the future by planting fruit trees. Mow your lawn and paint your house and wax your car and act as if material possessions have spiritual value, because they do.
And don’t forget to vote. Not just every four years on the second Tuesday of November, but every time there’s an election. Try to learn enough about the candidates for every office so that you can make an informed decision. Give every office the weight that it deserves. The dogcatcher who removes a rabid animal from your neighborhood may do more for you and your family than Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump ever would. So, too, the city councilman who fights to have a stoplight installed at the dangerous intersection down the block. And the sheriff who arrests real criminals whose crimes threaten you and your family. Spend more time learning about local candidates than you do about state candidates, because they affect more aspects of your everyday life, and it’s easier to learn the truth about them, because they are closer to you. Spend more time learning about state candidates than about national candidates, for the same reason. And candidates for Congress more than those for the Senate. And those for the Senate more than those for president.
Take the long view. Don’t worry about “winning” within your lifetime. When Gramsci’s disciple Rudi Dutschke coined the slogan “the long march through the institutions” 50 years ago, the march had already been under way for at least a quarter of a century. Our countermarch may take just as long. But we have an advantage that the Cultural Marxists did not: The Gods of the Copybook Headings are on our side. We’re bringing people back to reality. And living your life in harmony with reality is its own reward.
After all, what have we got to lose? Remember: This was not only the most important election of our lifetime, but the last one that will ever matter. We might as well do something with the rest of our lives.
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