History, in the end, remembers a society more by its culture than by its politics. If a modern American knows little about the dramatists and poets and sculptors of ancient Greece or Rome, he knows even less about their political leaders. The point is well put in an anecdote told in the Soviet Union: a cen­tury hence a Russian schoolchild asked to identify Leonid Brezhnev recalls him as a politician in the age of Solzhenitsyn.

A society’s culture encompasses the entire gamut of its spiritual possibilities, starting with art at the highest level and extending to the front page of a daily newspaper. Furthermore, a culture must deal with the society’s established moral and religious values, even when it sets out to challenge them. Politics has to do with the selection of a society’s governmental leaders and with the formulation of its laws and regulations. A society’s legislation necessarily reflects its ethical standards: if most members of a society believe it wrong to kill under ordinary circumstances, its laws will include sanctions against murder. Society continually legislates morality; the conflict is always over which–not whether–moral standards should be incorporated in its rules. In our day American society is plagued by a political and cultural division between those who defend moral standards in our legislation and those who reject them.

In premodern times culture dominated politics, a situation which persisted into recent centuries. Actually, culture and politics generally worked in tandem. In Russia, for example, only in the 19th century did the cultural elite adopt a hostile stance toward the political objectives of the state. Both before and afrer that time–as in the Soviet Union today–the artist generally supported the interests of the government. Many of the great Russian writers of the 18th century were also government officials, and in the 1780’s Catherine the Great even wrote (or at least had published under her name) satirical plays intended to improve the morals of society, as a supplement to the legislation she promulgated for the same purpose.

In the course of time, however, politics spread throughout society, until finally Marxist theory declared that politics should permeate society entirely, and therefore also determine its culture. So culture–even high culture–has become the con­cern of the totalitarian state, which establishes Ministries of Culture to tend to it. The writer in a totalitarian society knows that he faces political penalties–imprisonment, exile, perhaps even death–if he goes against the official cultural line, precise­ly because the political authorities consider what he does important. By contrast, the American writer enjoys an enviable artistic freedom, but he knows in his soul that he owes this to the belief among the powerful that his activities are of no political consequence. In the American polity the notion that ideas have no practical impact on society is still powerful and influential.

In analyzing culture and politics we may make another useful division: between what can becalled the central culture and the peripheral culture, and between legislative and electoral politics, for there is a special link between the central culture and legislative politics, and between the peripheral cultural and electoral politics.

The central culture based in the great intellectual centers­ Boston, New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles–con­trols the major radio and television networks, newspapers, the book-publishing industry, prominent organs of opinion, the universities, and so forth. Surveys consistently show that a very considerable proportion of those who create our central culture espouse ethical values at variance with the moral traditions of the population at large, and they work vigorously to advance those values in every way possible. The peripheral culture is scattered through the heartland of the country, in the small­-town newspapers, local radio and television stations, small newsletters, civic organizations. The values the peripheral culture holds dear are much closer to those held by the people at large than those of the central culture.

Electoral politics is more closely tied to th eperipheral culture than to the central one, because electoral campaigns are con­ducted over the length and breadth of the nation, with substantial direct contact between representative and con­stituent. The communication channels between representative and constituent (brochures, local radio and television advertising, electoral meetings) are controlled primarily by the organs of the peripheral culture. Consequently, the concerns of the or­dinary citizen carry much more weight in the electoral process than in the legislative process. So the electorate mistakenly assumes that the good men it has elected to office will do the right rhing in Washington. The frequent complaint that Senator X says one thing at home and does another in Congress reflects a psychological division that is rooted as much in culture as it is in politics–as the central culture defines the overall agenda of legislative politics. It decides which issues are impor­tant (nuclear power, racism, feminism, Israeli “imperialism”) and which are not (the Soviet threat, genocidal aggression in Afghanistan and Angola, the right to life, school prayer, bus­ing for racial balance). Party leaders in Congress often have safe constituencies, with token opposition or none at all: they are therefore less influenced by the peripheral culture, and so listen primarily to the political demands of the central culture. The staffs of Congressional committees who arrange legislative hearings form a part of that central culture, and the permanent bureaucracy of the executive branch also derives its notions of what is politically vital from the central culture. Only rarely does an elected official in Washington display a sufficient grasp of the central culture’s workings to bable to resist it conscious­ly and consistently. To be sure, afrer the 1980 elections the peripheral culture has been able to place some items on the political agenda, but the central culture has prevented the ac­tual enactment of most of them.

The central culture realizes not only that culture defines politics, but also that political action can mold both the central and the peripheral cultures. Abortion is a case in point. Before 1972, the right to abortion on demand was preached only by parts of the radical left and by the McGovernite wing of the Democratic Party (which was decisively repudiated by the electorate that year). Shortly afterward, however, in a signal political triumph of the central culture, the Supreme Court decreed what amounted to an almost-untrammeled right to abortion. Now, thanks to the authority of that political institution, the peripheral culture has shifted toward an acceptance of what not long ago was still considered a serious moral transgression, despite the impressive efforts of the defenders of the right to life during the intervening decade. Thus, under pressure of the central culture, politics has influenced the peripheral culture. American society’s view of homosexuality could undergo a similar evolution. Although the peripheral culture opposes any official recognition of this deviation from behavioral norms, the central culture works unceasingly to legitimize it through legislation forbidding discrimination on the basis of “sexual orientation.” Some localities, including the nation’s capital, have already adopted such laws. If similar legislation were passed at the national level and not promptly reversed, within a few years the peripheral culture might move to a much greater tolerance of homosexuality.

Of course the central culture also seeks to advance its aims through its own direct channels. For instance, it works to eliminate what it considers “sexism,” largely through cultural censorship: by consciously eradicating the “sexist” assumptions of the English language, it believes it can alter the reality which that language reflects. Other elements of the central culture are also used for this purpose, as, for example, a current network television advertisement which shows a girls’ volleyball team ignominiously defeating a boys’ team. The central culture will not succeed entirely in its radical objectives here, for reality is more intractable than it knows; but it can move in that direc­tion and occasion much social disruption in the process.

The liberal left in Western society has always recognized the social and political importance of culture, and it therefore has been willing to invest substantial financial resources in order to control it, ultimately for political ends. The left has in­vaded the nervous system of our society–the communications media. A social organism can react only to the signals it receives through that nervous system, and to the extent that the central culture controls the nervous system, it also controls the society as a whole. Beyond that, the left knows that even apolitical elements of culture can contribute to the defense of their political purposes, and so the Public Broadcasting System effectively shields its slanted public-affairs programming through the presentation of ballet and opera and poetry readings.

Traditional conservatives have been slow to awaken to the vital importance of culture as a determinant of politics. Now, however, young conservatives are finally being trained to enter the media at the bottom; resources are being invested in cultural enterprises; and publications like Chronicles of Culture have come into existence. The creation of a substantial alternative to the liberal central culture is a herculean task. That alternative must be extensive and impressive enough to over­come liberal influence both at the center and at the periphery, and powerful enough to form a milieu within which tradition­alist political leaders can exist. The undertaking is difficult, but it is entirely worthy of those who feel the need to defend the finest accomplishments of Western civilization.