It’s the Culture, Stupid

What do we do now? The center-right hand-wringing in the wake of Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama exceeds any in modern memory. Frankly, that’s a not such a bad thing. The voters of the United States last month re-elected one of the worst Presidents in history, and all who recognize that sad situation ought to think long and hard about why.

In the spring of 2012, as Mr. Romney was fending off Republican attacks on his supposed “vulture capitalism”, the primary-opponentless Obama campaign told the American people the story of Julia, a fictitious woman who depends on Big Brother from the time when her parents enroll her in Head Start at the age of three until she “retire[s] comfortably” on Social Security at age 67, after which her fate becomes unclear. Julia is a sort of composite of real women, like the young, articulate, celebrated Sandra Fluke, who explained to U.S. Representatives that the federal government should force Georgetown University to pay for her contraception, and the middle-aged, screechy, unidentified “Obama-phone” woman, who shrieked her desire to “keep Obama in President” because, she insisted, he gave her a cell phone. What these women share in common is an impoverished brand of self-respect, which manifests itself in the personally degrading and societally devastating combination of a sense of entitlement to modern luxuries and no shame, no shame at being unable—or unwilling—to provide these things for themselves, no shame at always depending on the (coerced) kindness of strangers, and no shame at publicly declaring both.

Having fallen on the road to the White House, some of Mr. Romney’s erstwhile supporters are looking back at his campaign with sudden 20/20 vision and complaining that he did not, in Reagan-esque manner, convincingly make the point that economic freedom, protected by limited government in a culture of personal responsibility, would foster the economic growth that would mean better lives for these women, materially richer lives blessed with affordable necessities and luxuries, spiritually richer lives of the true fulfillment that comes from meeting challenges, starting with the challenge of providing for oneself. Instead, grasping the lamppost of an oft-cited statistic that 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax, Mr. Romney pivoted to the notion that 47 percent were contentedly dependent on the government, and then stumbled to the conclusion that they’d never vote for him anyway.

Well, nobody’s perfect. Yes, Mr. Romney should have done a better job of countering the entitlement mentality that is smothering America as she gasps for recovery. But so should we all. Indeed, a presidential candidate shouldn’t have to explain why women should pay for their own communication and contraception devices, rather than demand that Big Brother force others to provide them. He shouldn’t have to explain it because the notion of such dependency should be anathema to a great nation.

A great nation requires a citizenry of individuals and families who look first to themselves for care and support, not to the state. That spirit is still alive in America today. Opposition to the bank and auto bail-outs was ferocious. Obama-“care” remains unpopular. And even those laying claim to such enshrined “entitlements” as Social Security and Medicare appeal to the perception that they themselves have paid for their own “benefits”. America is still great; it’s the policies that got small.

This is not to say that we don’t have an entitlement-mentality problem. We do. We have a vocal minority shrilling shrieking for cell phones or tranquilly testifying for contraception or placidly presuming just about everything else. And we have another vocal minority, the smug elitists who agree with the sad self-assessment of the first minority that they simply can’t take care of themselves, but can’t handle the truth that Big Brother—as shown by his failures from public education to the “war on poverty”—can’t take care of them either.

And it is elitists like these who control the culture-shaping institutions. These institutions propagate cultural memes from hysterical claims about a war on women to hypocritical greed-is-good demonizations of financial success, while symbolically annihilating America’s principles and the individual dignity and virtue necessary to maintain them, and conservatives have done an inadequate job of responding. What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.

And this is where the battle lies. First, the big scale. Conservatives like to complain about media bias, in both the news and entertainment realms, and they’re right, but complaining does little good. We need people of substantial means to step up and produce broadly appealing publications and programs that illuminate both the principles of liberty and the virtue that liberty requires. We also need to pay more attention to the fine arts, and more support for right-thinking artists, as this realm has a unique power to inspire, to reach the soul, and to reinforce the knowledge of the head, in ways that politicians and position papers simply can’t. Through these different means, conservatives must communicate the ideas and ideals required to counter the entitlement mentality and re-invigorate American character.

For example, America’s founding principles, such as the principle that the purpose of civil government is to secure inalienable rights (see: Declaration of Independence), are being lost in the cacophony of cries for government coddling, and we need on-going reminders of those principles. We also need education in how the market economy works and how economic freedom fosters prosperity. We need news reports and analyses that measure proposed policy initiatives against these philosophical and practical principles. And we need to see the devastating results that so often occur when government’s delusions of competency draw it beyond its proper place revealed, explicated, and mocked.

But this education in political and economic principles, while necessary, will not be sufficient to revive American culture. Freedom requires virtue, and so we also need thoughtful arguments in favor of vital virtues like honesty, personal and familial responsibility, and hard work. And we need stories, fiction as well as non-fiction–and visual representations too–that inspire good character, stories, for example, like biographies of Revolutionary heroes and of honest business giants and tales of ordinary people who face adversity with dignity and character, responding with reason more than emotion, who turn in times of trouble to self, family, church, and community, with a spirit of humility– rather than toward the federal government, with a sense of entitlement. George Bernard Shaw famously observed that those who would rob Peter to pay Paul can always count on the support of Paul. But Shaw was only correct if Paul has poor character. And so we must forge a culture that inspires Paul to develop good character. An estimated several billion dollars were spent on the 2012 campaigns. How much better off would we be today if a good chunk of that money had gone toward long-term cultural renewal efforts?

There is also much that those of us with more limited means can do. While few of us have the means to purchase or produce publications, anyone can submit op-eds and letters to the editor. We can also call talk-radio stations and advocate personal responsibility and small government. Social networking is an ever-evolving field of opportunity for conservative arguments and examples of virtue. Solid books are one area where the right excels the left, and their reach can be magnified by neighborhood discussion groups.

Conservatives also like to complain about public education, and once again they’re right. Indeed, media bias would be far less effective if Americans were better taught knowledge and better educated to think critically. But here again action is more effective than complaining. To wit: 1) pull your children out and put them in private (including home) schools, or 2) become involved in your local school board and ensure solid learning that doesn’t undermine private virtue. But above all else, wherever they’re formally educated, teach your children well yourself, every time, every way you can, to become American citizens of good character, who live out individual virtue in private and in public, who take the responsibilities of voting and other forms of civic engagement seriously enough to think critically about politicians’ policies and promises, and who have enough self-respect to reject most of them as offers they must refuse.

Mr. Obama famously called Ms. Fluke and said that her parents should be proud of her. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t. But plenty of parents would be horrified if one of their daughters had testified that 1) she expected the federal government to force others to pony up for the contraceptives required by 2) her, uh, vibrant sex life.

As caricatures of dependency like Ms. Fluke and cartoons like Julia show, conservatives have ceded much ground in the culture. It is not too late to turn things around, but it is too late to give up any more ground. By the time she’s 67, Julia may well have grandchildren. Their future depends on what we do now.