An issue that isn’t raised because public figures don’t understand it won’t get far in a media-drenched age. So an obvious problem for social conservatives is that the articulate classes don’t understand—at all—the issues they raise. Some possible reasons that come to mind:
- Modern intellectual life, education and methods of organization make the methods of the modern natural sciences the standard for rationality, and tend to treat social life as a matter of engineering outcomes in as direct and controllable a way as possible. Morality, to the extent it’s of public concern, becomes a matter of rights and obligations regarding formal organizations. “Personal” morality therefore becomes a strictly personal matter that no one else can comment on rather than a factor basic to our lives together.
- Intellectual life and education have become highly centralized, detached from any particular concrete way of life, and subordinate to the needs of large rationalized institutions. On the whole, the function of what passes for the life of the mind today is to develop perspectives, ideas and information useful to markets and bureaucracies, and train young people in those things so they’ll be useful to the institutions and able to make their way in them.
- The articulate classes are a meritocracy. The well-spoken and well-placed have undergone endless schooling, they believe what they were told, they got where they are by giving the right answers, and they base their sense of who they are academic background and position in large formal organizations that don’t rely (at least directly) on the things social conservatives care about.
- The members of the articulate classes, like the members of any ruling class, think they can mostly get what they want in personal relations, and will lose more than they gain from any definite system of social obligations. Modern ideology says that if they want to feel free to do what they want they have to make the standards they prefer general principles that apply to everyone. So that’s what they do.
- The logic of the next step. “Civil rights” and feminism demand the effective abolition of historical, cultural and even natural human distinctions. Those things can’t be allowed to have any social function, since otherwise we wouldn’t be absolute self-defining individuals. Further, contraception, divorce and “living together” have become settled social habits and all but beyond criticism. Since all that’s so, what reason can be given for not accepting abortion and “gay marriage”? Forbidding abortion would deny women the right freely to construct what they are at all times, while denying “gay marriage” would mean that there is a social institution that is not a construction to further individual desire.
So the problems social conservatives face making their case aren’t a matter of finding the right spin to put on things. They have to do with the basic organization of society and the ways of thinking that follow from it. Which isn’t surprising, since basic social organization is what’s at issue anyway. So what to do? Some suggestions:
- Decide whether the business is worth pursuing, or whether it would be better to throw in the towel to maintain a place at the table or whatever. My answer is that the things that make human life tolerable—for example, social organization that connects to what we are, distributes action and responsibility to each level, and reflects the whole range of human needs and experience—can’t be conceded. The alternative to informal traditional and local organization—meaning social conservatism—is an increasingly aggressive technocracy that can’t work and will only make us all miserable.
- If the fight is worth the effort, then hang in there, go at it on all fronts, and hope for better days. If technocracy is truly nonworkable then better days will come even if we can’t say when. The intellectual side of the battle is especially important, because that’s where social conservatives are weakest and because defense of social conservatism requires a comprehensive assault on accepted public ways of thinking that will require a great deal of effort.
- Make alliances. Utopia is never complete, or as rational as it thinks, so there’s always a lot that doesn’t fit in:
- Married people, especially those with children, find technocracy radically at odds with their sense of what’s necessary and right. The future belongs to married people with children.
- Artists and intellectuals need a coherent system of things that reflects as much human experience as possible to give their work meaning.
- One way or another, libertarians and liberationists of various kinds want to distribute power down.
- Scientists and scholars are interested in how things work. If there are indeed problems with technocracy they’ll eventually want to investigate and assess them.
- commercial and organizational life can’t get by without personal reliability and integrity.
At least in the long run, social conservatism is the only way those concerns can be met. Eventually people will realize that. Our job is to smooth the way for that day to come.