Culture Is Downstream of Politics

By Gallagher, Maggie; Cannon, Frank | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, December 2017 | Go to article overview

Culture Is Downstream of Politics


Gallagher, Maggie, Cannon, Frank, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Walk into any room full of Christian conservative donors, and someone will say, "Politics is downstream of culture." Every head in the room will nod. Nothing is more entrenched as conventional wisdom among Christian conservatives. Like most truisms, this one is only partly true. As people change their beliefs about what is true and good, politics changes as well. But putting culture above politics as a distinct sphere is profoundly mistaken, for politics is part of culture.

Politics allows the American people to give public form to what they believe to be true, good, and important; it is also the main way Americans decide which views are "within the pale" and which are beyond it. Elites of the left dominate most other domains: the mainstream media, the academy, the arts, Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and increasingly the Chamber of Commerce and corporate suites. When an idea or issue drops out of politics, therefore, progressives can easily stigmatize it as outside the mainstream, extremist, and intolerable, effectively ending conversation. But election results feed back into culture. Political realities can override the dictates of the left, as Trump's election reminds us.

Politics is full of cultural content. When our ideas find success at the polls, traditional believers find out that they are not alone, isolated, or on the fringe. This strengthens our voice in the public square. When voters swept Ronald Reagan into the White House, the New York Times could no longer define conservatives as outside the mainstream.

Electoral victories have other cultural consequences. Harvard Law School recently established an Antonin Scalia chair. Has Harvard suddenly been persuaded that Scalia's ideas are sound? Probably not. Harvard publicly acknowledges the intellectual legitimacy of Scalia's textualist and originalist approach to constitutional interpretation only because, thanks to politics, the Federalist Society has a great deal of influence on Republican nominations to the federal bench, including the Supreme Court.

The give-and-take of politics also tells Americans what views their fellow citizens hold and care about. In November 2016, many liberals were shocked to discover that their preoccupations were not shared by many voters in swing states. Politicians who want to win elections respond to this information and adjust to win the votes they need to gain office. That's why Bill Clinton signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993. He was tired of watching Democrats lose elections because they were outside the mainstream of middle America. As a consequence, religious liberty became a bipartisan commitment for at least a decade.

This is not to say that culture does not influence politics. The left can use media power to intimidate Republicans, encouraging them to fall silent about particular issues. But this is almost always matched by political spending for issues and candidates, which reinforces cultural messages. Fairly quickly, this combination leads to cultural change. When only one side is willing to speak enthusiastically about a prominent issue, people begin to believe there really is only one side. The polls shift quickly as the hearts and minds of the mushy middle move toward the only visible position. If only one team is on the field, it wins by default.

The push for gay marriage provides a case study. In the years leading up to the Obergefell decision, Republicans stopped talking about the substance of the issue. Instead of vigorously defending marriage, they increasingly sidestepped, briefly acknowledging their support of traditional marriage or reverting to federalism ("leave the matter to the states"). This approach communicated clearly to voters that defending marriage was not an issue of central concern. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates trumpeted "marriage equality" and "love is love." Not surprisingly, opinion polls shifted toward approval of gay marriage.

For this reason, "truce strategies" damage the causes religious and social conservatives support. …

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