Can Conservatives Rediscover the Cultural Center?

In his most recent post, Jonah makes the point that our expanded cultural freedom has had very different consequences for people at the top and bottom of the socioeconomic scale. I agree, and I said so in my book.

It’s not just that the rich have the money to buy their way out of jams. More important, people from middle-class and upper-middle-class backgrounds live in a cultural milieu that fosters long-term planning and the self-discipline on which such planning depends. No longer the repressed squares of bourgeois yore, they yield to the temptations of the flesh — but moderately. They are enlightened hedonists.

The enlightenment that makes the hedonism possible is a fundamental commitment to socioeconomic success, including the assumption of personal responsibility for achieving that success. This commitment takes the form of the core middle-class values of strong families, education, and hard work.

I agree with Jonah that the survival and spread of these core middle-class values is vital to the continued health of American society. Indeed, in a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, I argued that cultural renewal in the bottom half of the socioeconomic scale is the key to reversing economic inequality.

And I agree further that conservatives are the natural champions of the values of upward mobility. But instead of identifying these values with America’s broad cultural center of enlightened hedonism, conservatives have fallen into pandering to the crudest forms of populism — gay-bashing, nativism, and jingoism. Consequently, conservatism is now more associated with cultural and regional outliers (i.e., evangelicalism and the South, respectively) than the broad American mainstream. As I wrote recently in National Review (here and here), conservatives need to give up the divisive mentality of the culture wars and rediscover the cultural center.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • National Review Online editor-at-large and LA Times columnist Jonah Golberg offers a critical assessment of what he calls “the Brink Lindsey Project” — “a new fusionism which will make us stuffy conservatives lighten up and make pie-eyed liberals give up their enduring weakness for Gosplans.” According to Goldberg, Lindsey’s “libertarian centrism” involves a suspiciously convenient confluence of forces. “His definition of libertarian centrism is really Lindseyan centrism,” Goldberg argues. “And by writing his own priorities into the grand sweep of history, he misdiagnoses the nature of the liberal-conservative divide.”

  • Atlantic Monthly associate editor Matthew Yglesias joins Brink Lindsey in thinking that the relaxation of traditional social strictures over the past few deacades is a good thing, but he doesn’t see anything libertarian about it, citing the role of Civil Rights Act and other intrusive anti-discrimination laws in bringing about the shift. Yglesias concedes that the economy has in some ways become less regulated, but argues that this didn’t signal an “ideological triumph.” Furthermore, he argues, “libertarians interested in practical politics might want to consider that a federal commitment to health security and retirement security isn’t going away,” and suggests that Lindsey himself may have explained why.

  • Reason contributing editor Julian Sanchez spots several ambiguities in Brink Lindsey’s argument leading him to doubt the conclusion that America has become more libertarian in a meaningful sense. “To speak confidently about America’s growing libertarianism,” Sanchez writes, “we need to establish that at least some of the changes Lindsey lauds are driven by a shared conception of justice” that leans increasingly libertarian. Yet Sanchez is unimpressed by the polling data Lindsey recruits to his cause. There is no doubt we now have more choice due to increasing abundance, but “the conception of freedom that has always centrally concerned libertarians has been the freedom from restraints on choice, not the variety of available options.” But, Sanchez argues, “much of the plausibility of Lindsey’s thesis relies on [the] conflation” of these two conceptions of freedom.