American culture and politics going forward

The president made that word his campaign slogan followed by a period. Now it should be followed by a question mark.

So in line with the last post, the ruminations continue. Some are worth lining up and considering, especially for the people behind the candidates and especially the causes that did not prevail. There’s great benefit in studying what works and what doesn’t in reaching people and influencing their decisions. Which doesn’t mean relativizing the message. It means getting better at persuading people of it.

Top pro-life advocates are calling on the Republican Party to maintain its pro-life stance despite calls from some to back off from the position in the wake of the presidential election.

“A real soldier doesn’t stay on the defensive,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which works to promote pro-life candidates and policies. “You go out and state your best case.”

“The folks that have taken the stand on this issue have taken it because we’re talking about defending vulnerable human life,” she told CNA on Nov. 30. “If it’s not about that, it’s not about anything.”

Dannenfelser was one of several pro-life leaders who responded to suggestions by some Republicans, including Arizona senator John McCain, that the GOP should drop or mitigate its pro-life stance in order to broaden its appeal after losing the presidential election.

Back up a bit. On election day, Archbishop Charles Chaput’s essay on relativism was published in Public Discourse. It’s a good one.

The day may come when Catholics can support neither of the main American political parties or their candidates. Some think it’s already arrived. Alasdair MacIntyre, the Notre Dame philosopher, argued along those lines a few years ago, explaining why he couldn’t vote for either a Democrat or a Republican…

If we believe in the encyclical tradition—from Rerum Novarum to Evangelium Vitae; from Humanae Vitae to Caritas In Veritate—then we can’t settle comfortably in either political party. Catholics give priority to the right to life and the integrity of the family as foundation stones of society. But we also have much to say about the economy and immigration, runaway debt, unemployment, war and peace. It’s why the US bishops recently observed that “in today’s environment, Catholics may feel politically disenfranchised, sensing that no party and few candidates fully share our comprehensive commitment to human life and dignity.”

Chaput is commenting on religion, society and political realities here while reviewing Notre Dame historian Brad Gregory’s book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. It’s a provocative title, backed up well in its content, says Chaput.

Modern Western political theory tries (or pretends) to steer clear of prescribing morality. Because our society divides so bitterly over matters of truth and ethics, modern lawmakers tend to enshrine individual privacy and autonomy. But in doing so, they diminish the life-giving social importance of religious faith. This legal “neutrality” isn’t so neutral. In feeding the sovereignty of the individual, our public leaders fuel consumer self-absorption, moral confusion, and—ultimately, as mediating institutions like the family and churches wither—the power of the state…

It’s a world of hyperpluralism, where meaning is self-invented by millions, and therefore society as a whole starves for meaning.

No wonder Catholics find elections these days so grim. To be a Catholic in 2012, in the modern West at least, is to live at the end of a long history. Brad Gregory eloquently shows us some of what that means. Our moral failures and our intellectual choices have had consequences over the centuries. And now our culture is fractured.

But it didn’t—and it doesn’t—need to be that way.

Never does, when one has resolve. But it helps to know what went wrong and what to change, to make it go another way next time around. Or at some other future point.

So here are a couple of columns on that note.

Bill McGurn’s WSJ commentary on why something that should never have worked, did.

During the 2012 campaign, we conservatives had great sport at the expense of the Obama administration’s “Life of Julia”—a cartoon explaining the cradle-to-grave government programs that provided for Julia’s happy and successful life.

The president, alas, had the last laugh. For the voting blocs that went so disproportionately for the president’s re-election—notably, Latinos and single women—the Julia view of government clearly resonates. To put it another way, maybe Americans who have reason to feel insecure about their futures don’t find a government that promises to be there for them when they need it all that menacing.

The dominant media conclusion from this is that the Republican Party is cooked unless it surrenders its principles. I’m not so sure. To the contrary, it strikes me that now is a pretty good time to get back to principles—and to do more to show people who gave President Obama his victory why their dreams and families would be better served by a philosophy of free markets and limited government.

Let’s concede that those who are pushing to expand government have one huge advantage. Their advantage is that their solutions are immediate, direct and easy to explain.

See, that’s one of my key points of interst, easy to explain. People react to emotion more than to reason.

The conservative is rightly concerned with incentives and the long-term effects of any government program for relief, which are vital concerns for workable policy. The liberal is far less abstract: Here are some food stamps so your children don’t go hungry tonight.

Striking point. But…

Never mind the long-term costs and consequences of these solutions. Yes, the education loans that supposedly make college “affordable” actually drive its costs up faster than normal inflation. Yes, housing subsidies have saddled people with homes they cannot afford. And, yes, minimum-wage laws price the people who can least afford it out of the job market. The dilemma for those of us who oppose big-government solutions is that the true costs of these “solutions” are seldom clear until it’s too late.

And as Yuval Levin puts it:

“The left’s approach to social policy is to shield people from the American economy, while conservatives’ approach must be to enable them to enjoy its benefits—to enable people to move up rather than to make them more secure in poverty. Conservatives know that this is where our principles point, but we need to make sure that the striving immigrant worker or the struggling single mom knows that too.”

That’s the toughest part, when you’re not as good at the art of storytelling, conveying the narrative, as those who weave tales artfully.

Our pundits covered every scenario. We were too conservative. We weren’t conservative enough. The social issues killed us. We didn’t hit the social issues hard enough. We had a candidate problem. A woman problem. A Hispanic problem. It will continue for months, this self-abuse masquerading as self-examination. And liberals will eat it up, watching us wallow in self-doubt.

But if there is one thing conservatives can agree on post-election, it’s this: The dominance of the Left in the storytelling arena is making a difference at the polls. It’s impossible to measure, but anyone who doesn’t think it skews outcomes is living in an alternative universe.

The fact is, it’s easier to sell a political narrative to America when it comports with the cultural narrative we see and hear every day.

“The universe is made up of stories, not atoms,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser once said. Stories, not facts, are the way people process information. Screenplays, plays, scripts, and stories are packed not with hard data but with something more powerful and human: emotional data. That’s why we remember stories long after we’ve forgotten facts. Stories stir our souls.

And we’re not talking about the anecdotal stories politicians deploy to inject humanity into their stump speeches. We’re talking about the narrative of our nation. The story of America. The story of who we are, how we got here, and what we’re to become.

It is extremely serious business, that kind of storytelling.

Plato understood the power of storytellers. It’s why he wanted to ban them in his dream society. Wisely, the Left understands the importance of storytelling and dominates almost every aspect of it in the culture, from content creation to distribution. Regrettably, too few conservatives think storytelling matters.

We’ve invested billions in our great think tanks but little in the task of translating that work into stories the average American will care about. Yes, we have Fox News and political talk radio — important outlets, but outlets that narrowcast to the conservative base and are driven by politics and opinion, not storytelling.

What we don’t have is an alternative to NPR. Or The Daily Show. Or 60 Minutes. Or The Charlie Rose Show. Or Frontline. Or Ken Burns. Content that doesn’t scream its politics at the audience but that lures America in with great storylines, not lectures.

Conservatives have a profound storytelling deficit, yet all we do is whine and complain about it. It’s part of our DNA, our whining about the culture, as if we’re incapable of reverse-engineering the Left’s success.

In 1980, Ted Turner launched CNN. It struggled for years to find an audience and became a player thanks to the first Gulf War — and to the spread of cable TV. In 1996, Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes launched a news network that leaned right, offering the public a counterpoint to the left-leaning CNN. It didn’t take Fox News long to beat CNN.

So much for that 16-year head start!

You’d think our wealthiest conservatives would want to mimic that accomplishment in other areas of our culture. Why not create an alternative to NPR? It reaches 33 million people with its feigned neutrality. Or The Daily Show? Ridicule is a powerful weapon, and the Left offers Americans much to laugh about.

In the past two presidential cycles, we spent billions of dollars on political TV ads that many Americans skipped or ignored. And those billions ended up filling the coffers of entertainment conglomerates whose news and programming relentlessly attack and caricature our side all year round.

We aren’t just throwing money down the drain on commercials. We’re funding the Left’s storytelling and programming machine. And we’re the smart guys?

Why do we keep ignoring the importance of story? And why are we surprised when, even when we win elections, our national debt piles up, and the administrative state expands?

Why haven’t we developed studios or messaging tanks that support our worldview?

It’s simple. Too many of our smart guys think the storytelling stuff is silly. They’re like businesspeople who think success is predicated on spreadsheets, data, and process but ignore the importance of human relationships.

We don’t respect storytelling. We believe deep down in our hearts that if we just keep pounding away at America with our superior policy positions and our superior arguments, we’ll win — that if we just educate the masses, they’ll vote with us.

We forget that most Americans get their education through stories. And most Americans don’t connect with the smartest person in the room, even if that person believes in the American experiment and the innate genius of the American people.

We have short attention spans, and if the media (though we don’t trust them, Americans are still swayed by them) doesn’t much cover important events or story lines, or cover them at all, we will forget about them.

That’s the ephemeral nature of news and politics in the age of instant communication: It gets old faster and faster.

60 Minutes is just as crafty. Don Hewitt, the man who created the hit show, was asked why it was so successful. “Tell me a story,” he said — preferably, one with a beginning, middle, and end. That show has been top-ranked on Sundays since the beginning of time. At least it feels that way.

Hewitt knew well what we don’t. Storytelling matters. Stories have characters, conflict, and resolution. In the liberal universe, the bad guys are greedy corporate types, Christian extremists, Israel, the U.S. military, millionaires, and billionaires.

The good guys are journalists, trial lawyers, union leaders, Palestinians, and government agencies, all there to protect the little guy from the big guys, the bad guys: us.

We need not be depressed by this state of affairs. The gatekeepers don’t have a grip on cultural platforms the way they used to, and we are highly capable of competing on mass-media platforms, including radio and TV.

That’s truer now than ever. 

There is a reason why people of every ethnic background in the world risk everything to come to America. It isn’t bigger government. It’s opportunity and freedom…

So as we study the gender gap, the marriage gap, and the other various gaps in the electorate over the coming months, we need to tackle the most important gap of them all: the storytelling gap. We are on America’s side. We’re on the side of the little guy. We’re on the side of men and women of every age, ethnicity, and class, and of the principles that have drawn people here for centuries.

Too many Americans just don’t know it yet.

Martin Luther King, in his own words

For many years and political cycles, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and works have been selectively remembered according to which passages and sound clips work for the advantage of a political agenda.

It’s been more heat than light in public debates over civil and human rights, and we can’t rely on activists or media to generate the light, so it’s up to us. So say the co-authors of the Public Discourse article about MLK’s Philosophical and Theological Legacy, in a radio interview I did with them on Martin Luther King Day. They focus on King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to show the civil rights leader’s grounding in natural law as a deciding influence.

For a key reason:

King faced vexing moral and philosophical questions from the outset: how did he know whether a law was just or unjust, and when, if ever, was it morally permissible to disobey? In his now-celebrated “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” King’s answer was that “a just law is a manmade code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” “To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas,” King explained, “an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”

Those who praise the modern civil rights movement, but who also want to keep morality and theology absent from public discourse, seldom mention King’s reliance on natural law in his justly famous letter.

Some who are quick to revile slavery and racism as the nation’s greatest sins are blind to its  moral parity in the movement to defend abortion on demand as “reproductive rights”, though the analogy is jarringly clear. In both causes an entire class of human beings are deemed unworthy of rights, even to the recognition as persons with inherent dignity. So Dr. King is claimed by abortion activists, as absurd as that is.

His niece, Dr. Alveda King, speaks to this all the time.

Don’t accept what the media say about what Dr. King said. Read it yourself, engage the eloquent philosophical and theological reasoning of a well-educated and committed Christian. On his national day of honor, The King Center archive site was officially launched, making his writings more available than ever.

And don’t miss the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

As Justin and Kevin summarized:

King is of course the kind of historical figure that practically everyone wants to claim as his own. Reality, however, is often complex, and the truth about King is that his primary motivations, his most fundamental commitments—the very core of his thought—were rooted in a worldview repugnant to many of those who now claim his legacy.

The ironty and disonesty of that is important to understand, because it’s based on religiously informed convictions that pre-date the state, convictions the state is increasingly driving out of the public debate and battle over civil rights.