That Awful Word 'Social'

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I was having lunch with a liberal, i.e, a left-leaning friend lately, who at some point disparaged Republicans for their lack of commitment to “social justice.”

“Exactly what,” I asked, “does the adjective ‘social’ add to the substantive ‘justice'?”

There was a slight pause in the proceedings as he pronged a moody forkful. Very few of the people he dines with, I reckon, ask such impertinent questions. He proceeded manfully, though. “Lessening inequality,” he said, “it means lessening inequality.”

Well, he gets an A, or at least a B+, for effort, though I do not think he convinced even himself. One of these days, I intend to write a defense of inequality. “Take but degree away,” quoth Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, "untune that string, and hark what discord follows.” But that is a tune for another day. For now, I want to stick with the word “social.” It’s not only leftists who abuse it, inflating words like “justice” with the gassy soporific of rhetorical sentimentality. Conservatives do the same thing, as witness the term “social conservative.”

I read the PJ Media pieces by my friends Roger Simon and Bryan Preston. So let me weigh in with a few thoughts now. “Should conservatives accept a truce on social issues?” That is one way of putting the question. As most PJM readers know, this particular formulation of the question comes to us from Governor Mitch Daniels, who back in 2010 suggested that “[the next president] would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues.” Why? Because the new Red Menace of incontinent federal spending and paralyzing levels of debt constituted a national emergency that took priority over everything else.

Mitch Daniels was sharply upbraided by some conservatives for that remark, just as he was applauded by libertarians and other “fiscal conservatives” who are nervous about how well moral issues play at the polls.

I’m not sure, frankly, whether either side really did justice to what Mitch Daniels was getting at.  Since making that remark in an interview, he has returned to the subject a few times. At CPAC a year or so back he said that “it is up to us” — “us” meaning “us conservatives” — "it is up to us," [he said] "to show... the best way back to greatness, and to argue for it with all the passion of our patriotism. But, should the best way be blocked, while the enemy draws nearer, then someone will need to find the second best way. Or the third, because the nation’s survival requires it. Purity in martyrdom is for suicide bombers. King Pyrrhus is remembered, but his nation disappeared. Winston Churchill set aside his lifetime loathing of Communism in order to fight World War II."

Now, that strikes me as wise counsel, about which I discern the spirit of prudence, not capitulation. Fiat justitia, et pereat mundus: let there be justice, though the world perish, is not, I think, a motto any real conservative would willingly embrace. After all, you’re not much of a conservative if you failed to conserve.

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That said, I think we want to be cautious about how that “truce” Mitch Daniels evoked has been understood. One way of getting at that is to look at how it has been assimilated to the so-called Buckley Rule or Buckley Doctrine—the idea, in its demotic transcription, that we conservatives ought to rally around the most conservative candidate who is also electable.

That’s how the Buckley Doctrine has been disseminated in its post-Buckley reincarnation. You’ve all heard it. My friend Karl Rove wheeled it out early and often in the last election.

But Neal Freeman, who was there at the creation, has demonstrated beyond cavil that the Buckley Doctrine as originally formulated was something quite different.

The year was 1964. The choice was between Nelson Rockefeller, the Republican establishment’s darling, and Barry Goldwater, the impossible firebrand. Whom should National Review endorse? The debate raged for some time in the sancta sanctorum of NR’s editorial offices, some editors arguing one side, some the other. In the fullness of time, the dictum came down from WFB himself: National Review would support “the rightwardmost viable candidate”—i.e., Barry Goldwater, unelectable in 1964 but viable in the sense of representing a robust and coherent conservative vision of the world.

It was the same in the 1965 New York mayoral race. Bill Buckley hadn’t a chance of winning. Indeed, when asked what he would do if he were to win, he famously replied: “Demand a recount.” But Bill’s candidacy was viable because it enabled him to put before the public an articulate case for various important conservative ideas.

The point is that powerful ideas can have powerful consequences. Barry Goldwater didn’t stand a chance of winning in 1964, but his candidacy was part of the galvanizing force that ushered Ronald Reagan into the White House fifteen years later. Bill’s mayoral race didn’t see him into Gracie Mansion, but it was one of the propaedeutic elements that helped see his brother Jim into the U.S. Senate a few years down the road. I think Neal Freeman got to the core distinction when he observed that “We all understand that it is Karl Rove’s mission to promote the Republican party. It was the mission of Bill Buckley to promote the conservative cause. There should be no confusion between the two.”

But of course there’s been lots of confusion between the two. Which brings me back to the question: “Should conservatives accept a truce on social issues?”

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Now, perhaps I missed the memo, but has any such truce been offered that conservatives might accept?

I doubt it. Nor is this surprising. Democrats long ago discovered that what Mitch Daniels euphemistically referred to as “social issues” were effective sticks with which to beat Republicans, both conservatives and the other sort. If you glean your news from such purveyors of establishment sentiment as The New York Times, MSNBC, or the news offices of our major universities, you might think that Republican politicians  were obsessed with those “social issues.” I think a good case could be made that many are terrified of that suite of issues. It is the left-wingers who keep them front and center. They’re ever ready to wheel them out for an impromptu “litmus test” to prove that the candidate in question is insufficiently blue, which is to say insufficiently base, ambiguity over the word “base” deliberate.

Aristotle defined “rhetoric” as the art of persuasion. It is the political art par excellence because the metabolism of politics ordinarily operates through persuasion, not demonstration or force. I submit that conservatives, through a combination of bumbling ineptness and historical accident, have unwittingly ceded the rhetorical high ground to the left. Unfolding the reasons for this would take us into deep and murky waters. For now, I’d merely like to suggest that if conservatives are going to be successful in “standing athwart history,” they need to be sure they are standing on solid ground.

Note bene: Conservatives do not win elections by pretending to be leftists. (And note, by the way, that I do not say “pretending to be liberals.” It is one of the signal rhetorical achievements of the left that it has managed to appropriate the term “liberal” for an ideology that is so conspicuously illiberal and antipathetic to freedom.)

But conservatives have repeatedly pretended to be leftists, or at least non-conservative. You see this partly in their disingenuous tergiversation over those “social issues.” More centrally, however, you see it in their abandonment of the enabling resources that have traditionally rendered the conservative vision of the world compelling.

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The leftist establishment, having been to school with John Stuart Mill, has taught that terms like “custom,” “convention,” and “habit” are the outmoded relics of a superstitious and insufficiently rational age. Many contemporary conservatives have lacked the gumption, not to say the intelligence and rhetorical wit, to dispute that claim and show that, on the contrary, such terms name indispensable moral resources. As National Review’s late, great James Burnham observed, most people are not existentially moved by statistics or a number attached to Social Security payments or the national debt. They are moved by a vision of the world. That is what conservatives have to sell, though many, in their eagerness to join the establishment consensus, seem to have forgotten that fact.

Let me conclude by asking, just where are we standing when we stand athwart history? In Bill Buckley’s famous publisher’s statement introducing the inaugural issue of National Review, he noted that the new magazine would be “out of place” “in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place.” It is out of place, said Bill, because, in its maturity, “literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation.” The brash new magazine had arrived with its brash young editor to cast a cold and inquisitive light upon that presumption. National Review “stands athwart history,” Bill announced, “yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Bill wrote that more than fifty years ago. But I suspect that you will find, as I did on re-reading it, that it has preternaturally contemporary relevance. “Radical social experimentation”; “the inroads that relativism has made on the American soul”; “the intransigence of the Liberals, who run this country.” If those yelling Stop! in 1955 were “out of place,” how much more are they out of place now, in 2013, when what Bill called “the relationship of the state to the individual” in America may be undergoing its most thoroughgoing transformation in history?

Am I overstating things? Think about it. Just before the 2008 election, Barack Obama declared to his acolytes that he was only a few days away from “fundamentally transforming the United States of America.” If you didn’t believe him then—if you thought that talk of “fundamentally transforming” the country was mere hustings hyperbole—perhaps the last five years will have convinced you otherwise. Just think, if you can bear it, of the imperial grandiosity and arrogance on view in Tuesday’s State of the Union performance.

Ideas, Bill Buckley observed in that founding editorial, “rule the world.” What ideas? Liberty for one. The United States was “conceived in liberty,” as Lincoln put it. The idea of individual freedom was the country’s cynosure, its guiding principle. By 1955, that principle had been insidiously undermined by the well-intentioned dispensations of “literate America,” intoxicated as it was by “radical social experimentation.”

Think of it: in 1955, Bill Buckley argued that “there never was an age of conformity quite like this one.” And today? Looking back, we understand that the dampening spirit of conformity and the assault on freedom were then in their infancy. They have suddenly come of age. The question is not whether Bill Buckley’s inaugural bulletin is still pertinent. It could hardly be more so. The question is whether those “uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom” will command the wit, rhetoric, and moral courage to stand athwart tomorrow whispering, confiding, explaining—sometimes even yelling— Stop!—in order that freedom might have an opportunity to prevail.

I think that is the real question that stands behind the question of our position on “social issues.”

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images courtesy shutterstock / Andrey Bayda / Deyan Georgiev