Politics is downstream from culture.
That insight, from the late Andrew Breitbart, is simple, true and powerful. It is why many cultural battles are finding their way into the inefficient and unhappy mechanisms of politics.
The tricky part is that the phrase “culture war” gets a bad rap, in part because the political sphere is not always the right place to fight those battles. Nevertheless, in a world in which many things, unfortunately, become political, sometimes it is necessary for cultural and societal fights to take on the unhappiness, drift and marginal value of political arrangements and compromises.
That’s because in many cases the political dimensions of cultural conflicts are important and are worth the fight. Let’s consider a few examples.
Abortion is the most obvious example of a cultural conflict that plays out in the political arena. It is perfectly acceptable to think what you want about the morality or politics of abortion, but from a purely social point of view, it’s suboptimal to kill off a significant chunk of the young people who society will need at some point. The irreducible minimum — as no less an authority than The New York Times pointed out as recently as Sunday — is that the world, especially the developed world, needs more children.
Perhaps we should be thinking about ways to encourage more children, rather than looking for ways to excuse this particular sociopathology.
Right along those same lines, school choice is probably the next most material and significant cultural agenda item that has played out in the political arena in the last 50 years. If helping children escape failing schools and investing in students rather than systems is not worth fighting for, I’m not sure what might be. When elites dismiss the struggle to improve the lot of children as just another front in the culture war, they are telling you what they care about — and it’s not the kids.
A new and unwelcome addition to the societal stew is the introduction of critical race theory. That theory, which encourages us to rewrite our history and focus on just one element of it, is a false and incomplete narrative of the American experience. In a polyglot and forward-looking society, critical race theorists are termites, chewing away at the joists.
Think about the border as a cultural totem. President Trump accurately noted that if you don’t have a border, you don’t have a country. A nation and a culture that is insufficiently confident enough to insist on respect for its laws and its territorial sovereignty will probably not remain a nation or a culture for too long.
Even something as quotidian as the extended unemployment insurance has an important cultural element. Those who opposed the extension of the federal bonus should not have shied away from the principal argument against it – that it devalues work. A culture that devalues work and the dignity and self-worth that flows from such work puts itself in a deep ditch.
Finally, and perhaps most corrosively, there are those who turn a blind eye to religious intolerance. We have seen that as recently as this week in New York City where Jewish Americans were attacked simply because they are Jews. The path of excising religion and religious tolerance from our society leads to only one place — division, despair and, ultimately, violence.
Obviously, it’s preferable to focus on solutions that don’t involve the political process. If you are concerned that those who own the rights to the Dr. Seuss canon don’t feel like publishing some of its parts, the answer is not to inject a bunch of politics into the discussion. The answer is to buy the publishing rights (which, like just about everything else, are always for sale).
But in many instances, there are good and necessary reasons to bring politics to bear on cultural conflicts. The dismissive tone the elites take in discussing culture wars and warriors is an effort to marginalize those who disagree with the elites. Ignore the tone, pay attention to the fight.
Politics can be, as George Jean Nathan wrote, the diversion of trivial men. Every once in a while, however, when cultural and social contests are important, politics becomes an essential rather than incidental part of American life.
That’s how it should be.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to President Trump and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.
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