The Right's Plot for a Moral Transformation
Conservatives who recognize the influence of culture are seeking to seize it from above.
Whether you’re a long-time subscriber or new to Wisdom of Crowds, we’re excited to reintroduce Wisdom of Crowds contributing writer Elisabeth Zerofsky. Based in Berlin, Elisabeth is a New York Times Magazine contributor whose reporting has become a must-read for anyone following the new right. (Read her on the Hungarian “model,” the French far-right, and the American right).
We’re thrilled to publish her first piece below since our move to Substack. You can expect to see a fresh column from her every other month. If you’re looking for more from Elisabeth, check out her essay “The End of History Dies in Berlin” and her appearance on the podcast on the growing sense of crisis in France—even more relevant in recent weeks. Now, onto the column!
I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years, in my work as a reporter, talking to people on the right: conservatives, reactionaries, right-wing radicals, counterrevolutionaries, both in the U.S. and across Europe. I’ve been called names for doing this, but I also learned a great deal about the goals and motivations of people who hold power and stand to gain more in the future.
One conservative donor I spoke to last year made a remark that I have continued to consider. He argued that liberals and leftists tend to look to economics as an explanation for social problems or phenomena, whereas what’s most important to conservatives is culture. We were talking about poverty, and possible explanations for declining marriage and child-bearing rates in America. Some combination of economic insecurity, greater precarity in work and employment patterns, and looser cultural constraints and expectations can most likely explain much of the change. He insisted, however, that liberals would emphasize the former and conservatives the latter. And he’s probably right that liberals tend to have misgivings about an essentialism that is inherent in cultural explanations, while it is perhaps the appeal to tradition or inheritance that draws conservatives to it.
I thought of that conversation while reading a recent interview in Politico Magazine with the political scientist Robert Putnam, whose seminal work Bowling Alone, tracks the withdrawal of Americans over generations from participation in civic and social institutions. It’s a book that remains impressively contemporary decades after its publication (I read it for the first time a few years ago and found its 400 pages, written more than 20 years ago, filled with revelation). In the interview, Putnam discusses his most recent book, published in 2020, that covers a political transformation that took place in America between the Gilded Age, roughly 1870s-1890s, and the Progressive Era, in the early 1900s. His observations are remarkable. Putnam describes how the Gilded Age was, somewhat comparable to ours, a time of extreme economic inequality, polarization, and declining social capital. What reversed those trends in the Progressive era was explicit and pointed political actions. But then he says this:
My research partner and I looked really hard for a leading indicator [of societal change], and our working theory was that the leading indicator must be economics. That’s a standard social science view: economics drives everything, and then policies and everything else follows.
But then, Putnam goes on:
The one thing we’re sure of is that that story is not true. To me, the astonishing fact was that the leading indicator was actually cultural and moral factors. The first thing that changed was that ordinary Americans became convinced — some through religion, others not — that they had a moral duty to worry about other people, and their morality changed from an “I” morality to a “we” morality. Conversely, the first thing that turned in the other direction [in the 1960s] was actually our sense of moral obligation orders. We went from a “we” society to an “I” society.
This gets at the mantra, once utilized by Marxists—and now appropriated by conservatives—of the Gramscian notion of cultural hegemony, so often trotted out these days that it has become an annoying cliché. But I think the implications of Putnam’s findings, something like empirical evidence for the theory, are both more subtle and more far-reaching. It will take more than just a passing recognition of essential workers amid a pandemic, of those who work in transport, on cleaning staffs, in meat packing plants, and everywhere else that makes society function for there to be a true reevaluation of work in this country that is fair and amenable to a living wage.
Or, as another example, for all its excesses, the “movement” often derisively referred to as “wokeness” has understood that individual Americans must recognize their own complicity in an unjust system and consequently take it upon themselves as a personal moral obligation to see those inequalities corrected. They get that individual feelings of moral responsibility are a precondition for lasting policies that will actually improve the lives of racial minorities, particularly black Americans.
But I think that if we are really in a transitional political period, it’s more likely in the opposite direction. The conservative Catholics who make up a near supermajority on the Supreme Court (all six conservatives on the bench are either practicing, or were raised, Catholic) seem to believe that the overlap between law and morality ought to be broader than what it has been in the last 40 years. Religion is only one way to change the morals of the country—and a difficult one at that in a pluralistic, secularizing country. Another way, according to certain legal theorists, is through the law; or, the law interpreted according to the religious principles of a few powerful judges convinced that they have the morality of God on their side.
I am starting work on a book that will attempt to evaluate some of these arguments about culture and its role in political transformation, so I have an admittedly vested interest in exploring its expressions. As the right-wing donor said to me on the phone, what conservatives care about most is culture. They believe that they are laying the foundations of a moral transformation. And they might be right.
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