By Ross Douthat
After following some of the more intemperate liberal reactions to the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision yesterday, I thought of this post from Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum from earlier this year, making the case for a liberalism that owns up to its own culture-war aggressions and success:
Over the last half century, various branches of government have … taken plenty of proactive steps to marginalize religion. Prayer in public school has been banned. Creches can no longer be set up in front of city hall. Parochial schools are forbidden from receiving public funds. The Ten Commandments can’t be displayed in courtrooms. Catholic hospitals are required to cover contraceptives for their employees. Gay marriage is legal in more than a dozen states and the number is growing rapidly.
Needless to say, I consider these and plenty of other actions to be proper public policy. I support them all. But they’re real things. Conservative Christians who feel under attack may be partly the victims of cynical politicians and media moguls, and a lot of their pity-party attempts at victimization really are ridiculous. But their fears do have a basis in reality. To a large extent, it’s the left that started the culture wars, and we should hardly be surprised that it provoked a strong response. In fact, it’s a sign that we’re doing something right.
As far as I’m concerned, the culture wars are one of the left’s greatest achievements. Our culture needed changing, and we should take the credit for it. Too often, though, we pretend that it’s entirely a manufactured outrage of the right, kept alive solely by wild fantasies and fever swamp paranoia. That doesn’t just sell the right short, it sells the left short too. It’s our fight. We started it, and we should be proud of it.
A cultural liberalism that took this line would be no less militant, obviously, but it would be a lot more clear-eyed about its actual situation vis-a-vis its present foes. For instance, it would be able to see that far from ushering in the Republic of Gilead, yesterday’s high court ruling at most placed a modest limitation — and, if I and others are reading the tea leaves in Anthony Kennedy’s concurrence correctly, possibly a very modest limitation — on a recent and significant liberal victory: That is, it didn’t even roll the clock back to 2009, let alone to 1959, and it’s quite possible that the ultimate impact on insurance coverage will be identical to what would have happened had the justices had ruled the other way. Such a liberalism might also be able to see that the larger pattern I wrote about yesterday, in which the Supreme Court has become a frequent refuge for religious conservatives rather than just their reliable bete noir, is itself partially the result of liberal gains in the political and cultural sphere, which have reduced religious traditionalists to making the kind of defensive appeals to liberty and pluralism and minority rights that tend to end up adjudicated in the courts. And such a liberalism would take ownership of its own ascendance and take more responsibility for (and pride in!) its own aggressions, rather than perpetually crying “theocracy” whenever its advance is interrupted.
Why doesn’t this self-aware social left show up (save in sharp, undeluded blog posts like Drum’s) more often? Well, a few reasons. First, political mobilization depends on a sense of victimhood, grievance and looming apocalypse, so no matter the correlation of forces on a given issue you can be sure that the professional agitators on both sides will have an incentive to inculcate solidarity by insisting that theirs is the heroic, hard-pressed side about to be crushed by a ruthless opposition. (See Christmas, the War on, and other extravaganzas of fauxpression, for examples from the rightward end of the spectrum.)
Second, political mobilization also requires a certain amount of ignorance, willful in some cases and cynically inculcated in others, in which the inevitably-complicated details of legal controversies (you see, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act says …. YAWN …. actually, Hobby Lobby already covers most …. zzzzzz) get boiled down to slogans fit for Twitter and cable shoutfests, and no nuancing counterpoint is allowed to be considered.
Third, as social conservatives know from bitter experience, the sense of grievance and resentment after a defeat is always sharper when you lose in the courts, because the possibility of democratic recourse feels more foreclosed than when the defeat is electoral or legislative. So even though it really is a sign of social liberalism’s gains that these issues are being litigated in the courts at all, it still feels (understandably) painful and unfair when a long drawn-out political debate ends with a 5-4 vote by a group of unelected lawyers (which is really often a coin-flip by Anthony Kennedy, philosopher king).
Fourth, human nature being what it is, loss aversion is generally more potent than the joys of winning, and even a string of victories doesn’t necessarily satisfy; if anything, it can just sharpen the appetite for further victories still. This is why ascendant parties, no matter their ideology, are rarely magnanimous to the defeated or the disfavored: Where a transformative agenda is being pursued, one set of gains is more likely make the next set of items seem that much more necessary, more essential, more inarguably correct. And under such circumstances, residual, rear-guard resistance can actually inspire more outrage than a stronger opposition, because the winning side comes to feel that it’s offensive that anyone is still fighting — don’t they know the battle’s over, don’t they know that history’s verdict has been rendered? Will no one rid me of this troublesome craft store?
This last impulse, I would suggest, is particularly potent in cases where the transformation in question is not necessarily delivering on its promises, and where there’s a felt need to find someone outside the enlightened community/the holy Catholic empire/History’s vanguard to blame for that falling-short. Where our current kulturkampf is concerned, for instance, I think most contemporary liberals are aware that post-1960s America is not quite the liberated and egalitarian utopia that was promised … but many of them are quite determined to believe that their own ideology is blameless, that there aren’t actually any internal contradictions in social liberalism, and that contemporary social problems must always and everywhere be the fault of something called “conservatism,” in all its varied guises. The revolution hasn’t failed or fallen; it’s just been resisted and disrupted by wreckers and reactionaries; etc. Which is how you end up with the sense, palpable in the liberal Twitter reaction to the Hobby Lobby decision, that if it weren’t for Catholic Supreme Court justices and evangelical-owned craft stores, all sorts of problems would gradually be washed away, like tears in a soft progressive rain.
And perhaps, if current trends persist for long enough, we will get to actually test that proposition. But not yet, not yet.
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