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MacIntyre: Conservatism is dead. We must build something new.

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The values that once bound America’s culture together have collapsed, and conservatives must face that reality with open eyes. A new poll from the Wall Street Journal has revealed that respondents who felt patriotism was very important to them drastically decreased from 70% in 1998 to just 38% in 2023. The importance of religion and having children faced a similarly alarming drop in importance from 62% to 39% and from 59% to 30% respectively. Community involvement saw a sharp rise in 2019 to 62% but cratered in 2023 to 27%.

These are not just the values America was built on, but the very basic priorities that any nation must have for its own survival. Any population that cares so little about the things that constitute the culture, and transmits that culture to the next generation, is destined to face decline and decay.

It is common to hear from many different corners of the political landscape that the culture war is a distraction. Those who would prefer the nation’s political conversation to center on issues like taxes, foreign policy, environmentalism, or economic disparity often express exhaustion with the never-ending clash of moral visions in the United States.

This is, to some extent, understandable. Many aspects of America’s culture have become profoundly ugly and difficult to look at. Most people do not want see an endless parade of drag queens exposing themselves to minors on their social media feeds, and it would be nice to return to a time when the largest disagreement in our country was the size of the next tax cut.

In the 1980s, cultural conservatives were relentlessly mocked for making supposedly hyperbolic doomsday predictions about cultural shifts across the United States. TV hosts and political pundits laughed at the notion that the deconstruction of traditional religious, familial, and sexual norms would create a slippery slope down which the culture would plunge. Conservatives were successfully shamed into abandoning what was left of the cultural battle, one they had already mostly lost in the 1960s, and resigned themselves to a series of rearguard actions.

The American right adopted the more libertarian approach of focusing on the size of government and its encroachment on personal and financial freedoms, in the belief that creating a smaller and more neutral state would limit its ability to negatively influence the culture. Christian conservatives hoped that a smaller government would leave their families and faith alone, but despite their new focus, government only grew in both size and scope.

Private organizations seemed all too eager to join formal government entities in pushing progressive social doctrine, and conservatives quickly found themselves without any significant social institutions to defend their way of life. Many churches now prioritize progressive political doctrine over the Christian gospel. Institutions that should have stood against the fashionable destruction of traditional values are now ruled by the progressive egregore, wearing the once proud faith’s skin like a trophy.

The predictions of the religious right have proven far too mild in retrospect. Former stalwarts of the conservative movement like David French now regularly argue for the constitutional necessity of drag queen story hour, and neocons like Bill Krystal attack Ron DeSantis for restricting child mutilation in Florida. The direct sexualization of children has awakened many to the dire consequences that America’s culture shift has wrought, but that realization may have come too late. As the recent WSJ poll revealed, less than 40% of Americans hold their nation, their God, or their posterity as a top priority. This decline reflects not only progressive radicalization, but a trend among red states as well. For a majority of the country, that which conservatives sought to conserve has lost its cultural primacy.

The good news is that the situation is far from hopeless. While those on the right have been impacted by the general cultural zeitgeist, there is a wide gap between the Democrats and Republicans. GOP voters are twice as likely to value patriotism and religion as their progressive counterparts. Conservatives are also more likely to value having children, though only by 12%. There is still a stark difference between the two moral visions in the United States, and that should give those on the right hope, but the conservative moral vison no longer represents most of the country. Those who are waiting for the fabled silent majority to rise up and retake America’s institutions do so in vain, and a new approach must be formulated.

A nation’s culture shapes every other aspect of its being. The language, folkways, and religious beliefs of a people create the very substance out of which the state is formed. Culture defines what people value, which determines what they will prioritize and pursue with their collective will and resources. The culture war can never be avoided, because it is the war for the very values and language with which the citizens of a nation will evaluate every other aspect of political life.

The mere attempt to conserve that which once defined America’s culture has been an objective failure. The disastrous strategy of protecting traditional values simply by shrinking the size of the government has allowed the radical doctrines of woke progressivism to take a firm hold. The right must no longer see itself as the defender of the status qou, conserving the current values of the nation’s institutions, but instead as culturally insurgent, seeking to subvert the rotten core of progressive orthodoxy and replace it with the good, the beautiful, and the true.

Americans seeking to return to a culture that values the religion and tradition of their ancestors cannot rely on some vague notion of collective allegiance to those concepts, but must instead forge a new movement that offers a dynamic alternative to the civilizational decay being pushed on the current generation.

The forces advancing woke doctrine are not revolutionary or rebellious; they are the holders of privilege and power. It is the corporations, school administrators, and human resources commissars forcing the dismal progressive agenda into every single aspect of daily life. These dreary schoolmarms of civilizational decline have robbed the culture of its meaning and vitality, and they should be opposed as the profoundly dull and bloodless force they truly are.

Instead of trying to conserve institutions infested with these vile doctrines, the right should seek to build new and vital organizations that can connect the most beautiful and powerful aspects of America’s past with a vision of the future that offers meaning and purpose.

This vision is a multigenerational project that cannot be achieved with a single presidential election or the passage of some perfunctory legislation. The forces of renewal must be willing to commit themselves to the creation of institutions that will implement and safeguard their vision even as the tide of electoral politics ebbs and flows. An ancient Greek proverb states, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” We are called, not to be the generation that conserves, but the generation that builds anew so those who come after can rest once again in the shelter of a great civilization.
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