As I was driving home from work, I heard a radio commentator expressing his surprise at how coarse our politics had become, and how quickly. Who would have thought, he asked, that, say, Donald Trump, who is deliberately insulting to competitors, would be the frontrunner for the Republican nomination? That this kind of discourse would dominate a presidential primary campaign would have seemed unthinkable even quite recently.
He has a point. Things have changed, and the change is not in the direction of the refined and genteel. And he is not alone. A lot of conservative commentators have lamented the rise of Trump precisely on the grounds that his no-holds-barred rhetoric marks a decline in the quality of our political discourse.
The relationship of contemporary conservatism to the rise of the new political incivility, however, is more complicated than it might at first appear. I don’t say that contemporary conservatism is responsible for the decline. It’s more the result of social and cultural forces that conservatives do not have much power to resist. But I would say that conservatives should know better than to be surprised by this new political incivility, and that they might themselves be a little bit to blame, to the extent that they did not do what might have been done to try to stop it.
It seems to me that over the last fifteen years, America’s political conservatism has become thinner and thinner, so to speak. In the 1990s it was still common for leading conservative thinkers and statesmen to comment on, and to point out the dangers of, our increasingly coarse popular culture. Figures like William Bennett and Bob Dole, among many others, raised concerns about the moral quality of popular music, for example.
The events of 9-11 2001 seemed to drive these kinds of cultural concerns out of our public discourse. It is now hard to remember how seriously those arguments were pressed prior to the rise of national security as a major issue. Prior to 9-11, for example, one of Bill O’Reilly’s major themes was his critique of Eminem. But with 9-11 and the Iraq war, these issues were largely forgotten. And in the years since then the economy and the size and scope of the federal government have taken over as major issues.
American conservatives did not drop the culture war issues. They pressed arguments against abortion and same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, the movement–both in its intellectual and political wings–seems to have abandoned the older argument about the moral quality of popular entertainment. The sense seems to be that this is either not really an important question, or not one on which conservatives are going to make any progress. In any case, this line of criticism has been mostly dropped.
And this may well be where American conservatism made a mistake and, accordingly, bears some indirect responsibility for the kind of political discourse that we are now seeing. To the extent that we stopped fighting on this issue, we made it more likely that the quality of our popular discourse would decline in the way that it has. It is, after all, naive to think that a country’s political discourse will be refined, generous, and intelligent when its popular culture is low, ugly, and foolish. The same people are participating in and being formed by both.
If you think you can’t stop the country from having a coarse popular culture, then you are also not going to be able to prevent it from having a coarse politics.