Ten years ago this fall, it seemed for a moment like social conservatives might be ascendant in our politics. Immediately after the 2004 election, some analysts on the right and left alike said George W. Bush’s reelection signaled a rising tide of “values voters” who would yield an enduring nationwide advantage for Republicans on social issues.
In a post-election op-ed that the New York Times’s headline writers subtly titled “The Day the Enlightenment Went Out,” Gary Wills said the American people were giving up on modernity. On CNN the day after the election, conservative commentator Tucker Carlson said “it is clear that it was not the war on terror, but the issue of what we’re calling moral values that drove President Bush and other Republicans to victory.”
Many social conservatives now look wistfully upon that moment and see in the decade that followed what traditionalists are apt to see in the world in general: a sorry decline. Both politics and the culture now seem increasingly hostile to social conservatism, and religious believers in the public square are fighting for even minimal tolerance. The tide appears to have turned decisively, and the same kinds of analysts who saw a traditionalist ascendancy ten years ago now spy only social liberalism as far as the eye can see. Some social conservatives have internalized the notion that history is on the side of the left, and are preparing for the catacombs.
But the false dawn of 2004 should actually temper today’s dire mood, precisely because it was false. Some of the political dynamics around the 2004 election (with same-sex marriage referenda in several red states timed to coincide with a presidential cycle), along with a poorly worded question on an exit poll created a misimpression about the electorate’s priorities. The closest watchers of the public mood in that campaign, more thorough subsequent polling, and academic analyses of public opinion all suggest the social issues were not actually crucial to the outcome, and that the electorate was not unusually concerned with them on election day.
That means that social conservatives were not ascendant a decade ago, but it also means their situation has not grown so dramatically worse since. They have obviously seen some important setbacks: Public opinion has moved in favor of same-sex marriage (though the most perceptive social conservatives could clearly see that coming a decade ago) and some drug legalization, and the most important of all social trends (out-of-wedlock births) has grown worse. But social conservatives have also had some causes for cheer: Teen pregnancy has declined dramatically, divorce and abortion rates have fallen, too, and public opinion has turned modestly more critical of abortion.
What has not happened is any sharp public turn against religion or religious liberty. Gallup’s annual survey of views about religion in America shows exceptional stability over the past decade. Twenty-one percent of Americans told Gallup last year that they’d like organized religion to have less influence in the nation’s life, compared to 19 percent who said so a decade ago—a statistically insignificant difference.
That doesn’t mean social conservatives are imagining their troubles these days. But it might mean they’re blurring the distinction between politics and the larger culture a bit more than they should. Both the Bush years and the Obama years suggest that whichever side of our culture wars holds the White House has a great deal of control over the form and character of the battles we fight in those wars. Such control can make it seem like history is on the side of the president’s party.
Many of the most heated public battles about moral and cultural issues in the Obama years (and especially the religious liberty debates surrounding the HHS mandate) have been carefully, if not cynically, orchestrated by the White House to frighten key Democratic constituencies and cast their opponents in the worst possible light. The resulting divisiveness has freed some particularly illiberal liberals to launch private witch hunts against cultural conservatives alongside the administration’s public ones, but it is by no means evident that public opinion more generally has moved in favor of withdrawing protections for the practice of religion.
None of this is to say that the administration’s stunning attempts to isolate and ostracize religious believers for political advantage are anything but reprehensible. The fight to defend religious liberty is the most important political struggle of the moment, and the very character of our liberal society depends upon it. But the perspective of the past decade can help us understand that this struggle is not lost from the outset.
The prospect of social liberals annihilating their opponents in the public square over the coming years is not much more plausible than the expectation that social conservatives were set to do so in 2004. We are certainly witnessing some distressing social trends and battles, and we find ourselves having to defend the virtue and value of family, work, learning, and faith—all of which are under assault in the elite precincts of the culture and are growing weaker among the poor and vulnerable too. These are the essential prerequisites to human flourishing, and also to the liberal society itself, so a great deal is at stake in our culture wars.
But today’s cultural conservatives exhibit the wrong sort of pessimism about all this. They are too pessimistic about their cultural and political prospects because they are not pessimistic enough about the limits of human nature. A clearer sense of those limits should help us see not only why traditionalism never triumphs in the liberal society but also why progressivism can never suffice.
The permanence of the human longings for attachment and transcendence means that the endless parade of temptations and distractions we confront in modern life can yield an endless series of opportunities for the truth to recapture our imagination and prove itself indispensable. Traditionalists should therefore work to build room for their ways of living in the modern world not only as a means of defense and survival but as a means of persuasion and progress.
They should see themselves fighting not against the liberal society but for it. They should live out their faiths and their ways in the world, confident that their instruction and example will make that world better and that people will be drawn to the spark. This means traditionalists must see both the good and the bad in modern life, and must accept that our society is always getting both better and worse.
And it means that traditionalists must be committed to the preservation of spaces for private life that are protected from the perverse shortsightedness of politics. It means, in other words, that we should be intensely engaged in the struggle for the soul of our society—knowing we can expect no ultimate victory from politics, but also that we are by no means destined to defeat, and that by persisting in the struggle we make room for another generation to rise and thrive and seek to embody the good. Politics can do no more than that, but it must do no less.
Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and editor of National Affairs.