Decades ago, liberal young people would say, “Let it all hang out.” The innately conservative Peter Berger reportedly retorted, “Tuck it all back in.” Today, the roles are reversed. Liberal Democrats in Congress censure their colleagues for their sexual predations, while conservative Evangelicals in Alabama gave Roy Moore more than 80 percent of their votes, despite credible accusations of worse behavior by him. It seems that some on the right are letting it all hang out, while many on the left are trying to tuck it all back in.
Moore lost, no doubt because many otherwise steadfast Republicans could not bring themselves to vote for him. But the trend is evident. The Moral Majority is less and less willing to play its role as upholder of decency. The reason can be found, at least in part, in the allure of transgression and its appeal to cultural outsiders.
Two generations ago, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and others embraced scandal and obscenity as a declaration of independence from a suffocating bourgeois culture. Dropping the f-bomb was a way of punching back at a seemingly all-powerful status quo. Read Allen Ginsburg’s “Howl” and note the line that praises the transcendent transports of being sodomized “by saintly motorcyclists.” In those years, many on the left enjoyed the political ecstasies of transgression.
These days, our culture is increasingly dominated by Progressivism, Inc. and its junior partner, Establishment Conservatism. They are responsible for upholding standards. Meanwhile, Progressivism, Inc. holds the unwashed conservative voter in disdain. He’s “fearful of diversity,” and probably a racist. Establishment Conservatism sees him as someone to be not so much represented as carefully managed. He needs to be refocused on the most important questions of public life, such as de-regulating banks and cutting taxes for the “innovators.”
Under these circumstances—our circumstances—it seems that a growing cohort of conservative voters, instead of radical poets and progressive comedians, are enjoying the ecstasies of transgression. Like Trump, Moore represented transgression, and not just with his blackguard past. He had been suspended from the Alabama Supreme Court—twice. The first time came after he refused to remove a monument of the Ten Commandments. The second time came after he refused to comply with Obergefell v. Hodges, the Supreme Court decision finding a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. Roy Moore has spat in the eye of our largely progressive ruling class. No doubt this thrilled his conservative Evangelical supporters, in the same way Ginsburg’s poem thrilled those who wanted to throw off the old regime of bourgeois respectability.
And then there’s the general degradation of our culture. Demoralization is not something one can capture fully with statistics, but the rate of out-of-wedlock births is perhaps a useful indicator. In 2013, nearly 50 percent of white women in Alabama aged 20–24 who gave birth were unmarried. The rate for those aged 18–19 was 66 percent. Rates for black women of those ages were higher, but the trend lines over the last decade suggest that a convergence will occur soon, at between 80 and 90 percent for women under 24.
Given these trends, I predict that this tolerance of sexual sins will increase among ordinary Americans who are increasingly shaped by the post-Sixties culture. Meanwhile, well-educated folks who are relatively insulated from its worst excesses will chastise them for failing to uphold standards for public officials.
History has many ironies. When I was born, elite journalists got together for drinks and chuckled about John F. Kennedy’s sexual escapades. While president, Kennedy shared showgirls with Frank Sinatra. The young president’s sexual sins were kept out of the public eye by the Fourth Estate. Middle Americans would have been scandalized had they known. The “good people” saw themselves as responsible for the future of our country, and they did not want Middle Americans to upset the political applecart with their moralistic outrage.
Then came Gary Hart. When he aspired to the Democratic nomination for president in 1984, the press exposed his extramarital affair with Donna Rice. It ended his political career. But the wheel of history kept turning. When Bill Clinton’s sexual incontinence was exposed in 1998, the country held its breath. His reputation was tarnished, but he survived politically, much to the relief of the elite press.
Now, the same Fourth Estate that protected Kennedy and defended Clinton is irked that voters won’t reliably punish the sexual sinners they expose. Moore went down to defeat, but Trump prevailed. The cultural roles are now reversed. Instead of protecting their own from middle-class moralism, our political elites execute offenders. It’s almost certain that John Conyers would have been returned to Congress had he faced his constituents rather than his colleagues. The same goes for Al Franken.
Where this ends I cannot predict. There were enough respectable Republicans in Alabama to prevent Moore from prevailing. But the role of transgression as liberation has been well established by progressives, and conservatives are only just beginning to embrace the spirit of rebellion. Among the Republican base we may see a rising political appetite for outlandishness, obscenity, and scandal—even and perhaps especially among conservative Evangelicals who have come to feel acutely their status as cultural pariahs in the America dominated by Progressivism, Inc.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.