In 2006’s “Waiting on the world to change,” John Mayer lamented: “It’s not that we don’t care/We just know that the fight ain’t fair.” As Reihan Salam’s headline today hints — Republicans now find themselves on the wrong end of the waiting game. And unlike Mayer, conservatives may need more than a couple of years to turn it around.
In the wake of Barack Obama’s re-election — and as public opinion shifts on issues such as same sex marriage become apparent — it’s only natural for conservatives to premise their soul searching efforts within the context of a left/right framework.
My gut is that (at least, in terms of social issues), it’s not so much that the politics has shifted as it is the paradigm has shifted.
Mayer’s “Waiting for the world to change” line might have sounded passive at the time, but he was sort of right. Activism matters, but no amount of campaigning or “pounding the pavement” is likely to overcome the zeitgeist.
Politics is (in the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan) downstream from culture.
Today’s trend isn’t so much toward liberalism as it is toward radical individualism and extreme democracy.
This may be a distinction without a difference, but shifting cultural attitudes might have more to do with recent technological innovations than with the notion Democrats outmaneuvered Republicans — or that liberals somehow “won” the argument on its merits. Liberals were playing with the wind at their backs.
Pace moral relativists, absolutes don’t change. The courts may say something is Constitutional today that they defined as “Unconstitutional” yesterday. On which occasion were they correct? If abortion is wrong today, the fact that it might have a 90 percent approval rating in 2030 would make that no less the case. But our perceptions change, and perception is reality.
This is not a new observation. In modern times, the first big wave toward radical individualism was probably the Industrial Revolution, which drew people out of agricultural villages and into big cities. Instead of living in a town where everybody knew your business, individuals could now live somewhat anonymous lives. Being unmoored from community standards was, no doubt, freeing. This was both good and bad (there is a reason “libertine” and “liberty” sound alike.)
The advent of the birth control pill was yet another example of how a technological advancement had sweeping (and often unforeseen) repercussions — both arguably good and bad — on the culture.
But the trend toward individualism has only accelerated in recent years. Once unmoored from our literal communities during the Industrial Revolution, we have now become disconnected from a collective mass pop culture, as well.
Modern technology has created a society in which there are fewer and fewer shared experiences — and fewer societal norms.
Every day, you can discover some little subculture that a lot of folks dabble in, and some folks can get completely wrapped up in:
There are 211 million video-game players in the United States. For perspective, 130 million voted in last year’s presidential election.
About 35 million Americans and Canadians play a fantasy sport (fantasy football, fantasy baseball, etc.).
At least 31 million Americans are “foodies,” with an avid interest in food and culinary trends, as of 2008.
A site of “Bronies” — grown men and women who are really into “My Little Pony” — estimates that there are 7 to 12 million of them in the United states.
I don’t begrudge any of those interests (okay, the Bronies are weird*) but the point is that there is no common popular culture anymore, which makes it particularly tough for conservatives to start influencing that culture.
The most prescient line from Mayer’s song might be, “One day our generation/is going to rule the population.” Last year, I authored a post about how the film “21 Jump Street” illustrated how Millennials were different (it sounds absurd until you read it.)
As I noted,
[T]he internet made it possible for kids formerly considered outsiders to congregate and network. There is strength in numbers, and kids who once thought they were all alone probably become bolder when they realize there are millions of other kids just like them.
The implications are too large to fully discuss in any blog post. Books have — and will — be written. The obvious observation is that the trend is toward more tolerance and permissiveness of niche ideas and individual behavior — and less judgement.
Just as the 1960s were a mixed bag with incredibly positive results (such as civil rights) — as well as some horrible excesses emerging from the chaos — so too is this.
The big question I have is whether libertarian-leaning conservatives could also benefit from this trend. After all, one could assume that in a world where “rugged” individuals manage their own bank accounts and investments on an iPhone, citizens will be more reluctant to want the government intruding on their individual financial freedom.
For now, at least, it seems the trend toward radical individualism only applies to social issues. On fiscal issues, the communitarian message seems to be a better sell.
Of course, things can change. In the 1960s, Lionel Trilling wrote that “liberalism is not only the dominant ideology; it’s the only ideology in America.” The overreach of liberalism, of course, led to the Reagan Revolution.
It could happen again. That’s why we’re waiting on the world to change.