During a recent episode of FiveThirtyEight’s “Elections” podcast, Harry Enten mentioned a phrase I haven’t thought of for a while that I thought warranted a second look. Enten’s been a vocal critic of not only Trump, but the wave of “cultural conservatism” behind his campaign’s success. He suggested that the core fissure within the Republican Party of 2016 exists between “Trumpian” cultural conservatives and social conservatives like Ted Cruz—which led me to wonder What is cultural conservatism and are we in its moment?
It’s probably best to start with an idea most politically engaged people are familiar with: social conservatism. This ideology within the American conservative impulse bases its worldview and governing philosophy upon traditional religious morality, especially in regards to gender relations, reproductive rights, sexual behavior, and marriage. While they use the rhetoric of “small government,” social conservatives also tend to support policies that enforce and protect their moral beliefs while prohibiting activities seen as immoral. Their candidates will usually emphasize their religious affiliation and run in support of “family values.”
It’s important to remember that social conservatives are not always economic conservatives—in fact, it is often an economically ambivalent ideology. Nor are they always Christians or white—they are often Muslim, Catholic, or Jewish, and they are present within every ethnic or racial community in the United States. One reason I believe Bernie Sanders failed so miserably during the Democratic primary campaign in the South is because he did not grasp the power of social conservatism within the African-American communities of the region.
Which leads to a final point: social conservatives aren’t necessarily Republicans. It’s probably more effective to understand social conservatism as moral code rather than a political ideology. As such, it reflects the vast diversity of “traditional” moral thinking within the United States, and those who seek to bring about social change succeed when they account for this heterogeneity. LGBT rights and same-sex marriage made significant advances when they appealed to the immorality of oppressing their community and emphasized their desire to enter into the institution of marriage. Simply put, social conservatism is a moral code with inclusionary aspirations. It seeks to not only protect, but expand its moral code. It is an ideology that believes in change, despite its fear of revolutionary action.
Cultural conservatism, on the other hand, is an inherently exclusionary ideology that believes in the supremacy of value systems and political practices based upon nationalist identity. While cultural conservatives don’t necessarily need to be religious, its Trumpian form is founded upon a belief that the United States has traditionally and should always be governed by Euro-American Christian nationalism. Even among supporters who don’t regularly attend church, their worldview is widely influenced by a racial and religious sense of nationalism. American cultural conservatives aren’t necessarily social or economic conservatives—they believe in nation about all else. Citizens are free to ascribe to any ethical or religious code, as long as it doesn’t threaten the integrity and security of the nation. They also believe that cultural outsiders can be brought into the nation, but only if they assimilate fully into the dominant culture—as opposed to diluting it through multiculturalism.
It’s also tempting to paint all cultural conservatives and Trump supporters as racists; however, it is more accurate to understand them as xenophobic above all else. American cultural conservatives view alien “others” as threats to themselves, their interests, and their county. Threatened as they imagine they are, cultural conservatives seek to bring order to chaos through social order, national integrity, law and order, and economic protectionism. Their ideal world is one divided by clear borders, with nations free to protect their physical and economic interests. In their minds, liberalism and globalism has destroyed order and left poor and middle people vulnerable to exploitation. Finally, American cultural conservatives also support social welfare programs, but only for “members” and “good outsiders” (members receiving clear priority).
Is this a Cultural Conservative Moment?
Of course it is. Whereas political conflict in since the 1960s has been between liberals and conservatives, I believe that we are entering a period of pluralism versus cultural conservatism. This should come as no surprise. While Republican leaders have, from time to time, continue to roll back the policies of a bygone battle—repealing Social Security, Medicare, and Medicade, or defunding higher education—its non-elite rank-and-file have been motivated by cultural and nationalistic concerns for at least twenty years. In the past, many of these populists put their faith in party, church, and class affiliations, but today they feel as if these institutions have failed or even betrayed them. The “imagined community” of nationalism is all that remains, and they’ve put all their hopes in the dream that is a strong American nation led by the most talented spinner of nationalistic fantasy—Donald Trump.
The prevalence of cultural conservatism within the currently Republican Party manifests itself not only in its nationalistic rhetoric, but in its firm rejection of traditional social conservatism. The RNC’s vocal rejection of Ted Cruz, paragon of the Old Order, was striking. So was its response to Donald Trump’s pro-“LGBT . . . Q” line. As striking as these were, we should be careful not to believe that the Republican Party is moving into a new era of social progressivism and cultural pluralism. For all the talk about sexual justice, legal justice, economic prosperity, equal pay, and maternity leave, Trump and his surrogates were plucking a dangerous and reactionary chord.
The cultural conservatives currently run the Republican Party. They value nothing more than Euro-American Christian nationalism. They offer acceptance, economic support, sexual liberation, and justice to only those who support their definition of the American nation. Anyone who does not conform is perceived as a dangerous outsider who should be excluded from membership in the national community. Trump didn’t create this moment, nor will it end in November. The history of the United States is a history of justice versus oppression. Our history is also one of alternating nationalistic, pluralistic, liberal, and illiberal impulses. In 2016, the Republican Party has embraced the cultural conservatism and all of its white supremacist and nationalistic baggage.
Come November 8th, the people of the United States will elect one of two candidates, and neither will be named Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. Anyone who votes for Trump or aids him in his potential victory will be abetting the same cultural conservative impulse that gave us Jim Crow, mass lynchings, Chinese massacres, and Know-Nothingism. That’s the kind of moment we’re in.