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Social Conservatives Concede The Game, But Think They Are Winning

In the comments thread of my post on fusionisms and the pointlessness of same, Cyrus requested
elaboration upon my concluding estimate of much of the social conservative movement:

At the meta-level, this is one reason why the social conservatives are not only dupes and suckers, often enough, but almost destined to witness the defeat of their ostensibly highest aspirations: their functional non-negotiables accept all the premises of their substantive adversaries. They have conceded 90% of the debate already.

I'll admit that when I wrote the foregoing, I had in mind a variety of things, which is perhaps not optimal if one is striving for clarity; but that cluster of thoughts is united by the impression that social conservatives, for the most part, are engaged well beyond their depth rating when they turn to electoral politics. The fundamental reason for this, I believe, is that they are often attempting to restrain the inexorable outworking of the liberal idea - a laudable goal - while accepting, sometimes tacitly, sometimes openly, some of the foundational assumptions of that liberal idea. They generally espouse what can be described as a liberal creed, something evidenced by the pervasiveness of rights-discourses and a sort of individualism, among other things - albeit one given a vaguely rightist construction. In consequence, even social conservatives have a tendency, in their arguments, apologetics, and polemics, to subordinate the determinate relations within communities and families to an ahistorical, abstract, and yes, somewhat ideological morality. It is not that they seek to subvert these things, only that, often enough, their expressed moral theory is pursued to its conclusions as though the specific obligations attendant upon certain relationships and statuses were irrelevant to those conclusions. Moreover, it is important to note that this omission does not necessarily result in the conclusions being altogether erroneous, only that they are fragmentary, and thus, misleading.

For example, the unborn child is said to possess a right to life, an expression with which I would not take issue, because it is always wrong to deliberately will the destruction of innocent life. However, the specific evil of abortion is more than that an innocent life is taken. The mother, who by virtue of her unique relation to that child, stands under a unique obligation to seek the good of that child, does not merely fail to fulfill that obligation in seeking an abortion, but does precisely the reverse. She negates it, and tells thereby a metaphysical lie: that she is not what she in fact is, namely, a mother, and that the child does not have what he does in fact have upon her, namely, a claim to maternal love.

Abortion is more than a taking of innocent life; it is a betrayal. It is not only morally repugnant, it is also an incoherent act, denying the natures of things, persons, and relations. It, as an act, says that certain things are not those things. Abortion is an existential untruth.

Now, some might say that all of this is merely a difference in emphasis, of moral grammar, and that it does not matter practically. And perhaps the specific instance does not matter a great deal. However, as a manifestation of a tendency to formulate moral obligations abstractly, it does demonstrate the nature of the problem: those who espouse the more disincarnate types of moral theory will be more susceptible to the blandishments of those proclaiming the "rights of man", "universal human rights", the "desire of all men for liberty and democracy", and so forth. Social conservatives tend not to compartmentalize, to the extent that they remain faithful to their best insights, so these abstracting tendencies bleed back and forth across the multifarious moral questions discussed within the body politic. However many New Fusionists there may be - and the tendency is certainly a prominent one among evangelicals, as evidenced by their continued support of the Bush strategy - the moralism (however cynical it may appear to me) of American foreign policy resonates with the more natural moralisms of social conservatives.

There is yet another weakness in the intellectual armaments of the typical social conservative, and it is a function of all that rights-talking. Under the conditions of modernity, rights themselves are not so much the absolutes, the axioms of moral thought, as they are instrumental; we are posited as possessing rights because rights stand in a utilitarian relationship to our desires. Rights are the social guarantees that we get to do what we want to do, and the enforcement of the right means that aggregate utility will increase: given the social instantiation of a right, more preferences will be satisfied than would be the case if the matter were left undecided.

This leads us to observe that moral discourse in modernity is characterized by a duality, implicit in the foregoing: we prattle on in terms of both rights and utility, what we think is owed to us, or what we are entitled to do, and what is pragmatic and useful for us to do. Functionally, having found something to be pragmatically useful, we become inclined to deem it a right; and those things we assert as rights create the discursive space within which utilitarian concerns can be dignified as being something more than they really are by nature. American foreign policy, for example, is like this; that is what it means for the Strategy of Openness to both "liberate" humanity and ensure the hegemony of the United States.

All of which leads to the question of the war, the presidential candidates, and social conservatives. The war has been justified not merely by appeal to various moral abstractions, but by appeals to utility - we're fighting them over there so that we don't have to fight them here, the flypaper strategy, the extension of democratic capitalism, etc. - all of which amount to the declaration that it is more useful for the United States to do X, even though some Xs are inconsistent with just war theory, or moral theory generally. Universal human rights, as well as claims of utility, trump morality, even in foreign policy. In other words, liberalism remains unchallenged.

Social conservatives, generally speaking, still support the war, and these ideational patterns are the reasons for this continued support, quite apart from naive beliefs that the administration's policies are defending America. Social conservatives still have Republican options other than Guiliani, but it is reasonable to surmise that, in the end, should Guiliani become the nominee, they will discover that the war is more utile, and the rights it "vindicates" more pressing, than pro-life advocacy. Republican party ideologists and their apparatchiks and running dogs have harangued the faithful and inveighed against the notion that the culture war can be permitted to overshadow "WWIV". And the party faithful, and social conservatives generally, have thus far acquiesced to a surprising degree in this swindle, apparently agreeing with the priorities of the party. It is better, they seem to be signaling, to align with the culture of death than to resign themselves to another Clinton in the White House; that is unthinkable.

The rights of man and utilitarian geopolitics and economics, however, are extirpating the sociological and cultural conditions of the possibility of conservatism here in America. Conservatism requires more than ideas; it requires carriers of those ideas, and the circumstances in which they flourish; and the Empire is as sarin gas to these. The Empire-builders, political and economic, tend to hold social conservatives in barely-concealed contempt. Social conservatives, however, by their support for the war, indicate that they literally do not comprehend the nature of the political circumstances of the time; they accept the presuppositions of the regnant liberal discourse, and quibble about the details. In 2008, they may not merely lose; they may throw the game and yet imagine that they are winning.

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