Artillery Row

Politics and culture are upstream of each other

On the false dichotomy between ideas and law

The role of ideas in the public realm is always a rich seam to mine for subjects for debate. What ideas should be discussed, how they should be discussed, and to what end are all questions that interweave with politics. The temptation on the part of some on the right is to quote the dictum forced on Richard Weaver that “ideas have consequences” and then sort of trail off — as if that were a sufficient position to take without any follow-through in the realm of political action. Politics may not be entirely downstream of culture, but neither is culture always downstream of politics. Those in positions of power and influence must observe, navigate and direct the interplay between the two with prudence and wisdom. 

This is not the position of many right-liberals, however, who remain firmly wedded to the first proposition. We can see this tendency in the recent context of moves made by Florida governor Ron DeSantis and anti-Critical Race Theory campaigner Chris Rufo to push back against CRT and diversity initiatives in the legislative and academic spheres. These efforts have drawn reservations from right-liberals, unhappy with the use of the instruments of state power to enact a particular vision of the good. These differences in perspective and approach encapsulate the dividing line between a right-liberalism lost in abstraction and a newer, national conservative right that sees political action as the logical follow-on from idealist theorising and debate. 

DeSantis and Rufo have made major legislative steps in the last few weeks. Florida rejected a planned African American Studies curriculum which amounted to ideological indoctrination, as DeSantis argued in a speech from Jacksonville. It included works from CRT ideologues along with calls for police and prison abolition. For some reason, black history seemed to require sections on “Black Queer studies”, the case for reparations, “Black feminist literary thought”, BLM, “intersectionality” and the usual litany of obsessions of the New Moral Order

Right-liberals maintain the myth of institutional neutrality

In the realm of higher education meanwhile, DeSantis announced the appointment of a new board of governors to Florida’s New College — all conservatives, many with a high academic or intellectual pedigree. This change enables the effectuation of a change of programme for the college, described by Rufo as “redesigning the curriculum to align with the classical model; abolishing DEI programs and replacing them with ‘equality, merit, and colorblindness’ principles; adopting the Kalven statement on institutional neutrality; restructuring the administration and academic departments; recruiting new faculty with expertise in the classical liberal arts tradition; and establishing a graduate school for training teachers in classical education”. The board immediately acted to fire the college’s president and appointed an interim president. DeSantis has further announced the elimination of all Diversity, Equity and Inclusion bureaucracies at Florida’s public universities, as well as a raft of other measures to roll back the left-wing hegemony in the academic setting, and return to a more balanced basis for teaching and learning. 

Of course, the American media, the cultural legitimators for the left-liberal project, have had a complete meltdown about the whole thing. Being on the “right side of history” means that massive changes to society through the self-conception communicated by its institutions does not constitute a cultural revolution but the inevitable march towards moral perfection. Any pushback is therefore incomprehensible, and therefore immoral. It is notable, however, that one of DeSantis’s harshest critics, black Leon County Commissioner Bill Procter, who had taught Black History courses himself, agreed that the previously proposed Black Studies course was complete ideological garbage — which of course it was. 

The left-wing wailing was to be expected. The reservations expressed by some right-liberals were more interesting. Jordan Peterson provides a good example, quote tweeting Rufo’s tweet about measures taken at the New College with “Careful Chris. I understand why you’re doing what you’re doing but don’t enable the government censors. On either side.” Moreover, on his recent Joe Rogan appearance, Peterson gave qualified praise to DeSantis and Rufo’s efforts, but then warned, “I don’t think you can defer bad ideas with law.” This matches Peterson’s warning to Rufo in their conversation last year that concretising Rufo’s ideas about CRT was dangerous. Instead, as Peterson said in his Rogan interview, conservatives should refrain from bringing ideas into the world of politics, and should battle it out in the realm of idealist abstraction. How has that worked out for you?

This displays a problem with the right-liberal view of politics that I’ve commented on before. For one thing, Peterson ignores 2,000 years or more of Western philosophy and its approach to law. As Thomas Aquinas wrote, “good is to be done and pursued and evil avoided”, with laws “an ordinance of reason for the common good”, enacted and enforced by those in positions of power and authority. Further, those in his position maintain the liberal myth of institutional neutrality, seeing the institutions involved in DeSantis’ and Rufo’s efforts as value-neutral, impartial spaces for the discussion of ideas. This is not the reality of institutions’ role and function. As Maggie Gallagher and Frank Cannon write, “Politics allows … people to give public form to what they believe to be true, good, and important; it is also the main way [we] decide which views are ‘within the pale’ and which are beyond it.” Institutions represent the expression of a community’s moral beliefs. As Auron MacIntyre writes, “There is no such thing as a neutral institution. Governments, corporations, and media are constantly making decisions of value, and those decisions will be made based on a moral framework. The moral framework on which social institutions make decisions will be transmitted through everything they do. There is no way of avoiding this truth.” 

The objections raised by Peterson are a licence to do nothing and achieve little

Peterson and his right-liberal confreres are subject to what James Davison Hunter calls the “idealist fallacy”, whereby ideas by themselves, when adhered to by a critical mass, change the direction of the culture and the politics it produces. This is wrong. Political, cultural and economic structures, along with the institutions that comprise them, serve to entrench and implement a particular vision of the good and how this is enacted in public life. As a result, as Hunter writes, “the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks.” Ideas do “not gain traction until [they are] embraced and propagated by elites”, employed via their “well-developed networks and powerful institutions”. As I argued last year, “Ideas may have consequences. But the most consequential ideas are those which are entrenched and implemented through the networks and institutions that comprise the ruling class.”  

The objections raised by Peterson are a licence to do nothing and achieve little, beyond having more proofs of the disaster of “post-modern neo-Marxism” and the pathology of nihilistic “troll demons”. The upshot of the position advocated by Peterson is a kind of political and cultural impotence, one that gives plenty of scope for continued complaining about how bad everything is and the need to battle ever harder in the marketplace of ideas. Meanwhile, the left through its control of the networks and institutions that comprise ruling class power periodically roll their tanks through the marketplace of ideas, driving all before them and crushing those who don’t get out of the way.

The new conservative right represented by Rufo and DeSantis has accepted that power must be exercised through the instruments of state in order to implement a vision of the good commensurate with that of the voters who put DeSantis in office. If this means using the same means as the left, through the structures of the administrative state, then so be it. The point of being in positions of power and authority, such as holding political office, is to use that power and the authority that legitimises it to govern in the interest of the common good of one’s constituents. 

This is the ultimate aim of all conservatives, as Roger Scruton argued: “no serious conservative can believe that there ought to be a power greater than that of the state, a power that can, if it chooses, put itself beyond the reach of law. Conservatives believe in the power of the state as necessary to the state’s authority, and will seek to establish and enforce that power in the face of every influence that opposes it.” Peterson preaches individual responsibility, and the political corollary of this is to accept the duty to govern. To do otherwise is an abdication of responsibility, a surprising outcome given Peterson’s emphasis on the necessity of accepting such a burden.

Having said this, it is true that if the beliefs, mores and norms of the political community are incommensurable with those in the networks and institutions of the right, then attempting the implementation of a certain vision at odds with the political community, against their will, risks turning “law as teacher” into “law as tyrant”. Charlie Peters may be correct that Britain’s lack of free speech stems from Section 127 of the Communications Act (2003) that criminalises “grossly offensive speech”. Its never-ending quest to implement “equity” among identity groups is rooted in the Equality Act (2010) which institutionalises equality of outcome for “protected characteristics” through is crusade against “disparate impact”. Corporations and the civil service are obsessed with DEI because the government “spends tens of millions of pounds every year directly funding Equality, Diversity and Inclusion mandates and programs”. This legislation and law-making led cultural change. 

However, the fact is that democracy also relies on “homonoia as a principle of popular consensus”. As Paul Gottfried writes, “democracy, properly understood, has been about long-term agreement on basic matters among self-governing citizens. Not pluralism, but shared sentiments and opinions, have until very recently been seen as the hallmark of successful self-government. … Democratic practice, to whatever extent it is democratic, is about like-mindedness among those who accept one another as members of the same polity. 

The more people experience the New Moral Order, the more they dislike it

Where these shared sentiments are lacking, implementing a vision of the good radically different from that held by the political community is liable to produce an opposite reaction. For example, when the Polish PiS government introduced much tighter laws virtually criminalising abortion in all cases, support for abortion among the populace went up. Meanwhile, in America the pro-life movement represents the epitome of the networked change agent through the institutions of law and politics that Hunter describes. A variety of legal and political groups worked through the structures of state and judicial power to overturn the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision that decriminalised abortion on a federal level, returning the law-making decision to the states. However, this has had unexpected results, as in Republican states like Montana where voters rejected further proposed anti-abortion legislation, a move echoed in Kentucky. Kansas voters also repudiated anti-abortion proposals

As Yoram Hazony has written, a conservatism of the sort embodied by Rufo and DeSantis works when it approaches the problems it faces with prudence and realism about what can be achieved and how. DeSantis has succeeded because the more people hear and directly experience the insanity of the woke New Moral Order as it is practised and enacted through the bureaucracies and structures of the administrative state, the more they dislike it. However, where values are so at odds with a conservative worldview, as in many American states, such an agenda isn’t possible, as the National Conservatism admits when it comes to God and public religion.

A change led by legislation is the way forward here, but not in all issues everywhere. To discern the difference between issues, and how feasible it is to have an impact according to one’s view of the good, requires the virtue of prudence, which Aristotle saw as a form of cautious and discriminating judgement rooted in acquired wisdom. Elites, seen as high status and possessed of moral character by those beneath them, have a chance to shift the course of elite ideological orientation and subsequent political action if they are peripheral but nonetheless in a position to move into the centres of power. 

They will therefore achieve more via the instruments of state when they act to change things towards their vision of the good via a storming of the castles of their political opponents possible, as in Florida, when this isn’t too distant from the voters. Where this is not the case, things turn out differently. Incremental change through the cycling of elites and the resulting change in worldview is the way forward. Such a process is described by Hunter as the way Christianity rose to pre-eminence in the Roman Empire. Culture may be downstream from politics, but politics practised in the total absence of a common cultural foundation will not succeed. It is the role of a statesman to discern where the line lies, before acting to implement and guide the people towards their view of the good.

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