Original Publication in CRISIS MAGAZINE on Mar 5, 2021 by Austin Ruse
Politics is downstream from culture. You have heard it plenty of times. Andrew Breitbart coined it, and many conservatives have adopted it as a truism, almost as gospel.
But is it true? Sure, it’s true. It makes perfect sense. The country’s political views grow from a cultural soil that has been prepared. Brown v. Board of Education on school segregation would never have been widely accepted if activists, lawyers, journalists, and many others had not prepared the ground for 58 years following the disastrous Plessy decision.
“Politics is downstream from culture” has become the coin of the conservative realm.
This week, Catholic entrepreneur Kari Beckman announced a bold vision for a Catholic community outside Tyler, Texas. She said, “Right now, we have a lot of people who want to ‘fix’ politics, and that’s noble. But, unfortunately, that’s way down the river. Before that, [this new community] will help people to embrace right thinking, and from that, right philosophy.” See, politics is downstream from culture.
But is it true? Is it always true? I argue that it’s not always true, and believing it’s always true is harmful to our culture and our politics.
Consider the culture wars that have been going on for 60 years or more. It is vital to understand that they are a war of aggression by the Left against regular Americans and our beliefs and practices. Consider, also, that they came about not from cultural change but through political imposition. The Left did not wait for the culture to change. They went right at politics.
School prayer is a good place to start. Engle v. Vitale was a case brought by a group of parents in Nassau County, New York, who were unhappy with what was known as the Regent’s prayer that kids recited in local schools. The prayer was a product of serious consideration and reflection by a group of ministers, priests, and rabbis. Quite remarkably for our times, it was endorsed by the New York Association of Secondary School Principals, the New York School Boards Association, and the New York Association of Judges of Children’s Courts.
The prayer read, “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.”
A New York State judge—not a fan of school prayer—took the case and ruled in favor of the prayer. Two more levels of New York State judges ruled in favor of the prayer. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court and had been approved by 11 of 13 judges. The Supreme Court struck down school prayer by a 6-1 decision.
What happened afterward? The outrage was immediate, widespread, and intense. Every governor in the country, except for New York’s, condemned the decision. Newspapers all over the country condemned it. It was then that bumper stickers began appearing that called for the impeachment of Chief Justice Earl Warren.
There was no widespread cultural call to end school prayer. The culture very much supported school prayer. Overturning it was the work of a few parents and six justices of the Supreme Court. Politics led; culture followed.
Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled in Griswold v. Connecticut that married couples have the constitutional right to contraceptives. It is true that Margaret Sanger and others, including pharmaceutical companies, ran campaigns in favor of “birth control.” Even so, by the 1950s, thirty states still prohibited the sale of contraceptives.
Contraceptives, most especially the “rubbers” found in gas station men’s rooms, were looked down upon by middle-class society. A mark of the phoniness of the Griswold decision is that Griswold herself was not an everyday citizen inconvenienced by the law; she was an activist who ran a Planned Parenthood clinic. Advocates worked on two tracks, culture and politics, and they eventually won through politics.
The same story can be told about Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton that imposed abortion on the country. There was not a groundswell of the culture calling for abortion. It was imposed through political means. Culture followed.
Was there a great cultural change concerning sodomy prior to the Lawrence v. Texas decision making it a constitutional right? No. Politics led; culture followed.
And then came Obergefell. We know for a fact that thirty-two states had already voted in favor of man-woman marriage, putting it either in state law or constitutions. Polls showed overwhelmingly that Americans were not prepared for same-sex marriage. And the voting booths of thirty-two states confirmed that. The culture was not calling for same-sex marriage. The Supreme Court imposed it. Politics imposed it. Culture followed.
Understand, there is nothing wrong with working on the culture. Nothing wrong with advancing the good, the true, and the beautiful. But working on these things does not and should not preclude working on politics. As we tend to say in Washington, D.C., it is not either-or, it is both/and.
The problem with “politics is downstream from culture” is that it may instill a kind of stasis in people: Well, I am raising my kids, and after all, we have that reading group that meets every month. Isn’t this how we change the culture? Isn’t this how we change politics way down the river? And all the while, right down the street, they are teaching sodomy to children.
Sure, learn swing dancing. Go to your reading group. But also, pound on the door of the local school board. Politics cannot wait for culture. Andrew Breitbart would agree.