Real Politics After the Culture Wars

By Caleb Bernacchio and Philip de Mahy
July 22, 2015

“[W]hat we confront today is a new leviathan, the-state-and-the-market, a monstrous amalgam of the public and the private, of interlocking and interacting corporations and government agencies of heterogenous relationships.” — Alasdair MacIntyre

Damon Linker is right: Conservatives have lost the culture war and many are not hopeful about the future. “Have you heard of the Benedict Option?” asks Linker. “If not, you will soon. It's the name of a deeply pessimistic cultural project that's capturing the imaginations of social conservatives as they come to terms with the realization that the hopes and assumptions that animated the religious right over the past 35-odd years have been dashed by the sweeping triumph of the movement for same-sex marriage.”

But this realization need not lead social conservatives to despair. Rather, it offers an opportunity to rethink the nature of politics and to develop a more holistic vision of political engagement. Co-opted by the state and market, conservatives have lost the culture war and failed to protect families because many stopped engaging in real politics decades ago.

Rod Dreher’s proposal of a Benedict Option is an attempt to take a different tack, but despite disclaimers otherwise, he has yet to show how it will amount to anything more than a withdrawal from politics into the private sphere. Dreher describes the Benedict Option as the “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life.” And despite his frequent invocation of Alasdair MacIntyre, he has yet to articulate the connection between modern ethics and modern economics.

Dreher offers examples of families that have established communities near monasteries or parishes, and he presents discussions that focus heavily on the role of liturgy in BenOp communities. Chad Pecknold responded to Dreher’s proposal with what he calls “the Dominican Option.” Arguing that the imagery, if not the intent, behind the Benedict Option smacks of retreat, Pecknold says:

Better, therefore, to speak of the Dominican Option. When I see them in the white habits at prayer, or giving lectures, or playing guitars and banjos on the subway, I have a plausible image of a “contrast society” that is very much engaged with the world—an evangelistic witness which is joyful, intellectually serious, expansive, and charitable.

Despite this turn towards the public sphere, Pecknold’s proposal remains fundamentally  apolitical. Neither option examines the intimate link between the family and local-level social, economic, and political institutions.

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Conservative politics has focused almost exclusively on the national level and has been conducted in gloriously abstract terms. The nuclear family, a mainstay of conservative political discourse, has been abstracted from its social context and treated as a timeless ideal that is largely unaffected by politics, except insofar as it is harmed by state interference.

In a recent article in National Review, Chad Pecknold argues that marriage is a “pre-political” good that ought to limit the state, meaning that marriage is a natural good, one that the state should recognize but not encroach upon. One should ask, though, whether such an argument concedes too much. By endorsing a liberal division between the public and private spheres, accounts like Pecknold’s may perpetuate the misguided focus on national-level politics to the detriment of local political engagement. The liberal division between public and private spheres encourages the conclusion that politics is primarily electoral and obscures the primacy of local political activity.  It’s not that national politics are irrelevant but that, as MacIntyre has argued, “all politics must begin on the level of local problems.”

What is remarkable about the recent interest in MacIntyre’s work is the degree to which the conclusion of After Virtue has been read without reference to the claims that lead to this conclusion. In the opening chapters, MacIntyre describes the shrill assertiveness of contemporary moral discourse. “From our rival conclusions,” he says, “we can argue back to our rival premises; but when we do arrive at our premises argument ceases and the invocation of one premise against another becomes a matter of pure assertion and counter-assertion.”

MacIntyre describes the competing moral claims of modern social and political debate as incommensurable. This is evident in Linker’s response to Pecknold. Where Pecknold appealed to the family as a natural end to which the state must defer, Linker denied the normativity of such natural ends and appealed instead to popular opinion.

MacIntyre points to the creation of new forms of community precisely because communities based upon commitments to a concrete and largely local common good provide opportunities for rational political debate. Local problems serve as a focus for political debate when they are encountered in the midst of shared projects directed towards common goods. The biggest argument in favor of the Dreher’s proposal is the fact that contemporary moral and political debate is largely ineffective. However, the project will only succeed if  proponents of the Benedict Option can link their dissatisfaction with contemporary culture to concrete political projects aimed at creating and sustaining the conditions necessary for families and local communities to achieve their common good.

Dreher himself offers a particularly pertinent example of way in which contemporary political debate fails to connect ethical and economic concerns and in so doing ignores the local context of political questions. In two aptly titled articles, How Bobby Jindal Wrecked Louisiana and Destroying Louisiana’s Public Universities, he outlines the destruction left in the wake of Jindal’s fiscal policies. As Louisiana’s governor, Jindal was an outspoken proponent of conservative social causes, a veritable “family values” politician, but he also adhered to a radical neo-liberal agenda. Jindal failed to connect his concern for the family—his recognition, in Pecknold’s sense, of the family as a natural end—with his economic policies. One challenge for Dreher, as a resident of Louisiana, is to draw a connection between the Benedict Option and his concerns about Bobby Jindal’s policies.

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If local communities seek to preserve their common good, they must pay more attention to practices. For MacIntyre, practices refer to those forms of cultural activity that resist the utilitarian logic of the market and the state: the arts, sports, and meaningful work, as well as the family and the school. These are activities where people seek shared goods of excellence and first learn to practice the virtues. It is at this level that the problem of incommensurability can be overcome through the shared pursuit of common goods.


But such activities are always threatened by instrumentalization in various forms, by commercialism, commodification, and efficiency. In order to engage in a politics of the common good, efforts must be made to create and recreate institutions that preserve the integrity of such cultural activities at the local level. This is the primary locus of political struggle that will determine the fate of families and local communities in the United States.

Many conservatives, by contrast, have seen in the present moment nothing more than an opportunity to recommit themselves to the culture wars. Ryan Anderson suggests that “pro-marriage citizens should follow the example of pro-life citizens,” but this suggestion simply ignores the relationship between economics and ethics, and is an example of the same approach to politics that resulted in Bobby Jindal’s gubernatorial record.

David Brooks asks social conservatives to put the culture war on the back-burner—not to relinquish moral commitments but to focus on their social expression in the manner of Albert Schweitzer and Dorothy Day. “It’s doing purposefully in public what social conservatives already do in private,” Brooks says. The danger of his approach is that it devolves into an apolitical charitable effort. What is essential is that the connection between a radical approach to the works of mercy and the need for radical political action, primarily at the local level, be maintained. As MacIntyre himself argues, this can only be realized by taking seriously how the good of the average citizen is tied up with the good of the poor and marginalized.

There are a variety of examples of political programs relevant to Dreher’s proposal. Michael Baxter, referring to MacIntyre’s claims, notes:

Providentially, this task of constructing local forms of community has been taken up by increasing numbers of Catholics. Troubled by a sense of political homelessness in America, disaffected with both liberal and conservative ideologies, they have turned from state-centered, partisan politics and devoted themselves instead to the political life of local communities wherein the common good may be embodied: unions, worker co-ops and neighborhood organizations; agrarian projects and charter schools; ecclesial communities of prayer, friendship and works of mercy; houses of hospitality for the poor, unemployed, elderly, disabled, unwed mothers and immigrant families.

Baxter, as a long time member of the Catholic Worker movement, has combined radical ecclesial action for the poor with political action at the local level. The example of his work demonstrates how local problems necessitate political engagement.

Another contemporary—but very different—example is provided by Mondragon. Inspired by a Catholic priest, as an attempt to implement papal teaching on economics, it the largest cooperative in the world and an a modern example of a community grounded in a shared vision of vision of employees’ common good that resists the instrumentalization of work. Establishing a regulatory environment hospitable to cooperatives, as well as establishing or converting existing firms into cooperatives, provides a second example of local-level political activity that may directly contribute to the common good of families and local communities.

John Medaille’s proposal for a radical renovation of the tax code, in a manner that would empower local communities is a third example (see his Toward a Truly Free Market). The Institute for Family Studies also provides numerous examples of the way in which existing social structures impact the wellbeing of families (for one example, see this post at the IFS blog) and because of this, offers insight into further opportunities for political engagement.

These sorts of proposals are only possible insofar as politics begins at the level of local problems. They necessitate engagement with the state in varying degrees and, because of this, they avoid the shortcomings of a purely localist perspective but they would never be part of either party’s platform. The idea of politics aimed at the common good of local communities challenges us each to approach social questions at the level of real practice.The common good of family life, as well as the common good of communities, can only be achieved through the struggle of real people joining others in efforts to solve everyday problems.

A new approach to politics grounded in local questions should be construed as neither a retreat nor a rejection of the need for evangelization. Party politics must not be conflated with prophetic witness. What is needed is a politics of the common good and the witness of groups such as the Dominicans who can serve as a “contrast society.” It is also important to remember—with St Ignatius—that “love ought to be put more in deeds than in words” and that charity is often the most powerful witness.