Miley Cyrus, circa 2008, was frequently described as “squeaky-clean.” That was her whole shtick, actually. Of course she went by the name Hannah Montana rather than Miley Cyrus, but her character was a hardworking country girl with “down home values” and a publicly-espoused relationship with Jesus Christ. She had long hair. She dressed conservatively (well, for a pop starlet). She was supposed to be wholesome, something of an antidote, perhaps, to the crass, hyper-sexualized Brittany Spears types that populated the music diva pantheon at the time. A little breath of fresh air wafting in from more pastoral climes.
Five years later, though, where was she? She was “twerking” like a crackwhore onstage at the VMAs—tongue lolling out of her mouth, wearing nothing but flesh-toned underwear, haircut right off the set of Mad Max. Bizarre looking and tawdry.
I thought about old Miley a lot as I sat down to write up this post. Is there a better picture of the modern Republican party than Ms. Cyrus? I don’t know. She’s pretty spot on. I mean what is establishment conservatism any more but airy platitudes about family values and God, followed by the enthusiastic embrace of whatever the latest and greatest trends in civilizational decay? She could be their poster child, maybe gin up some support from the 18-22 single female demographic.
I believe ordinary conservatives, whether they’re Republican or independent or entirely disillusioned at this point, have watched from the sidelines both of these twisted metamorphoses with equal parts disbelief and disgust. They ask themselves what would possess a pretty young girl to dance like that in public. And they must ask themselves why their supposed voice in national politics, their grand old party, races to the bottom just like her.
The total moral collapse of the Republicans is a complex phenomenon, to be sure. Not one that has a single cause or a single solution. Part of it is probably just decadence, which occurs irrespective of political affiliation. It’s one of those inconvenient historical truths that strange flowers of perversity tend to spring up in stable and prosperous countries, especially modern industrialized ones. Citizens in these societies are so far removed from survival concerns of any type that they’re free to indulge in excesses of empty hedonism that would have been a potentially fatal misallocation of resources in leaner times. So there’s been a large scale cultural drift towards degeneracy. Part of it, too, is that Washington Republicans are bought-and-paid- for politicians, at the beck and call of billionaire donors and big business. And transnational corporations don’t care an iota about the immortal soul of the customer so long as he, she, or it doesn’t bounce checks. So matters of principle take a back seat in GOP rhetoric and strategy to matters of the market.
But there’s also a problem with conservative political discourse, such as it is, which unlike the civilizational cycle or the predations of Big Business is something that those ordinary conservatives on the sidelines can help to sort out. The problem is that conservatives spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prove that they’re not racist (“I love Allen West, and he’s black!”) or sexist (“The Democrats are waging the real war on women!”) or homophobic (“Gays wouldn’t have these troubles if we just got the state out of marriage!”), which is a gambit that they lose even if they win. But it hasn’t quite sunk in that they’re constantly fighting from a losing position.
The fact of the matter is that words like sexism or racism or homophobia come attached to a narrative, namely that since time immemorial mankind lived and died under the thumb of these various –isms and phobias and whatnot. And that only recently have we begun to see the errors in our various hateful ways. To insist that, for instance, “misogyny” is a significant and pressing problem that has gone all these generations unaddressed in America is to insist that the bald, unwarranted hatred of women qua women has real explanatory power for how our institutions came to be in the first place. It is to insist that our parents and grandparents and theirs before them were motivated by antipathy towards the female sex, that consciously or unconsciously they ordered their society in such a way as to oppress and exploit them. It is to insist, in other words, that our inherited ways of doing things were morally questionable, if not outright inferior.
As a conservative, how strong a position does this put you in? “I believe that we ought to conserve the culture our forebears handed down to us. I also believe that culture hated for no good reason the following groups: women, minorities, foreigners, homosexuals, etc. etc.” If that’s an accurate appraisal of that culture, why would anyone want to conserve it? Why would you want to conserve it? What is the possible appeal of traditionalism if you believe that those traditions, in part or in whole, were rooted in bigotry and hate and xenophobia? You may be able to navigate that particular minefield of cognitive dissonance, but most people don’t care to. That’s why they’re not interested in your protestations that, although yes we were totally evil in the past, we’ve gotten rid of all the evil parts and we’re in fact less evil nowadays than those other guys.
A more effective move would be to skip the apologizing and defensive part altogether and go straight for the jugular instead. You could say that something that strikes our precious contemporary sensitivities as “misogynistic” didn’t have anything to do with women as a class one way or another. It was simply a beneficial practice. Look at traditional attitudes and laws on divorce, for example, which tended to make the dissolution of a marriage far more shameful and difficult than it is nowadays. The misogyny explanation is that this was the patriarchy at work exerting ownership over women. The defensive conservative position agrees with that assessment to a certain extent but also argues that we’ve come a long way in our treatment of the ladyfolk and we still might be able to learn something from those old he-man woman haters of yesteryear. The effective conservative position sidesteps this back-and-forth altogether. The effective conservative position is: “Of course they made divorce difficult. Stable homes create a stable society, which is worth the occasional loveless marriage. If you want to see what society looks like when no one takes marriage seriously and no one forces them to, just take a stroll through your nearest ghetto. That’s the free love dream at work, gang violence, drug abuse, and all.”
Why don’t we ordinary conservatives give tacks like those a chance? It might slow down our culture’s transformation from Hannah Montana into uglier and uglier permutations of Miley Cyrus, it might not. But at least we won’t go down apologizing to everyone. And at least it frames our past as something worth, you know, conserving, rather than something of questionable moral provenance that must be kept at arm’s length.