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Mass Martyr

What is conservative culture?

In the long march of the conservative ascendancy, Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals, the 1964 LP by the satirical conservative quartet the Goldwaters, was only a blip. Four Tennessee college students put on "AuH2O" shirts and recorded an album of songs like "Down in Havana," "Barry's Moving In," and "Row Our Own Boat." They dropped out of school to warm up crowds before Goldwater campaign appearances. The record reportedly sold some 200,000 copies. The Goldwaters were never heard from again. I suggest a critical reconsideration.

Ask a conservative activist to explain what anchors and unites their fractious movement, and he will point to ideas: to weighty tomes by Eric Voegelin, Russell Kirk, Wilhelm Roepke, Edmund Burke; to the development of the philosophy of "fusionism," by which the furrow-browed theorists at National Review cogitated their way past the conflicts between the traditionalist, libertarian, and anti-communist strains of the American right. They will make it sound almost as if the 87 percent of Mississippians who voted for Barry Goldwater did so after a stretch of all-nighters in the library.

They will not mention an illustration popular among college conservatives in the 1960s: a peace symbol-shaped B-52 bomber with the words drop it on the wings. Nor will they discuss the annual "McCarthy-Evjue" lecture that student conservatives in Wisconsin (among them, present-day right-wing luminaries David Keene of the American Conservative Union and Alfred Regnery, formerly of Regnery Publishing) put on to honor their favorite Wisconsin senator and to mock, William Evjue, the editor of the Madison newspaper William F. Buckley labeled "Prairie Pravda." (They advertised the lecture on pink paper.) They will not mention the Southern Californians who flocked to church basements, high school auditoriums, and VFW halls to hear hellfire-and-brimstone lecturers like World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker, author of The Socialistic Sixteenth--A National Cancer, or the Reverend Billy James Hargis ("Is the Schoolhouse the Proper Place To Teach Raw Sex?").

And they certainly will not mention the John Birch Society meetings in suburban parlors nationwide, in which chapters no bigger than two dozen members--a cell structure ostensibly to prevent Red infiltration but that, as it happened, was also the ideal size for a cocktail party-- plotted how to forestall the Communist takeover of the PTAs by taking them over first. "I just don't have time for anything," a Dallas housewife told Time in 1961. "I'm fighting Communism three nights a week."

They will not mention, in short, the extraordinary role the development of a self-contained and self-conscious conservative culture played in transforming the politics of the United States. One way to define "culture" is not as a set of ideas or a static social code, but rather as the performances people enact in their everyday lives that outline the boundaries between those who belong and those who don't. "Culture" is the set of practices that reminds each individual within the group that they are normal and correct, that their beliefs are natural and true.

Conservative culture was shaped in another era, one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered. It enunciated a heady sense of defiance. In a world in which patriotic Americans were hemmed in on every side by an all-encroaching liberal hegemony, raw sex in the classrooms, and totalitarian enemies of the United States beating down our very borders, finally conservatives could get together and (as track twelve of the Goldwaters' Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals avowed) "Row Our Own Boat."

But now conservatism has grown into a vast and diverse chunk of the electorate. Its culture has become so dominant that one can live entirely within it. Shortly after the Republicans took over Congress in 1994, a Washington activist could, if he so chose, attend nothing but conservative parties, panels, and barbecues; a recent Pew Research Center study suggested that partisan divisions are increasing at the community level. And yet, far inside these enclaves, conservatives still rely on the cultural tropes of that earlier period: At one living room "Party for the President" in 2004, a woman told me, "We're losing our rights as Christians…. and being persecuted again." The culture of conservatives still insists that it is being hemmed in on every side. In Tom DeLay's valedictory address, as classic an expression of high conservative culture as ever was uttered, he attributed to liberalism "a voracious appetite for growth. In any place or any time on any issue, what does liberalism ever seek, Mr. Speaker? More…. If conservatives don't stand up to liberalism, no one will."

How to explain these strange continuities? And what does it say about the politics of our own time? Kirk offers no answers, because what holds the movement together isn't its intellectual history but its cultural one. Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals is this mystery's Rosetta Stone.

National Review recently began concentrating much of its energies on defining a canon of conservative popular culture. For instance, national political reporter John J. Miller compiled a list of "NR's top 50 conservative rock songs of all time": "Gloria" by U2, "Won't Get Fooled Again" by the Who, "Rock the Casbah" by the Clash. To outsiders, the choices will seem utterly inexplicable.

For some of the choices, Miller produces arguable, if fanciful, connections to conservative philosophy; the Who, for example, is singing an anthem "that swears off naive idealism"--just like Buckley warned that conservatives should never "immanentize the eschaton." That at least half makes sense. But why does "Stand By Your Man" by Tammy Wynette make the conservative hit parade? Because "Hillary trashed it--isn't that enough?" Consider also number four, "Sweet Home Alabama"--a "tribute to the region of America that liberals love to loathe."

Conservatives are always beleaguered, always under siege. "I think we had better pull in our belts and buckle down to a long period of real impotence," National Review Publisher William Rusher wrote in a 1960 letter. "Hell, the catacombs were good enough for the Christians." Five years later, M. Stanton Evans wrote in The Liberal Establishment: "For decades Liberalism has ruled the government and opinions of the United States with little or no effective challenge to its pretensions."

Listen to conservatives now, and they're still in the catacombs. "Just because a rock song is about faith doesn't mean that it's conservative," National Review explains of U2's "Gloria." "But what about a rock song that's about faith and whose chorus is in Latin? That's beautifully reactionary." Note the tone of sturdy defiance: So few bold souls, these days, are brave enough to publicly profess that underground faith, Christianity.

The liberal colossus is somehow still just as colossal, despite the fact that Republicans have controlled Congress and the White House and shifted the news media's center of gravity to the right for several years. I have one 2005 book--forworded by Steve Forbes and blurbed by Evans, Buckley, and former Senator Jesse Helms--called Free Choice for Workers: A History of the Right to Work Movement. The flap proposes: "George C. Leef chronicles the thrilling 'David and Goliath' struggle between the bosses of Big Labor and the American citizens who oppose their lust for coercive power." Somehow, the conservatives have even pulled off making Wal-Mart sound like the little guy.

There's a precedent for acting beleaguered even in victory. In 1964, the Goldwater faction had just won a party presidential nomination. Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals was part of an avalanche of Goldwater kitsch--the more ostentatious the better--that loyalists lined up to purchase at campaign events: gold Goldwater pins, Goldwater cowboy hats, books, pamphlets, and magazines galore to pass on to your liberal neighbors. It was only one part proselytizing. It also proved the bearer's stout-heartedness. Its meaning relied on Goldwater remaining unpopular in an overwhelmingly "liberal" culture.

That is why, now that conservatives own the government, conservatives are still stuck in their past: Their marginal self-identity is who they are. The trick is inventing new ways to soak in one's marginalization. I have a favorite, more recent, manifestation. It costs $2,995. It is a 16-inch bronze bust of George W. Bush in his mission accomplished flight suit. The pleasure it gives, its manufacturer advertised in 2005, is ensured by its provocation. Let them call your Dear Leader a chickenhawk: "President Bush has demonstrated that he has political courage and that is why he was re-elected. By owning a bust of President Bush, Commander in Chief, you will be making a statement and in a politically charged environment, it takes courage."

As the number of conservatives has grown, we read every day of how jerry-rigged the conservative coalition is. Nothing could be more deceptive. What is remarkable about conservatism is how easily it hangs together. Conservative culture itself is radically diverse, infinitely resourceful in uniting opposites: highbrow and lowbrow; sacred and profane; sublime and, of course, ridiculous. It is the core cultural dynamic--the constant staging and re-staging of acts of "courage" in the face of liberal "marginalization"--that manages to unite all the opposites. It keeps conservatives from one another's throats--and keeps them more or less always pulling in the same political direction.

Consider conservatives' virgins and whores. In some Christian right communities, a new kind of prom has sprung up, not for high school seniors but for prepubescent girls. They dress up in party dresses and take their fathers as dates. After the fox trot, the daughter reads to her father from a card: "With confidence in His power to strengthen me, I make a promise this day to God, my family, myself, my future spouse, and my future children; to remain sexually pure until the day I give myself as a wedding gift to my spouse." The father responds: "I, (daughter's name)'s father, choose before God to cover my daughter as her authority and protection in the area of purity."

That, in all its Victorian glory, is part of conservative culture. But so, in all its slatternly innuendo, is this e-mail from the far-right website NewsMax: "Ann Coulter Gone Wild," the subject line reads, after the late-night mail-order videos of college girls taking their tops off. Open it, and there stands Ann in a come-hither, skin-tight dress on the cover of her latest book--the one where she (courageously) accuses September 11 widows of being "witches" and "harpies." Conservatives call such right-wing raunch culture "'South Park' conservatism." It's also represented by the notorious website, which sponsors many conservative blogs. Buxom ladies model silk-screen t-shirts like ALCOHOL, TOBACCO & FIREARMS SHOULD BE A CONVENIENCE STORE, NOT A GOVERNMENT AGENCY and a braying Hillary Clinton with a line struck through her face and the legend RE-DEFEAT COMMUNISM 2008.

Somehow, it works. Liberals are always going on CNN to "Sister Souljah" other liberals. But you never see the sponsors of purity balls going on CNN to denounce "Ann Coulter Gone Wild." Let 100 flowers bloom. Because, whether it is purity balls or impure thoughts about conservative talking heads--or the Orange County housewife fighting the creeping national cancer of socialism in her kitchen--all serve equally as markers of a beleaguered minority holding the line against the real enemy: ever-encroaching liberalism.

Consider another set of polar opposites that unfolded a few blocks and a few hours away from one another in New York during the second night of the Republican National Convention in 2004. Conservatives cheered Arnold Schwarzenegger booming from the podium, "To my fellow immigrants listening tonight, I want you to know how welcome you are in this party…. It doesn't make any difference if you're like me and couldn't even speak English until you were in your twenties." They roared even louder when Laura Bush proclaimed, "We are determined to provide a quality education for every child in America."

Earlier, some of them had trooped down the street for "GOP Comedy Night" at the Laugh Factory. One of the conservative comics slayed them with, "Islamic prayer in Spanish--that's the next step." Another had them roaring with, "[W]e have to face the fact that there are some dumb kids. It's time to give just a few of them coloring books, some crayons--press on to what we can save."

Why do the bathos and the sadism both fit comfortably within conservative culture? The answer lies in the Goldwaters' liner notes: "CONSERVATIVES UNITE! Bug the liberals." Bugging liberals, you see, being bugged by liberals, is not incidental to conservative culture, but rather is constitutive of it--more so than any identifiable positive content. Seeing Republicans appropriate liberal-sounding rhetoric on immigrants and education and getting credit for it--even while their policies corrode public education and also stoke an anti-immigrant backlash--bugs the hell out of the liberals. Which is, for Karl Rove no doubt, part of the calculation. Rove knows that the pleasure of watching liberals' heads explode is the best way to keep his team rowing in the same direction.

To give credit where credit is due, conservative culture also has its monuments. Some might cite C.S. Lewis, others Winston Churchill's histories, others even Bach or Jane Austen. Fair enough, by the terms of my argument above: If you call yourself conservative and you consume it as a performance of your own "conservativeness," Austen and Bach are conservative--your own personal finger in the dike against the floods of liberal hegemony. (Bach might not inherently bug the liberals. But claiming him as conservative property certainly does.)

Purple Hearts are constitutive of conservative culture. So are Purple Heart Band-Aids. Both (conservatives feel) bug liberals. So is the simple pre-adolescent pleasure of blowing things up. That really bugs the liberals. The tone of conservative culture shades easily into a righteous lust for pissing people off. A billboard off the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago for a talk-radio station reads, liberals hate it! For, if you piss people off, that proves you are beleaguered.

Over the last few years, as their own success challenged conservatives' feelings of marginalization, they just started working harder to sustain it. Fox News helps; that is why the vice president of the United States insists that any television in any hotel room he uses already be tuned to it before he'll deign cross the threshold. For conservatives, moving right will always be a losing career move, a sacrifice: "Veteran ABC newsman John Stossel … abandoned his liberal perspective, became a libertarian--and paid a heavy price, he recently told NewsMax in an exclusive interview…"

And don't expect any of this to change much if Republicans lose the House in 2006 and the White House in 2008--or if Stossel somehow ends up in the gutter. A true conservative loves a test of faith: It only proves him stronger in his convictions. I often exchange e-mails with two favorite conservative activists. I started out with a plan: One of them posts frequently on FreeRepublic; another writes on his blog of FreeRepublic's "shrieking lunacy." I've tried to get them to fight each another. It never works. They've got me, a liberal, to bug. That is how conservative culture works so well: the joy of feeling as one in their beleaguered conservatism. I've found, paradoxically, that, for this determined remnant, conservative identity becomes stronger the more discredited conservative governance becomes. They seem to take their lumps in stride and emerge all the more confident in their ideology from the challenge.

Hold on to your bronze busts of Bush in his flight suit. Among the true believers, its value is sure to appreciate. If his ratings fall below 30 percent, displaying it will really prove their courage.

This article originally ran in the July 3, 2006, issue of the magazine.