The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.—Daniel Patrick Moynihan
I have referred to the quote above many times over the years because I think it is profound on several levels. Its value and relevance do seem to me to expand over time and it has never been more relevant than it is today.
I first came into contact with the phrase in a 2006 book with the title, The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself, by Lawrence Harrison, who led the Culture Matters Research Project at Tufts University. He gives Moynihan’s quote a central place in his thesis and his book. As he wrote in the book’s introduction, “The influence of cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes on the way that societies evolve has been shunned by scholars, politicians, and development experts, notwithstanding the views of Tocqueville, Max Weber……….and others. It is much more comfortable for the experts to cite geographic constraints, insufficient resources, bad policies, and weak institutions. That way they avoid the invidious comparisons, political sensitivities, and bruised feelings often engendered by cultural explanations of success and failure.”
His book attempts to answer questions such as: Which cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes best promote democracy, social justice, and prosperity? and How can we use the forces that shape cultural change, such as religion, education, and political leadership, to promote these values in the Third World and for underachieving minorities in the First World? In his book, Harrison offers intriguing answers to these questions, many of which are controversial, contradicting the arguments of the multiculturalists by suggesting that when it comes to promoting human progress, some cultures are more effective than others. His most striking case study, which illustrates in high relief the degree to which cultures determine success, is the study of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, two countries with completely different cultures that share the geography, climate, history, and environment of the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean, but which clearly have had remarkably different results in human progress, while politics and enormous intervention have failed to change the dynamics, at least in Haiti, the less successful of the two countries. It’s a textbook case at the core of his work that has a number of current applications and deserves serious study.
Fast forward to the relevance of Moynihan’s observation and Harrison’s project to a couple of points I want to make. There are any number of political activists from both sides of the current divide in America who want to either drop ideological labels or advance political independence from the two major political parties in an attempt to break the stalemate and resulting gridlock in governance. Substantially all of these “movements”, or at least the most significant ones of which I am aware, hold as a key to their success the set aside or bracketing of the so-called “social issues” from deliberation in their policy platforms in the belief that these issues–abortion, LGBT rights, religious freedom, etc.–are “deal killers” in almost any political conversation and which make impossible a common ground on which to pragmatically “get things done”.
Such is the condition that Michael Sandel has identified in his classic, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy, as the “procedural republic” that we have already become, which essentially demands that we move cultural and moral considerations off the table in our deliberations on public policy. And where has this already taken us? To Roe v. Wade, elimination of prayer in the schools, and other deep divisions in the body politic because it has been denied a political resolution of many of the deep seated moral issues central to our core. As he notes, “The effort to banish moral and religious argument from the public realm for the sake of political agreement may end by impoverishing political discourse and eroding the moral and civic resources necessary to self-government”.
An additional powerful point has been made by Charles Murray in his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, in which he identifies the domains through which human beings achieve deep satisfaction in life as only four—family, vocation, community, and faith—and proceeds to demonstrate with compelling data the degree to which these foundations have collapsed among white adults in their prime years of 30 to 49 over the past half century. And again we find that the “procedural republic”, with its strictures on the moral issues that underpin our culture and prevent us from being “judgmental” about the dysfunction that has driven this collapse, is depriving us of the proper functioning of the “civic republic” that we were founded to be.
So the profundity of Moynihan lives on and continues to enlighten, but for his politics as the central liberal truth to be effective in saving a culture, it must be allowed a free reign in order to enable the civic republic. A final thought from Sandel: “A procedural republic that banishes moral and religious argument from political discourse makes for an impoverished civic life. It also fails to answer the aspiration for self-government; its image of citizens as free and independent selves, unencumbered by moral or civic ties they have not chosen, cannot sustain the public spirit that equips us for self-rule”.