SteynOnline celebrates its twentieth birthday later this month, and we're marking the occasion by getting back in the cruise biz. No tests, no vax passports, that's all yours to choose or not; but just a week of fun on the high seas with Bo Snerdley, Michele Bachmann, John O'Sullivan and other Steyn favorites. More information here.
We're also celebrating by strolling back through the last two decades of the SteynOnline archives. For earlier entries, see below.
As we celebrated our twelfth birthday in 2014, I was hard on the publicity trail for another book - my anthology The Undocumented Mark Steyn. Which The New York Times chose to categorize as a "humor bestseller" - so I found myself sharing the hit parade with Tiny Fey and Lena Dunham. That in turn prompted me to recall a mildly off-color remark I made in response to a somewhat eccentric Top Ten of "funny people" published by The Sunday Times in London about thirty years ago: "I came right underneath Ellen DeGeneres. And how many men can say that?"
However, that is not the salient point. This is taken from the book's introduction, and is highly germane both to last week's US "election" and the broader vibe of this Covid era. As to my observations about betting the house on the judicial branch, the Supreme Court correctly decided Dobbs and struck down Roe vs Wade - but the right got a lesson (as Brian from Minneapolis pointed out in our comments) in what happens when you expend your energies successfully persuading five judges rather than millions of "suburban women". As far as I can tell, the only GOP attempt at persuading that key demographic was President Trump's mournful plea: "Suburban women, please like me". Which had an appealing directness, even if it availed him naught.
Anyway, here's what I wrote eight years ago, and could have written yesterday:
Over the past few decades, as a resident of New Hampshire, I've met enough next-presidents-of-the-United-States for several lifetimes: Phil Gramm, Pete Wilson, Bob Dornan, Bob Dole, Elizabeth Dole, Orrin Hatch, Gary Bauer, Lamar Alexander, Tom Tancredo, Tommy Thompson, Alan Keyes. . . .
Would it have made any difference to the country had any of these fine upstanding fellows prevailed? Or would we be pretty much where we are anyway? Aside from a trade agreement here, a federal regulation there, I'd plump for the latter.
You can't have conservative government in a liberal culture, and that's the position the Republican Party is in.
After the last election, I said that the billion dollars spent by the Romney campaign on robocalls and TV ads and all the rest had been entirely wasted, and the Electoral College breakdown would have been pretty much what it was if they'd just tossed the dough into the Potomac and let it float out to sea.
But imagine the use all that money and time could have been put to out there in the wider world.
Liberals expend tremendous effort changing the culture. Conservatives expend tremendous effort changing elected officials every other November — and then are surprised that it doesn't make much difference.
Culture trumps politics — which is why, once the question's been settled culturally, conservatives are reduced to playing catch-up, twisting themselves into pretzels to explain why gay marriage is really conservative after all, or why thirty million unskilled immigrants with a majority of births out of wedlock are "natural allies" of the Republican Party.
We're told that the presidency is important because the head guy gets to appoint, if he's lucky, a couple of Supreme Court judges. But they're playing catch-up to the culture, too.
In 1986, in a concurrence to a majority opinion, the chief justice of the United States declared that "there is no such thing as a fundamental right to commit homosexual sodomy." A blink of an eye, and his successors are discovering fundamental rights to commit homosexual marriage.
What happened in between? Jurisprudentially, nothing: Everything Chief Justice Warren Burger said back in the '80s — about Common Law, Blackstone's "crime against nature," "the legislative authority of the State" — still applies. Except it doesn't. Because the culture — from school guidance counselors to sitcom characters to Oscar hosts — moved on, and so even America's Regency of Jurists was obliged to get with the beat.
Because to say today what the chief justice of the United States said 28 years ago would be to render oneself unfit for public office — not merely as Chief Justice but as CEO of a private company, or host of a cable home-remodeling show, or dog-catcher in Dead Moose Junction.
What politician of left or right championed gay marriage? Bill Clinton? No, he signed the now notoriously "homophobic" Defense of Marriage Act. Barack Obama? Gay-wise, he took longer to come out than Ricky Martin. The only major politician to elbow his way to the front of the gay bandwagon was Britain's David Cameron, who used same-sex marriage as a Sister-Souljah-on-steroids moment to signal to London's chattering classes that, notwithstanding his membership of the unfortunately named "Conservative Party," on everything that mattered he was one of them.
But, in Britain as in America, the political class was simply playing catch-up to the culture. Even in the squishiest Continental "social democracy," once every four or five years you can persuade the electorate to go out and vote for a conservative party. But if you want them to vote for conservative government you have to do the hard work of shifting the culture every day, seven days a week, in the four-and-a-half years between elections.
If the culture's liberal, if the schools are liberal, if the churches are liberal, if the hip, groovy business elite is liberal, if the guys who make the movies and the pop songs are liberal, then electing a guy with an "R" after his name isn't going to make a lot of difference.
Nor should it. In free societies, politics is the art of the possible. In the 729 days between elections, the left is very good at making its causes so possible that in American politics almost anything of consequence is now impossible, from enforcing immigration law to controlling spending.
What will we be playing catch-up to in another 28 years? Not so long ago, I might have suggested transsexual rights. But, barely pausing to celebrate their victory on gay marriage, the identity-group enforcers have gone full steam ahead on transgender issues. Once upon a time there were but two sexes. Now Facebook offers its 1.2 billion patrons the opportunity to select their preference from dozens of "genders": "male" and "female" are still on the drop-down menu, just about, but lost amid fifty shades of gay — "androgynous," "bi-gender," "intersex," "cisfemale," "trans*man," "gender fluid" . . .
Oh, you can laugh. But none of the people who matter in American culture are laughing. They take it all perfectly seriously.
Supreme Intergalactic Arbiter Anthony Kennedy wields more power over Americans than George III did, but in a year or three he'll be playing catch-up and striking down laws because of their "improper animus" and wish to "demean" and "humiliate" persons of gender fluidity.
Having done an impressive job of demolishing the basic societal building block of the family, the ambitious liberal is now moving on to demolishing the basic biological building block of the sexes.
Indeed, taken in tandem with the ever greater dominance of women at America's least worst colleges and, at the other end of the social scale, the bleak, dispiriting permanence of the "he-cession," in 28 years' time we may be fairly well advanced toward the de facto abolition of man, at least in the manly sense.
That seems to me at least as interesting a question as whether the Republicans can take the Senate with a pick-up in this or that swing state.
Culture is the long view; politics is the here and now.
Yet in America vast cultural changes occur in nothing flat, while, under our sclerotic political institutions, men elected to two-year terms of office announce ambitious plans to balance the budget a decade after their terms end. Here, again, liberals show a greater understanding of where the action is.
So, if the most hawkish of GOP deficit hawks has no plans to trim spending until well in the 2020s, why not look at what kind of country you'll be budgeting for by then? What will American obesity and heart-disease and childhood-diabetes rates be by then? What about rural heroin and meth addiction? How much of the country will, with or without "comprehensive immigration reform," be socioeconomically Latin-American? And what is the likelihood of such a nation voting for small-government conservatism?
There's a useful umbrella for most of the above: The most consequential act of state ownership in the 20th century western world was not the nationalization of airlines or the nationalization of railways or the nationalization of health care, but the nationalization of the family.
I owe that phrase to Professor R Vaidyanathan at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. He's a bit of a chippy post-imperialist, and he's nobody's idea of a right-winger, but he's absolutely right about this.
It's the defining fact about the decline of the West: Once upon a time, in Canada, Britain, Europe and beyond, ambitious leftists nationalized industries — steel, coal, planes, cars, banks — but it was such a self-evident disaster that it's been more or less abandoned, at least by those who wish to remain electorally viable.
On the other hand, the nationalization of the family proceeds apace, and America is as well advanced on that path as anywhere else. "The West has nationalized families over the last 60 years," writes Vaidyanathan. "Old age, ill health, single motherhood — everything is the responsibility of the state."
When I was a kid and watched sci-fi movies set in a futuristic dystopia where individuals are mere chattels of an unseen all-powerful government and enduring human relationships are banned and the progeny of transient sexual encounters are the property of the state, I always found the caper less interesting than the unseen backstory: How did they get there from here? From free western societies to a bunch of glassy-eyed drones wandering around in identikit variety-show catsuits in a land where technology has advanced but liberty has retreated: How'd that happen?
I'd say "the nationalization of the family" is how it happens. That's how you get there from here.
SteynOnline: The First Twenty Years