Yuval Levin concludes his discussion of culture in The Fractured Republic by invoking the so-called “Benedict Option.” Building off foundational philosophical work laid by Alasdair MacIntyre and popularized among contemporary traditionalist conservatives by Rod Dreher, the Benedict Option calls on conservatives to step back from the national culture wars and to focus instead on tending to their own gardens. By building strong, vibrant alternatives to the progressive mass culture, conservatives can preserve the permanent things of traditional social life while inviting others to join their thriving and (ironically) counter-cultural way of life.
A vigorous defender of subsidiarity, Levin is a natural ally for partisans of the Benedict Option. In his eloquent disquisition:
Conservatives should think about the preconditions for moral living in terms of building cohesive, attractive, moral subcultures in those mediating layers of society, rather than just struggling for control of the old institutions of a once-consolidated “mainstream” culture. It means focusing inward and close to home.As he goes on to explain, cultural communities no longer begin from shared moral assumptions in our bifurcated society. The “solipsism of our age of individualism” has brought with it emancipation from the enabling constraints of traditional life, undermining institutions and practices that once served as common touchstones and bearers of shared meaning within an always-diverse populace. Given the intractable division within contemporary American society, Levin recommends we give up on finding “wholesale solutions” to govern our nation's increasingly disparate subcultures.
All sides in our culture wars would be wise to focus less attention than they have on dominating our core cultural institutions, and more on building thriving subcultures. For social conservatives mourning the loss of their dominant position in some of those core institutions, it is particularly important (and particularly difficult) to keep this imperative in mind.Levin may well be right that it would be wise for all parties to withdraw from contesting the national culture. Yet herein lies what has always been my great frustration with the Benedict Option. The progressive left simply isn’t going to step back from waging the national culture war. They are winning. The spectacular decline of conservative cultural priorities on virtually every issue of consequence over the last several decades is stunning. As a friend of mine puts it, the Overton Window’s leftward drift has accelerated so dramatically, you can now see it move with the naked eye.
And yet all the great progressive victories have come despite the aggressive presence of organized, well-funded conservative campaigns to resist the left's cultural conquest. Imagine just how much faster cultural conservatism will collapse in the absence of such an organized, national political focus.
Levin recognizes this reality to some degree, and he notes that religious freedom, for example, can only be protected through a vigorous, offensive campaign to “keep open the space in which cultural conservatives might appeal to the larger society.” Yet the repeated insistence that conservatives concede the national culture reflects a failure to appreciate the enduring wisdom of Thucydides’ Melian Dialogue: In war, the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.
In calling on conservatives to give up on the national culture while praying that the dominant cultural left will do the same, Levin asks conservatives to suffer far more than they must.