By Mark Steyn
From the January 30, 2013 issue of National Review
In my last column, I argued that culture trumps politics, since when many readers have demanded to know what exactly I meant. Well, look no further than the very first post-election issue Republicans were told they needed to address: getting on the right side of Hispanics by neutralizing the illegal-immigrant issue. A population perhaps the size of Australia's or four mid-sized EU nations' strolled into America and decided to stay. In doing so, they broke the law. Literally. That's to say, some of the most basic laws of the nation lie shattered and discarded. Municipally, we have "sanctuary cities." At the state level, Illinois is merely the latest to consider issuing driver's licenses and other legal ID to persons who are in the country illegally. Federally, the president himself has decreed by executive order that the laws of the nation not be enforced — and, indeed, anybody minded to try enforcing them (Arizona) gets hauled into court.
This is a highly legalistic society with laws against everything and most of them with stiff jail sentences attached. Yet a group of squatters has rendered the law irrelevant. Four of the September 11 terrorists obtained the picture ID they used to board the plane through the illegal-immigrant day-worker network in the parking lot of the 7-Eleven in Falls Church, Va. But 3,000 corpses wasn't enough to persuade either the citizenry or their representatives to end their indulgence of such networks. Indeed, it's estimated that half of the "undocumented" have come here since 9/11: That's to say, they broke into a country on Code Orange alert. The culture frames the issue, starting with the appropriation of language: These are "hard-working families" willing to do "the jobs Americans won't do," notwithstanding the strains they place on hospitals and schools, the contributions they make to gang crime and drunk-driving statistics . . . Once upon a time they were "illegal," then "undocumented," now just "immigrants," a word with longstanding emotional resonance in America but nevertheless one that used to mean guys who stood in line at consulates, filled in the paperwork, and paid the application fees, and whose redefinition into something entirely different has been accepted as a fait accompli.
I was at Starbucks the other day and saw that Tony Bennett has another celebrity-duets album out. He releases them every 20 minutes: You can count on the fingers of one hand the guys he hasn't sloughed off a duet with (Donald Rumsfeld, Herman van Rompuy, and Earl's brother who lives off of Route 23 past the grain elevator and doesn't come into town too much). But his latest duets set is an album with Latino superstars. He doesn't speak the lingo, so he does his usual Anglo shtick, and then they warble back at him in Spanish and he chuckles occasionally as if he has a clue what they're singing. But it's his management's way of cutting Tony in on a little of the action Latin-wise. That's all the GOP are trying to figure out how to do: Like Tony Bennett, their fellow old white male, they'd like to reposition themselves to be where it's at. Or at least on the general outskirts of where it's at. On this issue, as the current panic demonstrates, politicians are the least of it: They're playing catch-up.
Same with gay marriage. The culture has made up its mind on this and imposed (as we Westminster types say) a three-line whip on its caucus — the movies, the sitcoms, the respectable press. You can dissent for a bit if everyone knows you don't really mean it (the president, whose thinking eventually "evolved" to what everyone knew it was anyway). But, if they think you do mean it, you must be cast out and banished (Carrie Prejean). A societal institution that predates the United States by thousands of years is being fundamentally redefined, and elected politicians are entirely irrelevant to the process.
Cultural pressures extend to the boardroom, too. "BP" stands for "British Petroleum," but for the decade before that unfortunate Gulf spill their slogan was "BP — beyond petroleum": They were an oil company ashamed of being an oil company. Warner Brothers, Universal, Paramount, and other mom-'n'-pop operations demonized corporations as evil, and oil corporations as especially so, and so BP felt obliged to pretend in public that they spend 99 percent of their R&D budget trying to run a Honda Civic on bovine flatulence.
Meanwhile, American conservatives devote their energies to gassing up the Republican party's tank enough to get it across the finish line every other November. It's a very reductive view of the purpose of politics, even when it works. This year it didn't work, and the usual tragedy degenerated into trouser-dropping farce: We thought we were arguing Obamacare and the economy and crippling debt, and they thought it was about sexist Republicans forcing contraceptiveless women back into their binders. And they were right. At a certain level, this is ridiculous: It's like strolling onto the court into your tennis whites, playing a pretty good match, and discovering in the final serve of the final set that everyone else thinks it's a game of buzkashi with you as the goat carcass.
Culture trumps politics. Culture trumps economics. On November 6, culture trumped reality — and delivered, as a Democrat in my state tweeted, "a binderful of awesome!" Binders? "The Life of Julia"? Lena Dunham? We ought to be asking why something so obviously risible was not obviously so to millions of voters.
Because the Left understands where the real victories are won: Politics is a battle, but culture is the war.