What do you do if you’re pursuing unpopular interests that are contrary to the public good? How do you force change in a democratic republic when you can’t win everything you want through open debate?
You rig the game. You ingratiate yourself to those who hold the levers of power and use your connections to exercise outsized influence. You get your friends to referee on your behalf. You undermine any opposition by making dissent irrelevant.
In this effort, big government is your best friend.
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The bigger the government—the more discretionary authority granted to executive agencies, the more federal money distributed to local governments and institutions of civil society, the more areas of life subject to government regulation, the fewer policies set by citizens and the more made by bureaucrats and judges—the easier it becomes to achieve victory for your cause.
Why bother to persuade voters of the merit of a controversial idea when you could just as easily convince the right handful of judges or agency heads? Why hash out controversy in the sunlight when the back room is available?
Picking Cultural Winners and Losers
In the economic realm, conservatives have taken to calling this alliance between big government and special interests cronyism.
It’s a helpful framework that translates traditional conservative arguments against big government into a moral case for basic fairness. Americans are rightly outraged when they hear about companies like Solyndra that can’t find investors on the market and instead depend on federal boondoggles before collapsing. They are incensed when they learn that big businesses like Boeing, which can earn profits on their own in the market, ask for sweetheart financing deals from government institutions like the Export-Import Bank.
Government should enact economic policies that foster the common good of our nation, not the special interests of powerful lobbies. Government should promote opportunity for all and show favoritism to none.
What’s true for the economy is true for the culture, as well. While cronyism is most recognizable when it generates economic windfalls for the favored few, conservatives would do well to explain that it also operates in other realms. Indeed, for decades, the left has been seeking special advantages from government in its effort to reshape the character of American society.
So, if you’re against the government arbitrarily picking winners and losers in the economy, you need to be against it doing the same in the culture. If Solyndra and the Export-Import Bank are a problem, so too is government funding for Planned Parenthood and government discrimination against Catholic Charities.
We call this sort of government special-interest-seeking “cultural cronyism.”
The Cronies’ Favorite Institution: Courts
Cultural cronyists often start in the courts, where they leverage the networks and institutions they dominate in law and academia to convince sympathetic judges to enact sweeping rulings that declare their core social priorities to be fundamental rights. In Roe v. Wade, activist judges sympathetic to abortion substituted their policy preferences for the text of the Constitution in an effort to shut down an ongoing public debate over the issue and impose their own social values.
In a similar way, cultural cronyists have had increasing success on redefining marriage through the courts. Despite numerous defeats at the ballot box over the last decade on an issue so controversial that in order to win elections left-wing politicians like President Obama blatantly lie to voters, cultural cronyists have convinced judges to strike down dozens of democratically enacted state marriage laws and are working tirelessly to impose a redefinition of marriage on the entire country during this Supreme Court term.
Once they get the courts to protect their favored policies from democratic scrutiny, cultural cronyists, like economic cronyists, use the levers of power to further entrench their favored causes. Each year, Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in the country—performing over 300,000 abortions every year—receives hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ dollars through Title X grants and Medicaid reimbursements and other governmental sources.
Congress and the Obama administration send tens of millions in tax dollars each year to the United Nations Population Fund—an organization that has faced continued assertions that it is complicit in enforcing China’s brutally coercive one-child policy.
And the federal government’s significant involvement in various civic institutions gives it the power to undermine those that do not share its social ethic. In 2011, for example, the federal government halted a human trafficking grant to Catholic Charities on the grounds that it did not provide referrals for abortion. Never mind that the Catholic Charities program received a higher score of effectiveness than the organizations ultimately awarded the grants.
We’ll Decide How to Handle Our Foes
Worse yet, government’s socially progressive allies often have a seat at the table when the government decides how to crack down on civic institutions that don’t toe the progressive cultural line.
In crafting the notorious Department of Health and Human Services contraception and abortifacient mandate, for example, the federal government relied almost exclusively on counsel from the Institute of Medicine. The panel’s meetings on those recommendations included presentations from Planned Parenthood and other abortion advocates like the National Women’s Law Center, and the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute, while pro-life groups were noticeably absent from the discussion.
While the Supreme Court ruled that the Green family and the Hahn family did not have to pay for life-ending drugs in the health plans for their family businesses, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood, the government still hasn’t backed down. The Little Sisters of the Poor are still in federal court seeking relief from the Obama administration that is forcing them to violate their beliefs or face millions of dollars a year in fines simply for wanting to take care of the elderly in accordance with their faith.
Cultural cronyists also work at the state and local level to stifle dissent and require citizens to actively participate in activities with which they disagree.
The worst instances are sexual orientation and gender identity laws that treat traditional, common sense views about marriage like racism, and have required photographers, florists, bakers, farmers, and ordained ministers to help celebrate same-sex marriage ceremonies that violate their deeply held moral views—or face crushing government penalties.
These professionals have no problem serving gay and lesbian customers. They only object to being coerced to affirm same-sex weddings. In declining to do so, they harm no one, and they violate no one’s rights. Yet the government is telling them they must violate their beliefs.
Let’s Hurt Kids to Make Our Point
It is precisely that grotesque form of cultural cronyism that explains why the Massachusetts, Illinois, and D.C. governments have discriminated against faith-based foster care and adoption agencies.
These agencies have simply asked to be free to do their charitable work, without government punishment, in accordance with their beliefs. Nothing about their stance would prevent gays and lesbians from adopting through other agencies. Yet these groups have been charged with an intolerable viewpoint and run out of their works of service. Discriminating against these religious charities does nothing to help children—it only scores a point in an adult culture war.
It gets worse.
California has enacted and the District of Columbia City Council has passed a law that would force pro-life organizations to pay for coverage of elective abortions. Jim Garlow, a pastor in California and the adoptive father of four children—the first conceived in rape—said the California mandate forcing him to buy insurance covering surgical abortion is “repulsive beyond words.” Other forms of this local cultural cronyism are almost as pernicious, such as local school curricula endorsed by Planned Parenthood that promote sexual activity to children as young as seven years old.
The success of cultural cronyism matters not only because it results in bad policy but also because it works in tandem with Progressive influence over our civil institutions to shape the culture we live in.
In a country whose laws actively aim to subvert individual conscience on contentious issues, it’s easy for cultural progressives to argue that those who stand up for culturally conservative principles like Brendan Eich of Mozilla Firefox, are so despicable that they cannot be allowed gainful employment. As government tilts the scales of policy in favor of progressive social causes, the space for acceptable public dissent from the new morality diminishes.
The benefits of cultural cronyism, like economic cronyism, flow in both directions. Last election cycle, the Planned Parenthood SuperPAC rewarded its allies in Congress with more than $6 million in campaign contributions. The Human Rights Campaign, which promotes anti-conscience SOGI laws, contributed almost a million dollars of its own to federal campaign coffers. These organizations and others get their money’s worth.
The Game Plan for Eradicating Cultural Cronyism
How do we begin to push back?
We start by fighting in the courts for fair interpretation and application of our laws. Courts must not favor special interests’ desires over the actual text of the Constitution. Without fair courts, no amount of public debate can result in sound policy on issues like marriage and life.
Outside the courtroom, our best strategy for combating cultural cronyism is identical to our strategy for combating economic cronyism: Fight for governments whose powers are limited enough that cronyism becomes impossible. The alliance between social and economic conservatives is no mere product of contingent historical circumstance. Its strength is in part due to the fact that the greatest threat on both fronts is shared: The expansion of government into realms far beyond its appropriate scope.
So how can the government promote opportunity for all while refusing to engage in culture cronyist favoritism? The most foundational way in which government promotes opportunity for all is by protecting the opportunity for all children to be born. It gives favoritism to none by refusing to force citizens to pay for abortions or abortion insurance, whether through taxpayer funding or private plans.
Likewise, in promoting the truth about marriage, government promotes the opportunity for all children to be united with and raised by their mother and father. After all, the state’s not in the marriage business because it’s a sucker for consenting adult romance, but because the sexual union of a man and a woman can produce a child and children deserve a mom and a dad. In refusing to coerce citizens into violating their personal beliefs, such as celebrating same-sex weddings, it shows favoritism to none.
The only way to combat government cultural cronyism is to recover a sound understanding of the purposes of government. And the best way to do that is to return to the vision of the Declaration of Independence. Government rightly exists to protect the self-evident natural rights articulated in the Declaration. All human beings are created equal and endowed by their Creator with a right to life—including the unborn. We are created male and female, and marriage, by nature, is the union of man and woman.
Only by remaining faithful to these truths can we fight back against government cultural cronyism, protect opportunity for all, and show favoritism to none.
Originally published in The Federalist