In the last forty-odd years conservatives have won countless political victories. Brilliant diplomacy wedded to stern resolve brought the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion. The constitutional abomination of Roe v. Wade was overturned last year. Even before that, states were increasingly restricting abortion. Federal income tax rates remain far below their twentieth century peaks. Conservatives have had many successes, especially at the state level, on Second Amendment issues as well.

The question “what have conservatives ever conserved?” has some easy answers. Beyond the policy points above, there is the simple rejoinder that if every change for the worse is a conservative failure, everything that has not changed for the worse is a conservative success. That would be glib—but conservatives should never be ungrateful for what they do enjoy, nor forgetful of what they could still lose.

Nevertheless, winning policy battles and elections has not led to winning the war for America’s culture. Conservatives have fared so poorly in that conflict that today in law, medicine, education, and journalism the bedrock human reality of the sexes has been replaced by a fluid notion of “gender.” 

Same-sex marriage made men and women interchangeable in the formative unit of the family itself. If two men or two women are functionally equivalent in the eyes of law and society to a union of man and a woman, it’s simple algebra to realize that the two variables are really a constant: men and women are not distinct. The difference is merely nominal—a label.

Revolutionary Communism, and Jacobinism before it, set out to change almost every social relation, yet neither of those ideologies came close to abolishing the sexes themselves. The Newspeak of our time, in which men may have ovaries, surpasses anything that George Orwell imagined. Huxley’s brave new world is beginning to look quaint.

This is not the place to weigh the role that political power has played in bringing about our existentially revolutionary situation. That role is clearly very great, yet other revolutionary regimes have wielded greater, more concentrated state power without producing these results. Even if Stalin or Mao Zedong had wished to abolish the sexes, could they have done so with as much success as the radicals here?

In more than one dialogue Plato identifies poets and rhapsodes as the shapers, and corrupters, of citizens. The socially architectonic role of myth and storytelling has not been overlooked by modern observers, either. Percy Shelley memorably described poets as “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Stalin, taking the line from an underling, called writers “engineers of the human soul.” And the practically minded dictator did not hesitate to say, “the production of souls is more important than the production of tanks.”

Culture in Western civilization has followed a pattern similar to that of arms and commerce. As medieval and early modern man became more involved in trade, and as kings turned to professional armies composed of commoners to fight progressively larger wars, the culture of ordinary men and women became more politically powerful. This culture, like his arms, was not made by every man for himself, but he learned to use what he was given. The use was his own, even if these arms or ideas were not his invention.

This is important to remember in thinking about America’s culture war. It does no good to have “conservative” poets or novelists or popular musicians or filmmakers if the arms they forge, so to speak, are not taken up by others for their own use. The culturally revolutionary left has succeeded in this—storylines of oppression, and compelling portraits of characters whose worth lies in their defiance of custom, have become compass points for millions of Americans. They navigate their own lives, work, and politics according to these narratives. 

The cultural left has hijacked the narrative superstructure of Western civilization in general and of the United States in particular. With Christianity came a generalized idea of individual life and the cosmos alike as stories, with a beginning, middle, and end. Chivalry and commerce encouraged a perception of life as an individual’s adventure—the entrepreneur and the knight errant lend themselves to similar story arcs. And Protestantism helped to intensify a sense of inner struggle and desire for integrity in the face of an institutionally corrupt world. The New World and Protestantism alike suggested the possibility of new beginnings—and utopias.

These facts of Western history were material to be shaped and turned into archetypal narratives by creators of all kinds. In the United States, ideas of new beginnings, revolution against tyranny, and personal fulfillment achieved through freedom—through adventure in commerce, combat, or sex—have supplied the narrative frameworks for popular stories and the characters who inhabit them. These frames have been ingeniously put to use by the culturally revolutionary left. 

The right has tried to use them too, with some success. But the left seems bolder about using them in new ways, and the right is with good reason divided over whether these master narratives can be employed for all conservative ends or whether entirely different narratives are needed. That question must be answered at length. For now, as a start, we simply call on conservatives to confront it.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor in chief of Modern Age.