February 25, 2021

Like most people with children, I have spent much of the past 12 months following the advice of Don Corleone, who once said that “a man who doesn’t spend time with his family can never be a real man”. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time with the Soprano family, re-watching — like many people — David Chase’s great masterpiece for the first time in nearly two decades.

Tony Soprano was a figure uncomfortable with the modern world. He used his shrink as a means to alleviate his guilt about his selfish and violent behaviour, but he was also sceptical of the radical ideas behind psychiatry. Conceived during a decade when public emotional behaviour changed a great deal, the Sopranos featured Tony frequently referring to his preference for the reticent “strong silent type” symbolised by Golden Age movie star Gary Cooper.

In between racketeering, extortion and the occasional murder, Tony longs for a simpler moral universe where social norms are clear-cut; a world which would make this anxious middle-aged man feel more at peace, less edgy. That moral hypocrisy, although in Tony’s case extreme, is characteristic of what Matthew Walther recently termed “barstool conservatism”.

Writing in The Week on life after Trump, Walther wrote:

“What Trump recognised was that there are millions of Americans who do not oppose or even care about abortion or same-sex marriage, much less stem-cell research or any of the other causes that had animated traditional social conservatives. Instead he correctly intuited that the new culture war would be fought over very different (and more nebulous) issues: vague concerns about political correctness and ‘SJWs,’ opposition to the popularisation of so-called critical race theory, sentimentality about the American flag and the military.”

And while these barstool conservatives “accept pornography, homosexuality, drug use, legalised gambling”, they dislike attacks on their country, the rapid cultural change brought about by immigration and an elite, urban caste who clearly despise them.

This appears to be true of Britain, too. The Tories were able to make huge gains in the last election because, when it came to values, the party aligned more closely with a lot of Labour voters. But those voters aren’t “social conservatives”. Like their Trump-voting counterparts, the new Tory voters are more likely to have kids outside of marriage than the liberal elite in California or London, who tend to “talk the 60s but walk the 50s”. They don’t oppose abortion or sex education, don’t have any particular issue with homosexuality, and they’ll probably come around on the transgender debate.

The real social conservatives are not generally found in former industrial towns that appear on TV vox pops; they tend to be middle or even upper-middle class, well-educated, married and religious, and in Britain are more common in shires and in parts of west and south London, at heavily upper-middle-class Catholic parishes and the high-performing schools attached to them. These are the people who talk the 50s and walk the 50s, too.

There is a big difference between cultural and social conservatism. The former could be said to be the default in almost all human cultures. The latter is learned and cultivated, and today is a counter-cultural movement popular with a relatively small number of well-educated people.

Cultural conservatism, however, is natural to human society. Researchers at Oxford University, studying 60 different cultures, found that they all share seven basic cultural codes, which involve bravery, helping your family, helping your group, returning favours, deferring to superiors, dividing resources fairly and respecting others’ property.

These are the moral norms that all cultures naturally observe, but have been slightly adapted in what Joseph Henrich first called “WEIRD” cultures. Western Educated Industrialised Rich Democratic cultures have values suited towards very large-scale societies, where people are unusual in sharing resources with non-family members. There is far less emphasis on the group and the family as a result.

In almost all hunter-gatherer societies, 300 is about the maximum number of individuals that can live together before people start ripping each other’s heads off (and that is much better than our closest relative, the chimpanzee). Yet humans were able to scale up and enjoy the benefits of modernity with one simple trick — religion. Henrich cites the anthropologist Donald Tuzin, who investigated an unusual New Guinea tribe, the Arapesh, unusually living in a group of up to 2,500 without bloodshed; Tuzin found that they had developed beliefs about gods that allowed them, unlike their rivals, to nurture solidarity.

Religion allows humans to co-exist in much larger groups, but as Heinrich’s book argues, one particular religion was able to accelerate this on an unprecedented scale — Roman Catholicism. By banning marriage between cousins in particular, the medieval Church crushed the strength of clans and created a society in which people were willing to cooperate and share with strangers. WEIRD societies.

Even today, people from countries in which cousin marriage was banned the longest still consistently donate more blood, give more to charity and are less likely to cheat in exams or avoid paying parking fines — and also have the most successful democracies. Those parts of western Europe in which the Catholic Church struggled to ban cousin marriage also, and not by coincidence, produced Don Corleone and Tony Soprano.

One result of this high-trust form of society was, of course, liberalism, an entirely novel worldview that relies on people thinking way beyond their clan, to far more abstract levels of society — even to humanity in the general. Yet liberalism is still unnatural, after centuries, and most people are “default conservatives” — they believe that family should come before strangers, and countrymen before foreigners. They feel stung if their flag is burned or their ancestors mocked. However anti-social their own instincts, they, like Tony Soprano, feel an obligation to defend their country from external threats. Conservatism is our default setting, designed for a world that is dangerous and in which we need to be courageous, defend our family and group, defer to superiors and share acquisitions fairly. Liberalism, with its focus on individual rights, is a mutation.

Yet “social conservatism”, as we imagine it in the West, is not the same thing; like liberalism, it is an interpretation of Christianity, although a more disciplined (and perhaps less immediately enjoyable) one. Christianity is the most unnatural of self-disciplines; loving your enemies and laying down your life for non-kin go against all our instincts and Tony Soprano would never be foolish enough to do so. Sexual restraint, especially among powerful men, requires a role model as persuasive and powerful as St Paul, one who can overcome their Roman urge to dominate with guilt.

Sure, historically mafias paid lip-service to Catholicism because that was the cultural norm — the Church was strong and they craved respectability. But modern mafias don’t; the Camorra of Naples have in recent years had a lesbian and even a transgender boss, which is very brave and progressive of them.

Western social conservatism, like liberalism, is weird, and WEIRD. It takes discipline and education, and social conservatives tend to be highly conscientious and well-educated, partly because Christianity is complicated and requires great self-control. The most “consistently conservative” Americans, for example, are found not in trailer parks drooling over Fox & Friends, as their opponents might believe, but in universities.

As both Left and Right have proved throughout history, education and cultivation can produce the worst type of intolerance. If you look at European history, the most religiously intolerant time was not the Dark Ages, or early medieval period (c.500-1000). Surviving chronicles of that mostly illiterate era recall people talking and laughing throughout Mass, fornicating priests, and a widespread belief in unorthodox, often pagan ideas. You wouldn’t get burnt for heresy in the Dark Ages, contrary to the stereotype, but you might well do in the Late Middle Ages, the Renaissance era, when literacy had become widespread. Some of the worst torturers and sadists of the time could discourse on the Latin poets while turning the screw on a torture rack.

But the society they lived in was far safer and far more restrained; there were far fewer births outside marriage, and therefore lower infant mortality; men had become less inclined to have mistresses; violence, in particular the impulsive violence that plagued earlier medieval history, was in steep decline. That sort of social conservatism has to be learned; it is against our instincts.

Modern conservatism is a sort of alliance between these two ways of thinking, but it is an uneasy one, as Trump showed. His success was to appeal to default instincts in a society where powerful people openly provoke many of those seven basic human moral values. And it is a powerful selling point; far more sellable than the social conservatism that once dominated the American Right, but which depended on a shrinking churchgoing population.

Yet, unfashionable as social conservatism may be, there is a lot of evidence showing that churchgoers are less prejudiced than other conservative voters. They are more trusting, are more likely to volunteer and more satisfied with their neighbourhood and with family relationships. And since 1992 the share of Americans with no religion has quadrupled — and trebled even among conservatives.

There is a danger, therefore, that as social conservatism fades, the Right becomes a repository of the depressed, the disappointed and those in need of a cause and a leader; people who, to some extent like Tony Soprano, are anxious and confused by today’s moral confusion but lacking a firm moral code of their own. Social conservatism may appear off-putting but it offers a real vision, while the barstool variety, appealing to basic emotional brain responses, is little more than a political version of the social media clickbait, porn, junk food and opioids that pervade our time and overloads our minds.