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What C.S. Lewis and Modern Family Understand that Conservatives Don’t

I’ve been watching Modern Family quite a bit lately. Not too surprisingly, the show has become extremely popular across broad swaths of the country; college students and my middle-aged parents enjoy it equally.

Although I may not share the same worldview of the writers and producers, when it comes to rhetoric, the show gets it. It knows what matters. Other than the exceptional puns that Phil—the father of one family being depicted—tells, what draws people in is the emphasis on relationship. Almost every episode ends with redemption, love and an appreciation for family. Why? Because those things are what matter most to humans, which is why something about the show hits a nerve. It sticks with you.

Worth sharing is a video that led me to experience a similar phenomenon:

At our core, all of us—even babies—are empathetic, emotional creatures. As David Brooks argues in “The Social Animal,” it is the unconscious social nature of human beings that make us unique, even more so than our rationality. People are simply not moved or motivated by abstract concepts or statistics in the same way that they are by relationships with others. This is a good thing, but it is also one that is commonly misunderstood—a reality that has become especially apparent in American politics today.

For a long time, it seems, conservatives have been arguing against things rather than for people. AEI president Arthur Brooks made waves when he wrote about this topic in the Wall Street Journal earlier this year. Why aren’t people moved to action when they hear that the nation is $17 trillion in debt? Why are so many misled people abandoning important moral truths? How can people support an immigration bill that might cost us $6.3 trillion? Do we not realize that it’s unacceptable for entitlement spending to comprise almost two-thirds of the federal budget?

[pullquote]     People are not moved or motivated by abstract concepts in the same way that they are by relationships with others.[/pullquote]

These arguments fall flat because they focus on money, statistics and far-off concepts. They may make good rational sense, but they don’t win the day because deep down, people don’t care much about that stuff. They care about the immigrants trying to make better lives for themselves. They care about the people who depend on entitlement programs for their well-being. Empathy and compassion are what win, not fiscal responsibility or moral uprightness.

In 1948, C.S. Lewis lost miserably to Elizabeth Anscombe in a philosophical debate. As a result of the debate, Lewis decided to take a break from analytical writing; he had gained an appreciation for the limits of rational argumentation. Instead, he spent the next several years writing “The Chronicles of Narnia,” children’s fiction. Imaginative stories, filled with believable characters and relationships, pull on something distinct in the human soul. They have the ability to affect the reader in ways that analytical arguments never could.

Lewis learned this. Modern Family gets it. Conservatives: it’s your turn.