The Culture War Resumes

America can stand down now. The holidays are over and we all dodged a bullet – no one brought up politics at dinner. Your conservative Fox News relatives didn’t sneer about Obama – the man won the election decisively – and Glen Beck and Sarah Palin have returned to obscurity. There was no way, now, to argue that Donald Trump is the most admired and respected man in America, and Karl Rove the smartest, and Paul Ryan the sexiest, with Mitt Romney being the most charismatic and Bill O’Reilly being the most insightful. The election in November took care of that. On the other side of the family, however, there was no talk about the triumph of the Ninety-Nine Percent and the coming age of shared wealth and opportunity for all. The fat cats still run things, and Obama had been no help at all:

During an interview with Noticias Univision 23, the network’s Miami affiliate newscast, Obama pushed back against the accusation made in some corners of south Florida’s Cuban-American and Venezuelan communities that he wants to instill a socialist economic system in the U.S. The president said he believes few actually believe that.

“I don’t know that there are a lot of Cubans or Venezuelans, Americans who believe that,” Obama said. “The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.”

Obama never hid that, it’s just that a whole lot of people on both the right and the left refused to believe him, and this wasn’t really about the eighties. Obama would have gotten along fine with Dwight Eisenhower. They’d see eye-to-eye on many issues, domestic and foreign, and they both share the notion it’s best to wait for your enemies to make fools of themselves rather than jumping in and doing something foolish yourself. Eisenhower waited out Joe McCarthy, who quickly did indeed show the world he was a nasty fool. Obama waited out John McCain and then Mitt Romney. Each imploded, on schedule. Obama was never out there being all radical and socialist or whatever, so at that holiday dinner the other side of the family wasn’t crowing in triumph. Ike won again – the skinny black one this time.

In fact, Neil Buchanan, a law professor on the left, is pretty upset about this:

The bottom line is that President Obama has already revealed himself to be unchanged by the election and by the last two years of stonewalling by the Republicans. He still appears to believe, at best, in a milder version of orthodox Republican fiscal conservatism – an approach that would be a fitting starting position for a right-wing politician in negotiations with an actual Democrat. Moreover, he still seems to believe that the Republicans are willing to negotiate in good faith.

Neil Buchanan wanted a hero for the poor and the working man. He didn’t get one, and Bruce Bartlett offers a long item in the Fiscal Times on what’s really happening here – Democrats these days have now become what were once called Liberal Republicans, mildly pro-business but sensible about social policies for the good of all. These are the people who work to smooth out and fix selected specific problems with the current system, not toss it out. The current Republicans tell them not to touch anything, ever – things are just fine as they are – but that’s another issue. What it comes down to here is simple – there’s nothing to argue about at that big once-a-year family dinner. The belligerently young men, once so full of sneering scorn, fall silent – Obama won a second term and the most conservative Supreme Court since the twenties declared Obamacare quite constitutional and the good guys didn’t retake the Senate and so on– but the crazy uncle from Hollywood, where they say everyone’s a damned communist, can say little either. Obama is no more than a gifted pragmatist. He’ll do, but there’s little more to say.

This was, however, an unusual circumstance. Everyone was full of the holiday spirit – or doing a good job of faking it – and gifts were exchanged and the kids were cute. But this won’t last. We are a tribal people, deciding who is a worthy member and who should be shunned and what rituals must be followed – and tribe is not family. Family is what you’re stuck with. You choose the cultural or political tribe to which you will belong, and it in turn chooses you. After the holidays, with the family you fell into, it’s back to the tribal politics of America.

Brian Merchant puts the thinking of the tribes like this:

If you’re a Republican, you’re probably tired of hearing about how you’re probably racist and how you don’t care about poor people. If you’re a Democrat, you’ve rolled your eyes at the incessant suggestion that you’re un-Christian and sexually promiscuous and a harbinger of moral decay.

That’s because people on both sides of the aisle are constantly pushing exaggerated moral stereotypes about the other team, and most folks aren’t aware of just how much exaggeration is going on.

In fact that’s the substance of this new study published in the journal PLOS One – it seems that both conservatives and liberals exaggerate hopeless shortcomings of the moral views of their political opponents, but they also exaggerate those of their peers as well, which is a curious business – “There are real moral differences between liberals and conservatives, but people across the political spectrum exaggerate the magnitude of these differences and in so doing create opposing moral stereotypes that are shared by all.”

It’s an odd sort of echo chamber, and Merchant puts it this way:

A Republican, for instance, might end up believing that liberals want to turn the nation into a nonstop San Francisco-style gay sex party. But he’ll also likely think that his fellow GOPers in general are more anti-gay rights than he is. He’ll exaggerate both the moral ideals of his opponents and his own political brethren. However, he’ll correctly intuit the difference between the nature of his and his in-group’s moral priorities from liberals’; he’ll just exaggerate how great those differences are.

Here are the specifics:

The study asked 2,212 randomly selected people to answer questions about “typical” liberals and conservatives, and placed their responses in context to their own political ideologies. It found that “liberals endorse the individual-focused moral concerns of compassion and fairness more than conservatives do, and conservatives endorse the group-focused moral concerns of in-group loyalty, respect for authorities and traditions, and physical/spiritual purity more than liberals do.”

In other words, liberals really do tend to emphasize the idea that everyone should get a fair shot, that we should stick up for the poor, and, yeah, that we should probably redistribute income by taxing the rich. Conservatives, meanwhile, really do prioritize protecting religious institutions, most often the Christian church. And yes, they revere police and military authorities and cherish loyalty to their peers – other conservatives – more than liberals do.

But the study finds that most people overestimate those differences; they’re priorities, not ultimate and totally definitive traits.

Everyone’s exaggerating. There’s not as much to argue about as you’d think, but the study suggests this happens because most people like to think they’re something other than a “typical” liberal or conservative – they’re not just sheep who toe the party line – and Merchant offers this:

Regardless, the study’s authors hope that understanding that political opponents’ differences are real but not nearly as vast as they imagine might eventually help erase “the moral distrust and animosity’ endemic to the liberal-conservative culture war.” They conclude that “Calling attention to this unique form of stereotyping, and to the fact that liberal and conservative moral values are less polarized than most people think, could be effective ways of reducing the distrust and animosity of current ideological divisions.”

Fat chance, I say. Those corporate apologist bigots will never see eye to eye with those sex-crazed commies.

Actually, the study itself opens with two cool quotes:

The national Democratic Party is immoral to the core. Any American who would vote for Democrats is guilty of fostering the worst kind of degeneracy. The leaders of this party are severely out of touch with mainstream, traditional American values. They are crusaders for perversion, for licentiousness, for nihilism and worse.

That’s from Joseph Farah at World Net Daily, and this is from Michael Feingold in the Village Voice:

Republicans don’t believe in the imagination, partly because so few of them have one, but mostly because it gets in the way of their chosen work, which is to destroy the human race and the planet. Human beings, who have imaginations, can see a recipe for disaster in the making; Republicans, whose goal in life is to profit from disaster and who don’t give a hoot about human beings, either can’t or won’t.

The study’s authors go on to show how silly this is, but they don’t address frequency, as does Andrew Sullivan:

What has long struck me is the reification of the enemy – along boomer culture war lines. Political positioning remains overwhelmed by cultural identity in this country, certainly among the over-forties. Obama is not like this, as I noticed more than five years ago now. Most of the next generations aren’t. But the post-Vietnam hippies-versus-squares, protestors versus “patriots” dynamic is alive and well – and is particularly vivid among the self-understood “losers” of the culture wars, who tend to be disproportionately Republican and rural. You see it in places like the New York Post or the O’Reilly Factor.

All you need to know for O’Reilly is that someone is “far-left.” Quite what that means in terms of policy is very hard to say on any specific point. But he knows them when he sees them, and vice-versa on the Ed Shultz left. And the visceral hatred for conservative types on the left is just as egregious. The contempt for so many people’s intelligence, people who are far more complex than these caricatures convey, is liberalism’s greatest weakness right now, I’d say.

No, it’s everyone’s weakness these days, but this is helpful:

We’re human, so we’re tribal, and there’s not much we can do about that. But the intensity of the tribalism among some? Perhaps that’s ultimately incompatible with a reasoned liberal democracy.

Who said we had one of those? We’re still fighting those boomer culture wars, or we’re not. Matt K. Lewis of the Daily Caller – Tucker Carlson’s far right answer to the rest of the web world – offered his fellow-conservatives some gloom with his new column, The Culture War Is Over and Conservatives Lost:

In recent months, it has been especially depressing to be a conservative. In the past, one could more easily endure the ranting of liberal commentators by taking solace that – outside of New York City and Washington, D.C. – most of the country was center-right. Thus, whenever an elite liberal commentator said something fringy, one could always console himself by saying (or at least thinking): “I hope you push that idea, because you’ll keep losing elections in real America.”

Today, conservatives have made a shocking discovery: They are the ones in danger of appearing out of touch with Middle America.

No, he doesn’t suggest that conservatives accept defeat and get on with life in this century, or that they shrug and abandon their cultural panic. He quotes the late Paul Weyrich on how America had become “an open sewer” and then goes all in on the importance of culture, or something:

Democracy, of course, requires individuals who are moral and responsible. Strong families are the cure for much of what ails us. You pick the problem, and stronger families would probably render the solution moot. Consider a recent debate: We can put warning labels on violent games and movies, but that won’t replace mom and dad being involved in their children’s lives and being aware of what they are watching.

Conservatives have largely lost the culture, and it can’t be won back by passing some landmark piece of legislation. Instead, it’s going to be a long, hard slog.

Go ahead, pick a problem, and stronger families would probably render the solution moot – unless it’s a math problem, or a diplomatic problem, or the refrigerator just broke, or most everything else. What he says sounds good, like a Hallmark card, but operationally, it seems like nonsense.

Ed Kilgore tries to straighten it all out:

Lewis is expressing that familiar sentiment of “traditionalists” in periods of great change, cultural despair. There are several paths you can take from the decision that one’s country is essentially and fundamentally irredeemable (short of emigration). There is quietism, the deliberate retreat from civic engagement in an effort to form a counter-culture of the righteous remnant in a wicked society, which is what Weyrich chose in his final years. There is an effort to pour old wine into new bottles, by reframing culture-war politics with a more positive approach, as Erick Erickson (also quoted by Lewis) seems to be endorsing in a rambling New Year’s post suggesting Rick Santorum is right in calling the decline of the traditional family the cause of every problem.

And then, of course, there’s the option of eschewing normal politics and democracy and waging open war on one’s depraved fellow-citizens.

That’s more fun, and Kilgore adds this:

For good reason, it’s important to note the very large differences between these three paths from cultural despair, and to provide some positive reinforcement for those who shrink from the potentially explosive implications of absolutist ideology, secular or religious. But it’s equally important to recognize that many of today’s despairing cultural traditionalists are united in their contempt for America and a willingness to condemn large proportions of its people as savages.

So let’s not go too far in celebrating reactionaries who would if they could force us all back into the nineteenth century or an earlier era of “stability.”

That may be good advice, but just after the election, Andrew O’Hehir pointed out that things are complicated here:

It’s my premise that the division in America is indeed cultural in nature, using the Lévi-Strauss anthropological sense of that word, although other senses come into it, too. (The people who watch HBO, for example, or who saw “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in theaters fall overwhelmingly on one side.) Defining it as libertarian vs. communitarian, for instance, or as a religious view of society set against a more secular one always simplifies or overlooks some aspect of the problem. It involves values or mores that people hold on a primordial or unconscious level, which are not easily expressed in language and not readily subjected to rational inquiry. Translated into the political realm, these fundamental cultural mores become entrenched ideological positions, modes of expressing the unshakable conviction that my side is right and yours is wrong. It’s easy from there, when you’re convinced of your own righteousness, to tip over into paranoia or caricature…

If so, it’s best to be honest with yourself:

I live in New York City in a neighborhood where Barack Obama got better than 90 percent of the vote, and I write for Salon. I’m not claiming some neutral position in the culture wars. That would be absurd. My own fundamental cultural precepts point toward the belief that one side descends from the Enlightenment, more or less, while the other traces its roots (again, more or less) back to the medieval Church. Of course, I believe that young-Earth Creationists and climate-change deniers are dangerous nuts and that raising taxes on the rich is a moral imperative.

But part of that post-Enlightenment relativism, I guess, leads me to doubt that either side has a monopoly on truth and to suspect that my side, as well, has major cultural blind spots. On a more pragmatic level, the way these profound cultural differences get filtered into strident political disagreement is precisely the problem. We just had an election that was a de facto contest between America’s competing cultural factions, and one side won a narrow but decisive victory to the intense amazement and anger of the other. More name – calling isn’t going to help. If there were ever a moment to talk about this stuff dispassionately, this would be it.

O’Hehir would like to reframe the argument:

The American division is not essentially about partisan politics or ideological labels, and it can only sometimes be reduced to questions of economic policy. It is sometimes but not always about racial resentment, sometimes but not always about the contested public role of Christianity, and often but not always about big words that are inherently squashy and subjective, like “patriotism” and “freedom.” One of the key concepts, to my mind, is what sociologists call the loss of “relative privilege.” Many white men perceive, correctly, that they have lost social status relative to women and minorities, especially when they compare themselves to their fathers and grandfathers, who benefited from white supremacy and male supremacy (whether or not they personally held racist or sexist views). But is that really the central issue or just the one that my own cultural and educational backgrounds point me toward? We have to be careful about forming conclusions when the evidence is so deeply buried.

O’Hehir doesn’t think Lewis is right. Conservatives haven’t lost the culture wars. Things are still up in the air:

Maybe the fact that the Christian-Caucasian-libertarian-capitalist-nationalist cultural faction has absorbed another bitter political defeat will spark some new dynamic in American life. But I wouldn’t bet on it. An angry, declining minority that believes itself oppressed can be an unstable and dangerous phenomenon. The worst sin of the secular-multicultural-communitarian-internationalist-environmentalist faction (other than all that oaky California chardonnay) is its smugness and superiority, its sense of historical mission and its confidence that it has nothing to learn from its diminished opponents and bears no responsibility for their plight. Pride goeth before the fall, as a text prized by both sides for different reasons puts it. If we can’t find a way to address the American cultural divide, beyond insults and quadrennial beauty contests, it is sure to destroy us.

That’s true. Every day can’t be Christmas with the family, where, this year, no one wanted to talk politics, each for his or her own reason. That was a momentary cease-fire, the result of disappointment and fatigue. This will go on. It’s underway already, again.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Republican Gloom and Doom, Republicans and the Culture War, The Culture Wars, Tribalism in American Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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