Some things you remember even if they happened long ago. And long ago, teaching English to late adolescents at that fancy prep school in upstate New York – in those Dead Poets Society years – the seventies, actually – it was the usual complaint, born out of frustration with Wallace Stevens or Dickens or Shakespeare or whatever. Why is everything actually about something else entirely? And the answer was the same each time. No, no, no – the whole point is seeing what things are really about, not what they seem to be about. Yes, Hamlet is about a moping Danish prince, a bit of a whiner who can’t ever seem to get his ass in gear to do anything about anything, who has an unusual family problem. But the play is about more than that, as that plot is just the framework to hang more than a few of those big universal and eternal questions on. The play was about those.
And the kids would just roll their eyes, and then they would try to strike a deal – just tell us the Deep Inner Meaning – the DIM as they put it – so we didn’t have to wade through the rest. Please? And that became kind of a running joke – the back-and-forth half-humorous but actually quite serious mutual Search for the DIM. It was kind of fun. And really, everything usually is about something else entirely anyway. That’s not a bad life-lesson to learn.
And it’s useful in assessing politics. People always seem to be talking about budgets and deficits and jobs, but something else always seems to be going on. Something has to explain the heat of the arguments, as all that stuff is about numbers, and you should be able to do the math and figure out what’s best to do – dispassionately, using a spreadsheet. But no, folks seem to vilify each other, without much regard for verifiable facts. How can that be? Something else is going on.
Matthew Yglesias recently took a stab at explaining what might be going on, saying that if you want to understand the extent to which business executives loathe President Obama, you need to understand that the economic policy debate in the United States is in part just another culture war issue:
Private sector labor unions are so weak in the United States that you can’t really organize politics around a management versus labor axis. A lot of what you have is, instead, a kind of bitter feud between businessmen and the kids they went to college with who didn’t go on to become businessmen. What did they do instead? They became teachers or doctors or nurses or professors or lawyers or scientists or nonprofit workers. And they fight with each other in part because of genuine economic clashes of interest. The businessmen tend to be targeted for tax hikes, while the people they went to college with tend to actually capture some of the public sector expenditure streams. And even though us BA holders are only about 20 percent of the population, this culture war helps structure much broader economic trends. Urban areas are generally built around hospitals, colleges, and state government as the economic pillars that drive the local service sector, and artists and media professionals who generally wouldn’t think of themselves as businesspeople are drawn to these areas. Urban areas are also havens for the poor, the end-users of social services whose interests bind them together in a coalition with the service providers.
But while there’s an element of objective economics to this, the business coalition sees the service coalition as composed of useless moochers – and the service coalition sees the business coalition as greedy bastards.
So the economic arguments are really about something else entirely:
If it were merely a clash of objective interests, it really wouldn’t be much of a clash. A healthy business environment needs schools and hospitals and public infrastructure to backstop it – and nobody is made happy by a business cycle downturn. There’s tension at the margin, but it’s not a zero-sum world. Layered on top is, I think, a raw level of gut-level dislike – both kinds of people think the other kind of people are clueless about what really matters in life.
And at U.S. Intellectual History, the blog of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History – there really is such a thing – Andrew Hartmann comments on that:
Yglesias is extrapolating from the Thomas Frank “what’s the matter with Kansas” model of understanding the culture wars. Frank’s well known thesis, oft critiqued, goes as follows: cultural or religious conservatives often voted against their own economic interests due to their irrational obsession with the culture wars, to which Republican politicians cynically lent rhetorical support as they attended to more important matters, such as rewriting the tax codes in favor of the economic royalists. To his credit, Yglesias does not merely think conservatives are irrational. He seems to be painting everyone involved in the great economic debates as somewhat irrational. But more to my point, the reason Yglesias seems to think economic debates play out in culture war terms is because they emit elements of the irrational. Culture wars equals irrational.
See whatsthematterwithkansas.com for more detail on Frank’s argument, and there’s much more in the Hartmann post on the implications of all this – a review of the long history of seemingly irrational politics in America, and Hartmann trying to figure out what’s rational and what’s not. But he does settle on an immediate issue – why the two major populist movements in America, which might logically be aligned, say they have absolutely nothing in common:
Tea Party activists dressed up as 18th century patriots and often talked as much about God and Country as about Taxes. Occupy Wall Street activists look like hippies, smoke weed, and often talk as much about the spiritual evils of consumerism as they do about anti-austerity. Style, identity, and culture: these things seem to matter to both sides as much as politics (which is not to argue that these things can replace politics, if reform or revolution be the goals). Style, identity, and culture: these things are as polarized as politics. This is the legacy of the culture wars that helps shape our understanding of the great debate taking place right now.
This is not about Wall Street, or about no one paying any taxes so the government can’t do a damned thing and we can be free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, free at last – it’s about style, identity and culture. All else is just a plot, a story on which to hang those big universal and eternal questions, about just who is a worthwhile person and who is not.
And Andrew Sullivan adds this:
But why does one side of the debate wear costumes from the 18th Century? Doesn’t that clue you in to what they’re really about? Two words: cultural panic. The only way they could actually unite with Occupy Wall Street would be if the cultural right re-embraced its early twentieth century suspicion of capitalism as a threat to traditional mores.
Sullivan dryly notes that doesn’t seem likely any day soon. This isn’t about defending capitalism, or dismantling it. It’s just cultural panic.
And on a more mundane level, David Roberts writes here about a federal program that has no net cost at all, and supports the fastest growing industry in the country, and leverages private capital at more than 4:1 to get things done, and supports tens of thousands of new jobs:
So you’d think this would be a home run, right? At a time when jobs are at the top of every politician’s mind, surely a bit of low-cost economic stimulus that doesn’t increase the deficit and leverages tons of private capital and creates tens of thousands of jobs can serve as the rare locus of bipartisan cooperation. Right?
Except the industry in question is the solar industry. And because this industry involves clean energy rather than, I dunno, tractor parts, it has been sucked into conservatives’ endless culture war. Rather than lining up to support the recession’s rare economic success story, Republicans are trying to use the failure of a single company – Solyndra – as a wedge to crush support for the whole industry.
And Kevin Drum says this is insane:
Right in front of our noses is what everyone says they want: a growing industry, creating jobs, leveraging economic stimulus into enormous private-sector investment. And Republicans are going to let it die! And Democrats are going to let them!
Even after following this stuff pretty closely for the past decade, it never fails to gobsmack me the way conservatives turn everything into a culture war issue. Because Dave is right: solar power is a great industry on pretty much any metric. It’s growing, it’s clean, and it provides lots of good jobs. At a minimum, it’s as good as any other industry, and repurposing solar tax credits into solar cash grants in order to help a broader array of small businesses is sort of a no-brainer.
But Republicans are against it.
Yes, they are, and Drum explains the culture war here:
The logic seems to be (a) global warming is a myth (b) therefore anything associated with global warming is bad (c) solar power is associated with fighting global warming, so (d) solar power is bad – or something like that. I certainly can’t think of any other reason why Republicans are so unanimously in love with subsidies for nuclear and coal and so passionately opposed to renewable energy in nearly every form. It’s as if supporting renewables is an implicit admission that clean energy is a good thing, which in turn is an implicit admission that global warming is real. And since that’s a left-wing hippie thing to believe in, they can’t support renewables.
And as for the Tea Party and its end-government-and-all-taxes approach to things, Scott Galupo says this:
The Tea Party was a cultural outburst … At this point anyone who’s serious about budget reform needs to ignore the Tea Party. Just pretend it never existed. It can’t help you. Its purported concern for budgetary balance was never more than tangentially connected to fiscal reality.
And Hamlet wasn’t ever really about the kid taking quick care of his nasty new stepfather. That too was about bigger issues. And as for the antipathy between the Tea Party folks and the protesters down on Wall Street – and now pretty much everywhere else – Jack Balkin wants Occupy Wall Street to fight the Tea Party’s constitutional fire with fire:
Almost from the movement’s inception, Tea Party advocates invoked the Constitution as supporting their political goals for limited government and lower taxes, even though their constitutional claims were, and are, odd from the perspective of contemporary constitutional doctrine. Rather, they sought to move certain constitutional claims from “off the wall” to “on the wall” through their protests. They sought to take back the Constitution by putting themselves on its side and arguing that, rightly interpreted, it supported their goals.
In fact, Occupy Wall Street is pretty easily characterized as a constitutional movement seeking to take back the Constitution from “the malefactors of great wealth,” to borrow a phrase from a century ago. To begin with, many OWS advocates are critical of the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. They believe that the Supreme Court does not properly understand the democratic function of the First Amendment’s guarantees of speech and press. They believe that the Supreme Court has twisted and distorted the true meaning of the First Amendment. And they are exercising their First Amendment rights to petition and to assemble in the streets and parks of the United States.
Yet considered most charitably, and in their best light, the Occupy Wall Street protests offer a still deeper vision of the Constitution than simply a rejection of Citizens United. OWS advocates argue that the system of government in the United States is broken. The wealthy and powerful have used their wealth and power to buy access to government, and to use that access to twist regulations and programs to make themselves even more wealthy and powerful, thus turning American democracy into a self-perpetuating machine for taking from the have-nots and giving to the haves.
So if you want to argue constitutional purity, the Tea Party folks just don’t get it:
If government no longer pays attention to the vast majority of its citizens; if the government has been hijacked by the most wealthy and powerful in the country to perpetuate and expand their wealth and power; if the agencies of government have been derailed from their constitutional obligation to “promote the General Welfare,” then we no longer live under a republican form of government, and the government we have is no longer consistent with the United States Constitution.
A broken government, unresponsive to the public, is more than a misfortune. It is a violation of our basic charter – our Constitution.
That would be cool if this were about the constitution, but it may be about something else entirely – the culture wars between the damned hippies and those in elaborate costumes from the eighteenth century, wigs and all. When people show up in costumes from another era – 1968 or 1768 – you might guess that their issues are not the issues of the moment.
And that leads to Joan Walsh’s review of Pat Buchanan’s new book, Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025 – where she sees a cultural warrior pretty much giving up:
Pat Buchanan doesn’t want my pity, and he probably doesn’t deserve it. But I couldn’t help feeling sad for him reading his apocalyptic, overwrought new book…. By almost any standard, Buchanan has had a successful life and career – he’s advised two presidents, run for president three times himself; he’s a wealthy author, columnist and MSNBC pundit – but apparently, it’s all been for naught. Ultimately his side can’t win, he says, because demography is against him. As long as white America remains on track to lose its majority status this century – and we can debate when that will happen, but there’s no way around it – the America Buchanan loves is gone.
And we all know what this book is about:
Buchanan sometimes tries to argue that his lament in this book is about culture and values, but make no mistake: It’s thoroughly about race. Even when Christianity and free-market conservatism might be said to have won, or to at least have a fighting chance of winning, he finds a way to lose. He puts together a strategy for Republicans to take back the White House in 2012 – it comes down to openly and unapologetically focusing on turning out more white people – but by his own account, a 2012 victory would only be temporary.
You know what he is saying, that America is “disintegrating, ethnically, culturally, morally, politically.” And we are hopelessly split – “We seem to detest each other in ways as deep as Southerners detested a mercantile North and Northerners detested an agrarian slave-holding South.” And so on and so forth.
But Walsh points out that Buchanan was the one who came up with Nixon’s Southern Strategy:
In his infamous 1971 “Dividing the Democrats” memo, Buchanan told the president that if he could convince the white working class that the Democrats favored black people, while also convincing blacks that Democrats were “denying them effective participation,” Nixon could “cut the Democratic Party and country in half; my view is that we would have by far the larger half,” he confidently concluded. In 1972, Nixon beat Democrat George McGovern in a landslide.
But Buchanan doesn’t think his side has “by far the larger half” anymore. And although culture-war battles over abortion and gay marriage have a lot to do with it, as does runaway federal spending (really), the main problem Buchanan identifies is that “the European and Christian core of our country is shrinking. The birthrate of our native born has been below replacement level for decades. By 2020, deaths among white Americans will exceed births, while mass immigration is forever altering the face of America.”
If you listen to Pat Buchanan, Democrats needn’t fret about politics anymore; demography is destiny.
So that’s what all this anti-Obama Tea Party stuff is really about, protesting what seems to be causing the nation’s suicide:
It’s partly the result of “the diversity cult;” at other points he calls it a revolution. “The avatar of this revolution is Obama,” he insists. “Pro-gay rights, pro-choice, pro-amnesty, pro-affirmative action, one foot firmly planted in the Third World, he campaigned on raising taxes on the rich and redistributing the wealth.” Our half-white corporate centrist president, in Buchanan’s telling, is an “Afro-nationalist” socialist sympathizer with little sympathy for white people. Soon, even whites who supported Obama, Buchanan warns, “may discover what it is like to ride in the back of the bus.”
And with that “insight” a book that aspires to be serious winds up being silly, a crazy mash-up of stereotypes and paranoia.
But Buchanan gets angry when Tea Party supporters are accused of racism:
But in this book, he makes plain that they’re driven by fear of their white, Christian country disappearing, a fear symbolized by Obama’s presidency – and he thinks that’s perfectly okay.
But of course he makes little sense:
On one page, he tells us the Founders were a monoculture, intentionally forming a country by and for white Christian gentlemen; on another page, we learn that the revolution made “a new people” out of formerly warring colonial factions. “Virginia Cavaliers, Boston Puritans, Pennsylvanian Quakers and Appalachian Scots-Irish, who had all cordially detested one another, had begun to meld into a nation.” Which is it?
“Suicide of a Superpower” confirms something I’ve felt for a while: It’s Buchanan and his Tea Party friends who’ve given up on the idea of America. Buchanan’s book validates the stereotypes of the most negative, America-hating faction of the left (which is itself mostly a Buchanan-created stereotype): The founders were all elitists, he insists; they didn’t believe in equality; they restricted citizenship to “free white persons” of “good moral character,” and with good reason. He sounds like a seventies black or feminist separatist when he declares that “e pluribus unum” was basically just a cover story for white, Christian, male power.
And that’s not all:
The book’s most pernicious chapters seek to “prove” white superiority and black and Latino inferiority, in the U.S. and worldwide. And yet Buchanan’s cult of meritocracy can’t quite let in the information that in fact Asian-Americans are out-performing European-Americans in high schools and universities throughout America, and Asian-American family income is growing faster than that of whites. He appears to blame affirmative action for the high number of Asian and Jewish students in Ivy League schools, when in fact both groups have proven that admissions directors over the years have found shady ways to cap their enrollment despite their high achievement. He acknowledges a “white-Asian” elite in California, which he charges is being overtaxed by a lazy, underachieving black-Latino plurality supported by white liberals. But mostly he seems to see Asian-American achievement as just another affirmative action plot to take America away from white Christians. In Obama’s America, “the white working and middle class is being made to pay disproportionately for America’s past sins,” he writes. Eventually, “there is no doubt as to who will be running the country and who will be riding in the back of the bus.”
Yes, that’s two references to “the back of the bus.”
And you know where this leads:
At times in that last chapter, he’s almost the old Pat Buchanan, urging Republicans to embrace their status as “the white party” and double down on their old-fashioned values. If the GOP can just increase its share of the white vote in 2012 to 52 percent – the share George W. Bush got in 2004 – the party can defeat Obama, he says. He insists a “silent majority” shares his opposition to abortion, gay marriage and the Obama revolution. But here again, he cherry-picks poll data. Majorities of Americans want abortion to be legal, although as Buchanan notes, they back certain restrictions. Larger majorities support gay marriage. A majority of American Catholics support gay rights, and 43 percent, almost half, support gay marriage. An astonishing 86 percent of Americans – including 84 percent of whites – support interracial marriage, an important force behind the “browning” of America.
Buchanan has lost the culture war, and I think he knows it.
But not everyone knows it. And we will continue to argue back and forth, in costumes from another era, over easily verifiable facts in the here and now.
Yes, it does seem that everything usually is about something else entirely anyway. That’s not a bad life-lesson to learn. It applies here. Those students long ago got that, eventually. Maybe one day everyone will get that. On the other hand, yes, most kids do their best to sleep through high school English. So we will continue to argue about what weren’t really arguing about at all. It’s what we do.