All culture wars, all the time

I’ve been meaning for a while to write a post about the way in which all US political issues are viewed, particularly from the right, through the lens of the culture wars. The same is true for the large segments of the right in other English-speaking countries that take their lead from the US. I decided to get it done after reading this piece from Jonathan Haidt in the NYT, which makes quite a few of the points I had in mind, but treats political tribalism as an eternal reality (here evo-psych raises its inevitable head) rather than a factor that varies in importance at different times and places.

What really prompted this was the way in which the health care debate, which only a few years back was the province of the wonkiest of policy wonks, is now a battlefield over religious liberty, state control over ladyparts and so on. The same is true in spades of climate change, and environmental protection generally,  an area that was pretty much bipartisan at one time.

It’s even more striking in relation to foreign policy. With the exception of unconditional support for Israel (or more precisely for the Likud party line), there’s no longer any core Republican position either on particular issues (which wars to support or oppose) or on general principles like Jacksonian, Hamiltonian and so on.

It’s not that they disagree on these foreign policy issues, it’s the the policy issues are now secondary. What matters is support for the military as an institution, for military values, and for American military greatness as an end in itself. Michael Ledeen’s observation that “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” is an exact description, except that the purpose is not to show the world anything but to bolster American self-esteem.

The culture war dominance even extends to the basic issues of class and economic policy. I was always puzzled by the way the term “working class” was used in the US, until I discovered that the standard criterion was not having a four-year college degree. With that definition, and the well-known correlation between education and political liberalism, it’s unsurprising to find that Republicans do well with white “working class” voters, and particular with those members of the “working class” who make more than $50 000 a year, and may even be employers. In this context, the explicit attack on higher education by Rick Santorum (JD, MBA) is particularly noteworthy.

Coming finally to economic policy, Repubs seem to have little remaining interest in arguing that their preferred policies will actually benefit anyone outside the 1 per cent. Rather, it’s all about Donner Party conservatism, punishing welfare queens and so on.

Most of the time Haidt treats all of this as an illustration of a universal truth. But in his final para, he recognises, at least implicitly, that the total dominance of culture war isn’t the normal state of politics

The timing could hardly be worse. America faces multiple threats and challenges, many of which will require each side to accept a “grand bargain” that imposes, at the very least, painful compromises on core economic values. But when your opponent is the devil, bargaining and compromise are themselves forms of sacrilege.

You don’t have to buy the “grand bargain” story, or to be an enthusiast for bargaining and compromise, to recognise that a political system dominated by tribal shibboleths is unlikely to produce good outcomes.

It’s not easy to see how this can be resolved through methods of political debate. Rather, it’s a matter of which side can gain and hold the majority. In this respect, there’s a striking difference between Republican tribalism and the kind of identity politics that has long characterized parts of the left. Left identity politics typically involves focusing one aspect of your identity (gender, sexuality, race, religion, class) and organizing around issue that affect the relevant group. We spent a lot of time in the 70s arguing over whether gender trumped class and so on, and getting nowhere, with the result that the left side of politics, to the extent that it can be viewed in these terms, is, as Haidt puts it, a coalition of tribes.

But that’s not true of the right – it’s core tribal appeal is to white, anti-intellectual, non-feminist, non-poor, Christian, heterosexuals who identify themselves, and others who share all these characteristics as “real Americans’. The problem they face is that each of these taken individually is a majority characteristic, the majority of people deviate from the model in one way or another. So, the way to defeat Repub tribalism is to peel off everyone who is on the wrong side of one or another of their culture wars, and reduce them to a minority

That’s more than enough from me, and I’m sure I’ve got plenty wrong, so feel free to set me straight.



fn1. Admittedly, this wasn’t


27 thoughts on “All culture wars, all the time

  1. I was browsing articles on climate change when I came across this piece in the climate denialist The Register

    Climate-change scepticism must be ‘treated’, says enviro-sociologist

    Scepticism regarding the need for immediate and massive action against carbon emissions is a sickness of societies and individuals which needs to be “treated”, according to an Oregon-based professor of “sociology and environmental studies”. Professor Kari Norgaard compares the struggle against climate scepticism to that against racism and slavery in the US South.


    It seems as if they are claiming that those favouring action on climate change are asserting that deniers are suffering from a mental disease or defect. Unsurprisingly, when I looked at the inked article, it claimed nothing of the sort.

    Simultaneous action needed to break cultural inertia in climate-change response

    LONDON — (March 26, 2012) — Resistance at individual and societal levels must be recognized and treated before real action can be taken to effectively address threats facing the planet from human-caused contributions to climate change.

    That’s the message to this week’s Planet Under Pressure Conference by a group of speakers led by Kari Marie Norgaard, professor of sociology and environmental studies at the University of Oregon. In a news briefing today, Norgaard discussed her paper and issues her group will address in a session Wednesday, March 28, at 2 p.m. London time (9 a.m. U.S. Eastern; 6 a.m. U.S. Pacific).

    It’s almost ceratinly an eccentric use of language by a person for whom English is not a first language. As usual, the deniers have ripped a word out of context to make a strawman claim. It does make me think though that The Register might well be disturbed.

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