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. Key conservatives in both the US and Australia seem untroubled by science or facts. I wonder if Prime Minister Abbott will silence climate change research by CSIRO; in the US President Romney might stifle the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA. Perhaps school biology texts will have to give equal weight to evolution and intelligent design.

    We could find ourselves in a new era of weirdness in which the facts on the ground say one thing but the people want politicians who say something else.

  2. I like this post, particularly the comparison to left wing “identity politics” based tribalism. I agree, there’s no automatic symmetry to the two wings in this regard. The dysfunctionality of political feminism in particular seems mainly to designed hurt and splinter the cause of feminism. It starts with a very reasonable set of assertions about basic human rights and equality, but soon descends into a mess of self-contradictory dogmas, with different schools of thought attacking each other more than the opposition. By contrast, right-wing tribalism seems to actually work as a rallying point for conservatives.

  3. Is any one of you interested on hearing the views of someone who is experiencing in REAL everyday life all that you are discussing in THEORY ??? Ask me then, and I will be extremely happy to give you examples from my everyday struggle in a little spot of the Globe.
    I leave in Chania, Krete – GREECE and I found out his blog by chance.

  4. Let us have it Anna! Start that keyboard up!
    Even better, start a blog so we can read your stuff directly, instead of having to sift through no end of (theoretical) tripe to read your reali everyday life experiences.

  5. I’m always amused at the way the looney right has adopted (plagiarized) many of the loopiest versions of far left ideas, like that reality is socially constructed …

  6. This clip, from Rachel Maddow (IMO America’s best regular on-air journalist), offers an insight into the other part of the culture wars that the Repugs are following — the one on what to do about “lady parts”

    Watch with credulity, because you are going to need it …

  7. It’s like the Americans have corporatised British bulldog. As long as you win it’s not how you play the game.

    Doris Lessing wrote about her discussions with a British headmaster, how their public school system produced some wonderful empire builders yet crushed the others. She also wrote how a whole generation (her fathers) were betrayed by their leaders (WW1).

  8. Incredulity, Fran! It’s back to the middle ages stuff.
    Perhaps having health care the responsibility of employers enables that sort of bondsman/liege lord thing that the repubs seem to believe in. Your boss owns your body, and the republican nobility tells your boss what they should have you do with it.

  9. I’ve often thought about the selection process on the killing fieldd of WW1. The bravest and most willing to lay down their lives for others, the idealistic and public spirited would have been precisely those selected out of the gene pool.
    They would have been amongst those closest to the front of pointless charges on enemy machine guns.

  10. “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’.”

    My understanding is that poor whites vote Democrat by a fairly slim majority. An interesting question is why are these folk voting against their economic interests? I suspect there is some vicarious psychic reward gained from identifying with “one’s betters” that influences voting patterns as well as a wish to distance oneself from the “inferior” (black, hispanic) or weird (snotty nosed college boys) types.

    Maybe false consciousness is a reasonable label for this phenomena.

    ps. Freeloader, you are making even less sense than usual. Are you trippin’?

  11. The issue of lady parts and healthcare limitations is likely to have many women who may have subscribed to the culture wars realise that they are not a protected species in the patriarchal system favoured by the Republicans. It is one thing to hate those lefties but it is quite another to have access to birth control limited with no abortion or the quasi rape interference favoured by many. While there may be a few women on the right who agree with this point of view it is more likely that women will peel off in droves as they understand that it isn’t the “other” that is being targeted in the cultural wars but them. Women as 50% of the population is a big potential voting bloc.

    The same coming together of interests occurred in Australia when Tony Abbott refused to allow RU46 to be approved and women of both parties revolted. However I am not sure that the Republicans appreciate that women are not going to allow their reproductive rights to be used in the culture wars. Even very elderly women will have daughters, granddaughters, nieces and others who will be affected by the punitive nature of the legislation that is arising out of Alabama. Even Catholic women are very fond of contraception.

  12. @Mel

    Why do they vote against their interests?

    Because they deludedly believe in the “American dream” and believe that they will end up on top of the heap where they will benefit from the ‘help the rich” policies of the Republican party. Everyone of them sees themself as a Trump telling the rest they are fired.

  13. 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.

    This has already happened, but in America turnout is a factor, unlike Australia. Obama won in 2008 with a coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, unmarried women, and white college students. Those groups are also less likely to turn out in off-year elections. Thus the Republican resurgence in 2010, which saw a much higher than normal turnout among their constituency (or a smaller falloff than among Democratic voters from 2008).

    @Jill Rush: Women typically are 52% to 54% of the vote in America.

  14. With that definition, and the well-known correlation between education and political liberalism

    Well, in the US that’s certainly not linear. Overall, the ends tend to lean Democratic, while the middle (completed 2-year and 4-year degrees) tend to lean Republican. Some data here.

  15. On health care, the great irony is that Obama’s health care legislation was modelled on the system that Romney introduced to Massachusetts when he was Governor.

    Of course now Romney can’t talk about his time as Governor because it reminds Republican primary voters about his health care system.

  16. Next thing the oligarchs and bosses will be invoking “jus primae noctis”.

    But seriously, the GOP is certifiably insane. The number of delusional beliefs they hold is extraordinary. Any country where the ruling class has lost its grip on reality to this extent is in serious trouble.

  17. @PeakVT As I understand it (although data is scarce) when education and income are taken into account jointly, education is correlated with Democratic alignment at all income levels. The correlations going the other way are because education and income are correlated and high-income earners tend to vote Republican.

    The correlation between education and liberal attitudes, to which I referred, is pretty robust, though high-education Republicans are even crazier than the normal kind.

  18. Anna,

    perimeno kai ego! (I, too, am waiting). :))

    Interesting that you are from Hania. My Cretan friend tells me that (to a large extent), that area is immune from the ravages of Austerity.


  19. @Mel

    I’ll try to give you my answer on why people vote against their own interest, however I should state before hand that I don’t have 100% gold backed evidence against my analysis on the matter.

    The first reason is that, the right generally gives tax cut while the left sometimes do need to raise taxes to fund welfare transfers, public investments (e.g. solar, wind energy) and other political programs. This raising taxes in my opinion, is actually quite difficult to sell to the public even if the end result might give them more benefit than what they contribute, examples would be carbon pricing and MRRT. I personally consider tax similar to investment which I can receive benefit through other means such as better education, health system etc. Unfortunately not many people that I know of consider tax the same way I do, but rather think it’s the government trying to get money from them.

    Second reason would be the media, other than biased facts and lies; they do slowly affect the general public’s trust in the government. This would make increase in taxes even more harder.

    Third, I believe it’s got something to do with human instinct; the neoliberals promote “freedom” while the left requires collective actions and contributions. Although the matter is different when it comes to management of a country, quite a lot of people do dislike to be “managed”. The irony is however a lot of the countries with the highest tax as a percentage of GDP (Sweden, Denmark and Finland etc) gives much more freedom to their population when it comes to choosing their tertiary education and career path as opposed to neoliberals saying “If you know you can’t live on art don’t go and study art history”.

  20. so the drowning-government-in-a-bathtub and the i’m-from-the-government-and-i’m-here-to-help-you slogans that have plastered over any reasoning political discourse have caused the degeneration and splintering of any coherant political action.

    sounds like anarchy to me.

    does that make the drown-government-in-a-bathtub and the i’m-from-the-government-and-i’m-here-to-help-you proponents anarchists?

    another part of the picture is how much the news broadcasting industry resembles the situation in Britain when representatives sitting in parliament were elected from what were called rotten boroughs.

    to me,anyway.

  21. Its a good thread-starter and something that’s been occupying my mind, too, during the seasonal lull between summer sports and football.
    It’s certainly true that Reagan’s mental configuration contributed to the stark, uncannily childlike simplicity of his meta narrative which so connected with a large mass of souls functioning at a similar level.
    I think the difference between the left and right stories is one of self reflexivity.
    The left’s narrative is at least rooted in reality, directed by do unto others, and devoid of too much occult stuff, if only also some times for selfish reasons that lefties won’t always own up and do their own form of denialism over.
    But the right’s stuff, that they are somehow empowered to bully the crap out of “others” other wise it might upset the sky-person/people, is truly epic in its fictic scope and intensity.
    Of course we can’t comment on neolib ideology because it’s not so much an ideology as a pathology.

  22. And whaddaya know.
    Media Watch tonight presented us with the exemplar par exellence, Freelander.

  23. 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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