Hey, Liberals: You Haven’t Won The Culture War
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If you’re warming up your emailing fingers to type the words “false equivalency,” give me a second here. 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.
My point is that we haven’t found ways of talking about this issue that go beyond buzzwords – the Cosmopolitans and the Heartlanders, or whatever terms David Brooks is peddling these days – and that address questions more meaningful than how to win elections. Thomas Frank is clearly right that the Republican Party has manipulated this cultural gulf to persuade working-class whites by the millions to vote against their own economic interests, and my Salon colleague Joan Walsh is correct that the Democrats can fight back, to some degree, by stressing economic populism. (Obama’s victory in Ohio, which left Karl Rove fuming and sputtering in disbelief, turned on that tactic.)
But 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.
You may have seen a video that made the rounds last weekend, including here on Salon, in which a lefty sandbagger type interviewed a bunch of white people at a Romney-Ryan rally in Ohio. They wore discount-store clothing and drove pickup trucks, and roughly 100 percent of them appeared to belong to the class most likely to suffer under a Republican budget-slashing regime. Hardly any could come up with coherent reasons for choosing Romney over Obama beyond a few Fox News talking points about nonexistent higher taxes and weak leadership and some free-floating paranoia. (One lady suggested that a drone had followed her from her front door to the rally; whether Obama was operating it personally remained unclear.)