While Creative Class locations [BosWash, Silicon Valley, Seattle, and Austin] are successful in generating financial and creative capital, they are comparatively poorer in social capital. Bishop discovered that people living in non-Creative Class settings enjoyed “the comfort of strong families, bustling civic groups, near universal political participation, and abundant volunteering.” Creative Class cities, by contrast, “had fewer volunteers, lower church attendance, and weaker family connections.” Among other attractions for the Creative Class were “anonymity, the opportunity for self-invention, and the economic benefits of loose ties.”
Far from being subject to false consciousness by supporting liberal political candidates, members of the meritocratic class are acting in a rational and deliberate fashion. Because of the sorting that has taken place, locales with large Creative Class concentrations are far less likely to engage in activities that would call upon deep reservoirs of social capital. Inclined toward individualism and a devotion to personal expression and development, and committed especially to success in their careers, members of the meritocracy rely not on each other for assistance and support, but rather expect the government to fill in the abandoned civic sphere. Thus their decision to support liberal politicians is a classic case of recognizing opportunity costs: rather than generating their own social capital, which would detract from their careers and their lifestyle experimentation, they are willing to use relatively ample economic resources to get someone else to do the job. . . .
If the denizens of Connecticut are acting reasonably in supporting liberal politicians, so are Kansans in opposing them. They inchoately recognize that expanding government is a desideratum of the Creative Class, not of those left behind. Theirs is a new kind of class resentment, ironically one in which the “revolutionary” class supports conservative policy and the “aristocracy” advances a global liberalism. Further, they vaguely perceive that their own taxes end up enabling the bad habits of the meritocrat class. And even as citizens of Red States enjoy substantial federal largesse, they are at least surrounded by enough residual social capital to recognize that there is a better way. Theirs is a deep resentment born not of status envy but of a disgust that arises from allowing the irresponsible to buy off their bad consciences. Patrick Deneen in TAC
Following Tom Frank's central question in What's the Matter with Kansas?--i.e., why do working and middle income Americans act against their economic interests in voting Republican?--Deneen asks why high-income Connecticuters vote against their economic interests in electing Democrats. The answer: Kansans understand that it's all about community, and Connecticuters and other Americans in the "creative class" are all about self-absorbed individualistic pursuits. The Kansans are willing to take on social obligations themselves; the wealthy Connecticuters want to pay the government to do it so they won't have to bother.[Deneen is also following Christopher Lasch in the way he flipped Ortega y Gasset's Revolt of the Masses in his essay entitled "Revolt of the Elites"--more on Lasch later in the week.]
Do conservative intellectuals really believe this? Do they believe that if we could just get rid of the New Deal nanny state we'd have once again a nation of virtuous citizens who would take care of one another without any meddlesome government getting in the way? A thousand points of light, etc., etc.?
Thoughtful conservatives like Deneen seem to think that Red Staters better understand that solving thorny social problems requires personal commitment and a sense of social obligation. He argues that Blue Staters, especially rich ones, just want to throw money at human problems, and higher taxes are the easy way out as a salve to their consciences. You know the way these rich people are--we see it all the time on TV and the movies: rather than spend quality time with their loved ones, they give them money. "Haven't I given you everything that you could possibly want, darling? Why are you so unhappy?" Clueless rich liberals--they just don't understand what the wise, warm, down-to-earth conservatives do.
I think that conservatives think that the problem at its roots is attitudinal; but it's not; it's structural. They seem to think that liberal attitudes have caused the low state of contemporary cultural life. But both Liberals and Conservatives are reacting to historical economic, technological, and cultural dynamics that are out of their control. The question is which group is better equipped attitudinally to move with these historical forces and through this period in the most resourceful, deeply human way. I understand the conservative argument about how much we owe to the past, and we are fools if we disregard what has been bequeathed to us by the ancestors. But we must live into the future, and conservative obsessing on all that we have lost is a silly waste of time.
Now in fairness to Deneen, he's not dismissing all liberals as narcissists. He's just trying to explain why rich people in blue parts of the country are liberals and vote Democratic--they vote their cultural values just like the people in Kansas do--their voting preference has as little to do with economic interest for wealthy Connecticuters as it does for middle-income Kansans. I don't want to digress here on a discussion of whose interests people like Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd actually represent, but it's true, Connecticut and other zones where the "creative class" flourishes are not that hospitable for the agenda of the cultural right.
And I don't want to digress into a discussion of just how far the social capital of Kansans will take them in solving the social problems caused by the massive disruptions of market capitalism, but let's grant that Kansans and folks in red counties wherever still retain old-school values rooted in their religious and community commitments in a way the so-called creative class no longer does. So let's accept all that for the sake of argument. I certainly wouldn't want to defend the attitudes and behaviors of the American rich as a group, whether they're Democrats or Republicans. But by Deneen's own admission, at least rich Democrats have a social conscience; it's questionable to what degree the typical rich Republican does.
The more important question for me is how much vital social capital the so-called "revolutionaries" by whom, I assume, he means the Tea Partiers and their less extreme sympathizers, really have. This is a critical issue for me and one about which I have written quite a lot, especially in my posts about Zombie traditionalism. There is a difference between living from the past because it is a rich source of vitality and wisdom and clinging to social forms and attitudes that were vital in the past but just aren't any longer. The forms are not necessarily alive because they are animate; they could be possessed by a spirit quite alien to the one that originally gave them their life and shape.
I'm not saying that there are no examples of a vital traditionalism in contemporary America, but I'd argue that they are rare and hardly constitute the lived reality of most people living in the red counties. I'd argue that the better part of cultural-right politics is driven by a fantasy traditionalism, not a vital traditionalism. It's a nostalgic fantasy born of a sense of loss and confusion for want of the real thing. It's the fantasy so many people want to live in rather than adapt to the real world in which the conditions necessary for a living, vital tradition have been destroyed, primarily by the economic forces Republicans love to celebrate. By their fruits you will know them:
There's a family-values divide between red states and blue states, two researchers say, but the differences might surprise people on both sides of the political spectrum. The states that voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections have the lowest rates of divorce and teen pregnancies. And the red states had the highest. One of those researchers, June Carbone of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, tells host Guy Raz what she thinks is the deciding factor: Women in blue states wait later to get married and have kids.
People in Red America are in pain, and it's deeper than just economic. I'd argue that a good deal of the pain comes from the disjunction between its mindset and the real world in which Red America lives. The world no longer makes sense for a mindset that was developed in the early 19th century. Rapid change and disruption have been normative in America at least since the 1860s, and the rhetoric we hear from the cultural right is rooted in ante-bellum commonplaces. But as Gordon Wood points out in his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, even ante-bellum Americans were already highly mobile, individualistic, restless, and commerce driven--there was never a time when Americans were content Hobbits living in their respective Edenic Shires. [More on this in a future essay.]
But in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries the people in America's red counties, even in the South, have had their lives turned upside down by those cultural and economic dynamics as much as anyone else. Cosmopolitanism isn't the cause of these tradition-destroying dynamics; cosmopolitanism is simply more adaptive to the world as it exists. People can cling to the vestigial old forms if they wish, but don't tell me they possess a social capital that has superior value to the social capital being created by people who recognize the old forms no longer work and who have found other ways to live deep, committed, resourceful lives in a world where the most important human values are no longer "given", but have to be discovered and "chosen". They have to be worked for. [See "Dying Traditions" and "From Outer to Inner, from Given to Chosen."]
The vitality of most of those traditional communities, insofar as there ever was any, has been pretty much destroyed by the aforementioned social disruptiveness of market capitalism. People like Deneen and Lasch understand capitalism's destructive effects in this respect, even though I think it's fair to say that most people in the Tea Party movement do not. So I guess my question for Deneen is whether he really believes there is a significant difference between the social capital as it really exists in red counties throughout the country, or is the matter with Kansas and Tea Partiers and their sympathizers elsewhere precisely that they no longer possess that capital and are desperately driven to find a substitute for it.
And isn't a better explanation for the demagogic right-wing politics afflicting us that it seems to meet that need? I would ask Deneen whether a more likely explanation for what we're seeing on the cultural right is a mass of people, who, because their traditional way of life has been destroyed, are seeking an ersatz sense of identity and community in a mass politics that has little or nothing to do with a vital traditionalism. It has the form of the old, but is possessed by the zombie spirit characterized by identity loss, resentment, and fear--and those are not traditional values.
There are lots of people who live in red America who are decent, caring, virtuous, and right thinking, but so are most of the people I know in cosmopolitan-blue Seattle. Traditional, red-state social capital isn't necessary to lead a decent life, and given what we're seeing in the politics of the cultural right these days, what passes for it is for many an impediment.