The rubes noticed that liberal Democrats, distressed by the notion that Indiana would allow bakeries to practice open discrimination against LGBTQ couples, threatened boycotts against the state, mobilizing the considerable economic power that comes with an alliance of New York and Hollywood and Silicon Valley to punish retrograde Gov. Mike Pence, but had no such passion when the same governor of the same state joined 21 others in refusing the Medicaid expansion. No doubt good liberals objected to that move too. But I've yet to see a boycott threat about it. Emmett Rensin.
When the phrase identity politics has been used over the last forty years, we mainly think of it as the struggle of feminists, African and Native Americans, gays, and other groups to refuse to accept their status as marginalized or oppressed by the mainstream ethos and to insist on their right to equal treatment under the law. For the most part, I support the progress made on these fronts.
So these liberation struggles since the late 1960s have been for these partisans on one level simply to change the laws in such a way as to recognize their rights, but on another level to demand that their identities as feminists, blacks, gays, etc. be culturally normalized. Where culture and law interweave is complex, but it's clear that it's one thing for segregation, for instance, to be proclaimed illegal, and it's another for segregationists to accept desegregation as legitimate and normative. You can legislate to prohibit unjust behaviors, but you can't legislate to prohibit unjust thinking and attitudes.
Too many on the Cultural Left think that if they've won in the courts, they're victory is permanent, because they're on the right side of history and as such their victories were foreordained. But because these traditionalist white conservatives have come to feel a deep threat to their own identities by the victories of the Cultural Left, they have worked hard since the 1970s to reassert their white cultural identities, and in the last thirty years have succeeded in taking control of the legislatures throughout the South, the Heartland, and much of the Mountain West, gridlocking many more, including the legislatures in Washington, D.C., and this year have come to control those as well.
Effectiveness and competency become less salient criteria for electability than which side of the cultural divide you stand on. It's not about economic survival; it's about identity survival, and when your personal or tribal identity is under attack you do irrational things in their defense. Hence, Donald Trump. He is not an aberration; he is a culmination of this reactive drive to defend the traditionalist white identity. This is not going away. If anything, the continued Neollberal economic policies that will continue to marginalize increasing numbers of Red Country Whites is going to make it worse.
So it might be good for people on the Cultural Left to look outside their own bubbles to understand why they have been so dramatically outmaneuvered in the legislatures. To simply believe that all the troglodytes will die off is delusional. Milo Yiannopoulos and his copy cats are going to be a big part of the future. It is becoming very cool for young people to be outrageously right wing. It's idiocy, of course, but the appeal of this idiocy cannot be underestimated, and I want to take a look at some of the cultural factors that are causing movement conservatism to morph into what I fear is an ascendant Dark Right.
Most of the energy that propels the movement of conservatives further to the Right is reactive to what they find repulsive on the Left. I think there are three or four factors that feed this:
- Cultural Lefties are perceived as insufferably sanctimonious and smug, as neo-puritans who have substituted out a moralistic fussiness about traditional sexual rules and roles for a moralistic fussiness about gender and transgender issues. Donald Trump has been embraced by Red Country whites in large part because his outrageousness is s a very emphatic middle-finger to all of that smug sanctimony.
- Cultural Lefties are perceived as glib hipsters, BoBos, or as clueless Yuppies who are more concerned with their career advancement than with economic equity. This explains in large part the negative animus toward HRC, who could never overcome her image as a sanctimonious feminist and careerist with ties to Wall Street.
- Economic issues are important for these white voters, but tribal/cultural affiliations are more important and determine trustworthiness. HRC was not considered trustworthy because she was perceived as playing on the wrong identity team. Cultural Lefties often (not always) support economic policies that favor the interests of poor and working class whites, but it doesn't matter. These white voters see no reason for the people described in item 2 above to care about them or fight for their economic interests, and they are right to see them this way. (See Emmett Rensin quote above.)
- In the same way that African and Native Americans don't want to be assimilated into white culture for reasons most on the Cultural Left can understand, so neither do Red Country whites want to be assimilated into the empty, flat "anything-goes", traditional-mores-hating cosmopolitanism that Cultural Lefties take for granted as desirable and normative. There's no there there when cosmopolitanism is contrasted with the richness of customary culture, even if that customary culture has largely been destroyed. Conservatives who recognize that it has been destroyed blame Liberals for its destruction.
There's a difference between being a Conservative and being a Rightist. Consevatives seek to preserve a "there", i.e., the customary practices and attitudes that were passed down to them from their ancestors. The Right is a response to the meaninglessness that follows when those forms break down.
The Conservative program is simply to hold on to what they have and to resist whatever undermines their traditions and mores. True Conservatives are "Entish"--peaceable, stability-loving folk who are inclined to mind their own business until stupidly provoked by some glib snot from the city. But there are fewer and fewer true conservatives because there are fewer places where vibrant living traditions flourish; market consumer capitalism has destroyed them (not the Cultural Left), and so often self-identified conservatives are conserving only the dead forms left behind by the living traditions that gave those forms their shape.
Those forms, for all their limitations, provide a meaning framework that functions as a bulwark against anomie and identity loss, and with them the loss of meaning and dignity. And the more these forms deteriorate coupled with economic marginalization, the more likely that the people's whose lives were shaped by them fall into destructive behaviors, as in the widely reported opioid epidemic affecting poor whites in Red Country. We are seeing these Whites being pushed into the same kind of hell that has been inhabited by the Black underclass for all these years. That's not their fault, and to blame either poor Blacks or Whites for being morally deficient is simplistic and compassionless.
Yes, we are all moral agents, and we are responsible for our actions, but while victories over hopelessness are possible, they are heroic and statistically rare. Basic human decency requires that we support policies that make it easier for people to do the right thing, and supporting policies that push people into deeper levels of poverty or keeping them there are reprehensible because they make it so much harder. Policies designed to help people move out of these destructive cultures once they have formed is no easy matter, but the rest of us have to recognize our culpability for allowing the Neoliberal policies that have pushed and are continuing to push so many people into deeper levels of poverty and hopelesseness in the first place.
So the Conservatism if poor Whites is not the enemy, their hopelessness and poverty are. The emergence of the Right is a more aggressive response to the breakdown of these traditional forms. A Rightist is someone who sees that there is no longer anything vital in the tradition and that there never was anything vital in the fussy, politically correct bourgeois cosmopolitanism that shapes the attitudes and behaviors of the Cultural Left. The Right refuses the anomic, groundless emptiness of both bourgeois Liberalism and formal emptiness of traditionalist Conservatism. And people drawn to the Right in refusing both forms of emptiness look for something to fill the vacuum, and that means that they will often find it in the dark sub-rational--in violence and will to power, which are very energizing, edgy, and cool. Hence, Milo.
As a Christian, I believe the only healthy way to fill the emptiness comes from a supra-rational source, and that the only true energy to deal effectively with the sub-rational comes from the same place. I also believe, following Ivan Illich, that Western Liberal institutions are an alienation generating corruption of Christianity, but that's a topic for another day. I want to point out today that that many people who are attracted to the dark sub-rational would not be if they were offered a vital supra-rational alternative, and the failure there comes from the way the churches themselves have corrupted Christianity. And so both corruptions, because they offer mostly alienation and so rarely anything that is deeply vital, push people for want of an alternative toward the dark irrational.
Nevertheless, there are many ordinary Americans, whether churchgoers or not, who are capable of discerning how grace works subtly in their lives, despite how challenging to discern it in an environment in which those subtle energies must compete with energies that seem so much more compelling. And so there's always reason to hope that some kind of pushback will emerge from the basic decency of such discerning people. And then there is something peculiar about America and its proclivity to be the locus for spiritual awakenings, so we'll see what happens.
But in the meanwhile, I'd like to point out to any cosmopolitan Cultural Lefties that might be reading this that the real enemy in the future is not traditionalists and conservatives--they are a bulwark against the coming flood. The real enemy is the cultural anomie that feeds the dark energies of an ascendant Right. And you do yourselves no favors when you feed that anomie by debunking the old ways without replacing them with something vital, and clearly there is nothing truly vital in your sanctimony. And so your debunking is more likely to push conservatives toward the Dark Right rather than to draw them into your empty cosmopolitanism. Whether or not that cosmopolitanism is sufficient for you, it's not something that sustains most people in the long run, and it offers no real defense against the storm that we have good reason to fear is now forming on the Right.
Update: Conor Lynch at Salon makes a similar argument Monday morning. He points rightly to the approach that has the better chance of winning over low-information but sane Red Country voters:
Last week Sen. Bernie Sanders did something that many liberals would have probably considered a waste of time, holding a town hall-style meeting in a coal mining county in West Virginia where voters had overwhelmingly cast ballots for Trump. During the meeting one person expressed support for universal health care and said he had voted for Trump “solely because he said he was going to help us,” adding, “he was going to put the coal miners back to work, and we’re going to have health care and this and that.” Rather than disparaging this man as an ignorant hick — the natural impulse for many liberals in such a situation — Sanders respectfully informed him and the audience that Trumpcare would result in millions of people losing their health insurance while giving the wealthiest Americans a massive tax cut. By the end of the town hall meeting, Sanders had seemingly won over the entire crowd.
As Trump and his Republican colleagues continue to screw over poor and working-class people in the days and months ahead, Democrats will have a perfect opportunity to expose the president as the fraud that he has always been and reclaim the “party of the people” title. Cheering as people lose their health insurance may not be the best way to go about this.
If you don't understand why Bernie is credible for these voters in a way that Hillary is not, see item two above. Bernie has been a successful politician in a rural, white state for decades. He would not have been successful if he could only win in Burlington and Middlebury. He understand his rural voters, and he respects them, and they respect him because he's a no-b.s., straight shooter, and he has no patience with identity politics, and this has been one of his big problems with establishment Dems.
I believe that if the Democrats had the good sense to nominate Sanders, he would have easily beat Trump. And while he would not have been able to accomplish much in the first couple of years, he wouldn't have been Trump, and he would have had the opportunity to lay the groundwork to change the conversation in a more progressive direction. Bernie's program would be frustrated for reasons I discuss in the previous post: He would have been opposed by the Democratic establishment in the same way that Bannon is now being opposed by the GOP establishment. Neither party's establishment wants to deal with populist demands.
Channelling these populist energies is the only way that either the GOP or Democratic establishments can be toppled. The GOP have their chance to do it now with Bannon/Trump, and while I was worried for a while that they might succeed, and in doing so win over white populists for the next twenty years, I am less worried now. The GOP establishment will not allow Bannon/Trump to have their way.
And while things could change, it's hard to see Trump as anything but an impediment to the implementation of anything so tricky as the kind of populist coup that Bannon wants to effect. If Trump becomes a real problem for the establishment, it has more than enough to work with to impeach him or force him out by other means. They'd rather deal with Pence, anyway.
Nevertheless, so much depends on the Progressive (as opposed to the Neoliberal) wing of the Democratic Party winning over the white voters that went for Trump. If they fail, they will give the Right another opportunity, and someone shrewder and more competent than Trump could succeed where he has failed, especially if the ranks of the Dark Right about which I speak in this post continue to swell