Michael Lind this afternoon in a post on Salon:
When party systems collapse in American history, the new party system tends to emerge from within the dominant party. The defeat of the Confederates meant that the politics of the Gilded Age would be fought between the business and farmer wings of the hegemonic Republican Party. During the New Deal era the intra-party disputes between liberals and Democratic conservatives foreshadowed the disputes between parties in the Reagan era.
If this pattern holds, then in the next generation the “right” is likely to be closer to the neoliberal wing of today’s Democrats than to today’s ultra-libertarian economic conservatives, whose views about entitlements and regulation will marginalize them by 2020 or 2030. If the post-Reagan Republicans adopt something like the centrist New Democrat neoliberalism of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, then the Democrats may respond by becoming a much more consistently progressive, pro-government and New Deal-ish party on economic issues.
I wrote this earlier in the comments section for the Obama Speech post:
Another idea for realignment might be for the sensible business types in the GOP to break off from the GOP extremists and join with the Neoliberal or corporate Dems to form a new party. It would really be the old Republican Party, but it will have to call itself something else. The "Money Party" probably won't work. It will embrace free market libertarian ideas, and will leave the extreme cultural conservatives to form their own fringe party.
The Democrats would then re-embrace its original tradition of populism -- progressive on economic issues, and moderate on social issues. Its nucleus will be traditional labor, ethnic Catholics/Hispanics, African Americans, Main Street progressives, and maybe in time even southern working class whites. And then a fringe party (it's nucleus the current Greens?) can form further to the left and it can push the populist Democrats to deal with bigger issues that are not exactly "kitchen table"--environment, gay rights, surveillance state, aggressive foreign policy, criminalization of everything, etc. over time. Just thinking out loud here, but this would bring a better balance to our politics that it currently does not have.
I think demographic changes will clear force party realignments, whether or not Lind or my scenario has any basis in reality. I think that cultural conservatism will always have its deadenders--as Lind says in his article--
No doubt some Reaganite conservatives will continue to fight the old battles, like the Japanese soldiers who hid on Pacific islands for decades, fighting a war that had long before been lost. But as a formula for achieving a governing majority in the United States, Reaganism is finished.
Whether this kind of change will have much of an impact on Obama's second term is doubtful, but I think in the long run, he's right. But one might also ask whether it will make that much of a difference if this new, secular, non-nostalgic culturally left politics will have the political awareness and the will to take on Big Money.
From a Salon Interview:
Occupy once looked like it could play that role. Certainly the focus on income inequality and the concept of the 99 percent never would have resonated without their hard work. And it just …
It sort of fizzled. That was a real shame. I was real excited about it at first. There was a moment when I was on the subway train in D.C., and this guy comes on, and he’s clearly just come back from a trade show or something. He’s got a tote bag with one of those slogans that you see about how winners are really awesome, something like that — one of these corporate slogans about delivering shareholder value or some such bullshit. And it was at the height of Occupy, and this guy was clearly uncomfortable with this on his person. What a moment that was!
There really was a moment when you could tell that the hedge-fund guys felt shamed, that Wall Street was on the defensive.
Well, it should have gone on. It should have built and built. It was a great start that didn’t go anywhere, and that’s also tragic — really tragic. It wasn’t the first massive left-wing thing we have seen in a long time because the progressive people signing up for Obama was a massive thing that also failed. Before that, the protests in Seattle in ’99 — people were enthusiastic about that, and that fizzled, too. There’s a larger problem here about why the left can’t get off the ground, take off, failure to launch…
And the problem is what?
Well, there’s a bunch of interrelated problems, but a big part of it is the academization of protests. I don’t mean that it is just student-based — students should be protesting, I think. They are totally being screwed by the universities these days — the mounds of debt they are forced to incur, all those things. There’s a bunch of different problems, but one of the problems is that these movements always — somehow — get sucked into the academy. They get taken over by people who are absolutely determined to not speak in a way that is comprehensible to average Americans. In fact, [these are] people who have enormous contempt for average Americans. The whole idea of the left is about empowering average people, and you can’t do that if you despise them.
There’s another thing I’d like to add to this, and that is the issue of the state. Occupy tended to be pretty unsophisticated about the state. They sound like libertarians, frankly, when they’re talking about the state. If you want to do something about Wall Street in this country, there is only one power that can do it — and that’s the state, obviously. That’s government. And government did perform that role for a long time. Glass-Steagall, that was the law of the land. Banks were closely regulated; you didn’t have anything like this sort of madness of the last decade, the shadow banks … (Source)
Two key takeaways. There are two problems that Frank talks about that are central to why the progressive politics is not taken seriously and won't be until they get fixed. First, the progressive educated class's contempt for the people (whom Frank calls "average Americans") who don't share their cultural libertarian or cosmopolitian values. Second, the left's political libertarianism, its naively idealistic, anarchic refusal of hierarchy (i.e., transparent, accountable leadership) and the organization and the discipline effective political mobilization requires.
We Americans say we are for freedom and equality, but at this moment in our history 'freedom' is the only one of the two we really care about, the only one that gets us steamed and energized when it is restricted in any way. The political left gives more lipservice to equality than the right, but it's on choice in the cultural sphere is the only thing they'll organize around, and the political (libertarian & Tea Party) right only gets excited about removing government restraints in the economic sphere. (The cultural right isn't particularly concerned about either freedom or equality; the people there are in their own cramped little world, but they tend to align with the political right regarding economic freedom. Why the cultural right aligns with the political right is the focus of Frank's book, What's the Matter with Kansas.)
But as I've written about here, Freedom and Equality are not absolutes, they are polarities that balance one another, and have to be kept in a kind of creative tension. When things are unbalanced in the direction of freedom, equality suffers; when things are unbalanced in the direction of equality freedom suffers. It's neither one nor the other; it's both, and a mature politics understands that and finds ways to keep things in balance. Right now American society is unbalanced in the direction of freedom, and the consequences are clear: we are living with the highest rates of economic inequality in our history and in the world.
The people who are most damaged by the politics of inequality (most of us) are living in different cultural silos, and as such we are divided and conquered. And until somebody or some movement emerges that works to effectively break down those cultural barriers, the bad guys (the oligarchs who love inequality so long as it favors them) win.
So I've said it before, and I'll say it I'm sure many times again. It's not that the cultural issues aren't important, but while the family members are preoccupied with their heated arguments in the front parlor, the bad guys are coming in the kitchen door in the back and robbing them blind. At some point the family has to come together, agree to disagree (about abortion or whatever), and get back into the kitchen to deal with a very serious problem that threatens the good of all.
American politics used to be primarily about people choosing candidates based on their positions on issues—taxes, deregulation, the environment, jobs, health care, energy policy, welfare, social security, national security, and so on. But elections have become more about making a statement about your identity; and national elections are about whoe we say we are to ourselves and to the rest of the world. The elections this decade are not so much about solving practical problems, but about deciding who we are.
The country is in a state of identity crisis, not unlike the one now being experienced in the Islamic world. The crisis there involves a conflict between the centuries-old traditions of Islam and the threat that modernity poses toward it. It’s not unlike the crisis the Western world experienced at the time of the Reformation. As those who then supported the traditional crown-and-altar institutions rejected modernity, so now do the traditionalist forces in Islam reject it.
American identity was shaped in very large part by the rejection of the premodern, medieval model, and its feelings of scorn toward the medievalism of Islam today are similar to the deepseated scorn Americans felt toward the medievalism of Catholicism back then. The post-reformation religious wars in Europe were symptomatic of how profound many felt the stakes to be. These wars were not at the deepest level about territory and money. They were for the traditionalists about preserving the integrity of their age-old way of life and for the the moderns about freedom from the constraints of what they perceived tradition’s irrationality and corruption. As in Europe then, so in the Middle East now.
America, unlike its European cousins, came into existence as a modern, post-medieval experiment, and for the most part it’s been an experiment that has worked out. But just as modernity is now posing a challenge to Islamic identity, post-modernity is posing a challenge to America's modern identity. And just as Islam has very powerful factions on its right that feel a desperation to resist the inevitable, so does America’s right.
Both in the long run are losing causes, but both in the short run can do a lot of damage. Both forces here and there sense their inevitable extinction, and both like cornered animals are thinking now with their reptile brains, which means that it’s all about survival, and when people feel that their survival is at stake, they can justify the commission of any crime. The reptile brain does not think in moral categories. Its only concern is survival. And the cultural right in America really believes that the survival of the American way of life is at stake, and its destroyers are Islam from without and Liberals from within.
In my view this goes a long way to explain the behavior of extremists and their sympathizers on the cultural right both in this country and in the Middle East. The people within these factions in each society have to be treated carefully because they are truly like cornered animals, and as such they are very dangerous. It would be nice if we could just tranquilize them and have them sleep it off until the new thing gels, but the task is far more difficult and confusing—and sane traditionalists have a constructive role to play in shaping the future if they would embrace it.
I consider myself such a traditionalist. I am, after all, a Catholic, but I'm one with historical consciousness, and I do not dread but rather see an opportunity in a society that is no longer modern. And Catholics, like Jews and Muslims, because they have a foot in both the premodern world as well as in the contemporary globalizing world, have the potential to play a stablizing role for the world as it makes the transition into the postmodern, if they develop an imagination for doing so. Protestantism, I'd argue, is too much a creature of modernity to be of much help, but who knows. Certainly the restorationists within the Catholic Church are of no use. They are simply part of this larger right-wing backlash for which there is no constructive future. My guess is that if Catholics are to play such a role, the impulse for it will come out of the southern hemisphere, but not in my lifetime. Too much has to change. But that's a topic for another day.
In a free, rights-centered society, the right, even its nuttiest extremists, must be allowed their freedom, and in the long run their influence will wither away for lack of relevance. But right now they have more relevance than they deserve because they offer a solution to a culture-wide problem that the more progressive forces in the culture cannot yet offer. The right offers a very clear picture about what it means to be American for people who cannot live with the insecurity and ambiguity that characterize a period of cultural transition. And that picture is based on a fantasy of "the way we were." Ronald Reagan was iconic in this respect. He was the embodiment of the "way-we-were" American fantasy, and his appeal lay in his giving Americans some feeling of pride in being an American again in a confusing time of identity crisis.
The Democrats, as awful as they are, and as bereft of solutons as they are, best represent the path forward. But it's not about answers now. We first have to figure out who we are, and in the meanwhile we need to put people in office who will do the least damage.
A culture organized around mass consumption encourages narcissism--which we can define, for the moment, as a disposition to see the world as a mirror, more particularly as a projection of one's own fears and desires--not because it makes people grasping and self-assertive but because it makes them weak and dependent. It undermines their confidence in their capacity to understand and shape the world and to provide for their own needs. The consumer feels that he lives in a world that defies practical understanding and control, a world of giant bureaucracies, "information overload," and complex, interlocking technological systems vulnerable to sudden breakdown.
The consumer's complete dependence on these intricate, supremely sophisticated life-support systems, and more generally on externally provided goods and services, recreates some of the infantile feelings of helplessness. If nineteenth-century bourgeois culture reinforced anal patterns of behavior--hoarding of money and supplies, control of bodily functions, control of affect--the twentieth century culture of mass consumption recreates oral patterns rooted in an even earlier stage of emotional development, when the infant was completely dependent on the breast. The consumer experiences his surroundings as a kind of extension of the breast, alternately gratifying and frustrating.
He finds it hard to conceive of the word except in connection with his fantasies. Partly because the propaganda surrounding commodities advertises them so seductively as wish fulfillments, but also because commodity production by its very nature replaces the world of durable objects with disposable products designed for immediate obsolescence, the consumer confronts the world as a reflection of his wishes and fears. He knows the world, moreover, largely through insubstantial images and symbols that seem to refer not so much to a palpable, solid, and durable reality as to his inner psychic life, itself experienced not as an abiding sense of self but as reflections glimpsed in the mirror of his surroundings. (The Minimal Self, pp. 33-34)
Lasch's book, appropriately enough, was copyrighted in 1984, and the themes he develops in it are an important complement to Orwell. I don't have time today to comment on this extensively right now, but it's the beginning of a longer-term reflection I want to undertake concerning how contemporary consumer culture and the mass media it has created defines for too many of us what is believable and unbelievable, and how it reinforces collective delusional thinking and the drift toward the kind of world that Orwell warned would be our future.
This is what I really want to talk about. No matter whom we elect next week, the deeper structural problems shaping contemporary culture and our political life will remain. I endorse the Obama candidacy not because I think he offers any real solutions, but because he represents constituencies that are less dangerous than those Romney represents. I really do believe the GOP is capable of driving us off the cliff justifying what they do in the name of patriotic platitudes and traditional Christian values. Too many of them are nuts and those who aren't are naive.
There are some sane Republicans who can see clearly what a disaster this administration has become, but cannot bring themselves to vote for a guy like Obama. I understand their dilemma. The Dems have serious, serious problems, and Obama is emblematic of them. But it's the Dems confusion and their very lack of a sense of direction that recommends them to me. Better that than to give the steering wheel to people who think they know where they are going but who really don't.
BTW. Saw the film Beasts of the Southern Wild last night. Well worth seeing and timely. Juxtapose that film with Lasch's quote.
Earlier this month in a post entitled Bye Bye Miss American Pie I wrote that traditional America contracted a terminal disease in the twenties and died in the sixties. Don McLean sang the funeral dirge and Marshall McLuhan wrote the obituary. The terminal disease was liberation fever, and the demon spirit that took possession of the corpse is consumer capitalism. American culture has become a zombie culture, a culture of the undead.
What died was the traditional America shaped by white, mainly Calvinist, Protestantism. That Calvinism continues zombie-like to twitch and flail away on the religious right, and it's a shame because it gives Christianity a bad name now at a time when real Christianity is needed more than ever. But this zombie Christianity is a construct of Dr. Frankensteins like Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson. Like Frankenstein's monster theirs has the appearance of the real thing--head, arms, torso, legs, but it's counterfeit. It's a phony construct animated by human delusion. Pull the cord in the back of its neck and it will quote bible verses, but it's rote, mechanical, without any understanding.
It's not a question of sincerity. Most of the ordinary people going to to the zombie churches are as sincere, trusting, and nice as you'd ever want. But so were the people who drank the Kool Aid in Jonestown. Being sincere isn't enough to keep you out of trouble; you need to be shrewd and to see clearly. "Be ye as guileless as doves," says the Gospel, "and shrewd as serpents." But in a mature Christianity, the serpent part (human intelligence) is tamed by and is inspired by the dove part (the spirit) which the former serves. 'Con-science' is the 'together-seeing' by which the two work together fruitfully. Problems arise when one works without the other. In zombie Christianity, there's a division of labor in which all the doves surrender their their intelligence to the snakes who hypnotize them in the churches and on the airwaves.
I digress. The thing I really started out to write about was how consumer capitalism is the disease that killed the spirit of traditional America and has rendered almost everything that was noble in the American idea into some trivial parody of what it really should be. The liberation fever of the sixties and seventies that killed it was a necessary purgative, and would have been health-promoting if somehow the culture found a way to get things into balance again, but for lots of reasons it wasn't possible. And so now in place of what was at one time real and life-sustaining there are parodies and zombies.
We're living now in a hall of mirrors where everything is image and nothing has any deeply sustaining substance. We're starved, and the only thing available to feed on is junk food. We graze, and we move on, and we call our moving on growth. But it's not growth, it's just a bovine feeding, shitting, and random movement. Growth requires setting ones roots into something deeply, and it's this knack for depth that as a culture we seem to have lost. Because there is nothing in our environment, no customs, institutions, traditions that are themselves any longer deeply rooted and alive, and which are therefore capable of offering us wholesome nourishment.
I am someone who has a deeply conservative temperament, but I don't see anything out there of real value worth conserving. It's all empty, dead, and bogus. The so-called conservatives in the GOP are zombie conservatives. They are robotic and utterly predictable in the rote, hypnotic recitation of their scripts which have virtually no relationship to the world as it is. Nothing they say sounds fresh or real. So many of them are bizarre, creepy, quasi humans; they are the undead. Romney is a perfect as their representative.
I'm being only half facetious here; maybe a quarter. I do think that there is something very weird and cultlike that has overtaken the group psychology of the GOP, and I find it very, very disturbing.
In any event, I am not without hope. The whole point of this blog is to be an exercise in striving to see more clearly and to look toward the future in hope. The levee is dry now, but it will not always be. Our job in the meanwhile is to live in such a way to insure that when the thaw comes and the cool waters begin their descent from the mountains, there will be nothing in us to obstruct its flow.
One of the peculiar characteristics of the time in which we live is that on one level everything seems to be normal. Life goes on pretty much the way it always has for the last fifty years—adults go to work, children go to school, we get around in cars and watch a lot of TV—there are continuities, for sure. But something is different. Things don’t feel quite right. There's relative calm on the outside, but there's barely controlled panic on the inside. People are scared, and they don't quite know about what. It’s not just the heightened level of anxiety that the nation feels following 9/11. It’s been going on longer than that—at least since the sixties, because that’s when Americans began to have a palpable sense that we were no longer who we thought we were.
I think it comes from a feeling of the country having lost its anchor. There's a directionless drift that makes people very anxious, and it comes from a sense that there's no "normal" anymore. This sense of the country losing its norms has accelerated in the last forty years, and much has been written about just getting used to a world where normal means constant change. All kinds of self-help books have come on to the scene instructing their readers how to thrive in chaos or how to ride the rapids of change. And that’s all well and good, but it doesn’t really cut to the heart of the matter, which is that living with constant change is stressful. People need stability. They need to have a feeling of some control over their lives, and when they don’t, they cannot help but feel that they are lost and that their lives are spinning out of control.
So they vote Republican. The Democrats have become identified with the forces of normless chaos, the Republicans with the forces of what used to be thought of as "normal." For many people it's that simple and that primitive. It has hardly anything to do with the specific issues. It's all a matter of who they believe at an unconscious level will be more effective at maintaining and promoting the feeling of order and security that comes from the world being normal again.
But as I've been arguing for the last couple of weeks, voting Republican doesn't slow down the change. It just gives people the illusion of control. It gives people a feeling that their vote is all about trying to bring back the old, normal America. This is a politics of nostalgia and it's just shot through with delusion. It's a politics that refuses to deal with the world as it is.
The fact is that change and social chaos will continue to be the norm no matter whom we elect. And the kind of people we need in political leadership positions are not those who promise to make the anxiety and discomfort go away, but those who will help us to develop the skills that will enable us to adapt. A lot of people I know would say: Well that's what the GOP stands for. The Dems are for giving everybody a fish, to use the old cliche, and the GOP is for teaching every body how to catch his own fish.
My response would be that's what Republicans say, but that's not really what Republicans are for. They're primary motivation is to establish a political and adminsitrative infrastructure that will defend a minority of elites from what they fear is a mob that will use their numbers to push them aside. All the traditional-values talk is window dressing. It's a tool that the Big Money people use cynically to keep the Indians on the GOP reservation.
As I have said before, and I will no doubt say again, a vote for Democrats is not a vote for change. It's simply a vote to apply the brakes. It's the truly conservative vote. It's a vote to return to a politics that is more mainstream. There's nothing particularly exciting about that or about Obama. But he represents a political approach that is more in touch with the reality of a changing America. For real change originates in the cultural sphere, and is eventually reflected in the political sphere. The GOP simply represents a politics of nostalgia, and this politics of nostalgia is a very conveniennt cover for Big Money to push the country into electing people who will do what they need to protect their long-term interests.
I know. Big Money owns the Dems, too. But the Dems in the short run are all we've got--not to promote a sane, progressive agenda, but to restrain a Social Darwinist one. The national Dems, as a group, are callow and short-sighted, but they are at least vulnerable to pressure from below, if such pressure ever materializes.
My loathing for what the GOP has come to represent is about as intense as it could possibly be, but my criticism does not come from the standpoint of Liberalism. I came across this quote from Louis Menand's essay "Christopher Lasch's Quarrel with Liberalism", and it serves as an introduction to what I want to say:
Modern life, to some of its critics, looks like a giant wrecking yard of traditions, with none around to pick up the mess. In the middle of the yard there is a small tin shed and inside the shed the apologists of fragmentation sit. These are the liberals. They explain how it is that we are better off without guides to conduct that are any more substantive than the right of each of us to pick up whatever pieces catch his or her fancy, and why it is that life inside the yard counts as liberation.
People who are unhappy with modernity, on this description, have two alternatives: they can gather together bits of the failed traditions and construct from them a philosophy of conduct that might supplant liberalism's emptiness, or they can choose, intellectually , at least, to live outside the yard altogether.
There are three kinds of people who choose to live outside the yard. There are those like the Amish, Hutterites, Hasids and guys like the poet Wendell Berry, who still plows his field with a horse-drawn plow. These people chose to live in worlds constructed as best as possible as a huge refusal to acknowledge the existence of the modern world around them. A second group would be restorationists who feel that the traditions haven't failed they just have to be freshened up a bit. The old traditional social forms were good for our ancestors, they think, and we've got to bring them back. The agenda of much of the Christian right is restorationist in this sense.
But the third category is the first Menand describes--people who are unhappy with modernity, but who see the cultural task as gathering the shards from shattered traditions and to assemble them into something that is lightweight and portable into an uncertain future. The essential characteristic of people in this group is to recognize that there is no longer a living tradition, but there is enormous value in retrieving what was lost. I would call those in this group Romantics. Nietzsche and Heidegger were Romantics in this sense--and Christopher Lasch is another. The romantic impulse dates to the mid 1700s and the beginnings of the industrial revolution. It was animated by a revulsion many felt at the disenchantment of nature being promoted by the new approach to it taken by science (Blake, Wordsworth). And by profound misgivings about the kind of human being who was being created by these new social forms that seemed to blithely sweep away tradition as if it were so much irrationality and superstition (Burke).
Christopher Lasch situates himself solidly in this tradition as it manifested in American thought, which for him was carried forward by Jonathan Edwards, R. W. Emerson, William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, and Reinhold Niebuhr. And in his books, especially in The Culture of Narcissism and The Minimal Self, he points with alarm to the kind of human being modernity has created. And in his, I believe, last book, The True and Only Heaven, he struggles to define what the antidote is, and he calls it "populism."
Populism is not Liberalism. Populism is the force that drove southern blacks to overturn the segregationist system. Liberals tagged along, but they did not have the moral force to make it happen. The essence of Liberalism is laissez faire--leave people alone to do as they please. Liberalism lacks moral force because it is morally contentless. It is simply a framework that seeks to allow citizens to do as they please so long as they do not infringe on the rights of others to do as they please. Moral content must come from outside the framework of Liberalism. The Civil Rights movement would not have been possible outside of a Liberal political framework, but it was not something that Liberalism made happen. It was effected by the religious consciousness of black Christians that was (and is) quite alien from the spirit of Liberalism.
There's a connection between what Nietzsche called the Last Man and what Lasch calls the culture of narcissism, and neither is well enough understood and both are the products of modernity and its Liberal values matrix. About that I have no disagreement with the right. My disagreement lies not with their diagnosis of the problem but with their prescription for a remedy.
My standpoint in criticizing Liberalism, therefore, is not from the restorationist cultural right. That way, if left unchecked, leads inevitably to a neo-Puritan dictatorship. Restorationism is a form of decadent Romanticism that is rooted in the longing for long ago and far away. And it's fueled by a politics of anxiety that would promote the most slavish form of Last Man society. Rather, my standpoint lies in a Romanticism that is rooted in hope and oriented toward the future.
The Romanticism that I would promote while looking toward the future would at the same time seek to retrieve and to revive what has been lost from our past. Such a project is not at all the same as "restoring." Restoring is what you do to old run-down things that still have some structural integrity, like a house or an old car. A tradition is not a thing. It is a living organism and as such the parts of it that have been lost cannot be restored, they must be re-membered. We must re-awaken ourselves to what we have forgotten and integrate it with what we have become in the mean time.
The challenge, therefore, is not to reject Liberalism, but to move beyond it. And for me this requires that "Romanticism come of age," as Owen Barfield entitled a collection of his essays. The nostalgic Romanticism that focuses on long ago and far away is a symptom of decadence, and offers no way forward. But the archetypal longing at the heart of all Romanticism is a longing for a culture that is more soulful, which means to say more intensely human. A Romanticism come of age is one that without falling into utopianism redirects this longing from the past toward the future.
I don't know if it's going to happen or if it does, how it will. But I'm convinced that something like this has to happen if we are to make it through to the next century.
Or is it metaphysical drift? Or is it a kind of spiritual decay that leads to cultural decadence? Drift is what the cultural right is revolting against, and that drift is a problem that the cultural left just doesn't get or care about? Should it? How far can the culture go in de-linking itself from its cultural and religious heritage before it just loses its identity and sense of purpose in some global mall of values and lifestyles? For the cosmopolitan left this isn't a problem; it embraces this movement into global diversity. But the right resists it, and I think its concerns are legitimate, even if at the same time I think its solutions wrong-headed.
Unless we bomb ourselves back into the middle ages where our lives will be dominated by local warlords, it's inevitable that we will all in the long run merge into some kind of global fusion culture. Samuel Huntington's thesis in his Clash of Civilizations has some short-term utility in describing current conditions, but is wrong over the long term. Everything that rises must converge. The question is whether the human species is still rising or whether it has hit a dead-end. Right now it feels more like the latter, but I don't really believe that's our real situation.
Jacques Barzun in his book a From Dawn to Decadence makes clear that for him 'decadence' is not a pejorative term, it's a technical or clinical term: “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal,“ he writes, “the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur, it is a technical label.” Decadence, he says, “. . . implies in those who live in such a time no loss of energy or talent or moral sense. On the contrary, it is a very active time, full of deep concerns but peculiarly restless for it sees no clear lines of advance. The loss it faces is that of Possibility.”
The point here is that while individuals may still have their personal dreams and ambitions, there is no longer any culture-wide aspiration toward some transcendent ideal. Medieval Christianity had it. Enlightenment Humanism had it. Even Marxism had it. But the West has lost any such sense of future transcendent possibility, and whether or not this is a temporary loss I don't know for sure, but I tend to think not. Something new is always a possibility even if we have no imagination for it yet.
And it's because we are no longer moderns and not yet whatever's next, we are in this mode of cultural drift, neither here nor there. We're in a state of decadence as Barzun describes it, restless and seeing no clear lines of advance. So we drift. We let the tail wag the dog. The tail being mainly our individual concerns about money, concerns about our physical well being, our entertainments. We are, if what's on TV or in the magazine racks is any indication, a people preoccupied with our looks, our wellness, our economic security, our personal ambitions and careers, our sexual performance, our personal happiness. We don't really care about the big picture, and we have no way that seems legitimate to talk about it without getting all scare quotey and ironic.
But if the culture is agnostic about questions of larger meaning and purpose, the result is our having drifted into this decadent, bread-and-circuses mode. And I sympathize with those on the thoughtful right in their rejection of this drift into cultural decadence and the narcissism that comes with it. Drift, if it goes on long enough, leads eventually to wreckage on the rocks. I think conservative intellectuals are right about this. Values matter. And there has to be some basic consensus on the meaning and purpose of our life together if we have any hope of avoiding the inevitable shipwreck that awaits us otherwise.
But the cultural right's response to decadence is a nostalgic "restorationism." If we have no future, let's bring back what worked from the past. Ronald Reagan was the great symbol for a restorationist America. What else is there to do when the only other choice seems to be to just drift into the future being driven by the most primitive human impulses. But there is no future in nostalgia.
I understand the concerns of the right, but the restorationist solution is just another symptom of decadence in Baruzun's sense--our loss of the sense of collective Possibility. As such it is not a solution. The solution lies elsewhere, and while I don't know what it is, I think it's about having a good nose and that we have to sniff our way into the future. This is a challenge for practical wisdom, or what the Greeks called phronesis and the Catholics call 'discernment of spirits'--in this instance, the spirit of the times. There is no program; there is no leader to follow. There is only an emerging community of people with good noses who discover one another and report by whatever means at their disposal what they are sniffing out.
David Brooks's wrote a column several years ago, that I have to say I agree with to a large extent--culture matters. I think that a fundamental mistake of both the left and the right, for different reasons, is to look at the problems surrounding poverty primarily in economic terms. The economic is obviously a factor, but it's secondary. The primary factor shaping the chronic poverty of the underclass is cultural. I think Brooks is half right in what he says, so let's try to understand that part of it.
The core assumption [held on the left] is that economic forces determine culture and shape behavior. As William Julius Wilson wrote in "The Truly Disadvantaged," "If ghetto underclass minorities have limited aspirations, a hedonistic orientation toward life or lack of plans for the future, such outlooks ultimately are the result of restricted opportunities and feelings of resignation originating from bitter personal experiences and a bleak future."
That's the liberal position, and Brooks contrasts it with his understanding of the conservative position:
Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that liberals have it backward. In reality, culture shapes economics. A person's behavior determines his or her economic destiny. If people live in an environment that fosters industriousness, sobriety, fidelity, punctuality and dependability, they will thrive. But the Great Society welfare system encouraged or enabled bad behavior, and popular culture glamorizes irresponsibility.
We've now had a 40-year experiment to determine which side is right, and while both arguments have merit, it's clear the conservatives have a more accurate view of poverty.
For decades welfare programs funneled money to the disadvantaged, but families dissolved and poverty rates remained stubbornly high. Then the nation switched tack in the mid-1990's, embracing policies that demanded work. Many liberals made a series of horrifying predictions about what welfare reform would do to the poor. These predictions, based on the paleoliberal understanding of poverty, were extravagantly wrong.
The part that's half right is that if you don't change the culture of hopelessness that reinforces chronic poverty, it doesn't really matter much what you do programmatically. That's as true now with the ideas of the corporate education reformers,whose solutions are also naively technocratic and doomed to fail. Conservatives wrongly think, though, that because the Great Society Programs of sixties didn't work out as hoped, that two conclusions follow: First, that those programs made the situation worse. And second, that it logically follows from those specific disappointments that any governmental attempt to grapple with complex social problems is doomed to failure and that government will never have any competency in dealing with such issues.
I think that Brooks is taking a more nuanced position than to buy wholesale into either of these two conclusions, but his suggestion that compassionate conservatism offers a more effective approach to the problems of chonic poverty, and that the state has no role to play is the equivalent of saying that nothing is better than something because compassionate conservatism, whatever it might be in theory, has been for conservatives nothing more than an empty campaign slogan. Nevertheless, the challenge is to change the culture, and that is an educational challenge, but not one that belongs only to the schools.
In my view the problem with the mentality behind the design of many of the social welfare programs of the Great Society era was its similarity to the mentality that conducted the war in Vietnam. Both approaches were the product of technocrats and as such astonishingly naive about history, culture, and human social psychology, and both were absurdly rationalistic in their strategies. In other words, the overly rationalistic liberal technocratic mentality of the sixties era developed sterile, soulless solutions for problems that had mainly to do with the frustrated aspirations of the soul. Go into any city where the HUD high-rise housing projects stand now as bleak monuments to hopelessness for a people who more than anything needed something to hope for and work for.
But while I've never been a big fan of the design of many of sixties era programs, I don't buy the argument that these programs made things worse. Things were going to be bad no matter what. Without those programs there's not telling how bad things could have gotten, as our cities would have devolved into something looking more like the favellas in Latin America.
That's what happens when uneducated people with minimal skills are put out of work in rural areas as agriculture mechanizes. They come into the cities, which are unable to absorb them, and they squat. They are anomic, without a culture. This is as true in the slums of ancient Rome as in the favellas of Latin America. They have neither their traditional rural culture to support them nor any real hope for a brighter future, and the result is profound social dysfunction and the culture of hopelessness that comes with it.
I don't want to hear about how Asians and other ethnic minorities had nothing and yet made something of their lives. It's true, and it's admirable, but they had something that African Americans and Native Americans didn't have--a past and a future. Both had their traditional cultures forcibly taken from them, and both were told that their future was going to be pretty much what white folk told them it was going to be, which is no future at all.
What we went through here in the fifties and sixties is what happens everywhere when premodern societies modernize. The American South maintained in some very important ways a premodern structure and mentality, until it started to come out of it to become the so-called "New South" in the '70s. The mentality of the premodern still lingers powerfully in the culture of that region, and for complicated reasons that mentality has an inordinate influence on the rest of American society in this time of transition.
A nostalgia for the loss of the traditional has been the force driving the culture wars we've been suffering through for the last twenty years, but it's really the resurgence of the kind of primitive thinking that was challenged but not defeated at the time of the Scopes trial. I understand that nostalgia, I really do, but nostalgia makes us look in the wrong direction. It's "Lot's Wife Syndrome," and sooner or later we've all got to get over it by finding a way to look forward rather than backward, or we rigidify into pillars of salt.
But here's the point. It's wrong to think that the Great Society programs failed because they didn't achieve what a lot of naive social planners thought they would. They succeeded insofar as they insured a minimal level of physical well being for people who would have had nothing otherwise. There's a lot more that needs to be said about this. It's complicated, and I can hear the objections.
But the goal of this website is to explore what it means to have a future. The reason we're in the grip of this nostalgia, this longing for the certainties of a now-destroyed traditional way of life, is because we haven't framed yet a vision of something better. I am not particularly interested in the agenda of the secular left. I believe that their agenda is in most respects sterile, even though I accept much if not most of its critique of American society. And yet I do believe that it is possible to frame a progressive, human, future-oriented social vision and a politics for accomplishing it.
America is more complex, obviously. But I think it's fair to say that there are two poles that define our politics, and every election cycle we find that we're split rather evenly between them. Call these poles Republican and Democrat or Conservative and Liberal, Reactionary and Progressive, or Red and Blue. They are ways of describing the different levels of intensity that define this fundamental split between left and right.
Blue America in the eyes of traditionalist Reds is effete and morally corrupt in its personal values and weak when it comes to confronting outside threats. Blue America at its best, in Red America’s eyes, is childishly naive about how things work in the “real world” and absurdly simplistic and soft-minded in its clueless jabbering about world peace and international cooperation. And Reds see Blues at their worst in their being morally weak relativists and ditherers who don’t have the rock-solid values that will help them to brace against the storm.
Blue America, of course, does not see itself the way Red America sees it. Most Blues see themselves as open to complexity and diversity, as curious cosmopolitans, interested in ideas, as tolerant, compassionate, idealistic, as change and future-oriented, and as having global vision. And while centrist Blues, whose values are still very much shaped by their religious heritage, don't like being painted with the same brush as the extremist elements among them, at the same time they have to admit that the secular left has had a significant influence in shaping the Democratic Party’s agenda in ways they don’t feel completely comfortable with.
But Blues, whether secularist or religious, see Reds on the cultural right as morally rigid, sanctimonious, intolerant, fearful and security obsessed, and as parochial, hate-filled, anti-intellectuals. And they see corporate and elite-class Reds in the country-club set as soul-less, amoral, disloyal, greedy, hypocritical and arrogant. Reds, to be sure, don’t see themselves that way. They see themselves as having character and moral clarity, of being plain-spoken straight shooters who know what they stand for and stand strong when the going gets tough.
They see themselves as the patriotic backbone and the moral ballast that sustains what remains of the American spirit, and when they look at Blues they see hardly anything that is in their minds recognizably American. Blues are gays and feminists, hippies, rock stars and movie stars, pornographers, socialists, left-wing secularists, and they feel that these people, who don’t really understand what America is about, are taking the country away from them.
So what we have here is a deadlock between two competing and very different imaginations about what it means to be an American. The Red America, based on a fairly clear and simple set of values derived from traditional norms passed down from generation to generation. And a Blue America, which is open-ended, diverse, and universalistic.
My own view is that Blue America, because of its embrace of diversity and a multilateral global vision, is in a better position to deal with the complex realities the nation will face in the 21st Century. I see the mind of Red America as still stuck in the 19th Century. Nevertheless, Blue America has to find a way of making it easier for Red America to respect the Blues' more catholic and less tribal vision. I think that one of the most important ways that Blues can do that is in finding common ground in the religious and spiritual traditions that they both share. They have to make the case that those values and traditions should be a source of moral strength and vision to navigate in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world rather than as a source of bricks to build a wall to block that world out.
This, of course, is not interesting at all for secularist blues. But we're moving into a post-secularist era, and their secularism will become increasingly irrelevant--a holdover from a time when enlightenment thinking and ideals were considered the "bees' knees", so to say. Nevertheless, I think that religious Blues who understand this have to make a similar case to the secularists to their left. They have to make the case that substantive progressive change in this country isn't going to happen unless the secular left recognizes the importance of religious values and traditions and how they can be an essential resource that needs to be retrieved if a progressive politics is to gain a broad consensus among mainstream Americans.
The first goal of such a politics, because of its urgency, should be to preserve the republic, the last remnants of which are withering away as the country trends toward corporate oligarchy. The bottom line is that Red and Blue Americans have to find a way to join forces to take their country back from Big Money which has no loyalties except to itself. This is a huge, huge problem. But we have drifted into it so unconsciously and comfortably that most Americans still don't recognize it for the problem that it is. And it's going to take more than electing Barack Obama to solve it. If anything, he's part of the problem, not its solution.
Is it possible to have a culturally purple America that is radically blue when it comes to distribution of power and wealth?
Several months ago I was watching one of the talking-heads shows on which Pat Buchanan sits in wearing his conservative's hat. I forget what the show's topic was about, but I remember his saying something along the lines that the America he grew up in was a good America, and it isn't good anymore. It struck me then that this sentiment is what's really at the heart of the conservative backlash in this country. There is a deeply abiding sense among many Americans that we lost the good America in the sixties and seventies, and they want to get it back. They see Liberalism as the enemy that destroyed the wholesome America, and I think that many on the cultural right believe that if they can defeat liberalism in the political sphere, that somehow this will make things all right again.
I think the mistake that conservatives make is to think of liberalism as if it were a mistaken way of thinking, and if people would just stop thinking liberal thoughts, that would solve the problem. But liberalism is the laissez-faire spirit of modernity, and the driving force behind modernity is technology and commerce, and the driving force behind technology and commerce is innovation and growth. Any society in which innovation and growth are the central driving forces is not going to be hospitable to the values and structural requirements that make a traditional society work. The conservatives want to eat their cake and have it, too. They want the affluence that comes with consumer capitalism and free markets and they want the America that essentially contracted a terminal disease in the twenties and died in the sixties.
That's why the traditional-values agenda of the GOP seems so hollow. It's all form and no substance. The GOP agenda is to take a whore and dress her up for church on Sunday, but to let her do her thing the rest of the week. The basic difference between conservatives and liberals lies in that liberals don't see any point in dressing up the old girl or making her go to church. They accept modernity on its own terms and are simply willing to let her do her thing, and the thing she likes to do best is consumer capitalism.
Our basic understanding of what the word freedom means is shaped primarily by the terms defined by consumer capitalism. Freedom means the freedom to choose, and the idea of choice has become linked to having more and more choices, and having evermore choices means that you can never settle in with anything--you're always moving on to the next thing. There's little stability; everything becomes fragmented--our culture, our families, our very selves. We swallow what's in our environment, excrete it, and move on. Toqueville pointed this out as an American characteristic already in the 1830s.
This is what freedom has come to mean in the popular American imagination. And it's hard to imagine anything that could do a better job of undermining a genuine living tradition than this particular way of understanding what freedom means. This isn't real freedom; it's a kind of counterfeit of freedom. It's freedom understood at its crudest level as a mere lack of restraint. Why American and Thatcherite conservatism celebrates this kind of crude freedom is really for me at the heart of why contemporary Anglo-American conservatism just seems intellectually incoherent and naive. Conservatism is in effect dating a prostitute while all the time thinking she's a paradigm of virtue and beauty.
But this doesn't mean that I approve of the sanctimonious condemnation of consumerism that comes from certain sectors of the politically correct left. I don't think stoning the old girl is going to accomplish anything. If people want to opt out of a consumption-oriented lifestyle, fine, but their doing so doesn't change much. They still have to swim in the same soup as the rest of us, unless they decide to drop out and, dragging their kids kicking and screaming with them, go live in some nook of the world where modernity has not yet encroached.
But what's the point, because there's no escape in the long run no matter where you go. This kind of refusal is often (not always) a form of anal Puritanism in politically correct garb. There's no getting out of the soup, only learning how to swim in it without drowning. And maybe over the long haul we can find truly effective ways to clean it up so it isn't so foul smelling--because it really does stink now. There's nothing I see going on out there that I find terribly encouraging. It seems as though all my effort now is directed toward keeping my head dry, and that's in a large way my motivation for keeping up this blog. It's my way of keeping my head, if nothing else, out of the soup.
But this brings us back to Pat Buchanan because in his memory, the soup he swam in as a kid smelled pretty good. And he wants to swim in that soup again. But I suspect that the soup of Buchanan's memory has more to do with a feeling of the lost innocence of his childhood, which like most of our childhoods was a time when we just weren't aware how bad things smelled, even though they did. We were just better then at covering up the stench. It's a little more complicated than that, but I'll return to this idea when I have a chance. Time to get the kid up and out to school.
[Ed. note: This is a repost from 9/27/04]
From Jonathan Haidt, "Forget the Money, Follow the Sacredness" in Saturday's NYT"
A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”
This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.
Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”
This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.
The problem lies in that as each tribe fights the other as its perceived principal enemy, power elites, who could care a fig for either sacred story, are robbing both tribes blind. This is why I think the small 'r' republican narrative about which I write here has the best possibility for our finding the middle ground between these two tribal camps. They are thesis and antithesis badly in need of a synthesis.
This is a war universe. War all the time. That is its nature. There may be other universes based on all sorts of other principles, but ours seems to be based on war. . . . --William S. Burroughs
We didn't come this far because we're made of sugar candy. Once upon a time, we elbowed our way onto and across this continent by giving smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans. That was biological warfare. And we used every other weapon we could get our hands on to grab this land from whomever.And we grew prosperous. And yes, we greased the skids with the sweat of slaves. So it goes with most great nation-states, which--feeling guilty about their savage pasts--eventually civilize themselves out of business and wind up invaded and ultimately dominated by the lean, hungry up-and-coming who are not made of sugar candy. Paul Harvey, 5/23/05 Commentary
That we live in a war universe seems to be axiomatic and yet it is also rather disconnected from the rather buffered lives of most educated, liberal bourgeois. This disconnect, this delusional sense that the relatively peaceable life that they live is normative and that violent conflict is aberrant, is precisely what allows the bad guys to win.
Who are the bad guys? The people throughout history who lie, murder, assassinate, liquidate, purge, cleanse, avenge, or do whatever it takes to make sure their interest group--be it family, tribe, race, party, class--nation stays on top. It's the compulsion to stay on top and to use any means necessary to achieve it that is at the root of the problem. It's called the will to power. It's what makes the world go 'round. Who are the good guys? Those who refuse to submit to the logic of the will to power.
A generation ago, non-union workers often welcomed news of improved wages and benefits for unionized employees, recognizing that a rising tide lifts all boats. But ... at a time of sacrifice and insecurity, many would prefer to sink their neighbor's slightly bigger boat while wistfully hoping for a glance at a yacht in a gated marina. (Source)
There are people who romanticize unions and the labor movement. I don't--there's a lot about the empirical performance of organized labor that really stinks. But we're involved in a power game, and all the power is with Big Money, and they realize that the only organized force that still has the financial resources to oppose them is the unions.
It's one thing to oppose certain policies that unions support; it's another thing to seek to destroy them. And it should be clear that the Republicans and their backers are out to destroy them. They start with the public service unions, because they're more vulnerable with regard to public opinion, and if they succeed there, they'll come after every other union.
We're in a class war, and many Americans just don't want to believe it because it sounds so "leftist" or "extremist", but it's being waged by Big Money, and Big Money is quite happy to do so without any organized opposition, and the longer most Americans think there's no war going on, the longer they'll stay unorganized. And in the meanwhile the unions are the only organized opposition it has to deal with.
There's room for legitimate debate about particular policies that unions support, but at the same time we cannot lose sight of the larger picture. We're involved in a war here; the time for splitting hairs is behind us, and so at a very crude level it's coming down to a fundamental question: Whose side are you on?