Sunday, October 19, 2008

Culture Club

What happened was Democrats had gotten complacent, had gotten fat and happy. they thought there was a government program to solve every problem. Ronald Reagan came in and said we need to break out of the old ways of doing things and create a leaner, more effective government,” [Obama] said. “That was the right message then. I think that right now we went too far in the wrong direction. We can’t go back to the old liberalism of the past, but [when] you are on your own economic philosophy [of] Bush and McCain doesn’t work either. Let’s try a new way where we apply common sense, have government do what it does well [h/t, Lambert]
The Democratic nominee is holding up Reagan as someone who had the right idea about government. As I wrote in Where the Shadows Lie, "The ultimate shadow of Reagan is that you don’t win by defending losers, only by securing the interests of the winners. That is the dark heart beating in the chest of the Unity Democrats. They are done with the losers." I wrote that on September 16, before the Hanky Panky was passed with the full participation of the Democratic leadership, and it becomes more true with every day. Here are a few references before I get into the meat of this post:

It would be best to understand this post if you read the Somerby post. It's fairly short for him. Here is the heart of the argument (my emphasis throughout):

Why is this bad for progressive interests? First, because you simply can’t build a progressive politics from the desire of people like King to overstate, mislead and inflame. ... King’s rhetoric encourages, almost demands, leaps of logic—encourages readers to think that one man’s cry makes everyone around him “rabid” (and perhaps “ugly”)...

Why is this bad for progressive politics? First, because you simply can’t build a progressive politics from the desire of people like King to make average people dumber. It’s dumb to think that one man’s cry turns thousand of others into “a lynch mob”—into “a rabid audience” whose “ugliness is stunning.” But beyond that, writing like this keeps a “culture war” going. The pseudo-right invented this culture war, because it can win no other way.

Why is work like this bad for progressive politics? Because many people will see the unfairness of King’s loud cries—and their hearts will harden accordingly. They will harden in their sense that there is no harbor for them on “the left”—in their sense that there is no reason to listen to liberal or mainstream complaints about the conduct of McCain and Palin. Some of those people would have seen what is wrong in the conduct of McCain and Palin—if King had bothered to dirty his hands explaining the misconduct to them. But they will recoil at the sheer absurdity of this column’s rhetoric—even as pseudo-liberal hearts are warmed. This leaves us caught in that “culture war”—the war the other side wants.

As a general matter, nothing is dumber than fighting on turf the other side has chosen. And that’s what pseudo-liberals do when they keep this “culture war” going—along with its familiar handmaiden, the journalism of perfect dumbness.

I both agree and disagree with Somerby on his evaluation of the culture war. His analysis of Colbert King (and later Frank Rich) is spot-on, exposing their inflammatory rhetoric about the degree and nature of alleged racist incidents at McCain and Palin campaign events. Where I disagree, and it is more that I want to expand his insights than that I disagree with them, is that his claim that the culture war is only wanted by "the other side". I believe that we have seen enugh from the Unity Democrats this year to understand that we have two very different culture wars going on, one loud, public and mostly symbolic, the other quiet, behind closed doors and extraordinarily effective.

You can think of it as a four paned grid. In the top left, the elite of Whole Foods Nation. In the top right, the elites of the Movement Conservatives. Lower left are the rank and file of the Democratic Party and the left-leaning population, while the lower right contains their counterparts aligned with the Republicans. There is the campaign war of the left column of the grid fighting the right column. There is also the class war of the top row of elites waging a kind of war on the losers in the bottom row. We might have to toss in another row on intelligentsia and media in between the party power brokers and the plebes, but they will identify upwards more than down.

The first of these culture wars is the one the Left likes best to fight, popular culture, and is the one Somerby warms against. In contests since Reagan, the media has been squarely on the side of the Right even as elite opinion makers are themselves far more socially liberal than they argue. We've been used to watching the media bash the effete latte libruls trying unsuccessfully connect to the common man while the Republicans know how to have a beer with the heartland. Just below the surface of this lurked the argument about the Democrats pushing the agenda of the black urban underclass at the expense of "real" Murkins.

What marks this year is the media cheering Whole Foods Nation to victory over the Bunkers and Bubbas. Why? A change in where the Democrats got their support:

One of the most telling facts about the Obama's constituency ... is that it is a coalition of people who need or demand the least amount of social benefit from our government. They are the under politicized younger voters and upper middle class whites. The two groups, coincidently, are the ones most influenced by trends in consumer popular culture and have the greatest of ease using the latest technologies.

Life in the Post Political Age

This analysis was borne out by the exit polling from the primaries. The Stevensonian elite predicated its run this year on deliberate abandonment of the poor and working class, who they see as cultural traitors, and playing to the winners of great economic transformation since the 60s. As this is both the media's class and the fantasy it holds of itself, they loved the story - we are the ones we've been waiting for. Unlike the Clintons (“He came in here and he trashed the place, and it’s not his place.”), Obama is seen as a proper member of The Village, unconnected to the (white) trash that both parties have sullied themselves appealing to.

The Republicans have seen their previous winning narrative about representing the salt of the earth turned upside down, and are now being portrayed as nothing but backwards racists. I have a certain grim satisfaction in seeing this, having watched the Movement Conservatives race-bait their way into power, except that the media outrage is just as faux about the Republicans as it was about the Democrats and its lies about Clinton, Gore, Kerry, etc.

The second theatre of culture war is taking place out of sight of the cameras and is the class war against the losers. The power elite in both parties are part of this cultural club. This is what makes sense of Obama's Reagan worship and the refusal to engage with traditional Democratic constituencies who do not like his actual policies. Given that there is no where else to go in the popular culture wars, the political calculation is that these groups will not defect to the Republican side in an election, and so there is no political capital to be gained by making economic or policy promises to them. The Village with its multi-million dollar celebrity talking heads is part of this elite. They agree about a need for a sound fiscal policy (even when that policy is bailing out the failures of Wall Street) and for austerity for the lower classes. As the anonymous political consultant points out:

It is precisely because of the iron grip of this consensus, that even if we have a new Democratic President and an enhanced Democratic majorities in the Congress, there will be no legislation signed into law to make it easier to organize workers, provide universal health care or deal with our ever widening class and income divide in the United States. ...

Elite consensus on the issues of race, sex and role of faith in public life are to the left of public opinion, the only area in which this is the case. Elite opinion is overwhelmingly secular, pro-choice, supportive of gay rights and hostile to overt displays of racism. ...

When social conservatives complain about the "Liberal Media" they are not wrong, but only in regard to their issues. The contempt of the American elite for the religious right is quite real. What social conservatives misunderstand is that the hostility against them is not because the threat their ideas represent but only a display of the traditional contempt that the merciless strong have for people they consider to be the feeble minded weak.

Moving to the Center of Elite Consensus

The contempt and moral superiority of the power elite is not just aimed at the social conservatives. It also is aimed at anyone who is too serious, too earnest, too uncool to be a member of their club, which allows them to attacks figures as diverse at Al Gore and Bristol Palin. The connection between people so disparate is how uncomfortable they make elite opinion makers feel. People like Gore insist that something be done about health care, inequity and environmental destruction. People like Bristol Palin remind the opinion makers that their liberal ideals are only meant for themselves, where they can enact their own social policies because they can afford to, and are not for the likes of her.

In both of these wars, what we find is the privitization of the risks of ordinary life, from health care to housing, from economic advancement to old age retirement. Policies and institutions that would defend working class power (and, increasingly, any wage-based employment, even in the so-called professions) are being deconstructed in the name of efficiency, fiscal responsibility and freedom of choice. The two theaters of operation create two sets of discourse; one focuses on the popular culture and is a battle of competing moralisms, the second one looks at economic class culture and is the consensus view of elite opinion undisturbed by the dumb-show for the groundlings. What kind of politics does that get us? I return to the anonymous political consultant (my emphasis):

The recent enthusiastic embrace of Senator Obama of the call for "responsibility" from inner city black fathers is a prime example of this issue. What he is really saying is, "I will never blame the owners of the country for the social problems caused by their economic policies." Senator Obama knows better than anyone that you can eliminate most of the problems of inner city fathers in a generation with a decent educational system and living wage jobs.

But all systems of power need a convincing and unlikable enemy, which can bury the contradictions of the system. In our case incoherent, undereducated black urban males fit the bill perfectly. They are being attacked not because they are a threat to the power structure, but precisely because they are not.

What voters are expected to believe is that after a 30-year class war against the bottom 90% of income earners, the source of their troubles are black rappers and inner city fathers and not criminality on Wall Street or a corrupt political system. The road to the White House over the past 30 years has been paved by pretending to believe the absurdity that the individuals who pull the levers of power over people's lives are named Willie Horton, Sister Souljah and Ludicrous, and not Robert Rubin, Phil Gramm and Hank Paulson.

Moving to the Center of Elite Consensus

The attacks on the GSEs and low income/minority borrowers as the scapegoat for the financial meltdown is another example of this move, though coming from the Right and farther reaching than Obama's self-serving attempts to distance himself from "undeserving" black populations.

What club do you belong to in this two-front war?



Námo Mandos said...

I would like to note that what you are saying partly seems to validate the claim that capitalism will eventually find racism and other forms of discrimination unprofitable.

Anglachel said...


I think capitalism has found racism extremely profitable for its use as a way to fracture unions, drive down wages, and make consumers of all ethnicities look the other way when darker skinned workers are pushed into lower status jobs, keeping competence trapped in less well paid levels.

Misogyny is even more useful in this regard.

As long as bigotry can be used to gain categorical advantages over certain groups of people, it will be a potent force.


Kanzeon said...

What, exactly, does this mean:

"it is a coalition of people who need or demand the least amount of social benefit from our government. They are the under politicized younger voters and upper middle class whites."

College students are huge consumers of government benefits. Many upper income whites live off government grants, or otherwise consume government benefits - certainly at a rate that equals the average auto worker.

They are certainly groups that aren't in desperate need of the safety net - but those in desperate need almost never are politically mobilized.

Unknown said...

Neither. I belong to a group that is slowly realizing that the way forward may involve quite a bit of conflict and that neither of the two 'sides' you so aptly portray her are needed nor should survive.

The iron grip on what the American reality is that has been very effectively used for the last 50 years to keep most people down is broken. Yes, the 'Blogger Boyz' and the likes of Jeralyn and Jane at FDL sold out.

But you didn't.

And more and more people are coming to the Internet seeking accurate information. Which they can find here.

Reality is on the side of change also. A prophylactic of the current financial crisis is that the citizenry will be forced to recognize that under the stewardship of the likes of Gramm or Rubin the most they will be allowed to aspire to is...

Debt Slave.

The ludicrous notion that any American can become rich died this year.

Once that realization sinks in....

There will be trouble. The hideous reality of debt slavery and rising ignorance will generate change.

It has every time in the past. Our time will be no different.

show me said...

I guess I must have been very ill informed until this election cycle despite what I formerly believed about myself. I am on the side of the people, which is were I always thought the Democratic Party resided.

I'm afraid a.citizen is correct debt enslavement is going to lead to violence. Judging from the ugliness on both sides this year I am worried how it will all play out.

For a split second there all the pundits started to sweat when they saw their money in danger, but they have let out their collective breath now that they realize their interests come first.

If I had a magic wand I would fire about 99% of congress and most of the press.I would replace them with people who had recent struggles in their lives.