Posts Tagged ‘politics’
So I’m reading James T. Kloppenberg’s magisterial (and very, very long) Toward Democracy for a long overdue book review. One of his central arguments is that democracy requires certain kinds of virtues that, paradoxically, democracy can also help to destroy. Which gets me thinking about this skit:
On balance, last night’s SNL was good but not groundbreaking. Louis CK is always solid and I laughed a lot at his opening monologue, but there were no amazing insights this time around: he talked about race again, but not in a way his fans haven’t heard before. Baldwin-as-Trump is getting old, even though Baldwin double-dipping as Trump and O’Reilly is pretty impressive (I’m entirely willing to admit that maybe it’s just that Trump-as-president is getting old. I’m ready for the joke to be over). But there were two skits especially worth seeing, both off-set productions: the first was, as Matthew Dessem wrote at Slate, a “strong finish” to the “conversation” about that terrible Pepsi ad (you know, the one where we can all just get along if a famous reality star gives a cop a Pepsi). But the other skit, also getting some media buzz, is “Thank you, Scott,” in which singers thank a self-righteous couch potato for his social media posts. If you’re like me (and lots of other folks apparently), the skit stung a little bit. It’s funny cuz it’s true!
Except it’s not necessarily true. At least, not exactly. The skit seems to imply that the only meaningful way to participate in politics is direct democracy. Now of course going to protests, door knocking for campaigns, attending community meetings: all of that matters! A lot! But so, in fact, does conversation. Habermas and Arendt got a lot wrong in their (admittedly distinct) commitments to the public realm, but a big piece for both of them is doing just what folks like Scott (or, you know, blog writers and blog readers) might well be doing. I made a commitment to teach Arendt in my theory course for exactly this reason. To risk taking a line from a terrible Pepsi commercial—the “conversation” does in fact matter. In fact, these kinds of conversations are just as important as direct democracy, because they provide the opportunity to change your mind without having already invested in a previous commitment. Democracy works precisely because it’s members are willing to be corrected, to recognize better arguments or flaws in their own thinking. That kind of conversation is much harder when you’re at a protest, or even when you’re in a city council meeting or what have you, because you’re probably already there with a concrete agenda and it’ll be harder to dissuade you from it.
Of course power and misrecognition are big pieces of this story, things about which folks like Habermas and Arendt are often stunningly naive. (Look at Arendt on race, for example). But just because conversations can be handled in better or worse ways doesn’t mean we don’t still need them. And we need them in a spirit of willing self-correction and relative humility with an awareness that the conversation is itself a constitutive internal (rather than external) good.
This is where both Pepsi and Scott get it wrong. Because Pepsi (obviously) doesn’t actually care about “the conversation.” They care about selling Pepsi. And Scott cares about selling Scott. He wants to be seen by his social media followers as virtuous, on the right side of history, whichever history that may be. Scott is the worst kind of Goffmanian character: the above link was to MacIntyre, and I’m on drawing MacIntyre’s critique of Goffman from the beginning of After Virtue here. Such a character cannot meaningfully participate in democratic politics, at least not in a way that isn’t depressingly cynical and ultimately self-defeating. It’s no longer about ideas or arguments anymore, let alone harder slogs like justice, equality, and liberty: it’s just about looking good to get something (Pepsi sales, esteem, etc.). Even the sorts of sympathy or pity the more “realist” Scottish Enlightenment types thought would save us are gone. All we have is its veneer.
As Kloppenberg, and in different ways, Andrew Perrin and Nina Eliasoph, describe, there are forces within the history of capitalist democracy that move from the need to internalize virtue towards only the desire to look like we care. This is an old story of course—told most famously by Hirschman—but it’s worth acknowledging how a certain way of thinking about citizens as self-interested, profit-maximizing individuals forces exactly this false dichotomy between slacktivists and the true citizens in the streets.
Of course, I think it’d be great if more people participated in direct democracy. But it’d also be great if more people really did think of our civic life as a series of ongoing public conversations, for which social media is actually an excellent venue. Posting an article doesn’t make you a “Scott” but posting an article as a means of showing how great you are does. The point of posting an article should always be to open the door to a conversation, a conversation with people different from you who might well change your mind. That should be coupled with explicit participation in other forms of government and civil society too of course. But that doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t important in and of itself. Thank you Scott? Maybe not. But thank you to those of you who do care about maintaining a public sphere. The conversation does, in fact, exist. And it’s not just there to sell Pepsi (or ourselves).
Fabio recently showed me a movie co-produced and co-written by his Party in the Street co-author, Michael T. Heaney. It’s called The Activists: War, Peace, and Politics in the Streets. It’s worth watching, and showing to students (even if I hope it eventually gets a bit cheaper!).
Here’s the blurb at the movie’s website:
The Activists: War, Peace, and Politics in the Streets brings to life the stories of ordinary people who tried to stop and end the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. At best, activists had limited influence over the conduct of military policy after 9/11. Yet, their experiences in the antiwar movement helped them to learn about speaking out in the face of injustice. They inspired others to do the same during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street movements. Indeed, democracy requires more than just one vote every four years. It requires continued pressure by citizens on their government. This is what democracy looks like!
I really enjoyed the film, even if it sometimes felt a bit heavy handed. It’s impossible not to feel inspired by the activists we meet and the passion they bring to peace and justice (I was very involved in anti-war activism as an undergrad at Loyola New Orleans). There are wonderful small scenes, including a moment with Geoff Millard, from Iraq Veterans Against the War. We learn about his childhood and the role the military served in his life. He’s sent to Iraq even though he thinks it’s wrong. We see him look out over the water, facing away from us. He wears a hoodie with “you are not alone” printed on the back; his voice laments, “I can’t help but to think about-I could have gone to jail. I could have gone to Canada. I could have resisted but I didn’t. I knew it was wrong and I violated my own conscience.” We go from that to faceless activists in black and white prison apparel wearing massive papier mache heads of senior Bush administration officials (including W). They’re linked together into a chain gang. And then from that to one of many brief interviews with Professor Heaney. Pathos, unsubtle messaging, and then keen political insight, all within three minutes. If that’s not the activist experience, what is?
Yet the really key argument here is about how the anti-war activism, even if didn’t stop a war, helped make the American left even more visible and, well, active. Those huge Bernie rallies didn’t come out of nowhere.
was the sexual revolution so revolutionary?: on the benedict option and conservative christian models of culture
If you’re at all plugged into think pieces about religion, you’ve heard about Rod Dreher’s book on The Benedict Option. Dreher’s an interesting guy: he’s an incredibly prolific writer, and most of his stuff winds up at his blog. He’s got two really lovely books, one about the death of his sister and the other about how Dante (yes that Dante: the medieval Italian poet) saved his life. And he’s a culture warrior through and through, unapologetically hysterical about the world ending.
That’s not an exaggeration. He really does think that at least “a world” if not, you know, all of human life, is ending. Hence “the Benedict Option”: he takes the idea from the ending of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which MacIntyre suggests that maybe we all ought to imitate the rule of St. Benedict when he saw the Visigoth writing on the Roman walls. We’ve got to create our own communities. In MacIntyre’s (oft-quoted) words:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another—doubtless very different—St. Benedict (263).
What’s important about MacIntyre (and I’m stealing this from what Michael Warner said in a seminar I took with him) is that he was first a Trotskyite and then a Catholic, but the whole time he’s always hated liberalism. Nowadays we’re a society a bit more aware of the difference between left and liberal, but there are still way too many people who just sort of figure freedom happens. A certain kind of liberal thinks that people basically just grow up free: you don’t have to worry too much about it, and the really important thing is just not to let other folks tell you what to do (or to tell others what to do). Marxists-and in a different way, Catholics–recognize this as bullshit. We’re free in particular kinds of ways because of how we are raised (and, you know, our economic conditions, but this is where the two groups might vary a bit). And so when society changes, it can change us in ways that we can’t really be protected from, despite our earnest love of freedom, etc. Now that’s a pretty harsh take on liberalism, which, you know, exists in no small part because the era before liberalism had lots of Europeans with very strong beliefs killing each other. Liberalism–and with it, democracy–trades the promise of utopia for the promise of not having your head cut off by utopians who disagree with you.
But what are we so afraid of? What’s the problem from which we need protection? Dreher pulls from a lot of work by the sociologist Christian Smith to describe how contemporary young Christians basically have no idea what they’re talking about: members of a religion don’t know some of their own basic theological tenets, setting up what Smith calls a “moralistic therapeutic deism”: be nice and be happy is, apparently, all ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.
That’s right enough, I suppose, even if it’s a very Evangelical Protestant way of thinking about religion, emphasizing right belief (orthodoxy) over right action (orthopraxy). One of the weird things about the history of the category of “religion” is that it was developed by Protestants who are, on both global and historical scales, the weirdest form of religion. Most things we’ve come to call religions care a lot more about what you do (praxis) than what you believe (doxa): so it’s actually not super surprising a lot of religious people have no idea what the hell they’re talking about. Of course, Smith et al would say this is a problem not just for non-Protestants, but for Protestants too: the intricacies of belief don’t seem to matter even for the ostensibly orthodox.
But did they ever? One of the smartest and most fair-minded of the many, many reviews of the Benedict Option was Damon Linker’s, in which he pointed out that despite Dreher’s deep concerns about religious knowledge, it really seems to be sex that’s the difference:
Dreher insists that this watery, undemanding form of faith is different in kind from Christianity at its most comprehensive, and I largely agree with him. But is it really different in kind and significantly debased in comparison to the quality of faith one would have found among a random sample of Americans during the 1850s? Or for that matter, in 17th century Prussia? Or 11th century France? I doubt that very much.
Except in one respect: sexual morality.
A Moralistic Therapeutic Deist will tend not to have strong opinions about sex, beyond affirming the importance of consent. Intercourse outside of marriage, masturbation, the use of contraception, homosexuality (including same-sex marriage), transgenderism — none of it will register as raising significant moral or theological issues and problems. That wasn’t true in the 19th-century U.S., in 17th-century Prussia, or in 11th-century France. In all of those times and places, news of what growing numbers of people (including people who define themselves as Christians) think of as sexually acceptable behavior would have been received as inexplicable, and an abomination.
That is what makes our time decisively different from past eras in the history of the Christian West: We live on the far side of the sexual revolution. Neuhaus thought that revolution could be at least partially reversed through concerted democratic action. Dreher has no such hopes and so advises withdrawal and self-protection.
Linker goes on to point out that there are, in fact, progressive Christians who care deeply about their faith and live countercultural lives and who, nonetheless, also support gay marriage or birth control or abortion, or many other changes from the sexual revolution. Another thoughtful review, this one from Russel Arben Fox, puts it well:
At one point Rod refers to Hillary Clinton as someone “deeply hostile to core Christian values” (p. 89)–yet I strongly suspect that Clinton herself (a life-long church-attending Bible-quoting Methodist, one who has frequently spoken publicly about her prayer life) could quickly–and honestly–assent to believing that “the point of life is to pursue harmony with a transcendent eternal order.” Rod has long been bothered–and rightly so–by “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” a sociological label developed to capture the vague spiritual sensibilities held by so many Americans, but allows that even that collection of beliefs includes the conviction that God “created and orders the world” (p. 10). So it can’t simply be a matter of affirming the existence of a “transcendent, eternal order”; the Benedict Option is, I think, to Rod’s mind, essential to the cultural survival of a Christianity with a very particular doctrinal version of the universal moral order.
So it’s about the sex. But here’s where things get even more interesting. Because was the sexual revolution really so revolutionary? Of course it changed a lot in a local context: the 1970’s does look different from the 1950’s, as Kristin Luker brilliant captures in her book, When Sex Goes to School. Yet you don’t have to be a full-on Foucauldian to recognize Foucault got something right about his repressive hypothesis* in History of Sexuality, Volume 1. Indeed, I wonder how much Dreher’s worldview would be a bit more cheerful and world-affirming had his medieval sage been Chaucer instead of Dante. You’ve got the Wife of Bath, you’ve got the Pardoner who’s a “gelding or a mare,” and you’ve got the Miller’s Tale, which, well, just, don’t bring your children is all. Now the Canterbury Tales is no more obviously representative of high medieval Christendom than is The Divine Comedy, but, well, if I were a betting man I’d wager there were a lot more folks like the Wife of Bath than like Dante’s Beatrice.
Sure: most conservatives upset about the sexual revolution aren’t thinking about deep history. But they do sometimes make it seem as though sexual morality began in 1900 and that somehow Christendom was a lot less horny than it turns out to have been (the great conservative novel, The Elementary Particles, is especially guilty of this myopia). As Luker herself admits, the world felt different after the 60’s, even if she points to an earlier sexual revolution at the turn of the century that might well have been more important (although her argument would have been stronger if she had pointed out how much that earlier sexual revolution was also tied in with eugenics and scientific racism). But what was actually so different about the 60’s, I mean, besides in a relatively small span of a century or so? Sex outside of marriage ebbs and flows in salience throughout history, and to the extent that Foucault is right about persecuting sex (and his argument parallels Moore’s argument about persecuting Jews and heretics), the real question is not whether we allow sex outside marriage (the repressive hypothesis) but how much sex matters as a thing to worry about anyway.
It’s the pill, alongside legalized abortion. It seems obvious, but to many it’s not, precisely because local changes in sexual practice can make it seem like there’s more moving parts than there actually are. To quote Luker:
Between 1964 and 1975, sex became possible for millions of women in the way that it always had been possible for men, as something you did when you wanted to, because you wanted to, for its own sake. With legal, readily available, federally subsidized, and highly effective contraception, and with abortion available as a backup if pregnancy occurred anyway, sex for pure pleasure rather than sex necessarily tied to an ongoing and committed relationship became an option for women. And they didn’t have to be ashamed of it. (73)
Again, I’m suspicious the history here is still a bit too local, too victim to the Repressive Hypothesis (not to forget there are lots of ways people have been sexual without the risk of getting pregnant: once more, the Miller’s Tale). But there is a story here about female autonomy that’s an important linking of technology and culture (see May’s important history of the pill, though there’s a ton of important work on this), and which does, in fact, make the world look very different.
But then there are hard questions about Christians’ specific roles to change the culture, something to which Dreher is (very) sensitive, though his critics are divided on whether he goes far enough. This raises some interesting questions about how religious conservatives think about culture and how people are able to change (and be changed) by it. I can appreciate how certain religious conservatives like Dreher (see also Patrick Deneen) recognize that capitalism is not always so great, that it can, in fact, lead to a greedy, callous materialism (to wit: this fellow) rather than any sort of Christian leadership. And I think people like Dreher are right that that sort of procedural liberalism is hard to escape, perhaps even requiring a tactical retreat.
And this gets to something Dreher is very worried about and for what it’s worth, I think he’s right! Christianity in a certain strong form might well be dying, at least in the United States and Western Europe. Of course, Peter Berger famously changed his mind about secularization theory, so, you know, we might be wrong about this as well. But it does look like a certain form of Christianity–the kind that insists only Jesus can get you into heaven and the institution of marriage must look a certain way–is dying out. Now there are a few ways to think about that. One is to think that Christianity is in some senses dying but in other senses has done quite well: it’s not at all a crazy argument to suggest that the ways we think about human rights and social progress have roots in Christian agape and eschatology. There are smart people who disagree, but there also many who don’t. Believe it or not: it’s possible be an atheist, hate the Crusades and the Inquisitions, remember the countless pogroms, and nonetheless recognize historical Christianity has done some good.
It’s a fair point that once Christianity says you don’t need it to get into heaven, it doesn’t seem to do as well (though the strict church argument is still somewhat controversial and I’m not convinced by the rational choice underpinnings, it still seems pretty useful). And Dreher’s right: robust pluralism is hard (even if other orthodox Christians think it’s worth it still to try).
Yet what’s hard for some is whether or not the dying of a certain kind of Christianity is such a tragedy once you don’t believe you need Christianity for heaven. The question then becomes what can people of good will agree are problems in our society that we need to oppose, and what is our mooring for our critiques? Christians have a pretty decent grounding in, you know, the universe itself (though that might not work if their interlocutors don’t share their vision). To be fair to Dreher: on his blog he seems quite willing to continue this work (even if the way he talks about the modern academy can be at times a bit hysterical and counterproductive, but, hey, the way that some in the academy talk about folks like Dreher can probably be that way too).
Yet the basis of critique is an ongoing and important questions within the academic left, and it’s something that we too often take for granted. If not because humans are made in the image and likeness of God, then why is racism wrong? What about sexism? Autonomy you say? Sure, fine. But why is autonomy so great? What is the vision of flourishing to which we should direct that “agency” we’re all so worried about? You can make fun of critical realism all you want, but I appreciate that those folks are thinking about these questions, even as I really appreciate how other folks-like Paige Sweet and Timothy Rutzou– within critical realism are posing really important queer unpackings of what it means to flourish.
That was really long. tl;dr: certain conservative Christians are really worried about changes in sexual practice. Sexual practice is always changing though. However, one important thing sociologists can take from all of these debates is to think a bit harder about our own implicit normativity and the ground upon which we base it.
*Two things. First, in earlier versions of this, I called Foucault’s idea “the repression hypothesis” which isn’t quite right. Sorry about that. Next: I realize some folks might not know what I’m talking about here. The Repressive Hypothesis is basically Foucault’s idea that certain contemporary folks feel quite smug about how they’re no longer repressed like the Victorians, but in reality both of them make a huge deal about the classification and intense moral salience of sex in a way that just wasn’t the case a few centuries earlier: we might control sex differently than the Victorians, but “sex positive” is just as obsessed as “sex negative.” So the big difference isn’t negative to positive but from not a big deal to a very big deal.
I’ve taken a while to respond to the really interesting theory conversations that sort of started on my Facebook wall but have been carried forward by Andrew and Fabio. They both raise excellent points, and I’m going to move the conversation forward in two different directions: the question I really want to get to (at least the question I’ve been thinking about a lot) is about what mean to teach undergraduate theory under the Trump presidency. But before I get to that, I want to talk a little bit about why and how I think theory should be taught (or at least why and how I teach theory) which can help frame my answer to the first question.
When I taught high school English, I printed out what I called the big questions in huge font, placing them in different sections of the classroom. What does a life have to have for us to call it good? Why is there suffering? How should we deal with people who are different from us? How should we think about death, or love, violence or art? Given the contingencies of how knowledge has developed in the Western tradition, these are often questions we would think of as philosophical. Yet, at least as I taught my English classes, they’re also questions we encounter in great works of literature. My favorite part about teaching The Picture of Dorian Gray or Gilgamesh was the opportunity to help students think through these questions on their own, relating them to their own lives and to the world around them. And so yes, of course I wanted my students to do better on the New York State Regents’ Exams, and I actually came around on those tests inasmuch as the skills they needed for them were things that were generally pretty important (listening, writing, reading for comprehension). But the tests were side projects from the real goal of my class, which was to encourage and empower my students to live as meaningful of a life as they could. Importantly I wanted that meaning to include literature, but even if the literature piece fell away, I hoped the literature in my class helped develop a sense of the requirements of citizenship and a love of the big questions.
Substitute sociology for literature and that’s basically how I think about teaching undergraduate theory. I had a very productive conversation with a graduate student when I got to UCLA and I realized that most of these undergrads aren’t going to be sociologists and even if they are, they’ll get the theory they really need in graduate school. That’s not to say I dropped all references to sociology–they’re very much there—but my goal is no longer what it would be with grad student theory, which is to give students all the tools they need to write articles and books that can survive peer review. Instead, my goal can be more expansive. It allows me to pull much more widely than just from sociology, to have a much more diverse range of voices, and to emphasize breadth rather than depth (I feature 19 different thinkers, one for each lecture day except the introduction). And my goal winds up being quite similar to my goal when I taught English: I want students to come away from my class feeling more aware of the complexity of these big questions, more excited about asking them of themselves and others, and more empowered to act as citizens, even as they are aware of the complexity of ideas like justice, community, and the self.
Race, gender, sexuality, and class obviously show up here: they dominate the second half of my syllabus, and for good reason. There’s a certain conservative complaint that social scientists are so obsessed with race, gender, and class that they forget why life is meaningful at all. I understand the argument, and in some contexts I even agree with it. It goes like this: if we all care about is fighting inequalities related to race, gender, sexuality, class, status, and location in reference to the colonizer, sometimes we lose track of the reason life is itself worthwhile, or the kind of world we could have once, someday, when those equalities actually work themselves out. In other words, and more bluntly, why are we alive? Who and what are humans supposed to be? The focus on equality as as a means towards realizing those questions can sometimes be replaced by a focus on equality as an end in itself, forgetting those questions even exist, or narrowly answering them by saying the purpose of life is just whatever you want it to be, so that the goal is really just to make sure everyone has an equal chance to work things out on their own. The problem with some conservatives is they can then use this problem as a reason not to think about race/class/gender, writing these off as a distraction from the really important big questions. There’s obviously a lot wrong with that, not least that our sense of what makes a life meaningful is inevitably shaped by our location with various intersecting identities. Too often when someone says ask the big questions (like focus on character, or focus on wisdom) they mean bring back the dead white men. But I reject pretty categorically that the big questions will have to wait until we get a more just world. Art is part of the revolution, not the perks you get at its end. More importantly: Why is there suffering and inequality is one of the biggest questions there is, second only to what the hell are we going to do about it. It’s simply important to remember there are other questions too, with answers that make demands on us towards each other. Edward Said is a model for me on this, as he is for many things.
It might seem obvious but too often it’s not:you really don’ have to choose between a class about fighting to end inequality and a class about what makes life meaningful. That’s why I’m especially excited about a week in which I teach Rawls the first lecture and then Carole Pateman the second. Or exposing students to the concept of intersectionality through the work of Patrica Hill Collins, which from experience (see above), I know many of them find incredibly helpful. Encountering thinkers like Pateman and Collins, along with Arendt, Fanon, and Spivak, help students to become aware of both the problems of inequality and the real challenges of a life, which includes navigating between the demands of citizenship and the cultivation of one’s one talents and passions.
Which gets us to Trump. It’s hard for me to think of a more important role for theorists right now than to educate our citizens about issues of inequality, social interactions, and the basis of critique. So when I’m teaching Arendt or Habermas or Garfinkel, it’s not to teach the history of social theory for the purpose of social history: it’s to open folks up to new ways of viewing the world, raising questions that will, I hope, possibly make their lives more meaningful and, I also hope, give them the tools they need to recognize inequalities and injustices as they are happening. I want my class to give students tools for both their public and private lives. All the authors I’m teaching are still relevant in contemporary academic debates. They’re all people that academics should know. But I’m not teaching academics: I’m teaching human beings and citizens, and my goal is to help empower them to live as fully as possibly, alongside recognizing a responsibility to help others live fully as well. What the hell does it mean to live fully? I’m honestly not always sure. It’s a big question.
What makes a novel or a movie or a television show sociological?
The quick answer is I don’t know. But I have thoughts, some of them relevant to the the topic at hand, and others wondering how my hair looks.
Every sociologist I talk to about The Wire says it’s one of the most sociological shows they’ve ever seen. What does that mean? In its last season,The Wire throws around the adjective Dickensian in the newsroom it portrays, a wink at the critics who used the word to describe the show’s vast sweep and interest in the urban poor.
So is Dickens sociological by the transitive property? Maybe, but I’m not sure Dickens gets at what makes The Wire so interesting to sociologists, which is that it shows the overwhelming social force of institutions, organizations, and cultural inertia. I’ve always thought of sociology as an explanation for why you’re not as free as you think you are, and you just don’t get that in Dickens, for whom success really does seem to be the result of character. Dickens is obviously aware of the power of the environment, but he just can’t quite commit to the depressing certainty of it (The Wire is nothing if not depressing).
I know, I know: sociology is more than structural constraint. But the problem is that if sociology is the study of the social, then what show or movie or book isn’t sociological? I’m not sure what the answer to that is, but I’d be interested in people’s thoughts. Can a comedy be sociological? I’d say Veep is, and, in fact, I’d say it’s a better politics show than Scandal, The West Wing, or House of Cards precisely because of its sociological awareness of bureaucracy’s absurdity. But again, this gets back to the core importance of institutions, organizations, and inequality to North American sociology. One could do a sociological analysis of Friends pretty easily, but it’s hard to see how the show could itself be called sociological, except to say that sociological things happen in it, which is true for basically any work of art or entertainment about people.
So does anyone have a better idea or what makes a show, movie, play, book, sociological? Or a good example? Please share in the comments.
(By the way, thanks to Garnette Cadogan and Anne Marie Champagne for helping me make sure I’m not wrong about Dickens!)
Neither (President?!) Trump nor Pope Francis is a liberal, despite what they or anyone else might say. Trump might have a quasi-liberal past, but he’s mostly a bigot misogynist racist with all sorts of pasts at this point, of which some, I assume, are good people. Francis is also no liberal, at least not on the social (read: sexual) issues that have generally mattered in the U.S. culture wars.
Yet what’s striking about both Francis and Trump is how they’ve shifted attention away from the social issues that have traditionally been a key element of conservative politics. That move has been happening for a while, especially for the cultural right. Well before the Supreme Court supported the right to gay marriage, an increasing amount of theologically conservative Christians distinguished themselves from the preceding generations’ politics. These are folks of various religions who like Francis not because he’s a cultural liberal (he’s not!) but because he emphasizes economic and environmental justice rather than the sexual issues that have animated the American religious right. The change in focus makes Francis attractive to both religious and non-religious who think poverty and climate change are also “moral issues.”
It’s harder to explain Trump’s attraction. Cruz didn’t do great, but he did a lot better than people thought he would: clearly the culture wars aren’t over. There’s also pretty clear evidence that the more you go to church the less you like Trump, so those conservative Christians who support him tend to be “Christian-ish,” with their religion functioning as a badge of ethnic and cultural identity rather than as a marker of religious devotion. It’s an interesting connection to early modern Europeans’ separation of themselves from other races by their being “Christian,” and yet another indication that Trump’s win is a lot about the deep-seated racism still very much at play in American cultural life. There’s sexism there too, and all sorts of other forms of resentment motivating the kind of welfare hoarding Trump is pitching to disaffected whites. It’s noteworthy these folks are voting out of economic and racial resentment rather than the traditional concerns of social conservatism. (It’s of course the case that social conservatism, like everything else in United States politics, is racialized, though it’s striking how unsubtle, and even unnecessary, that link is for Trump.)
Both Francis and Trump ostensibly agree with social conservatives, but they’ve compelled many of them to change their emphases to issues that have nothing to do with their typical concerns. Of course, Francis fans are probably not the same people as Trump fans, and in some ways that’s the point: the culture wars just keep getting cut in different ways. Some warriors, like Rod Dreher, have suggested just giving up, retreating into like-minded communities until the Dark Ages are done. Others remain in for the long haul, but Trump’s win is even worse news for them than Obergefell. This isn’t a defeat at the hands of a too-powerful, out-of-touch bunch of judges. This is the voters who once composed “the moral majority.” After the shifts towards economic and environmental justice from Francis and his ilk, alongside the moves towards unapologetic ethnic nationalism from Trumpites, there’s not even a moral plurality left.
The culture war is still going strong. The religious right, however, is not.
When Democrat Kathy Hochshul won a normally Republican Congressional seat in special election in upstate New York, all of the party regulars weighed in with their distinctive spins on what this means or doesn’t mean for the elections coming up in 2012. (This is normal politics; take a look at the glee with which Republicans greeted the election of Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts.)
The Democrats are having an easier time of it, arguing that Republicans in competitive districts are going to have to spend a lot of time explaining their votes for Paul Ryan’s budget, particularly the conversion of Medicare into a voucher plan subsidizing private insurance. Critics are quick to note that this will save money only if coverage is restricted and that most people are unlikely to be able to afford to buy the coverage Medicare now provides.
Understandably, voters–who generally support Medicare–are upset. The Republican answers [a) we won’t change anything for anyone over 55; b) this is the only way to save Medicare; or c) the Democrats are worse] haven’t worked so far. Rep. Ryan says this is because Republicans haven’t been clear and steady enough–and the Democrats are attacking them with tv ads. (Shocking!)
The Republican Party’s leadership has so far enforced discipline on this budget–only four House Republicans voted against the budget; only five Senate Republicans voted against it. But candidates will make their own calls as they interpret the tea leaves of this special election and the many polls that will follow.
Social movements in the US are closely tied to mainstream politics and parties. The Tea Party reminds me of a number of movements on the left, animated by mostly middle-class, educated, white people who are normally engaged in mainstream politics. I’ve made comparisons with the nuclear freeze movement in the recent past.
Over time, social movements can enforce something of a veto within a political party, most successfully in national elections. Although a few Democrats who oppose abortion rights and a few Republicans who support them get elected to the Senate, it’s hard to imagine that a candidate for the presidential nomination could win with the wrong position for her party.
Many movements are easier for candidates to fudge. In 1984, six of the seven Democratic candidates supported a nuclear freeze, in accord with a strong political movement and strong popular support (consistently over 70%) (much stronger, in polls, than the Tea Party). But they coupled their support for a freeze with other positions that contradicted it–like advocating new nuclear weapons systems. In effect, they defined a freeze they could support without alienating people who might otherwise vote for them.
Is the Tea Party really tagged with the Ryan Budget and the end of Medicare? (In Orwell’s terms, this is ending Medicare to save it. Or was that Lt. William Calley?) If so, that’s a rough spot for the movement which expressed other, more popular, goals. If so, candidates seeking to cultivate movement support in the primaries are going to have a lot to explain to independent voters once they win nominations.
While the freeze was organized around a specific policy proposal that institutional supporters redefined and diluted, the Tea Party’s core goals were never so sharply articulated–and there’s a great deal of conflict among national Tea Party groups–and between those organizations and grassroots groups–on just what the movement is about. (Ask about immigration or social issues to see.)
By hanging the Republican Party and the movement on a very specific–and very unpopular–program, Paul Ryan and the Republican leadership have served neither very well. I’m certain Democratic consultants are grateful. The open question at the moment is whether movement activists or Republican regulars will be the first to defect from the proposal. (I’d bet on the movement.)