Friday, November 12, 2004Thwarted, etc.
That is really frustrating. I had my coffee and was all ready to start my next installment when the link died. So I'm going to have to wait to continue by analysis of Philip Agre's essay. Does anyone have a copy?
Instead, I will discuss Brad Carson's article in the New Republic, and some pieces related to it. Carson suggests that there is a real cultural dispute in America that transcends any particular issue. Our opponents are fundamentally (look, a pun!) opposed to modernity, and the Democratic Party's allegiance to modernity permanently bars us from winning their votes. Cultural conservatives are simply unmoved by economic concerns. Carson criticizes liberal populists like Thomas Frank for assuming this is false consciousness: the right wing is indifferent to economics in principle. It is not a delusion.
Let me quote the most pertinent section:
"The culture war is real, and it is a conflict not merely about some particular policy or legislative item, but about modernity itself. Banning gay marriage or abortion would not be sufficient to heal the cultural gulf that exists in this nation. The culture war is about matters more fundamental still: whether nationality is, in a globalized world, a random fact of no more significance than what hospital one was born in or whether it is the source of identity and even political legitimacy; whether one's self is a matter of choice or whether it is predetermined, before birth, by the cultural membership of one's family; whether an individual is just that--a free-floating atom--or whether the individual is part of a long chain that both predates and continues long after any particular person; whether concepts like honor and shame, which seem so quaint, are still relevant in a world that values only "tolerance." These are questions not for politicians but for philosophers, and, in the end, it is the failure of liberal philosophy that we saw on November 2."
Carson's article becomes even more worrisome when read together with recent writings by Ed Kilgore and MyDD. Commenting on Carson, Kilgore says that there is a
a widespread sense that a whole host of traditional values are being threatened and perhaps extinguished by cultural forces ranging from globalization and commercialization to sex-and-violence saturated entertainment products and the moral flatulance of the celebrities whose "lifestyles" and views assault us from every direction.
Kilgore suggests that the attempt to switch the subject to populist economics is a loser. We need to confront these issues head on or we are condemned to irrelevance. The magnitude of the challenge ahead is illustrated by MyDD. Looking at the exit polls, he comes to the realization that we face more than a directional hurdle. There are so many more conservatives than liberals that we need to win moderates by 2-1 to win comfortably. But how? If we move to the center, we demobilize the left. If we move to the left, we can't get enough centrist votes. The solution is to grow liberalism.
To sum up: Democrats have a tough time winning because traditionalists outnumber modernists. Traditionalists are unmoved by economic appeals, so we need to address the issue of culture in order to remain competitive. The question is how to do it.
First of all, I want to quibble with Carson's description. I'm not aware that liberal philosophy has any principled objection to the ideas of national and cultural identity, as long as these are not unduly oppressive. And given the force of communitarian and civic republican notions in liberal academia today, both of which are uneasy with modernity, you could even say the opposite. These schools of thought are already making a useful corrective to traditional Kantian thought.
Second, I believe that Kilgore's renunciation of economic populism and critique of Frank is mistaken. Frank suggests that what Republicans have done is not only identify the problem of culture, to validate it as it were, but also to assign blame. Conservatives have held liberalism responsible for the decline of American life. As I understand him, Frank thinks that liberals need to shift the blame to a different target: corporate america, which is peddling all this crap and ruining the middle class in the process. It is precisely the cultural appeal of anti-corporate populism which makes it so powerful. This strategy will also have the useful effect of exploding the Republican coalition.
We have to unite the economic and cultural issues into a synthetic whole. In part this can be done by using moral language, not by invoking God but using words like Responsibility and Duty and Community. Heck, these ideas are why we believe in liberalism anyway. Emphasizing economics is not "changing the subject." What is important is the moral component of politics, but doing so in a way which deals with economics. We need to bridge that old divide.
There is one thing I find uplifting about the "values" debate. It looks like the left has given up on winning the upper class. If you divide America up into the four basic ideologies (liberalism, conservativism, populism, and libertarianism), with the latter two the swing groups, you could say the debate on the left has been whether to go after downscale populists (who are anti-corporate but culturally interventionist) or upscale libertarians (who are culturally liberal but anti-statist). I always thought going for the libertarians was a mistake, which was why I thought the old pro-corporate DLC was blundering. It would have sold out the New Deal legacy by creating 2 upper-class parties.
So Kerry and Edwards were on the right track in the last election: economics is a values issues, framed correctly. What we need to do is pick up the ball and keep carrying it down the field.