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Cultural Politics

Monday, November 08, 2004
The culture war is very real. Coming from the South, I have seen the power that cultural identification has on politics. Whether that identity is based on race, ethnicity, or religious faith, it is a dominant motivating factor in electoral politics. In some sense, all politics is culture war.

Today's cultural dispute is of a different sort. The conflicts rise above mere tribalism and is about the nature of society itself and our place within it. Fundamentalism is a product not of the middle ages but is a response to modernity. The modern world's uncertainty, its rationalism, its defiance of tradition in the name of science, are deeply disturbing to people with strong moral values (and by this I mean both humanitarian ethics and religious devotion). The appeal of fundamentalism is that it provides illusory certainties. Fundamentalism comes in a number of guises: there is the religious kind, but there is also the philosophical variety (hence Communism and Libertarianism).

The opponents of fundamentalism are the Modernists, who though they may be uncomfortable with the consequences of uncertainty are prepared to deal with it. Modernism is almost never in the ascendant, human nature given when it is. It must accommodate the valid arguments of Fundamentalism without caving into it entirely. This is your typical thesis/antithesis/synthesis dynamic discussed by Hegel.

The danger comes when either side of the dispute approaches outright ascendancy. Untrammeled Modernists can produce societies with little tolerance for the merely human, while Fundamentalists wreak terrible damage with their pursuit of non-existent golden ages, and are also very liable to authoritarianism.

In America, we now have two political parties which are divided by this dispute. The Fundamentalist Republicans (both libertarian and religious) and their tribal allies (white southern nationalists) are opposed by the Modernist Democrats and their tribal allies (gay identity, feminist identity, black & latino identity) who are looking for their own place in sun. And we are now very close to outright domination of the state apparatus by the Fundamentalists, with predictable effects.

With this election, you can probably kiss abortion rights goodbye. And any rights for gays. And meaningful civil liberties protections for minorities. And the separation between church and state will be actively undermined as churches become just another part of the Republican party machine. The reason this is so crucial an election is not because the Fundamentalists have won a victory- they usually do until the forces of history and their own internal contradictions allow the Modernists to slip in. The danger in this election is that the fundies will institutionalize their victory. By winning control of the courts, they can block any efforts to undo the damage. The past will have a very long-standing veto on the future.

Let's say then that the Democrats recapture the Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. They will be confronted with a thoroughly right-wing judiciary. Their options will then be reduced to a) undermining the courts, b) packing the courts, or c) defeat. The first two would violate our own democratic principles, the latter is scarcely a more desirable outcome. The only way this strategic quandry can be avoided is if the Senate Democrats refuse to allow Republicans to put ideologues on the bench over the next two years. It would be a long struggle under tremendous pressure. They would have to willing to shut down the place for an extended period of time, and would have to frame the issues in precisely the right way. It would take remarkable tenacity and skill.

Frankly I don't think they have it in them.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 6:40 AM
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