Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Culture Wars and Politics

Thoughts on the “Culture Wars”
P. Schultz

I think I have finally figured out the business about the alleged “culture war” in the United States. And I think it has something to do with what I am choosing to call our peculiar kind of politics, the politics of greatness.

As I have argued previously, the politics of greatness has its roots in the Progressive movement which began in the late 1800s and early 1900s and came to fruition as it were in the administration of FDR with his promise of a New Deal, the “Old Deal” being the Constitution as it was originally conceived, at least in FDR’s mind and other Progressives. We still embrace a progressive politics and a progressive political order even though there is a vigorous and seemingly intense argument going on within this order between those who claim the label of “conservative” and those called “liberals.”

Now by this version of politics, the political arena should be an arena in which “the great ones” compete for “great power” in order to undertake “great projects.” These “great projects” are those that are meant to permeate society, that is, to change society comprehensively or deeply. As Woodrow Wilson said during his presidency, “Our task [is] no mere task of politics.” By this he meant that “our task” was one that goes far beyond the merely political, encompassing the social or, as we might say today, the “cultural.” Hence, the political conflict between “the great ones” is actually, at bottom, cultural conflict, conflict over, allegedly, what kind of society we will or should be. Or to put this differently, the political conflict between the great ones is over competing “visions,” which are of course one of the staples of the Progressive understanding of “leadership.”

This view helps to explain the intensity of the rhetoric that currently characterizes our politics and the disjunction between the people, that is, ordinary people, and our elites. With regard to the intensity of the rhetoric that is currently in vogue, it is justified if our political conflicts are really conflicts over what kind of culture we are going to have in this nation. The conflict is so basic, is over the most basic kind of issues – e.g., “socialism” versus “capitalism,” as some would have it – that harsh rhetoric and even personal attacks are to be expected and are justified.

What is made to appear as a culture war domestically is taken to be a “clash of civilizations” with regard to foreign policy. And here, especially, it could be said that “our task [is] no mere task of politics.” And, again, as the conflict is seen as over the most basic and the most important issues, it is to be expected that atrocities will be committed. In fact, it would not be too much to say that the atrocities that occur are not accidental or “one-off” events, events that result from the actions of “loose cannons” or those who “just snap.” These atrocities are, rather, reflections of the overall policy.

Now, one thing this means is that calls for moderation in the rhetoric that characterizes our domestic politics or in our actions in foreign realms will not be sufficient to control our behavior. Such calls will fail because the rhetoric and actions that even we can see as undesirable are part and parcel, as it were, of our embrace of what I choose to call “a politics of greatness,” that is, a politics that sees political actors as “the great ones” competing for power to do great things, even the greatest things. And the question should be asked: What might such an alternative politics look like?

Well, as I see it, there are at least two aspects to an alternative politics. First, such a politics would need to be incremental. That is, such a politics might be labeled “piecemeal politics,” in that it would not seek to deal with, to eradicate what is called “the drug culture” but would seek to deal with the abuse of illegal substances in piecemeal fashion, incrementally. Under such an approach, it would make no sense to create what we now call “a drug czar” nor would it make sense to create agencies dedicated to eradication of the use of illegal substances. Rather, drug use and abuse would be entrusted to such organizations as police departments, that is, agencies and departments that have multiple responsibilities and that do not have tightly focused “missions” as does the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Administration.

A second aspect of an alternative politics would be its accommodationist character. That is, it would deal with “problems” or “issues” as we deal with, say, potholes. No one ever declares war on potholes and no one ever would because we know that the potholes will always be with us. The best we can do is to fill them in, even while knowing that this is not a “solution.” So, for example, when dealing with homelessness and the homeless, we would not try, as both liberals and conservatives do today, to conquer homelessness, to “eradicate” the homeless by providing homes for them. Rather, we would help the homeless, that is, we would seek to help them be homeless successfully. This would involve, among other things, actually asking the homeless what they need and then trying to meet these needs. We would rely less on experts and more on the homeless themselves in designing policies for the homeless. But, again, we would not create an agency devoted to “solving the problem of homelessness” by making it and them disappear. Nor would we engage in “calls to action” to try to “understand” the homeless in order to get “them off the streets and into homes.”

Of course, such an accommodationist stance provides little room or opportunity for the kind of inspirational rhetoric we have become so use to today. There would be no calls for action to eradicate the use of illegal substances, no calls to action to wage a “war on poverty” or a “war on crime” or a “war on terror.” There would be less talk of the alleged “culture of poverty” or the “drug culture,” as such talk would serve little or no purpose in dealing with these phenomena in an incremental and/or accommodationist manner. But we just might arrive at more humane and even more workable approaches to these phenomena than we employ now. We would not “solve” our “problems” but we would manage our affairs and be better off.


  1. I think that these urges to greatness are rooted in two disparate sources. One is American protestantism, particularly the evangelical variety, which goes back to Plymouth Rock. The other is a Twentieth-Century import: Euro-style revolutionary poilitics mixed with the European confidence in national government.

    Daniel Walker Howe has in "What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848,"an interesting chapter (8) on evangelical Christian "millenialism." The first sentence is about J.Q. Adams and many Americans viewing "America as the country where God would bring his plans to fulfillment." Lyman Beecher is also quoted: "the stated policy of heaven is to raise the world from its degraded condition." This is the sort of stuff Nineteenth-Century Progressives were raised on. I think that our current Middle-East policy is--or can easily be--influenced by a Millenialist view of what must happen in the Middle East before the end times.

    The current revolution in the Middle East has been compared to the one that swept across Europe in the 1840s. Remaking the world for "the people," wiping out the horrid past which caused misery was the driving force behind that. The European revolutionaries didn't dump government and its bureaucracies, however, which kings had built up over the centuries. I don't think that the modern European can conceive of life without paternalistic government. How did this come to join Millenialism on our shores? Through European academics who came here in the first half of the last century. "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning" by Jonah Goldberg is a good one to read on this.

    Of the two, I think the religious variety will win out in the end because it's in the American marrow whereas the import is an infection. In any case it will be a long time before politics is only about potholes.

  2. Nice, thoughtful comment. Thanks, Neal. I am personally skeptical of Goldberg and his thesis as it seems awfully convenient in the present climate. But then I have been wrong before.....but only once!! You know this is a joke at my expense, Neal. Again, thanks for the comment.