Culture (War) Is Everything
Everybody read my TAC colleague Sam Goldman’s piece about why contemporary progressives don’t get the connection between economic inequality and social diversity. It’s not supposed to be that way, in their view, but it is — and was destined to be since social issues, not economic issues, began dominating American political life. Goldman:
In our time, the stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are far from “unrelated”. Rather, social inclusion has been used to legitimize economic inequality by means of familiar arguments about meritocracy. According to this view, it’s fine that the road from Harvard Yard to Wall Street is paved with gold, so long a few representatives of every religion, color, and sexual permutation manage to complete the journey. Superficial diversity at the top thus provides an moral alibi for the gap between the one percent and the rest.
Goldman says this was inevitable after the culture war within the Democratic Party resulted in labor’s defeat by the cultural left in 1972 (a defeat that later had a profound effect on the GOP; it created Reagan Democrats):
Over the next few decades, erstwhile radicals learned that they could get more of what they wanted by cooperating with business than by opposing it. The New Left got affirmative action, relaxed gender norms, and good coffee, while the corporations acquired a new justification for their profits. The libertarianism adopted by many Silicon Valley types is the most rigorous theory of this fusion of inclusiveness and capitalism. But the “social liberalism, fiscal conservatism” popular on Wall Street and at elite universities is a milder and therefore more palatable version of the same idea.
More generally, it is hard for a society characterized by ethnic and cultural pluralism to generate the solidarity required for the redistribution of wealth. People are willing, on the whole, to pay high taxes and forgo luxuries to support those they see as like themselves. They are often unwilling to do so for those who look, sound, or act very differently. In this respect, the affirmations of choice and diversity that now characterize American culture, tend to undermine appeals to collective action or shared responsibility. If we’re all equal in our right to live own lives, why should we do much to help each other?
This is “What’s The Matter With Kansas?” territory, of course. From a contemporary progressivist point of view, non-rich social conservatives who vote Republican do so out of false consciousness, or mindless bigotry. But how many liberals would vote for a politician who proposed to stick it to the banks and the oligarchs, and who endorsed a broadly progressive economic agenda, but who openly opposed gay marriage and abortion, and endorsed religious piety? (Basically, your pre-1970s Catholic Democrat). Very few, I would imagine.
The culture was is in some ways class war by another name. Whenever you see some middle or upper class person gabbing on about the importance of diversity, you shouldn’t expect that they mean actual diversity — because then they would be eager to include, say, white working-class Republican Pentecostals — but rather diversity as what Goldman calls a “moral alibi,” which entails one’s ability to conceal one’s own real motivations from oneself.
This is also “The Lost City” territory. Many of us, both liberals and conservatives, pine for the relative economic equality of the postwar era, but very few of us — not even among us conservatives — would be willing to accept the trade-offs in personal liberty that the era demanded. As Goldman indicates, a lot of the New Deal economic stuff depended on a culture that was far more unified than we are today.
David Brooks has a fantastic piece out today talking about a study of words in popular culture over the last 50 years, and how our language discloses the rise of individualist consciousness and the loss of the ability to think and talk in terms of moral judgment. It’s related to the phenomenon Goldman writes about. Here’s Brooks:
Conservatives sometimes argue that if we could just reduce government to the size it was back in, say, the 1950s, then America would be vibrant and free again. But the underlying sociology and moral culture is just not there anymore. Government could be smaller when the social fabric was more tightly knit, but small government will have different and more cataclysmic effects today when it is not.
Liberals sometimes argue that our main problems come from the top: a self-dealing elite, the oligarchic bankers. But the evidence suggests that individualism and demoralization are pervasive up and down society, and may be even more pervasive at the bottom. Liberals also sometimes talk as if our problems are fundamentally economic, and can be addressed politically, through redistribution. But maybe the root of the problem is also cultural. The social and moral trends swamp the proposed redistributive remedies.
Evidence from crude data sets like these are prone to confirmation bias. People see patterns they already believe in. Maybe I’ve done that here. But these gradual shifts in language reflect tectonic shifts in culture. We write less about community bonds and obligations because they’re less central to our lives.