The Why of Culture War

One of the arguments I understand Rick Perlstein to be making in Nixonland is that American political life has been increasingly shaped by a public culture war since the 1960s because that was the distinctive political response crafted by Nixon (and to a lesser extent Reagan) to the social turmoil of the 1960s. Culture war, in this view, is another way to describe Nixon’s gathering of motley and contradictory “Orthogonian” grievances together under one banner, united only by their feelings of ressentiment at their perceived loss of social and cultural capital during the 1960s.

As an answer to the question posed by Laura at 11D, “Why culture war?”, this is a good historical beginning. It only gets us so far, though. One of the odd things about Nixonland is that Perlstein doesn’t attend to the social underpinnings of the political history he is recounting as he did in his previous book on Barry Goldwater. If I follow his argument correctly, perhaps that’s because Perlstein believes that Nixonland politics didn’t mobilize any coherent social groups, just a patchwork assembly of all social fractions who perceived themselves to be scorned or excluded from institutional, local or national life, who felt intruded upon by people and interests that they didn’t regard as legitimately possessing a right to intrude.

I think there are a few other things to add if we want to answer, “Why culture war?”. Perlstein deals in passing with the counterculture and the New Left as active agents in this history, often jabbing politely but unmistakeably at their hubris, as well as highlighting the extent to which their social class (either already held as part of their upbringing, or aspired to as product of their education) was a provocation to the social identity of police, industrial workers, and so on.

One outgrowth of left-identified cultural and identity politics that germinated in the late 1960s and 1970s was a loosely Gramscian assumption about both the means and ends of political struggle, that the transformation of institutional and cultural life were seen as the precondition of a successful transformation of political and social life, and that radicalized, emancipatory institutions would be seen as the sign that such a success was underway. Contemporary conservative critics tend to vastly overstate the strength and distribution of this perspective during the 1980s among American intellectuals, artists, academics, and so on, but I think it’s fair to say that a very loose, undertheorized version of this critique had a lot of influence at that point.

So this begins to explain the situation of culture war, and responds to the following complaint by Rotwang at TPM Cafe:

The oligarchy’s message to the masses is the populism of fools — mobilizing support on the basis of hatred of the meritocratic elite. The real elite includes the Supreme Court, the Congress (in the 90s), corporate leaders, the Administration — overwhelmingly Republican. The fake elite are journalists, television anchors, Hollywood stars, professors, and rock musicians. A genuine populist cannot be a right-winger, since the real elite is itself right-wing.

Rotwang is baffled: why attack the fake elite? It is the real elite that does you harm, that rules over you. The first thing we need to remember is that this is not entirely true, that the ressentiment described by Perlstein is also a response to actual intrusions. The real elite’s economic and political power is remote and obscure within the practice of everyday life. What Rotwang calls the fake elite are far more present and visible, and when they intrude or disrespect what people take to be valuable and precious in their own habitus, the threat they seem to pose is far more immediate and visceral. When some in the fake elite saw those intrusions as instrumental, deliberate, programmatic, as politics by other means, they incidentally poured a massive amount of fuel on that ressentiment and put a blowtorch to it.

It doesn’t matter that whatever people take to be a settled way of life or worldview is not sui generis, but derived also from a history of institutional and political life. What matters is, as Gramsci himself noted, what is taken to be truth or common sense, and what is taken to be an unnatural challenge to that truth. In response to Thatcherism, Stuart Hall began to think some time ago about the fact that such common sense may have some sense to it, that it is not just arbitrary or a side effect of some perfectly composed hegemonic program. Take it a step further, towards Edmund Burke: various forms of situated common sense are a reasoned, organic consequence of the slow accumulation and layering of historical sediment, and that applies to everyone, whether they are a radical performance artist living in Soho or a small-town evangelical who runs a hardware store in Kansas. Direct the action of “politics” at the violent excavation of the foundation under anyone’s feet, and you should scarcely expect them to ignore you in favor of distant if awesomely powerful forces that intervene and circumscribe everything else about their lives. You, the “fake elite”, are right there with a spade and pickaxe.

Another discussion last week, this one at Obsidian Wings, touched on another dimension of the problem. Dr. Ngo worries about the anti-intellectualism of Republican populism, about the hostility to competence and expertise. This is an old theme for me at this site as well. But I think Dr. Ngo overlooks an important historical underpinning of that anti-intellectualism, which is that at least some of it is a completely reasonable response to the real actions of intellectuals and experts within post-1945 technocracies, and as such, isn’t just an attitude limited to the United States. In fact, I’d suggest that this is one of the key reasons why liberalism and the modern bureaucratic state have suffered from a persistent malaise almost everywhere since the 1980s, why they inspire so little loyalty or dedication from most national populations, and why many intellectuals on the right and the left fret so persistently about trying to imagine a way out of the belly of the whale and yet resignedly accept that no such way can be clearly described or imagined.

In the 1950s, the high modernist future was intrusted to experts, scientists, and technocrats, who were understood as acting alongside and outside of the normal circulations of social life. Watch all sorts of basically benign presentations of science and expert authority from 1950s pop culture. The expert was an otherworldly portal from which a new future relentlessly would flow: flying cars! no more disease! poverty vanquished! amazing new cities that YOU will live in! atomic trash disposal! racial integration handled without protests and unpleasantness! religious faith made obsolete! None of this was really up for debate, none of it was a decision: it was a teleological chart, an inevitable consequence of expert knowledge. Even when, whether schlockily or seriously, expertise was represented as “mad science”, the answer to it was usually good science. Got Dr. Doom? Get Reed Richards.

What produced widespread alienation and distrust of technocratic solutions? First, that many of those which were implemented went badly awry or wasted enormous resources to no good end. Second, that at least some expertise was uncloaked over time as being nothing more than the Wizard of Oz in his booth with his levers, that strong claims to resources and social power were being made by humbugs of various kinds. Third, the challenge to the technocrats embodied by Jane Jacobs’ work gained a lot of traction. Jacobs can almost be seen as the “good Nixon”, if you follow Perlstein: someone who gathered up the resentments produced by people whose organically functional lives had been badly intruded upon by technocratic policy and suggested that good design, good policy, good stewardship could arise out of the way people organically lived rather than in contradiction to the world as it was.

So much as I share Rotwang and Ngo’s frustrations that the “fake elite” is so persistently targeted, that education is seen as a liability, that experts and intellectuals have become the dog that you kick and abuse while still relying upon him to guard your house, it is not as if culture war in this sense comes from nowhere, or has no underlying sense to it. Much of it is an entirely understandable and justified response to history as Americans (and indeed the world) have lived it since 1945.

There’s another related thing that occurs to me about culture war, resentment and Nixonland politics. I do think we can say a bit more about the underlying social architecture of those politics in one key respect. It’s true that many different people under many different circumstances respond to a call-out to Orthogonian resentment. If you’re a hunter, you get tired of being shat on by some New York celebrity, even if that person doesn’t have one one-millionth of the political and economic impact on your life (or even your ability to hunt) that the people making fiscal policy in Washington have. If you’re a comic-book nerd, you get tired of people making fun of comic-books. Hit the right notes, and almost any of us can be called out because we feel marginalized, silenced, scorned and yet suddenly there is One of Us at the center of public attention and we identify with them. There I am! There is that Famous Person! They are mistreating that Famous Person just the way that I am mistreated. That’s generic Orthogonian sentiment, all around us all the time.

At the same time, though, we shouldn’t forget the social identity of the original Orthogonian, Richard Nixon himself, because I think that’s a key to a lot of culture-war politics now. Who fights most ardently in the culture wars? Everyone involved in the public waging of culture wars invokes a silent majority, a Them, some masses, the people, the ordinary folk, who allegedly feel trespassed upon and are about to rise up. Only the rising up part never really happens outside of a shitload of trolling in long message threads, or is only one part of very complicated composite decisions that people make in the voting booth. Folks still send their kids to the colleges that are allegedly swarming with leftists, they still watch the TV dominated by bias, they go see the movies that have such filthy images in them, they listen to the music by those bad bad people. The culture is more consumed, more popular, more omnipresent for all that it is also supposedly so alienating and made with such conspiratorial intent.

So again, who are the actual culture warriors? To a very significant extent, this is not a war of elites versus masses, it is an intramural struggle between closely related social fractions whose professional and lived worlds overlap and rub up against one another. Professors versus middle-rank white collar professionals. Commercial illustrators versus chic gallery artists and their patrons. This group of thirty-something think-tank fellows versus that group of thirty-something think-tank fellows. Students from Harvard Law looking for Department of Justice positions versus students from Regent University looking for Department of Justice positions. Mothers who take time off from competitive career tracks to rear young children versus mothers who use nannies and round-the-clock day care. The fiercest and nastiest social and cultural struggles in any society are often between people who are closely proximate and thus are struggling for the same objective rather than between people who are very distant from each other.

This is another reasons why there is so much verbiage and culture-war hot air directed at what Rotwang calls the “fake elite”. Many of the educated elite who are the foot soldiers of the contemporary culture wars aren’t in the money elite, and aren’t going to be in money elite, whether they’re professors or bloggers or civic activists or church leaders or community organizers. This is not to say that they’re poor, but that the economic and institutional world they operate within has at best a thin overlap with the world of CEOs and investment bankers and senior law partners and property developers and old-money wealth and so on. On the other hand, there may be considerable cultural capital which resides more with the “fake elite” that the money elite either respects or resents.

This past summer when I happened by chance to be at a political fund-raiser held at a very wealthy person’s house (I was there as volunteer kitchen staff than as a donor), I was musing how on one hand, I will never earn in my entire lifetime of work more than a small proportion of the value of the home I was in, and yet on the other hand, I was culturally and socially competent to evaluate the architecture and art on display, and to participate in conversation.

The difference between my capital and the capital of the people who owned that home as far as the wider society is concerned is that my capital may paradoxically be harder to dream of acquiring. I can imagine that the wealth required to own that home could be mine through pure serendipity. I could win the lottery or the World Series of Poker. I could invent something. I could start a small business that catches on and makes me rich. A Hollywood director could decide that I was just the right person for a movie he was going to make. I could put a little film onto YouTube, have it go viral, and suddenly get a big-money contract to make a film. I could write a novel and it could become the next Harry Potter sensation. Fate could catapult me from where I am to that money elite: all that you need as the price of entry to that elite is the money. Or at least so it often seems to Americans. So it isn’t just that whatever social and political power they have is in some sense cloaked or remote, it is that we all can imagine, regardless of our situation, that some miracle could intervene and we could be there too.

But you can’t imagine a lucky chance that makes you part of the professional and cultural elite. You can’t get lucky and become a doctor if you’re a certified EMT. You’ll have do to the time. You can’t get lucky and become a tenured professor at Harvard if you’re a well-loved, inspiring mid-career professor at a community college. You’ll have to write four books and schmooze endlessly at conferences and claw your way into prominence. You can’t get lucky and become a lawyer when you have an autodidact’s knowledge of the legal system. You can be the best teacher in a K-12 school and be paid less than the weakest hack who went and got a master’s degree.

So in the grand scheme of things in American society, to aspire to the professional elite means doing all the things required to gain the certification or license to be part of it. And to be someone with professional skill and commitment that you personally feel is better than those who have the certification and who gain higher rewards due to having that certification. Serendipity is a negative thing: it is the jobs you will be denied because the system is too chummy or requires connections you don’t have, the white-collar job where the person who has the right parents or the right identity or the social fluency gets rewarded while you stay in a dead-end lower managerial job. The professional elite is ruled by fate and inheritance, by conformity to institutional structure, not the dream of suddenly breaking out into boundless autonomy or being blessed by happy chance.

At least some culture war in American society since 1970 is fought within those cramped terrains, across and along minute differences in the status hierarchies of professional and managerial worlds. That was Richard Nixon. A lawyer, just the kind of lawyer who doesn’t have preapproved, smoothed access to cultural and social capital. That’s the core of the Orthogonian impulse that Perlstein describes.


Here’s a final thought that is much on my mind lately. So what if there is culture war in America, whether at the widest scale of American society, or in this narrower, intramural sense? A lot of us complain of it as if it detracts from a real politics, from decisions and issues that we’re meant to be tackling. Some of us are indifferent to struggles over values because we aspire to be indifferent to values. Not without values, but believing that everyone is free to have their own personal values and ethics and that contention over divergent values is best cordoned off into private and civic realms. The public and political, we hold, is for other kinds of decisions and debates, and the more effort that goes into culture war, the less space we have for what really matters.

Maybe that’s true, but it’s an interested perspective. It is, in its own way, a culture war argument. What else might be bad about culture war? I suppose for some, there is a sense that it detracts from national or social cohesion in a time where we perceive that to be all the more necessary. Perhaps. I don’t think there is a lot of evidence that national cohesion is actually a necessary precondition of waging war or responding to economic crisis or dealing with social upheaval.

So why all the fretting? Following the above analysis, it could just be that people who stand atop certain narrowly composed professional and cultural hierarchies are fretting about the possibility of losing position, that it’s a self-interested concern. I think there’s a bit of that driving the discussion. But for me, I think it’s also that I have a sense that of all the kinds of social struggle you could have within a national or regional community, culture war of this kind is the most likely to run away from all the participants, to take on a life of its own. Rotwang writes that American anti-intellectualism leaves an exemption for the neurosurgeon, the engineer, the indispensible expert. If there’s historically evident danger to culture war, it is that it is hard to keep it nothing more than a Punch-and-Judy pantomine, hard to keep it confined to a narrowly intramural struggle within specific professional or social hierarchies. There are pathways out of Nixonland that go into very dark, dangerous places that no one wants to traverse.

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6 Responses to The Why of Culture War

  1. I think your history of the culture war is still a bit one-sided. You hint at it in the end, but it deserves actual attention. The anti-technocratic “lesson learned” from 20c history is only one of the many things that totalitarian states expressed and demonstrated. Culture War was another one — the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution being the ur-struggle, I suppose (or Lysenkoism, or Nazi book-burning, etc) — times in which anti-intellectualism ran rampant in the hands of the state resulting in massive damage to the cultural and intellectual resources of society.

    What’s bad about Culture War for me is not anxiety about losing position: it’s about undoing all the worthwhile work done by educators, scientists, health professionals, engineers and other “elites.” Rotwang’s wrong about the exception: it is only granted in theory, because in practice the culture war makes it harder for those indispensible experts to function, or to exist in the first place. Culturally, there is an exception for “genius” because it occurs naturally, but hard-won cultural capital and “book learnin'” doesn’t really fit.

  2. It was funny to read the thoughts here about experts–just this morning I was watching Laurie Anderson’s culture-war critique, Only An Expert. It’s an entertaining commentary on a number of the threads in this post (I think it is, anyway–I’m still digesting).

    The idea that the people should go after the real elite instead of the fake elite is seductive, for sure, especially for those of us who are alienated and shocked by the Bush-era political elite. As I read, it struck me that it has the same kind of appeal, and the same kind of flaws, as the classic economist’s model of a rational economic man. Whether that analogy holds up or not, I think you’re right that people react to whatever’s in their face or stepping on their toe. I guess we need to get used to that and figure out a better angle.

    You’re suggesting at the end that we recoil from the culture war because it has such potential to get out of hand? Offhand, it seems like a good theory, though it doesn’t capture my personal reaction, which is aesthetic–the culture-war mindset is reductive in a way that I find depressing and ugly. That applies to both the Orthogonian and anti-Orthogonian sides, I think, though of course my gut reaction is mostly to the former.

    Many thanks for such a rich post.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I just didn’t want to hammer that material too hard, Jonathan, because then it’s force shields up, Godwin’s Law invoked, and so on. But yes, I think this is where serious, sustained anti-intellectual populism can go when it stops being a kind of low-level trope and becomes instead a major theme of electoral politics. If you like, the Cultural Revolution is just as good an example as Nazism–and the big thing for everyone to remember is that when a tipping point arrives, some of the people who were making instrumental use of anti-intellectualism will either find themselves targets, or find that the exception that they meant to leave for “useful” educated people can’t be maintained. You can’t separate Sakharov the useful scientist from Sakharov the dissident.

  4. Doug says:

    It’s a day for tilting at windmills for me, but the idea that a comparison to Nazism inevitably shuts off all debate is a bad one. Germany did not suddenly go from sweetness and light on January 29, 1933 only to turn into unalloyed evil on January 30 when Hitler was named Chancellor. The process of throwing away democracy and civilization had a lot of steps in it, and lots of Germans approved lots of those steps along the way. Nor was Germany the only European country to throw its democracy into the trash — that’s a depressingly long list — but only the most powerful, and the most resentful.

    I’m probably preaching to the choir here (and mixing metaphors rather recklessly, too, sorry about that), but it’s well worth remembering that the Nazi government was a government of men, not of devils incarnate suddenly beamed into Berlin. It was a government that enjoyed significant popular support right up into the very end, and it was a government that left many of its people — and their probably unreconstructed beliefs — in parts of German society that has repercussions down to this very day. (Specifically, for example, high-level police functionaries transitioned into the Bundeskriminalamt, and Nazi-period or Nazi-inspired ideas about particular groups were used in police training well into the 1980s. Even if the materials were all eliminated by then, some of the people trained by these methods are certainly still in office.)

    Anyway, it’s off topic, but I think it’s important not to stop thinking or talking when a Nazi analogy occurs. Under the Bush administration, torture became the official policy of the United States of America. How much further will we go?

  5. Carl says:

    The point about the insults of cultural politics is worth underlining. Gramsci remarked that all men are intellectuals, but not all men perform intellectual functions in society. Here’s a wedge. He then divided thinking into common sense, good sense, and philosophy, with common sense being the burkeian sedimentation; functional but, from the standpoint of systematic reason, a bunch of junk. Another wedge. So the basic idea of a gramscian cultural politics is that everybody thinks, but most people don’t think well and a lot of what they think they know is crap. Intelligence is democratic, only not really. So as you say, this kind of cultural politics depends on chipping the foundations out from under people’s lives by valuing their potential but disparaging their practice.

    Giving people help they don’t want is a quick way to generate resentment, the more so if the help implies an insult and the most if there’s no clear anthropological reciprocity. Traditional elites have the luxury of leaving people’s ideas alone (and are free to seem to share them), since the basic functional conservatism of that burkeian mishmash is unlikely to come together into any significant change agency. Cheney, for example, just drips with contempt for the intellectual capacity of the masses but wouldn’t dream that something could or should be done about it, and directs his public disdain at liberals so his more comprehensive elitism is not evident.

    The respectful/resentful subalternity of the commons is historically ordinary; what needs to be accounted for is its activation for deployment in mass politics. Well, first there has to be a mass politics…. So to the variables already well covered I’d like to suggest adding the entitlements of consumer society. When the business elite is telling me as a customer that I’m always right, the contrast with educational/critical intelligentsias crabbing about my bad thinking and bad biases is vivid and grating.

  6. swiers says:

    I??m reminded of a bit in Annie Dillard??s novel ??The Living??the part where the prominent churchgoing elite of a U.S. frontier town take pains to include ??everyone?? in their vision of a utopian happy family. No culture wars there.

    It strikes me too, listening as I am to an interview with David Foster Wallace from 1997, that those fighting on the fronts, without the luxury (?) of an attendant sense of detached literary irony (some of the various techniques of which Wallace himself was accused of abusing, and which he also critiqued in himself and others), will do anything to secure their own doom: I mean, just look at the ratio of job ??seekers?? to job ??openings?? in the present U.S. situationthose souls are consigned to perdition by default. But Wallace didn??t kill himself over culture; he just killed himself. He alternately infuriated and bored me, but I will miss him.

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