One of the commitments I carried into blogging from the outset was to try and build bridges to conservatives.
First, because they were a significant presence in the early blogosphere and the wider public sphere. Online, I’ve always sought inputs and conversations not readily available to me in my physical community, looking to build in some strange attractors for my thought and so make it a more chaotic, less predictable system over time. Doing that requires suspending quick impulses to dismiss or scorn unfamiliar thinking. As I’ve said in the past, intellectual pluralism is an active commitment. It takes a willingness to not just tolerate but appreciate difference in intellectual standards, in modes of argument, in substantive claims, in theory and philosophy.
Second, because I’d begun to feel that a number of public policy positions that were widely dismissed by liberals as “conservative” positions in the 1980s and early 1990s were at least worthy of serious consideration, such as school choice or the ‘broken-windowpanes’ theory of policing. More generally, by that point, I’d developed a ‘soft-libertarian’ streak in my thinking about the state, rather along the lines of James Scott, as well as a new appreciation for writers sometimes perceived as having ‘conservative’ uses, such as Isaiah Berlin or Edmund Burke.
Third, because I felt that when strong conservative positions, whether of the small-government or religious/cultural kind, were closely mapped onto and expressive of the identity of groups, communities or social classes, this posed some really serious questions for the future of American democracy. I worried that liberal or left projects of the 1970s and 1980s that aimed to change how American society felt and thought about diversity, multiculturalism, cultural life, political norms and so on through civic institutions had significantly overplayed their hand. Moreover, after reading Rick Perlstein’s history of conservative mobilization around Barry Goldwater, I realized that I’d had no sense before that point of the social bases of conservative politics, that I hadn’t asked some of the basic questions that I would intuitively ask if I were looking at political or social movements in other societies or other times. It seemed to me that many liberals had a socially nonspecific understanding of conservativism, or that they were content with impulsive quickfire characterizations that they would reject if applied to other mappings of ideology to social groups.
So where do I stand on these thoughts now? On conservative thinkers in the public sphere, not nearly so interested in making connections or building conversations, because it rapidly became evident to me that a significant proportion of those writers were treating the public sphere as either an exercise in will-to-power or as something they wanted to monkeywrench in the same way as an environmental activist might spike old-growth trees. Participating in a lot of those discussions is like being Charlie Brown falling for Lucy Van Pelt’s latest invitation to kick the football.
In particular, I ended up feeling that many conservative critics of academia who complained of marginalization had zero interest in building pluralism, which normally the solution to marginalization. Rather than seeking to widen the intellectual landscape, their vision was relentlessly zero-sum at best, and more often subtractive, about getting rid of everything that wasn’t their preferred work. Tendentiousness and double standards were the guiding spirit of their participation in public debate.
In the wider public sphere, conservatives arguing for long-held public policy objectives didn’t remark appreciatively on how or when those views had become consensus values of political elites, one reason why Rachel Maddow’s characterization of Bill Clinton as the “best Republican President” has a lot of truth to it. Even less did they look honestly at how well or poorly some of their treasured ideas performed when they became policy standards. Instead, they relentlessly moved the goalposts, making it clear that their real public policy objective was to ratfuck the other kinship branch of the political elite and thus claim the lion’s share of the inside-the-Beltway spoils system, a goal which combined with some preemptive ratfucking of specific forms of federal authority in service to their business clients outside of Washington.
The horror of many of these ‘conservatives’ at the mutable and vague object they scorned as intellectual “postmodernism” or “relativism” is as much confession as critique. I can think of nothing more relativist and will-to-power than mainstream public-sphere conservative writing and punditry in the US over the past decade.
The folks with whom I still wanted to have continuing conversations with generally didn’t identify as conservatives even if they also were wary of other labels or affiliations. So while I still see one of the basic goals of online conversation as building in strange attractors, I’ve learned that one large segment of the discursive galaxy is full of nothing but emptiness, populated by swirling rhetorical singularities that swallow up any who approach them.
How about the second point, about the incorporation of new source material and theory into my own work as a scholar and intellectual? That’s ongoing, and judging from what I read in my fields of interest, I’m hardly alone in this respect. I still fret about the likely reception of some revisionary suggestions or ideas by colleagues who hew to more hallowed pathways, but many rooms that felt stale to me in 2000 have freshened up considerably, or I realized that my own tunnel-vision perceptions of narrowness were the real problem.
The third concern I had when I started blogging is as alive and complex and worrisome as it ever was. Mapping the current political situation onto the social landscape of America is a confusing, difficult and yet urgently necessary exercise. I’m still very worried that a lot of people I know are inclined to dangerous forms of shorthand in thinking about the social architecture of our political moment.
I think there’s a lot under the hood of Tea Party activism, and some swirling social currents around and beyond the movement that are equally complicated.
Disclaimer: yes, race is an important driver of much Tea Party activism, and yes, there’s a lot of really bad, stupid and destructive stuff coming from declared adherents of the movement, both in terms of race and in general. Much of the movement scares the crap out of me. Investigating beyond first impressions doesn’t preclude harsh criticism or steadfast opposition.
No pretense here to a comprehensive picture, but here’s some of the things I’m thinking about or wondering about.
1) Meritocratic narratives of social mobility vs. luck/gambling/tournament narratives about social mobility vs. fatalistic and angry belief that American social mobility is dead for good.
Meritocratic stories themselves have a lot of different variant forms in American life in the last century: there’s the “hard work gets you from the mailroom to the boardroom” story, there’s the “talent wins out in the end, the person who builds the better mousetrap gets rewarded” version, and there’s the “person whose parents guide him/her successfully through all the right steps and who lives a basically good life and has a concomitantly solid career” idea.
Meritocratic stories about social hierarchy have always had gambling or tournament economies as their shadow, the notion that you get ahead in American life by being lucky: born with a silver spoon, sitting on the fountain stool at Schwab’s at the right moment, getting Oprah to pull your book out of obscurity.
I think right now we’re at a point where any meritocratic story is increasingly unreal in the lives of many Americans. On one hand, that produces for some downwardly mobile middle-class white Americans a sort of nostalgic longing which can easily be pushed into race-baiting anger at affirmative action for supposedly killing off real meritocracy, or a rejection of allegedly meritocratic elites as people who are actually a closed-shop oligarchy.
On the other hand, the growing strength of the idea of mobility through luck sometimes feeds into a defense of the superrich as people who won life’s lottery and are therefore entitled to their winnings.
Or it just leads people to conclude that mobility was for Americans in the past, and the only thing left is bitterness and anger at its passing.
It isn’t just in national politics that you can see this tension working itself out: this is what many of the unsuccessful contestants on reality shows say back to judges like Simon Cowell. Everyone’s good, the real issue is whether you’re lucky or not, and who is someone like Cowell to determine that? Certainly meritocratic stories sound very wrong when they intrude into the wrong social spaces. I was struck at how tone-deaf Gordon Ramsey’s amateur-chef reality show was when Ramsey insisted on judging people who love cooking for their family using the same narratives that he uses to judge entrepreneurial success.
2) Perceptions of the state versus social classes dependent upon the state. There are some really weird undercurrents out there right now. Putting our moment into the context of a long American history of skepticism about government is not that hard. Nor do I think it’s that hard to explain what catalyzes a lot of people (in the Tea Party movement and outside of it) to feel that government should be smaller or more effective or less intrusive.
There are some contradictions in those sentiments that are also familiar: the people who feel government should not intervene in the economy but unsurprisingly exempt the interventions from which they personally benefit, who hate buy-outs of Wall Street but who don’t blame Wall Street for almost destroying the economy, people who fly the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag but who supported the federal government intervening in the Schiavo case.
What’s more complicated is the actual breakdown of social class in America:
direct dependence upon the state as an employer or provider of monthly payments (or as the main economic driver of private employment, say, in businesses or consultancies that primarily contract with government)
VS. people whose employment has a much more indirect relationship to government.
Former government employees who are drawing large guaranteed pensions, whether they were cops, white-collar administrators, or even elected officials, have an authentically charged class-like antagonism with people in private employment who are paying the taxes to support public services. And as time goes on, people drawing money out in entitlement payments are going to have a more and more fractitious relation to people paying money in.
But is this conflict what drives anger over taxes or government size? I don’t think so, not straightforwardly. There’s no way to know for sure at the moment, but I don’t feel as if there’s much correlation between Tea Party adherents and a social antagonism between those paid by the state and those who pay it. In fact, I suspect that that at least some people drawn to Tea Party rhetoric are state employees or people whose businesses or careers are directly dependent upon government contracts. (I’m not talking about Tea Party political candidates or self-described leaders: I take it for granted that most of them are hypocrites on this score, just like any other group of allegedly small-government Republicans.)
So the question is whether something like the social conflict between retirees drawing big pensions and taxpayers looking for the maintenance of a variety of public services could be unmapped from looser rhetorics about big government, taxation and so on. I suspect not, any more than I expect people who talk a lot about the need to make budgetary cuts but who never want anything of their own to be cut to work out that discrepancy.
3) Cultural autonomy vs. cultural intervention. I still feel like there are coherent tendencies in the American electorate on both sides of this simple binary, people who generally feel strongly opposed to either government or private institutions trying to manage cultural and social life and those who believe in some strong form of intervention. I don’t think those tendencies map at all well to political parties or movements, including the Tea Party. I also don’t think they map to any concrete social group or constituency, and that’s what makes conflicts around these issues so hard to predict or manage, especially in terms of how they play out in political life.
4) How much social daylight is there between Americans in structurally hopeless economic circumstances and people who are experiencing some form of real downward mobility but whose careers or skills are still reasonably secure in their medium-term prospects? Modern historians know full well that some of the strongest political mobilizing with potential for serious unrest or destabilization often comes not from the most desperate or marginalized populations, but from groups of people whose relative status is slipping or whose perceived expectations of upward social mobility have been foiled. We have a lot of stories right now competing to establish themselves as the “real” socioeconomic underpinnings of widespread dissatisfaction and anger, but I find it hard to tell which experiences feed which kind of political anger or despair.