State of the Union

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.

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11 Responses to State of the Union

  1. AndrewSshi says:

    I think that something that’s very, very important about the American right as it’s been doing things over the last thirty years is the extent to which they’ve managed to shape a fairly coherent narrative, namely, that the country is growing ever more left-wing, and what forty years ago would have been a Democrat is now basically a socialist. The question is why such a narrative exists: when the most liberal president in the last thirty years, for example, has a To Be Assassinated list, works closely with Ben Bernanke, and supports nuclear power, how on earth can you say that the country is moving further left?

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I think that there are a few ways that you can keep the inexorable-move-left narrative intact if once doesn’t squint to closely. First off, there’s conflating social change with economic change: as the traditional forms of social discipline give way, then along one small access, society is moving further to the left. So if you lump together, say, tax policy, sexual mores, and people’s willingness to say f*ck in public, then yes, you can create a narrative of inexorable change.

    Then, there’s the fact that the university system tends to put genuine leftists in the worst possible position (for them at any rater), namely, one of high visibility and low influence. If someone in their one required English class in undergrad encounters a Butlerian feminist saying that knowledge and reason are phallic constructs of the patriarchy, or if someone is given I, Rigoberta Mechu to read in Intro to Cultural Anthropology, it doesn’t necessarily matter that most American Democrats outside of San Francisco would acknowledge that Rigoberta Menchu is in fact communist propaganda and that communism is a bad idea. People remember the professor talking about how awesome Fanon is and that white kid in dreadlocks handing out the Free Palestine pamphlets.

    It seems to me that the Inexorable Move to the Left is basically what happens when the reptile brain looks at a few highly visible things and plugs them into a conveniently available narrative.

    On class issue, my suspicions get even fuzzier. I tend to suspect that among people with a salary of 20k-35k a year, things are really tough because you fall into that “sweet spot” where there’s very little government help: too much money for you or your kids to qualify for anything but student loans, too much money for Medicaid, but little enough that you either can’t afford insurance or it really hurts to buy it, etc. For such people, I suspect that there’s a strong sense of, “I did it myself, dammit, and at great difficulty. Why should other people get to coast?” But then, that’s only my spot impression.

  2. I’m not at all convinced by the “Cultural autonomy vs. cultural intervention” dichotomy: there are potentially coherent positions on either side, yes, but they are held only by very small minorities (religious isolationists and totalitarians, seriously), while the vast majority of us take a self-servingly inconsistent approach.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Yes, sorry, I should be clear: all the positions that appear around that dynamic are inconsistent. Where I’d disagree is that those inconsistencies are always a fairly good map of the self-interest of the people expressing that position, and that’s what makes this such a strange pull on political conflict–statements of principle emerge suddenly out of that binary that compel political actors and sometimes they’re rather surprising as idee fixes, on both the right and the left.

  4. withywindle says:

    Re conservatives and their wicked, wicked ways: would you believe tu quoque? I think I can work up a good sneer about the left side of the blogosphere–and come up with Anecdotes about How Sweet and Reasonable we Conservatives are–but is there any point? I suppose I would suggest to you a good Augustinian/Austenian framework: we are all evil fools, and remarkably bad at recognizing our true natures. I think I would also suggest to you an amiable amnesia, so you can sojourn forth into the blogosphere again, shorn of the map that says Here Be Black Holes.

  5. abstractart says:

    Prof. Burke:

    I was struck at how tone-deaf Gordon Ramsey?? 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.

    Is this the show Hell’s Kitchen? Because the thing about that show was that the amateur chefs were in fact competing to become professional chefs — indeed, competing to have the show’s parent company invest a substantial amount of money in their opening their own restaurant — and therefore needed to adopt professional standards and skills that just don’t cut it when cooking for fun or for one’s family, admirable a task though that may be.

    It is worth faulting Ramsay for repeatedly failing to make this clear in a patient, sympathetic, reasonable-sounding way, though, as opposed to a constant barrage of screaming insults. He really was a grade-A example of being a piss-poor teacher and manager on that show, by failing to make clear the difference between failing at a specific goal-oriented task and being a worthless human being, though I think this was partly because he really did seem to resent being the host of a reality show and seemed to start with a highly negative opinion of the sort of person who would see a pointless spectacle like the show he was hosting as some sort of fast-track to success. (The fact that the man nominally in charge of the show seemed to hate the very concept of the show made it a surefire recipe for disaster in terms of actually being a good learning or testing environment, but a surefire success in creating “fireworks”, and that’s what reality-show execs want, after all — thus the producers’ acceptance of Ramsay’s attitude of contempt for his situation itself ironically validated said attitude.)

    Ramsay is quite a bit more tolerable and open-minded on other shows, like his famous Kitchen Nightmares show (the BBC version — I’ve not seen any of his USA stuff other than Hell’s Kitchen), where he is quite blunt but nonetheless reasonable and sympathetic when he tells people that he understands they became restauranteurs because they genuinely love cooking and should continue to pursue that love, but simply lack the chops (not just culinary but organizational/managerial/interpersonal/financial) to have a restaurant.


    Re conservatives and their wicked, wicked ways: would you believe tu quoque?

    No. Absolutely not, and this is because I started as someone who was in many ways largely on the fence, and who was quite willing to loudly complain about the ugly abuses and irrationalities of the Left when I was surrounded by them as an undergrad, and nonetheless came out of it a committed leftist precisely because the vacuous black hole that was the conversation of the American right wing had become so yawningly devoid of merit in my eyes I couldn’t tolerate being associated with it anymore.

    And the pointless tu quoque “You aren’t being fair to us, therefore fairness is a meaningless virtue” bleating and whining from campus conservatives that Prof. Burke discusses is a huge reason why. When time after time I tried to get at the heart of objections — valid, on the face of them — that the academic Left was hypocritical in its attempts at being non-discriminatory and fair and found that the motivation was the desire to be as discriminatory and unfair as possible (rephrased, of course, as “defending the objectively superior merits of Western culture against its attackers” or some such bullshit) the resulting disillusionment was far greater and more painful than any earlier disillusionment I’d had — of which I’ve had plenty, I assure you — of my mentors on the Left having feet of clay.

    I think I would also suggest to you an amiable amnesia, so you can sojourn forth into the blogosphere again, shorn of the map that says Here Be Black Holes.

    Telling people to ignore all past experience and try to reinvent the wheel is remarkably bad advice, but it would take little time to reinvent, in this case — the blogosphere has gotten only more and more polarized and the split between the Left and the Right therein more and more obvious in the past election cycle. (Reaching the point where even conservative bloggers admit the liberal blogs are better-researched and -argued, but then turns around with the “But that’s because we have jobs and therefore less time” slam, ironically proving the point under discussion.)

    And if tu quoque is acceptable, I suppose we might as well drift into ad hominem — it’s quite difficult to take this whole “But we all have feet of clay! It’s all equivalent!” crap from someone raising the flag for reasonable and intelligent conservative bloggership by, for instance, not knowing that Mexican Independence Day was Sept. 16 and responding to the spate of Mexican flags by fantasizing about burning them (because, you see, Mexicans do not love liberty and Mexican culture should therefore be suppressed).

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    To Withywindle:
    The tu quoque, as I think you know, I’m fully prepared to concede, though the concession usually earns one little in terms of movement towards some bridged territory where there are shared standards for debate if not shared agreement about what’s right or wrong. And yes, of course, we all have our blindspots and shortcomings. But my first watchword for exploration (amnesia being a good device for engaging the warp drives, I agree) has been that exploration requires a certain degree of humility, a heartfelt “I could be wrong, I could learn something today”. And honestly, I’ve felt that with many online conservatives (and for what it’s worth, I most definitely and earnestly exempt you from this observation), that kind of argumentative humility in someone else is largely an invitation to concern-troll the living shit out that person. I frankly got tired of being in conversation with certain online writers (some left, many right) whose entire argumentative habitus is an exotic version of playing to the refs in order to get a foul call.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    To abstractart:

    The Ramsey show I have in mind is his new one this season, Master Chef. It’s explicitly for amateur chefs, home cooks, etc., who want to compete against each other. The opening episode, besides being formulaic, had a lot of this, “But if you want the title of Master Chef, you’ll have to earn it, you’ll have to behave like a professional would, you’ll have to come up to the high standards of professional chefs” and so on. But the stories that the contestants told were about friends, family, home, neighbors–it just seemed to me that the people producing the show didn’t get that there could be other competitive metrics besides the generic narrative of meritocratic difference–that you could want to cook something great because you wanted to make people you love or respect happy, that food could be down-home and good and be very different than what was done in professional kitchen. And I honestly think that a lot of people in very meritocratic-type fields have the same tone-deafness.

  8. withywindle says:

    TB: As always, I take myself to be typical of conservatives, or below average, so I do encourage you to apply any kind opinions you have of me to conservatives in general.

    You should also consider the silent listeners. For example: I do read your blog regularly, but I often don’t say something because it would just be a boring, old argument; as you say, trollish. (I have my tendencies, of course, but they could be worse.) And who knows, maybe I even take some of what you say as sensible? Some incalculable amount of that going on. Do take into account the Dark Matter as well as the Black Holes.

    I should say that my own change in thinking in the last few years is not so much to stop thinking that large aspects of modern academia are pernicious bunkum, but to think that those aspects don’t matter so much as all that. The questions of how to prepare a lecture or a class discussion, how to grade or write a letter of recommendation, loom larger; the political/ideological aspects less. The craft aspects of the profession, in short. I certainly do think now, and more than I used to, that critiques of the academy from outside lack a sense of proportion, since they don’t take into account the amount of time you spend thinking about craft matters. On the other hand, I don’t think this refutes those critiques–this is a characteristic weakness of the entire genre of the outside critique, and it doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t make critiques from the outside, or that insiders shouldn’t listen to them. (And since I also continue to think that the academy pushes out conservatives, there aren’t going to be many conservatives who can make the critique from the point of view of internal knowledge; to prevent conservatives from being insiders, and then say one shouldn’t listen to them because they lack inside knowledge, is a somewhat aggravating sequence.) But some sense of proportion in the conservative critique of academia, a sense of the craft and the humdrum and the everyday, wouldn’t hurt.

  9. Brutus says:

    The post raised the issue of conservative and liberal politics within academia, but I have to wonder why that overlay is even necessary. No doubt it exists, but many (if not most) subject areas can barely withstand the omnipresent political filter. For instance, can any of the hard sciences or even music be recognizably conservative or liberal? (The risible example of creation “science” is a red herring.) Also, if one resorts to the sort of global rejoinder that everything is politics, therefore such bureaucratic procedures are justified, I would add that everything is also economics, or chemistry or physics, and culture. Big deal. Although it’s no doubt na??ve of me to observe, discarding the comments and/or arguments of individuals once they have invalidated themselves makes goods sense, but doing the same to whole classes of people based on political labels is pretty much the definition of stereotyping and bigotry.

  10. Timothy Burke says:

    Brutus: I hear you. In this post, I’m really thinking about a very specific set of writers in the public sphere and their tactics of discussion/debate, not the class of all X individuals with a particular political philosophy. As you observe, there are plenty of people in academia who might self-label as liberal, moderate, conservative, none of the above (and though the research is much debated, there do seem to be significantly different proportions of each in different disciplines) but for whom that’s largely a private or everyday label that has little or nothing to do with research or teaching, for whom these kinds of debates are remote.

  11. mike_t says:

    I can think of a few currents at work feeding the anger of tea-party type people who want to cut gov’t spending NOW.

    First off, much of the American public is, to put it bluntly, ignorant. In another post you mention the high percentage of church-going Protestants who don’t know who Martin Luther was. In a similar vein, those who benefit from gov’t programs both with direct payments such as Medicare, Social Security as well as indirect payments like sanitation, roads, schools to educate their children, etc. — all seem ignorant that these benefits are provided by the same gov’t they detest. The Reagan mantra repeated so many times, that gov’t is the problem, has sunk in and many people seem incapable of connecting the benefits they enjoy to the gov’t that provides them. Its as if they expect some magic fairy to keep providing them even if nobody pays taxes to fund them.

    Not only ignorance, but the lack of the ability to think critically is another strand in the web. Most of the time, for most people, keeping things the same as they were before works just fine. Which matches a populace that can’t or won’t think about issues, but leads to tea-party activists when change is proposed. Grandma is happy to collect her benefits but is terrified they might be cut if the gov’t goes deeper into debt so is frantic about stimulus spending. Is she an anti-Keynesian? No, she’s a Fox news listener. Cut taxes and promise they’ll “pay for themselves” and she’s not worried (and can’t follow the arguments anyway), but propose new spending and she’s marching with a sign. Out here in CA, a failing state, the ads against the ballot measure lowering the 2/3rds requirement to pass a budget don’t discuss anything remotely relevant to the issue; they are painting it as a way for gov’t workers to buy themselves $100 bottles of wine! Seriously. That’s what swings elections.

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