Political Manichaeism and “Culture Wars”

Over at The American Culture, S.T. Karnick argues, as do many, that politics in America can be neatly divided into “two irreconcilable worldviews”:

I don’t like martial metaphors, but I strongly agree with Carol Iannone that there are basically two worldviews competing irreconcilably in the United States today.

One, called progressivism, derives from the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and tends to blame all human problems on imperfect social institutions. Individuals devoted to this worldview concentrate great effort on the perfecting of institutions according to their idea of social justice, which evolves as new problems are created by their efforts to transform society and its institutions.

Their opponents refer to this fundamental problem of progressivism as the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The whole blog post is, in fact, pretty bad. For one, it completely misunderstands Rosseau’s work–you simply cannot read The Social Contract and come away thinking “Hey, that Rosseau sure was a fan of strong central government!” It’s absurd. Rosseau advocated for small, Republican city-states and against large nations. Suffice to say, Karnick’s claims about the views of progressives are equally absurd.

And while it might be fun to poke around the blog post itself and list the many, many factual inaccuracies therein, that wouldn’t get to the fundamental problem with the post. The fundamental problem is that it focuses on a sort of political Manichaeism that simply doesn’t exist in this country. The fact of the matter is, American politics does not divide into “Progressives” and “Believers in the Law of Unintended Consequences” or “Conservatives” and “Statists” or “Looters” and “Producers”. It’s not that simple. Indeed, for the vast majority of Americans and among the two major parties there is a significant overlap in worldviews. But different concepts break down differently for everyone, as individuals, across regions, and across parties. And, I might add, there can be significant differences across both sides of the aisle. On the right you have anarcho-capitalists, libertarians, social conservatives, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, Christian Reconstructionists, Objectivists, and a whole host of subcategories among all of them. On the left you have technocrats, Christian leftists, social democrats, Blue Dogs, neoliberals, Greens, socialists, communists, and a whole host of subcategories among them.

Then of course, you have the vast, vast majority of Americans who start paying attention to politics about the week before Election Day and have better things to do with their time than argue the nuances of Rosseau’s Social Contract vs. Locke’s. The vast majority of Americans who generally agree on a large, large number of political principles. (Like, say, democracy good, high taxes bad, freedom of speech good, being tough on crime good, alcohol should be legal, etc.)

It’s a consequence of both the large diversity and the large overlap among Americans that emphasize the danger of Karnik’s division of Americans into “irreconcilable worldviews.” That’s because, you see, if my worldview is good, and his worldview is bad, and they’re reconcilable, then there’s no reason for me to try to persuade him of the merits of a policy. It’s not necessary, because he’s bad, and I’m right.

And if we’re involved in a “war”, then there’s no need for me to understand his views. I just have to know enough to write propaganda so I can prevent people from going over to his side. I can simply deride those folks as “wingnuts” or “socialists” or “statists” or “fascists” or “Christianists” or “Islamists” or “Un-American”. Facts aren’t important in propaganda. Understanding isn’t important in propaganda. All that matters in propaganda is proving that one of my political enemies is the “worst person in the world.”

It is this mindless Manichean, propagandistic view that allows someone to spout nonsense like “Tea Partiers are racist” or “liberals hate the traditional family” without bothering to examine the facts.

Because war isn’t about persuasion, or cooperation, or compromise.

War is simply about winning.

And in a time when America faces real, deep, and serious challenges, this “culture war” crap is dangerous. By focusing on trivial straw-boogeymen instead of truly grappling with policies, ideas, and empirical data, the pundits who style themselves as “culture warriors” make it that much harder to see our fellow citizens as partners in building a better country, rather than enemies who need to be destroyed.

That’s because, sad to say, propaganda is easy. It gets you hits. It gets you on TV. It gets you book deals. But working to find real solutions and building a consensus is much, much harder.

Image Credit: EAWB’s photostream

FILED UNDER: US Politics, ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. TangoMan says:

    Nicely done. I thought you wrote a balanced and fair assessment on an important topic. It took me some moments of reflection and some searching through your text to find something that I could comment on because just saying kudos won’t really further the conversation.

    So, what should we all infer from your observation:

    It’s a consequence of both the large diversity and the large overlap among Americans that emphasize the danger of Karnik’s division of Americans into “irreconcilable worldviews.”

    You also noted that “Rosseau advocated for small, Republican city-states and against large nations.”

    The way I read you you’re making a call that when people are confronted by diversity they should work against their interests and reach out to bridge that diversity in order to create an environment more amenable to solving problems together. If this is a fair assessment of what you’ve written then what should be done if this reformation of human nature cannot be achieved? What if Robert Putnam’s work on the negative effects of diversity is holding true and what you’re seeing is simply a consequence that naturally arises in an environment which accepts the notion that “Diversity is our strength” when in fact “Diversity undermines the common good,.”

    Maybe Rosseau was right and the outreach efforts you argue for are only possible within a framework where the sense of community is stronger than the sense of diversity.

  2. Michael Reynolds says:

    Summarizing Tango: Blah, blah, blah, race. Blah, blah, blah, race. Blah blah blah I’m better than black people. Also Hispanics. Because I’m white, you see. Whiteness: I’ve got it all over me.

    Which I’m sorry, Alex, does rather undercut your thesis, at least insofar as unreconstructed haters are concerned.

    But this is an unnatural environment. We’re here in the comment section of a center-right blog. On the internet. Meanwhile, out in the actual world, you’re right, we agree on about 95% of everything.

    We agree we need social security, medicare, VA benefits, a strong defense, an EPA, an FDA, and SEC, a Justice Department. So we’re in very broad agreement on all the important parts of the federal budget. Our disagreements are at the margin.

    Unfortunately there’s profit to be made in polarization — as you point out. And the goons and haters haven’t suddenly disappeared. Both polarizers-for-profit and outright goons are over-represented here and online in general.

    I suspect one of the ways to deal with this in the online environment is to eliminate anonymity. Michael Reynolds is my actual name. I’m a real person. James’ real name is Joyner. He’s a real person. I gather that you use your real name as well. And not coincidentally, we’re three (of many) guys who could sit down, enjoy a lovely Scotch and have an interesting conversation about all kinds of issues. We might even listen to each other. We might — shocking thought — learn something from each other.

    I’m not suggesting that anonymity is misused in every case. That is absolutely not the case. But it is the case, I believe, that the internet is more infested with political extremists, fanatics and loudmouths than exist in the real world, and I think anonymity plays a part in that.

  3. tom p says:

    I think anonymity plays a part in that.

    Michael, I agree with you on all accounts except for the fact that Tangoman does serve one purpose at least…

    He makes my arguments better. I can follow him up to the point where he says:

    you’re making a call that when people are confronted by diversity they should work against their interests and reach out to bridge that diversity in order to create an environment more amenable to solving problems together.

    (Yah, I know, his 2nd sentence)

    Still, I wanted to say this: Tom is my real first name. “P” is the the first real letter of my last name. When my grandfather came over, he was given a name quite unlike “Reynolds”. It was truly unique. Indeed, anyone in this country with the same last name as I…. is related.

    From time to time, I am confronted on the internets with an issue that I am truly qualified to comment on (like, divorced father of 2 sons who’s mother ended up in prison, due to….)

    You get my point. If I posted under my full name, I could be sued. More important, my sons might be hurt. And yet, I actually have something substantial to add.

    But my sons have been through enough…. And they aren’t done yet (don’t ask… it never ends) and I will be damned if I add any more to their burdens.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Tom P:

    I take your point.

    I have a related problem in that I write for teenagers. I write that stuff under a pseudonym because at one point I had kids breathlessly reporting that I had dropped the f-bomb on one site or another. It felt like a bait-and-switch — kids might Google me and end up finding something quite “off topic” from their point of view.

    But that decision was made 3 years ago and since then I’ve concluded that those kinds of dodges don’t work. Privacy is in very short supply and I’ve decided just to throw in the towel. I now regularly tell kids my real name and the sky has not fallen.

    That said I can understand your situation.

  5. TangoMan says:

    Dudes,

    Don’t focus on me, focus on Alex’s well written post. I offered my thoughts on his post, so why don’t you offer your views on the substance of what he’s written. If you’re intellectually unequipped to engage my points then simply ignore them and show the courtesy of engaging any of Alex’s points rather than barking at the moon about anonymity.

  6. george says:

    Summarizing Tango: Blah, blah, blah, race. Blah, blah, blah, race. Blah blah blah I’m better than black people. Also Hispanics. Because I’m white, you see. Whiteness: I’ve got it all over me.

    Unless I’m missing something, Tango didn’t mention race at all. In fact, you seem to be the one who brought it up …

    The original article was pretty good.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    George:

    Goofy, my Labrador retriever, has a move where he looks away and pretends he’s not thinking about the food on my plate. But he is. In fact, it’s all he ever thinks about. Similarly, Tango is never more than three comments away from informing us ad nauseam that African-Americans are less intelligent than whites.

  8. Alex Knapp says:

    TangoMan,

    When I was considering diversity, I was mostly considering diversity among political viewpoints.

    That said, I don’t put a lot of stock into Putnam, to be honest. I do think that diversity is a strength. Personally, I prefer a middle ground between the extremes of balkanized “diversity” and an idea that all Americans must “X”.

    I think that in America, we have a strong tradition welcoming diversity while still acknowledging our common heritage as Americans. It’s no accident that Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to successfully refer to the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers in his pursuit of Civil Rights.

    As a consequence, I am very disturbed by the increasing trend among some conservatives as defining “Americanness” as essentially being a cultural and political conservative. The willingness of Republican politicians to write off New Yorkers and San Franciscans or the whole state of Massachusetts as somehow “Un-American” is both repugnant and dangerous. To me, that was the worst aspect of the McCain campaign and Sarah Palin in particular. To be sure, there is the opposite extreme on the left that promotes ethnic pride over Americanness, but thankfully it does not seem to have very much traction among Democratic politicians or pundits, and definitely not to the same degree as the conservative manifestation. (The protestations of some on the conservative fringe to the contrary, Mexican-Americans are not interested in returning Texas and Arizona to Mexico.)

    Being a country founded by a bunch of people with a strong individualist streak can make things difficult to hold to some common ideals. But I think that if we hold to our “civic religion” of venerating the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and peaceful, free elections, we can maintain that balance.

  9. TangoMan says:

    When I was considering diversity, I was mostly considering diversity among political viewpoints.

    What is politics? What it’s not is discussion & opinion that focuses solely on wonky tweaks to government programs. What it is is a vehicle which amalgamates world views, cultural tendencies, economic perspectives, and so on. In other words, diversity in politics encompasses a lot of factors.

    That said, I don’t put a lot of stock into Putnam, to be honest.

    That’s fine. There are always people who are more swayed by ideology than evidence, for instance, there are a lot of people who don’t put a lot of stock into vaccines and they’re holding this position due to ideology despite all the evidence which should lead them to support the efficacy of vaccines.

    I do think that diversity is a strength.

    As noted above, people are certainly free to hold positions not backed up by empirical tests.

    Personally, I prefer a middle ground between the extremes of balkanized “diversity” and an idea that all Americans must “X”.

    Yes, that’s a nice position to shoot for, but you’re making this claim in a society that has now embraced the ideal of “balkanized diversity” so in this regard I think that you’re shouting into the wind.

    I think that in America, we have a strong tradition welcoming diversity while still acknowledging our common heritage as Americans.

    We have a long history of welcoming new comers and then putting strong pressure on them to assimilate into American customs. We weren’t welcoming diversity, we were welcoming diverse people. What we do today is welcome diversity because it has been fetishized by the multicultural left. We also acknowledge our common heritage as Americans by paying lip service to that heritage but not inculcating it in newcomers so as to not disrupt the flowering of glorious multiculturalism. Frankly, the charade can’t go on indefinitely for as multiculturalism blooms the common ties will fade and so we’ll be left with the heritage aspect of what it means to be American, basically a history lesson.\

    As a consequence, I am very disturbed by the increasing trend among some conservatives as defining “Americanness” as essentially being a cultural and political conservative.

    You can certainly be disturbed by this phenomenon but that doesn’t make it wrong or incorrect. If these folks are referencing a time when there was greater unity on the question of core values that were shared by most Americans and the comparing that definition of Americaness to the “let a thousand flowers bloom” variety that is prevalent today, when many of these flowers are diametrically opposite perspectives, then they’re comparing a fairly unified vision against a hodge-podge mishmash view of Americaness today.

    But I think that if we hold to our “civic religion” of venerating the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and peaceful, free elections, we can maintain that balance.

    While Conservatives and educated White Liberals may hold to the “civic religion” you should really test this proposition in groups that adhere strongly to their primary identities (something before being American.) What do you do when you find that there is wide variance in how strongly different groups adhere to our civic religion? It seems to me that this proposition of yours is the lynchpin to much of what you’ve written here and if it can be falsified, then a whole series of other propositions will be undermined.