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.
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