Tuesday, May 06, 2008

The "culture war" against "elitism"

Glenn Greenwald is using the 1988 Presidential election as an important reference point for this year's contest. He talks about it at his blog, The media, the right and 1988: Endless deja vu 05/04/08, and he says there that a significant part of his new book Great American Hypocrites is about the 1988 campaign.

In those days, it was widely thought that the Democratic Party was divided into two major factions, the old-fashioned New Deal liberals and a more pragmatic, future-oriented group that for a while were called "Atari Democrats", until the Atari Corporation tanked. For reasons I won't belabor here, it was always a pretty weak description of reality.

But in 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who was taken to be one of those pragmatic, reasonable Democrats, not like those old-fashioned pro-labor New Deal Dems, won the nomination. Now, a more inoffensive type than the bland Dukakis would be truly hard to imagine. But Old Man Bush's campaign painted Dukakis as a dogmatic, unpatriotic leftwing radical weirdo.

Greenwald is right in his post linked above that the emerging Republican and GOP-friendly Establishment press script for Barack Obama is very similar. Unlike in 1992 or 2004, that tried-and-true "flip-flop" accusation doesn't play much role in the anti-Obama narrative.

The 1988 election was quite a jolt for the Democrats. Michael Dukakis was the kind of pragmatic, non-ideological candidate that received opinion of the time assumed would be the ideal Dem candidate. But even he got tagged by the Reps as an ally of black rapists and flag-burning hippies.

Liberals and social analysts generally were really beating their heads against the wall in those days trying to discern the contours of what we now know as the "culture war". It's a sign of how far we've come that when Pat Buchanan openly talked about a cultural war going on in the US at the 1992 Republican convention, it was considered shockingly rightwing even for the Republicans. How times have changed!

Historian Christopher Lasch in his 1991 book The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics wrestled with the same sorts of issues that have come up in the debate over Obama's alleged "elitism" and his black pastor that so frightens and offends Big Pundits and Republican white folks.

He has a chapter called "Right-Wing Populism and the Revolt Against Liberalism" that focuses on these issues. I'll probably post more than once from it. He recognizes that white racism and other forms of social conservatism did play a role in the Democrats' difficulties with many working-class white voters. He punctures the prevailing wisdom of the time on some factual questions, and has a very good explanation of the practical meaning of the Republican claims of liberal "elitism".

But here I want to focus on the fact that, like too many liberal writers of the time, including some who were taken to be liberal (ahem, Thomas Edsall), accepted some ideas of the Republican stereotype. The Establishment press in those days was in its pre-Whitewater days, so they hadn't gone off that cliff yet. But pundit wisdom also reflected a lot of the Republican anti-"elitism" narrative even then.

In this paragraph, for instance, he gives a fairly conventional picture, referencing several culture-war hot-button issues including "busing":

"Two hundred years after the inception of our 'Great American Dream,' " wrote Alan Erlichman, a spokesman for the antibusing forces in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, in the mid-seventies, "the middle class now finds itself in the midst of a 'Great American Nightmare.' " It was not merely a threat to its standard of living that defined this middle-class nightmare but a threat to its way of lifeā€”its beliefs and ideals, its sense of propriety, its distinctive conceptions of justice. Communities like Canarsie were painfully aware that they had become objects of educated contempt. The student radicals of the sixties mocked their patriotism. "Here were these kids, rich kids who could go to college, who didn't have to fight,... telling you your son died in vain. It makes you feel your whole life is shit, just nothing." Liberals dismissed their demand for law and order as "proto-fascism," their opposition to busing as "white racism." Feminists told women who wanted to stay at home with their children that full-time motherhood turned a housewife into a domestic drudge, the lowest order of humanity. When social planners tried to determine the racial composition of schools, they assigned blacks and Hispanics to separate statistical categories but lumped whites indiscriminately together as "others," ignoring the way in which white workers, according to [Jonathan] Rieder, "viewed themselves not as abstract whites but as members of specific ethnic groups."
Reality-check, 17 years later:

There was a threat to the standard of living of working-class white, from the Nixon recessions of 1971 and 1973-75 to the class war against workers known as the Reagan administration.

As Lasch himself makes clear in the same chapter, the concept "middle class" had even then become about as empty of meaning as the current phrase "market economy", and to speak of some general "middle class way of life" or "its distinctive conceptions of justice" was pretty much nonsensical.

Fuzzy concepts like "middle class" gave a lot of leeway for people to elaborate their own narratives without much reference to facts on the ground.

Had communities like the Canarsie section of Brooklyn "become the objects of educated contempt"? To the extent that "educated" here means people with college degrees, it wasn't exactly an innovation of the 1960s that wealthier people sometimes indulge the very human though not very admirable impulse to consider themselves better than those less economically favored.

But does this mean intellectuals in the normal sense of the word (professors, writers, social critics) held working-class communities in contempt? After the effects of the 1960s on academia, I would be surprised if this were actually true, especially for the 1970s.

Did the student radicals "mock their patriotism", those working-class whites in Canarsie? It's true and can be documented that there was the occasional flag-burning. But did "student radicals" actually mock the patriotism of working-class whites? I'm guessing such a thing would be hard to document. Republican rich kids were more likely, at least in private, to ridicule working-class guys who went of to war for being suckers. Most of the rich kids "had other priorities", like our esteemed Vice President. But most of them knew to sound very patriotic in public.

Were there "kids, rich kids who could go to college, who didn't have to fight, ... telling you your son died in vain. It makes you feel your whole life is shit, just nothing." You can never rule out the individual exceptions. But the actions and publications of the antiwar movement are part of the historical record. Few if any of them attempted to ridicule the dead. The Rev. Phelps and his "God Hates Fags" version of Christianists weren't around in those days to protest at soldiers funerals. Lasch doesn't name the person saying that or tell us whether he actually lost a son.

If anyone bothered to look closely at the serious antiwar critics, they actually shared a sense of the enlightened mission of the United States; they just thought it should be a more anti-imperialist and less violent mission. Robert Tucker actually makes this argument at some length in The Radical Left and American Foreign Policy (1971).

Did liberals call the desire of ordinary Americans for safe neighborhoods "proto-fascism"? Not very likely. Now, some people including some liberals thought Nixon's "law-and-order" demagoguery combined with his own administration's contempt for law was leading in a "fascist" or police-state direction. After all, that's when characters like Dick Cheney, Rummy and Karl Rove were forming their political views, which they more recently had the opportunity to put into action.

This did remind me of what Herbert Marcuse had to say about the subject of fascism during the Nixon years. Marcuse was no liberal. He was a Marxist and definitely did not consider himself a "liberal", even in the American sense. But he knew a bit about fascism, having left Germany as a Jewish refugee in the 1930s and later analyzing social developments in wartime Germany for the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In an not-liberal book of 1972, Counterrevolution and Revolt, he described the Nixon administration as implementing counterrevolution against the activists of the day. But, he wrote, "This is not a fascist regime by any means." Despite some serious abuses - abuses that were not nearly so serious as what we've seen with the Cheney-Bush administration - democratic institutions still functioned. Or, as he put it in language that liberals of the day weren't using, "Decisive is rather whether the present phase of the (preventive) counterrevolution (its democratic-constitutional phase) does not prepare the soil for a subsequent fascist phase."

Now, I should mention here that Marcuse didn't really write pamphlets for the average newspaper reader. On the contrary, he wrote in an academic style that did not put a premium on accessibility, even for the college-educated reader. But he did use the word "proto-fascist" to describe some authoritarian tendencies that were visible at the time, including George Wallace's following. Wallace, we should recall, was famous as the symbol of resistance to segregation and was identified in the public mind, including those of his white followers, with Bull Conner and the use of violence against civil rights activists in Alabama. That was their brand of "law and order". Or, as Marcuse put it, "The forces of law and order have been made a force above the law."

The liberals and conservatives of the time could both be criticized about not responding more forcefully to those authoritarian tendencies. Because they actually existed. But recognizing that is hardly the same as dismissing concerns about crime. It would also be worth asking whether liberals or conservatives did more to actually put effective police on the streets to deal with actual street crimes. (Hint: wealthy Republicans can hire security guards for gated communities; they don't have to care that much about police presence in working-class neighborhoods of any ethnicity.)

Opposition to busing was criticized as being in part to do with white racism. Lasch documents in the same chapter that some of it certainly was related to white racism. In the real world, though, liberals recognized that busing of students to redress racial discrimination resulting from official discriminatory policies in housing was, at best, a sub-optimum solution. Defenders of busing recognized and said repeatedly that there were valid reasons to have neighborhood schools. The concept of "magnet schools" was a liberal response that aimed to balance desegregation requirements with parental choice.

The most glaring of all the litany Lasch recites in the quoted paragraph is the one in which those wicked feminist harpies told full-time homemakers they they were "the lowest form of humanity". That, to use the technical terms, is pure horses**t. The aim of the women's movement was and is to give women a broader choice of careers and lifestyles than were generally available in the 1960s, including properly valuing and protecting the rights of women (and the occasional man) who chose to be full-time homemakers and parents. That accusation that feminists were hostile to "housewives" was and is a staple of anti-feminist ideology. But it's all but diametrically opposed to reality.

The last complaint, that "social planners" who "tried to determine the racial composition of schools" didn't treat Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans as separate groups is true. Because the point of desegregation was to redress patterns of historical discrimination in public education. And the practices that the federal courts were rejecting in the 1970s didn't target Polish-Americans or Serbian-Americans for such discrimination. But those discriminatory practices did target African-Americans and Latinos.

The point of this "long-form" post, as Sara Robinson of the Orcinus blog calls them, is that it's one thing to recognize that there were a lot of voters who are not especially affluent and unlikely to benefit greatly from Republican economic policies were nevertheless hostile to liberals. But when the complaints offered to justify this are divorced from reality, as the ones Lasch cites here pretty much are, its worth asking by what processes people come to complain about things that are basically not true, and manifestly not true.

That was so in 1988, it was so in 1991, and it's so today.

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