Saturday, June 19, 2010

Democrats, pundits and "false consciousness"

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832)

Gabriel Winant takes on a perennial favorite "culture war" questions in How does Joe Barton's GOP ever win? Salon 06/18/2010.

It seems to cause a lot of teeth-gnashing and garment-rending among some liberal writers to deal with the fact that some people are voting against what the writer sees as their own interest. The culture-war aspect comes in for liberals when they start fretting about whether thinking about this makes them the snobbish elitists that Republicans and conservatives have been saying they are since, oh, the 19th century.

The question of what issues and attitudes are driving people's votes can be a hard one to answer. But in our two-party political system in the US, where both parties have to attempt to win a majority of votes, both parties have to pitch their programs in elections as being to the benefit of everyone. Or at least as providing something like Jeremy Bentham's "greatest good for the greatest number."

Assuming a pure state of no cynicism and pure intentions on the part of campaigns, then pretty much any candidate or party is going to think that pretty much anyone who doesn't vote for them is voting against their own best interest. If you support cutting taxes for billionaires and think that's the best way to create job for pipefitters, then you'll presumably think any current or aspiring pipefitter who votes for your opponent - who opposes tax cuts for billionaires and instead wants a big second-round stimulus package - is voting against the true interest of pipefitters including themselves. And your opponent probably thinks the same thing.

So I understand why people would want to analyze why voters vote the way they do. What I don't understand is why liberals would wring their hands over the fact that they want to even ask the question. Winant writes:

How is a party [the Republicans] that is the devoted servant of corporate power still not only viable, but reliably able to win large chunks of the working-class vote? The right hand of the GOP plays a waltz for the party's dance with big business; the left hand beats out a populist rhythm. Somehow, the two don’t cancel each other out. How can this be? ...

The classic treatment given to this question in the modern popular press comes from Thomas Frank. In his book "What's the Matter With Kansas?" Frank argued that the GOP's corporate elite -- the Bartons -- spent the second half of the 20th century using social issues to misdirect populist anger. It's more or less an argument for false consciousness, the outmoded but attractively simple idea that working people have failed to recognize that they're locked in class conflict with their exploiters, and instead have come to believe in some other, false story of how society works. "Kansas" seems to have gained fairly widespread acceptance among mainstream, cosmopolitan liberals looking to diagnose the GOP's success with the white working class as some kind of ailment. It's the argument Barack Obama dug up when he made his infamous "cling to guns and religion" comment. (When it comes to Frank's thesis, or the broader question, we are in particular talking about the white working class, and especially, the white male working class. Women and African-Americans have, for obvious reasons, been less tempted to identify with the powerful.) [my emphasis]
Good grief! When I see this kind of talk, the first thing I think of is that the writer is working on a transition for his public image from that of being a liberal to being a media-conventional-wisdom worshipper at the altar of High Broderist centrism. Or to being a Republican.

Since I actually think the term "false consciousness" has some legitimate uses in studying politics, I'll point out that his summary of it is pretty flimsy. This was a popular term in the 1960s. But it wasn't predicated exclusively on the "attractively simple idea that working people have failed to recognize that they're locked in class conflict with their exploiters." If you take the phrase "false consciousness" in isolation, in theory anyone who thinks that a person misunderstands something is suffering from "false consciousness." Or, in other words, in any good faith political difference, adherents of all the contending positions think the others are suffering from some type of political "false consciousness."

And since Winant defined the concept of "false consciousness" as having something to do with the Marxist-commie-sounding "locked in class conflict with their exploiters", it's worth noting that one of the more popular trends of thought along those lines the last several years has been the concept of "cultural hegemony" among neoconservatives. The idea of cultural hegemony is that various groups in society compete to define the dominant social narratives, and those narratives then shape behavior of those influenced by them - even in cases where a more objective, rational view of their interests might lead them to take other actions.

Neocons and other conservatives who employ the cultural hegemony concept seem to always assume that it is "liberals" or "the left" that perpetually enjoy this cultural hegemony via the news media, the universities and the entertainment industry. And they use it to explain why so many people are persuaded by what the conservatives understand to be the deeply flawed notion that this or that liberal program - or even voting for Democratic candidates - might be in their interest. In other words, they make the same general kind of assumption that Winant scolds Democrats for supposedly making about Republican voters.

Antonio Gramsci

The notion of cultural hegemony was one - and not the only one - that neocons took from the left. And I do mean the Left, in this case, more specifically the political thinker who established the concept of cultural hegemony as a significant influence on political thinking: Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), an Italian Communist Party theorist.

I won't try to "fisk" Gabriel Winant's whole piece here. But that quote boils down to a validation of the conservative talking point that liberals are a bunch of hoity-toity elitists that look down on the good "white working class" Real Americans. And I pretty much tuned out completely when I got to this passage where he talks about the option of workers to join a labor union:

And why should you want to, really? Labor organizing incurs significant risks. Meanwhile, the union movement, for all of its value, remains bureaucratic and unimaginative, and has consistently failed to address the aspirations and desires of American workers.
That quote wouldn't sound out of place in a fawning speech to a local Chamber of Commerce.

Not surprisingly, Winant doesn't bother to define the specific American demographic he describes as working class, much less offer any analysis of how they have actually voted in recent elections. Because that would make it much harder to pitch a lazy argument that it makes good sense for white working-class men (whoever he actually has in mind there) to see that all these dadgum wimmin and minorities and such actually want things that are opposed to the interests of good white Real American workers:

It's uncomfortable to think this way about egalitarian movements like feminism and the pursuit of racial equality. Obviously, nobody on the left should renounce gender equality or civil rights just because these ideas have produced enmity among a certain group that we might otherwise find sympathetic. But we also shouldn't allow ourselves to slip into condescension, to imagine that people are just bigots and fools, tricked into opposing their own self-interest. They are participants in politics just like everyone else. Even the citizen who doesn't vote at all is saying something about politics. The fact that some methods of political participation don't make sense to liberals doesn't mean that they don't make sense at all. [my emphasis]
Okay, so I am "fisking" it. And so I might as well point out the flaws in that excuse for reasoning:

It is not "condescension" to demand equality for women and minorities. It's democracy. Some people favor it. Others aren't so hot on the idea. People that make Winant's argument seem to take it for granted that there;s nothing condescending about saying that those annoying women and tedious minorities should just shut the hell up and git over it about discrimination. And pretty much any labor union member can tell you that a white working-class man voting for politicians that support anti-union laws is voting against his own interest, and probably also explain why it's against his own interest. That not the same as thinking or saying the anti-union voter is a bigot or a fool.

Choosing not to vote is choosing not to participate in a key element of the political process. And it doesn't "make sense" to anyone of any political persuasion for their own supporters not to go vote. If the other side's voters stay home, who cares? But in the real existing politics of the United States, the Republicans have made it a priority to attempt vote suppression in areas where Democrats are strong. Any Democrat (or democrat) who isn't worried about the implications of that is being a damn fool. vote suppression was the core of the old segregationist approach to disenfranchise African-American voters in the South.

His whole dumb argument is based on the notion that for Democrats - or labor unions! - to think that their programs are good for working-class people is condescension and even equivalent to thinking that those who don't vote for them are bigots and fools.

Tea Partiers and followers of those great political theorists Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck don't seem too reluctant to state that they think their opinions are correct. And that those of any social class who vote for Democrats have been "tricked into opposing their own self-interest." A lot of them don't seem shy about saying that Democratic supporters are even bigots and fools and idiots. Not to mention, you know, traitors participating in a progressive movement that is a century-long cancerous effort to destroy America and the Christian religion.

But Gabriel Winant in that piece doesn't seem worried about them thar Real Americans being condescending or lacking in sympathy for Democratic voters suffering from what the Tea Partiers see as "false consciousness."

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