We live in a peculiar age in which political disputes are constantly being reconfigured as cultural disputes. Both the left and the right are guilty of this offense, though in different ways.
The right has succeeded in portraying its opponents–the Democratic Party and its fellow-travelers on the left–as morally corrupt: irreligious, profligate, and elitist. They know how to play on the fears of average Americans and do so exceedingly well. Although the recently passed the health care bill no longer has a ?public option? (the euphemism for government participation; hence, a proviso no more controversial than Medicare or similar programs), its right-wing detractors, in a relentless ideological blitz, have still been portraying the reform as ?totalitarian?: a step toward left-wing dictatorship.
To take merely one example, in the opinion of North Carolina representative Virginia Foxx (R), the health care bill is ?one of the most offensive pieces of social engineering legislation in the history of the United States.? When the discourse of political vilification takes hold, when legitimate political adversaries are demonized as ideological enemies, there are no longer individual political winners and losers. Our political culture as a whole, and the ethos of civility that, ideally, lies at its core, is damaged–perhaps irreparably.
That such tactics of rhetorical overkill failed to work in the 2008 elections, despite Sarah Palin?s divisive appeals to ?Real Americans? (most of whom just happened to be white…) and John McCain?s scurrilous effort to depict Barack Obama as a friend to terrorists and a ?socialist? (one can only wish!), should become an urgent object of study–especially since, in the past, such tactics have proved so successful.
To properly contextualize the histrionics and posturing of the recent health care debate: in Western Europe, not even the leading center-right parties, not to speak of the political left, would dream of tampering with the robust existing health care systems. There, universal health care is justly considered as a basic, inalienable social right. It is as though American political culture existed in a quasi-medieval parallel universe.
During the 1930s, the rural American ?red state? constituency was an integral part of the Roosevelt?s New Deal coalition. Although, since the Reagan years, the Republican rank-and-file has suffered economically (as have most Americans), they are compensated for their losses with ?values.? Time and again, in the American heartland, faith and belief triumph over insight and reason.
The Texas Board of Education?s recent efforts to extrude the role of deists like Thomas Jefferson, who in an 1802 letter coined the phrase ?wall of separation between church and state,? and to celebrate instead the influence of religious zealots like John Calvin, as well as the achievements of the free market (an act of immeasurable chutzpah following the 2008 financial collapse), is just another example. Here, we have a classic instance of cultural subterfuge masking bitter political and economic realities. As Thomas Frank points out in What?s the Matter with Kansas?: ?conservative populism?s total erasure of the economic could only happen in a culture like ours where material politics have already been muted and where the economic has largely been replaced by…pseudo-fulfillments. This is the basic lie of the [right-wing] backlash.? Yet, the culture of ?liberal excess? that heartlanders and conservatives love to hate–Frank refers to this as the ?latte libel?–is itself a quintessential product of capitalism.
In an age of identity politics, however, the left can be equally adept at using cultural politics as a trump card. To be continued…