October 20, 2004

Class War: The Republican Party's New Favorite Sport

Everyone’s agog at some choice quotes in Ron Suskind’s interesting piece about the Bush White House from this past Sunday’s New York Times, and rightfully so. I suppose you could write off the most damning, frequently cited comment from one staffer that basically embraces a half-postmodernist, half-fascist conception of social reality as the views of a nutty outlier, but it seems to me to be of a piece with the neocon faith in the transparency of other societies to the application of power, the belief that unyielding will and force alone can conform history to all our desires.

I’m more interested in the views of Bush associate Mark McKinnon, who Suskind quotes at length. McKinnon confirms the accusation that the Republican Party under Bush’s leadership has developed a balls-to-the-wall, scorched-earth commitment to class warfare, to pitting a lumpenbourgeosie from Middle America against the bi-coastal elites and chattering classes. It ties in nicely with Thomas Frank’s analysis in Who Lost Kansas?, except that I think Frank doesn’t make nearly enough of the contradiction between the business elites in the Republican Party and what McKinnon calls the “busy working folks who don’t read”. I think they’re cutting their own throats with this strategy: they are not going to be the masters of class warfare, but mastered by it.

It’s absolutely true, as many have noted, that the Red/Blue state division is not terribly descriptive of the actual way people live, relate and think. But then the Hutu/Tutsi division was not a good description of the actual lived identities of Rwandans before the genocide: people intermarried, they effaced or dispersed ethnicity in everyday life, they vested more of themselves elsewhere, they viewed hardcore ethnic ideologues as alien and intrusive. None of which made a damn bit of difference once the state mobilized a political project of genocide through the lens of Hutu and Tutsi identity. Suddenly something subtle and mutable became the divide between the quick and the dead.

We’re not at the edge of anything so drastic, but the “senior White House aide” who apparently believes in the power of the Bush Presidency to remold social reality in defiance of those who occupy the “reality-based community” is really not that far wrong. Push enough political and social projects with high enough consequences through the prism of culture war, and it stops being an amusing side drama composed of Dan Quayle and Murphy Brown and starts being the guillotine that separates the American Republic into two bodies. You might gather as an extended family today and find Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, atheists and evangelicals, all dining at the table, managing any tensions easily enough. But you might find tomorrow that those choices, those identities, suddenly flash into being incommensurable markers dividing life and death, success and failure.

Not by our choice, none of us, but because a rhetoric of class war that was originally deployed cynically and defensively (Nixon’s “silent majority”) , and then both optimistically and opportunisticially (Reagan’s demonization of the state as intrusive elitist actor in the lives of ordinary Americans) has morphed into hardcore militant commitment among Bush loyalists.

As Nixon voiced it, there was even some truth to it: the counterculture and the antiwar movement were never as widespread or evenly distributed in their social and cultural power as they liked to pretend. As Reagan voiced it, there was certainly some truth to it: I think many Americans do experience the state as intrusive or incompetent and controlled by elites (though they also tend to forget when it is helpful and productive).

Nor has Bush arrived at class warfare all on his own. This moment is the bitter fruit of two decades of efforts by liberals and radicals to capture the institutions of civil society not through persuasion, but through a kind of pseudo-Foucauldian or Gramscian conceptualization of those institutions as capable of remaking consciousness, identity and practice, of doing what many on the left had realized the state was unable to do. The hue and cry about “political correctness” is often miscast, exaggerated, or mislocated, but there is something real at the bottom of it, something more complex and pervasive than tangible institutional manifestations like speech codes.

It’s the spark behind the energies that inform “South Park Republicanism”, a reaction to the domestication of the counterculture by educated Baby Boomers into something rather resembling early 20th Century social reformism. The social reformers of the early 20th Century were often people who can be found in the progressive family tree, like Margaret Sanger—but whether they have that pedigree or not, they were part of general project of middle-class intervention into the intimate lives of other Americans. There is much of the cultural left’s approach to civil society between 1970 and 2000 that echoes that moment, that sought to domesticate and civilize the practice of various demonic Others: white men, the rural, the religious, the housewife. I came to political consciousness under the sign of such a project, and as an educated snob, it suited my sensibilities very well. I was the one who would have the keys to the world of symbols, I was the one who could master the etiquette of self-critique and self-abnegation, I was the one who could carry out exotic projects of self-transformation through ethnographic encounter. If language made consciousness rather than consciousness preceding language, how comforting for the educated masters of language! They found the keys to the kingdom of justice, and surprise, surprise, they were sitting in their pockets all along.

No baby with bathwater here: many of the transformations in American culture and everyday practice since 1970 are entirely good and productive and have even had some of the predicted effects on consciousness and social relations that their chief proponents envisioned. But the slide towards the replay of early 20th Century social reform gave too much authority and capacity to our own generation of Carrie Nations, to a censorious, intolerant, self-righteous streak which was all too easily—and often accurately—identified with or the provenance of elite social classes or constituencies. Why many either suddenly lose faith in class as a meaningful social category when they have to think about their own political identities, or worse yet, apologize cravenly for their class background and self-consciously beg for people from other socioeconomic backgrounds to absolve them is no mystery, but it is a painfully predictable tendency. (I am as guilty as anyone of much of this in my own political history.) Political labors within civil society for many progressives in the last three decades really was an intrusive, controlling, and often remarkably graceless affair, and small wonder that it was easy for the class warriors of the Republican Party to first cynically and then increasingly confidentally characterize bicoastal elites as the enemies of the Middle American lumpenbourgeoisie.

That was never a fair argument, but it was given legs by clumsiness and smugness, and by an inept tendency to pass off our own uses of liberty as universally powerful transgressions, as political projects rather than cultural preferences. The point ought to be, and ought always have been, that we recognize with all Americans that being born again in an evangelical baptism stands equal to having sex with someone of your own gender--not in meaning, not in essence, but as manifestions of the freedom we all share.Watching The 700 Club stands equal to watching Tales of the City: we are, or ought to be, united in our freedoms. As soon as somebody regards their own sexual choices as a trangressive attack on the sexual choices of another, as a transformative project, they’ve chosen another path. Yes, yes, the other team did it first and still does it now: that’s important to remember. Every time I see someone screaming about how the left politicized the academy, I’m astonished by the historical dishonesty that requires. Every time I see someone talking about how homosexuality impinges on their own sexuality, I have to ask: why can't you see how that looks on the other side of the mirror? Civil society has always been a site of repression and politicization: it was not made that way by the post-1960s left or counterculture. But the move that we made in the domain of culture and consciousness was a tit-for-tat strategy. We have been repressed; we cannot be free if we do not remove the repression. How do we know repression? It is that which we are not. We like diversity, as long as it's our kind of diversity.

This was in purely practical terms a very bad way to go, because McKinnon is right, in the end, as was Nixon: there are more of “them” than of “us”, though at the same time, there are still more who watch both The Sopranos and Lawrence Welk, or who in various ways refuse categorical choices of this kind. In philosophical terms, it was even worse: it was what Jonathan Rauch has argued is the classic sin of the post-1960s Western left, to choose the creation of equality over the defense of freedom. It handed one group of Republican conservatives a loaded weapon, and they have fired it with cheerful abandon, first at their enemies and now, increasingly, at their own temples. They are now captive to class warfare, having walked in the cage, sniffed at its corners, turned the key on the lock and swallowed it into their own gullets.

The only real hope at this point is that most Americans will remember that they are neither Hutu nor Tutsi, neither Red nor Blue, neither politically correct nor ogrish bigots, neither bicoastal Times-reading elites nor Middle American jest-folks. The trope of class war has been spoken before in America, and it’s rarely met with an understanding audience, even when it was spoken with some justification. Now is another time when Americans have to unsympathetically look on and let the children who want to play with fire burn themselves up.