Why the Culture Wars Must Be Fought

Metaphorically, I hope.

On last night’s PBS NewsHour “Shields & Brooks” segment, Mark Shields echoed a sentiment that I’ve heard from many other Democrats recently:

I think [the Democrats] have become too culturally liberal a party. I think there’s been a willingness to emphasize LGBTQ issues rather than working class issues, of people with declining incomes and families falling behind, Carrier jobs leaving, I think… that the Democrats have become a party that… [has been] emphasizing the cultural issues, and I think that has been to their disadvantage in the national appeal.

With all due respect to Mr Shields, whose argumentative style and demeanor I have long admired:

Why exactly, Mr Shields, do you and the Sanders/Warren wing of the party think that Republican voters have not seen economic issues your way? Why do they persist in voting against their own economic interests, as Thomas Frank put it when he asked What’s the Matter with Kansas?

Unchallenged misinformation within the right-wing media bubble may certainly contribute to this problem, but that’s only a proximal factor. We must address why media bubbles form in the first place. We must identify the source of their appeal.

That appeal is cultural.

Most people who partake of news media are not merely content to learn what happened. They want to know why it happened, and how those events fit into the broader context of the world and their lives within it. That’s why people have such an appetite for analysis and commentary by folks like you, Mr Shields, and your colleague David Brooks.

But here’s the thing, Mr Shields: people are more likely to appreciate explanations of why and what does it mean? and what should we do? if those explanations make sense to them. (People like to feel smart.) Our explanations are more likely to make sense if they dovetail with our audience’s deeply held cultural values.

That’s how we ended up with Breitbart and Infowars on the right, Daily Kos and Alternet on the left, and the PBS NewsHour looking ever more lonely in the center. Everybody (save for the publicly-funded news outlets) looked at who was buying their product, figured out what they liked about it, and tailored future submissions to keep that audience and bring in others with similar demographic attributes. It’s your classic positive feedback loop, driven by private entrepreneurial motives.

[Quick aside: I’m not spelling all this out to insult your intelligence, Mr Shields. I’m quite sure you already knew all this. But as an erstwhile student of Euclid’s geometry, I feel that one must always spell out basic assumptions and principles for readers new to the subject.]

I understand your temptation to move the conversation towards the center, to try to find some common ground between liberals and conservatives, or between progressives and reactionaries, or whatever you’d prefer to call our two warring cultural tribes. You’re a nice guy, Mark. I know you’d rather not offend the right wing’s delicate sensibilities by bringing up such emotionally charged topics as systemic racism and LGBTQ civil rights. You’d rather stick to discussions about economic inequality and how to fix it, because surely that’s where we can find common ground in the age of Trumpist politics.

But it won’t work. The right won’t see any value in our economic and environmental agendas until we successfully challenge and refute the toxic cultural assumptions that preclude their buy-in.

We can explain to the poor white miners and factory workers that a robust social safety net will cradle them while they retrain for careers that will stay here in America, but they’ll never go for it while they still resent “those lazy niggers” and “welfare queens” who, in their minds, will do nothing but mooch off a system paid for by the opulent white overclass they think they’ll someday get to join if they just work hard enough.

We’ll never bring the evangelical Christians and fundamentalist Muslims around on gender equality issues while they still believe that women are lesser beings than men, that gender expressions and roles are immutable, and that this state of affairs was rightfully ordained by God.

We’ll never convince the climate-change deniers in positions of economic power that we needed to embrace bold carbon-emission reductions yesterday as long as they cling to two hoary old notions:

  1. that the Earth was made for Man to do with as we please; and
  2. that high living standards and economic prosperity can only come through rapacious exploitation of the Earth.

They’ve been telling us all this for decades, but we did not listen. We thought that, deep down, we saw the world in similar enough ways that we could reason with them on the mundane details of everyday governance.

We were wrong.

Over the past six to eight years, the Republican establishment and conservative base have shown us that they have zero appetite for compromise anymore, as they blocked the Obama administration at every turn. And then Trump emerged from their fever swamps.

The election of Trump was their primal scream, their vengeful battle cry, their declaration that the PC gloves have come off and the culture wars are ON again. That’s fine by me. They’re gonna learn that liberals like me can fight bare-knuckle too.

They’re gonna learn that our values are as keenly felt as their own. We’re gonna learn how to articulate those values to a broader audience. We’re gonna learn how to weave a cultural narrative every bit as grok-able as “Make America Great Again.” We’re gonna let those two narratives fight, and ours will win this time, because it must. The fate of America and the world depends upon it.

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