How the Democrats Exploit the Culture Wars

A while back, I wrote a post about how the culture wars were started–and continue to be exploited–to convince working- and middle-class people to support the Republicans even though that party supports foreign, economic, and fiscal policy that’s awful for 90% of folks in the US. I argued that those of us concerned with social and economic justice have to redirect Americans’ attention from this narrow concern over abortion and homosexuality if we are going to address the most serious problems we face today: unending war, crushing poverty, climate change, ecosystem collapse…the list goes on. Republicans and conservatives certainly bear the brunt of the blame for this culture-war focus–but what has become clear over the last 2 decades is that the Democrats are just as willing to exploit the culture wars. As Thomas Frank discusses in a new essay in Harper’s (which is behind a paywall, so I’ll link you to a Salon interview about it instead), Obama hasn’t really challenged any of the substantial economic, foreign, or environmental policies of the Bush years. He’s instead touting his (at best, wishy-washy) support for abortion rights, his (late, and often muffled) defense of gay rights, and his “I’m slightly less of a toady for Wall St.” history as President as reason why progressives and liberals should turn out to vote for him in November.

But this just-barely-left-of-the-Republicans Democratic strategy isn’t new to Obama. Let’s not forget that it was Clinton who signed NAFTA–with a Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress–and it was Jimmy Carter who made it clear that the US would use force to defend its interests in the Gulf. The Democrats are just as beholden to Wall St., the banking sector, and the big multinational corporations for campaign contributions–and post-public-service jobs–as the Republicans are. Policies that actually challenge the exploitation of workers and the destruction of the environment don’t go over well with the tiny fraction of people around the world who own most of the land, capital, and wealth. So the Democrats are no more interested in standing up on these issues.

And the culture wars, though begun to bolster support for conservative Republicans, have offered the Democrats an unbeatable opportunity. They can, both personally and institutionally, cozy up to big business just as closely as the Republicans, and wax hysterical in public over the same cultural issues to frighten up support from workers, women, and minorities. Both parties, in other words, use the culture wars to get Americans to support them, even as each party pursues policies that are detrimental to almost all of us. There is, in short, no (sizable) labor party in this country. There’s no substantial party critiquing capitalism. There’s no party really talking about poverty, about justice. Democrats are just as willing to throw poor people in jail for stealing a candy bar while groveling at the feet of Jamie Dimon. Bill Clinton was famous for his “it’s the economy, stupid” campaign in ’96, but the reality is that it’s not about the economy anymore–both parties support the same positions. It’s about cultural posturing. The wealthy are  happy to support a ‘pro-life’, anti-gay party and a pro-choice, pro-gay party, precisely because neither of these issues actually affect their bottom line. But increasing the minimum wage, prohibiting pollution, supporting unions, respecting the sovereignty of other nations–these would cost them–billions, trillions of dollars–and so neither party makes a move, even the supposedly worker- and environment-friendly Dems.

I don’t mean to suggest that abortion and gay rights aren’t important issues–they are. And I’m glad to see the Democrats defending women and homosexuals, advancing their causes on these issues. Because they are crucial debates about the rights of Americans. These issues are necessary in the fight for a better world, but they’re not sufficient. If women have good access to safe abortions and gay folks can get married, but the planet is 2 or 3 degrees C hotter, our air and water are toxic, most people around the world are living on a few dollars a day, and there’s an unending war–is that a future we can look forward to? I am in no way calling for progressives and liberals to abandon the pro-choice and pro-gay positions–but I am asking that they demand more from their supposed representatives. Because the course we’re on doesn’t end well.

Here’s where most people would begin to talk about voting strategy–should we refuse to vote for Obama because he’s basically Bush 2.0? Maybe that would show him; maybe that’d force the Dems to move to the left in ’14 and ’16. Many would argue that this is our only hope, that progressives and liberals have to let the Dems know they can’t take us for granted–that they’ll never respond to our demands if they know we will vote for them no matter what. But of course others would point out that that would mean a Romney presidency, and as bad as Obama has been on so many issues, Romney would clearly be worse. Don’t we have to think about the short-term as well as the long-?

I don’t have anything to really add to this debate. I’m not sure I can bring myself to vote for someone who is murdering US citizens without trial. But does that mean that I’m implicitly supporting a Romney presidency?…my fundamental response is that voting isn’t going to fix this. We need to recognize that we will have to organize and build a real movement for social justice. The good news, of course, is that people already are. But we can’t change things with a thousand, or even ten thousand committed activists protesting and resisting. We will need millions–tens of millions–of Americans to step forward into this fight. I’m not sure how to get there. The obstacles are many, daunting, and complicated. But it does seem to me that one of the biggest, and earliest, obstacles that will lie before us is the polarization of the US along the culture war fracture. A popular movement that doesn’t include poor minorities, rural folks, construction workers, factory workers, and a good chunk of the middle class isn’t a popular movement at all. We are going to have to start looking at people as something other than socially liberal or conservative. We’re going to have to recognize that the pro-life, anti-gay blue collar people so many liberals denigrate and ignore are not our enemies. We are all being crushed by late capitalism, together, all the same. Organizing will mean finding common ground with them, it will mean building bridges over the culture war fissure. It will mean challenging not only the conservative, Republican culture war narrative–but the “liberal” Democratic one as well.

Rand or Christ: Mutually Exclusive

Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s recent choice for Vice President in the 2012 campaign

[Update: I’ve edited the last paragraph below to make my statement about pastors, ministers, and priests’ more precise]

Over this past weekend, the Romney campaign announced Paul Ryan as Romney’s choice for VP going into the Republican convention. I’m not a particularly big follower of electoral politics, especially as the Democrats routinely prove themselves to be only marginally better than the Republicans on almost every issue. Nonetheless, the choice of Ryan, who is famous for his Ayn Rand-inspired economic views and fiscal policy, demands a discussion that the Right has seemingly refused to have: Ayn Rand & Jesus Christ, the Fountainhead and the Christian Scriptures, are they reconcilable?

For anyone who’s read anything by Rand and any part of the New Testament, the answer should be automatic and clear: no way. Where Rand celebrates the individual, selfishness, elitism, and an a-ethical callousness, the Jesus of the Gospels demands selflessness, compassion, a willingness to suffer to build a better world, and a rejection of all the worldly pleasures that Rand seems so jealously to guard. So why is it that, on the right in the US, an increasing number of politicians and activists seem to preach some sort of combined Gospel of Christ-Rand? How is it that people can talk religiously about Christ right before launching into worship of John Galt? The question is especially glaring since Rand was such an avowed and aggressive atheist.

To my eyes, the answer is easy: Christ is hard to follow, but easy to co-opt. The social conservative strategy that was launched in the 1970s intentionally tried to redirect public attention from economic issues to social ones: homosexuality and abortion in particular. This approach, as I have pointed out before, is great for elites hoping to foist their preferred economic policy on the nation, since abortion and gay marriage, whether supported or denied, don’t effect the bottom line of the wealthy. There’s almost no cost to powerful corporations and individuals in supporting the ‘pro-life’ and ‘defense of marriage’ movements. And the trade-off is that those groups are willing to back regressive tax policy, relaxed financial regulation, and a tearing-down of labor protections in order to secure financial resources for their single-issue social policies.

The standard line of the religious right over the past 40 years has been that homosexuality and abortion are such awful, egregious sins that Christians have to be willing to support anyone and anything that will help them combat these existential evils. Nevermind that Jesus never said a word about either, and that he did have a lot to say about wealth, power, and social justice. Nevermind that the grassroots activists involved in the pro-life and anti-gay-rights movements are being exploited and abused by the very people who talk all day long about how they are defending their interests. And nevermind that the whole campaign was clearly launched after the 1960s as the Republicans realized that without some wedge issues, they were never going to have any serious role in national politics again. The whole thing was presented as a moral crusade. Christian ethics was collapsed into a hateful, myopic black hole of prejudice, harnessed to the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

But of course, these social issues aren’t the real issues: they are bridle and bit fitted over rank-and-file Republicans and conservatives, used to rally them to vote for officials who immediately turn around and enact policies that have slowly eroded the lives of those very rank-and-file folks. And the even more perverse reality is that the shift in social issues has also greatly impacted the Democratic party: the Democrats are really only discernible from the Republicans at this point on social issues. And while I’m glad to see that they are at least willing to defend justice when it comes to women’s and homosexuals’ rights, on almost every other issue, they have become the slightly-left-of-Republicans Republicans. On  military issues, on labor issues, on whistle-blowers, on financial policy–across the board, the Democrats are becoming just as beholden to elite capture as the Republicans. This has been, I think, the real victory of the social conservative thrust: even when they lose an election, they really win: if your priority has been to defend, say, the military-industrial complex or the big banks, exactly how has Obama been a problem for you? With many times as many drones flying into Waziristan, Yemen, Libya (and elsewhere?) as Bush ever launched in his whole time in the Oval Office, and with nary a powerful Wall St. insider on the other side of bars, it’s hard to see how Obama has seriously challenged the power that is grinding our democracy to dust. This isn’t to deny that the defense of women’s rights and the rights of homosexuals are somehow unimportant–I want to be really clear on this–but they aren’t enough. Democracy can’t survive vast income inequality, the erosion of habeas corpus, and the collapse of the labor movement just because gay folks can get married in New York (however just and great that may be in and of itself!) Social conservatism has rendered economic policy a done deal, and we’re all the worse for it.

So back to Paul Ryan, who last year proposed a budget that the Catholic Church denounced, and who apparently requires all his staff to read Rand’s books. Where such a radical libertarian would have been on the fringe of the fringe in the 1960s, now he’s a shoe-in for VP pick. This is what the social conservatives have brought us: a country in which a politician can propose stripping money from programs that feed and house the poor while simultaneously calling for lower taxes on rich people who already experience historically-low tax rates–and all too many pastors, ministers, and priests warmly applaud. So many Christians in this country have completely lost sight of what our Gospel actually says. They seem to agree with Margaret Thatcher that “there is no such thing as society,” but Paul made it clear that we are all members of the Body of Christ. It’s one or the other: are we in this together, building the Kingdom? Or are we all out to get ours, neighbor be damned? The answer used to be clear, however often it was ignored. But today, after 40 years of the religious right, too many of Christ’s followers have removed the Cross from the wall and replaced it with a framed picture of John Galt.

Christian Politics: Culture Wars Vs. Social Justice

Even Billy Graham knew the Right was just out to use whatever it could to control working folks.

The recent dust-up over the Komen foundation’s de-funding, and then re-funding, of Planned Parenthood over the past week has now culminated in one of Komen’s Vice Presidents resigning. That Mrs. Handel ran for governor of Georgia in 2010 on a platform that included derisive invective against Planned Parenthood gives the lie to any claim that Komen’s decision was somehow “not political”. Abortion and homosexuality have both been central issues for Republican presidential candidates as well, especially Rick Santorum (for proof of how deeply embroiled he is on the issue of gay rights, just google his last name). At a time when the US economy is barely creating enough jobs to employ the new workers who are entering it each month while millions of other workers have been unemployed for years, when the signs of global warming are only getting more obvious, when we are spending billions of dollars a year on a war with no end and no obvious goal, our politicians are spending huge amounts of time complaining about whom you’re having sex with. What’s going on?

It’s easy to dismiss all the talk about homosexuals and abortion doctors ruining our country as the rantings of old, white, resentful conservatives. It’s easy to blame the trucker-hat-wearing, confederate-flag-waving angry men whom journalists love to interview for the bigotry at the heart of these debates. But it’s not as simple as that. The Culture Wars were begun by a politically astute elite with some explicit and obvious goals. And when we recognize that the focus on social issues is an intentional strategy to distract working- and middle-class Americans from what really threatens them, it becomes clear that those angry, white, working-class men aren’t really the heart of the problem. They’re being manipulated.

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A Quick Response to “In Defense of Flip-Flopping”

Adrian Bejan and J. Peder Zane, a mechanical engineer and a journalist, take up the issue of political flip-flopping in contemporary US politics today in Salon. For this post to make any sense, go read it real quick–it’s not long.

I think this article is founded on a vast confusion of terms. First, the writers compare political systems to an array of natural ones, and intimate that the two dominant parties in the US are no different: they’re just responding to the changing landscape before them.

But you could say the same thing about a virus–it’s a natural system that responds to the environment it finds itself in. The question is, are our parties more like the human body–or more like a virus infecting us?

And this gets us down to the main error in this article as I see it–there’s no discussion of ethics. The main point that people make time and time again is not that flip-flopping is unnatural, or illogical–it’s that it’s *wrong*. And our two writers simply dodge this question. But for most of us, that’s the crucial issue. Arsenic, fire, and lions are all natural. But they may not be good for us. Someone who argued that a madman rampaging around Manhattan, releasing lions, starting fires, and dumping arsenic into our water wasn’t worth worrying about because, “hey, they’re all natural!” would rightly be dimissed as a fool.

Next, the writers seem to confuse two very different things: they talk about Romney and Obama changing their policies so as to “move their ideas forward”. But obviously, that’s not what’s going on. They’re changing their policies to stay in power, not for some grand ideological scheme. They’re politicians, not mystical philosophers.

Finally, their point is invalidated by facts on the ground–outside of the US, the vast majority of democracies around the world have far more than 2 dominant parties. If the two-party system is some natural outcome of the laws of nature, how do we explain all the countries that don’t have two parties?

Augustine & Newt: A Response to Linda Hirshman

Linda Hirshman has a piece in Salon today vis-a-vis Newt’s less than stellar marital track record. Her main point is laudable: she’s rightly concerned that all the attention paid to politicians’ sex lives distracts voters from the more crucial issue of whether the polices they’re proposing will actually be good for the country. Fair enough, a point well made and definitely something we ought to be talking more about. So I’m glad she wrote about it.

But! She ended up relying on the age-old Augustine bashing to drive her point home. And its here that I have to complain, but just a bit (um, Update: I actually end up complaining a whole lot. Sorry!) She makes two assertions that I think are faulty and poisonous to the whole discourse. First, she claims that the whole obsession with sexuality is a peculiarly Judeo-Christian thing, and seems to imply that if we could get over that cultural baggage, we’d be much better for it. Second, she says that “[m]ost of the fault for this misallocation of our moral indignation lies, of course, in the unruly sexuality of fourth-century Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo.” Ouch! This is both wildly untrue and a gross over-simplification of Augustine’s life and thought. But let’s talk a bit about that first claim before we get to good old Augie.

The idea that sexual hang-ups are the primary and exclusive legacy of Judeo-Christian culture is as common as it is untrue. First off, sexuality is generally treated as an important, emotionally-charged, and taboo issue in almost every human society. Sure, it takes different forms, and certainly some cultures are more prudish than others. And in that regard, you could certainly target Christianity as more on the prudish side of the spectrum than some other faiths. But Buddhism, for example, is at least as concerned with the control of the libido as Christianity. Siddhartha made it clear that sexual desire had to be completely abandoned on the path towards realizing Nirvana. Confucian philosophy, which is more social and political than it is spiritual, nonetheless felt that female modesty was crucial in order to protect the lineage of a woman’s father and husband. Islam (which is arguably in the Judeo-Christian orbit, but nonetheless clearly has unique cultural and spiritual aspects as well) is well-known for being highly protective/oppressive/prudish about womens’ bodies and often stresses the need for sexual control. Concern over sexuality is not a Judeo-Christian thing. It’s a human thing. Certainly, there’s plenty to criticize in Christianity’s impact on sexual mores in the West, but to take the whole vast burden of sexual hangups that we humans feel and lay it on just one religio-cultural tradition is absurd.

But Hirshman goes even farther, actually claiming that almost all of the blame actually lies not just with one religion, but with one man–Augustine of Hippo. Augustine is certainly famous for asking God for “chastity–just not now.” And Augustine was quite honest about his years of fornication and his inability, for years, to cease it, despite the fact that he thought it was wrong. But instead of seeing this as evidence of Augustine’s sexual hangups, it could just easily be seen as his being very honest, both with his readers and with himself.

As I just mentioned above, the idea that being unable to rein in one’s sexual urges is a spiritual deficiency is hardly limited to Christianity. In fact, even utterly non-spiritual people might well reflect on the fact that being unable to control one’s libido at all could lead to all sorts of problems, and that giving oneself totally to lust can easily distract us from other important facets of our lives. Seeing an unrestrained libido as less than a good thing is hardly automatically or obviously stupid, retrograde, or repressive.

That said, again, I’m not defending Christianity’s whole record on sexuality–there’s a lot to criticize! But certainly we can engage in that criticism in a more sophisticated way, pointing out specifics and building a strong case, instead of just dismissing an entire 2000-year old religion. A bit of research into the issue could have given Hirshman a much more nuanced view on the issue, and also allowed her to make her point more clearly and forcefully, I think. One obvious detail–almost trivial I’ll admit, but hey! fact-checking is important!–Hippo, Augustine’s home is not in Italy, as Hirshman seems to think; it was located in Africa, near modern Tunisia.

But the problems with Hirshman’s article aren’t limited to problems of historical research and interpretation. She goes on to basically ask, hey, what’s the big deal about adultery? and compares cheating on one’s spouse to any other breach of contract–she compares it to ” wearing a dress to the party and then taking it back to the store”. While I appreciate that she’s pointing out that people who cheat on their partners aren’t necessarily awful human beings, I think her comparisons here are way off the mark. She herself essentially admits as much a few lines later, admitting that, for example, Hilary Clinton was clearly deeply hurt by Bill’s philandering. But immediately after, she suggests that it all worked out, because Hilary almost become the President. Huh?

The idea that our broken relationships, our failures to care and love for each other, are no big deal as long as we do well in politics or business is incredibly cold and mercenary. And at the end of the piece, I’m left wondering what exactly Hirshman is getting at. She begins the whole whole piece by warning us that “[w]hen all morality collapses into sexual morality, the voters will become so fixated on whom the candidates are screwing they don’t notice …  it’s them.” Yes! This is, like I said at the outset of this post, a really good and important point! But by the end of the piece she seems to be living in a world where only politics matters, where our personal lives not only shouldn’t be discussed in public, but really shouldn’t be a big deal, even to us. After noting how Newt Gingrich’s second wife has gone through so much and been treated poorly, she concludes the piece by noting that “it’s so gratifying at least to see him bleed a little.” But seeing him bleed a little isn’t going to help us build a more progressive society, and she seems to be getting derailed by the very personal aspect of politics that she seemed to want to discard at the beginning.

In short, this is a piece I would love to see written…again…by Linda Hirshman. Her main point is right on target, but she tries to pull in so many threads and tie it all together with an over-arching worldview that just doesn’t knot well. I think if she had stuck to the details of the issue at hand, she could have wound up with a much better take-down of the Republicans’ (well, and Democrats’) hypocritical public attitude towards sex. On the other hand, if she really wants to write about how this all ties into Christianity, Augustine, and English Common Law, fine! But she needs to do a lot more research first.

This post appeared on both my main blog as well as my Open Salon blog.