Trade Wars

How the “ culture war ” could shatter democracy

2008 was a truly important year, as the Great Recession accentuated an important distinction within the white middle class. It has created a wedge between the middle class and the lower or working middle class and the highly skilled and professionally trained cadres, technocrats and intellectuals – essentially, between the richest 20% and the poorest 80%. And that meant [there] were now classify differences that were superimposed on some of these cultural differences. And in the surveys that we have carried out here at the Institute [for Advanced Cultural Studies at University of Virginia], we followed that. In 2016, the most important factor in determining a Trump vote was not having a college degree.

So now, instead of mere culture wars, there is now a kind of class-culture conflict. With the feeling of being on the losing side of our global economy and its dynamics, I think resentments have just intensified. This became more and more evident over the course of Trump’s four years, and part of Trump’s genius was understanding the resentments of coming out on the losing side of global capitalism.

And I think it’s also reflected in the way progressives talk about the oppressed: most of the time it’s in terms of race and ethnicity, immigration, etc. it is not about the poor per se. I think it’s a pretty big change in the left’s self-understanding.

What do you think of this change?

Well, if you were to become an advocate for the working class, you would be an advocate for many Trump voters. Again, I think there is a class-culture divide: a class element that overlaps the cultural divide. And they [white non-college-educated voters] vote en masse for Trump. And I think that’s a part of it. They are also the carriers of this [some on the left] perceive sexist understandings and lifestyles as racist and misogynistic. This is my guess.

Simple, materialistic social science would say that people vote for their economic interests all the time. But they don’t. The apparent contradiction of people voting against their economic interests only underscores this point: that in many ways our understanding of ourselves as individuals, as communities and as a nation trumps all of them. these things.

In this sense, there may be a tendency, especially on the political left, to speak of “culture war” issues as “distractions” that are raised in order to divide people who might otherwise find a common cause around, for example. , shared economic interests. . What do you think of this point of view?

We are made up as human beings by the stories we tell about ourselves. The very nature of the meaning and purpose of life is our individual and collective self-understanding. How it is a “distraction” is beyond me.

You know, people will fight to the death for an idea, for an ideal. I was criticized in the early 90s for using the word “war” [in the term “culture war”]. But I was trained in phenomenology, in which you are taught to pay attention to the words that people themselves use. And in the interviews that I did [with those on the front lines of “culture war” fights], people would say, “you know, it’s like a war– even on the left.

I am talking about this feeling of struggle for its very existence, for a way of life; this is exactly language that is also used on the left, but in a much more therapeutic way. When you hear people say that, for example, the very existence of the Conservatives on this college campus is threat to my existence ”as a trans or gay person, the stakes – for them – seem ultimate.

The question is: what drives our passions? I don’t know how one can imagine individual and collective identity – and the things that make life meaningful and useful – as somewhat peripheral or as “distractions”.

There is a passage you wrote 30 years ago that seems relevant on this point: “We subtly slip into thinking of the controversies being debated as political rather than cultural in nature. On political questions, we can make compromises; on matters of ultimate moral truth, one cannot. This is why the full range of problems today seems endless. “

I like this sentence a bit. [Laughs] I would put it this way: culture, by its very nature, is hegemonic. He seeks to colonize; it seeks to envelop in its totality. The root of the word “culture” is Latin: “cultus”. It is about what is sacred to us. And what is sacred to us tends to be universal. The very nature of the sacred is that it is special; it cannot be approached.

Culture, in a sense, is about what is pure and what is polluted; it’s about the boundaries that are often broken and what we do about them. And part of culture war – one way of looking at culture war – is that everyone has a sense of what is transgressive, what is a violation of the sacred, and the fears and resentments that go with it.

Each culture has its vision of sin. It’s an old-fashioned word, but it [refers to that which] is, in the end, secular and cannot be authorized, must not be authorized. Understanding these things that underlie politics helps us understand why it persists that way, why it ignites the passions we see.

It feels like the universe of things that might be considered part of the “culture war” has grown considerably over the past 30 years, so that it now seems to encompass most of the world. politics. In this situation, how does democracy work? Because when the stakes are existential, it seems that compromise is impossible. Can you have a stable democracy without compromise?

No, I don’t think you can. Part of our problem is that we have politicized everything. And yet, politics becomes a proxy for cultural positions that simply will not tolerate any form of dissent or argument.

You hear this all the time. The very idea of ​​treating your opponents with courtesy is a treason. How can you be courteous to those who threaten your very existence? This highlights the fact that culture is hegemonic: you can compromise with politics and politics, but if politics and politics are a substitute for culture, there is simply no way.