Karl von Clausewitz wrote that “War is not merely a political act, but also a political instrument, a continuation of political relations, a carrying out of the same by other means.” At the time, humanity had yet to invent mechanized “total” war; but for cities from Carthage to Baghdad, war has always been total. In the second half of the 20th Century, however, a strange thing happened to the word ‘war’: as atomic weaponry made total warfare impossible, conflicts became police actions, advisory and assistance, or operations, but were no longer exactly wars. Meanwhile, the word ‘war’ got mixed up in all kinds of social conflicts: there were wars on poverty, wars on drugs, and culture wars. Beginning in the 1960s, the American right consistently invoked the language of war in political settings. ‘War’ is now a peacetime activity, and the victory is electoral power.
The term ‘culture war’ broke into the mainstream with Pat Buchanan’s 1992 Republican National Convention speech:
My friends, this election is about much more than who gets what. It is about who we are. It is about what we believe. It is about what we stand for as Americans. There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton & Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side. (Emphasis mine)
Just eight months prior to that speech, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. With the old enemy gone, Buchanan focused on domestic “enemies”: Democrats, gays, lesbians, feminists, liberals. His call to arms invoked all the cultural divisions that Republicans had exploited with increasing success for the previous thirty years. Today, Buchanan’s speech could be considered mild. The apparent failure of the southern strategy in 2008 has been eclipsed by its resurgence as the south turns almost entirely red:
What you see in the chart above (courtesy of The Economist) is the consequence of a deliberate and sustained strategy. This blog has adequately chronicled the language of culture war, but I feel it necessary to highlight three key parts here:
- Zero-sum worldview. As exemplified by the infamous “white hands” ad, the conservative movement has consistently framed issues of culture war in loss-win terms: a job for a black person is a lost job for a white person. Just look at the chart; as southern state Democratic parties have diversified, there has been a “white flight” equivalent to that from public schools and urban areas. The politics of resentment and division begin with race and end with class by compounding the two in the public conversation.
- Pro-life absolutism. Ask any Republican if there’s a single question they could ask to understand another person’s political views. Nine times out of ten, the answer will be abortion. Republicans have kicked all their pro-choice moderates out of Congress, and this year’s freshmen Republican class is far more likely than any previous to agree that no exceptions should exist to an abortion ban.
- End Times and conspiracy. Glenn Beck has only brought to mainstream television what had already been active propaganda on the radio for decades. In the paranoid universe, all signs invariably become proof of the central concept. No mind-set is more apt at rationalization than a frightened one: offer it a world of simple, Manichean black-and-white, and that mind will create its own propaganda.
There is no more Manichean human activity than war. There are only ever two sides, and the issue is total; so are suspicion and righteousness. Victories are counted in miles of territory or cities or body counts. In the most deceptive turn of all, winning battles can lead a society to think superior willpower or character or piety has been the difference when the reality is quite material. Thus the weight of Republican and right-wing rhetoric has become militant in part because it is such a natural fit for faith-based politics.
And in fact, one can easily argue the Republican Party behaves in a militant fashion. The tea party has succeeded in resurrecting the ardor of conservatives and bringing them en masse under the GOP banner; ‘conservative Democrats’ are a nearly-extinct species. Leadership squabbles among Republicans are short, and Republican legislators have developed lockstep habits in voting. Mitch McConnell runs his Senate minority with an iron hand. John Boehner has indicated he will use earmarks to bring Republicans under control. To be sure, Jim DeMint and Michele Bachmann aim to replace them or at least bring them further to the right (and use the language of war doing so); they want to lead the leaders, but in the end they will follow. Yes, the tea party doesn’t like earmarks — but they’ll be back next election, and behaving worse than ever. Head-stomping will seem quaint in 2012.
And what of the propaganda filling the airwaves and internet? What of Pamela Geller’s midsummer crusade against a mosque-that-wasn’t-a-mosque? What of two New Black Panthers blown up into a marauding army of Obama goons? What of spurious accusations of vote fraud? What of the smearing and defunding of ACORN? What of Darrell Issa’s promises to investigate the White House? They are part and parcel of the strategy of “no” and obstructed appointments: there will be no progress, there will be no advance. WE are the ones under attack.
Conservatives understand these things inherently. At the Huntsville appearance of the Tea Party Express bus tour in April of 2010, the attitude was exemplified by a sign that read: if we lose our FREEDOM here there is no place to escape. This is the last stand on Earth. Those are the stakes: total destruction or victory.
That the wholesale rejection of legitimacy — for the president, for Democrats, for their legislation — is “grounded” in a birth certificate tells you much about the mentality of the new right. Progress is foreign, alien, not-American. It is brown people and Muslims. “Progress” will only take away what is yours and give it to “them.” I’ll keep my money, another sign read, you keep the change. If politics is about compromise, this is not politics — for there is no compromise here.
Compromise with the devil is impossible. Right? Sixty million copies of Left Behind cannot be wrong; there is a constituency for the absolutism of “no.” On the other side, however, there is no appreciation for the kulturkampf being waged by the right. Obama attempted to set a civil tone in his inaugural address, and I fear his words may have lulled progressives into a stupor:
What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them, that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply.
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works, whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified.
But there is no civility in war, and no quarter to be had from the right. In 2008, the cultural power of conservatism seemed dead, but the cynics have raised their movement from the grave, and those “stale” arguments are suddenly all too fresh. The ‘rational middle’ is certainly worried about jobs, wages, health care, and retirement; but with one side offering simple answers (however untrue) and the other offering complex legislation, it’s not a fair fight. As Booman put it after the midterm debacle:
(Republicans) knew the left would get dispirited and frustrated and start fighting amongst themselves. They knew their own base would love it and reward them for it. They knew the media wouldn’t be an honest referee. They knew that in a bad economy, white majority America would respond to their ACORN/Henry Louis Gates Jr./New Black Panther Party/Shirley Sherrod/Health-Care-is-for-minorities/Sharia Law/Ground Zero mosque/illegal immigration themes. And they knew that if they only stuck to the plan, there wouldn’t be a damn thing the Democrats could do about it. And there wasn’t. They went scorched Earth, and if you’re honest, we didn’t have the tools to combat them. (Emphasis mine)
I couldn’t have put it better myself. Worse, this midterm put Republicans in a position to gerrymander their survival for another ten years without having to moderate at all, much less deal with social change. In Arizona, the white supremacist-written S.B. 1070 has caused Hispanics to leave the state, giving us our first example of tea party-style ethnic cleansing. Kulturkampf has real and lasting consequences. Meanwhile, as Van Jones put it recently:
There’s been too much focus on Obama among progressives, Jones says, and not enough on growing the movement on our own terms, even though, he notes, progressives helped to create as many jobs in the wind energy industry as there are coal miners in America — 80,000 — and another 46,000 in the solar energy industry.
“But somehow we became a movement, after our greatest victory, that sits around munching popcorn, waiting for one person to give a great speech so we can feel good,” tells the activists. “Now, that’s gotta stop.” (Emphasis mine)
Indeed, I would argue that firebaggers fed right into the tea party’s hysterics by focusing so much fire on the president. There are issues where the president is very much at the center (see: Appalachia Rising), but legislation is the Constitutional purview of Congress. The name “Obama” did not appear on the ballot this year, yet Republicans succeeded in nationalizing the midterms and defying the gravity of O’Neill’s law by demonizing Pelosi, Reid, and Obama without answer.
That must change if we are to survive. I cannot emphasize that enough: this right-wing movement will destroy the country, and the world right along with it. Any movement so divorced from empirical reality, so ready to substitute its own reality, so ready to obey authoritarian instincts should be cause for loud alarms.
The following passage is about a role-playing exercise (.PDF) in which right-wing authoritarians (RWAs) literally run the world:
Background material was read, Elites (all males) nominated themselves, and the Elites were briefed. Then the “wedgies” started. As soon as the game began, the Elite from the Middle East announced the price of oil had just doubled. A little later the former Soviet Union (known as the Confederation of Independent States in 1994) bought a lot of armies and invaded North America. The latter had insufficient conventional forces to defend itself, and so retaliated with nuclear weapons. A nuclear holocaust ensued which killed everyone on earth–7.4 billion people–and almost all other forms of life which had the misfortune of co-habitating the same planet as a species with nukes.
When this happens in the Global Change Game, the facilitators turn out all the lights and explain what a nuclear war would produce. Then the players are given a second chance to determine the future, turning back the clock to two years before the hounds of war were loosed. The former Soviet Union however rebuilt its armies and invaded China this time, killing 400 million people. The Middle East Elite then called for a “United Nations” meeting to discuss handling future crises, but no agreements were reached.
At this point the ozone-layer crisis occurred but–perhaps because of the recent failure of the United Nations meeting–no one called for a summit. Only Europe took steps to reduce its harmful gas emissions, so the crisis got worse. Poverty was spreading unchecked in the underdeveloped regions, which could not control their population growth. Instead of dealing with the social and economic problems “back home,” Elites began jockeying among themselves for power and protection, forming military alliances to confront other budding alliances. Threats raced around the room and the Confederation of Independent States warned it was ready to start another nuclear war. Partly because their Elites had used their meager resources to buy into alliances, Africa and Asia were on the point of collapse. An Elite called for a United Nations meeting to deal with the crises–take your pick–and nobody came.
By the time forty years had passed the world was divided into armed camps threatening each other with another nuclear destruction. One billion, seven hundred thousand people had died of starvation and disease. Throw in the 400 million who died in the Soviet-China war and casualties reached 2.1 billion. Throw in the 7.4 billion who died in the nuclear holocaust, and the high RWAs managed to kill 9.5 billion people in their world–although we, like some battlefield news releases, are counting some of the corpses twice.
The authoritarian world ended in disaster for many reasons. One was likely the character of their Elites, who put more than twice as much money in their own pockets as the low RWA Elites had. (The Middle East Elite ended up the World’s Richest Man; part of his wealth came from money he had conned from Third World Elites as payment for joining his alliance.) But more importantly, the high RWAs proved incredibly ethnocentric. There they were, in a big room full of people just like themselves, and they all turned their backs on each other and paid attention only to their own group. They too were all reading from the same page, but writ large on their page was, “Care About Your Own; We Are NOT All In This Together.”
There is nothing “Christian” or “patriotic” about these attitudes. The steady advance of idiocracy — reelection of wingnuts to the Texas State Board of Education, the House Energy Committee led by a Republican who denies global warming on the basis of Biblical inerrancy — will damage America as surely as deregulated drilling damaged the ecology of the Gulf region. Meanwhile, the right already considers itself under attack. Railing against Hollywood and “lamestream media” isn’t just an exercise in blame-gaming, it’s a deliberate attempt to dress up conservatism as the victim of cultural aggression. In short: avoiding kulturkampf is impossible. It is already being waged by people convinced a kulturkampf is being waged against them.
Calls for ‘sanity’ may fill out the National Mall, but they do not fill out ballots — especially when the middle ground has evaporated in hard times. Progress will only come through fearless action. The tea party can no longer be allowed to control the terms of debate; it cannot assemble unchallenged. FOX News has more than earned direct action and even civil disobedience. More importantly, progressives must be armed with fewer facts and more high-explosive ideas. To wit:
- Does your “right to life” end at birth? That’s the essence of conservative politics: people vote because of the unborn yet are conditioned to care nothing for Americans alive and breathing. I’ve already told every Democrat left in my region of Alabama that the phrase “pro-life Democrat” is political cyanide; the answer to the abortion question is that they believe in a right to life that does not end at birth. This reframes the debate to our terms.
- The president is an American and so am I. Progressives must not only counteract the personal-polarization of right-wing politics, they must humanize their movement. ‘Green’ needs to be the color of human rights, jobs, and a new economy, not just the environmental movement. It must be the new red, white, and blue. Which brings me to:
- They’re called the “United” States. We rise or fall together. There is no separating us. There is no defeating us. We can, we will be great together.
This is by no means exhaustive, but it is a start. Kulturkampf demands a resoluteness and solidarity currently absent on the progressive side, but I think we can get there as long as we avoid the pitfalls of One Nation:
In an effort to replicate the tea party’s success, 170 liberal and civil rights groups are forming a coalition that they hope will match the movement’s political energy and influence. They promise to “counter the tea party narrative” and help the progressive movement find its voice again after 18 months of floundering.
The large-scale attempt at liberal unity, dubbed “One Nation,” will try to revive themes that energized the progressive grassroots two years ago. In a repurposing of Barack Obama’s old campaign slogan, organizers are demanding “all the change” they voted for — a poke at the White House.
But the liberal groups have long had a kind of sibling rivalry, jostling over competing agendas and seeking to influence some of the same lawmakers. In forming the coalition, the groups struggled to settle on a name. Even now, two of the major players disagree about who came up with the idea of holding a march this fall. (Emphasis mine)
What has to happen is the opposite of the tea party: progressives have to organize and act locally while the big movement players react to us. Media must react to us. Rather than the top-down astroturfing of K-Street, the response has to be led by the grassroots and built upon by the apparatus already in place. I would love to see a mass demonstration before Congress demanding green jobs and led by Van Jones; I would love to see progressives and Democrats descend on Republican town halls. Until we do, the right will always control the terms of debate.
We can put them back on their heels because we are better at this than they are — but we must first stop pretending reform and progress are an individual achievement. To make any progress in this kulturkampf, we will need a progressive army.