Cultural critic Lee Siegel wrote a great article in Saturday’s Wall Street Journal describing how Republicans created the culture wars and continue to win them because Democrats don’t even understand the game they are playing. I’ll quickly summarize his argument, but strongly encourage you to read the article.
Siegel claims that Republicans view culture as something lived: your religion, your family or your sexual preferences. Liberals look at culture as something separate from daily life, something to be dipped into (e.g. opera), which means that they discuss policies as something distinct from culture. Republicans don’t even need to discuss policies…they just discuss culture, which, because it is personal and emotional, captures people’s hearts in a way that policy cannot. Culture trumps policy. As long as Democrats are talking about economic policies while Republicans are talking about a lived culture, Siegel states, Democrats will lose.
In general, I find Siegel’s argument fairly compelling. It explains why hugely qualified Democrats (Al Gore) lose to clearly unqualified Republicans (George W. Bush). It helps explain how Bill Clinton (an exceptional Democrat in that he came across as cultural more than policy-driven) beat George H.W. Bush (who was more wonk than culture warrior). It explains the dynamic that Thomas Frank described in What’s the Matter with Kansas. And as a committed liberal, I find Siegel’s piece profoundly disturbing, because the process he describes seems to be getting more and more severe.
However, I am hoping that by unpacking some of Spiegel’s ideas, we might be able to find some ways that Democrats can integrate policy with culture and turn this dynamic to our advantage.
In the article Siegel discusses “contemporary democracy’s leveling maw.” This leveling is a key piece that Siegel touches on repeatedly but rarely addresses explicitly. He talks about how McCain “is not above us,” contrasting that with the three elite intellectuals (Gore, Kerry and Obama) the Democrats have nominated in the last three elections.
He touches on this again by discussing the growth in “vicariousness….We love people who make it possible for us to imagine inhabiting their lives.” He ties this to the growth in memoirs of regular people (e.g. James Frey); we want our lives glamorized just as the authors’ are.
Siegel combines the leveling and the vicariousness to explain Sarah Palin’s appeal. “Gov. Palin’s blatant struggles with inadequacy serve as proof of her potential to lead. She wins the vicariousness sweepstakes hands down.” But is this really where we want America to head? Where a person’s inadequate resume and messy personal life are actually their selling points? This is a problem. I don’t think society wants a race to the bottom, or even the middle, in its leaders. The person running the country should excel, rather than be average.
Finally, Siegel notes that “heartland conservatism” has a trope of “ordeal and humiliation,” in which an authority figure must be humbled before he can lead again. McCain’s torture in a POW camp leaves him pre-humiliated and thus perfectly positioned. This trope fits the classic hero pattern of descent and rebirth, which, as James Frazer and Carl Jung pointed out, is among the most common in human society. Republicans are thus able to take advantage of a very powerful mythology.
Tomorrow: what Democrats can do