Monday, September 15, 2008

The culture war: It's back!

Democrats may have thought that the disastrous Bush years killed the GOP's favorite tactic. The Palin effect shows they were wrong.

By Gary Kamiya

Sep. 15, 2008 | Observing the Sarah Palin phenomenon, does anyone feel like they're trapped in a singularly creepy remake of "Night of the Living Dead"? George W. Bush has been a political corpse for years. But Palin resembles a female version of Bush, brought back from the grave to win the election...


Palin represents the reappearance of the one part of Bush that never died -- the culture warrior. Democrats may have forgotten about the notorious red state-blue state divide, or hoped that the failures of the last eight years had made it go away. But it hasn't. It's been there all along. If Palin catapults McCain to victory, it will be revealed to be the most powerful and enduring force in American politics. And that fact will raise serious questions about the viability of American democracy itself.

The culture war is driven by resentment, on the one hand, and crude identification, on the other. Resentment of "elites," "Washington insiders" and overeducated coastal snobs goes hand in hand with an unreflective, emotional identification with candidates who "are just like me." Large numbers of Americans voted for Bush because he seemed like a regular guy, someone you'd want to have a beer with. As Thomas Frank argued in "What's the Matter With Kansas," ideology also played a role. As hard-line "moral values" exponent and former GOP presidential candidate Gary Bauer told the New York Times, "Joe Six-Pack doesn't understand why the world and his culture are changing and why he doesn't have a say in it." The GOP appealed to Joe Six-Pack by harping on cultural issues like the "three Gs," gods, guns and gays.

Bush played on culture war themes like a virtuoso. His folksy, macho persona connected with the GOP base and independent voters, his bland pre-election talk of reform and inclusion was reassuring, and his post-election Karl Rove-engineered strategy of nonstop flag-waving, demonizing opponents as traitors, and talking populism while handing the country over to deregulated predators, worked brilliantly. Bush was the great divider, masterfully playing on Americans' fear, resentment and patriotism. First Al Gore, then John Kerry were painted as out-of-touch elitists, mandarins and eggheads. It worked: Bush rode the red-state side of the culture wars to victory twice (with a little help from the Supreme Court the first time around).

It's terrifying that so many Americans are so driven by resentment that they will vote against more qualified candidates simply because they seem "different" from them. For what this means is that anyone with expertise, unusual intelligence, mastery, special knowledge, is likely to be rejected by voters who are resentful of "elites." This constitutes a rejection of the very idea that it matters if someone is better at something than someone else.

The peculiar thing is that this only applies to politics: Voters who would not dream of taking their car to an incompetent mechanic or their body to an unlicensed physician have no problem electing totally unqualified candidates to perform the most difficult and important job in the world, simply because they identify with them.

Resentment explains some of this. So does a widespread lack of respect for government itself, and ignorance about what it is and what it requires. Most insidious, perhaps, is the fact that more and more Americans seem to see politics as just another reality TV show. You vote for Palin the same way you vote for a designer on "Project Runway." As Katharine Mieszkowski reported for Salon, Palin's rapturous supporters embrace her because "she represents me." It's the politics of sheer narcissism...[Open in new window]


Blogger kartographer said...

True the Culture War seems to be heating up again, but let's not forget who fired the first shot in this round:

"You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. It's not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Just what the open and understanding kind of dialogue needed to get us past our differences. Can you tell me one thing though, why didn't he say that to the Pennsylvanians instead of behind their backs?

3:10 PM MDT  

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