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The Culture Wars

It is certainly not a term I made up. It probably caught on because of its assonant quality. And when phrases catch on, we get to hear them over and over.

Whatever you want to call it, the meaning is pretty clear, particularly to Republicans. They see it is as their ticket to winning the next elections, along with vote suppression, of course. Cut down the voting size; make cultural issues the focus, and they think they can win

To be very frank, and maybe presumptuous, I don’t think most voters have a deep understanding of economics. It is said that “people vote their pocketbooks,” and certainly most can figure out if they are doing okay financially. And maybe that is all they have to know, when they vote; except that it is more complex than that.

For example, many were thinking that Trump was doing well with the economy, at least before the pandemic. But all that he was really accomplishing with his removal of regulations on corporations, including restrictions on polluting or monopoly, was making more profits for them, virtually none of which got trickled down to anyone else. The major cuts on corporate taxes just allowed them more money to buy back their own stock, which pushed it up; but they didn’t give anything to their workers. The stocks went up, but the GDP went up very little, and the manufacturing numbers were also unimpressive, and the deficit skyrocketed.

The gap between the wealthiest Americans and everybody else, has gotten much larger. Trump didn’t even cut taxes for the poor, they went up slightly for the last tax year. But Trump and his people kept boasting about the stock market; and as usual, too many media showed their naivete, by thinking or saying that the market was a proxy for the economy, which it is not. I am sure that some of the voters bought this, too, or Trump would have been at Herbert Hoover and GW Bush favorability numbers.

So Republicans can try to push their economic agenda, except that more people are realizing that this agenda includes only one item, Cut Taxes on the Wealthy. If you want that, you will probably vote for them, but not that many do. What Republicans want to do instead, is to avoid discussing that, and concentrate on ramping up anger at Democrats by means of “culture issues.” The power of these, is that the Right Wing, and their attendant media amplifiers, are very good at saying simplistic and false things, which somehow resonate with voters. The term for this is “framing.” The first week of law school, one of the professors said that the key to any case, is how successful you are at framing the issue, convincing people that your way of presenting the issue at stake is the correct one.

I always remember a battle in California over a Proposition on the ballot, which simply raised the tax on cigarettes. Most people were for this in this state But the tobacco lobby poured in something like $90 million, running ads of the tenor of “”There they go again; they are trying to take away your right to spend money any way you want, and choose what products to buy.” These ads were of course successful, and the tobacco people managed to overcome a twenty-point or so deficit in the polls, to defeat the Proposition by a point or two

We all know what the power of immense corporate money can do to amplify their position. Republicans count on it. They also have managed to win on “cultural issues,” mostly because they lie about them, simplify them, and then have all those billions, all those media outlets, to keep pounding at them. Republicans almost never run on the economy, or any specific policy debates; they run on culture issues, vague yet powerful terms like “freedom,” “rights,” “personal liberty.” And then they try to show how the Democrats don’t value these things, or are trying to take them away.

So in the ’50’s, it was “anti-Communism.” I remember some kid in fourth grade asking me if I would rather be dead, or Red? I didn’t know what he was talking about, I did not know who was presenting this as a choice. I asked my parents, and they laughed, and explained this nonsense. Then it was fluoridated water. Again, I did not understand, why were people talking about that, as some kind of evil threat? And does anyone remember “Operation Water Moccasin” which was some lunatic right-wing idea that the Communists were going to go through Mexico, and invade California?

Then in the late ’60’s, it was “hippies and communist sympathizers and people who hate America” The anti-war protests were portrayed as a bunch of long-haired sexual libertines who burned flags, and wanted the North Vietnamese to win. This worked well for them in 1968 and 1972. “Law and Order” were the slogans of Nixon and George Wallace.

Then it returned in 1988, where Dukakis saying that he was a “proud card-carrying member of the ACLU,” was used to characterize him as a left-wing intellectual who does not connect with average Americans. Remember GHW Bush visiting flag factories every day? The three issues which Republicans used, and which the media slavishly echoed, were “flag burning,” “Willie Horton,” and “Boston Harbor.” Flag burning was front and center, even though the Supreme Court had consistently found it to be “protected symbolic speech,” and I think the last time they heard it, it was a 9-0 decision. But the Republicans did not care, they wanted to convince the voters that they were working hard to make flag burning a serious crime, and the media never bothered to point any of this out, went right along with it.

There was only one presidential debate, and the first question posed, was asking Dukakis, if his wife were raped and murdered, would he be against the death penalty for the murderer? What kind of inane question is that? The President does not make the laws regarding the death penalty, that is left to the states, per a Supreme Court decision. The goal of the questioner, who thought he was really asking something meaningful, was to put Dukakis in a kind of moral double bind: either he would be for the death penalty for this man, but against it in general, so thus a moral hypocrite; or he would show himself to be a milquetoast who puts legal abstractions above his wife. It was an unfair and irrelevant question, and it showed the extent to which the media not only loves to play “gotcha” with Democrats, bit also how they always buy into the Republican Party’s “culture” emphasis, relegating all other matters behind those.

Bill Clinton of course, was attacked unmercifully for trying to avoid the draft, like virtually every Republican officeholder in the country. Then there was the furor about marijuana, “did he inhale?” Then the sexual matters, the same kind of thing which Republicans always deny and blame on liberals for inventing against them. We also heard about Clinton stopping air traffic while he got a haircut, which was a total lie. We heard about “travelgate,” which actually sounded like something potentially important until I learned that it was just Hillary replacing the White House travel staff, which she had an absolute right to do. And then of course Vince Foster, and on and on.

And we can remember how they said that Gore was a serial liar who claimed that he invented the internet,; and that Kerry was a Frenchified wind surfer who shot himself in the foot on purpose, so as to get a medal in Vietnam. And all the lies and slanders and grotesque caricatures of Hillary as a person., both before and during 2016.

That is what passes for political arguments from Republicans, because they cannot effectively run on specific policy issues. And they are ready to do it again. Their underlying main argument is that Democrats are going to cancel everything they care about: TV shows, children’s books, holidays,; until they end up canceling them! They will take over every aspect of their lives; tell them what are good foods to eat, what they can watch, what they can say, whether they have to wear a mask or not. This is the irrational psychological fear that they have instilled in their base; the fear of not mattering, of having no freedoms, of being canceled out.

The truth is that the Republicans have gone about trying to cancel things for about 150 years. They pulled the troops out of the South, to cancel Reconstruction. They canceled Black voting rights in the 1880’s and beyond. They set the FBI and the Pinkertons to cancel the forming of labor unions. They burned books like “Lady Chatterly’s Lover,” “Forever Amber” and “The Catcher in the Rye.”

They blacklisted and effectively canceled the careers of many superb Hollywood writers, directors and actors. They kicked Charlie Chaplin out of the country. They would put FBI agents at anti-war rallies, to try to gather evidence against them, or to start violence which they could use major force to stop, and thus cancel that movement. Trump and his followers canceled the ability to read the transcribed interpreter notes of major international discussions. They canceled scientific data on global warming. They canceled the data on Covid fatalities in Florida and Texas. They tried to cancel the results of the last election. They stormed the capitol building to try to cancel the entire American political system on January 6. But they don’t see that as any form of “cancel culture,” because they are hypocrites who have no regard for science or facts or consistency, or anything which might impede their one goal, of winning elections and holding power.

That is why they focus on Dr. Seuss, and why Cruz and McCarthy lovingly read from his books on the floor of Congress. Of course, no one is canceling Dr. Seuss; the estate which handles his publishing decided not to republish a few of his lesser works, because some felt that they had some racist drawings. Mr. Potato Head was another major issue for the Right, to show people that just as he was ungendered, so they might be as well.

Republicans have no intention of changing their political or economic stances, such as they are. So they are left with trying to get their voters to become so angry and fearful that the Democratic Liberal Socialist Freethinkers are going to take all their childhood books and toys, and shows, and rights away, that they will rise up in fury to stop them. While of course, trying to stop Democrats from being able to exercise their freedom to vote at all.

We would like to discuss other matters, as an informed populace. The economy, women’s rights, minority rights, global warming, voting rights, workers’ rights, gun violence. But the Republicans do not want to. And the media loves the ratings they get from “culture wars,” because they are not the province of intellectuals, anyone can jump in and yell and declaim about them.

It is something that we need to be prepared for, and I hope that people on our side are able to figure out some effective counterpoints. That is hard, because we can’t just avoid these matters, but it is almost impossible to frame them in a way that the average person can understand. Rational argument based on philosophical and historical perspective, has a spotty record of success against pitchforks and flaming torches and witch burners. But ignoring them is not going to make them go away, because we are going to be hearing about this every day; they are going “all in” on it. That, combined with stopping Democrats from voting, is their last stand as a a political party, but they will fight to victory or demise under those banners.

11 Responses

  1. The best shots they have to continue in power is to totally control drawing the state boundaries again via gerrymandering and suppressing the vote. They are masters at both of these, and sadly the Supreme Court is firmly in the GOP camp on these issues with John Roberts and his merry band of vote suppressors. Steven Bryer doesn’t help matter when he opines that the Democrats would politicize the courts with any reforms… I guess when you are 82 you must sleep a lot, which seems strange because I find at 69 I am needing less sleep than I have in the past, how else can you explain how he missed the politicization of the judiciary by Mitch McConnell for 12+ years.

    • Exactly. And in states where Democrats hold a majority of the legislature, like California, they do very little gerrymandering, but instead appoint bipartisan commissions to draw districts, thus playing fair, while Republicans do not. Again, there is the false framing; Democrats are the ones politicizing the courts, not the Republicans who have stacked the courts with largely unqualified people passed through by one group, the Federalist Society, which wants to control the entire judicial system.

  2. Once again an excellent posting by RD. And, although I know I sound like a tired record, I cannot forget that it was under Obama all those many legislatures turned red. Clearly he wasn’t paying attention. Now we are left with their power to redistrict, gerrymander and suppress the vote. Hillary would never had let that happen. Ah well.

    • Obama seemed to think that he could transcend political parties, and that was part of his appeal to some voters. But he obviously could not, and we lost so many seats in 2010 and 2014, that state legislatures in some normally Blue states are still dominated by Republicans, who of course use that power for all it is worth, Hillary helped to get funds to downticket Democrats in 2016, which had been mostly missing in the previous eight years. Party loyalty is an underrated thing.

      • YEP… when I found out Obama won the election, my first statement was ‘Obama is a Republican wet dream’. I still stand by it. Obama is not the Democratic savior that he is portrayed as. He will go down as the ‘best president’ of the early 21st century because he had the good luck to come between W and Trump.

    • Not by me. It’s William you can thank.

  3. Over on another site, I made a comment which, in my view, explains much about what is wrong with the USA today.

    I present it here in slightly modified form.

    From roughly the 1950s through the 1970s, the Democrats gradually ceased to be the party of White reactionaries of Confederate culture, or quasi-Confederate culture, because foreign policy required the USA to abolish, or at least to appear to abolish, the old discriminations against Black Americans.

    This infuriated the white reactionaries.

    The GOP, at the cost of its soul, went after the votes of those white reactionaries, and the GOP became the party of Confederate culture (remember, the culture had already metastasized well beyond the original geographic–and ethnic–boundaries of the old Confederacy, or else this would not have been an effective, if immoral, political strategy on a national scale).

    Why foreign policy? The Cold War.

    Since the nuclear stalemate prevented the two superpowers from settling their differences in the old-fashioned way, the USA and the USSR were compelled to compete for the loyalties–or, if they could not obtain loyalty, then at least the neutralities–of the newly-independent nations created by the collapse of the old European colonial empires.

    Since those nations were (and are) disproportionately non-white, keeping our old formal systems of racial segregation would have hurt us in the propaganda wars against the USSR.

    The white reactionaries of my country have thrown a sustained tantrum ever since then; the “election” and adoration of Benedict Donald is a recent example of that sustained tantrum.

  4. That is an interesting and thoughtful insight. It did of course correspond with Brown vs. Board of Education, mandating integration. I think there was a shift in culture. But the international aspect could well have been a meaningful aspect, as well.

  5. I don’t think most voters have a deep understanding of economics

    Your first clue that this might be true is when you hear people say that they want to “run government like a business” or tell you that government must “live within its means like a family”. That last one is only true if your family prints its own money and uses its family army and navy to invade other families and take their stuff.

    Governments that issue their own fiat currency and denominate their debt in that currency (which rules out all the EU states) can’t go “bankrupt”. Their ability to spend is limited only by their tolerance for inflation.

    Most people seem to have a lot of trouble wrapping their heads around that.

    • Yes, this analogy between running a government and running a business, is so ridiculously simplistic. But this country has venerated capitalism, so there has been a varying attachment to the idea of having a business person as President. I remember one of the major weekly magazines putting Iaccocca and Ueberroth on the same cover, implying that we possibly needed a corporate type to run the country. And who can forget the surge of Ross Perot in 1992? Then we got Trump, who was a terrible businessman, but with the help of Mark Burnett, played a smart one on TV.

      And not only does being successful in autocratically running a business have virtually no connection to being President;; as you note, the rules and laws are different. Trump bankrupted four companies, but got bailed out by credit and loans. I am convinced that he would have destroyed the full faith and credit of the United States, by defaulting on debts. He talked about this during his 2016 campaign, about paying pennies on the dollar, but people seemed to ignore it.

      • Well, you’re looking at the specific case of a (more or less) democratic government, but it’s also true for autocracies. Governments, whether democratic or authoritarian, are completely different from businesses. “Running government like a business” is the very definition of official corruption.

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