A comment to a recent blog post reminded us of the overwhelming–albeit under-appreciated–power of culture. The famous banner in Bill Clinton’s war room was wrong. It isn’t “the economy, stupid”; that message should be edited to read “it’s the culture, stupid!”
The problem is, in today’s United States, there are two very different cultures. (Actually, there are many permutations within those two “mega” cultures.)
As a recent essay at the Brookings Institution site put it, despite the fact that Joe Biden won by an enormous margin (more than five million votes and counting) the size of Donald Trump’s vote is a “stark reminder of the enduring power of racism and misogyny in America.”
The essay from the usually circumspect Brookings didn’t mince words; it compared Trump’s core appeal to the appeal of fascism,
the pleasure of inflicting cruelty and humiliation on those one fears and disdains, the gratification of receiving the authoritarian’s flattery, and the exhilaration of a crowd freed from the normal strictures of law, reason and decency.
Americans are not immune to the charms of authoritarianism. We did not need Trump to know this about ourselves; racial authoritarianism has existed within and alongside our democracy from the beginning. Trump was in essence a rearguard action by those who wish to preserve the racial hierarchy that has defined America from its founding.
The rest of the article discussed the very real costs of divided government, in the event the Georgia run-offs do not deliver slim control of the Senate to the Democrats. Those costs are clearly obvious to the people who read and comment on this blog–divided government, whatever its merits at other junctures of our national history, will make it impossible to address the structural issues that have entrenched government power in a minority party unresponsive to and contemptuous of the needs of a majority of Americans.
So what does this have to do with culture?
In the quoted language, I was most struck by the definition of “Trumpism” as a rearguard action focused on preserving white privilege. White privilege is the essence of the alt-right movement–it is clearest in the pronouncements of the Proud Boys, the Neo-Nazis, and the Klan remnants who see themselves as the protectors of “White Culture,” but it isn’t limited to those fringe movements.
We can see “white culture” in the urban/rural divide, in the sneering dismissals of “cosmopolitanism,” in the denunciations of coastal and global “elites,” and in the efforts to protect Confederate monuments as exemplars of Southern culture rather than reminders of American willingness to enslave dark people. Etc.
I was never a huge fan of John Edwards, whose Presidential campaign dissolved for a number of reasons, including his infidelity (remember when infidelity actually harmed a candidacy? talk about the “good old days”!), but he was onto something with his highlighting of the existence of “two Americas.”
Cultural change is inevitable, but it is also difficult and slow, and it creates understandable and unfortunate resentments. It will take time–and changes in both the media and social media platforms– for those resentments to abate.
Pious exhortations to more progressive Americans to “reach out” to those resisting social change aren’t just embarrassingly one-sided (no one is telling the alt-right to try to understand those dark-skinned or Jewish or Muslim “libruls”); they also have a distressing tendency to be either naive or condescending– or both.
I don’t know whether the gulf between America’s very different cultures can be narrowed or bridged. I have no suggested magic wand, but at least a part of the longer-term solution needs to be a new appreciation for the importance of public education in public schools–education that emphasizes what we diverse Americans presumably have in common: allegiance to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Enlightenment approach to empiricism upon which they were constructed.
An in-depth civics education would at the very least be an inoculation against the appeal of fascism.