Tag Archives: culture war

When Politics Becomes A Culture War

I have my favorites among the columnists who write for The New York Times and The Washington Post, and I’ll admit that Tom Friedman has never been one of them. It isn’t that I disagree with him any more frequently than I disagree with others; he simply tends to address issues with which I’m less engaged, and to do so in a hectoring manner I find annoying.

I do think, however, that he hit this one “out of the park” as the saying goes.

The column was titled “A President With No Shame and a Party With No Guts,” which gives you a pretty good hint about the subject matter.

If your puppy makes a mess on your carpet and you shout “Bad dog,” there is a good chance that that puppy’s ears will droop, his head will bow and he may even whimper. In other words, even a puppy acts ashamed when caught misbehaving. That is not true of Donald Trump. Day in and day out, he proves to us that he has no shame. We’ve never had a president with no shame — and it’s become a huge source of power for him and trouble for us.

And what makes Trump even more powerful and problematic is that this president with no shame is combined with a party with no spine and a major network with no integrity — save for a few real journalists at Fox News like the outstanding Chris Wallace.

When a president with no shame is backed by a party with no spine and a network with no integrity, you have two big problems.

Those three paragraphs go a long way toward summing up where Americans find ourselves these days. But the observation that really struck me was this one:

The G.O.P. has lost its way because it has been selling itself for years to whoever could keep it in power, and that is now Trump and his base. And Trump’s base actually hates the people who hate Trump — i.e., liberals who they think look down on members of the base — more than it cares about Trump. This is about culture, not politics, and culture doesn’t change with the news cycle. And neither do business models — and Fox News’s business model is to feed, and feed off of, that culture war by allowing many of its commentators to be Trump’s parrots and bullhorns.

This, it seems to me, is the real problem, and it may be intractable.

Ever since the stunning result of the 2016 Presidential election, I have tried–and miserably failed–to understand how any sentient being could have voted for Donald Trump, a man so obviously unfit for office (not to mention polite society) that people who knew anything at all about government and/or business considered his candidacy a joke.

This is a man who makes polite people cringe and kind people recoil. If someone like Trump tried to strike up a conversation at a bar, most of us would change seats. He’s like the ignorant, self-absorbed uncle you don’t invite for Thanksgiving, because you don’t want your children to think his “all about me” behavior is acceptable.

I understand that hatred for Hillary Clinton (nurtured by misogynists for years) may have motivated some voters to cast that vote–but how do you explain the 30% of Americans who still support him? Fox News can spin–or ignore–the news, but you would expect anyone reading his misspelled tweets or listening to his delusional “word salad” speeches to be appalled.

I think Friedman answers that question when he writes that “Trump’s base actually hates the people who hate Trump — i.e., liberals who they think look down on members of the base — more than it cares about Trump. This is about culture, not politics.”

If he is correct–if Trump’s support comes from people who hold deep animus toward those they dismiss as “elitist” and “cosmopolitan” and who are more interested in “sticking it” to people they believe fall into those groups than in good or even adequate government– they aren’t going to change. They aren’t going to wake up one morning and say “gee, maybe sticking it to those snobs isn’t worth doing irreparable damage to the country and the planet.” They are lost to reason.

If Friedman is right–if this is culture war– efforts to right the ship of state need to be focused on the 49% of eligible voters who didn’t bother to cast a ballot in 2016.  I can only hope that Trump has been their wake-up call.

Baseball and Politics

Thursday night, my husband went with several other family members to the opening of the Indianapolis Indians’ baseball season. As he–and several media outlets–subsequently reported, Governor Pence also attended, and the announcement of his presence generated loud and emphatic boos from the assembled crowd.

That booing underlines a political lesson we might sum up as: live by social issues, die by social issues. (I may be “over-analyzing” this; if so, chalk it up to twenty years of teaching public administration.)

Here’s what I mean: When we elect people to administrative offices–mayor, governor, President–we rarely base our subsequent evaluations of their job performance on the efficiency or effectiveness of the agencies controlled by those offices. Ideally, of course, we would, but most of the time, we aren’t in a position to know whether the city issued improper drainage permits, or the state failed to enforce environmental standards, spent limited resources on frivolous lawsuits, etc.

Unless we are members of a constituency that is directly aware of or affected by administrative incompetence, we are unlikely to recognize it, so we generally don’t base our opinions or cast our votes on the basis of perceived management skills. We don’t even base our votes on candidates’ policy preferences–unless those policies implicate so-called “hot button” issues.

This dichotomy between the mundane, albeit important, administrative skills needed for effective governance and the passions that characterize disputes over social issues poses an under-appreciated  danger for culture warriors like Indiana’s Governor.

Run-of-the-mill administrative incompetence is unlikely to motivate widespread passionate opposition, no matter how damaging and/or costly poor governance may be.Over-the-top forays into the culture wars, however–especially when those highly-visible and clearly unconstitutional efforts can be shown to do real damage to the reputation and economy of the state–can generate significant public hostility, as we have recently seen in North Carolina, Mississippi and–of course–Indiana.

Voters and baseball fans don’t boo someone for poor management skills (even though that would warm the cockles of a public management professor’s heart). Voters do, however, feel strongly about arrogant ideologues who feel entitled to tell them how they should conduct their lives.

There’s a reason for all those “Pence Must Go” signs.

And for “boos” at the baseball game.


Distortions Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Stephen Prothero had a recent column in the Washington Post, discussing his latest book, “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars, Even When They Lose Elections.” Prothero is a professor of religion at Boston University whose previous books—especially “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and Doesn’t”—were New York Times bestsellers.

I found these passages particularly illuminating:

In almost every case, these culture wars have been conservative projects, instigated and waged by people anxious about the loss of old orders and the emergence of new ones. Their anxiety finds expression first as a complaint about a particular policy, and second as a broader lament about how far the nation has fallen from its founding glory and how desperately we need to restore whatever is passing away. Or, to put it in Trumpian terms: The nation has been schlonged, but it will be great again.

Anti-Catholicism and anti-Mormonism were right-wing reactions to 19th-century Catholic immigration and Mormon migration, and to the moral, theological, social and economic threats those communities posed to Protestant power. Similarly, the culture wars of the 1920s and 1930s were conservative responses to the rise of the saloon and the speakeasy — and to the cultural pluralism brought on by rapid urbanization and immigration waves. In the contemporary culture wars, conservatives give voice to their anxieties about the loss of the traditional family and a homogeneous society. Cultural politics are always a politics of nostalgia, driven by those who are determined to return to what they remember (rightly or wrongly) as a better way of life.

Father knows best, anyone?

It always amuses me to hear people talk about the 1950s as if the fifties were an idyllic time. I suppose they were— if you were a white, Protestant member of the middle or upper class.

Otherwise, not so much.

I went to college in the South for one year, in 1959; there were separate black and white drinking fountains and restrooms everywhere, and new subdivisions sported billboards informing passers-by that home sites were “restricted” (no Jews or Blacks). In the “idyllic” fifties, women couldn’t generate credit histories separate from their fathers or husbands, and help-wanted ads explicitly excluded women and minorities from the better-paying jobs. That was everywhere, not just in the South. McCarthy and HUAC flourished; dissenters cowered. The list goes on.

As Stephanie Coontz felicitously put it, Americans are notoriously nostalgic for “the way we never were.”

Rose-colored glasses sure can obscure your vision.

About Those Angry Old White Guys….

David Akins at Political Animarecently posted a far more eloquent version of an argument I have been making for the past several years.

As I said two weeks ago, base Republican voters are not choosing a president. They’re choosing an rebel leader who will lead an insurgent war against what they view as an increasingly dominant liberal consensus aided and abetted by establishment Republicans.

Now, that seems like crazy talk to progressives who are pulling their hair out over government inaction in the face of existential crises like record wealth inequality, climate change and the reality of technological unemployment. But to the Republican base, the world seems to be spinning ever more off kilter: a black man was elected and re-elected to the Oval Office, a hated woman seems likely to follow him, gays can marry in the Deep South even as Confederate flags are coming down, the Middle East continues to be a problem no matter how many bombs we drop on it, the urbanization and secularization of America continues apace, and the country is only getting browner and more liberal with each and every passing day. And just like progressives, conservative blue-collar voters are keenly aware of the shrinking of the middle class—they just choose to scapegoat immigrants and “regulations,” rather than question their just-world-fallacy value system by actually looking at where all the money went.

For Republicans, this is an existential identity crisis and threat to their entire way of life. And they’re reacting in kind, by supporting the loudest, angriest, most belligerent voice in the room. Right now, that’s Donald Trump.

The Republican base isn’t looking for specific policy fixes. They’re looking for a cultural warrior and savior who will put the last 60 years of progress back in a bottle and give them their country back.


They want their country back from the rest of us–pushy women, uppity black and brown folks, out-of-closet gays, and smart-ass kids who don’t know our proper place. They want their country back from a bewildering and unfamiliar 21st Century.

Fight the Culture War on Your Own Nickel, Greg

I thought I’d share a letter that Bill Groth and I wrote to the editor of the Star, published today (at least in the electronic version), for the benefit of the growing number of people who no longer read that publication.


To the Editor:

Attorney General Greg Zeller recently had a letter in The Indianapolis Star defending his decision to file yet another friend-of-the-court brief in the U.S. Supreme Court—this time, in a case from New York challenging the conduct of legislative prayer.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with the Attorney General’s position on the merits, his entirely voluntary participation in this case raises an issue that troubles us as attorneys and as taxpayers. Simply stated, Attorney General Zeller has shown an unseemly proclivity to weigh in—ostensibly on behalf of all Hoosiers—on so-called “culture war” issues entirely unrelated to Indiana. This time, it’s public prayer;  a few months ago, it was opposition to federal recognition of same-sex marriages performed in states where such marriages are legal.

These forays into matters not involving Indiana or its citizens may play well with the Republican party’s religiously conservative base, but they do not serve the interests of the broader Indiana community. Indiana was not a party to those cases, and it was entirely unnecessary to take a side in matters about which Hoosiers remain sharply divided.

Zeller defended his culture war activism by noting his office “routinely” files friend-of-court briefs.  This is precisely what concerns us.  Just as courts exercise judicial restraint and refrain from deciding issues not squarely before them, we believe that Attorney General Zeller should show similar restraint by not volunteering Indiana as a partisan “culture warrior” in cases to which the state is not a party.  He claims no tax money is involved in the preparation of these briefs, because his staff researches and writes them. That staff, of course, is paid with Hoosiers’ tax dollars.

If lawyers in the office have enough spare time to work on numerous legal matters not germane to state business, it would seem the office is overstaffed.

Attorney General Zeller denies he is advocating any personal position and is only seeking “finality” on this and other controversial issues.  But as any lawyer can attest, and the Attorney General surely knows, issues of this sort are never “final.”  It is hard to escape the conclusion that Attorney General Zeller is using his public office to advocate for his personal religious views—views that are highly divisive in an increasingly pluralistic society. Such use of an elected office is improper, and it should stop.