American Culture Wars Gerry OShea
The distinguished Canadian theologian, Fr. Bernard Lonergan, writing fifty or so years ago bemoaned the emergence of a shallow culture, lacking depth and authenticity, where truth is considered changeable and the importance of family and community is undermined. He defines the term culture broadly as the total amalgam of connections, stories, feelings, rituals, practices and values that inform the way of life of all groups.
Surely one of the most perplexing happenings of the presidential election last year was the failure of the Republican Party to produce a manifesto setting out their main policy proposals for the electorate. By comparison, the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party made their support for Joe Biden contingent on reaching agreement that some of their priorities would be included in the party platform. This was negotiated to their satisfaction and the consequent party unity, missing in 2016, benefited the Democratic campaign.
Republican aversion in recent times to providing a thought-out rationale for their policy positions is part of an anti-intellectual culture which they seem to embrace. For example, they do not believe the compelling evidence for climate change, and in dealing with the COVID crisis, Anthony Fauci, representing science and research, was sidelined in favor of anti-mask-wearing crowds and medical quackery from the White House.
It is a truism accepted by all political parties that emotions win out over reason in voters’ preferences at election time. The textbook idea that citizens study the policy stances of the parties and intellectually weigh up each side before deciding who to support does not accord with real life.
America’s legendary melting pot has morphed into a grievance culture. So many groups have complaints about how they are treated by comparison with other groups that it is hard to find individuals who aren’t tainted by the blaming game. This is the world of hurt feelings, of citizens’ perceptions of how they and their families and social groups are respected in the wider body politic.
For instance, evangelical Christians have a distinct attitude to life. They feel strongly against the availability of abortion in America, but even apart from that, they club together in support of conservative causes, and they form a large reliable bloc of voters for any Republican candidate. Donald Trump’s womanizing and lack of any observable moral compass upset them and a small percentage withdrew their support, but, despite everything, the vast majority identified the Democrats as representing a dark and hostile culture force and so they voted along traditional lines.
On the other side, black people are reliable Democrats. Nine out of ten African-American voters supported the Democratic candidate in last year’s presidential election. To solidify his backing in this important constituency, Mr. Biden chose Kamala Harris, a woman of color, as his running mate, and he promised that his first nominee to the Supreme Court will be a black female.
The Democrats’ courtship of non-white voters invites the consequences of Newton’s Third Law of Motion that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. This perceived preferential Democratic focus on minority concerns annoys many white people who feel that their issues are not respected and they look to the Republican Party for succor. While the mantra that Black Lives Matter is widely affirmed among Democrats, most Republicans vehemently oppose what they interpret as an anti-white trope.
Many people seem to crave an ideology that would guide all decision-making by eliminating complexity and pointing to an unambiguous path of righteousness. However, when we think of the three great ideologues of the 20th century, all of whom offered clear answers to the thorny questions about the use and abuse of power, we realize the advantages of a messy democratic system. Stalin, Mao and Hitler knew how to play the emotional nationalist tune and together these tyrants, steeped in their versions of ideological purity, caused the deaths of millions in pursuing their grandiose and evil plans.
James Carville, Bill Clinton’s right-hand-man in the 1992 presidential election, is remembered because of his colorful personality and his pronouncement about winning elections that “it is about the economy stupid.” Sounds like an axiomatic truth that people will vote their pocket books, supporting whatever candidate or party helps them pay the mortgage and supermarket bills.
How then does one explain many white workers’ allegiance to the Republican Party when the Democrats offer a better financial deal for them and their families? Republicans are wedded to cutting taxes for the rich, claiming – without proof - that enhancing the surpluses of millionaires will lead to trickle down benefits for ordinary taxpayers. Rational economic considerations are certainly not the determining factor for these workers when they choose to vote Republican.
Despite Mr. Carville’s engaging personality, he will have to concede that elections are decided mostly in the market place of emotions, filled with images, analogies and feelings about the candidates, topped up with an abundance of moralizing against opponents.
How do we account for the Q Anon phenomenon which has become a prominent presence in American culture? Certainly, it is away outside the world where reason and logic prevail. The Q adherents openly profess that prominent Democrats led by Hilary Clinton and Speaker Pelosi and funded by George Soros and unnamed Hollywood stars are really closet Satanists who have kidnapped and are torturing thousands of children for their own sexual gratification. Shamefully, belief in this vile balderdash is very much part of our culture.
The mysterious Q figure, who has the allegiance of about one quarter of Republicans, has prophesied various indignities for President Biden and triumphs for Donald Trump, none of which has happened. That doesn’t seem to matter. By all accounts, the Q numbers are growing.
The new science of gender identification has become a central point of cultural conflict among Americans. The biblical story of males and females created to increase and multiply never dealt with the full gamut of sexual possibilities. The Genesis tale suffices for the majority of people, with anybody outside the binary male/female romantic story often dismissed as a freak of nature.
Traditionalists still look askance at homosexual couples embracing in public, but they throw their hands up in despair condemning the culture that allows gay marriage. Really complicating this scene is the emergence of a vibrant community of transexuals, against whom, sadly, thirty murders were committed last year in America. Conservatives blame liberal culture for all this confusion about sexual identity, especially in cases involving trans people participating in sporting competitions.
Using religious imagery to describe the outrageous cultural expression that we witnessed on January 6th, Kevin Clarke, a senior editor in the Jesuit magazine, America, wrote poignantly about what has corrupted our imaginations: “Crafting idols out of our politicians; stacking guns into shrines in our homes or wearing them across our chests like amulets; and poisoning our minds with litanies of false conspiracies; we embrace extremism that leads to hockey sticks slashing across the heads of police officers.”
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com