Culture war, culture war! In our nation of revivals — theatrical, cinematic and political — this one sounds exciting, and promises a riveting new story line in the riveting presidential campaign.
But a war requires two sides. Yet the Republicans are clamoring about the culture while the Democrats insist on sticking to political "issues." It's not war but two parallel monologues. The Republicans are frictionlessly pursuing the successful strategy they developed 25 years ago.
That was when the Reaganites pronounced government irrelevant, even obstructive, to the improvement of social life, thereby shifting the Republicans' center of operations from politics to culture. In short order, the Reagan revolutionaries invited into their cause the Christian right, who set their self-contained cultural universe against secular cultural values that the liberals had never dreamed would be under explicit siege.
Still, the Christian perspective had to be tempered and made more inclusive. Enter Allan Bloom. In 1987, Bloom published his bestselling The Closing of the American Mind, an attack on what he perceived as coarse popular culture and a destructive political correctness at the universities. Taking up the Christian right's banner in his cosmopolitan intellectual's hands, Bloom married the religious right to the mostly secular neoconservatives. He began the work completed by William Bennett in the latter's sensationally popular The Book of Virtues. Bloom redefined culture as "values."
Bloom gave the impression that it was hopeless to fight for his beloved Great Books because the Great Books had been driven to extinction by angry left-wing professors and vulgar forms of diversion. High culture was irretrievably lost to the average person. Culture for Bloom now meant not literature or art, but the struggle for the American individual's endangered "soul" (a word repeated throughout his book). This secular Armageddon was vividly embodied by Bloom in his now-notorious image of a solipsistic American teenager masturbating alone in his room while listening to deafening rock and roll. In one stroke, Bloom submerged politics irrevocably, and fertilely, in culture, and he defined culture in the broadest way as the necessity of living a meaningful life. Values, in other words.
As a result of all this intellectual tumult, one stark distinction stands out among the differences between contemporary liberals and conservatives (the real differences, not the manufactured ones). Liberals always think that there is something broken in politics. Conservatives always think that there is something wrong with the culture.
These conflicting urgencies have given the conservatives the upper hand for over a quarter of a century. Since culture is more immediate to us than the abstract policies and principles of politics — and seemingly more dependable than politics' often fluid expediencies — a politics of culture is going to be more successful than mere politics.
For many people, the idea that Republican politics are wholly responsible for the country's ills is hard to accept. You can't feel politics. Rather, such people blame a culture of selfishness and irresponsibility for the deepening malaise (the word that sank President Carter among liberals who thought they smelled a Christian conservative in progressive clothing). You experience selfishness and irresponsibility in the flesh every day.
Let me clarify what the word "culture" means in this context, a la the Christian right and Bloom's descendants. If hearing the word "culture" makes you think of Rossini, the latest translation of Anna Karenina, the Guggenheim Museum or The Wire, then you're probably a liberal — or, at least, an unreconstructed "cosmopolitan" conservative.
But if the word culture means for you forms of courtship, or the relationship between parents and children, or the set of rituals that revolve around the ownership and use of a gun, or, most passionately of all, ways of living, and believing, and rejoicing, and suffering, and dying that are hallowed by the religion you practice and embodied in the church you belong to, then you are probably celebrating Sarah Palin's ragged, real-seeming life. In that case, you are what might be called either a heartland or a Bloomian conservative.
Broadly speaking, liberals segregate culture from ordinary existence. They will "do" culture and then "do" the rest of life — gaze at a Vermeer, say, and then work on finding the perfect daycare center. But for conservatives, raising children, using the discipline of faith to endure illness or setback, cherishing life at its conception are cultural tasks and values inseparable from the challenges of everyday living.
The liberal idea of culture as edification or diversion implies abundant leisure time. The conservative idea of culture as the practice of getting through life (like the anthropologist's idea of culture) implies time under siege by work and adversity; this is culture defined as the meaningful beliefs and activities that are the response to necessity and adversity. Culture in this sense is as familiar as the eight-hour day, and as intimate as biological function. It is a matter of life and death. Call it organic, as opposed to fabricated, culture.
For many people, faith in organic culture is intimate and empowering, while faith in politics is like trying to have a conversation with the TV.
But organic culture has its squalid side, too. Blindness to the role culture plays in politics, even contempt for raising the subject, also lies behind the Democrats' fatal blindness to the brute fact of race in America. It is fairly incredible that it was, for the most part, not until this summer that liberals began publicly asking themselves if the country was ready for a black president. That it was not until recently that liberals began wondering with any forcefulness if people really were telling pollsters the truth about their attitudes toward race. ("Will race influence your vote for president?" "Race?! Me? Are you kidding? Of course not!")
The Republicans' cultural fluency has lately given them yet another advantage over the Democrats. For this season has given us the first truly postmodern election. Modern political campaigns are amalgams of politics, spectacle and entertainment. Postmodern campaigns teem with fluid identities, unmoored meanings and blurred boundaries to the point that stable terms like "politics," "spectacle" and "entertainment" barely exist as separate concepts. These innovations, if you will, are shifts in the culture, and the total submersion of politics in a cultural atmosphere is a trend perfectly suited to the party of organic culture.
In this organic culture, we love people who make it possible for us to imagine inhabiting their lives. This perhaps explains the rising distaste for leaders whose crowns are not made of thorns, whose realm of life we cannot imagine penetrating. In both those senses, Sarah Palin exerts a wide appeal to a certain type of voter. What might seem to be Gov. Palin's blatant struggles with inadequacy serve as proof of her potential to lead. She wins the vicarious sweepstakes hands down. Every revelation of a seeming deficiency in her temperament, judgment or character offers a new avenue of access into her life.
To put it another way, the jangling twists and turns, contrasts, incongruities and outright contradictions in the team of McCain and Palin make them the perfect duo for our mega-distracted culture. Watching and listening to the Arizona senator and the Alaskan governor, side by side, or one after the other, is like listening to an iPod, instant messaging, watching TV and talking on your cell phone all at once.
No, there is no culture war. There is only the Republicans' unilateral mastery of the cultural strategy. The Democrats consider any attention to the practices and prejudices of everyday living a mendacious diversion from the "issues," while the GOP, the party of the status quo, has proven itself astoundingly skillful at using its cultural antennae to adapt to new times.
Who knew? The Republicans may or may not be the party that will effect change. But they are certainly the party that knows how to ride it.
Lee Siegel's most recent book is Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob.