Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Do cultural issues matter?

When this correspondent was in college, he was asked to join the campus Republican Club. The person inviting me, call him Robert, was one of my best friends. He knew we didn't share many, if any, political views. This was the late 1970s: the Vietnam War was still a bleeding wound, the Civil Rights movement was on fragile footing, the establishment media still largely condemned popular culture, and Robert and I disagreed on the meaning of all of it. But Robert thought he had a trump card.

"Why are you going to college here? It's a top school. It's your ticket to the upper class! I know you grew up poor, but that's why your parents sent you here--so you can make it to the top. Why look back? Why vote against your interests?"

I was against big government, and so did not fit the then-emerging definition of "liberal" (I was actually surprised when I heard the term "big government liberal" because sounded oxymoronic, but that's another story!) We all knew the American story was strongly rooted in resistance to central authority. So, without knowing it, because the term wasn't widely used, many of us who opposed the Vietnam War were perhaps more Libertarian than anything. But that's the point: we had to choose to vote based on cultural and moral issues, or to vote based on narrow economic self interest. Neither major party offered both, so many of us chose the former.

Which brings us to today. It has become routine among liberals to ask of working-class conservatives: "Why do you vote against your self interest?" The question is asked earnestly by some, sneeringly by others, and rhetorically by those who think they know the answer: systematic brainwashing by conservative propagandists. It is true that those who listen to right-wing mouthpieces like Limbaugh are drinking a fire-hose of dishonest rhetoric that might fool some of them into voting self destructively.

But for liberals to assume that this is all that is going on is wrong. It is insulting to cultural conservatives who sincerely care about things like abortion, perhaps more than they do about tomorrow's paycheck; it is condescending to those who sincerely believe in conservative economic theory; and it is counterproductive, because the conservatives know they are being insulted, which only hardens their positions. Admitting that cultural and social issues matter to people is the first step in being able to talk with them, and perhaps even to win some of them over to more moderate politics, starting with those issues where there IS shared ground (Wall Street, anyone?)

Think this is impossible? Consider that the Republican Party has long cynically used cultural conservatives for votes, without even trying to deliver on their promises to those voters (see this interview with David Kuo), and more and more of them realize it. There have been two responses among conservatives: one is to try to take over the Republican Party, and on that front, they have come dangerously close to succeeding, especially for the old guard. The other, however, is to return to a view of government that says it should not be mandating personal behavior, but should be focused on the limited mission of ensuring a level economic playing field for all (see for example, this from a prominent evangelical Christian progressive).

It is the latter that offers some hope. If you have read the prior posts here, you know that this column finds nothing attractive about the social conservative world-view. As a prescription for policy, it is frightening and disheartening for anyone who thought the Enlightenment was winning. This does not mean, however, that it is wise to dismiss the views of the social conservatives as somehow insincere, superficial, or diversionary. They should be taken very seriously. And for that reason, it is essential to engage and encourage the evangelical progressives. The ideal would be to strike a bargain in which all sides agree to take fundamental belief out of the political dialogue, not because belief is silly, but precisely because it is too serious to be the basis for politics, and focus our government on those things that rightly fall within its purview.

One of the great lies that the conservatives have been fed, and which many believe, is that there is a big conspiracy to suppress their beliefs. It is important to show them that this is a lie, because it is that fear which has fueled much of their zeal to impose THEIR beliefs on the rest of US. We must replace a win-lose scenario with a mutual survival scenario. Make tolerance based on mutual respect a core part of the bargain, and, as the above examples show, there ARE progressive ideals lurking in the hearts of some evangelicals, ideals which, if tapped, could change the discussion in this country.

The liberal elite (yes, there is such a thing, just as there is a conservative elite) tend to be people who would actually benefit from conservative economic policies, but who see the cultural and social fabric of the country as even more important determinants of their own children's, and the country's, future well-being. In other words, the liberal movement, and the Democratic party by proxy, is led by people who vote against their short-term economic self-interest because they see a bigger picture. So why do they so monotonously insist that conservatives can't do the same? To do so is to shut off one of the few openings for dialogue left to us.

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