Is Politics Really Downstream From Culture?

The idea that politics is downstream from culture was popularized by Andrew Breitbart, though I’m old enough to vaguely recall others expressing this idea with less virality.  As an axiom, it obtained that virality because it does succinctly capture an important facet of political theory.  As you know, it has been quite influential, particularly among (but by no means limited to) the segment of the Right that is attracted to the “But he FIGHTS!” mentality and Alinskyite tactics — a faction that has been the focus of some of my recent posts.

Of course, as with most things, the reality is more complex, as an aside in a column by Mike Sabo in The Federalist recently reminded me.  Sabo wrote:

Contra Andrew Breitbart and most commentators on politics today, politics in its highest sense is not downstream from culture. ‘To know whether a culture is good or bad, healthy or unhealthy, liberating or oppressive,’ Charles Kesler once remarked, ‘one has to be able to look at it from outside or above the culture.’ That is, in the founders’ view culture should conform to principles of political justice that are true for all men everywhere.”

I have two riffs based on this observation.

The first, shorter, riff is that this observation may shed some light on the lingering “nationalism vs. patriotism/exceptionalism” debate on the Right.  If you slot in “nationalism” for “culture” and “the founders’ view of political justice” for “patriotism,” that debate might advance further than it has to date.

The second, slightly longer riff has to do with a darker version of Sabo’s point that I thought I already wrote, but of course cannot seem to find now that I need it.

My darker version begins with the premise that the current political moment revolves to a significant degree around the creeping totalitarianism being popularized by the New New Left.  Quite beyond the Maoists on campus, there is the SJW critique of, well, everything (that’s what makes it totalitarian).   Sports events and highlights shows must be political.  Standup comedy must be political.  Comic books must be political.  Baking wedding cakes must be political.  Bathroom and locker room use must be political.  Etc., etc.

What this totalitarianism represents is the effort to subsume culture into politics.  It represents a reversal of Breitbart’s stream, or perhaps a crossing of streams Dr. Egon Spengler would advise against.

More seriously, it represents what has been called the Left’s “long march through the institutions.”  And that point leads me to note that the “politics is downstream from culture” discussion generally does not define “culture.”  Breitbart, and those running with his axiom, generally seem to mean popular culture, which is only one part of culture.

Basic sociology would suggest culture includes a number of institutions, usually including: family; education; religion; labor; government; media/art; and healthcare.

Long before the emergence of the New New Left, it is fairly easy to observe that — whether intentionally or instinctively — the Left’s agenda typically seeks to expand the government’s role at the expense of these other institutions (or failing that, to occupy and ideologically dominate said institutions).  But the stream can flow both directions within these other institutions.

An obvious example this week would be the House’s passage of legislation restructuring the health insurance market and Medicaid  — the second major piece of legislation in the past decade  affecting the institution of healthcare.  Yet healthcare is capable of affecting the culture and therefore politics, as the invention of The Pill affected the sexual revolution and the invention of the sonogram affected public attitudes about abortion.

I am not an expert on rivers and streams, but my experience is that they generally do not flow in different directions simultaneously.  So perhaps we need a better metaphor for the interaction of culture and politics, particularly while navigating today’s troubled political seas (ouch).

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