Business Insider’s Josh Barro and Commentary’s Noah C. Rothman both wish politicians would drop the so-called “culture war”* and get back to the business of government. It’s a grand dream… and a pipe dream.
You may not be interested in the culture war. It doesn’t matter. The culture war is interested in you.
Barro writes that in the long run, he thinks voters would be happier with the government if public officials made: (1) concrete promises; (2) about matters voters care about; (3) that are within the government’s power to deliver; and (4) then actually deliver them. That’s in the final section of his column.
The two prior sections are sub-headlined: (1) voters asked for this [i.e., cultural politics]; and (2) the electorate has been reactive to social trends, not policy. Which is another way of saying voters don’t seem to want what he thinks would make them happy (and he also presumes voters these days aren’t on some level made happy by being unhappy). The subtext may also be that voters focus more on the short-term; this may be true, but does not account for identity politics not being a short-term phenomenon.
Rothman, despite sharing Barro’s general dream, adds that “neither activist voters nor the arbiters of cultural-political discourse are interested in recoupling politics and public policy. That’s a failed business model.” He further suggests that the media flogs identity politics to draw audiences in the attention economy (and this is partially true, as I’ve suggested on prior occasions).
So voters, activists, the commentariat, and the media more generally are all invested in identity politics. It’s not clear who Barro or Rothman think their market is.
“Barro suggested that it should be policymakers’ mission to make politics about government again. I would add that a consequence of that mission’s success would be to make politics boring again. It would help Americans to have a realistic understanding of governmental functions in a country that no longer teaches its citizens basic civics. It would also allow the press to neutralize the efforts of politicians to incite controversies that exacerbate these tensions.”
This is flawed (e.g., Rothman’s own thesis concedes “revenue-starved” media do identity politics for ratings/money, which is why Trump’s coverage dwarfed his 2016 rivals, who were mostly policymakers), though there’s a good point implied within.
Identity politics tend to totalitarianism. Identitarians refuse to recognize the politics/culture dichotomy. Politicians can try to ignore them but… isn’t that how we got here?
Aren’t the protests at NFL games related to complaints about policing long ignored by politicians (esp. urban machine politicians)? Isn’t Trump largely the product of politicians having ignored people in swing states on issues like immigration and trade? Isn’t the ascendance of white identity politics (and worse) largely a product of the political/corporate/media elite accepting left-wing identity politics and ignoring the reaction from working-class whites?
Rothman strikes far closer to the mark in complaining of “a country that no longer teaches its citizens basic civics.” Ideally, we should not be seeking that education from politicians, but from educators. And yet the institution of education in America is generally a dumpster fire, particularly on matters of civics.
If you are looking for an example of how politicians’ benign neglect of identity politics works out, here it is.
As the New Left (which is where the current version of identity politics finds its roots) went from seizing campus administration buildings in the Sixties to running those campuses in the Eighties, the Right did very little. Conservatives wrote a lot, and said a lot. But on the “doing” front, the Right was closer to ignoring.
As a result, few right-leaners now go into academia, and the smaller pool of conservatarian thinkers was often content to land in think tanks, where relations with the GOP gave them much greater short-term political influence, with the emphasis on “short-term.” Meanwhile, schools were dumping core curricula and becoming more hostile to or mocking of the net benefits of Western civilization, of which American civics are (or should be) one of the crown jewels. In the process, they have become narrow-minded, intolerant, and increasingly violent places — the exact opposite of what they were established to be.
The Right largely ceded the field to the Left. In K-12 education, you had social conservatives traditionally more concerned with fights about evolution in textbooks and such; their successors would become homeschoolers fleeing the education blob.
The Right is generally reluctant to get politics involved in education, despite the pervasiveness of (various forms of) public funding thereof. We thought we were protecting academic freedom; we got ideological monoliths that increasingly shun any debate. We valued a certain form of classic liberalism over cultural conservatism; as a result, we are losing both.
America now has generations of graduates whose politics are are skeptical of or hostile to the American project. Our nation expects more understanding of and identification with America from immigrants seeking permanent residency or citizenship than we expect from the far larger pool of Americans who are citizens by birth.
Although I would join Barro and Rothman in preferring a stronger separation between politics and culture, that water flowed under the bridge long ago; rerouting it will take a lot of work. It will also take a recognition that culture and politics are not an upstream/downstream phenomenon and that each informs the other. Politicians trying to bury their heads in the sand will be swept away with the tide of identity politics.
[*Regular readers know I’m not a fan of the “culture war” metaphor, but such is the power of a meme to briefly signify a concept I didn’t want to be bogged down in defining. I’m not a fan of the term “identity politics” either, but that’s a whole ‘nother column.]
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