How culture wars have replaced class conflict

Note: I made several last-minute revisions and additions to this post the evening and following morning after I put it up.

Source: Mother Jones

American politics nowadays is extremely bitter.  Many Democrats and Republicans literally hate the opposing party.  In some circles, there’s talk of a new civil war.

Yet the leaders of the two parties differ but little on fundamental political and economic issues.  None of them questions the goal of global military supremacy.  Neither is facing up to the pandemic or the impending climate-related disasters.  Neither questions the existing structure of wealth and power.

But our politics is not about economic and political change.  It is about cultural change.

One party is pushing the ongoing revolution in how we think about race, religion, the family and sexual morality; the other is resisting it.  These issues are important, but they don’t have political answers.  But here we are.  They are on the political agenda, whether I like it or not.

Some friends of mine pointed me to an important article by David Brooks in The Atlantic about the background to all this.  He said that we are in the unusual position of having an elite of income and wealth who think of themselves as progressive, and push for change they think is progressive, while remaining blind to their own privilege.

The late Saul Alinsky said politics is a conflict between the haves, the have-nots and the have-a-littles.  As Brooks points out, this is not politics in today’s USA.  He describes a blue hierarchy and a red hierarchy, and points out that political antagonism is mostly between groups at the same levels in the opposing hierarchies (Koch brothers vs. Bill Gates, social workers vs. cops).

Brooks’ blue hierarchy consists of:

  • The bohemian bourgeoisie: Technology and media corporate CEOs, university and foundation presidents, high-level bankers, highly-successful physicians and CEOs.  Many are graduates of elite universities.  They think they owe their success to their superior intelligence and understanding.
  • The creative class: Tenured professors, successful journalists, employees of non-profit and cultural institutions.
  • Children of the elite: Younger people with elite educations, but without elite incomes, working in the lower rungs of education, the mass media, technology and the non-profit sector.
  • The caring class: Health care workers, and also restaurant servers, store clerks and hotel employees.  They tend to be racially diverse, and poor.

His red hierarchy consists of:

  • The philistine one-percenters:  Corporate executives, entrepreneurs, top-level professionals.  Few are graduates of top universities.  They think they owe their success to their superior common sense and grit.
  • The regional gentry: Families in small cities and towns who’ve owned businesses and properties for generations, and identify with their communities.
  • The proletarian aristocracy (aka the petit bourgeoisie): Small-business owners, independent craft workers (electricians, plumbers), salaried middle managers.
  • The rural working class.  Wage-earners with highly-supervised jobs in manufacturing, construction and transportation.  They tend to be poor, and racially homogeneous, living among family and friends they’ve known all their lives.

I would mention another key group in the red coalition.

  • The guardian class.  State and local police, private security and the career military.  They are important not only because of their numbers, but because of the respect the enjoy and because of the key role they would play in any breakdown in social order.  Counteracting this is the new wokeness at the top levels of the Pentagon and FBI.

What unites the blue and red hierarchies?  Not material interests.  Values.  What are they fighting over?  Validation of their values.  Validation of their ways of living and ways of thinking, and repudiation of those of their enemies.  Also higher status, but mainly validation.

What Brooks doesn’t get into is the large number of Americans who don’t feel represented by either the blue or the red hierarchy  They either see no material benefit in voting or they reluctantly vote for what they see as a lesser evil.

Not everybody is enlisting to fight in the culture wars.  Some care more secure jobs, or secure retirements, or an end to useless, unwinnable wars, or protection from pandemic disease, or something else that’s tangible and real and not a matter of attitude.


How the bohemian bourgeoisie broke America by David Brooks for The Atlantic.  “The creative class was supposed to foster progressive values and economic growth.  Instead we got resentment, alienation and endless political dysfunction.”  Yep!

The Real Source of America’s Rising Rage by Kevin Drum for Mother Jones.  ‘We are at war with ourselves, but not for reasons you think.”  Drum thinks Americans have little reason to be discontented, and they’re angry because they’re being stirred up by Fox News.  If only it were so simple!

United in Rage by Terence Ray for The Baffler.  “Half truths and myths propelled Kentucky’s war on optoids.”

Home Country: What does it mean to be Latino? by Hector Tabor for Harper’s magazine.  About Hispanics who voted for Trump.

The Enemy Within: Why the Democrats don’t need Joe Manchin by Alexander Cockburn for Harper’s magazine.

How Joe Biden Defanged the Left by Alexander Sammon for The American Prospect.  “The White House has used access to quiet would-be progressive critics.”

Pessimism, Cynicism and Realism by Thomas Neuburger for God’s Spies.

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2 Responses to “How culture wars have replaced class conflict”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    You are absolutely right! We are deep into a war between cultures, those who want to change everything to their own image of just and fair and those who want to hang on to what they consider the good parts of the past. It might be possible for the two sides to form an uneasy truce but that doesn’t enhance the power of the “leadership” on either side who is only interested in cementing their own power and gaining the votes of 51% of the electorate who actually vote.

    It all flows back to science displacing God as the central value of society. The average person doesn’t understand science (semi-intentionally on the part of education, I think) but many do notice that God is no longer needed to explain anything important and that the underlying reasons behind various biblical injunctions no longer exist due to technology. Many people understand that one’s religious faith entirely depends on an accident of fate and there is no logical reason to prefer one over the other.

    Yet I think there is a primal need to believe in some kind of “faith” even if it is secular in nature. Many of the more ardent “progressives” have such a faith even as they deny that that’s what it is. Stray from established doctrine and you risk being “canceled,” the modern equivalent of excommunication. The notion that humans are infinitely malleable and that if only you raised them properly (or pass the right laws and programs) you can make them into whatever you like is indeed faith-based and hence religious in nature.

    A scientific theory can be falsified. To be accepted, it must be shown to have accurate predictive value. No theory is ever accepted as final dogma, carefully thought out heresy is encouraged. Honest attempts to falsify a theory are honored by scientists. Promising theories with substantial political and cultural support get discarded all the time. Newton and centuries of accepted truth were tossed out the window by an obscure Austrian patent clerk because Relativity fit the known world slightly better.

    Do you remember in 1984 where the 3 great world powers were perpetually at war with each other but neither was able to actually “win?” In truth, nobody wanted to win. They needed their enemies to keep their own people in control.


  2. silverapplequeen Says:

    It doesn’t have anything to do with replacing God! Gimme a break already. If you need God to explain what’s important in your life, then you don’t understand spirituality AT ALL. You are still thinking like a child.

    Einstein did not throw out Newton. He worked with Newton’s precepts to find another reality, one that was always there.

    But yeah, I would wager that most of us do not feel represented by either the left or the right. Many of us have viewpoints & issues that may be represented by progressives, liberals, conservatives, whatever you want to call these factions. I know this is true in my case.


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