Last time, we looked at the three-part structure of the Divided America complex: Winner-Take-All electoral machinery creating the two-party political landscape; partisan media using that duopolistic scaffolding to inflate their culture war balloons; and an economically desperate public willing to imbibe this us-versus-them story because it makes some narrative sense of why things have gone so horribly wrong. At the end of that piece, I suggested that before we could even think about changing the underlying electoral apparatus, we need to get some immediate economic relief to regular people, to turn down the heat on the simmering (boiling?) partisan rage that is sloshing around our country.
Eventually, we will get to an examination of Universal Basic Income as the best option for this immediate relief. But before that discussion, I want to look at the general cultural narratives of the Right and Left, the stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of why things have gone so awry. Our two basic theodicy tales.
But wait a minute, you might say, why are you only talking about things with a negative lean? Don’t most people have a generally positive view of American past and possibility, just with differing interpretations of the particular roadblocks and missteps? Well, perhaps that could have been the case, once upon a time. But as my last post suggested, the Divided America theme has become stubbornly entrenched, mainly because it is finding a receptive audience with people who are getting hammered by economic conditions on the ground. Despite the health of the inspiring social media meme business, people are not generally optimistic about the trajectory of the country, and our story-telling brains want someone to blame for that. That is why the tales we tell about our nation have recently morphed from triumph tropes into theodicies, with the dual functions of providing specific scapegoats for failure and explaining the deferred deliverance from despair.
Eventually, we’ll need a different story to make sense of recent decades, one less mired in divisiveness and blame. But first, let’s look closer at those Conservative and Liberal Theodicies themselves, to understand their anatomies and see why they carry so much psychological resonance. I will, of necessity, engage in some broad generalizations. I am not trying to do a full sociological survey of American history and political culture (I’m not equipped for that anyway). I am just trying to get at what I think is the intuitive deep-brain picture that most people have of how their individual lives fit into a bigger, grander scheme.
Dreams Dashed: The Conservative Story
After World War Two, the US was riding high. Our muscular involvement in the war had saved the world from tyranny and fascism, and we had shown dysfunctional Europe how to get things done, New World style. And how did we do it? Brave men steeled themselves for combat, industrial machinery churned out muscular miracles, and women rolled up their sleeves back home to provide critical economic support. After the war, the good times kept rolling. The wartime industrial apparatus was turned back towards the creation of transcontinental suburbia. Men worked good jobs for good wages in factories, or went to college on the GI bill. Women happily returned to their domestic enclaves, enjoying the amazing bounty that the newish consumer economy was producing. The suburban house, linked to its commercial support infrastructure by a robust highway system, became the new focus of the ideal life. And all across the land, Americans prospered by applying a time-tested formula: work hard, play by the rules, be loyal to your God and country, and honor the heroic men who made the world safe for democracy.
This pattern seemed to work for a bit, roughly until the first wave of baby boomers hit their teen years in the mid-60s. That’s when the counterculture, fueled by drugs, sex, communism, and atheism, started to take America off the rails, steering it towards the cliffs of depravity, license, and godlessness. These children of the Greatest Generation turned their backs on the patriotic heroes who had given them everything, and stomped their petulant feet against all of the traditional values that had so recently proven their worth. This was the birth of modern American liberalism: an immature teenage temper tantrum against the responsible, breadwinning father.
All of our problems today, in this conservative interpretation, trace back to this post-war hippie rebellion. Liberals are still trying to live out adolescent fantasies of free love, self-indulgence, and limitless experimentation, only now they are writ large in the huge and futile social projects of political correctness, affirmative action, multiculturalism, and transgenderism.
Liberalism might have been relatively harmless, had it stayed in the confines of universities and outdoor summer music festivals. But it didn’t. Liberals infiltrated the highest spheres of government and corporate power, turning the entire country into an adolescent pipe dream. America is now a vast liberal project, force-feeding its citizens the flower power values of permissiveness, sexual license, and back-patting snowflakism. Gone are the days of selfless hard work, loyalty, piety, sacrifice, and earned equality. Now we have spoiled children running the show, with predictably disastrous results (note how often President Trump refers to liberal projects as “disasters”).
One last metaphor will help to flesh out this conservative story a bit, and it comes from Arlie Russell Hochschild’s excellent book, “Strangers in Their Own Land” (The New Press, 2016). She too was determined to capture the essence of the conservative “Deep Story,” which she described as:
… a feels-as-if story – it’s the story feelings tell, in the language of symbols. It removes judgment. It removes fact. It tells us how things feel. Such a story permits those on both sides of the political spectrum to stand back and explore the subjective prism through which the party on the other side sees the world. And I don’t believe we understand anyone’s politics, right or left, without it. For we all have a deep story. (pg. 135)
Hochschild tried out her interpretation of the conservative Deep Story on her many interview subjects, and it seemed to capture the broad range of their experiences. The metaphor is one of a line of people, waiting patiently on a hill. Just over the top of the hill, out of view, is the American Dream, a life of prosperity and security. The line used to move in an orderly fashion, and those who had waited patiently and played by the rules had slowly moved up the hill. But in the last few decades, the line has come to a standstill, and many people (mostly white men) have started moving backwards, even though they are still patient, loyal, and hard-working. Why are they moving backwards? Because liberal government do-gooders are helping other people cheat and cut in line ahead of them (women, minorities, immigrants, even endangered friggin’ animals). People who have not paid their dues are getting a leg up and a free ride, as regular Joes and Joannes are shoved into the ditch.
Dreams Derailed: The Liberal Story
The liberal theodicy tale goes back a little bit further than the aftermath of WW2. We start with the Great Depression, which was an episode of greed and inequality run amok. Gilded Age plutocrats had swollen to unimaginable girths, gobbling up the lion’s share of national wealth. With nothing better to do with their mountains of cash, these monopolists and robber barons inflated the granddaddy of speculative bubbles, the stock market. When it came crashing down, American society was brought to its knees, a tragic and humbling example of the Invisible Hand choking the necks of the common man.
It took war and the amazingly bold leadership of FDR to bring America back to its triumphant posture, and the overriding motif of these rebound decades was of an activist federal government subduing the plutocratic tendencies of the marketplace. The US government had its hands in everything, from banking regulations to highway building to arts projects to scientific funding. And then, as the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements blossomed, the federal government stepped in with landmark legislation, to even the playing field and give voice to the voiceless.
What the middle decades of the 20th century exhibited was the full flowering of the original American ideas of equality, dignity, and opportunity, with the federal government acting as catalyst for this sea change. Now of course, it was certainly the people themselves who drove the Civil Rights, Women’s, and Workers’ movements. Many sacrificed their lives and livelihoods to create change. But in this liberal story, the government itself was often a powerful ally in the fights. The New Deal and its aftermath had demonstrated that the government really could accomplish amazing things, provided that there was strong and devoted leadership. The 60s and the 70s thus saw substantial surges in opportunity and achievement for regular folks, with the late 70s being the high water mark for US income equality.
But then, the rich and powerful put their feet down. They had had enough. After decades of being brought to heel, both economically and rhetorically, by FDR and his successors, Big Business struck back. Armed with the new economic theories of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, the plutocrats got themselves some compellingly dramatic politicians (Reagan and Thatcher) and took back the government, with a new animating project: expanding market-based freedom.
This conservative revolution of the 80s is, somewhat paradoxically, called Neoliberalism. The central idea of neoliberalism is that government’s only job, beyond military defense, is to create the conditions necessary for the functioning of free markets. This doesn’t mean small government per se, despite the usual conservative rhetoric. There is actually a fairly large role for government in the neoliberal (conservative) project: e.g., guaranteeing property rights, defending overseas markets, ensuring a working court system for claims and disputes, securing patents and copyrights, etc.
But the key pivot point in the 80s is that the federal government halted its overall effort to facilitate the completion of the Civil Rights and Women’s movements, and instead turned to viewing all social improvements through the prism of the market, which meant that all policy planks were first and foremost pro-business. With this change, the energy for purely social endeavors was lost, and the expansion of the American Dream was prematurely halted. The equality that came in the late 70s was reversed, as the plutocrats took hold of every level of government, slashing corporate taxes, undermining unions, flooding the electoral process with cash, and generally shutting down any programs that would help the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. We have thus entered a new Gilded Age, back where we started before the Great Depression.
Next time, we’ll start looking at the possibility of telling a different story about our recent past, and we’ll explore the question of whether or not a story is even the right thing to be pursuing. After all, stories are nice because they have the tidiness of a compact narrative structure. But reality seldom cooperates so neatly.
To wrap up this post, I want to point out a few things about the Conservative and Liberal stories detailed above. (I know they’re not perfect or exhaustive, but hopefully they resonate as somewhat recognizable)
First, they are effective psychologically, because they satisfy deep parts of our primate brains. They give us a reasonable temporal span (a few decades to roughly a century); they provide clear villains and heroes (hippies and plutocrats, patriots and progressives); and they pack enough emotional punch to mobilize certain types of behavior (activism, predictable voting patterns, social media sorting, etc.). In looking at any new way of framing our condition, we should keep these practical points in mind. Psychological effectiveness matters.
Secondly, and interestingly, both stories pit the protagonists against the evil Establishment. In the Conservative story, the Establishment is obviously Liberal, populated by abortionists, evolutionists, and coastal snobs. In the Liberal story, the Establishment is definitely Conservative, in that it is made up of mustache-twirling plutocrats and aloof Wall Street sociopaths. Given that the wealthy and powerful are certainly not exclusively liberal or conservative, it is clear that this Us-Against-The-Machine trope is really a dramatic technique, and not a guide to the complex realities in which we’re immersed. We will circle back to this idea of struggle as a dramatic linchpin in the next post, but it is important to keep in mind just how strange it is that both sides of our Divided America see themselves as battling against the Establishment.
Thirdly, both of these stories have built-in excuses for inertia, with the result that deliverance is always deferred. Because each story so emphatically demonizes the other side, complete and total ideological victory is the de facto pre-requisite for success. The hoped-for ending to the Conservative story requires the massive dismantling of decades of liberal ‘entitlement’ programs, many of which are hugely popular and operationally necessary for basic economic functioning. Additionally, getting the line to start moving back up the hill towards the American Dream necessitates getting rid of the freeloaders who have been cutting in line, by booting them out of the country or by drying up the domestic teets of welfare and unearned preference. Basically, the Conservative fulfillment scenario involves the disappearance of millions of actual people and the magical “maturing” of millions more who are deemed to be childish, undisciplined liberals. A tall order.
But similarly, the Liberal story itself requires Herculean tasks for full fruition, and these are even more far-flung than the Conservative shopping list. These various liberal goals include: reestablishing labor unions, eliminating corporate personhood, ending racism and sexism, getting the plutocrat-controlled Congress to massively tax the rich, drastically increasing funding for education and job re-training, taxing carbon emissions, raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay for women, etc. Now, most of these are worthy goals, to be sure, considered in a vacuum. But the tides of economic reality are turning against many of these grand projects, with the result that the life of the liberal seems fated to be that of the eternally beleaguered activist, forever chasing receding mirages.
The ideological purity of these stories, combined with the vastness of their requirements for fulfillment, builds in excuses for inertia. The other side can always be blamed for obstructing progress. This is the genius of the three-part structure of Divided America that we discussed last time. The political duopoly, in conjunction with the partisan media, use these stories to sustain the infuriating-but-comfortable bubble of the status quo, where popular confidence in government is always low, but those in power stay put, election after election, year after year. The whole structure deflects pressure away from the “Establishment” itself, and shunts it back onto increasingly-enraged individuals, a brilliant act of political jujitsu.
Finally, and most (sneakily) crucial, our Conservative and Liberal Theodicies are, at bottom, economic. Specifically, they are about work, wages, and the future of economic life in America. Despite the plethora of culture conflict trappings (abortion, guns, religion, racism, sexism, transgender stuff, neo-Nazis, wars on Christmas, etc.), what everyone is really pissed-off about is that economic success, the signature purpose of America, is now out of reach. White men have outdated skills that aren’t as central in the contemporary landscape of labor. African Americans and Latinos are still forcibly and systematically shut off from economic opportunity, undergirded by a savage prison system to house the economically superfluous. Women are still underpaid and belittled in the workplace, in seemingly endless new variations of discrimination and abuse. “Unskilled” and “underskilled” workers are still paid dogshit. Millions of children still grow up hungry, deprived, and trapped in crappy schools and neighborhoods for their wonder years.
In short: the economic landscape in America is a horror show, and this is manifesting itself in increased levels of vitriol, hatred, and scapegoating. Our two main narratives for making sense of our situation are creaking and groaning under the pressure of economic reality. They cannot handle the load, and the longer things go without change for the better, the more intense and divisive these stories will become. The standard Conservative and Liberal prescriptions for fixing things will not work, because their diagnosis of the problem is not correct, or is at best incomplete. They describe ways to get to a place that doesn’t exist any more, and actually never was.
Next time, we’ll start tinkering with a new roadmap.