In my October, 2000 Special Pre-Election Issue, paraphrasing Pat Buchanan, I wrote that the 2000 election was not to be about who gets what or the details of policy, but rather was to be about who we are. Now, three months after Election Day, I’m even more convinced. The post-election fight in Florida and the Ashcroft confirmation process have combined to highlight for me the opposing forces in the war for cultural hegemony that is raging in our public life at every level of policy deliberation. These opposing forces have been characterized as the Beautiful vs. the Dutiful, Old vs. New America, urban vs. rural America, coastal vs. middle America, and the hedonistic/individualistic/secular vs. the puritanical/family-centered/religious America. However the forces are characterized, the real underlying issues that are driving our politics have become cultural ones that can only indirectly be addressed through public policy. As an example, the Ashcroft nomination fight was an impasse of the type not before experienced (with the possible exception of the Bork hearings), not of the type that the “let’s make a deal”, LBJ-style political processes can deal with. The left is a religion and its adherents believe that conservatives are evil and, to some conservatives, the reverse is true. These differences won’t be worked out over bourbon and water in the cloak room.
Several books have helped me understand this phenomenon, notably Gertrude Himmelfarb’s One Nation, Two Cultures. She describes an assimilation process in which the former adversary culture of the bohemians has been democratized and popularized as a major factor in the dominant culture over the past thirty years. One of the results is that once honorific words are now pejorative, so that the worst transgressions are to be “moralistic” or “judgmental”, tolerance is the only virtue, and morality itself is trivialized. The most visible element of this dominant culture, the elite, generally conforms to traditional ideals of propriety, but with no firm confidence in the principles underlying their behavior, and they find it difficult to transmit their own principles to their children. In fact, they are unable to judge what is right or wrong for themselves. I call this the “Dr. Laura syndrome” and if you’ve ever listened to her call-in radio program, you know what I mean.
This ignorance of the grounding of our morality and the resulting lack of conviction and assertiveness about matters that define us as a people are the sources of much of the confusion in the public policy arena. For if, as I suspect, there are no more than a small minority of energized partisans on either side of an issue in the culture war, the “diffident middle” will seem confused and disengaged, and will be subject to demagoguery.
This is a battle of ideas at the deepest level, a conflict over the foundation of the American ideal. It is a tug of war for the future of the country. Rabbi Daniel Lapin, author of America’s Real War, believes that the basic question is whether America is a secular or religious nation and my reading of the exit polls tells me that of all the voting patterns in the recent election, religion was the most precise determinant. Whatever your views on this, it’s pretty clear that the fault lines open along the division formed when modernity divorced humanity from its source and end in a God-centered universe. Shelby Steele says that George W. Bush is the first conservative on the presidential level to understand that he is in a culture war. I believe and hope so; he’s going to need that insight.