Culture Wars or Something Else?

Well, not really. See comments below. From London’s The Economist:

Bagehot

The culture wars arrive in Britain

The election reveals astonishing changes in the political landscape

Jun 9th 2017

BREXIT was supposed to let Britain be Britain. Disentangled from the European Union, its island race would rediscover its native genius and embrace a unique mixture of nationalism and globalism. In fact this election suggests that something different is happening: divided and stunned by Brexit, Britain is turning into America.

Over the past 30 years American politics has been transformed from the politics of class into the politics of values. [No. Not really, that’s the media and party narrative.] In the 1970s the Republicans were broadly the party of the rich and rising and the Democrats were the party of blue-collar workers. Thereafter, values edged out class. Ronald Reagan brought blue-collar Democrats into the Republican Party by emphasising traditional values. George H.W. Bush used the “three Gs”—God, guns and gays—to strengthen his hold on blue-collar voters. Under George W. Bush America descended into a full-scale culture war: the Republicans put together a coalition of Evangelicals, working-class conservatives and business people and the Democrats responded with a coalition of knowledge workers, ethnic minorities and social liberals. [Blogger’s Note: No, the Democrats put together their Great Society rainbow coalition after the 1968 Convention in Chicago and in 1972 chose George McGovern as their candidate. Nixon responded with his Southern strategy.]

The cultural division has fed into a generational division: younger voters, particularly unmarried women, have gravitated to the Democrats. It has also fed into a regional division. The Republican Party thrived in the provinces (the suburbs, exurbs and rural America) while the Democratic Party thrived in the cities. There was also a growing division between the Democratic coasts and the Republican heartland and between the Republican South and the more Democratic north-east.

This election suggests that Britain is moving rapidly in the same direction. Look at the electoral map through the prism of class and the picture looks confused. The Tory party has held onto its wealthy heartlands in the rural shires. It has lost other rich areas in the cities, such as Battersea in London. It has also increased its vote share in some working-class areas, and taken some traditional Labour seats such as Derbyshire North-East and Stoke-on-Trent South. The Labour Party has made striking advances in some wealthy places: London and several other cities, particularly university towns. It has had a more mixed performance in working-class areas.

Look at it through the prism of values and the election makes sense. The Tories have been the party of old-fashioned British values: patriotism, self-determination and suspicion of foreigners—especially when they are trying to tell them what to do. These values have united middle-class people in the shires with older working-class people in the post-industrial north. Labour, meanwhile, has been the party of cosmopolitan values: multiculturalism, compassion, dislike of Brexit. These values have united people who might otherwise have little in common: devout Muslims in Perry Barr, Birmingham; struggling students in Newcastle; millionaire human-rights lawyers in Islington; train drivers in Dagenham.

The value division is also a regional division. The Labour Party has thrived in big cities. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is above all the party of London: Mr Corbyn represents Islington North, Emily Thornberry, his shadow foreign secretary, represents the next-door seat. At the same time the Conservatives have retreated: Justine Greening, the education secretary, saw her majority in Putney slashed from 10,000 to 1,000 and Jane Ellison, the financial secretary to the treasury, lost her Battersea seat. But even as they retreated in the metropolis, the Conservatives have taken some unexpected seats in post-industrial Britain.

The rise of values politics is rife with paradoxes. The Tory party calculated that this new type of politics would favour the right—Theresa May deliberately stirred the pot by telling the 2016 Conservative Party conference that “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”. Nicholas Timothy, her co-chief-of-staff and policy guru, believed that the Tories could win over working-class voters by talking about traditional values and patriotism. But the Party failed to recognise that talking about “citizens of nowhere” might do more to repel middle-class voters than to attract working-class ones. The Labour Party is led by two Marxists: Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor, who believe in the materialist interpretation of history. Yet they now preside over a coalition of voters defined overwhelmingly by their shared values.

The value of nothing
The fact that this was a values election is underlined by one of the many oddities of the contest: the absence of any role for business. Business has traditionally been one of the Conservative Party’s most loyal constituencies. The Tory party touts itself as the party of business, boasting of its record of low taxes, job creation and light-touch regulation, and the business community responds by strongly backing it. Not this time. The Tories borrowed most of Ed Miliband’s “business-bashing” ideas from Labour’s 2015 manifesto, including putting caps on energy prices, workers on boards and a ceiling on executive pay. Mrs May’s stinging dismissal of “citizens of nowhere” was directed as much at the Davos crowd as anybody. Business remained more or less silent—partly, no doubt, because nobody likes being bashed by their former allies but, more importantly, because British business is profoundly worried about Brexit. Mrs May’s insistence that immigration can be reduced to the tens of thousands and that no deal is better than a bad deal threatens to drive a wedge between the Tory party and its most loyal constituency.

The politics of values can be exciting. Values stir up emotions in ways that technocratic issues never do. But it can also be dangerous. The example of American politics over the past few decades is depressing. The culture wars have divided the country into tribes that won’t speak to each other. It has made it much more difficult—and sometimes impossible—to address pressing issues such as the Budget. And it has led to a decline in the quality of political life: the Republican Party’s enthusiasm for using cultural issues to recruit downscale voters has led inexorably to Donald Trump, a president who thrives on dividing the country and indulging in cheap demagoguery. Britain is taking its first steps down a dangerous path. [Blogger’s Note: No, these trends are the inevitable result of identity politics practiced by both parties but at the heart of the Left/Liberal parties.There is no compromise at the end of the road of identity politics and that is the tragedy for democracy we are witnessing today.]

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My comment:

First, the American “culture war” is a bit of a sideshow that started back in the 1960s, politically with the Great Society programs and the anti-war McGovernites redirecting the Democrat party of JFK. The thrust of this movement was to define the Democrats as a coalition of diverse identity groups: by race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference. Nixon’s targeting of the traditional South came after Johnson targeted urban minorities, promising that if they were going to vote, he wanted to be sure they voted Democrat despite the party’s “apartheid” history.

Second, what we see today is not really the inevitable extension of this “culture war,” but a bifurcation of democracy based on policy preferences associated with geography and household formation. This bifurcation is actually dividing us over the disparate effects of globalization, migration, and technology that is loosely associated with where one lives and how one fits into the digital information economy. Most obviously the division is between urban vs. rural/suburban communities and one can see this in the national voting patterns from 2000 onward.

Third, to perceive this accurately one must analyze voting at the county and congressional district level and compare it to demographic variables. What one finds is that 2/3s of the results can be explained by population density and household formation (married vs. not married). But classifying these differences as cultural often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the urban media and political parties have promoted this divide-and-conquer narrative to gain eyeballs and win elections.

Finally, average citizens are starting to see through this charade and are voting against “politics as usual,” by registering their protests with the likes of Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, and James Corbyn. These candidates are not a cause, but a symptom of the deeper fissures mentioned above, which result from the malicious application of identity politics to a changing world. There is no compromise at the end of the road of identity politics and that is the tragedy for democracy we are witnessing today.

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