In 1980, Gary Trudeau drew a series of classic Doonesbury strips in which blowhard correspondent Roland Hedley led us on a tour through Ronald Reagan’s brain. In Reagan’s fornix, we encountered “a storehouse of images of an idyllic America, of 5 cent cokes, Burma shave signs, and hard-working white people.” Another strip showed a rare adaptation in the Reagan brain which gave him a pronounced tendency to “look backward through a rose-colored mist.” Yes, those were the days, my friend.
Courtesy of what I think are must-read pieces by Lee Siegel in the WSJ and Jonathan Haidt in The Edge, I feel like I’ve toured the brains of the average conservative voter this afternoon. And what I saw makes me very, very concerned about winning this election.
Siegel argues that McCain, particularly with pick of Palin, is running the same play Repbulicans have run for the last 25 years. That is when Alan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, conflated subverted the notion of “culture” to the far more loaded idea of “values,” and in so doing helped forge a coalition between the religious right and largely secular neoconservatives. With great consistency and success, Republicans have convinced a majority that there is something amiss with American culture, by which they mean civil society (The fact that liberals define culture far differently is a related but different matter). Discussions of the issues, despite the Democrats’s best efforts–have remained secondary. This disconnect between the head and the gut was most famously called out by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas.
Frank’s prescription–that the Democrats simply focus on and explain better the meat and potatoes economic issues on which mid-to-lower income social conservatives consistently get pick-pocketed–comes in for rough treatment by Siegel. In an environment characterized by appeals leveled at “culture” versus “politics,”
These conflicting urgencies have given the conservatives mostly the upper hand for over a quarter of a century. Since culture is more immediate to us than the abstract policies and principles of politics — and seemingly more dependable than politics’ often fluid expediencies — a politics of culture is going to be more successful than mere politics. For many people, the idea that Republican politics are wholly responsible for the country’s ills is hard to accept. You can’t feel politics. Rather, such people blame a culture of selfishness and irresponsibility for the deepening malaise (the word that sank President Carter among liberals who thought they smelled a Christian conservative in progressive clothing). You experience selfishness and irresponsibility in the flesh every day.
Now, it’s important to note that Siegel beleives “culture” means different things to liberals and conservatives. Liberals tend to separate culture and “living;” when they think of culture, the think of visits to the museum, or at least of HBO. Conservatives, on the other hand, perform no such mental abstraction. They think of culture as the stuff of everyday life. As such, they expect their candidates to share a certain cultural affinity:
The most surprising development is the way the Republicans — the party of Christian fundamentalists and of Allan Bloom’s epigones — have deftly adapted to the postmodern ambience. Both Obama and McCain are working the levers of the YouTube universe, Obama by telling his supporters that “This election is not about me. It’s about you,” and McCain by declaring that “I don’t work for myself. I work for you.” In this new, participatory culture, “you” has become a sort of generalized first person, and the first person — of the ubiquitous memoirists, for example — does the work of a particularized “you.” Vicariousness, in other words, has become a universal principle (emphasis mine). We love people who make it possible for us to imagine inhabiting their lives. This perhaps explains the rising distaste for leaders whose crowns are not made of thorns, whose realm of life we cannot imagine penetrating.
Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, takes a predictably more scholarly approach to describing how liberals and conservatives make their decisions. Liberals, he says, tend to be more likely to adopt John Stuart Mill’s construct of civil society, in which individual freedom is of paramount value, mitigated only by the desire of society to mitigate harm to others and promote fairness and reciprocity among its members. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to have a more tribal outlook, seeing the hierarchically structued family as the basic building block of society, and the model for other institutions. Although they, too are concerned with harm mitigation and fairness, they also value familiarity, loyalty, and the sanctity of order at least as much. They are much more suspicious of outsiders, of “the other” (particularly if they think said other is looking down on them). This analogy sort of crystallizes it for me:
We think of the moral mind as being like an audio equalizer, with five slider switches for different parts of the moral spectrum. Democrats generally use a much smaller part of the spectrum than do Republicans. The resulting music may sound beautiful to other Democrats, but it sounds thin and incomplete to many of the swing voters that left the party in the 1980s, and whom the Democrats must recapture if they want to produce a lasting political realignment.
So, from two radically different angles, Haidt and Siegel land at the same conclusion: conservative voters are far more likely to demand that their candidates “represent them;” that they are “normal people;” that they are, as referred to in a former post, “just like us.” It’s not that they are too stupid to listen to arguments on the issues and judge their merits; it is that they are compromised in their ability to hear clearly if their sensibilites are too jangled by the the unfamiliar nature of the messenger.