2008 was a really important year in that the Great Recession highlighted an important distinction within the white middle class. It drove a wedge between the middle and lower middle or working class and the highly skilled, professionally trained managers, technocrats and intellectuals – basically between the top 20 percent and the bottom 80 percent. And that meant [there] were now class Differences that have been superimposed on some of them cultural Differences. And in surveys that we carried out here at the institute [for Advanced Cultural Studies at University of Virginia]we followed that. In 2016, the most important factor in determining a Trump vote was lack of a college degree.
Instead of culture wars, there is now a kind of class culture conflict. With the feeling of being on the losing side of our global economy and its dynamism, I think that the resentment has just deepened. That became increasingly clear over the four years of Trump, and part of Trump’s own genius has been understanding resentments about being on the losing side of global capitalism.
And I think this is also reflected in the way progressives talk about the oppressed: mostly in terms of race and ethnicity, immigration and the like; it is not about the poor per se. I think that’s a pretty significant shift in how the left sees itself.
What do you think is behind this shift?
If you became a working class attorney, you would be an attorney for many Trump voters. Again, I think there is a class-culture divide: a class element that overlaps the cultural divide. And you [white non-college-educated voters] elected en masse for Trump. And I think that’s part of it. They are also the carriers of what [some on the left] perceive as racist and misogynistic, sexist understandings and ways of life. That’s my guess.
Materialistic social science would simply say that people are constantly voting on their economic interests. But they don’t. The apparent contradiction of people who vote against their economic interests only underlines this point: In many ways, our self-image as individuals, as a community and as a nation trumps all these things.
In this sense, there may be a tendency, particularly on the political left, to speak of “culture war” problems as “distractions” raised to divide people who might otherwise find common causes for common economic interests, for example. What do you think of this view?
We are constituted as human beings through the stories we tell about ourselves. The nature of meaning and purpose in life is our individual and collective self-image. How that is a “distraction” is a mystery to me.
You know, people will fight to the death for an idea, for an ideal. I was criticized in the early 1990s for using the word “war”. [in the term “culture war”]. But I was trained in phenomenology, which teaches you to pay attention to the words that people themselves use. And in interviews I did [with those on the front lines of “culture war” fights]People would say, “You know, it feels like a war“- even on the left.
I am talking about this feeling of a struggle for one’s own existence, for a way of life. This is exactly the language that is also used on the left, but in a much more therapeutic way. When you hear people say, for example, that the existence of Conservatives on this college campus, “a threat For my existence “as a trans person or a gay person, the stakes seem – for them – to be ultimate.
The question is: what enlivens our passions? I don’t know how to think of individual and collective identity – and the things that make life meaningful and purposeful – as somehow peripheral or as a “distraction”.
There is a passage that you wrote 30 years ago that seems relevant to this point: “We subtly think of the controversies discussed as political rather than cultural. In political matters one can compromise; in questions of ultimate moral truth one cannot. Because of this, the spectrum of problems today seems to be endless. “
I kind of like that phrase. [Laughs] I would put it this way: culture is inherently hegemonic. It tries to colonize; it tries to envelop in its entirety. The root of the word “culture” is Latin: “cult”. It’s about what is sacred to us. And what is sacred to us tends to universalize. The nature of the sacred is that it is special; it cannot be addressed.
In one sense, culture is about what is pure and polluted. It’s about the boundaries that are often crossed and what we do about them. And part of the culture war – one way to see the culture war – is for everyone to have an idea of what is transgressive, what is a violation of the sacred, and the fears and resentments that go with it.
Every culture has its view of sin. It’s an old fashioned word, but it is [refers to that which] is ultimately profane and cannot be allowed, must not be allowed. Understanding the things that underpin politics helps us understand why it stays that way, why it ignites the passions we see.
It feels like the universe of things that could be considered part of the “culture war” has grown significantly in the past 30 years, so it now seems to encompass most of politics. How does democracy work in this situation? Because when it comes to existential stakes, a compromise seems impossible. Can you have a stable democracy without compromise?
No, I don’t think you can. Part of our problem is that we have politicized everything. And yet politics becomes the proxy for cultural positions that simply do not tolerate disagreements or arguments.
You hear that all the time. The idea of treating your opponents politely is a Treason. How can you be polite to people who threaten your very existence? It underscores the point that culture is hegemonic: you can compromise with politics and politics, but when politics and politics are a proxy for culture, there’s just no going.