2008 was a really important year, insofar as the Great Recession accentuated an important distinction within the white middle class. It drove a wedge between the middle and lower-middle or working class and the highly trained, professionally educated managers, technocrats and intellectuals—basically, between the top 20 percent and the bottom 80 percent. And that meant [there] were now class differences that were overlaid upon some of these cultural differences. And in surveys that we’ve done here at the Institute [for Advanced Cultural Studies at University of Virginia], we’ve tracked that. In 2016, the single most important factor in determining a Trump vote was not having a college degree.
So now, instead of just culture wars, there’s now a kind of class-culture conflict. With a sense of being on the losing side of our global economy and its dynamics, I think that the resentments have just deepened. That became obvious, more and more, over the four years of Trump, and part of Trump’s own genius was understanding the resentments of coming out on the losing side of global capitalism.
And I think this is reflected, too, in the ways in which progressives speak about the downtrodden: Most of the time, it is 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 the left’s self-understanding.
What do you think is behind that shift?
Well, if you became an advocate for the working class, you’d be an advocate for a lot of Trump voters. Again, I think there’s a class-culture divide: a class element that overlays the cultural divide. And they [white non-college-educated voters] voted en masse for Trump. And I think that’s an element of it. They’re also the carriers of what [some on the left] perceive to be racist and misogynist, sexist understandings and ways of life. That’s my guess.
Straightforward, materialist social science would say that people are voting their economic interests all the time. But they don’t. The seeming contradiction of people voting against their economic interests only highlights that point: That, in many respects, our self-understanding as individuals, as communities and as a nation trumps all of those things.
Along those lines, there can be a tendency, especially on the political left, to talk about “culture war” issues as being “distractions” that are raised in order to divide people who might otherwise find common cause around, say, shared economic interests. What do you make of that view?
We are constituted as human beings by the stories we tell about ourselves. The very nature of meaning and purpose in life are constituted by our individual and collective self-understandings. How that is a “distraction” is beyond me.
You know, people will fight to the death for an idea, for an ideal. I was criticized in the early ’90s for using the word “war” [in the term “culture war”]. But I was trained in phenomenology, in which you are taught 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 talk about this sense of a struggle for one’s very 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 that, for instance, conservatives’ very existence on this college campus is “a threat to my existence” as a trans person or gay person, the stakes — for them — seem ultimate.
The question is: What is it that animates our passions? I don’t know how one can imagine individual and collective identity—and the things that make life meaningful and purposeful—as somehow peripheral or as “distractions.”
There’s a passage you wrote 30 years ago that seems relevant to this point: “We subtly slip into thinking of the controversies debated as political rather than cultural in nature. On political matters, one can compromise; on matters of ultimate moral truth, one cannot. This is why the full range of issues today seems interminable.”
I kind of like that sentence. [Laughs] I would put it this way: Culture, by its very nature, is hegemonic. It seeks to colonize; it seeks to envelop in its totality. The root of the word “culture” is Latin: “cultus.” It’s about what is sacred to us. And what is sacred to us tends to be universalizing. The very nature of the sacred is that it is special; it can’t be broached.
Culture, in one respect, is about that which is pure and that which is polluted; it is about the boundaries that are often transgressed, and what we do about that. And part of the culture war—one way to see the culture war—is that each has an idea of what is transgressive, of what is a violation of the sacred, and the fears and resentments that go along with that.
Every culture has its view of sin. It’s an old-fashioned word, but it [refers to that which] is, ultimately, profane and cannot be permitted, must not be allowed. Understanding those things that underwrite politics helps us understand why this persists the way it does, why it inflames the passions that we see.
It feels like the universe of things that might be considered part of the “culture war” has grown considerably over the past 30 years, such that it seems to now envelop most of politics. In that situation, how does democracy work? Because when the stakes are existential, it would seem like compromise is 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 a proxy for cultural positions that simply won’t brook any kind of dissent or argument.
You hear this all the time. The very idea of treating your opponents with civility is a betrayal. How can you be civil to people who threaten your very existence? It highlights the point that culture is hegemonic: You can compromise with politics and policy, but if politics and policy are a proxy for culture, there’s just no way.