Sacrificing Ideology at the Altar of Culture
“In a lot of cases, the aim of liberals isn’t necessarily to massively expand the reach of government as much as it is to add some intentionality and rationality — as well as make explicit — the ways in which wealready intervene in the economy (health care reform is a perfect example of this, I think). “
Here’s the thing: Jamelle is claiming that liberals use the “hidden welfare state” as justification for expansion of the “visible” welfare state. In essence, however, the logic underlying this set of preferences is precisely the same as the libertarian, and often conservative, argument for scaling back the scope of government as a way of improving net social welfare. The broad Right has as much or more problems with the “hidden welfare state” as do liberals. There would be, in fact, a fairly easy coalition to be built in favor of simplifying the tax code, doing away with various subsidies, etc. If this common logic is correct – ie, that existing social injustice is largely a result of the “hidden” welfare state – then removing the “hidden” welfare state would obviate the need for much of the “visible” welfare state.
In other words, if this critique is accurate, then social injustice may be cured either by growing the “visible” welfare state or by scaling back on the “hidden” welfare state. Yet liberals expend virtually no effort, and seemingly take very little interest in, the latter, and seem to entirely emphasize the former. This despite the fact that choosing the latter route would present a seemingly easier path to achieving allegedly liberal ends because of the simple fact that it is an area upon which the broad movement Left and movement Right would seem to be in virtual lockstep – if, in fact, liberals are serious when they rail against “corporate welfare” and the like.
I think it’s entirely fair to ask why this is. Why, if the “hidden welfare state” causes so many problems, is the preferred solution the expansion of the “visible” welfare state rather than the elimination or reduction of the “hidden” welfare state? I can think of a number of possible reasons, but foremost among them is that the cultural divide between movement liberals and movement conservatives prevents them from being willing to work together on many projects where they have actually quite a bit of ideological compatibility. This forces both movement liberals and movement conservatives to find groups on their side of the cultural divide – or at least not entirely on the other side of the cultural divide – with whom to ally. We typically call these other groups “centrists” or “moderates.” In reality, however, these “centrists” or “moderates” are little different from an independent third party, some of whom have “D’s” next to their names and some of whom have “R’s,” with the exact proportion being the primary thing up for grabs in a given election year.
But I’m increasingly convinced that the divide is far more cultural than ideological. You see this most obviously in the appeal of Sarah Palin, who, ideologically is really not much different from any other Republican politician in recent years, yet she is adored by die-hard conservatives because she’s “one of us.” This “one of us” mentality might get expressed in any number of different ways – she’s “plain-spoken,” or she “speaks honestly,” but ultimately, the justification is primarily a cultural one. And it’s not just a race thing (though that certainly plays a role) – it’s how she speaks, her background, etc.
But it’s more than just that. Conservatives have a tendency to spend an inordinate amount of time denouncing the “liberal elite” culture of the coasts. Meanwhile, I’ve seen too many liberals rave about how they simply cannot take anyone seriously who doesn’t believe in evolution, regardless of what the topic of discussion may be. In short, both liberals and conservatives have this tendency to use cultural markers as a sort of first line of defense in filtering out who they will and will not work with. Liberals and conservatives may well each hate the centrists in their midst, but they’re also far more willing to work with those centrists, who at least lack the cultural markers of ignorance or elitism (depending on who you’re talking about) than they are to even consider that they may actually have as much or more common policy ground with their cultural opposites.
In short, liberals and conservatives refuse to see the areas in which they have common ground because far too often they simply cannot get past the cultural markers that prevent them from even listening to the substance of what their cultural opposites are saying. So rather than having two or more potential sets of negotiating partners from whom to choose on a given policy issue, they are each permanently left with only those centrists who have the right letters next to their name or who in some other way avoid identifying with the “wrong” cultural markers.