culture is everything (well, mostly everything)
“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.” ~ Mark Thompson
In this post Mark is responding to what he sees as Jamelle’s assertion that the “hidden” welfare state is bad, whereas the “visible” welfare state is good. Essentially Mark is asserting that liberals attempt to build the visible welfare state on top of the hidden welfare state, whereas libertarians and conservatives try to make the hidden welfare state smaller and more visible.
Now, I think this is not really what Jamelle was saying. I think Jamelle was saying that we have a welfare state and that many Americans both appreciate the services that this state provides while at the same time not really realizing that it’s a welfare state providing them – the whole “Keep your government hands off my Medicare” thing. He’s saying that Americans exist in an illusion of free markets and bootstraps while in reality we have a very large state apparatus which provides safety nets, subsidies, and numerous other benefits to countless people and businesses. What he’d like to do is make that more obvious so that people appreciated it more and then, in turn, supported a further expansion of the welfare state once they realized what a good thing it, in fact, was. Contra Jamelle, conservatives and libertarians would like to draw down the welfare state because they see it – whether it is visible or hidden – as an encroachment upon liberties, upon the economy, and upon prosperity, job growth, and so forth. These two goals are entirely at odds.
So I don’t think that it is simply a cultural barrier which prevents liberals and libertarians/conservatives from working together. I think it is a fundamental political difference in core beliefs about the size and scope of the welfare state which separates the two groups.
But it’s also the culture. After all, politics is secondary to culture. Cultural beliefs and norms and expectations drive politics – not the other way around. While political shifts can lead to shifts in culture, this is usually unintentional. Mark is certainly correct that it is the cultural divide more than anything which keeps liberals and conservatives from forming a united front, but then again that isn’t the whole story. I think some groups of conservatives or libertarians could align quite nicely with specific elements of the left. We’ve seen such an alliance in economics, actually, with the stronger elements of both the right and the left embracing free trade. But the Tea Party right and the progressive anti-corporate, anti-free-trade left have much less of a chance at uniting because of the vast, gaping cultural divide between the two sides.
Can you honestly see Glenn Beck and Michael Moore coming together on many issues? Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich may both be united in their opposition to many more mainstream bills and practices in Congress, but when it comes to their political goals the two are – save perhaps on foreign policy – complete opposites. Their ultimate goals may be similar – a more honest government, working harder for the people and not for the elites and the corporations – but Kucinich and the progressives believe this can be done with a bigger state and smaller private sector, whereas Paul believes that the state is at the heart of the issue and should be dismantled as much as possible.
I’m very drawn to Mark’s liberaltarian cause, and to the idea of the sides working together in this way. I’m just perhaps too cynical to believe in it. I myself am rather a mixed bag and can find common cause with both elements. But most people in these groups are not mixed bags. They’re die-hard partisans. And they don’t like each other much, or at least what the other stands for and believes in – especially culturally, but politically too.