The culture of politics has nothing to do with the politics of culture.
In The Observer’s earthquake scoop concerning the scandalous activities of Cambridge Analytica, whistleblower Christopher Wylie mentions Steve Bannon’s belief “in the whole Andrew Breitbart doctrine that politics is downstream from culture, so to change politics you need to change culture.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A set of perceptions and assumptions that every human acquires without being aware of it and uses, often aggressively, as if it was the gauge of every truth about human society, psychology, morals and behavior
Wylie gives a precise definition of the Breitbart doctrine: “If you want to change politics, you first have to change culture because politics flows from culture.” Distancing himself from Bannon, Wylie then comments: “If you want to change culture you have to first understand what the units of culture are. People are the units of culture.”
Breitbart’s doctrine is a good example of getting it right where most people get it wrong and getting it wrong where most people get it right. Most people — and especially Democrats — think the practice of politics (initiating and passing legislation) is the principal way of changing culture. In their opinion, legislating in favor of civil rights or gun control can correct the obvious flaws in society.
Alas, history proves them wrong. As an example, after 50 years of civil rights legislation, racism is still endemic in US society. Breitbart itself is a shining example of that fact, as was the election of Donald Trump. Making something illegal not only doesn’t eradicate its cultural roots. It can have the opposite effect.
But Bannon makes a much bigger mistake in believing he can change culture through propaganda and the kind of “psyops” (manipulation) that Cambridge Analytica specializes in. Such practices can aggravate the most extreme cultural trends, augment divisions and degrade politics. But they can’t change culture. The majority of Americans subscribe to values such as constructive dialogue, tolerance, fair play and generosity — that may be characterized as idealistic and, therefore, not always operational — but they constitute the foundation of the nation’s identity and self-belief. To maintain its internal stability, that historical identity requires a faith in authentic democratic virtues.
Culture is the one thing no deliberate human agency can change. According to Wylie, Bannon “wanted cultural weapons and we [Cambridge Analytica] built them for him.” But culture is not war. It’s the opposite. It’s the natural growth of elements within a holistic system. Failure to recognize that reality has hurt both the Democratic and Republican Party, paradoxically the two minority parties that share a monopoly on political power. A near majority of the US electorate declares itself independent. The holistic system is on the point of breaking down.
“Bannon’s interest in culture as war” is not really an original idea since the phenomenon of invented culture wars has been the hallmark of aggressive conservative politics in the US for decades. To a large extent, it followed from the political reconfiguration that took place in the 1960s — what elsewhere we have called the beginning of America’s third century — when the Democrats embraced civil rights and allowed their traditional white constituency in the South to migrate to the Republican Party. This reinforced the ideological identity of each party and served to redefine conservatism in the US as a doctrine that embraced the specifically Southern cultural values of white supremacy and states’ rights.
This reconfiguration represented a total break from what had become classic northern “business conservatism” built out of the values of a unified industrial nation favorable to the compromises that develop dynamic marketplaces for enterprises, stressing at the same time moral values such as prudence and respect. Once liberated from the suave conservatism of William Buckley and the social conservatism of Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney and John Lindsay (who switched to the Democrats in 1971), Republicans could veer toward the extremes and integrate the culture of segregation of the South.
Wylie clearly defines the stakes: “We risk fragmenting society in a way where we don’t have any more shared experiences and we don’t have any more shared understanding. If we don’t have any more shared understanding, how can we be a functional society?”
That is as good a definition of the problem of culture as any. Culture is, precisely, “shared experience” and “shared understanding.”
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.