U.S. Intellectual History Blog

USIH as a Lens to Understanding the Election

Dear Readers: Attempts to put the 2008 presidential campaign in the context of U.S. intellectual history are, if nothing else, a good test of the relevance of our sub-discipline. We have had numerous such discussions at this site lately, especially relating Obama and Niebuhr. Using a short piece by historian Leo P. Ribuffo on Obama’s race speech, we asked why Niebuhr has become more relevant, again.

In a recent e-mail discussion I had with Professor Ribuffo (who, by the way, was my dissertation advisor), he attempted to answer our question. Ribuffo writes:

“Niebuhr is or should be of interest to American intellectual historians because he was an influential religious thinker in what remains the most religious big rich country. Walter LaFeber called Niebuhr in his Cold War phase the most influential American theologian since Jonathan Edwards. OK, that’s hyperbole but he is certainly in the top five or six. He really did influence Jimmy Carter and seems to have influenced Obama (this strikes me as the case in Obama’s major statement on religion, to Sojourners about 2 yrs ago).”

Ribuffo continues: “I agree that the current revival of interest in Niebuhr among some pundits is part of an effort to rehabilitate the ‘vital center.’ But (like Niebuhr himself) you can build just about any sort of politics on his basic ‘Christian realist’ conception of human nature–except maybe a kind of unserious hippie politics of Abbie Hoffman. Niebuhr the Christian realist was in sequence a Marxist Popular Fronter, a social democrat, a New Dealer and pre-WWII interventionist, a more sophisticated than average Cold Warrior, and a (still Cold Warrior) Vietnam War dove. On one level, the problem with figures like Niebuhr, Hofstadter, Bell, etc. is NOT that they tried to move away from the mushy 30s celebration of ‘the people,’ but that they tied this rejection of ‘sentimentality’ (a favorite word) to smug centrist liberalism, Cold War orthodoxy and (in varying degrees) what C. Wright Mills called the ‘new American celebration.’ None of that necessarily followed.”

More recently, in an article for the History News Network titled “What Underlies Obama’s Analysis of the People,” Professor Ribuffo places Obama’s recent comments about “bitter” Americans in a larger intellectual-historical framework, writing, “Obama’s second sentence calls to mind the ways in which ‘consensus’ historians and ‘pluralist’ social theorists fifty years ago interpreted the behavior of angry Americans, especially residents of rural areas and small towns.” Ribuffo does not claim that Obama is elitist or condescending, but rather that his analysis has an intellectual genealogy. I would like to further this line of thinking.

I am very interested in the intellectual-historical framework of the “culture wars,” so -called, which Obama’s “bitter” comments have enjoined, intentionally or not. I pose these questions to the readers. Do you think the economically displaced are more likely to involve themselves in the politics of guns and God, as Obama, Thomas Frank, and the 1950s historians contend, or are upwardly mobile suburbanites our more likely culture warriors, as historian Lisa McGirr has argued in the context of the 1960s Orange County grassroots right? Or some of both?

In a new book on the Christian Right by religious scholars of the Continental-theoretical bent (especially Lacan) titled The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken: The New Politics of Religion in America (a title and subtitle that display an amazing lack of historical awareness), Slavoj Zizek has an interesting “postface.” He smoothes over some complex history, but his theory is compelling nonetheless. He seems to be returning to the psychological determinism of the consensus theorists, not to ridicule fundamentalists, but to say that they’re the only ones in America resisting the dominant social order–which is a good thing for him, of course.

Here are some snippets:

“The fundamentalist does not believe, a fundamentalist knows; the proper tension and anxiety of an authentic believer are lost there” (223).

A theory of culture war as class war: Zizek argues that if Republicans were to actually impose a fundamentalist cultural order, the economy would falter. “The outcome is thus a debilitating symbiosis: although the ‘ruling class’ disagrees with the populist moral agenda, it tolerates their ‘moral war’ as a means to keep the lower classes in check. The ruling class enables them to articulate their fury without disturbing their economic interests. What this means is that culture war is class war in a displaced mode. So much for those who claim that we live in a postclass society” (223).

“It is clearly not enough to say that the ‘primitive’ lower classes are brainwashed by the ideological apparatuses so that they are not able to identify their true interests. If nothing else, one should recall how, decades ago, the same Kansas which is today the focus of fundamentalist populism was the hotbed of progressive populism in the United States” (223).

“The first thing to recognize here is that it takes two to fight a culture war: culture is also the dominant ideological topic of the ‘enlightened’ liberals, whose politics focus on the fight against sexism, racism, and fundamentalism, and for multicultural tolerance” (224).

“While professing their solidarity with the poor, liberals encode culture war with an opposed-class message. More often than not, their fight for multicultural tolerance and women’s rights marks the counterposition to the alleged intolerance, fundamentalism, and patriarchal sexism of the lower classes’” (224).

Ideological positions are articulated in multiple ways. “For example, feminist struggle can be articulated into a chain with progressive struggle for emancipation, or it can (and certainly does) function as an ideological tool of the upper-middle classes to assert their superiority over the ‘patriarchal and intolerant’ lower classes” (225).

Zizek is arguing that class struggle gets inscribed in other struggles, gets sopped up by other antagonisms. He wants a return to an explicit class struggle, by which it is necessary “to recognize the fundamental difference between feminist, antiracist, antisexist, or other struggle and class struggle. In the first case (struggle over specific issues), the goal is to translate antagonism into mere difference (peaceful coexistence of sexes, religions, ethnic groups). The goal of the class struggle is precisely the opposite: to aggravate class difference into class antagonism” (225).

“What the series race-gender-class obfuscates is the different logic of the political space in the case of class: while the antiracist and antisexist struggles are guided by the striving for the full recognition of the other, the class struggle aims at overcoming, subduing, even annihilating the other” (225-226).

“The paradox here is that the populist fundamentalism retains this logic of antagonism, while the liberal Left follows the logic of recognition of differences, of defusing antagonisms into coexisting differences.” (Now this is an overstatement lacking in historical specificity—it smoothes over the complexities of the grassroots right, such as in McGirr, which shows that many climbing the ladder are part of this grassroots): “In their very form, the conservative-populist grassroots campaigns took over the old Leftist-radical stance of the popular mobilization and struggle against upper-class exploitation.” This is the new ironic meaning of “better dead than red!” (in that Republicans are red staters). (226)

“We should reject the very terms of the culture war.” Zizek implores the radical left to, in the end, see that the fundamentalists, like John Brown, are our allies, even though we should side with liberals on issues like abortion and racism. Fundamentalists have yet to make the proper connections: “In all their anger, they are not radical enough to perceive the link between capitalism and the moral decay they deplore. Recall how Robert Bork’s infamous lament about our ‘slouching towards Gomorrah’ ends up in a deadlock typical of ideology: ‘The entertainment industry is not forcing depravity on an unwilling American public. The demand for decadence is there. That fact does not excuse those who sell such degraded material any more than the demand for crack excuses the crack dealer. But we must be reminded that the fault is in ourselves, in human nature not constrained by external forces” (228).

“What moral conservatives fail to perceive is thus how… in fighting the dissolute liberal permissive culture, they are fighting the necessary ideological consequence of the unbridled capitalist economy that they themselves fully and passionately support” (229).

Zizek is nothing if not infuriating! Your thoughts?

Andrew Hartman

22 Thoughts on this Post

  1. There’s a lot going on in this post! Right now, however, I have a comment on only one small part of it, that relating to the question:

    “Do you think the economically displaced are more likely to involve themselves in the politics of guns and God, as Obama, Thomas Frank, and the 1950s historians contend, or are upwardly mobile suburbanites our more likely culture warriors, as historian Lisa McGirr has argued in the context of the 1960s Orange County grassroots right?”

    Interesting that this would come up now. The John Balz article on which I recently posted, concerning political scientists and their influence on mainstream politics, mentioned this issue as one about which there is a consensus among political scientists that directly contradicts the received opinions of office-seekers and pundits.

    One of the political scientists mentioned in the article is Larry Bartels, who, coincidentally enough, published an op-ed in the New York Times just this morning. He clearly states, based on polling data, that it is upscale urban voters who are far more likely to cast their votes on the basis of the so-called “cultural issues.”

    “Do small-town, working-class voters cast ballots on the basis of social issues? Yes, but less than other voters do. Among these voters, those who are anti-abortion were only 6 percentage points more likely than those who favor abortion rights to vote for President Bush in 2004. The corresponding difference for the rest of the electorate was 27 points, and for cosmopolitan voters it was a remarkable 58 points.”

    Bartels presents other evidence in the piece, but the overall impression I get is that, with regard to the contemporary electorate, this isn’t really a question that can be debated. Obama, it would appear, was not only offensive in his comments, but was also just plain wrong.


  2. “But (like Niebuhr himself) you can build just about any sort of politics on his basic ‘Christian realist’ conception of human nature–except maybe a kind of unserious hippie politics of Abbie Hoffman. Niebuhr the Christian realist was in sequence a Marxist Popular Fronter, a social democrat, a New Dealer and pre-WWII interventionist, a more sophisticated than average Cold Warrior, and a (still Cold Warrior) Vietnam War dove.”

    This is very interesting. I couldn’t help but think: if Niebuhr’s Christian realism could support any manner of political conviction, is it really that profound? Many people point to realism as an important contribution to mid-century thought. But taking a step back a bit, it seems that all Niebuhr is saying is that humans have limits. OK, this is a tragic component of the human condition. And? To quote Hillary (who was quoting Wendy’s), where’s the beef?

  3. Ditto on Mike’s “there’s a lot going on in this post” sentiment.

    My thoughts went in different directions, however.

    First, if Professor Ribuffo is right about the “vital center” interest, I hope it’s modified to tone down masculinity. Otherwise all we’re going to get is bunch James Carville-like Democrats. He has his attributes, but…

    I reject Zizek’s “ruling class” generalization if he’s including ~all~ Republicans (and Democrats) in it. I see some significant differences in Democratic representatives’ attitudes about business, but I don’t see that this minority voice in the party is healthily represented by the two mainline presidential candidates. I also see some Republicans out there who aren’t lock-step with the party’s business elites. Again, however, I don’t see their presidential candidate as representative of that seemingly minority Republican voice.

    Finally, is it not true that cultural, ethnic, racial, and religious differences ~truly~ prevent economic class solidarity? If so, then the question becomes whether those diversity issues can ever be overcome such that economic class problems can be tackled?

    Let’s take “the professors,” for instance, who are often used by pundits as quintessential liberal intellectual leaders (except that many are culturally conservative, by the way, and not interested in multicultural issues). Some are interested in diversity/multicultural issues precisely because they see that these are divisive issues in society at large. Could it be that this particular cohort of liberal “leaders” in the academy is actually trying to help society move on to economic equality? … I apologize if I’m unnecessarily complicating an already complex post by being self-reflective about us in the academy. – TL

  4. With regard to David’s comment above, I think the “where’s the beef?” problem is common to most resuscitations of midcentury liberalism, and even more contemporary articulations. The notion that humans have limits, as he pointed out, just only goes so far. Combine that with such abstractions as “respect for liberty” and you’ve really got a philosophy that stands for very little, suggesting that it’s really just a fig leaf for various political convictions, rather than an actual intellectual orientation.

    I just finished Paul Starr’s Freedom’s Power. It’s supposed to be a contemporary liberal manifesto (an oxymoron?). The books makes similar arguments–people are flawed, power is necessary for freedom, etc.–but in the end, I cannot find an actual thesis that the book is defending. If there is one, I cannot imagine that anyone, even a conservative reader, would disagree with it.

    To bring up Obama again, he got in a lot of trouble for his comment that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and in a way that Bill Clinton did not. He put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it put the country on a different trajectory because the country was ready for it.”

    I take him to mean that that in the last thirty years, conservatives have been more intellectually energetic and resonant than liberals. Instead of blaming him for stating the obvious, liberals should rise to the challenge of finding and articulating their true beliefs. And no progressive I know would seriously say that an awareness of human fallibility is a passionate conviction that gets him/her out of bed in the morning.


  5. With regard to Tim’s comment above about the professoriate:

    “…except that many are culturally conservative, by the way, and not interested in multicultural issues.”

    That hasn’t been true in my experience. Academic always complain about how they’re caricatured by conservatives, but that is one conservative position that I find to be right on. Tim must know different people than I do: I’ve met very few conservative professors, and even fewer grad students.

  6. Colleagues: Thanks for the many thoughtful comments on my admittedly scattered post. A few thoughts:

    Mike, although I think you and the political scientists you cite are correct that liberals/cosmopolitans are just as driven by cultural issues in the electoral arena, if not more, this does not then entail that conservatives aren’t as well. In other words, I’m not convinced Obama was entirely wrong. There is a large cohort of conservative voters that are driven by cultural wedge issues, a fact to which the Republican Party has beautifully exploited time and again. Many of these must be of the economically displaced type.

    I am convinced, however, that Obama’s comments were NOT offensive. If anything, his critics in the media are offensive for claiming to speak for the gun-toting crowd. What a joke.

    David, I tend to agree with you that a philosophy of limits is not very helpful, especially in the current context of liberal thought, which is too constrained by a set of unimaginative limits. In that sense, perhaps Niebuhr’s time has passed.

    Tim, thanks for pointing out that not all professors are postmodernist deconstructionists. Certainly criticism of identity political theorizing, if done correctly, point us to economic justice. Any suggestions on readings here? I prefer Terry Eagleton, _After Theory_.


  7. “Mike, although I think you and the political scientists you cite are correct that liberals/cosmopolitans are just as driven by cultural issues in the electoral arena, if not more, this does not then entail that conservatives aren’t as well.”

    The point is not about liberals versus conservatives, but about urban/middle class versus rural/working class. Though the common perception is that it is the latter who drive the “culture wars,” it is actually the former.


  8. Mike: Gotcha. I guess I’m not totally sold. I think cultural politics infects the politics of ~all~ classes in the U.S. Perhaps it’s a matter of degree. Anecdotally, a friend of mine was working on a Democratic campaign in Oklahoma in 2004. When he knocked on the door of a run-down trailer in a poor area and asked the resident what issue most interested him, the man who answered said he wanted to keep gays from marrying. Now this is mere anecdote, but I think it rings true. For me, the all-important question, if one agrees that cultural issues have overtaken our politics, is WHY?

  9. I’m going to be purely anecdotal and impressionistic about this, simply because that is what I can contribute to the conversation at this point.

    Based on my experience growing up in rural Texas, I’d say that blaming right-wing fundamentalism on economic deprivation is highly misleading. I can’t speak for voting patterns, but the people who have both the drive and the leisure to be activists seem to be, as in other political groups, reasonably secure financially. The typical die-hard culture warrior I knew growing up was not wealthy but was also very far from starving.

    The tricky thing is probably this: the culture warrior rank and file are populists. But their populism isn’t a populism of an economic class but rather of the periphery. They can condemn “limousine liberals” and “welfare queens” (though I don’t hear that term much lately) in the same breath; in both cases, they feel that they are speaking for the American majority against a somehow corrupt class of urban people. This seems to hold true even now that I’m here in a northern Rustbelt city, except that the tone is much more moderate and understanding. And when Democratic leaders blame these people’s deeply held convictions on economic deprivation, that only seems to reinforce the impression that liberals stand for simultaneous parasitism and elite condescension. (Cue Mr. Obama.)

    To put things another way: First Baptist Church of ____ville, Texas, with its Right to Life voter guides and its American flag behind the pulpit, is going to be almost all white and almost all Republican. But it’s going to include both some of the richest and best educated people in the community and many of the lower middle class — and possibly some of the poorest people in town as well. These are people who probably saw their real income soar during the Clinton years and yet despised Bill Clinton. They are people who like Bush’s tax cuts but like his foreign policy and his policy on abortion a whole lot more, even though he doesn’t go far enough for them sometimes.

    As for why culture is so important to them … it always was. They are the literal and spiritual descendants of evangelists, temperance activists, and (sadly) sometimes segregationists. They were galvanized to action in the twentieth century by evolution, communism, and abortion. It’s just that recently — most of all because of abortion — the Republican Party has gotten really good at marshalling their strength.

    Anyway, that’s the explanation that makes the most sense of what I saw as a kid and what I see now when I go back home.

  10. Greetings everyone!

    Leaving the political theology contained in this interesting submission to the many political theologians already involved in this site, I would like to make one small comment on Mike’s comment that he was offended by Senator Obama’s “bitter Pennsylvanian” comment.

    Mike, I live in a small town in Central Pennsylvania, that same small town where Obama destroyed his ability to ever join a bowling league, a major activity here. The problem seemed to be an inability to put proper spin on the ball. He kept rolling straight, sometimes left gutter, sometimes right gutter, and a few times he knocked over a pin or two. But this small town loved the attention, and the lack of spin was particularly endearing.

    I am bitter. I am bitter because my country decided to pursue a costly war which never should have happened. I am bitter because we conducted the war in such a way as to almost guarantee a lack of international support for our efforts. I am bitter because of the lost lives, injuries, and eroded humanity that we have tolerated. And I am bitter because the costs of the war were, after an inexcusable tax burden shift, shouldered more and more by the middle classes. I guess I am one of those bitter Pennsylvanians for whom you are offended. I can not speak for all small town Pennsylvanians, but most of what offends me is the idea that some people think we can be so easily manipulated by spin to think that Obama was somehow insulting us.

    All the best,


  11. With regard to Joe’s comment above, I should clarify that I personally was not offended by Obama’s comment. I don’t believe in being offended.

    I would say, however, that the remark is unquestionably insulting. The denigrating character of the remark lies not in the word “bitter”–what’s wrong with being bitter?–but the word “cling.” Obama’s implication is that things that might be very important to people are merely symptoms of them falling upon economic hard times. It would be like saying that academics tended to be liberals because tenure track jobs are so scarce that would-be scholars want the safety net of a strong welfare state. The implication in either case is that people are not thoughtfully deciding what their values are, but are inappropriately and emotionally misusing their allegiance and their votes. Even if you think that’s true (and, again, it’s upscale voters who are for more likely to vote on these “cultural” issues), it’s hard not to say that’s an insulting way of looking at things.

    I’d also point out that Joe claims to be bitter mostly because of the war. That does not make him one of the people Obama was talking about, who are bitter because “the jobs are gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them.” That, I would think, puts him in a different demographic.


  12. Thanks Mike for clarifying my own position for me.

    I guess we will never know how many of my neighbors are bitter because of the war, or how many are bitter because of globalization of their jobs, the declines in their 401K plans, student loan illiquidity, mortgages problems, health care nightmares, energy costs, etc. But as you correctly point out, Obama’s unfortunate use of the word “cling” left a tiny opening for the two administrations responsible for this mess to find offense where none was intended.

    On Tuesday we’ll find out if anyone has been paying attention.

    By the way, and this is not an “intellectual” topic at all… But last night I stood in line for my first line of bowling in years (and years). The competition here was to bowl a perfect “37.” I tried to spin the ball, and think I pulled my back out of alignment. Next time I’ll use the bumpers and not worry so much about rolling a gutter on the left.

    Thanks again,


  13. I think it would useful at this point to review the critical passage from Obama’s speech. Here it is (from here):

    “But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

    The problem here, to me, is clearly not the terms “bitter” or “cling,” but the mixed list of coping mechanisms provided. Guns, religion, antipathy, and anti-trade or immigration sentiment constitute a wildly diverse list of things to which one might turn. The coping possibilities of religion are WAY different than the vague category of “antipathy” or the extremely transitory pleasures of shooting guns. I mean, how satisfactory is it to take solace in anti-trade rallies? For that matter, Obama’s list could’ve been applied to both stereotypically liberal and conservative outlets: how many conservatives were in Seattle in 1999 to protest the WTO? I digress. – TL

  14. This discourse on the blog — and in the general political culture now — about Obama’s bitter comments is by turns intensely aggravating to me and fascinating.

    I can’t help but place his comments, whether insightful or not, ill-informed or not, in the context others have pointed to as well: The decades of liberal intellectuals’ struggles to understand what is perceived as illogical and/or aberrant political behavior of the lower middle and working class. There’s some good historical work to be done on this. I suspect this particular genre — at its apex in the post-Holocaust, McCarthyite 1950s with all the intense liberal push-back against the extremist radical Right combined with the Left fashion of theorizing authoritarianism, paranoia, and all the rest among these benighted voters — has historical roots going back to the 1910s and 1920s discovery of conformist American Puritans, if not earlier.

    Bartels and Krugman’s attempts to destroy Obama’s position seem a bit fishy to me–as if the clear-as-daylight data they throw around about “small town” voters (is this to be taken to exclude urban white ethnics?) somehow explodes everything “backlash” historians have been saying about the shift in voting allegiances the last 20 years or so. The argument remains: Why do Americans not vote their class interests?

    In fact, this seems the old and essential core of Obama’s point: The larger snippet of his apparently somewhat extemporaneous remarks on that Sunday indicate that he was specifically responding to a Sunday New York Times article–one which, if memory serves, was about a doughty band of Obama supporters attempting to sell his candidacy among the Clinton-demographic working- and lower-middle class voters of Levittown, Pennsylvania. (Obama specifically comments: “Because everybody just ascribes it to ‘white working-class don’t wanna work–don’t wanna vote for teh black guy.’ That’s…there were intimations of that in an article in the Sunday New York Times today–kind of implies that it’s sort of a race thing.”) (Why he dredged up “small town” in this context is confusing.) The article concludes with some guys at a bar expressing no willingness to vote for Obama — and the general tenor of the piece was that Obama did not have much of a chance here.

    Obama’s following remarks are all about denying that race will thwart his ambitions to appeal to these voters. Indeed, he falls back on the notion that people have become cynical and that he represents a new kind of politics (the by now hackneyed heart of his rhetoric). Therefore, he explicitly pushes his supporters to adhere to “talking points” about elements of his economic program. The point he makes is that the voters in question are not yet buying his non-cynical politics — not because he is black but because they are understandably bitter. In this context, the famous bitter remarks are designed to show why voters are not, in fact, racist, but rather cynical in some way, or otherwise so lacking in hope as to vote against their economic interests.

    All of this is a far cry from liberal elitism at its most baroque. There is no diagnosis of psychopathology in the voters. Rather, the voting behavior described is presented as reasonable and understandable, if unfortunate. (Ever the agent of racial reconciliation, Obama does not condemn “antipathy to people who aren’t like them” but expresses understanding and empathy. Perhaps calculating, perhaps condescending–but in keeping with the work of scholars like Jonathan Rieder and many others since the 1970s who have sought to analyze “backlash”-style voters as both reasonable and embedded in deep and comprehensive familial and ethnic traditions that dictate values important to their civic life.)

    And, about Neibuhr…well, another comment, another time.

  15. Fascinating thread with a lot going on, indeed.

    Two points….

    1) I continue to have a problem with Mike’s claim that Obama’s comment was “unquestionably insulting.” The problem is that there seems to be no empirical data that many people were insulted by it. And saying, as Mike essentially is, that certain people (not himself) should be insulted by the comment is neither here nor there, especially in light of Mike’s promoting Bartels’ attempt to empirically measure commitment to the culture wars.

    2) Much of this threat seems haunted by the unnamed specter of the New Left. Many of those who hope to reinvent liberalism on the model of the late 1940s and 1950s are pretty clearly trying to roll the clock back to a time before the New Left critique of Cold War liberalism. It seems to me that it would be more productive to actually grapple with that critique directly.

  16. To clarify, I never meant to claim that any Pennsylvanians were offended or insulted by Obama’s remark. I have no idea whether or not that is true, and apologize if I gave a different impression. My point only concerned the meaning of the remark itself, which, on my reading, belittles the values of those who hold these positions, and attributes to its subject a lack of seriousness and political sophistication.

  17. On the other hand, the more I think about my own attempt at clarification above, the more I find it inadequate. From the pragmatist perspective that I try to employ, Ben is absolutely right to say that the cash value of the claim that a comment is insulting can be nothing other than someone being insulted by it. It simply doesn’t make any sense to say, as I just did, that a comment is insulting in its essence, or to claim that it carries an empirical quality of being insulting, while failing to offer any observable evidence of that fact.

    He is also right to suggest that another way to make sense of my point to take it as meaning that someone should be insulted by the comment, even if such a person was not inclined to be so. Though I don’t think such a scenario is impossible (someone could perhaps be humiliated or degraded in the eyes of a third party without being aware of the intended slight), I would not want to assert anything quite this strong about the relatively innocuous statement under discussion. And, as Ben said, if that was the point I wanted to make, it wouldn’t have much relevance to the current thread or, indeed, any halfway interesting or substantive conversation.

    Bearing all this in mind, and attempting to apply some Jamesian rigor to my initial point, the cash value of the word “insulting” in this context keeps getting smaller. Upon further reflection, the clearest statement of what I meant encompasses two separate claims. The first is the lukewarm moral position that if some Pennsylvanians were to feel insulted, I would not blame them. The other is a note on political strategy: as someone in the business of vote-getting, Obama would do well to avoid similar comments in the future, because, in my view, there is a reasonable chance that some voters will feel insulted.

    This clarification still does not mean that everyone will agree with me, but it does get to the point I was trying to make, which was perhaps much smaller than that suggested by my careless choice of words.


  18. I’m very happy my post has elicited such a compelling thread. There are a number of directions in which I would like our conversation to go, especially towards answering the intriguing question posed by Ben Alpers about how much the New Left critique of Cold War liberalism is weighing on our discourse. But, for now, I have a more methodological question, one that pertains to the very nature of intellectual historical research.

    How do we relate empirical, quantitative research, the type done by the political scientists cited by Mike, to our epistemological questions about the culture war? In other words, how do we relate the social history of the culture wars to its intellectual history? How do we judge what “real people” think rather than “mere intellectuals”?

    Who in America cares about things like the federal subsidization of Robert Mapplethorpe, other than Robert Bork? Do cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage matter more to people with money, whether liberals in urban enclaves like Adams Morgan or conservatives in places such as Littleton, Colorado, a wealthy suburb south of Denver, than to the “bitter” white ethnics that Obama was addressing in places like Scranton, PA?

    This is an intentionally reductionist strategy of questioning. But I do wonder if there’s a good way to quantify an interest in cultural issues, or whether it’s even worth doing so. My knee-jerk intellectual historical way of thinking tells me that if interesting people are writing, reading, and arguing about these issues, they must matter. But I want to do better.

    Cheers. Andrew

  19. Great conversation here and viva US Intellectual History!

    Two questions/observations:

    1) How similar to or different from Daniel Bell’s “Contradictions of Capitalism” argument is Zizek’s analysis? Bell, though not one to argue for class confrontation, did articulate the idea that the ruling classes are in a strange bind: they have to encourage consumption, hedonism, self-fulfillment in order for consumer capitalism to work; yet, they also need to restrain the non-dominant classes from actually truly seeking fulfillment through some kind of assertion of political control. This tension is at the heart of capitalism. Bell makes very different conclusions and has a very different (neo-liberal? neo-conservative? Not quite but almost) final analysis of the “contradictions of capitalism,” however seems like Zizek is onto the same contradiction in the relationship between culture and politics when it comes to class.

    2) Can US historians do more to analyze, specify, understand, explain this category of “class.” If we’re not positivists and reductionists, that is if class isn’t some simple category of identity reducible to income or wealth, then what is it? How does it work in America? Okay, those are enormous questions, but they are ones that haunt Zizek’s argument even if one roots for the dominated classes to assert themselves more directly toward economic justice as well as cultural issues.


  20. We’ve drawn Michael Kramer into the discussion! Success.

    Re: class. I continue to be attracted to Weber’s redefinition of class as a phenomenon that operates through affinity groups. As I read him, social class (relationship to the market) operates along with social status, which is conferred by various cultural and intellectual forces that are not exclusively determined by the market (religion, structures of honor and deference, etc). His understanding of society seems to offer a more supple understanding than Marx by avoiding the notion of a ruling class (which seems to me to be too hegemonic and too unified), and rejecting the entire discussion of false consciousness.

    How Zizek fits into this, I’ll leave to others. Thoughts?

Comments are closed.