Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Curiouser and Curiouser

Go figure this one out: Politically and, in a way, socially the country seems to be in the grip of a conservative, even right wing, takeover. Compassionate or not, it’s evident that President Bush is a staunch conservative who is determined to reverse decades of social, economic and environmental policies. His key White House aides are perhaps more committed in this direction than he is. The House of Representatives is under the control of Tom DeLay and his ultra right-wing cohorts, while in the Senate there is at best an ideological standoff. For all of the Democratic rear guard actions, the Supreme Court and the Federal judiciary are increasingly bold in their conservative activism. On the social side, talk radio is overwhelmingly dominated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh and other diatribists who each day reach tens of millions of listeners and feed them a constant diet of the alleged sins of liberalism. This is apart from the vast audience reached by the Christian media. So why is the U.S. on the brink of accepting gay marriages and why are courts so eager to ban the Ten Commandments from public life?

The best explanation may be that democracies are messy arrangements, if only because power is inevitably decentralized even when it appears to be centralized. For all of the strength displayed by one ideological position or another, politics are not linear. Like other social relationships, political relationships are complicated and ambiguous, at times also contradictory. We are often reminded of the old saying about strange bedfellows, a phenomenon that is true not only of politics but also of families, friendship patterns and most other associations. It’s rare in democracies for one side to win it all.

But for all of the contradictions that abound in democracies or human affairs, there is still something strange about what we are now witness to. The inconsistencies are too blatant, too directly incompatible. In the always heated arena of law and religion where some measure of coherence might be expected, we have contemporaneously the Supreme Court opening the door wider to government support of religious schools and institutions and the White House successfully promoting support of faith-based initiatives, while courts are finding constitutional infirmities in the formulaic words of the Pledge of Allegiance and the Ten Commandments. There must be something more to the story than democracy’s messiness.

America’s multiple diversities – geographic, political, social, religious, etc. – and the parallel extraordinary range of interest group activity beget incompatible political and social outcomes. While at the ideological level liberals and conservatives – and other opposing groups and interests – are in conflict and reject what the other side advocates, at the action level they operate in essentially separate territory and not at cross purposes.

Religion and law illustrates the point. While those who support aid to religious schools believe that it’s constitutional and, of course, ethically proper to include a reference to God in public ceremonies and documents and those on the other side are consistent in their opposition, in practice the two battles are conducted separately and they partake of different social, political, geographic and judicial dynamics. The judges who are deciding the Pledge of Allegiance and Ten Commandments issues are not ruling on the constitutionality of government aid to parochial schools. In short, different courts are deciding different cases and responding to different group pressures. While not inevitably, this can yield outcomes that are ideologically inconsistent.

Incongruities also arise because governmental dynamics and social dynamics are mismatched. We tend to think – I suppose understandably – that political and legal domains are supreme, that what governments and courts decide settles important public issues. This na├»ve view discounts the tenacity and potency of social forces that have mobilized and have momentum. For all of the conservative dominance in Washington, there are powerful social trends that go in the other direction in such areas as dress, sexual conduct and the transmission of traditional values. There is, in short, a tension between the conservative ideology that is promoted in high places and the social forces encouraged by the media and trendsetters and government is nearly powerless to stay the hand of the latter.

The conservative voices preach almost entirely to the converted and while the converted may even be a majority, this is a majority that is bereft of the momentum and dynamism that promotes practices and attitudes which may be liberal to the extreme, even permissive and promiscuous. In an important way, therefore, the country is becoming at once more conservative and more hostile to what conservatives want, which is another way of saying that it is becoming more polarized. The vital center is evaporating.

The forces of tradition prevail nowadays in the political arena where they are more powerful. The power base of those who may be regarded as anti-traditional is in society.

As we know, ads target trendsetters, in particular younger consumers who are more likely to respond affirmatively to messages that are countercultural, to messages that are inherently different and therefore also anti-traditional. In the larger society, what has momentum gets attention and the attention itself generates additional momentum. Black America is in the doldrums because for all of the many millions of Blacks and their growing political power, Black civil rights is yesterday’s story and a tired one at that.

This can be contrasted with the success of the gay rights movement, the most powerful interest group in America today. It has momentum and the backing of trendsetters and the media. Talk radio and Christian radio may rail against gay unions and the prospect of gay marriages, something that seemed unthinkable not long ago. Conservatives in Congress and elsewhere may extol the sanctity of traditional families, but right now for all of their high positions they are nearly powerless to stop a social trend that is dynamic.