Conceptions of America

By Merrill Ring

What the recent election and the consequence demonstrations are about is differing conceptions of the nature of the country.

Agreeing with Bannon!!

Before Trump became an official candidate, in one of his appearances on Steve Bannon’s show on Breitbart (so I hear), he said something about an economic issue and Bannon replied (so I hear): “A country is more than an economy; we’re a civic society.”  (Of course he meant the generalization ‘a country is a civic society.’)

To my astonishment I agree with Bannon on that matter.

That is to say, when doing political analysis one must talk about more than the state of the economy.  And Bannon’s implicit claim, that in that mix of considerations those “civic” matters sometimes outweigh purely economic issues, seems to me quite correct also.

Tom Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas notes that Kansans consistently vote against their own economic interests – and regards that as lunacy.  For Frank there is no other intelligible motive than the economic. 

I have many friends who regard our invasion of Iraq as drive by nothing more than the desire to acquire Iraq’s oil.  While that is a motive that the Bush administration tried to hide, nonetheless the will to power was itself an important part of the reason why we invaded.

There is evidence that those who voted for Trump were not the real down and outers of our current economy.  Rather they were people who were getting by but who had significant non-economic resentments and motives.  Had they not had those resentments and motives, who acted solely on economic grounds, they might have joined the Democratic Party and voted for Bernie Sanders.

The identity politics of the Democratic Party is based on much else than economic considerations.  Bernie had a rough time in many places because he wanted to shift the party, and the country, to a class politics and did not know how to build into his argument recognition that there is more to our political life than the economy.

So Bannon is right:  whether the political analysis is of why some particular thing is done or whether it is a matter of what we ought to do, there are considerations to be taken into account other than the economic interests of the actors.

Disagreeing with Bannon.

Bannon contrasts the economy with what he calls “civic society” – ‘civil society’ would have been better.  Where he and I part company is over how we are to conceive of our civil society.

One of the consequences of our recent election has been the emergence onto the national stage of a certain conception of what America is all about, one that denies what has been the central conception of recent times.

The conception that has become prominent in connection with the election is named by its proponents the alt-right position.  It presents itself under that title as an alternative conservative view, alternative to the standard conservativism of American politics.  In what respects it is an alternative to orthodox conservativism will be discussed below. 

While talking of that view, progressives should not accept the title assigned it by its supporters.  It is best to name it what it is:  it is best labeled white suprematism (white nationalism, white nativism).  That name needs expansion but that should wait until the contrasting conception is sketched out.

What we progressives have been trying to achieve – of course we haven’t come anywhere near full success yet – is what I would call an equality conception of America.  Others would perhaps prefer to label it multi-culturalism.  I think the view that has become mainstream with the recent election simply speaks of it as liberalism. 

Before going further in setting out the views, there is one thing that must be noted.  Both those competing conceptions in the first instance do not explicitly involve economic matters.  In the end economic considerations must be added in, but the aim of both on the face of it have to do with cultural matters (or in Bannon’s term civic society) where those matters are contrasted with economic considerations. 

It is widely recognized that the American right, so-called American conservativism, divides into two.  There is the economic wing.  That position has been in the conservative saddle.  The self-named alt-right sees itself as representing the other wing, the branch that has not been in the saddle.  Its central concern is with cultural issues.  It is that form of conservativism that has emerged as a consequence of 2016 into the limelight.  Those who belong to it think (rightly) that while they have provided the votes for conservatism, the economic wing has managed to run the show.  At last, the alternative position has emerged from the shadows.  

The triumphant white suprematist movement includes not only the idea that whites should rule but along with that central racial theme a commitment to a basic European superiority, male dominance, heterosexuality, Christianity, anti-intellectualism, and other positions.

Those ideas are what Bannon conceives of as constituting American civil society, what we should be like.

By contrast, the equality, or multi-cultural, conception of America denies that we are a white nation in the sense that we are a country in which whites are rightfully privileged because they are white.  Rather we are (to be) a country in which people of different races (in so far as the notion of ‘race’ has any theoretical import) live together as equals. So too in this conception, the United States is not by nature, though it is by history, a European country – different ethnicities are welcome here and add enormously to our lives as Americans.  An aim is to make men and women equal partners – to accept that people have different sexual inclinations – to hold that no religion is privileged, that different religions, and atheism too, are as American as apple pie – that the ability to use our rational capacities should be prized – and so on.

That equality conception has been slowly becoming the central conception of American life.  And that fact is an important part of why the white suprematist conception has muscled its way onto the main stage in consequence of the 2016 election.  For those seeing this country in that way have been losing their hold on power, both political power and conceptual dominance. In significant part, the electoral victory of Donald Trump is a consequence of the losers staging a counter-attack, having found a spokesman for their realization that they and their views are no longer the epi-center of American life.

Those differing conceptions of who we should be and the realization on the part of both groups that the flow of power has been toward the equality conception are deep elements in our psyches, part of our conception of our country and consequently of ourselves as individual people.

The post-election anti-Trump demonstrations are by those who have seen the equality conception of who we are temporarily (it is hoped) overcome by the electoral counter-attack.  The white suprematists, those who embody Bannon’s view of “civic society”, are starting to realize that while the Presidential election has gone their way, their opponents are not going to go quietly – and so they too are taking to the streets in defense of privilege and inequality: not so much economic privilege and economic inequality, but of the particular culture in which our economic system has been embedded.