Broken Culture, Broken Politics?

R.R. Reno has written an essay that asks some important questions and sent me thumbing through my copy of Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence:

In this atmosphere, the pressing question about politics was not “Who is going to win?” but instead the question “What is politics for?” It was a question that required examining our more fundamental views of what human life is for, and what role society plays.

Today as we shift toward a seemingly ever-increasing interest in the machinery of partisan politics, we’re becoming Marxists by default. Marx held that economic realities are fundamental, and questions of culture are epiphenomenal.

Why don’t we ask, as a society, what our politics are for?  Indeed, such a question, sincerely asked, is just as likely to be tossed off into the category of “cranky old man foolishness” as Wendell Berry’s persistent, “What are people for?” We view our politics as a means for improving or defending or preserving our society, but does their effect on our culture come often enough to mind?

Barzun (writing of the end of the twentieth century in the past tense) observed that, “Sports were the last refuge of patriotism.”  One almost wonders whether, in the post-steroid era of prima-dona superstars, politics, in some sense, has become the last refuge of sports.  Here, at least, we’re rooting for more than jerseys.  Free agency is primed to backfire (just look at Arlen Specter).  The political arena feels like just that—an arena, filled with thousands of rowdy, half-drunk fans, their chests painted absurd colors in below-freezing weather.

The thesis of From Dawn to Decadence, is that the era of Western culture it traces from infancy has entered its final stages: it is “old and unraveling.”  He doesn’t pretend to an ability to be certain; and he ends with optimism about the future, and about the human condition.  But if his thesis is true—that we are in a “demotic” period marked by the faltering of the dominant cultural era—then might it not also offer starting point to understanding what has gone wrong with our politics?  That the problem might be more that our culture is broken and transitioning (to something we cannot know, and on a timeline we cannot do much to hurry) than that our politics are broken.

Reno also offers a thesis that reads interestingly against Barzun (and, possibly, William’s most recent discussion of Charles Taylor):

[T]he most potent force in political life is the human imagination, not control over the levers of state power. Utopian fantasies and exaggerated dreams of national greatness agitated millions in the twentieth century, providing legitimacy to communist and fascist regimes.

Nightmares about cancerous aliens made Nazi anti-Semitism seem plausible. And today it is the cultural imagination of the Islamic world—not its oil wealth or official foreign policies—that makes the region so volatile.

At the end of the day, elections don’t shape or influence our cultural imaginations. On the contrary, our imaginations influence our elections, as the naive nation builders who thought that bringing elections to Iraq would transform the country discovered, much to their dismay.

Perhaps, then, one can glean some understanding of the politics of America circa 2010, by reading those paragraphs against Barzun’s list of descriptive labels for our age, written “around 1995”:

Age of Uncertainty; Age of Science; Age of Nihilism; Age of Massacres; Age of the Masses; Age of Globalism; Age of Dictatorships; Age of Design; Age of Defeat; Age of Communication; Age of the Common Man; Age of Cinema and Democracy; Age of the Child; Age of Anxiety; Age of Anger; Age of Absurd Expectations.

All I’ve tried to do with this post is to raise several questions and lines of inquiry—I hope, over the next few weeks, to follow them up in some more detail.

Broken Culture, Broken Politics?
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5 thoughts on “Broken Culture, Broken Politics?

  1. I’ve been thinking a lot about cultural decadence recently. It seems that, absent a dominant culture with it’s own narratives explaining “what are people for?”, or conversely multiple poles of meaning seeking to explain the same, politics drops the pretense of being about anything other than power, and that’s when it gets ugly and unworkable because nobody can have power without someone else letting go of power- maintaining power is the highest ideal. Maybe another book to read would be Arthur Schnitzler’s “Road Into the Open”. I don’t know if Barzun is right, but I love the line about Marxists by default, which is something I was trying to articulate in that post on the culture wars being held in the absense of culture.

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  2. “Here, at least, we’re rooting for more than jerseys.”

    I’m not sure if you’re insinuating this, J.L., or whether it is an attribution to Barzun, but either way, I think some of our politics problem comes simply because we’re rooting for jerseys with no real understanding of what those jerseys represent. And the fact that there are only two major jerseys makes the problem even more black and white. It kind of speaks to the problem that Jason (I think it was Jason) addressed the other day in his post about the Colorado election that might result in the GOP being relegated down ticket with the rest of the riff raff, and what the two major parties do to keep the riff raff down ticket.

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  3. Every so often, I find myself thinking about this question in some form or another, and about the extent to which questions of culture are what ultimately drive a society, with politics being little more than a symptom of that culture. I seem to recall that the first time I thought about it was around the time when you, Brafford, Nathan Origer, and I guest-blogged for John Schwenkler (so it’s entirely possible you were the first to put it in my brain). My post in response to Scott the other day was perhaps my latest attempt to wrestle with the question, but I never seem to get as far as I’d like with it.

    I never seem to get as far as I’d like with the question, but every time I think about it, I wind up concluding that it’s the single most relevant question in understanding the things I write about.

    All of which is simply to say that I’m looking forward to your follow up posts on this over the coming weeks.

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