The Culture Wars Go In One Direction: Around In A Circle
why the sedate culture wars of the 80s and 90s were replaced by a world where anyone can become a “trad” or “trans” influencer, as long as they can guess what those audiences guess they want to hear
For years, it was fashionable among certain “class-first” or “class-reductionist” leftists to dismiss the culture wars as a distraction — a way of keeping the proles fighting with each other and therefore unable to forge the class solidarity needed to foment some sort of revolution that would overthrow the capitalist status quo. This is a nice idea, but the broad sweep of American history doesn’t support that thesis: long before George Washington won the first presidential election, there have been two tribal agglomerations that seized upon various issues — some economic ones, certainly, but mostly cultural baggage. Today that cultural baggage swarms your timeline: JK Rowling is either a heroic defender of women’s rights or a cruel TERF (she can’t merely be a writer of dull stories for children and midwit grown-ups), books are sacrosanct unless your team wants them out of the library, school curriculum is something to be decided by parents unless those parents don’t want to get rid of curriculum (America-First social studies, CRT) your team has decided has to got to go.
While the issues change and the tribes are occasionally reconfigured, the song remains the same. Such is the thesis of Hyrum Lewis and Verland Lewis’ compelling new book, The Myth of Left and Right. Despite claims to the contrary by other scholars, Lewis and Lewis argue, the issue-sorting is largely non-ideological; it is merely a way for people identifying with one team or another to take it personal and then make it personal, establishing their team allegiance first and then gradually adopting that team’s grab-bag of issues thereafter. Should the stakes get high enough, as they did in 1861, you may trigger a civil war — still the gravest danger for a nation otherwise isolated from its rivals by two vast oceans, even if the likelihood of a second civil war, superheated punditry aside, remains remote.
Left out of The Myth of Left and Right is the impact of advertising and marketing. The authors concede that tribal conflict has become superheated during the past twenty years, but they fail to reckon with the critical role played by marketing language — the only genuinely novel contribution of America to world-historical literary discourse, per Jackson Lears’ Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History in America. The great American evangelists, poets, and statesmen were all “self-made” in the sense that they were canny promoters of themselves and their messages. The myth of the country’s foundation as an unpopulated land of boundless opportunity was a necessary fiction to convince immigrants to risk a harsh ocean journey in order to start anew in a land that was both populated by indigenous people and bounded by the various colonial powers attempting to gain control of the continent. This foundational myth, in turn, has made subsequent generations uniquely susceptible to marketing pitches that promise a manifest destiny of untold abundance.
The culture wars are, as Pat Buchanan observed in his rhetorically impressive “Culture Wars” address at the 1992 Republican National Convention, a “war for the soul of America.” The war has been going on forever, it is waged by canny rhetoricians like Buchanan and cruder hacks like Bill Clinton strategist James Carville, and it requires two sides — Coca-Cola and Pepsi drove awareness of one another’s brands to untold levels during the fiercest years of their 1980s “cola wars” rivalry, much as the WWF (now the WWE) and WCW combined for never-equalled wrestling-show television ratings during their “Monday night wars” of the late 1990s. The culture wars, like the cola wars or the pro-wrestling Monday night wars that continue in changed ways in 2023, albeit with new cola products and wrestling promotions occupying the stage, are “ouroborotic” — never disappearing, but perpetually changing form in an eternal cycle of destruction and recreation. The hard structures of society — for example, the “capitalism” against which many twentysomethings raged during the 2010s — function in a similar way, as historian Fernand Braudel devoted a career to explaining; such material realities function as the slow-evolving, largely-unchanging backdrops against which we all live, laugh, love, and eventually die.
Of course, within this longue durée (“long term”), the ways in which these cycles play out do change. History moves at a snail’s pace, at least in retrospect, but the one thing it never does is repeat itself. And today in 2023, we are players in the left-versus-right culture wars in a genuinely unique way. During the 2010s, one of the great innovations of America’s Silicon Valley were the primary social media platforms, which, as they reached their zenith, had the effect of harnessing all the latent marketing energy in the base of end-users, converting that into what we hoary veterans of the ancient internet might once have called a MUSH (i.e., a “multi-user shared hallucination”) that operated at unprecedented size, scale, and speed. Suddenly, a new game was unlocked, a competition of all against all for engagement, clout, and even profit.
Social media was the perfect arena for the culture wars. Back when a doughty culture warrior like Pat Buchanan was fighting the good fight, one could easily disengage: turn off the radio talk show, refuse to watch nascent left-versus-right talk shows (like Crossfire, which Buchanan co-hosted), and touch grass. Don’t get me wrong; we were all still foot soldiers in the culture wars. But we weren’t on the front lines, posting and tweeting in support of or opposition to the Hogwarts Legacy video game. Such participation wasn’t mandatory. Now, however, the “game done changed” — there are no culture-wars agnostics and conscientious objectors in Twitter group DMs full of top posters, podcasters, and other minor political operatives. One cannot easily implement Wanting: The Power of Mimetic Desire in Everyday Life author Luke Burgis’ advice and disengage from what he, following literature professor René Girard’s definition of “mimetic desire,” terms “mimetic conflict.” It is not so simple as that; millions reared on advertising and marketing grow up not so much with Freudian superegos calling the shots as “marketing consciences” that have them always honing their identity, positioning their product, selling themselves — often for nothing but the satisfaction of a post well-liked and a tribal cause well-defended.
All of these people live in the short-term time-scale of the marketer and the journalist, what French sociologist François Simiand called histoire événementielle ("evental history"). In fact, it is entirely conceivable that many live only in the now — no history behind them because who has the time to learn it when we must post right this very minute, no future in front of them because the urgency of every moment suggests nothing short of always-imminent collapse. These people, who reside in what critic George Trow called “the context of no context,” are some of the easiest marks in the history of marketing.
As someone who operated a successful subscription-based podcast for several years — at times netting more than $6,000 a month for very little work — I saw how easy this game was. Social media made it simple, if only you aligned with the right team, boosted the right guests, and uttered the appropriate magic words. People would hand you $5, and that was that. I was able to maintain a critical distance from it only because my feisty co-host did all the fighting; if you disagreed with her, you subscribed to or followed whatever podcasts and accounts were against her, and if you were for her, you subscribed to her podcast.
Given that I’ve worked in marketing for more than a half-decade as a 9-to-5 day job — meaning I already spend all the livelong day devising ways to sell people things they don’t want — I could only do this for so long. My value to the podcast, insofar as I provided any at all, was that I was disinterested — indeed genuinely didn’t care, aside from thinking that many issues could be argued compellingly from one side or the other, with the quality of the argument varying by how much money was involved in its construction. I couldn’t be Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow, cherry-picking all the necessary takes to get you to follow along, boosting information that’s beneficial to my team while hiding or ignoring the things that aren’t (if pressed, you merely say, “the other team is worse”). This is how the work gets done — Carlson, who actually mentored Maddow, is essential to her existence, and he to hers, and behind closed doors they, like most producers of political culture-wars content or producers of marketing more generally, deride the people they’re working with (fools and marks, the lot of them!) and the dumber ideas they’re forced to boost along the way.
But this is the river of content in which we sink or swim. This is the way that politics works, has always worked, and works better than ever now that social media has pushed it into hyperdrive. To be neutral or disinterested at such a time is a pose; my own neutrality is that of the advocate or consultant, the hired gun, someone who will assess the state of the field for a fee. I certainly cling fast to my own bedrock issues, most of which, like not censoring any books and doing away with public education altogether in favor of unfettered school choice, are more closely associated with the ineffective radical fringe of the Libertarian Party. But because I have no desire to defend such lost causes, my own distinct preference is to stand back and analyze what’s gone and what’s left. In this case, what’s gone is the more sedate culture-wars style of the 1980s and 1990s Republicans and Democrats, and what’s replaced it is a world in which anyone could conceivably become a “trad” influencer or a “trans” influencer as long as they can guess what those audiences guess they want to hear — guessing the guesses, Family Feud-style.
We can, I think, expect more of this as election 2024 approaches, for the train only goes in one direction (even if that direction, ouroborotically, is around). Most likely, those of you reading this will think I’m right about 50% of what I’ve said: “The other team does all this; it’s just a game for them. But not for my team. It’s different for us. We have God or the arc of justice or some similar righteous force of history on our side.” To which I can only say: sure you do. All the things you believe are bad are bad, and all the things you believe are good are good. Now be sure to click like, share, and subscribe to my Substack, where I can promise you that everything I’ll say will vibe with everything you want to hear.
Read one of our greatest hits —
The Fifth Estate, by Mike Solana
The Sugar Babies of Stanford University, by Nicola Buskirk
NIH-Funded “Food Pyramid” Rates Lucky Charms Healthier Than Steak, by Justin Mares
You have it exactly. Both sides do it, and many of the issues can be argued from either side compellingly. The money and (maybe more importantly) skill in making the argument matter more than the facts.
I am amazed at people who uncritically think that all the morally better and smarter people are on their "side", and don't instantly suspect that there might be something biased in their reasoning.