Public Sphere and Politics of the Respectables

Ross Douthat has a new column that I think is a mixture of the insightful and the foolish–as most political columns are, I suppose.

First, one must take out the “dumb” parts:  I don’t think there’s much insight to be had by talking much about Bee, Oliver, or even Clinton and Trump.  Maybe Bee and liberal comics like her are indicative of Clinton’s problems, or not.  I think the interesting point lies beyond just current events and liberal politics.

The insightful part comes when Douthat brings up the comics of yesteryear, Leno and Letterman, and how they spoke to a broader audience.  Indeed, rather than stick to the audiences that they already agreed with, they actively sought to come up with humor that could speak to a broader audience without rejection.  In so doing, they created “common rituals and focal points” that were uniting rather than segregating.  Even more could be said about Johnny Carson–if anybody remembers Johnny Carson still.  In a sense, Emmett Rensin, a much more insightful person than Douthat, had this to say:

TV isn’t why liberals keep losing. It’s where liberals go to tell themselves why that’s fine b/c poor reactionaries deserve poverty.

Of course, the audiences of the liberal comics already believe that the poor reactionaries deserve poverty, so they laugh.  The poor reactionaries do not find it funny, but they are not the audience.  However, the shared attitudes of the liberal comics and their audiences ensure that the poor reactionaries and the liberal professionals will not be found in the common audience for the same shows.  The poor reactionaries have their own comics and they laugh at the expense of the liberal elites–whose humor the liberal elites will not find very funny.  The audience segregates.  Common rituals and focal points are subverted.

In that sense, the kind of coalition (not necessarily in terms of just supporters, but also the kind of enemies engendered) that Sanders built is astonishing:   Sanders drew in support widely, without creating enemies on the opposite side.  If you will, Sanders socialized with the Pharisees, tax collectors, prostitutes, alike, with both the respectable and the deplorable.  To those who consider themselves, respectable, this would have seemed unthinkable and, indeed, downright morally wrong.  That places this post by Nathan Robinson in context.

The truth is that, quite simply, many Sanders voters do not share the common narrative of the Democratic elites.  They do not subscribe to the neat liberal-conservative divide.  They supported Sanders for the reasons that are, quite frankly, their own that do not match up neatly with that of mainstream Democrats.  However, the significant thing is that, when given a choice, they opted to vote in the Democratic primary for a (nominal) Democrat.  In other words, for the Democrats, they are potential converts, even if they do not share the Bee-like view of orthodoxy.  The reaction by the Democratic elites, of berating them for insufficient orthodoxy is foolish and counterproductive:  this reminds of the line from the old movie El Cid.  When don Rodrigo brings several Muslim emirs who were willing to ally with the Castillians against Almoravid invaders from Morocco, infanta Urraca throws a hissy fit, insisting that Castille is a Christian nation and that they will traffic only with other Christians even if they are facing utter defeat–ironic, since the movie earlier shows the Castillians nearly going to war with the Christian Aragonese over something petty.

I had written about this several times before:  the “inclusive coalition,” once the characteristic of the Democrats, is dead.  Maybe the Democrats today are more diverse than the Republicans, or not.  It doesn’t matter.  The bottom line is that the Democrats just don’t have the institutional means (or the credibility) to build a broad coalition that actually pays out broadly.  It pursues the agenda set by and for the interests of a narrow set of elites, no less than the Republicans.  Those who do not subscribe to this narrowly defined orthodoxy are proscribed mercilessly.  But this is not just an institutional phenomenon–it is sustained from bottom up by the web of information disseminating technologies that reinforce interconnected bubbles that sustain one another (yes, the incongruous juxtaposition is intentional).  We may be more “informed” than ever, we may be more interconnected than ever, but the sheer amount of information available means that the information we get increasingly consists of shallow “means”  if only because we lack the time or the wherewithal to dig deeper, while the ease of cutting off connections means that we are increasingly connected only to those with whom we share common narratives.  In finance terms, one might say that we are building vast portfolios with highly correlated risk–exactly the wrong way to build portfolios, if the aim is to reduce risk.  It is all bubbly–all the assets will be jumping up in value simultaneously.  But when the day of reckoning comes, all will tumble down at the same time, with this practice of portfolio building sustained by the enforced conventions of bubble-building.  (Like they hadn’t already, multiple times, in the past, I suppose.)

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