Scott Kistler’s Review of “To Change the World” (Essay 2, Chp. 2 “Power and Politics in American Culture”)

Posted: July 1, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture
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Hunter here looks at the assumptions that lie under contemporary American political life, arguing that the major trend is toward the politicization of more and more of life: increasingly, every question is a political question.  As cultures lose their consensus, he writes, laws must multiply in order to force cooperation, and the increased number of lawsuits is a reflection of this trend.  This makes the state the center of cultural gravity, and other institutions and groups begin to get their privileges and limitations from the state, and political ideology becomes an important identity marker for people and media.  Interest groups intensify their political activity.  In thinking about the roles of interest groups, I’m reminded of Marvin Olasky’s observation that although Democrats promise to break the power of lobbyists, their desire to increase federal programs actually strengthens the lobbyists as Washington now has more money to spend, and I’m also reminded of Tom DeLay’s K Street Project that sought to set up a new alliance between Republicans and lobbyists.  In sum, “this turn toward politics means that we find it difficult to think of a way to address public (by which I mean collective, common, or shared) problems or issues in any way that is not political” (105).

This trend leads much political action, he believes, to be defined by the Nietzschean “will to power.”  Partisan groups seek to impose their domination, based on “ressentiment” (another Nietzschean term, French for resentment) that flows from a sense of victimization.  He argues that this now defines the culture of politics in the United States, using culture in the same way that he used it in earlier chapters: a system that provides an often unspoken way of looking at the world.  Thus, this does not mean that every person engaged in politics is resentful, but instead that the political culture is built on the will to power and resentment.  In his next chapters, he will look at the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists and try to show how their political thought goes along with this political culture.

As far as causation, Hunter traces the trend of politicization to the New Deal.  He now believes that conservatives and liberals are equally caught up culture of politicization.  Doug Wilson makes the point that true small government conservatives (which he distinguishes from believers in “compassionate conservatism, big government conservatism,  bombs away conservatism, telegenic conservatism, and other forms of unconservative conservatism”) are fighting the good fight against the state, which as Hunter describes, is politicizing everything.  That’s a fair point, I think, but from where I sit conservatives who really are arguing for small government in the way that Wilson talks about are marginal in the modern spectrum of conservative political thinkers.  Those who expressed concerns about the expansion of government powers under the Bush administration were sometimes given a platform in the mass media, but seemed to me to be pretty marginalized in the conservative movement.  So Hunter can be forgiven for not addressing them, I think, because they aren’t one of the major trends in American politics (unfortunately).  But I think that Wilson’s point needs to be incorporated too.

I think that Hunter’s characterization of the political culture is really good.  The fracturing of the broad consensus in American culture in the 1960s is one of the major facts of life.  It blew up the political coalition that had sustained the New Deal and gave political voice to conservatives who dissented from it.  Perhaps paradoxically, not only was the liberal political consensus broken, but so was the traditional cultural consensus that assumed a general version of Christian morality.  As Hunter notes, political solutions to national problems are usually interpreted through the matrix of conservative and liberal (although liberals rarely call themselves that).

The last two elections seem to resonate with Hunter’s view of culture too.  Bush and Obama both won victories that were hard fought and extremely emotional and satisfying for their supporters, who hoped that this would be the time that they could strike the blow against their enemies.  Both elections were followed by questions of how the defeated party would survive in the new political landscape (to my embarrassment, I thought that these were credible explanations both times).  Both moved on their agendas, Bush with social security reform and Obama with a huge array of programs.

But a funny thing happened: American culture wasn’t actually transformed.  Neither Bush nor Obama had really built a coalition that would back them on everything; they had merely, in my interpretation, gotten their base and others who found them better than the other candidate.  The opposing party, whose candidate had gotten over 45% of the vote in both cases, marshaled its considerable resources, now augmented by fear of the power that the victors had gained, to “take America back.”  We don’t know how the 2010 elections will turn out, but we can tell that the Republicans have done anything but wither and die.

After Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate election, I posted my thoughts on Facebook, saying that there are two laws of American politics today, which were roughly these:

  • Politics is getting mad at the other party for what you did two years ago.
  • It doesn’t take long for one of our two major parties to be in power before the public gets sick of them.

I think that’s because the two parties can’t really capture the “center” of American political culture that it needs to satisfy the demands of its base, perhaps because there is no real center in American life because of cultural fragmentation.  Or perhaps it’s because of the sense that government’s job is somehow to make our lives easier and better, but not in ways that cost us any money.

I like that Hunter takes a look at American political culture.  I think that we need more systematic approaches if we want to understand what really ails the political process.  Usually, analysis focuses on the problems that other guys are causing.  What about the problems that we are all participating in?


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