alien & sedition.
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
  Conservative Rock and Roll: Here to Stay?

I expect that pretty much any liberal who has taken a moment to look at the style or the rhetoric of the conservative movement has been somewhat bewildered at how such a powerful force - one that has dominated all the branches of government in recent years and claims to represent majority opinion - is constantly acting so oppressed. It seems perverse to the point of monstrousness that the man with his boot on your neck can pretend to be your victim.

In other words, there's nothing worse than a bully with a persecution complex.

Rick Perlstein, whose magnificent history of the Goldwater Movement, Before the Storm, I'll be discussing in future posts, has a good article about this phenomenon at the New Republic. As familiar as Perlstein is with the history of conservative ideas in America, he argues that it's a distinct conservative culture that has really transformed American politics. And the defining feature of that culture is its sense of persecution:
Conservative culture was shaped in another era, one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered. It enunciated a heady sense of defiance. In a world in which patriotic Americans were hemmed in on every side by an all-encroaching liberal hegemony, raw sex in the classrooms, and totalitarian enemies of the United States beating down our very borders, finally conservatives could get together and (as track twelve of the Goldwaters' Folk Songs to Bug the Liberals avowed) "Row Our Own Boat."
This sense of marginality has persisted even as conservatives have conquered American politics. "Conservatives are always beleagured, always under seige," Perstein observes.

Again, this is a cultural phenomenon, much more than a political or ideological one. Perlstein mentions bizarre cultural exercises like the National Review's John Miller listing the "top 50 conservative rock songs of all time."

Whiskey Fire delves deeper into the perverse psychology this involves, the simultaneous conservative urges to define themselves against mainstream American culture and to look for validation from it.
Modern American "movement conservatives" are obviously perplexed by American culture, in its high as well as pop flavors. On the one hand, they hate it -- we're all going to Hollyweird Hell; lie-berals run the colleges, oh my. On the other hand, they can be pathetically clap-hands excited about any sort of cultural production that they can somehow pretend is authentically "conservative." [...]

What really matters is the very palpable wingnut fear that you can't be a member of a distinct American social group if you don't have a distinctive set of cultural practices which gives your tribe its unique identity -- and it bugs the hell out of them that they lack the ability to dominate the mechanisms by which such identities are for better or worse nowadays commonly produced and recognized, namely, TV shows, movies, shit on the Internets, popular music, and so on. [...]

What do you do when someone else runs the game? You yell that it's fixed and you don't care about it really and that it's Evil and Corrupting. But that hardly means that you don't scream out in delight when you get any sort of momentary advantage. Never mind that denouncing the game and playing it to win are contradictory strategies. As Freud pointed out, when it's our identity and desires on the line, we're far more often convinced and comforted by the sheer number of arguments we can marshall to our cause than we are bothered by the fact that these arguments may be completely inconsistent.

Hence such absurdities as the wingnutty obsession with classifying movies according to whether or not they're "conservative" to the exclusion of all other criteria [...]

It's funny, but for all the whining about "identity politics," nobody is more tied to it than "movement conservatives."
Indeed, it illuminates why conservatives have had such a flair for fighting the culture wars - because they have approached those wars, not seeking to end them out of a liberal concern for universalism, but as one of any number of groups seeking "recognition" as Charles Taylor would have defined it.

For Perlstein, this is what holds them together as a movement against all the forces that might tear them apart. He cautions us not to be too optimistic about the prospect that the many contradictions within the conservative movement will lead to its destruction. On the contrary, he says:
What is remarkable about conservatism is how easily it hangs together. Conservative culture itself is radically diverse, infinitely resourceful in uniting opposites: highbrow and lowbrow; sacred and profane; sublime and, of course, ridiculous. It is the core cultural dynamic--the constant staging and re-staging of acts of "courage" in the face of liberal "marginalization"--that manages to unite all the opposites. It keeps conservatives from one another's throats--and keeps them more or less always pulling in the same political direction.
And, far from harming the movement, conservatism's current political troubles will only strengthen that unity:
That is how conservative culture works so well: the joy of feeling as one in their beleaguered conservatism. I've found, paradoxically, that, for this determined remnant, conservative identity becomes stronger the more discredited conservative governance becomes. They seem to take their lumps in stride and emerge all the more confident in their ideology from the challenge.
I have no reason to dispute Perlstein's analysis. But I would note one thing: while it explains why the conservatives may always be with us, it somewhat begs the question - or at leasts ignores the question - as to why conservatives succeed politically in some eras, and in some eras do not. If the sense of marginalization functions as a powerful internal organizing principle, and all the more so when the movement is out of political power, then what explains its political fortunes?

Some of this is no doubt contingent: conservatives can stumble into power when liberals and moderates screw up. Beyond that, though, how much of it has to do with the expansion and contraction of that conservative culture among Americans - and why does it expand and contract - and how much has to do with the success of conservative ideas and political tactics among Americans who aren't part of that culture? One gets the sense that this culture is immutable. But it can't be: if it were, it would either be permanently in power or permanently out of it. Moreover, sometimes it seems to articulate a politics that appeals to Americans more broadly, and sometimes it doesn't. That may be where the history of conservative ideas and political strategy does matter, and that's an area I'll be looking at a lot more as time goes on.

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"An obscure but fantastic blog." - Markus Kolic


Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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