When developing their message to unseat the then incumbent President George H.W. Bush, James Carville of the Bill Clinton campaign claimed “It’s the economy, stupid”. No issues were more important to voters, no gaffes or policy positions offered, were more important than each individual’s bottom line. Since that election, that phrase has been carried like prophecy to what should be the feature of a winning message. And yet, recent events have suggested that that point may not be as sharp as it may once have been.
At the time of the election of Donald Trump, the economy, by most measures, was healthy or far healthier than it had been 8 years prior. Doubtless there were some categories that were peculiar, such as the male labor force participation rate, but nothing so extravagant that one would expect, simply from this data alone, that such an individual would catch fire with a large enough group of the American electorate to be elected President. And yet, nearly a year since that event, here we are.
I think the answer lies in a subject that is porous with crevasses and traps, and that is culture.
Culture has, far more than political philosophy or policy positions, driven how we identify, group and act. I don’t think I even need to make much of an argument when members of the White Nationalist movement, who just this week took torches into Charlottesville, Virginia, as an ugly ode to the Klu Klux Klan, to, in their view, strike fear into the hearts of any Americans who think that they can diminish white southern culture. They claimed, even chanted, “Russia is our friend” due to their efforts to not only elect Donald Trump, but also to fracture Americans along racial cultural divides. There are many angry and anguished words I could spend talking about those boys and that night, but I wish to make a larger point about culture in the American public. So often when the argument can’t be supported by facts or good-faith debate, manipulators draw on the formless arguments of culture to defend their positions.
This, of course, is not a right wing phenomenon. Nor is it a left wing one. Really, it should not be viewed through partisanship, as there exist slimy, manipulative, crooked demagogues throughout our society, often in power, who, finding themselves without things like truth and self-respect, fall back on triggering our identities. For the latest example, I draw on the liberal Harvey Weinstein, who this week was revealed plainly and undoubtedly to have used his position as a Hollywood executive to be a sexual predator to hundreds of women.
Take a look at his laughable and painful apology letter, a bit of which I will quote below, where he too, looking to hide from his evil actions, draws upon the cultures of the Democratic Party and Judaism to try and rally those groups around him (earlier, he also quotes Jay-Z):
I am going to need a place to channel that anger so I’ve decided that I’m going to give the NRA my full attention. I hope Wayne LaPierre will enjoy his retirement party. I’m going to do it at the same place I had my Bar Mitzvah. I’m making a movie about our President, perhaps we can make it a joint retirement party. One year ago, I began organizing a $5 million foundation to give scholarships to women directors at USC. While this might seem coincidental, it has been in the works for a year. It will be named after my mom and I won’t disappoint her.
None of these actions are related to his actions. What does fighting the NRA have to do with raping women? How does doing it in the same room as your Bar Mitzvah show that you have any sense or morals? How does giving scholarships to women bring about any change the systemic sexism that you enjoyed throughout your entire career in your company, did those women not have degrees? Does having a degree shield you from being assaulted?
The answer to these question is plain, but not despondent. Because, unlike in some times past, the American people answered it the same and true. Hopefully, for the demagogues who seek to draw out further divisions between Americans, we can answer them the same, backed by kindness, evidence and truth.