It’s about money, sex, and race.
Since Reagan, financiers and conservative evangelicals have been semi-functional allies under the umbrella of the Republican party. Each had their own specific needs that GOP could deliver because it combined both money and people power. The evangelicals became the foot soldiers for getting out the vote, not unlike how the Chicago Machine operated for the Democratic party. Through manipulating cultural anxieties about sex and race, they motivated those concerned first with order and security, in spite of the rhetoric of liberty often applied.
Financiers got the better end of the stick. They tend to live in liberal states, so are sheltered from the encroachment of social conservatism. Their daughters can get abortions, and they send their kids to schools that teach evolution. Social conservatives, however, have little to show for their efforts: Abortion remains legal, gays now marry, and the protective sheen of white America seems to be losing is sure foothold. Yet, the monied class is doing far better than they could have anticipated.
Conservative evangelicals sought politics on the cheap. For there are ways to reduce abortion and to strengthen families, but they are expensive on the front end. Further, opposing abortion or gay rights requires little sacrifice on behalf of its most rigorous adherents. It’s easy to prohibit rules for other people; it’s harder to spread resources that would make having children or sustaining families viable. Prohibiting the bad is less expensive, and less effective, than incentivizing the good. It’s a lesson that’s hard to learn.
Conservative evangelicals have ignored how economic freedom, or capitalism itself, corrodes the bonds of social obligation that undergird traditional social mores. The market allows people opt out of the restrictions that chafe our desires, and the “work ethic” that conservatives and capitalists claim to share, conceal the vices beatified by the financial class. In short, Wall Street conned Main Street. Admittedly there are limits, for eventually economic freedom threatens to diminish the heart of all exchange, the virtues associated with faith, especially trust.
This might explain why Trump has done well, much to the chagrin of those who espoused the traditional alliance of the monied and the faithful. He offers the most necessary, satisfactory crumbs about opposing abortion and believing in Christianity. But his populist economic rhetoric especially appeals to those who don’t know much about church but have lost ground in our modern economy, the ones who enjoy the wisdom that reality TV offers.
There is, however, another value both share, even if it is tenuous: a taxonomy of values associated with masculinity: protecting one’s family; bringing home the bacon; toughness; liking guns, hot chicks, and winning.
I have no truck for or against any of these, but the posturing is tiresome.
This gendered moment may explain why two most powerful non-governmental organizations that epitomize our current cultural conflict are the NRA and Planned Parenthood. The venn diagram between them is not necessarily opposed – both overlap when defending themselves with the rhetoric of liberty.
But one embodies the current state of masculinity, with all its fear and pride, its contempt for the weak and vulnerable. It fears the loss of distinctiveness between men and women, the roles that many have invested their own meaning. The other lives, however, in the reality of women, seeking first to gather and care for bodies. If George Lakoff is right about orienting political metaphors, the NRA embodies the strict father, and Planned Parenthood embodies the nurturing parent.
Let us not ignore race, which casts its shadow everywhere. It remains the primary reason why economic populism has never gathered the popularity that it might have. Race divides both liberalism and conservatism. The universalist tendency, which simultaneously justifies both economic progress and yet conceals bigotry’s stubborn hold on institutions, loses its force at the specific needs of identity politics.
Some liberals dislike economic nationalism because it doesn’t specify the needs of African-American populations and repair the perpetual theft of black labor and wealth. Conservatives, on the other hand, see that any universal state intervention helps the undeserving and lazy. Each side reinforces the other, inhibiting any sort of economic solution from having traction. Thus why Bernie Sanders New Deal proposals are unappealing for many black activists, and mocked by conservative ones.
Jesus speaks of wars and rumors of wars. The equality implicit in the Christian tradition brings an intensification, a focus, upon the diminishment of the weak and powerless. Perhaps the ferocity of our current witness may signify progress. It may be that an economically populist Trump illustrates the unveiling of the Republican party’s sophisticated deception of the white working class. Black Lives Matter signifies the untenability of governments based on the receipts of poor people.
In either case, let us not be overwhelmed by the theater that is constantly before us. Let us continue to do our work locally, to build bridges rather than walls, to love one another as best as we are able. I believe that it is the third sector that has a the primary role to solve our most direct problems. It is our work, finally, that matters most.