Politics is Downstream from Culture, Part 1: Right Turn to Narrative

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Our lives—indeed, our very species—has storytelling wound into our DNA. From the earliest cave drawings, man has expressed himself in terms of story. Ancient civilizations understood that stories are vital to understanding our place in the world, so much so that they codified storytelling and found base rules that form it. Oral histories are a part of every culture across the globe.

I’ll give you three guesses as to the author of this statement. In fact, I’ll give you thirty. It’s not Bill Moyers, and it’s not James Cameron, and it’s not some literature professor. It’s from Breitbart News. If you’re a member of the professional (or non-professional) humanities, that should get you to more than guessing.

The quote, by Lawrence Meyers, appeared in a 2011 article headlined “Politics is Really Downstream from Culture.” It was an elaboration of Andrew Breitbart’s mantra, “politics is downstream from culture.” The slogan—a nice inverse of James Carville’s “It’s the economy, stupid!”—means what it says: Change the culture, change the government.

Now, six years later, national politics, we might say, is culture, and maybe even only culture. Steve Bannon, Breitbart’s successor, is not only in the White House, but, for the time being at least, enjoys a front-row seat on the National Security Council. John McCain, concerned about the elevation of a civilian political strategist to chief advisor on foreign affairs, has called Bannon’s NSC role  a “radical departure from any National Security Council in history.”  But the concern should run deeper than the possibility of war becoming but another mode of dirty politics. It should include Bannon making international relations into little more than a good story. This sense of story, as something that captures the attention, immerses the reader or viewer, and manufactures a desired political attitude, is Bannon’s stock-in-trade. He’s explicit about his sources for his narrative techniques: “the Left,” conceived on a spectrum from Hollywood filmmakers to Lenin (whom Bannon has said he idolizes, with tongue pretty clearly in cheek). 

Since he left Goldman Sachs in 1990, Bannon has been first and foremost a worker in the culture industry, a producer of stories. After helping negotiate the sale of Castle Rock Entertainment to Ted Turner, Bannon gained a stake in television shows like Seinfeld. He then got into his own brand of filmmaking, producing among other works, a hagiography of Ronald Reagan, a celebration of Sarah Palin, an encomium to Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, and a self-explanatory exposé, “Occupy Unmasked.” After Andrew Breitbart died suddenly in 2012, Bannon took over Breitbart News and single-handedly retrofitted the fringiest part of the “Right Wing Conspiracy” into a slick, savvy, and at least partly fact-based operation. (At the same time, Bannon helped found the investigative research organization that produced Clinton Cash, the book that undermined the Democratic nominee long before anyone from Vermont got involved.)

In addition to left-leaning pop culture sources, Bannon has also borrowed techniques from the academic left, specifically from the Humanities. That’s why it’s now possible to find quotes like the one I led off with above, where it’s hard to tell if we’re reading literary theory or an article on Breitbart

But we have to go further back to the 1992 presidential campaign and Carville’s famous quote about the fundamental nature of the economy. It wasn’t fashionable to say this twenty-five years ago, but Carville’s story, condensed in his quote, was recognizably a Marxist one, that other parts of social and cultural behaviors flow from economics. Carville’s target then was Newt Gingrich and his “contract with America” and the result was a style of punditry that Bannon has been since been seeking to replace. There’s no substantial disagreement, it’s just that Bannon and his cohort are more explicitly prepared to borrow tools from the other side of the aisle.

So on both sides of the aisle, politics is downstream from culture, as we saw when it became apparent that Bill Clinton needed someone like Carville with his slogan to overcome George H.W. Bush and his Thousand Points of Light. Maybe the economy predicts the fundamentals of any election, but culture determines the enthusiasm-gap that adjusts the margins of the vote, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

Since the French Revolution and the ideological split of “left” and “right,” there has always been a sense (distilled in the word conservative) that the right couldn’t possibly borrow the “tools” of the left. The two wings represented different takes on an organic historical process: the transition from monarchy to democracy. The left’s tools were not neutral, could not be used in support of an agenda that at least wanted to slow down the process, if not reverse it. What we’re seeing now directly challenges the vestiges of this logic. The right has conceived its own notion of progress. As Peter Thiel put it, “Even if there are aspects of Trump that are retro and that seem to be going back to the past, I think a lot of people want to go back to a past that was futuristic —‘The Jetsons,’ ‘Star Trek.’ They’re dated but futuristic.” There’s a new kind of progress in town, with its own theory of history and its own narrative.

The alt-right is a loose coalition of groups that appears to be following a logic that goes something like this: If something is working against you, borrow its strategy and change its content. It’s a bit like the motto of classicism in art history, as articulated by Johann Winckelmann (generally considered the founder of art history): “In order to become inimitable, we must imitate the Greeks.” This pronouncement came in 1755, when Frederick the Great was the king of Enlightenment Prussia, himself a sort of preface for an efflorescence of “culture” that encompassed Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Caspar David Friedrich, and Friedrich Schiller. Imitate the Greeks, become culturally powerful; imitate the left, “elect,” as comedian Dave Chappelle put it, “an Internet troll.”  (Part 2 of this article will show just how seriously the trolls are suddenly taking the German Enlightenment.)

The alt-right, with Bannon at the helm, has adopted (Andrew) Breitbart’s idea of cultural appropriation, borrowing a raft of critical ideas from the academic left, putting them to use less in analysis that in production. In a March 2016 Breitbart round-up on the concept of the alt-right “for the establishment conservative,” Milo Yiannopoulos (who recently resigned from Breitbart and lost a book deal due to his positive comments about pedophilia) and Allum Bokhari called the very idea of an alternative right movement “amorphous.” Further, they tried to draw distinctions between actual practicing racists and those who are “just trolls” or “intellectuals,” like-minded culture warriors in their respective media. Yiannopoulos and Bokhari even recognize, citing a post from the “edgy” right-wing site The Right Stuff, the overlap between the identity and cultural politics of the far left and the far right. But they take it in the opposite direction. Think of the controversy that ensued when Miley Cyrus tried to twerk, then reverse the racial formula. Taking the notion that cultures can be but maybe shouldn’t be appropriated, the Far Right uses this not to defend minorities or the oppressed, but instead to isolate white culture, aiming to keep it unappropriated or uncontaminated: “The alt-right’s intellectuals would also argue that culture is inseparable from race. The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved.”

“Politics Really is Downstream from Culture” told fellow conservatives that the title is “one of the most important phrases of the New Media Age.” Echoing humanities professors everywhere, Breitbart continued, “Most importantly, it isn’t only the text that is important. It is also a story’s context and it’s [sic] subtext that deliver messages.” Narrative is what unites content and form, unites the message and its structure. Humanities professors beware: there’s a text in what Mother Jones called “White Nationalism.” The level of signification below or around the content of a message is what consolidates the message, ramifies the narrative, forms the self. Everything runs downstream from there.

But for Breitbart, it isn’t a question of analyzing narrative; the point is to produce it. That’s what Bannon is up to, and it should be utterly unsurprising to anyone whose job it is to analyze messages and understand culture. The article continues: “Culture influences politics, and in ways the left has understood for a long time.” Narrative creates solidarity by combining contextual and structural markers with explicit messages.

Maybe the left, precisely in its academic guise, has forgotten this.

Narrative also trumps critique, and “Ideology Critique” is one tool you won’t find on the list of the alt-right’s borrowings. To point out the internal inconsistency or even the bias of an argument can show where a narrative doesn’t make sense, but not how it works. The narrative creates solidarity across a broad spectrum of groups that don’t have to be united except in the narrative. This is because  narrative—according to the message from, of all places, the alt-right—is in our DNA.

Yiannopoulos and Bokhari use Jonathan Haidt’s 2013 The Righteous Mind as guide for the alt-right. Haidt’s book is a descriptive psychology of morals, and its central contention is that morality is deeper than reason and broader than the way we usually conceive of it. Haidt argues that there are as many as six “moral receptors” (care, fairness, loyalty, authority, sanctity, liberty) planted into human DNA, but that liberal politics only usually appeals to two (care and fairness). According to Haidt, conservatives and the poor, as well as any number (the number is never specified) of non-Western cultures, think that there’s more to morality than fairness and equality. What about “authority” and “sacredness?” Haidt argues that these are so deep-rooted, in fact, that they are in fact baked into our minds. Citing the neuroscientist Gary Marcus, Haidt says these “receptors” are “organized in advance of experience.” For Haidt, these moral receptors are sociobiological, conditioned by adaptive characteristics in the human animal.

So, for Haidt too, politics is downstream from culture, but culture is rooted in biology. What Haidt does is turn to biology for a story about morals. There are plenty of reasons not to do that, but my point here is that you can’t fight a story with facts, only with a different story.

(Haidt’’s argument is more along the lines of if they want to retake Congress, Democrats should more “welcoming” to Trump voters, an approach that ignores the virulent cultural margins driven by narrative and media. It’s those margins that have the greatest effect when elections split close to 50/50. It’s not really clear why being nice to Trump supporters would work on the deeper-than-reason part of moral sensibility, even according to Haidt’s own argument. It would make more sense, it seems to me, to “forget swing voters,” or give them something to swing to.)

Haidt’s story metastasizes in the alt-right’s hands. Haidt doesn’t use the outdated term “instinct” in any systematic way, but Yiannopoulos and Bokhari do. Haidt doesn’t get into a biology of racism, but Yiannopoulos and Bokhari do. “For natural conservatives, culture,” the latter write, “not economic efficiency, is the paramount value. More specifically, they value the greatest cultural expressions of their tribe” (emphasis added). So Yiannopoulos and Bokhari exploit the connection made by Haidt and others in the genteel liberal world of sociobiology between the natural and the social to justify a spectrum of attitudes that range from the “conservative” to the racist. In this way, the narrative is designed to produce solidarity across the conservative spectrum, attaching it to enthusiasm for low taxes and a host of other run-of-the-mill conservative political platforms.

In 1979, Jean-François Lyotard, a would-be vanguard of the academic left, defined the postmodern age as the end of the “grand narrative.” But maybe Lyotard was simply seeing the end of one kind of narrative, one that stretches all the way back to the French Revolution, and the many optimistic theories of history of the first two centuries of unrestrained capitalism. And while the left was busy having the last laugh at this kind of narrative, the right has been developing another for some thirty years. On the left, and in the academic humanities, it’s time to let the emergency wash away the pettier conflicts, such as whether it is acceptable to embrace narrative at all or if economics or identity is more important. As Winckelmann might have said, we have to become inimitable again.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Leif Weatherby is an assistant professor at New York University.

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