Perhaps more clearly than any other stories in recent memory, the dual developments of I) public health leaders excusing popular protests from social distancing rules, and II) the mercurial meaning of the #DefundThePolice rally cry have revealed that bitter partisanship in American politics does not stem primarily from disagreements over policy. The rapidly shifting, contradictory definitions of “lockdown” and “#DefundThePolice” from one moment to the next suggest that American political fissures cannot be fully understood as substantive or even ideological differences. This is not to say that the “infinity war” of 2020’s polarized polis has nothing to do with politics or ideology, but rather that political and ideological divisions are artifacts of a deeper source of faction and conflict: an identitarian culture war that predates and will outlive its woke vs. MAGA incarnation.
Take the example of prominent public health voices making exceptions to once sacrosanct prohibitions on public gatherings in order to bless nationwide protests against police brutality and America’s long train of racial abuses. First, it bears emphasizing that police brutality and America’s long history of injustice due to racism are categorically reprehensible, and free speech and assembly in the name of overcoming these evils are categorically right. Without getting into legal complexities around time, place, and manner restrictions on First Amendment rights, that what were once propounded as ostensibly neutral and generally applicable rules to prevent and control infectious disease turned out to have country-mile-wide loopholes for the expression of certain viewpoints — however valid they are — demonstrates not only the hypocrisy of those who backpedalled on their initial public health proclamations but also the unseriousness of their professional commitments.
Of course, the world is a messy place of competing values and tradeoffs. That’s what the skeptics of inflexible distancing and gathering rules have said for some time. It is entirely defensible for anyone considering the totality of the circumstances and manifold dimensions of moral life (rights-based, utilitarian, etc.) to conclude that protesting police brutality and racial injustice is more important than abiding regulations to control infectious disease. What is less defensible, however, is that those who previously allowed no exceptions (moral, political, compassionate, etc.) to the highest-possible good of public health regulations came to advocate, without admitting the shifting bases of their value judgments, for a particular political struggle’s exception to the universal rule. And not only that it qualified for an exception but that it had itself become the highest-possible good, coterminous with the campaign for public health generally.
It would even be entirely defensible, in that vein, to attempt to argue that on a single scale of utilitarian values, over some time horizon, the loss of life due to police brutality would be greater than that due to COVID-19, and that with the sober rationality of a scientist we must cold-bloodedly triage the competing societal tragedies. But note the word “argue.” Some public health officials made conclusory statements that police brutality was as great a public health crisis as, or a greater public health crisis than, COVID-19. But the enlightened technocrats who once browbeat skeptics (and often with good reason) with charts and graphs and models — dispassionate quantitative measures that can be directly compared — all of a sudden did no such thing to justify their new “public health” conclusions.
That humans are fallible and hypocritical is not a terribly interesting observation. But that public health voices could toggle their primary criterion for public policy recommendations from “public health” to “other” is a prime example of the thesis that something other than policy animates our political divide. It is also an example of how something other than ideology explains that divide. On a philosophical axis of authoritarian to libertarian, the public health voices that went from arguing for universal lockdown to nationwide protest vaulted from authoritarian to anti-authoritarian overnight. It is true that the bundle of commitments on the center left has often seen a preference for the heavy hand of the state on matters of economics coexist with a skepticism of state power on matters of policing. Yet consider who was tasked with enforcing the sacred distancing rules of yore. Of course, enforcing the law goes hand in glove with law enforcement. But without any indication of experiencing cognitive dissonance, a prominent body of political voices would simultaneously send in the cops to protect public health and abolish the cops to protect public safety.
When it comes to abolishing the cops, #DefundThePolice is both a prime example of a motte and bailey fallacy and of how cultural styling and posturing trumps political and ideological commitments as the salient criteria of American partisan division and discourse.
#DefundThePolice means many things to many people, running the gamut from radical abolition of the police to longstanding, bipartisan ideas for reforming the police (which some police might even welcome). That it simultaneously means contradictory things is a feature not a bug. It allows the partisan to signal political radicalism that reveals identity, due to how the slogan alienates “the right enemies,” while simultaneously requiring no particular policy preference. Do proponents mean disarming cops, disempowering police unions, ending qualified immunity, changing rules of engagement and limits on the use of force, etc.? It doesn’t matter. Because the primary objective is to demonstrate that one does not want to be seen as a moderate even if one’s policy preferences are moderate.
What About the Other Side?
While the two broad examples examined here tend to come from the left, not much else needs to be added to demonstrate the same phenomenon of cultural commitment dominating political and ideological commitment on the right other than: see President Donald J. Trump.
In addition, while the examination above, admittedly, is a stylized overgeneralization of beliefs on the left, the right can similarly be stylized to reflect the inverse positions but same inconsistencies on the issues above:
|Policing||– Abolish the cops|
– Law enforcement professionals are presumptively compromised
|– Send in the cops|
– Law enforcement professionals deserve deference
|Pandemic||– Send in the cops|
– Public health professionals deserve deference
|– Abolish the cops|
– Public health professionals are presumptively compromised
[Epistemic posture: more speculative:] There is also something to be said about inconsistencies on both sides regarding what constitute appropriate terms of debate. This is subject to even greater grayness and more exceptions to the rule than the analysis above, which, again admittedly, was already subject to some grayness and exceptions. Nonetheless, a stylized examination of “left and right” reveal a modicum of internal inconsistency on when it is appropriate to invoke, and how much deference can be given to, statistical and data-driven discussions of societal problems. When it came to the lockdown, certain corners of the right found themselves eschewing data-driven arguments for less contingent value judgments on what the good life entailed in all circumstances. Fair enough. When it comes to policing, certain corners of the left find themselves committed to first principles of justice and dignity that transcend certain bloodless quantitative descriptions of historical trends. Again, fair enough. Everyone is entitled to their “stubborn attachments.”
It is the job of reasoned political discourse to parse the boundaries between “stubborn attachments” and areas for consequentialist compromise — to find common ground among first principles and debate acceptable means toward those common ends. This process breaks down not when some corners hold onto their “stubborn attachments” but rather when those corners view empirical and consequentialist analysis as inherently illegitimate; not when they are unmoved by a type of argument but when they are opposed to the argument itself.
So here too with methodology lies inconsistency within both partisan camps. To once again oversimplify, corners of the right reject empirical analysis of public health but accept it with respect to public safety, and certain corners of the left accept empirical analysis of public health and reject it with respect to public safety.
So What’s Going on?
That the “culture war” is the sine qua non of American political conflict is not a new idea. The question is what beyond being “for it or aginnit” with respect to the typical list of “guns, god, and gays” defines the culture war’s battle lines. Here’s a theory held with intermediate confidence: the fundamental dividing line is fashion.
The fault line that separates two separate bundles of heterogenous philosophical and methodological commitments masquerading as coherent ideological camps is the acceptance or rejection of the legitimacy and high status of a taste-making class.
Broadly speaking, the American left accepts the high status and authority of the taste-making class and the American right rejects it. Fashions evolve but the present-day camps’ general veneration or rejection of vogue for vogue’s sake does not.
The taste-making class largely but does not entirely overlap with the “elite.” Wealth is neither necessary nor sufficient to be a tastemaker. The taste-making institutions are themselves like Plutarch’s Ship of Theseus — the components may change completely but the identity of the institution holds over time. In fact, the tastemakers’ position is among the most tenuous in society — they are eminently replaceable planks in a permanent ship.
The taste-making institutions occupy the upper rungs of cultural creation and dissemination: media, entertainment, and academia. Fashion is the emergent product of the internal and external incentive structures that govern these institutions. Fashion is the net constellation of memes, and their derivatives, that these institutions propagate and confer high status upon.
Social media has enhanced fashion’s relevance. It has made signals of cultural status ever more present and ever more important. While social media has created new outposts among the upper rungs of media, entertainment, and academia, it has not fundamentally changed the fact that these rungs are the redoubt of fashion. It has made the reach of legacy fashion institutions much farther and has turbocharged the meme competition among the top rungs of culture, since the barriers to cultural transmission have been lowered, which, in turn, created a race to the top that raised the barriers to high status.
This is not to say that the right categorically rejects the output of fashion. Rather the right reserves the option of refusing to attest to the quality of a given fashion product. Whereas the left accepts a fashion product’s quality as an inherent property of the authority of the institutions that produced it.
The right is skeptical of the high status of the lockdown and #DefundThePolice whereas the left embraces the lockdown and #DefundThePolice because the signifiers themselves are high status, regardless of what is actually signified — the terms of the lockdown and the meaning of #DefundThePolice, after all, are entirely rewritable.