Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Nate Cohn on Flipping of Culture-War Calculus, Michael Sean Winters's Response: The Growing Quandary for Catholic Centrism

Nate Cohn writes at The New Republic that "the old culture war calculus has flipped from favoring Republicans to Democrats."  And Michael Sean Winters responds at National Catholic Reporter

The historic vocation of the Democratic Party is to fight for the interests of the working class. If it abandons that vocation to become a policy defined around preferences in the culture wars, I, for one, will no longer be interested in the Democratic Party.

Here's the dynamic I see Cohn describing: our culture has now reached a point of critical mass when it comes to issues like same-sex marriage (and about issues of women's rights: witness the strong and successful pushback against Susan B. Komen's attempt to slap Planned Parenthood around for partisan political reasons).  For a number of decades now, the Republican party has made political hay out of ginning up white working-class fears about a rapidly changing society in which the gays are coming out of the closet and traditional gender roles are being renegotiated--a point Joan Walsh makes superbly well in her comments about the Akin situation at Salon today.

But the GOP has come to a point of diminishing returns with its gay-bashing and its war on women.  Any fool could see this coming, with the demographic shifts that have occurred in American society in recent years, in which the white men who have been given more or less exclusive power in the Republican party are now having a good run for their money as more and more people of color, more and more Hispanics, and more and more women come along to climb to positions of power.  There's also the demographic shift represented by younger voters to think about.

Rather than extend its conversation about power to include all those it has disempowered for decades now, the GOP has, instead, doubled down on its exclusionary rhetoric and on its defense of white (heterosexual) male privilege and white (heterosexual) male entitlement.  And now the party is, to borrow Walsh's terminology, reaping what it has long sown with its nasty, destructive culture-war game-playing.

This leaves "Democratic" Catholic centrists like Michael Sean Winters high and dry.  Their power has been situated quite precisely in presenting themselves as "liberals" during a period in which the Republican party has dominated national politics--in presenting themselves as "liberals" so that they could keep authentic liberals out of the Catholic and Democratic conversations, while preaching to the  GOP about its failure to listen carefully to Catholic social teaching vis-a-vis workers' rights.

As I've said repeatedly here, pseudo-liberal Catholic centrists actually thrive when the right is in power, since their power base presupposes the broker's position that permits them to act as "liberals" while endorsing much that the religious and political right promotes in the name of Christian "family values." Catholic centrists are singularly unprepared for the shift described by Nate Cohn, since they have been just as blind to the impending cultural shift Cohn describes as has the GOP for which they've secretly shilled lo these many years now.  They've been just as unprepared as has the GOP for the development of a critical mass in American culture that portends to reverse the serious damage the Republican party has done to LGBT people and women for years now, while claiming to defend "values."

Damage that has been inflicted with nary a peep from those same Catholic centrists who say they're defending human rights (narrowly defined, it goes without saying, as workers' rights or the rights of immigrants and the unborn) . . . . As if it's possible to maintain credibility as you pretend that some groups of human beings just aren't there, or aren't fully human, while you insist that human rights have to be front and center in the ethical considerations of a political party . . . . 

As Timothy Tyson notes in Blood Done Sign My Name, the Republican party adroitly played to the subliminal racial fears of both Southern whites and working class voters in the North, many of them Catholic, in the period from Nixon forward to build its power base at the end of the 20th century.  The mass exodus of white Democrats to the Republican party in this period was paralleled by a mass exodus of white working-class Democrats outside the South, a large percentage of them Catholic, to the Republican party.  The latter exodus was spurred, however, more by rhetoric about "family values" and moral decline than about race, but as Tyson notes (and he's correct) that rhetoric about "values" and moral decay was really at its very core all about playing on fears among white working-class voters re: the perplexing racial (and, later, gender) shifts in American society from the middle of the 20th century forward.

And so if Michael Sean Winters now leaves the Democratic party, he'll be making--finally--a decision that many Catholic voters with whom he has always found himself comfortably aligned have made a long time since.  And perhaps he'll find some peace in being able to live openly as the theologically and socially conservative thinker he actually is--very conservative to the point of being reactionary.  Perhaps he'll find some peace in no longer having to play that dishonest mediating role of the faux-liberal Catholic centrist while promoting a reactionary agenda, a role that surely must wear on the souls of people who keep talking on and on about the human rights of selected groups of fellow human beings and fellow Catholics . . . 

while pretending that certain other groups of fellow human beings and fellow Catholics simply aren't there and aren't worthy of consideration or of any hearing at all.

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