There is a debate brewing in the wake of Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s new book, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. On the one side we have George Lakoff arguing that the boundaries between left and right in American politics can be reshaped by skilled politicians capable of shaping public perception. On the other, we have Hacker and Pierson arguing that the Republicans have succeeded by protecting themselves from backlash from America’s centrist majority. They have done this not so much through the use of framing to reshape political identities as Lakoff argues, but through clever organizational strategies and bureaucratic tactics that buffer them from public opinion. (You can read about their book here, here, here, and here.)
What strikes me about this debate is that it involves two very different kinds of social scientific explanations, and nobody seems to have a strong sense of how the two fit together. On the one hand, we have a cognitive approach which looks at voter behavior in terms of their perceptions of political reality. On the other hand, we have an institutional analysis of the mechanisms used by the Republican party to secure access to the means to shape public perception.
The founders of modern sociology, Weber and Durkheim, both spent a great deal of attention on the process of rationalization: the shift from traditional values to modern rational-legal institutions. They worried about the dangers posed by this process. But they also overlooked the important ways in which modern, rational-legal, institutions are themselves shaped by values.
Once we understand this, we can see that it isn’t really a question of ideological framing vs. organizational power, but that the two are highly interdependent. Republican ideology may not reflect the true nature of America’s centrist politics, but more and more it reflects at least the professed beliefs of our political elite. It is a powerful force that ties them together and unifies them. That is why it is so hard for them to accept when Bush elevates cronyism over ideology in his nomination for the Supreme Court.
Values shape perceptions, they are an important ingredient in defining our shared interests, but they are much more than that. They are also a means by which we define our membership within a group. We adopt values contrary to our own self-interests because we often see larger gains to be made by allying ourselves with those in power, and by defending the value commitments of those we seek to ally ourselves with we bind ourselves to them. This is true whether you are a middle-class revolutionary adopting working class values, or a member of the working-poor embracing corporate values.
This is something that the Italian marxist philosopher-politician Antonio Gramsci understood. He compared the French revolution with the Italian Risorgimento and found that while the Jacobins had been able to embrace and ideology which emphasized their shared interests with rural peasants, the Italian elite had not been able to do the same. His writings on the “Southern question” discuss the long term impact of this failure for Italian unity. He also saw this as explaining the failure of Italy to follow in the revolutionary footsteps of the Soviet Union, since the workers of the North could not see their shared interests with southern peasants.
This last point is particularly important for understanding the United States, since race plays very much the same role here that the rural-urban divide did in Italy. It is too simple to say that the Democrats lost the South over race. At the same time, error and ignorance are not enough to explain why poor whites embrace corporate values. They do so because it is in their own interests to do so. Not because the policies resulting from such values will help them (the opposite is the case), but because in doing so they ally themselves with those in power. In a very fundamental way I don’t see it as much different from becoming a member of the Communist Party in Soviet Russia or pre-reform China.
Membership has its privileges.