The Echo of the Culture Wars in the Obama-Clinton Fight

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Mr. Livingston teaches history at Rutgers. He's finishing a book called The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century. He blogs at politicsandletters.com.

I’ve been trying to figure out the philosophical predicates of the opposition to Obama’s candidacy—as attentive readers of HNN will know—and I’ve noted that the opposition coming from the Left is deeply rooted in Enlightenment values or discoveries, particularly in the correspondence theory of truth (which tells us that ideas are the copies and words are the transcriptions of an external reality).

So I think it might be worth going further down this genealogical road, as a way of emphasizing just how hegemonic the Left has become, of mapping its present political contours, and of predicting its political future.

I don’t want to corroborate the paranoia of right-wing talk radio by implying that the American Left is a monolithic movement for socialism. It’s not—it’s no less divided against itself than the Republican coalition that elected (sort of) the malingerer-in-chief, George W. Bush. Like the New Right, its intellectual reach exceeds any political party, program, or voting bloc; there are self-appointed libertarians, for example, who vote for left-wing Democrats, and there are avowed socialists who vote for the reactionary Ralph Nader. Unlike the New Right, however, the Left has a solid purchase on the future of American politics—maybe a franchise.

Even so, a large part of the American Left opposes Obama, just as a large part of the Right opposes McCain. Why? I sense that the opposition to (the enthusiasm of) Obama’s supporters derives from the Enlightenment notion that rhetoric as such is the enemy of truth-telling, particularly in politics but also in other areas of discourse. I sense that the opposition wants more attention paid to “material realities,” as they are called, and less attention paid to linguistic ornamentation.

According to the Enlightenment logic of this opposition to Obama, if we looked through the candidates, rather than at them—rather than at their surfaces—we would be better able to have an informed opinion, and would know that Clinton was the better candidate. We would know that she has real experience and solid programs, while he has only empty rhetoric, just words.

According to the same Enlightenment logic, grace, rhythm, timbre, timing, style, gesture, expression, etc., all the qualities we look and listen for in, say, a singer, should be overlooked or forgotten when we evaluate a politician. By this rigorous accounting, we’re supposed to be looking through the person as if he—or she—is not there. We’re supposed to be reading the lyrics, not listening to the song and meanwhile watching the singer.

Aside from the mere impossibility of such extreme abstraction from the living, breathing human being who is right there in front of you—or, to put it another way, aside from the mere imbecility of looking past the person who’s talking (or singing) to you—there is another difficulty, and it goes like this. The man or woman who is the candidate or the senator or the president is the interpreter and the voice of the policies written out by clerks like us. He can’t phone it in, and she has to sell it. As president, he or she will also be the embodiment of America abroad.

Why, then, would we want to repress his or her bodily presence in the name of something deeper, something more programmatic, more truthful, more substantial? To get down to dangerous cases, why would we want to insist that Obama’s race—or Clinton’s gender—has nothing to do with our choices? Don’t we want to make history with our choices?


Well of course we do, unless we pretend to be color-blind, or pretend to be immune to centuries of misogyny We always pay close attention to the performer and the performance, because we don’t read lyrics, we hear music. In fact, we respond to the music even when we don’t get the lyrics, whether they’re complicated (“Like a Rolling Stone”) or unintelligible (“Louie, Louie”) or meaningless (“Tutti-Frutti”), or, lest this litany place me beyond the pale of the present, all three: try on Amy Winehouse.

In hearing the music—in your hearing, except it’s not—a world elsewhere suddenly appears. It’s a strange place removed from where you are right now, with all its quotidian idiocies and attendant atrocities, and it feels both familiar and bizarre: it makes you feel both home and alone, all at once. You can probably dance to it. You might even be able to play along. Either way, you’re identifying with something you’re not.

That’s why rhetoric is never empty, and why music has no limit. Both make us listen in a very particular way. In your listening, your expectations are aroused specifically, by gestures, intonations, and generic codes, like when you hear, say, country music, and you know that tragedy is impending, you know that hope is improbable but necessary, you know that resignation is your role in this desperate life. Or when you hear the blues, and you know that the impending tragedy will be turned to comedy—not humor, comedy—with that last lyrical riff, that last satisfying chord in the familiar progression.

Or when you listen to a sermon or a symphony in silence because you know that’s the proper response to the performance of the preacher or the maestro. You know what to do before you get to the church or the auditorium. The sounds you hear first elicit and then confirm your expectations—sometimes with delightful surprises attached, usually not.

But here’s the thing. Which space, what sounds, do the candidates create? What are you going to do with Hillary Clinton? Her experience and competence and grim resolve and hard work and late hours—also her finger-pointing, and I don’t mean this metaphorically, I mean her signature gesture on stage—tell me that she’s going to do something for you. She can deliver the goods because she’s been through and been toughened by the culture wars. She has solid programs, not empty rhetoric and flowery speeches, and that, for you, is at it should be. She’s not cool, but she understands the material realities of our time.

Now when I ask, “What are you going to do with Hillary Clinton?” I don’t mean to return us to the question of who’d you rather have a beer with. Neither Democratic candidate strikes me as the kind of person you’d want to meet at the local bar—she’s too busy, he’s too edgy. They’d both be looking over your shoulder for more important patrons. In electing a president, we’re not looking for a friend, we’re looking for a leader.

By asking the question, I mean to suggest instead that listening in silence is the proper response to Clinton’s utterance because we know she doesn’t need our help. We know that her experience and competence and grim resolve and hard work and late hours will grind the Republican bastards down.

Obama does need our help. He needed our enthusiasm to lift him in the polls and to alert the press to the weird possibilities of his candidacy. He needed our money in those small but numerous doses that eventually exceeded the resources of the big donors Clinton still depends on.

But the truth contained in all the accusations of “empty rhetoric” is that Obama needs our response to make political sense of his unfinished journey—as an individual and a leader—and we need him to make cultural and psychological sense of our unfinished journey—as a people and a nation.

We don’t mind that he’s relatively inexperienced because we are, too, especially when it comes to imagining an America that is neither color-blind nor color-coded, but is just colored. He’s the Rorschach test onto which we have projected our best hopes and worst fears, and that, for us, is as it should be. We’re moved by the music he makes. Listening in silence is not an option when he speaks. We’re not reading the lyrics until the next day, so when you tell us that they make no sense—you say they’re unintelligible or meaningless—we say, “Yeah, but you can dance to it.”

I’m trying to say that the Obama campaign is a new instance of the call and response refrain that periodically convulses and renovates American culture, from the Great Awakening to punk rock and hip-hop by way of the ring shout, the “sorrow songs” and the blues. Obama’s political performance is, in fact, reminiscent of a rock star, as many mystified commentators have noted, from George Packer to David Brooks to Gideon Rachman, usually on their way to complaining that the content of the speeches they heard is somehow platitudinous, and eerily forgettable. No point in denying it. Do you remember the lyrics when you leave the concert?

But the truth contained in their mystification is that we are thinking with our bodies as well as our minds when we listen and respond to both Clinton and Obama, and that, for all of us, is at it should be. We can’t abstract from our embodied selves any more than we can abstract from the candidates as living, breathing human beings—not any more than we can treat each other as disembodied minds with no markers of our origins, our histories, the markers that, like it or not, are always already available for scrutiny and categorization by another person.

We can’t look through each other. Or rather, we need also to look at each other, to remind ourselves of the disconcerting, unmistakable particularity of every unruly individual we meet. The reciprocity born in this field of vision—it is not the fabled “logic of the gaze”—produces the risk of equality and the possibility of social movements that make a difference.

That possibility now resides in Obama’s campaign precisely because his rhetoric requires his audience and constituency to complete his phrases, to respond to his call. We’re supposed to be dancing, not just listening—we’re supposed to be performing as well as hearing the words or reading the lyrics. We’re supposed to be a concert in the old-fashioned meaning of the word.


Now thinking with our bodies would seem to be a way of acknowledging the most basic of material realities. But the wonderful irony of the current, and clearly urgent, opposition to Obama is that it recapitulates the Left’s fierce opposition to its own liberal kind in the 1990s—it recapitulates the fierce opposition to the “linguistic turn” that led us down the path of post-structuralism, away from the “material realities” that disfigure our lives.

You remember those culture wars on the Left, don’t you? They started in the 1980s and early 1990s with the furious response from avowed feminists to the semiotic definitions of gender developed by Joan Scott and Judith Butler. Seyla Benhabib and Nancy Fraser, two political theorists who trained in the Frankfurt School of “critical theory,” claimed, for example, that Butler’s account of gender formation robbed women of their political capacities.

Let’s look at some other examples of left-wing frustration with the “linguistic turn” of post-structuralist, post-modernist thinking in the late-20th century. Having done so, we will be in a position to understand that the so-called culture wars were mostly domestic squabbles—they were largely in-house arguments about the future of liberalism—until the very end of the century, when they spilled out into party politics. As Roger Kimball put it in the second edition of Tenured Radicals (1998), “the real battle that is now shaping up is not between radicals and conservatives but between radicals and old-style liberals.”

Our first example is from 1995, when Alan Sokal, a physicist from NYU, embarrassed the editors of Social Text by writing a hilarious parody of post-structuralist prose for a special issue on the “social construction of nature.” The day the issue came out, Sokal revealed his hoax in a magazine devoted to the cultural politics of academe. Like Lynne Cheney, Sokal believed in a fixed “external reality” governed by scientifically proven laws of motion—and like the editors of In These Times, a socialist newspaper published in Chicago, he believed the academic Left had lost its way when it made the “linguistic turn.”

As a dedicated activist who lent his time and money to many progressive causes, Sokal wanted to show that the Left was wasting its time on esoteric, trivial pursuits insofar as it was not concentrating on the “material realities” of poverty at home and abroad, but was instead just doing things with words, offering up empty rhetoric.

Our next example is from 1997, when Richard Rorty, a red-diaper baby and a bona fide liberal, followed the lead of Roger Kimball and, at Harvard’s invitation, delivered a withering critique of the Left that had taken over the universities. Like many right-wing critics of the same political tendency, Rorty called it the Cultural Left, but the story he told was a tale of decline and fall from the glory days of the New Deal, when the Old Left—a coalition of labor unions and intellectuals—invented the welfare state. First the New Left repudiated these predecessors; then its constituents went to graduate school, became professors, and taught their students how to hate their country. This Cultural Left spent “all its time talking about matters of group identity, rather than about wages and hours”—talking, that is, about something other than “material realities.”

Yet another example of left-wing culture wars is from 1999, when the eminent philosopher and ardent feminist Martha Nussbaum went after Judith Butler in the New Republic, courtesy of Leon Weiselthier (another old-school materialist who now worries that Obama’s happy talk of “change” distracts us from the obvious constraints of the real world). Here again the issue was the evasion of “material realities” and the erasure of individual agency supposedly navigated by the “linguistic turn.” Nussbaum’s blistering attack on Butler recalled the remarks made a decade earlier by Benhabib and Fraser, but its angry emphasis on those “material realities”—the phrase is used eight times in a seven-page piece—finally makes it sound like a parody of the vulgar Marxism once peddled by Communist Party hacks.

The critique of “tenured radicals” was, then, an intramural sport on the Left in the late-20th century. It was most definitely not a vast right-wing conspiracy—but it was in many ways conservative, because it sought to rehabilitate Enlightenment notions of individualism, agency, transparency, and objectivity.

So maybe Antonio Gramsci was right, after all, in saying that the “relation between commons sense and the upper level of philosophy is assured by ‘politics.’ ” Certainly there is an echo of the left-wing culture wars of the 1990s in the great divide over the merits of the Democratic candidates. Certainly the common sense of their different campaigns and different constituents can be mapped onto philosophical differences, and vice versa.

On the one hand, we witness a strenuously Enlightenment model—a campaign— demanding that we focus on “material realities” by looking through the candidates, by abstracting from their language, their rhetoric, and their embodied presence. On the other hand, we have a model—a campaign—assuming we have already taken the “linguistic turn,” and asking us to look at the candidates as well the substance of their programs.

Either way, liberalism wins. Either way, so does the Left.

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James Livingston - 3/5/2008

I'm bewildered by paragraphs 1-3 because I'm not accrediting her "experience," but thereafter I'm in complete agreement. Your "comment" is an important essay that could stand alone here at HNN.

My worries about Clinton are advertised over at the blog today, you may be interested: www.politicsandletters.com.

Jim Cane - 3/5/2008

While I do agree with most of what you say here, I think that there are a few points where this falls a bit flat.

First, it appears that you take for granted that the Clinton campaign's rhetoric of "experience" actually corresponds to concrete reality, and that conversely, Obama really is "unprepared" in comparison. This is simple rhetoric, and when called on it recently, the top campaign staff couldn't come up with an example of Clinton being "tested" when asked by someone from Slate. Their response? Her life story.

In other words, the notion of Clinton's superior experience is based on 1. her campaign repeatedly proclaiming that it is so; and 2. her personal experience not answering the phone at 3am, but her personal narrative. If we accept that somehow Obama's campaign is representative of the linguistic turn, then its difficult to see how the Clinton campaign is not based on that same linguistic turn, despite its own claims to be grounded in the concrete.

Second, and following the above, if we accept your analogy that Obama "needs us" as part of a call-and-response, the Clinton campaign seems based upon something not as appealing: deference. To follow your musical metaphor, Hillary Clinton is not a gritty Bruce Springsteen, but prog rock or Whitney Houston on a Coke commercial. We are supposed to be amazed (but not necessarily moved) at her competence; we are supposed to see the superiority of her abilities and just sit back and enjoy the ride.

And its here that I think the far more substantive difference between the two resides, and one that becomes clear if you compare Clinton's and Obama's writing, speeches, campaign strategies, and (yes) their respective formative experiences in politics. Hillary doesn't "need" us, because she is in a position of power, because she has essentially always been in a position of power, and because she envisions politics essentially as the arena of those who hold power. Her appeal resides in that (we hope) 1. she is competent; and 2. she is on the side of the angels; and 3. we can trust her to stay on that side.

There are some problems with this, even from a very pragmatic point of view. Her backroom deals on healthcare reform failed because she could not build public pressure for their approval. Her vote on the Iraq war reveals that she is either not nearly as intelligent and competent as she claims, or (more likely, if we take a look at the debates of the moment) she made a calculated move to favor her political position. Either way, this actually signifies something far greater than what the Obama campaign is claiming, since it is not just a question of judgment, but of trust. This cuts to the core of the underlying message of her campaign, which you portray pretty nicely: if we simply hand authority over to her, what guarantee do we have that we won't have a term dominated by well-intentioned but top-down and failed reforms? What guarantee do we have that she won't simply make decisions -- like invading a sovereign nation -- based not on principle, not on our interests, but on what is best for her? (That she and most other democrats paid far more attention to polling reports than to the NIE report before the vote for war is not a good precedent here.)

In looking at the Obama campaign, and his general conception of politics, something very different appears. If it is "call-and-response" and he "needs us," that strikes me as having far greater potential for accountability, for actually building public pressure to overcome a political rhetoric dominated by fear, innuendo, and unnecessary polarization. The potential with Obama is that on an issue like healthcare, he could build the bottom-up public pressure that Bill Clinton could not. There is a potential that he would have a cushion of support to counter right-wing claims of softness in an international crisis, as well as a healthy fear that a more mobilized public would turn against him if he turns against them.

At worst, we would get someone who renegs on all of that and governs like -- well, like Bill or Hillary Clinton.

Finally, there is the underlying social shift of which the linguistic turn is a manifestation: not just the far greater fluidity and fragmentation of what might have been coherent collective subjects in the mid-20th century, but the breakdown of the organizations that helped shape those collective identities and that were important in carrying out their politics. Part of the last 20 years has been the floundering of the Democratic Party as organized labor has become progressively weaker, and as appeals to cultural issues began to trump appeals to class. In practice, this meant that Democrats lose the ideological *and concrete* organizing institutions of labor, but have nothing to replace them. Republicans, in turn, gain something similar to what the Democrats lost: Churches.

On this terrain, the Obama campaign *might* signify not just the erosion of the Republican lock on Churches (he criticizes homophobia just as convincingly from the perspective of secular notions of citizenship and equality as he does from the perspective of the Sermon on the Mount), but the mobilization of sections of the public in a far less organized fashion than what unions could turn out, but a public that is growing rather than declining. And this is important: on the drive in today I heard an interview with one of my (red) state's uncommitted superdelegates, who said that his decision will come down not just to who he thinks will beat McCain, but who will be more likely to bring voters to the polls to win back the state legislature.

And where I live, looking at this question from a purely pragmatic and "reality-based" perspective, this is not something that Hillary Clinton can do.

James Livingston - 3/4/2008

Drafted? Hello? You mean, like back in the late-19th century, when money didn't matter in politics? Not. Ask yourself, and be honest now, when was that golden age of American politics, before or after money and media contaminated elections?

Maybe the 1850s? OK, what happened thereafter? The 1890s? Ha. Not even the 1790s qualify.

C'mon, "Larry," you can't be a conservative if you're this cynical about public opinion and normal political discourse. You're supposed to trust the people, remember?

Read more Dewey. He read the popular rituals of politics as "some of the most poetic features of our American life."

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 3/4/2008

I'm afraid I never listen to either one, so have missed the "music." It seems to me neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Obama have any qualifications at all to be President of the United States, other than their obvious ability to game the system and claw their way into the finals. I doubt if they are the first people many intelligent Democrats would choose for finalists. Your effort to make this a conflict between great historical cross-currents falls apart because of the way the candidates are chosen, i.e., via a sordid money chase among a dozen people, all with outrageous arrogance and supreme egoism, all pandering to different groups on the basis of sex, race, and a willingness to buy votes. Neither of these two was drafted, neither is better qualified than the other, and their contest is not worth agonizing over.

They are both nearly incompetent, both without substance, and both can accurately be described as opportunists. If one of them becomes POTUS and does something of lasting value, it will be an accident, and not the result of aptitute or sublime talent, or the noble evolution of leftist dogma! They are more likely to do lasting damage, of course, which is why most Americans will opt for McCain.

James Livingston - 3/3/2008

Absolutely agreed. The same split has no left/right valence, which is why I was trying to say that the left-wing critique of the "linguistic turn" was conservative.

William L Ramsey - 3/3/2008

This is a fascinating article, and it helps me think about the "culture wars" in new ways. Yet at the same time isn't a similar dynamic at work on the right between opponents of McCain and his more centrist supporters? My sense is that many conservatives are very committed Enlightenment advocates, and their coalition with the Fundamentalist wing of the Republican Party is quite complex, if not bizarre.

James Livingston - 3/3/2008

Agreed on the music metaphor--I stretched that thing as far as I could. Even so, it still works for me, because the performative issue is paramount in the great divide between Obama and Clinton supporters: just as it was in the great divide between the Butler and her critics in the 1990s.

By my accounting, the mainstream media just are liberal, left, whatever. The New Right is, well, right about this. Nothing wrong with that liberal tilt, unless journalists feel they have to tack right to satisfy the radio hounds and their enablers at FOX. The big debate is still about the future of liberalism, and it's conducted in the pages of the most prestigious newspapers and journals.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/2/2008

I think there's a lot of interesting ideas here, but I'm not convinced. The music metaphor and the intramural argument both, it seems to me, miss the mark in small but important ways.

On the music metaphor, there is a deep, ongoing debate about the sound/lyrics dichotomy (or spectrum, which seems more appropriate) in which a lot of people across the political spectrum fall on the supposedly Enlightenment/Left "lyrics matter" side. Music is not one thing: it ranges from (among other things) folk music for dancing, folk music for expressing joy, folk music for expressing outrage or telling stories, (and pop music, for what it's worth, covers the same spectrum and lyrics matter about the same amount: i.e. sometimes), music without words (some of which is narrative, and some of which isn't), music with words where the meaning has been removed or transformed (most Opera falls in to this category for American audiences, I suspect). Performance matters, yes, but there are pieces in which even pretty weak performers can shine and arouse, and pieces which even strong performers have difficulty carrying off.

Music metaphors rarely help, in my experience.

The recasting of the culture wars as an intramural Left conflict is entertaining, and the fracturing of the left is an interesting story, but to ignore the role of mainstream media in fostering conflicts, the stake of conservative/right figures and institutions in fueling the conflict, driving wedges, etc. is to raise it to a level of abstraction which does great violence to the actual history.