Sunday, November 26, 2006

Hegemony Is The Enemy--Intro

With the election behind us, the task before us is enormous, more enormous than most folks realize. Political scientists describe American political history in terms of a series of “party systems,” which are divided from one another by decisive breaking points, known as “realigning elections.” The last universally agreed upon realigning election happened in 1932. While things have changed enormously since then, the Republicans were never able to dominate the political landscape with sweeping congressional majorities the way that Democrats were. The New Deal Party System crumpled, but did not fold.

And yet, that system is held in universal disdain by the punditocracy, even as evidence and rational discourse is held in disdain by the media generally. What has happened is the elite repudiation of the New Deal—an accommodation with the working [and middle] class necessitated by collapse of capitalism—even though the people still support it.

The elite repudiation can be understood in terms of the concept of hegemony. Whole books have been written about it, but basically it’s a $10 word meaning “a dominant ideology in commonsense drag.” This post sets up a series on hegemony, devoted to clarifying the battles ahead.

The Basic Thesis

My basic thesis is simple: The New Deal Party System was based on saving capitalism from itself. Only part of the capitalist class ever agreed to it, however. Once saved, capitalism eventually set about trying to destroy the New Deal, returning us to a pre-New Deal set of assumptions, gussied up a bit to look like something new. To win, we must successfully fight back, and meld what still works from the New Deal Party System with new ideas, new insights, new approaches to deal with the very different world we face in the 21st Century.

To do this successfully, we need to step back and see the really big picture. Big enough that global warming—saving the planet—is just one piece of the puzzle. That’s where the understanding of hegemony comes in. It’s the big-picture original of what Thomas Frank was struggling with in What’s the Matter With Kansas—it’s what helps explain why dirt poor Southern whites died by the thousands to preserve their oppressors right to own slaves.

If we understand hegemony, we will be much better able to understand what’s at stake in the battles before us—be they big or small. Above all, we will have a much better foundation for (1) strategizing on legislation, (2) strategizing on the 2008 elections, (3) strategizing on other forms of activism, (4) strategizing on coalition-building and (5) strategizing on institution-building.

Plan of This Diary

This is a “get your toes wet” diary. I’m going to talk a bit about the big picture, a little bit about some current buzz, and little bit about what’s in store for the series. I won’t be looking back into the roots of understanding hegemony, as I originally planned for this diary. I did enough of that to get started in my prelude post, "Hegemony Is The Enemy--Prelude--Milton Friedman", and I’ll go into greater depth in the next installment in this series. For now, I want to give some sense of the scope involved—the big picture view—and how readily it connects with ongoing concerns.

In other words, I want to answer the question, “Why bother?” And I want prepare folks for my forward-looking approach, which involves recasting the idea of hegemony in terms of a much more recent social science theory of group dominance developed in the 1990s, as well as drawing on other recent developments in cognitive science.

Three Aspects of Hegemony

I’m going to be concerned with three major aspects of hegemony (present in Gramsci’s formulation) which, conveniently, are all parts of a recently developed theory of group dominance, known as social dominance theory (SDT), which I’ve written about before, here for example. I’ll talk more about SDT and hegemony after my next planned post of this series, which will dig into the concept itself in more depth. For now, I just want to introduce the three parts, without talking in detail about how they fit together. These are:

(1) Narratives that shape and express our commonsense perceptions, rendering some ideas inherently more acceptable than others, some ideas virtually unthinkable, and other ideas virtually unquestionable. Some such narratives are quite clearly political: “Democrats are weak on defense,” for example. Or “America was founded as a Christian nation.” Others are more cultural: the suburbs as a refuge of safety and normalcy, for example (for a rather successful counter-hegemonic narrative, see Desperate Housewives.) There are an extraordinary variety of hegemonic narratives, and I won’t pretend to deal with all the kinds that are out there. I will, however, work to illuminate some examples, and encourage others to join in as well.

(2) Institutions that perpetuate hegemony. Most of these—such as the media—may also present challenges to hegemony (again, see Desperate Housewives), so I’m not trying to play a big game of heroes and villains. But some—such as rightwing think-tanks—are very heavily weighted in favor of maintaining hegemony. Institutions perpetuate (or challenge) hegemony directly via the narratives they promote (or oppose), as well as by changing (or resisting change to) facts on the ground. They also influence people via direct experience.

(3) Individual attitudes, which are influenced in various ways by institutions and narratives, and also influence them in turn, though generally in a less organized and effective manner.

I’ll have a good deal more to say about how these three aspects function and interact. But I’d like to point out one thing as an example: The vast majority of Americans support the welfare state at the level of individual attitudes (#3 above). The welfare state is one of the major defining institutions (#2 above) of our political system, and because it counters the power of private capital, and privately-controlled charity, it is a powerful hedge against hegemonic power (although, of course, it also serves hegemonic functions as well). Yet, at the level of hegemonic narratives (#1 above), several things can be observed. First, conservative support for the welfare state, although actually quite extensive, is virtually never acknowledged. Second, support for the welfare state is generally not associated with liberalism—except for use in attacking liberalism, such as calling singer-payer health care “socialized medicine.” Indeed, economic populism generally is not associated with liberalism, except for use in attacks. Third, “liberalism” is hegemonically defined in terms of the most sharply-contested, cutting-edge social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.

Thus, following the Democrat’s sweeping victory earlier this month, there was talk about how the new liberal Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, would steer away from a liberal agenda, and instead concentrate on mainstream centrist agenda items, such as raising the minimum wage. The minimum wage, of course, is one of the key aspects of New Deal liberalism. Yet, precisely because it is so widely popular, the hegemonic discourse has virtually severed any connection between liberalism and the minimum wage. Indeed, it is openly presented in opposition to a “liberal agenda.”

This is hardly an isolated example. The very notion of a “liberal media” depends upon severing liberalism from its economic dimension, as does the attempt to identify conservatism with “the little guy,” embattled by “liberal elites.” Historically, liberalism has concerned itself with the expansion of freedom, opportunity, and social equality. The expansion of economic opportunity provided by the welfare state was the launching pad from which the modern civil rights and women’s rights movements took off. Severing that historical connection in the popular consciousness has been one of the chief aims of rightwing activists seeking to restore the hegemonic dominance of private capital.

A Little Example of What “Hegemony” Can Help Us Do

I’d like to take a few of current events to illustrate how the concept of hegemony gives us a more unified understanding of what’s going on. I’ll discuss a couple very briefly, and then one at greater length.

First, consider Glenn Greenwald’s somewhat oddly-titled post, "The meaninglessness of tenure," about the conservative attack on the term “Christianist,” put in play by libertarian conservative Andrew Sullivan. As Greenwald points out, the term is direct parallel to “Islamist,” a term widely used by the very people attacking Sullivan for his use of “Christianist.” Both terms refer to those trying to impose their religious beliefs onto others, using the power of the state. And yet, the attacks on the term “Christianist” even go so far as calling use of the term “hate speech”:
UPDATE IV: What makes Althouse and Reynolds' claim here so particularly dishonest is that their ideological comrade, Hugh Hewitt, previously made the same argument -- that Sullivan's use of the term "Christianist" is "deeply offensive." Hewitt was just as petulant and hysterical as Reynolds was, labelling the term "hate speech." In response, Sullivan explained exactly what the term means and what it does not mean:
    Christianity, in this view, is simply a faith. Christianism is an ideology, politics, an ism. The distinction between Christian and Christianist echoes the distinction we make between Muslim and Islamist.
While Greenwald does a superb job of eviscerating the attacks blow-by-blow, he doesn’t discuss the big picture here. What we’re seeing is an attempt to suppress consciousness, suppress awareness, by suppressing use of a word to name a troubling phenomena. This is the very essence of how hegemony is maintained—by sanctifying some words, demonizing others and suppressing still others that might help expose the sanctifying/demonizing game.

Second, consider tristero’s post at Hullabaloo, "Advocating War If You Haven't Served," which takes on yet another attempt to delegitimize the “chickenhawk” label—this time by Kevin Drum. The term “chickenhawk” is one of those rare counter-hegemonic terms with extraordinary resonance and power, so it’s no wonder that hegemonic discourse demands its undoing—even moreso, perhaps, than “Islamist.” The fact that Kevin Drum should engage in this policing just goes to show how deeply hegemonic thought penetrates. In response, tristero writes:
I don't object in general to people who advocate war who haven't served. I object to the specific situation we have in regards to Bush/Iraq. I strongly object to the chickenhawks for their warped attitude in regards to this particular war. It is not merely that they are advocating war without having suffered the consequences. It is their loopy, ungrounded-in-reality enthusiasm for this war that I find revolting, an attitude that minimizes war's horrors rather than focusing on them, as any responsible person would.

Chickenhawks rarely if ever try to make the case that as awful as the sufferings of war are for everyone involved, reluctantly, this war is necessary. That is because there simply is no case to be made, never has been. Instead the chickenhawks are happy to go to war; rather than acknowledge that sometimes war is a solemn, unavoidable obligation, we hear about Grand Global Strategies or that Saddam was working with al Qaeda, or war is some kind of of post 9/11 therapy. And the chickenhawk discourse descends rapidly to the moral sewer, where a demented John Podhoretz will blithely talk about how the biggest mistake at the beginning of Bush/Iraq was that "we" didn't kill enough young Iraqis. (The biggest mistake at the beginning of the war was starting it.)

But the chickenhawks go even further than just excitedly embracing the prospect of waging war against Iraq for no reason. They have the unmitigated gall to denounce everyone who opposed Bush/Iraq as naive, as traitorous, as third-rate minds, as not really comprehending the nature of the threat, and so on. They are perfectly willing to describe the tens of millions of people who marched in February '03 in opposition to the war as "objectively pro-Saddam," a remark as utterly ignorant as high-five enthusiasm to fight a war is.

In short, it is the lack of even the slightest comprehension of what war really is, combined with their belligerent, dismissive arrogance that makes the question of the chickenhawks' own willingness to serve in the Bush/Iraq war a more than fair question.
In short, no one ever called FDR a “chickenhawk”—and for good reason. He knew that war was a bloody horror, that it required sacrifice by all, and he was willing to set ideology aside in order to fight it. He differed from the chickenhawks on all three counts. The term was never intended to apply to the likes of him. Indeed, in its origins it was not about people who had simply, passively, not served, and then advocated war on Iraq. It was about people who had actively worked hard to escape service, and then made support for the Iraq war a test of patriotism, demonizing all opposition—including, of course, the opposition of combat veterans who had taken the chickenhawks’ places on the battlefield.

Finally, the event I’d like to discuss at more lengths is Tom Edsall’s debut New York Times Op-Ed, "The Struggle Within", already discussed on the front pages of MyDD and DKos. Edsall is a big cheese of Beltway journalism—longtime writer on national politics for the Washington Post—and the writer of “serious books.” His latest, rather ill-timed, is Building Red America: The New Conservative Coalition and the Drive for Permanent Power.

Now, to be fair, the description of Edsall’s book—which I have not read—does not necessarily sound silly at all, despite the Republican’s recent thumping. Edsall is correct that Republicans are attempting the first deliberately engineered political realignment in our history. He is also correct that it has many different aspects—as members of the blogosphere have long and repeatedly been pointing out, while Edsall’s journalistic brethren have been otherwise occupied taking dictation. Judging from the book description, some of the same territory was covered by an excellent book that I have read, Off Center: The Republican Revolution and the Erosion of American Democracy. But there is apparently more to Edsall’s thesis—more which makes him think that the Dems are in deep trouble and in need of changing their ways, even after the GOP’s thumping earlier this month.

Greg Mitchell, the Editor of Editor and Publisher, has written one of his super-sharp pieces on Edsall’s NTY debut, “Despite Election Results, Edsall Still Sees 'Red'”. In it, Mitchell writes:
So what does he do on Saturday? He offers advice to the Democrats on how they can avoid certain disaster for the party and stop trudging along as “No.2.” He also predicts that liberalism is “dead” and “rigor mortis” will soon set in, and the party as a whole must undergo a “painful transformation.” This comes on the heels of the Democrats’ national triumph, and it comes from a man who in his recent book was prescient enough to write, "The Republican Party holds a set of advantages, some substantial and some marginal,” meaning that "the odds are that the Republican Party will continue to maintain, over the long run, a thin but durable margin of victory."


Talk about bad timing. Just weeks after the release of Edsall’s book, the GOP lost that predicted edge in the House, the Senate, statehouses around the country, and governorships. It’s amazing they still kept their majority at FoxNews. The leader of their party now sits in the White House with a 31% approval rating. Yet here is Edsall, the ace prognosticator, dispensing wisdom to Democrats.
Giving Edsall the benefit of the doubt, especially in light of Off-Center, here’s what seems to be going on: The GOP really has tried to engineer a political realignment. This is not really news on the blogosphere. But Edsall’s vision is selective, and is particularly skewed by his Beltway (hegemony central) perspective. Many of the arguments he advances, which Mitchell notes, are typical examples of hegemonic discourse—that is, they are Beltway “common sense” [aka “conventional wisdom”] that is heavily shaped by ideology. Some examples from Mitchell’s column:

Liberalism is ‘dead’ and ‘rigor mortis’ will soon set in, and the party as a whole must undergo a “painful transformation.”
Pundits have been saying this ever since McGovern lost in 1972—no, check that. They’ve been saying it ever since the Supreme Court ruled most of the First New Deal unconstitutional, before the Second New Deal and FDR’s landslide re-election in 1936. As I’ve noted before, liberalism is very popular with people, even if the label is not. The same has been true for as long as polls have been taken.

Edsall was so eager to sell his new book that he appeared recently on rightwing radio host Hugh Hewitt's program, where he admitted that the mainstream media has an “overwhelmingly” strong liberal bias -- making the job for his former colleagues in the industry so much easier -- and estimated that Democrats outnumber Republicans in newsrooms by 15 or 25 to 1. This margin is not sustained by a single survey, even the slanted ones frequently cited by Hewitt and has brethren.
Of course, that’s why the media cites conservative think tanks much more often than it cites progressive ones. It’s all those Democrats trying to cover their tracks. Hegemonic discourse often works by repeating partial truths ad nauseum, while never even whispering the other parts of the truth.

In his book, Edsall paints the Democrats as hapless and disorganized and forever outfoxed by Republicans on the campaign trail.
Even much of the blogosphere has bought into this one. Of course, the Democrats are disorganized. But they’re always been disorganized. They were disorganized back in 1936, when FDR won every state in the union except Maine and Vermont. Republicans have money and organization. Democrats have people and passion. That’s how it’s always been. Hegemonic discourse often works by repeating partial truths ad nauseum, while never even whispering the other parts of the truth. (Is there an echo in here?)

In the book, Edsall continually mocks the Democrats’ “elitist” ways, declares that its candidates' attempts to portray themselves as “populists” will surely fail, and suggests the Republicans will probably "stay" in charge because they are culturally in tune with the majority of voters: "Traditional values of family, neighborhood, church, school, and the workplace are, to millions of voters, 'money in the bank' -- they are what holds people together, providing security against a rainy day."
Here, Edsall is simply channeling Rush Limbaugh & Bill O’Reilly, those folksy multi-millionaires who never tire of denouncing elitists like teachers, firefighters, paramedics, etc. This is a real mother lode of hegemonic discourse, which could warrant an entire post all to itself. For brevity’s sake, simply note the extraordinary expansion of “traditional values” to turn even one of the conservatives’ most hated enemies—the public school teacher—into one of their own!

(5) Mitchell notes that Edsall, “Like so many of his colleagues, past and present, at The Washington Post,” minimizes public disgust with the GOP “for rampant corruption, family values hypocrisy and lying about Iraq (and then handling the postwar war incompetently),” while claiming the problem is Pelosi & Co:
Yet here is Edsall, in today's New York Times, proclaiming that the party’s leadership – slowed only by Rep. Steny Hoyer and Rep. Rahm Emanuel – will drive the party off the cliff if given half a chance. “The Democratic Party can secure its 2006 gains, but to do so will require abandoning a decades-long willingness to indulge pressure groups on the left that no longer command broad popular allegiance,” he writes. He may be right about some of the oldline interests, but the new “pressure groups” – grassroots, Web-driven activists -- now call the tune in many elections, and proved remarkably successful this year.
Actually, Mitchell is too kind to Edsall. Union membership may still be down, but the number of people who want to be in a union, or who support union goals—such as raising the minimum wage—remains a solid majority, including lots of folks in the Republican base. Environmentalists enjoy similar broad support, as do civil rights advocates, feminists, consumer protection advocates, etc., etc., etc. That’s why the Republicans have to lie all the time about what their legislation is doing—because it goes against what the vast majority of Americans want in all these issue areas.

Now, you may wonder what’s gained by talking about “hegemonic discourse,” when I could just say, “it’s the same damn pack of lies we’ve heard a thousand times before.” And you’d have a point—if this was all there was to it. But it’s not. These lies (and half-truths) have long histories—as some of my comments indicated. They did not just pop out of nowhere. Nor are they isolated from other lies and half-truths.

We can play whack-a-mole with them till we have blisters the size of Kansas (that’s what’s the matter with Kansas, btw), or we can get smart, trace them back to their sources, and deal with them there. If we learn to recognize patterns of hegemonic rhetoric, we’re in a much better place to deal with it, than if we get sucked into arguing over ever new twist that’s introduced.

What’s Ahead

In future installments I plan to discuss the following:

(1) Hegemony as Gramsci and other theorists have described it.
(2) Social Dominance Theory, and how it illuminates the inter-relations of the three aspects of hegemony—narratives, institutions and individual attitudes.
(3) The relationship of hegemony to realigning elections, and its implications for electoral and party-building strategy.
(4) Cognitive complexity and hegemony. (See my diary, “Terri Schiavo, We’re Too Smart!”
(5) Demonization and identification in hegemonic narratives. (“Us vs. Them”)
(6) The role of rightwing think-tanks as hegemony machines.
(7) The Overton Window strategy—how it changes hegemonic discourse without changing fundamental attitudes or reality, and how Democrats can do it better.
(8) Examples of hegemonic narratives we need to understand and contest. (Order may vary):(9) Strategies and tactics for fighting hegemony.
(10) Principles for organizing in light of hegemony.

More installments are possible. Changes in order are also possible. But this represents the most sensible ordering I can see at present. I’ll try to do these installments about twice a week, on average.