Democracy and despotism in a digital age.
Narratives 1, Conservatives 0
The high cost of losing postmodern America’s political language games.
If we are to listen to Jordan Peterson, Postmodernism is truly a dirty word, especially for the Right. At the same time, if I am to listen to today’s academics, postmodernism is ridiculously passé: it’s been dead since the ‘90s, boomer. Now, I happen to quite dislike the nihilism of postmodernity, but if conservatives want to understand why they don’t ever seem to conserve anything, the sooner they face this fact the better: we are living in postmodernity—and most people seem to be ok with it.
Nothing is more demonstrative of this fact than our current politics.
Postmodernity is assuredly a loaded buzzword, but there’s no point trying to deny its central claim: grand narratives have broken down, severing the link between signifier and signified. That’s why an even bigger buzzword is politics, and who or what that is. Politics is not just the business of politicians; it also includes all other buttresses of the iron polygon of power: media, academia, entertainment, public relations, pressure groups, etc. To put it simply, politics today means the selling of narratives. This development is not new, and has existed essentially since the advent of Western democracy. Even when you watch Tucker Carlson, instead of Rachel Maddow, or when you listen to Donald Trump instead of Joe Biden, you are stepping into the marketplace of narratives. Narrative merchants are hardly restricted to selling a solution to problems. They often sell you the problems themselves, which provide the origin story for a whole constellation of values, culprits, victims, and calls to action that can fill airtime and mobilize money. When pundits in 2016 discussed “The Wall”, to take one prominent example, the discussion was never around its merits at stopping illegal immigration. Instead it became a clash of two irreconcilable narratives: particularism vs. openness, the wrongs of immigration vs. the rights, natives as victims vs. immigrants as victims, open borders as the culprit vs. racism as the culprit, and on and on.
In a modernist understanding, narratives like these arise from a coherent worldview (“weltanschauung”). Signifiers like “patriotism” were linked with signifieds, concrete reference points rooted firmly in reality. In postmodernity, however, these grand narratives break down and abstract imaginings, not concrete reality, sit at their center. You, me, and the American voter remain insatiable narrative consumers. But our flights of rhetorical entertainment and enmity play out at the level of words themselves, no longer linked to the facts on the ground. What matters is winning the battle of dreams.
Disturbingly, not only grand narratives break down in the acid bath of postmodern politics. Our own personal identities fragment too. Consider the case of Dan Crenshaw, human virtue signal. He is a red-blooded ‘Murican CHRISTIAN PATRIOT, he stands behind the PRESIDENT, he is against OPEN BORDERS, he’s a tough guy Navy SEAL that will protect the CONSTITUTION. So far so good. Purely through signaling, Dan Crenshaw became one of the most popular young faces of the GOP and movement conservatism.
In actual reality though, Crenshaw is in favor of Red Flag laws and gay marriage, doesn’t seem to want to reduce overall immigration (in fact, quite the contrary), is willing to limit the first amendment to stop criticisms of Israel, was vocally against Trump’s “insane rhetoric” in 2015, and called Jesus a fictional hero, to name a few. Crenshaw is what the critical theorist of postmodernity Jean Baudrillard would call a “simulacrum”, a copy of a conservative bearing no resemblance to reality, yet seen as real by everyone.
Conservative simulacra aren’t by any means limited to Crenshaw, however. The most powerful conservative narrative of the past few years was arguably MAGA (and its mediocre offspring KAG). Now what does MAGA convey? It’s nationalistic, it’s reactionary, it doesn’t care for PC, it’s pro-American worker against the globalist order, etc. Naturally, this narrative is associated with a few policy positions (those of 2015-era Trump): Less immigration, legal and illegal, protectionism over free trade, cultural nationalism, and rejection of Woke Capital among others.
Again, so far so good. But the conservative narrative consumer and in some cases Trump himself, proved to be less attached to the signified policies than to the narrative signifier. During the 2020 GOP Alabama primary, Trump endorsed Floridian Tommy Tuberville against Trump-supporter-before-it-was-cool Jeff Sessions. In his endorsement, Trump cited Tuberville as a “REAL LEADER who will never let MAGA/KAG, or our country, down” (Tuberville hired the chief aide for Zuckerberg’s organization dedicated to lobbying Congress to import more foreign workers), as someone who “is strong on Crime and the Border” (Tuberville stated that we “needed” illegal immigrants to take American jobs), and someone who “will protect the second amendment” (the NRA endorsed Sessions). Now what will resonate with our narrative consumers—the narrative, or the actual policies? We will have to wait a bit to know the answer, but the fact that Sessions is currently trailing in the polls for a seat he has held for two decades is very telling.
Our Postmodern Left
While conservatives keep voting for their house simulacra, narrative merchants of the Left keep winning. You see, the left is adept at pushing two different narratives: that of mass vs. elite, and that of normative vs. other. The first narrative is a classical Marxian one: there’s the oppressed majority (the American people, the proletariat, whatever) vs. the evil ruling elite (the millionaires and billionaires, the 1%, the bourgeois, etc.). You’ve heard it a thousand times, it’s a common refrain.
The second is more recent, and has been gaining steam on the left since the ‘60s. It’s the coalition of the “others”, those oppressed by a normative majority. These are the “minorities” of every description, whose narratives of oppression are so powerful they’ve been adopted and co-opted by non-minorities (now that’s the power of postmodernism!). The second wave feminist movement, for instance, notably played on the oppression narratives in vogue at the time and presented women as just another “minority” (despite making up over 50% of the population). Now, these two narratives exist in obvious contradiction to one another. Why should we fight for a majority that itself upholds a white supremacist system? How can Rep. Ilhan Omar claim to be an oppressed minority but also “what America looks like”?
These contradictions have fostered increasing friction on the Left, but the woke vanguard has succeeded so far in running a step ahead of the problem. Think of Bernie Sanders’ slide toward identity politics and eventual sidelining. Postmodernism and identity politics offer a useful synthesis of the Left’s contradictory narratives. Leftist identity politics aren’t so much identitarian politics as a politics of defining which identities rank where on the scale of relative validity and importance of representation. So the working class white man is deracialized and exists solely for the left as “the working class” (unlike working class blacks and Hispanics), and “whiteness” is a concept that exists independently of white people: according to Jonathan Metzl, author of Dying of Whiteness, “whiteness” is actively bad for whites, who therefore need to be entirely deracialized, unlike blacks, whose racial identities should and must be celebrated by all. Thanks to this pomo pivot, leftists are able to blame “white supremacy” for the actions of the Baltimore police department in 2015, despite the all-black leadership governing the city. This is also why, even (or especially) as whites become a minority, they, and their “whiteness” they stubbornly refuse to shed, will still be “the system” and the “supremacist” majority.
The Grim Future of Our Politics
Our current situation would be tenable if the American Right offered any sort of meaningful opposition to the Left, in the sense of rejecting their entire framework and offering a different one. But while organizations like TPUSA and “classical liberal” movements claim to reject identity politics, the Right has fundamentally accepted the framework of the Left. Conservatives try to do identity politics, they’re just bad at it, forever trying to hold the Left to the procedural rules of a language game the Left created and rigged so it always wins. Woke ideologues present a radical narrative of systemic racism, and the Right responds by claiming that “Democrats are the real racists”. Even the Trump campaign has struggled to escape the trap, straining to court the black vote by repeatedly touting pre-pandemic black unemployment figures, ambitious criminal justice reform, and denouncing allegedly “racist” policies favored by their immediate adversaries (like the 1994 crime bill or stop and frisk in New York City). Such tactics, however, never have worked, and never will. By pursuing them, the Right constantly surrenders to the Left before it even has a chance to lose. Maybe that is why they do it.
The problem is fundamental: if the Right does not present a convincing counter narrative to leftist identity politics, it will keep losing. But as America’s social fabric keeps dissolving, partially as a result of the Right’s profit-driven embrace of nihilistic liberalism of the past few decades, grand alternatives to current narratives will become increasingly implausible. What’s clear is that the current game plan of trying to play “gotcha” with the Left’s own slurs isn’t plausible. Balkanized whites on the Right are apt to be radicalized by a collapse of representation in a two-party system where everyone else but them “gets to” participate in the postmodern identity politics game. Forced to choose between active hatred or being taken for granted, you can do the math for what happens next.
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