The Red Menace: Neopatrimonialism in America
Everyone knows there's a culture war on, but no one knows why. Most pundits on the left say it's religion, trotting out statistics about conservative evangelical "values" voters who supported the current regime. Ignoring the fact that lots of religious believers did not bend the knee to Ba'al, this poses the further question of why these "values voters" bought into the conservative religious package in the first place—or why the majority of black conservative Christians, as usual, voted their economic interests rather than their "values."
Some pundits have more fanciful conjectures. Lakoff believes that the culture war is a battle between the Ewig Weiblich and the Ewig Herrlich—the Nurturing Parent metaphor and the Stern Father model. Even leaving aside the question of why people live by these metaphors, this fails to explain why the whole package of policies associated with Liberalism has not until recently been seen as the proprietary ideology of women, wimps and sensitive new-age guys. Teddy Roosevelt, after all, busted trusts with his big stick and working class males rioted in the streets to establish unions.
I have the answer. Which side of the Red/Blue divide you you're on is a matter of whether you see government as an insurance scheme or a patronage system. And that, in turn, depends upon whether you believe that people can and should operate according to universalizable moral principles or think that moral obligation supervenes upon sentimental bonds of family, tribe, and community.
True Blues believe that sentimental attachments are morally irrelevant and try to act accordingly: who is my neighbor?—everyone. Even more importantly, they believe that others do too. They trust people with whom they have no family ties or personal connections to honor their agreements and treat them fairly; they have faith that if they pay into the system they will get a return on their investment. They believe that their taxes buy public services, protection and social safety nets. They know the system is not frictionless: some of their contributions to the commonweal may be lost as heat through nepotism, patronage and the operation of old boy networks. Nevertheless they believe that these practices are outside the system, that the system works reasonably well and, in any case, that the alternatives are much worse.
For Reds, by contrast, nepotism, patronage and old boy networks are the heart of the system. Reds do not recognize serious moral obligations to others beyond the network of sentimental ties or expect "strangers" to recognize obligations to them. Moral obligation, in the Red system, obeys an inverse square law, reaching the vanishing point once it diffuses beyond tribal territory. Reds look to their friends, neighbors and kin for mutual support and count on heads of families and clans, ward-heelers, mob bosses and patrons, for protection. They do not expect strangers—in particular, the remote faceless bureaucrats who operate government agencies beyond the precinct level—to do much for them. Taxes, they believe, are not insurance premiums, dues or payment for services rendered but tribute to Big Men who use the proceeds to line their pockets and confer benefits on their relatives, retainers and sycophants. The only benefit Big Men at the national level provide is to citizens beyond their coterie is protection from competing Big Men abroad. Heads of families protect their kin and tribal chieftains defend their own against competing tribes; heads of state maintain their turf, thwart terrorists, repel foreign invaders and, if possible, expand their territory.
"Traditional societies" operate according to the Red plan—neopatrimonialism or "Big Man government." To make the system function personal bonds and communal loyalty have to be maintained. Members of traditional societies can't afford to take social risks or tolerate non-conformity since any deviation from established traditions and conventions threatens the fabric of personal relationships on which the safety and well-being of all depend. Social stability rests on "personal morality" and the integrity of the family, and on willing cooperation. Religion supports "personal morality" and willing conformity to social conventions and traditions.
Red Americans imagine that they live in a traditional society. They expect their paramount chief to protect them from terrorism and to wage war; they hope that he will not interfere with their lives or exact inordinately heavy tribute. And that is precisely what conservatives promise. Conservatives promote "family values" and the code of personal conduct that supports them: contrary to the usual reading, "family values" are not code for religion---religion is of interest to Reds only insofar as it supports "family values." Conservatives also guarantee the right of citizens to own guns so that they can protect their families and turf—a matter of pressing concern to Reds since they do not believe that police or other strangers can, or will, insure their safety.
Reds have no real interest in promoting laissez faire capitalism or an "ownership society"--they were not always Republicans. When Democratic Party machines in northern cities and the South provided patronage for them, they were party loyalists. But the Democratic Party changed: party machines were dismantled, Democrats went up-market and white working class Americans could no longer expect local Democratic politicians to get them jobs or to pull strings for them. Democrats ceased to be patrons of their tribe: instead, they took up with latte-drinking Liberals—dispensing benefits to lawyers and bureaucrats, teachers, social workers and community organizers, and to members of ethnic minorities. Democratic politicians wouldn't pull strings to get Reds' pavement patched or to get their sons jobs as cops—instead, they were installing replica vintage streetlights to gentrify urban neighborhoods, supporting ethnic dance troupes and awarding contracts to minority-owned businesses.
Most Americans agreed that John Kerry's "plans" for health care and other domestic services sounded good, but Reds did not believe that they would make any difference. They did not believe that any official government policies and programs ever did, or could. Reds are fatalistic and assume that financial insecurity, drudgery, sickness and unemployment are facts of life: people do the best they can to cope and take care of their own; government cannot make any difference. Their concern was to elect the least worst supreme patron, and in this respect Kerry was not promising. They did not trust him to protect them from terrorism or invasion by competing tribes; they were convinced that, if elected, he would maintain a large retinue of lawyers and bureaucrats, and exact heavy tribute to bankroll them; and they feared that Democrats' support for abortion, gay rights and the like would undermine the traditional rules and conventions that supported the family and other informal communal arrangements on which their security and well-being depended. They did not believe that a Democratic administration would benefit them or keep them safe.
Many Americans admire traditional societies—particularly those that are remote and exotic. Bored with the sterility and impersonality of an urbanized mass society and sick of negotiating phone trees, websites and bureaucracies, big-box stores and HMOs, they fantasize a world where neighbors are neighborly and friendly shopkeepers chat, Rotarian businessmen support community projects and doctors make house calls. They imagine that a world of friendly families and communities, each taking care of its own, should do at least as well as a mass society of "atomistic" individuals whose interests are supported by impersonal agencies, formal institutions and the state.
Most of us, I hope, know better. Some families are bad or outright abusive and even the best of families have a hard time taking care of their own. Close-knit communities are hostile to outsiders and deviants; and the traditions and conventions they enforce are oppressive even to insiders who accept their assigned roles and play by the rules. Large, impersonal institutions for all their faults are more transparent and fair, and have the wherewithall to take advantage of economies of scale; state-sponsored insurance schemes pool risk and guarantee that the unlucky will not get trashed.
Getting religion and talking tough will not win over Red voters. Democrats have to convince them that government isn't merely a patronage system for bankrolling bureaucrats, lawyers and academics, members of the "helping professions" and ethnic minorities. They have to be persuaded that the Liberal program will not usher in social chaos and that the government programs Democrats offer will provide a better life for them, with more freedom and a wider range of options, than life in a traditional society dominated by family and church, village and tribe.