Religion, Conservatism, and American Public Life: 2016 – by Benjamin Rolsky

Is Trump Archie Bunker?

Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
Image via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

With less than a week before the election, political pundits and academic commentators are scrambling for the latest polling data in hopes of convincing themselves that the inevitable is anything but the sort. Reports have gone both ways simultaneously it seems as one source reports a tremendous lead for candidate Clinton while another reports a much closer contest of who can out spectacle the other.

The usual media suspects have also gotten involved in the fray, including Seth Myers, Jon Stewart, Samantha Bee, and Jon Oliver, as seemingly each and every late night television host has something to say about the travesty that is the Donald Trump campaign. Much of this type of commentary struggles with the very existence of someone like Trump on a national stage as anything but a farce, or satire, of contemporary American politics. Indeed, many cannot even believe that it is real.

We’ve seen and heard this story before, only in this case, the players are different. To what extent is Trump a manifestation of classic sitcom character Archie Bunker without the studio audience and satirical distance? Recent work in the field of American religion and politics has begun responding to this intelligentsia-based consternation with deeper investigations of Trump’s constituencies. Not only is this work much preferable to the usual explanations of “voting against one’s self-interests” or “authoritarian personalities,” but it also reveals just what this election may come down to- managing discontent.

On October 12th, 2016, the Institute for Advanced Study in Culture at the University of Virginia released a report titled, The Vanishing Center of American Democracy: The 2016 Survey of American Political Culture. Authored by sociologists James Davison Hunter and Carl Desportes Bowman, the survey explored the state of American political culture by posing a series of questions to over nineteen-hundred respondents representing a broad array of backgrounds and arguments. As many may know, it was Hunter who first argued for a more extensive understanding of America’s Culture Wars in the early 1990s. This was a timely publication because it came on the heels of Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan’s speech during the 1992 Republican National Convention in which he identified culture war as the next, great battle for the soul of America. Many were and still remain hesitant when it comes to Hunter’s claims concerning the extensiveness of American polarization and the role that politicians and commentators have played in overdetermining the importance of a given political issue. After all, the general populace cannot be as divided as those who give them the news and party platforms, can it?

Hunter and Bowman argue that based on their interviews and collective analysis, the US is most certainly in the midst a culture war, but on slightly different terms. Building on the work of sociologist Robert Wuthnow, Hunter originally argued that cultural conflict manifested within denominational settings versus across them. This observation mirrored Wuthnow’s research and argument that America had experienced both economic and religious restructuring since the Second World War. Unlike other academic commentators, Hunter had very little interest in whether American religion was subject to modernizing and thus secularizing forces in the post-war period. Instead, Hunter and Wuthnow explored the socio-economic conditions that shaped how Americans articulated themselves as religious subjects in the public square. As a result, Hunter’s analysis of the ways in which mass media fundamentally alters how news reaches its respective audiences and at what speed is fundamental to our understanding of political polarization in contemporary American politics, especially in 2016. Hunter’s newest study builds on much of his previous work on culture war, yet the newly acquired data paints a slightly different picture of what exactly divides Americans in the midst of one of the most contentious election cycles in American history. This new data is constructive not only for its analytical contributions, but also for its methodological shortcomings.

In essence, the 2016 Survey of American Political Culture asked its contributors a number of questions in hopes of determining the source of religio-political division in today’s contemporary society. For Hunter and Bowman, the most important angle of attack is one that foregrounds systemic conditions. “This survey seeks to bridge the empirical and theoretical…to enable us to speak…about the ‘climatological’ political and cultural changes taking place across America.” As a result, many of the questions posed resulted in less-than-formal answers when it came to the emotions and feelings of the American electorate. In fact, much of this survey’s value can be found in the simple if not disheartening fact that most Americans today feel as if they are surrounded by strangers, sometimes even within their own families.

Despite the severity of the claim, Hunter and Bowman contend that this type of admittance supports the idea that Americans continue to live within a “chasm of fundamentally different worldviews.” This is partly the case because of the expansion and proliferation of partisan news media over and against the sheer ubiquity of information contained on the World Wide Web. The severity of contemporary American politics can also be understood as the product of not only omnipresent mediation, but also of the ascendance of “the personal.” That which had once been private, namely sexuality and intimacy, has now become the stuff of politics itself. No longer can one choose to conceal the personal for the sake of political expediency. Instead, the personal has become the political at the expense of civil discourse itself. The fact that political correctness has emerged as a rallying cry for both liberals and conservatives speaks to the incessant monitoring and surveillance of public speech that both sides hope to claim as their own.

Like other academic commentators, Hunter and Bowman fear that such socio-economic conditions lend themselves to the rise of authoritarian personalities. This is perhaps no more evident than in the attractiveness of populism as a form of political action on both sides of proverbial aisle. While most intellectuals would perhaps prefer the populism of Bernie Sanders, both he and Presidential candidate Donald Trump nevertheless took advantage of the same type of grassroots support that depended very little on the approval or oversight of traditional institutions of political governance, including the parties themselves. In this sense, Hunter and Bowman paint of picture of individual and collective dispositions as understood relative to America’s current leaders and sources of political power. In general, the most common feelings encountered in the survey included uncertainty, worry, fear, anger, distrust, and cynicism. For 90% of those surveyed, most politicians are more interested in winning elections then in doing what’s right. For 88%, political events seem more like theater or entertainment than something to be taken seriously. And lastly, for 75% of those who answered the mainstream media cannot be trusted because “you can’t believe what you hear.” Hunter and Bowman break this information down further in order to identify which individuals tend to display which emotions most and to what degree as an expression of disaffection.

Compared to past indicators of political action or religiosity, this particular survey reveals a different vantage from which to understand contemporary political conflict. “The key elements tied to cynicism,” argue Hunter and Bowman, “are income and education, especially the latter…even more significant is…the population density of your neighborhood: Alienation rates are twice as likely to be very high in the most rural areas as in denser cities [and] three-and-a-half times more likely if you have only a high school diploma than a graduate degree.” For Hunter and Bowman, the classic culture wars dynamic of conservative and liberal moral visions is slowly giving way to a more expansive conflict that is better understood as contention between different class cultures. In this sense, the most significant socio-economic cleavage in today’s economy is between “the highly educated, professional upper-middle class, and the less well-educated, non-professional middle, low-middle, and working class.” As a result, Hunter and Bowman offer their readers an updated vocabulary for describing America’s current political landscape including Credentialed (Educated)/Non-Credentialed as well as Social Elite/Disinherited. As an example:

Where the Disinherited perceive very little cultural distance from conservative Christians, the Social Elite perceive the values and beliefs of conservative Christians as radically different. The reverse is also true: Social Elites perceive only a minimal cultural distance from gays, lesbians, and the non-religious, while the Disinherited see themselves as very different from all three.

For Hunter and Bowman, these conditions and feelings lend themselves to polarizing political candidates who generate their support by intensifying discontent. Not only do such figures depend on their own political acumen, but they also take advantage of the demand for celebrity that saturates American popular culture. In this respect, Hunter and Bowman may be on to something especially profound:

This dynamic may be especially important in a context where personalities loom large while political institutions (parties, special interest groups, etc.) fail to coalesce in coherent ways.

In this sense, America’s current political arena is predisposed to particular articulations and activities that align themselves with broader societal demands for continual entertainment and instantaneous results. This arena, or theatre, has also been influenced by the emergence and deployment of social media as well as the explosion of twenty-four hour news sources available online through one’s personal phone or computer. This type of media broadcasts its information by intensifying the content’s claims through a “talking head” commentator or subjecting itself to the hyperbolic tendencies of speaking in 140 characters. Put another way, this survey helps us understand the ongoing collapse of the public in favor of the less predictable yet economically efficacious private, the personal over the political. The study’s shortcomings, however (while not entirely its own), remind us of the uniquely “white” character of this culture war conflict. In fact, the study says as much in consecutive footnotes as an analysis of “the cleavages in class cultures among white Americans.” In addition, Hunter and Bowman’s decision to use the word “Disinherited” reinscribes the notion that conservatives are retrograde citizens at best, left behind by a cosmopolitan world inhabited by the self-directed go-getters and merit seekers of the ivory tower.

Despite these limitations, the study reflects much of the ongoing analysis of conservatism to come out within the last five years. In fact, one could say that we are in the midst of a renaissance when it comes to the study of conservatism and its American history in the twentieth-century and beyond. Recent works by American historians, scholars of religion, and political scientists including Andrew Hartman, Stephen Prothero, and E.J. Dionne make individually articulated arguments, yet they share many of the same assumptions that guide their respective analyses. In particular, Prothero contends that culture war is strictly a conservative method for waging battle in the public square out of a rampant sense of nostalgia for a world that never truly existed in the first place. While the Hunter and Bowman study does not reflect this type of argument, it does implicitly support it by labeling those with conservative Christian tendencies as “the Disinherited.” However, the study’s quantitative insights help us understand the significance of yet another sociological study of conservatism, one grounded in participant observation and ethnographic analysis as compared to formal historical narrative. For sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, the image that best depicts our political present foregrounds familiarity, or lack thereof, with our fellow citizens: Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, A Journey to the Heart of Our Political Divide.

Hochschild investigates contemporary conservatism through the notion of “the deep story,” what life “feels like” to a particular constituency of American voters. Like Hunter and Bowman, Hochschild is equally interested in the relationship between emotions, feeling rules, and political activism in the public square. The 2016 Survey of American Political Culture foregrounded feelings such as alienation, distrust, and cynicism in its investigation of culture war as a form of white class conflict. “The deep story was to take me to the should and shouldn’ts of feeling, to the management of feeling, and to the core feelings stirred by charismatic leaders.” Over the course of five years, Hochschild compiled over 4,500 pages of transcripts based on interviews and conversations with various representatives of the Tea Party found in the southern state of Louisiana. Hochschild is noticeably, yet admirably uncomfortable with her surroundings as a resident of Berkeley, California. For Hochschild, it was strange that “there were fewer yellow Labradors and more pit bulls and bulldogs,” but that was the very reason she made the trips in the first place—to experience something different, to step outside her comfort zone. “I came to realize that the Tea Party was not so much an official political group as a culture, a way of seeing and feeling about a place and its people.”

In light of this approach, Hochschild decided to limit her treatment of the Tea Party to the subject of environmental protection, or lack thereof, in the state of Louisiana in order to explore what she calls “the Great Paradox.” In short, how can a state and its people resist federal regulation of the environment when rampant pollution continues to decimate the land and its inhabitants? For many of the families Hochschild came to know, the choice was a pre-decided one—oil and chemical jobs over the environment. “For both Lee and the Arenos, at issue in politics was trust,” she describes. “It was hard enough to trust people close at hand, and very hard to trust those far away…like everyone I was to talk with, both also felt like victims of a frightening loss—or was it theft?—of their cultural home, their place in the world, and their honor. This quotation is particularly telling of Hochschild’s nuanced approach to conservatism as a subject of academic study. Unlike countless other analyses that blame conservative voters for their own substandard living conditions and less-than-safe occupations, we instead learn of the pride and honor that comes from supporting one’s family without assistance of any kind—including the federal government’s. While many who feel this way still receive federal assistance in the form of food stamps or unemployment, the fact that they continue to reject federal oversight in favor of the “free market” speaks to how important jobs are to those who seem to have fewer economic options in today’s neo-liberal economy of mobility and exchange than most. “For everything else it is, the government…functions as a curious status-marking machine. The less you depend on it, the higher your status.” For those on the political left, identification with and use of federal power remains essential to their self-conception as custodians of the public square. (More on this later)

Once embedded within a world quite different from her own, one that is interested less in “freedoms from” and more in “freedoms to,” Hochschild begins to understand how what seemed like a paradox at first could actually be reconciled for those on the ground. “I still felt blind to what they saw and honored. I needed to do something else, to enter the social terrain that surrounded and influenced them. Included in that were industry, state government, the church, and the press.” Locations such as Lake Charles and Westlake, Louisiana serve as the primary locations for Hochschild’s investigations of Tea Party politics and culture relative to a less than regulatory state. This type of ethnographic work included attending political rallies for various Tea Party politicians, conserving with her informants over dinner, and touring the damage that various chemical and oil companies had caused due to pollution. It also included overhearing stories between family members about multi-generational cancers that often took two to three people with it before it ran its course. The Great Paradox assumed even greater importance once addressed in the conservative evangelical pulpit. Like Hunter and Bowman’s depiction, Hochschild’s portrayal of conservative Christianity depends on the image of the otherworldly since such traditions (both Catholic and Protestant) rarely challenged the corporate treatment of the environment in the name of the biblical text. For some, religious practice bred passivity in the face of environmental degradation, a trait specifically sought after by corporate developers. For others, man had the ability to repair the earth before the rapture and the End Times arrived. In each instance, the application of religion to social issues reflected the various socio-economic positions represented by Hochschild’s informants. In this sense, conservative religiosity represented a range of responses to some of the same challenging circumstances—ones that often demanded a choice between employment and environmental regulation.

Hochschild helpfully identifies four different subjects who inhabited the kitchens, mess halls, pulpits, and campaign stops along her journey through the South: the Team Player, the Worshipper, the Cowboy, and the Rebel. The Rebel and the Cowboy shared a sense of heroism when it came to a full day’s work free of government assistance while the Worshipper demonstrated her piety through situational renunciation of the ideal for the given. For Janice Areno, a Pentecostal Republican from Sulphur, Louisiana, hard work was the price of admission to the American Dream. “I worked hard all my life. I started at age eight and never stopped.” For Hochschild, Areno’s remarks illustrated the importance of adaptation and endurance to one’s survival in less than hospitable environmental and occupational conditions. In many instances, the freedom to choose between steady work and environmental protection came at a socio-economic cost that most could not afford. For fellow Pentecostal informant Jackie Tabor, the explanation of the Great Paradox was a simple one, “Pollution is the sacrifice we make for capitalism.” Rather than reducing these articulations down to a functionalist reading that foregrounds quietist religion and social passivity as key explanatory factors, Hochschild instead lets her readers into a world otherwise discounted as “voting against its self-interest” or “paranoid.” “Endurance wasn’t just a moral value,” Hochschild explains, “it was a practice. It was work of an emotional sort. Not claiming to be a victim, accommodating the downside of loose regulations out of a loyalty to free enterprise—this was a tacit form of heroism, hidden to incurious liberals.” If “values voters” has meant anything beyond its simple usage as a campaign strategy, then it most certainly refers to Jackie’s understanding of civic obligation, one that is appreciative of sacrifice and dedication to earning an honest wage—assistance-free or not.

Despite the differences between these groups, they all shared a common “deep story” about the ways in which the country had lost its way. In essence, most of Hochschild’s conversation partners understood themselves as loyal line attendees, patiently waiting for their turn to reach the front and receive their reward. This line, however, was not maintained properly because it allowed individuals to cut those otherwise waiting. Unlike those in line, the line-cutters were often times not white. “It has to be said: the line cutters irritate you. They are violating rules of fairness. You resent them, and you feel it’s right that you do. So do your friends…the free market was the unwavering ally of the good citizens waiting in line for the American Dream. The federal government was on the side of those unjustly ‘cutting in.’” Each subject also shared an identity as what Hochschild calls “the endurance self” as compared to the “cosmopolitan self.” For those who practiced endurance, a rooted-self within a larger community of friends, relatives, and fellow “churched” was the preferred norm as compared to the more urban, cosmopolitan self, one that “seemed uprooted, loosely attached to an immediate community, prepared to know a lot of people just a little bit, a mobile, even migratory self,” built for upward mobility and knowledge accumulation. Despite these differences, or rather because of them, we are better able to understand what exactly separates conservative, Southern voters from their more liberal, federally-oriented Northern counterparts—namely, different notions of honor, pride, and civic accountability. “The liberal upper-middle class saw community as insularity and closed-mindedness rather than as a course of belonging and honor,” Hochschild observes, “For along with blue-collar jobs, a blue-collar way of life was going out of fashion, and with it, the honor attached to a rooted self and pride in endurance.”

Hochschild concludes her ethnographic analysis of conservatism by explaining the appeal of Presidential candidate Donald Trump, a byproduct of her original subject, the Great Paradox. As part of her larger examination of the “emotional draw of right-wing politics,” Hochschild returns to her emphasis on emotions in order to argue that Trump is an “emotions candidate” because he “focuses on eliciting and praising emotional responses from his fans rather than on detailed policy prescriptions.” Hochschild goes on, “Not only does Trump evoke emotion, he makes an object of it, presenting it back to his fans as a sign of collective success.” Trump is such an attractive candidate because he gives his supporters a release from their otherwise politically-corrected existences. He is able to do this successfully by offering explanations by way of scapegoating while providing an alternative set of “feeling rules” to his supporters that do not require sympathy for those who tried to cut in line. In this sense, Tea Party voters in Louisiana saw Trump as someone who represented their emotional self-interest because he gave them “a giddy release from the feeling of being a stranger in one’s own land.” Despite the significant descriptive payoff we get as readers from Hochschild’s thick analysis of this dynamic, it nevertheless recapitulates largely liberal assumptions about conservative religiosity in the public square as inherently emotional and thus non-rational. Hochschild even goes so far as to say that Trump gave his supporters an emotionally-charged “ecstatic high” that could be experienced further by “holding on to that elation.” While Hochschild’s attention to emotions in the public square is admirable, it nevertheless subjects conservative activism and articulation to a standard of analytical evaluation all its own, one that has been honed by liberal commentators and academics since the infamous Scopes Trial of the 1930s, a depiction of one thing and one thing only: the repugnant, or deplorable, cultural other.

Compared to other recent treatments of conservatism, including journalist E.J. Dionne’s Why the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism—From Goldwater to Trump and Beyond, Hochschild’s monograph should be held in high esteem. The combination of ethnography, social analysis, and American history make it one of the more diverse texts when it comes to method and theory in the study of American conservatism. In fact, the book’s concluding material includes three separate appendices on research approaches, the relationship between politics and pollution, and common misconceptions fact checked by the author herself. These sections speak not only to the strength of Hochschild’s evaluative claims, but also to her own “deep story” as a concerned California resident eager to learn more about the anger and frustration located on the other side of the aisle. Instead of placing blame on her subjects for the state of American democracy, Hochschild instead pushes past the obvious social and cultural discomfort of leaving her political homeland in order to learn something of her political neighbors to the Southeast.

In a moment of rampant political and cultural polarization, these attempts alone should be commended for their audacity and sheer nerve. We do, however, have to remember that conservative Christians are not the only subjects deserving of affect or emotion-centered analyses. In other words, individuals like Janice and Jackie are not the only ones with deep stories deserving of academic investigation. In truth, both academic and popular readerships deserve similar analyses and assessments of what could be understood as the deep story of the American Left, something that I’ve tried to do in my own work on television producer Norman Lear and his impact on American public life in the 1970s. How does life feel to people on the left? What is their deep story? Hochschild ventures down this line of questioning only briefly, yet it proves worthwhile. Writing to a conservative reader, she explains at length:

As you get to know them, you’ll find progressives have their own deep story, one parallel to yours, one they feel you may misunderstand. In it, people stand around a large public square inside of which are creative science museums, public art and theatre programs, libraries, school…incorporation and acceptance of difference feel like American values…but in the liberal story, an alarming event occurs; marauders invade the public square, recklessly dismantle it, and selfishly steal away bricks and concrete chunks from the public buildings at its center…that’s the gist of the liberal deep story, and the right can’t understand the deep pride liberals take in their creatively designed, hard-won public sphere as a powerful integrative force in American life.

Not only has Hochschild begun a conversation about how progressives feel obligated to guard the public square as a form of what I have called spiritual custodianship, she also reveals how arbitrary liberal description of conservatism actually is. Liberal narratives of conservatism in public authored by professional historians, journalists, and commentators dating back to the Scopes Trial have dominated the ways in which interested parties have consumed information about conservatives themselves. Disseminated through professional publication and popular culture, figures such as Elmer Gantry and Archie Bunker, as well as off-handed comments about “deplorables” who more than likely cling to “guns and religion,” reveal the fictive yet powerful character of liberal interpellation in the public sphere.

Once understood from this vantage point, we are able to comprehend stories about conservatism’s appearance within the closely guarded public square not as reflections of empirical reality, but rather as simply a story, one with its own cultural and religious assumptions and anxieties about its subjects. To do otherwise, is to substitute monocausal explanations fueled by counter-productive theoretical assumptions for thick, interpretive descriptions of the subject matter at hand. In short, academic commentary that continues to locate the source of today’s political rancor in the actions of a select conservative few fails to understand how such analysis has contributed to the very subject it seeks to understand: a fractured and divisive public square. From the ramparts we watch, indeed.