Politics as Culture

Three Slate articles caught my eye today. On the Big Sort, Bill Bishop argues that the McCain ad accusing Obama of supporting sex ed for kindergardeners is a kind of dog whistle politics. Bishop gives the history of opposition to sex ed in schools going back to the textbook wars of Kanawha County, WV in the seventies, and asserts that this is still a key issue for the Republican base. The ad is pitched to be heard by those whose opposition to sex ed in schools is usually combined with suspicion of government’s size and use of taxes for anything other than defense spending. 

The sex-ed ad said the candidate would maintain traditional authority, build a strong military, and appoint conservative judges to the courts. In one 30-second ad, the Republican could send a message about faith, foreign policy, the size of government, and taxes.

The whole premise of The Big Sort is that people increasingly hunker down in enclaves of folks who share their politics, and that this process of sorting political affiliations occurs through a panoply of social cues:

…most of us are pretty good at scoping out a neighborhood, reading the entrails of architecture, hairstyle, and signage that tell us a place is safe for our kind of people. It’s a kind of cultural literacy that most of us practice without thinking.

If that’s so, I wonder how Bishop would respond to this Slate piece on Alaska in the sixties. Jim Albrecht paints a portrait of the freak-flag Alaska of his youth, where political affiliation mattered less than geographical affiliation, where staunch Catholics shared snow shoveling duties with flamboyant homosexuals and pro-life Air Force wives gossiped with lesbian separatists and everybody looked out for everybody else. 

Probably, Bishop would say that that was the sixties and those days are over. But Albrecht suggests that we ought to mourn the passing of those neighborly affiliations that could look past the superficiality of hairstyle and lifestyle to the necessity of communal survival:

Wilderness has a bully pulpit all its own, and, back when we could still hear it over the cell phones and the four-stroke snow machines, it preached a repetitive sermon. 1) We don’t all have to agree about everything, 2) but we do all have to survive the winter. If the Alaska of my childhood could be put on the stump, I believe that would be the content of its speech.

Why is it that every other November we all forget that winter is coming long enough to hate each other for the lifestyle inessentials when we ought to be having the rest of the argument? Forget sex ed and dog whistle politics: let’s talk about the size of government and military, the places our taxes go, and the role of faith in our political lives. (I’m still waiting for God to take a stand on the municipal bond issue to pay for road maintenance.) Let’s have that conversation plainly, not in code. But let’s also make sure that we all survive the winter.

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