Why the ‘sacred myth’ matters more than money in politics…

I had this piece slipped to me a couple of days ago when we were up to our eyes in a very local form of culture war in Armagh by an English colleague, John Pollock. It’s very focused on trying to explain how to follow voter sentiment in the upcoming US general elections.

My apologies for quoting almost the whole thing entire but it’s had hard to know where to split it:

The key to understanding tribal behavior is not money, it’s sacredness. The great trick that humans developed at some point in the last few hundred thousand years is the ability to circle around a tree, rock, ancestor, flag, book or god, and then treat that thing as sacred. People who worship the same idol can trust one another, work as a team and prevail over less cohesive groups. So if you want to understand politics, and especially our divisive culture wars, you must follow the sacredness.

A good way to follow the sacredness is to listen to the stories that each tribe tells about itself and the larger nation. The Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith once summarized the moral narrative told by the American left like this: “Once upon a time, the vast majority” of people suffered in societies that were “unjust, unhealthy, repressive and oppressive.” These societies were “reprehensible because of their deep-rooted inequality, exploitation and irrational traditionalism — all of which made life very unfair, unpleasant and short. But the noble human aspiration for autonomy, equality and prosperity struggled mightily against the forces of misery and oppression and eventually succeeded in establishing modern, liberal, democratic, capitalist, welfare societies.” Despite our progress, “there is much work to be done to dismantle the powerful vestiges of inequality, exploitation and repression.” This struggle, as Smith put it, “is the one mission truly worth dedicating one’s life to achieving.”

This is a heroic liberation narrative. For the American left, African-Americans, women and other victimized groups are the sacred objects at the center of the story. As liberals circle around these groups, they bond together and gain a sense of righteous common purpose.

Contrast that narrative with one that Ronald Reagan developed in the 1970s and ’80s for conservatism. The clinical psychologist Drew Westen summarized the Reagan narrative like this: “Once upon a time, America was a shining beacon. Then liberals came along and erected an enormous federal bureaucracy that handcuffed the invisible hand of the free market. They subverted our traditional American values and opposed God and faith at every step of the way.” For example, “instead of requiring that people work for a living, they siphoned money from hard-working Americans and gave it to Cadillac-driving drug addicts and welfare queens.” Instead of the “traditional American values of family, fidelity and personal responsibility, they preached promiscuity, premarital sex and the gay lifestyle” and instead of “projecting strength to those who would do evil around the world, they cut military budgets, disrespected our soldiers in uniform and burned our flag.” In response, “Americans decided to take their country back from those who sought to undermine it.”

This, too, is a heroic narrative, but it’s a heroism of defense. In this narrative it’s God and country that are sacred — hence the importance in conservative iconography of the Bible, the flag, the military and the founding fathers. But the subtext in this narrative is about moral order. For social conservatives, religion and the traditional family are so important in part because they foster self-control, create moral order and fend off chaos. (Think of Rick Santorum’s comment that birth control is bad because it’s “a license to do things in the sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”) Liberals are the devil in this narrative because they want to destroy or subvert all sources of moral order.

Actually, there’s a second subtext in the Reagan narrative in which liberty is the sacred object. Circling around liberty would seem, on its face, to be more consistent with liberalism and its many liberation movements than with social conservatism. But here’s where narrative analysis really helps. Part of Reagan’s political genius was that he told a single story about America that rallied libertarians and social conservatives, who are otherwise strange bedfellows. He did this by presenting liberal activist government as the single devil that is eternally bent on destroying two different sets of sacred values — economic liberty and moral order. Only if all nonliberals unite into a coalition of tribes can this devil be defeated.

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  • FuturePhysicist

    The problem is that the devil may be in the detail. Just as good moral practice should not require the law, it still needs the law. This transferred to economic practices means that while it may not need bureaucracy it’s still needs it, in the forms of regulations that prevent the so called free market from becoming the so called black market.

    While there may be unintended consequences when liberals try to protect a functioning state system from outside the market, by introducing regulations … conservatives risk removing the steadiness from the market by an assault on spending, regulations and contracts … thus creating a system which is non-conservative. Markets in themselves are artifice, they rely on human intervention, if humans are non-conservative the markets are non-conservative and only the intervention of a conservative market force through human behaviour in the form of custom or revenue maintains stability … NOT an invisible hand.

    The faith in the market’s invisible hand to produce a conservative system is mitigated by every process of the government that protects “property rights” and its statehood, left alone to a puritan mercantile system even the Hunger Games wouldn’t do justice to the Malthusian effect of everyone for themselves assault on society and welfare from the insistence that only the tail-end retailer reaps the rewards.

    Food wouldn’t be farmed, Water wouldn’t be cleaned, Medicines wouldn’t be created, Goods wouldn’t be transported … in the end there would be no markets, just the primo-anarachist hunter gathering groups that proceeded them.

  • Greenflag

    And the life of man would be nasty , brutish and short as Hobbes put -except for the few who could hold and wield power or capital .

    ‘ Markets in themselves are artifice, they rely on human intervention,’

    And the ‘invisible hand ‘ is not invisible not in these days of financial sector led market manipulation by the ‘insiders’ i.e the 1% or the 0.01% and the ‘manipulated whether they be sub prime mortgage holders or even Goldman Sachs ‘clients’ a.k.a suckers ! ‘

  • greenbeer

    I get a gag reflex every time someone quotes Reagan. People think he should be Saint Ronald. gag..gag..ptoooooey!!!

    I am a resident of Calif. He destroyed this state before he moved on to the Whitehouse..where he continued to destroy whatever Bush Sr, Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted him. They started it and it continues today. My country is not a Democracy or a Republic. It is a two Party system and neither side give a rat’s arse about what would benefit the people. It is owned by huge business conglomerates who control just about everything. Reagan and his gang started that too.

    We have Reagan (gag) to thank for the Fair Trade act that sent millions of jobs out of this country. They haven’t come back. Fig Newtons used to be a favorite cookie. Now they are made in Mexico. Can’t eat them anymore.

    We have tried voting for people who say they will make changes..Unfortunately..it’s too late.

    I read somewhere that historians have said..most forms of Government (with the exception of English Gov)..only last a couple of hundred years. The US Government has passed it’s shelf life and I don’t have any idea how to change it.

  • greenbeer

    Sorry Mick..totally off thread. Regarding elections..I don’t know many people who will vote. I vote in every election..in hopes that things will change..but have learned not to hold my breath.

  • Brian

    “He destroyed this state before he moved on to the Whitehouse”

    Reagan destroyed California? There were a lot of factors that led to the current pathetic state of the Bear Republic, but Reagan wouldn’t be too high on that list. Probably the worst offender is the constitution of the State itself. Direct democracy doesn’t work-Proposition 13 onward is good proof of that. Hell, the current governor’s first stint in office included quite a few things that set up California for failure.