The Making of Red America

When a society becomes as rich as the United States status is no longer about quantity – how big your house is or how many cars you own – it’s about quality. Today status is more about what your possessions say about you as a person. And the trouble with status in 21st century America is that nobody agrees on what the standards should be. What some Americans think of as respectable others see as reprehensible. People are arguing about how to judge each other’s status.

Every time the economy booms American society is stricken with status anxiety. People who once struggled to make ends meet are able to buy new cars, nice clothes, and roomy houses. For those who like to think of themselves as better than ordinary this poses a problem. Where it was once possible to spot the masses by their grimy blue collars and pungent body odor, working class affluence makes this more difficult. Post industrial societies create a new mass of low paid white collar workers while economic growth brings wealth to grimy tradesmen. University lecturers find themselves earning less than the people who unblock their sewers and fix their cars. Even Marxist professors find this hard to take.

Economic booms lead to culture wars. Those rising from the old working class see the rules of the status game changing around them. Once it was enough to wear a suit, be able to quote a bit of Shakespeare, and to have a house with more bedrooms than children. But suddenly it’s hip to come to work in jeans, reference popular culture (be sure to do so ironically and use the term ‘intertextuality‘), and live in an old warehouse. As soon as you get money, a bit of education, and the complete works of William Shakespeare (all bound together in the one paperback volume) the snobs invent cool. Just when you’ve convinced your kids to go to church every Sunday and not get tattoos, going to church becomes uncool and tattoos become a mark of sophistication.

The origins of Red America lie in the 1950s and 60s. As ordinary Americans grew wealthier and more educated many of them started to think of themselves as middle class. They bought books, went to the movies, and struggled to understand modern art. The demand for culture increased, and soon living rooms everywhere were sporting Van Gogh prints and paperback copies of Shakespeare. The intelligentsia was horrified by this shameless and shallow cultural climbing.

The intelligentsia’s passion was for the avant-garde – the green and growing extremities of culture rather than the dead wood of tradition. They saw themselves as immersed in the work of the Shakespeares, Mozarts, and Van Goghs of the future. This living culture wasn’t for everyone. As American cultural critic Dwight Macdonald wrote:

The great cultures of the past have all been elite affairs, centering in small upper-class communities which had certain standards in common and which both encouraged creativity by (informed) enthusiasm and disciplined it by (informed) criticism.

As a leftist, Macdonald didn’t want readers to think that the cultural elite had anything to do with old divisions of wealth or property. He argued that the avant-garde of Rimbaud and Picasso’s era "was based not on wealth or birth but on common tastes." The elite’s superiority lay in its ability to discriminate.

In the world before mass prosperity and mass education the non-elite were content to consume the cheap cultural products offered on the mass market. Feel good movies, comic books, westerns, musicals, and romances. Mass culture was formulaic, you always knew the hero would triumph over the bad guys and get the girl. It appealed to the emotions rather than to the mind. You knew when to laugh and when to cry, and when Masscult was good, you did plenty of both. High culture was different. It challenged the formula, it left you confused and disturbed. It made you think.

The new cultural consumers were ambivalent about the avant-garde. On the one hand it was attractive as a status marker. But on the other hand it was difficult to figure out and was emotionally unsatisfying. Consuming it was work rather than fun. On top of this was the suspicion that much of it was an in joke made at their expense. The demand for something better than mass culture but more digestible than High Culture was met by something Macdonald called ‘Midcult.’ This had shared the "essential qualities of Masscult – the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity – but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf." For Macdonald Midcult was a far bigger threat to living culture than Masscult ever was:

It is its ambiguity that makes Midcult alarming. For it presents itself as part of High Culture. Not that coterie stuff, not those snobbish inbred so-called intellectuals who are only talking to themselves. Rather the great vital mainstream, wide and clear though perhaps not so deep (p 37 pdf).

Midcult was pre-packaged, pre-judged culture. The newly affluent and educated became "skilled at consuming High Culture when it has been stamped PRIME QUALITY by the proper authorities" but were unable to discriminate on their own. This is how critics like Macdonald were able to tell the cognoscenti from the ignoscenti. The cultural climbers defended their tastes by appeals to tradition and authority while the true elite defended theirs with analysis and argument. The elite knew about standards and how they worked. Their job was to challenge and reinvent them.

As levels of education and wealth continued to rise through the 1980s and 90s (with a slight hiccup in the 70s) two things happened. The first was the rise of militant Masscultism. Many ordinary Americans started asking why they had allowed a bunch of self-appointed culture experts decide what was and was not worth consuming. They decided to make their own rules. Star Wars was good because it was fun, exciting, and made lots of money. High Culture and the avant-garde was bad because it was not fun, was elitist, and did not make lots of money. The people had judged the elites and found them sad and pretentious. But worse still, they had judged that the elites were un-American. By trying to establish themselves as superior minority they were trying to replicate European aristocratic privilege.

Not everyone joined this cheeseburger and fries revolution. The avant-garde still felt threatened by Midcult. The champions of Midcult were constantly harping on about ‘the classics.’ They loved ornate 19th century architecture. They worshipped Charles Dickens, the King James Bible, William Shakespeare, and other dead white males. And they seemed to think that any music played with a string section was superior to something played with an electric guitar. To defend themselves against this ignorant appropriation, the cultural elite dumped the venerated and pre-approved examples of High Culture and promoted works that were deliberately new or obscure. And to prove that membership of the avant-garde was gained through superior analytic skills rather than rote learning and deference to authority, they turned their attention to Masscult.

If the trick to being avant-garde is critical engagement with standards, then what better way to demonstrate superiority than by turning your analytical skills onto Masscult? Why not analyze Buffy the Vampire Slayer the same way you analyzed Shakespeare or James Joyce? Midcultists would never understand what was going on. Because they had never learned to discriminate high from mass on their own, they would reveal their ignorance by being scandalized. The more aggressive the Midcultists became about enforcing ‘standards’ in places like universities the more they betrayed their cultural incompetence. By appealing to tradition and the authority of the canon they showed that they were unable to argue philosophically about how standards of evaluation might be justified. For the cultural avant-garde it was a wonderful joke.

Nobody likes being sniggered at. And the champions of the canon were outraged at the way the shared standards of the avant-garde had become political. Works of literature were praised because they championed the interests of blacks, women, gays, and third world peoples. University students learned how to create their own marxist and feminist readings of the stale old texts of the canon. Even Dwight Macdonald would have been horrified at the cultural studies practices of the 1980s and 90s. Production had given way to consumption. You showed your discernment as a critic by the way you consumed a text rather than by which text you chose to consume.

The link between cultural expertise and radical politics worried conservatives. In the 1950s and 60s far too many of the European avant-garde were openly Marxist. The American government was worried enough to covertly fund literary magazines through the CIA. During the much of the post war period conservatives managed to discourage radicalism at home through a combination of witch hunting and moderate Keynesianism. But during the second half of the 60s the counter culture and the New Left married cultural and political radicalism. Worse still, it was a mixture that appealed to many of the educated upper classes. Sexual liberation, drugs, rock’n’roll, and revolution were highly marketable commodities and America’s capitalist culture industry wasted no time in selling them to the world.

Back home too many of America’s upper class were led astray by their deference to the authority of the cultural elite. Many conservatives believed that donors to influential philanthropic foundations were cutting their own throats by funding leftists and cultural radicals – people who would be satisfied with nothing less than the overthrow of conservative morality and the capitalist system. Writer Tom Wolfe dubbed the combination of high society and political radicalism as ‘Radical Chic. In Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers he described the experience of attending a New York society party in the 60s:

Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. These are nice. Little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts. Very tasty. Very subtle. It’s the way the dry sackiness of the nuts tiptoes up against the dour savor of the cheese that is so nice, so subtle. Wonder what the Black Panthers eat here on the hors d’oeuvre trail? Do the Panthers like little Roquefort cheese morsels rolled in crushed nuts this way, and asparagus tips in mayonnaise dabs, and meatballs petites au Coq Hardi, all of which re at this very moment being offered to them on gadrooned silver platters by maids in black uniforms with handironed white aprons … The butler will bring them their drinks … Deny it if you wish to, but such are the pensées métaphysiques that rush through one’s head on these Radical Chic evenings just now in New York.

It’s easy to see the dilemmas involved in hosting a party like this. For example, having black servants serve nibbles to Black Panthers would be a faux pas of the highest order. Obviously only white servants would do. But how does one talk about black guests to lower class whites? Wolfe continues to burrow (New Journalism style) into his host’s head:

When talking to one’s white servants, one doesn’t really know whether to refer to blacks as blacks, Negroes, or colored people. When talking to other … well, cultivated persons, one says blacks, of course. It is the only word, currently, that implicitly shows one’s awareness of the dignity of the black race. But somehow when you start to say the word to your own white servants, you hesitate. You can’t get it out of your throat. Why? Counter-guilt! You realize that you are about to utter one of those touchstone words that divide the cultivated from the uncultivated, the attuned from the unattuned, the hip from the dreary. As soon as the word comes out of your mouth – you know it before the first vocable pops off you lips – your own servant is going to size you up as one of those limousine liberals, or whatever epithet they use, who are busy pouring white soul all over the black movement, and would you do as much for the white lower class, for the domestics of the East Side, for example, fat chance Sahib.

The tag ‘limousine liberal‘ dates Wolfe’s piece perfectly. Mario Procaccino used it in 1969 to attack the supporters of Mayor John Lindsay, the mayor of New York. According to William Saffire, Procaccino’s opponents made fun of misstatements such as "I want every kid in New York to have the same chance I did – to come up the hard way." The old New Deal liberals were firmly on the side of the white working class and their values. Lyndon Johnson was a firm supporter of the civil rights movement but he didn’t have much time for dole bludgers, hippies, or anti-war protesters. He was the kind of straight talking Texan who expected his guests to keep up their end of the conversation while he was taking a leak. Old-style Democrats like Johnson were not limousine liberals. They sent bombers to blow the bejesus out of America’s enemies, expected people to work their way out of poverty, and wanted to sell American democracy to the world.

American liberalism has changed since the mid 60s. As Thomas Frank says "There is a very upper-middle class flavor to liberalism, and that’s just bound to rub average people the wrong way." In an essay for Harper’s, Frank argued that Blue America is dismissed with the ‘latte libel:’

the suggestion that liberals are identifiable by their tastes and consumer preferences and that these tastes and preferences reveal the essential arrogance and foreignness of liberalism.

Frank argues that working Americans have been hoodwinked by conservatives into voting against their own economic interests. Working class Bush voters have become so fixated on cultural elitism that they haven’t noticed that their government is entrenching economic elitism – the rich get further ahead of ordinary people every year. But perhaps the latte libel works because many Americans really are more worried about social status than they are about economic status. And when offered the choice between a president who promises to wage war on left wing cultural snobbery and one who offers state funded health care and a better education for their kids they’d think carefully about it… and then vote conservative.

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Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

I disagree, the divisions in US culture are not that great. Where the division has come, is from the top. Politicians have created the appearance of division for their own political ends. Americans are good hearted, honest people who unfortunately are too willing to believe that government and the media are honest and truthful.

Culture is not the problem, government and the divisions government is prepared to make to ensure their power is the problem. Once again government is the problem.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Interesting, Don, to see you referring to Thomas Frank as well – I quoted him in my post below and Chris has also referred to his work in a post on the US election at Backpages. To date, I’ve only read his piece in Harpers but ordered What’s the Matter with Kansas? from Amazon the other day. Have you had a chance to read the book? I’d be interested in your thoughts!

Link
2022 years ago

Really interesting post. Lots of avenues to venture down. The notion of ‘classes’ as we used to understand it is now all over the joint. Having money gets you a ticket anywhere. The highly educated are poverty stricken, doctors resent the fact that plumbers earn more than they, (but hey, who does do the more important job?) Paul Hogan is a squillionaire, David Gulpilil could be living in a three storey harbourside terrarce at Birchgrove, but chooses not too, and a boor like Beckham is a worldwide marketing phenomenon – we truly are a ratty, mixed, bag with no absolute pigeon-hole, class-wise, to put each other into, (save snidely to our selves), other than how many bucks do you have and more importantly what do you do?

What you look like is also very important.

I recently had to wait tables on a breakfast room full of insanely rich Yanks. They were immaculate (at 7am), it was obviously very important to be waxed, tanned,coiffed, fully made up, trim, taught, terrific, and working at it. They were too elite to be into branding, but they were clearly very vain people. I am a vanity snob. (I’ve left it too late to be vain) I see vanity as a real weakness and go onto to view it as rather stupid too.

There are millions of people who are getting around the planet, who are fabulously wealthy, but have little or no tertiary education. Such people are now driving mass culture. Historically this has never really happened before.

I think its healthy to go through a certain radicalisation of one’s personality, and university can aid that process. But as you suggest this can be hard work. Man if anything other than vain is also lazy.

Probably the best thing we could do as an educated liberterian elite, world, would be to educate people who have suffered or are suffering. They would undoubtedly make the best world citizens who could help lead us out of the bog.

Its a skewiff world were those that know little and understand even less are in the B.O.P. But there is also something incredibly ‘normal’ about it, not healthy or visionary just monumentally mediocre.

Vanity, vanity all is but vanity

I suppose that makes me an insufferable elitest snob:>? And do I care?

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

I have nothing sensible to say at the moment except to note that I heard David Gulpilil on radio yesterday saying he didnt have 2 bob. He got $10,000 from Croc Dundee.

Link
2022 years ago

Yes I know Frances, but he could’ve, if he’d done it whities way, he chose not too.

DrShrink
2022 years ago

Interesting, excellent piece. However i dont think its entirely valid in assessing changing voting patterns. I’ve seen variations of this argument before, blogger Jack Strocchi was pushing it after howards recent win.
It seeks to put blame onto the cultural left as a major facotr in the failure of the political left. However i dont agree that the middle majority who arnt politicaly active chosoe to vote based on hating people who drink latte and champion esoteric culture.

The Libberal culture set may be disliked by the majority, (or jealous of) but only the politically active conservatives seek to apply blame to this group for a center0left election loss.

Much as if had Kerry or Latham won the politically active left wing writers may attribute blame to people not wanting to be hectored by religious puritans.

Theres wide culture wars, of slight shifts in notions and definitions and then theres culture wars for the polticially active. Where everybody is seeking to place the most pressure for an opponents loss on the sect of their opponents culture they dislike the most.

Still, interesting piece Don.

Rex
Rex
2022 years ago

A terrificaly interesting piece Don, but somehow I sense it is unfinished. Are you off at the toilet at the moment?

Some things that weren’t quite clear to me:

– Are todays latte liberals the decendants of the high-cult or the mid-cult crowd?

– What exactly is wrong with Mid-cult?

– If working Americans have been hoodwinked by conservatives into voting against their own economic interests then how come University lecturers find themselves earning less than the people who unblock their sewers and fix their cars ? There is an inconsistency in these two observations I think.

– Are you suggesting that ultimatly the liberal left is viewed as snobbish and effete, and that if the left of centre parties wish to regain power they need to be like the Democrats of old. Be prepared to kick the bejesus out of some foreigners or minority group, so that the broad masses can get off on the blood sport. The Mass-cult?

Don
Don
2022 years ago

Rex, you are far too perceptive.

The piece is, indeed, unfinished. Originally I thought I’d title it ‘Part 1’ and then finish later.

If I do I’ll make sure I look at your questions first. But just quickly, one of things I enjoy about reading Dwight Macdonald is that if there such a thing as midcult, his work is an excellent example of the genre.

And your last question – I think LBJ (and other cold war liberals) were so terrified of appearing soft on communism that they were prepared to napalm just about anyone to prove the point.

As to whether left of center parties need to get tough to regain power, I suggest you direct that question to Tony Blair.

brian mckinlay
brian mckinlay
2022 years ago

One other aspect of this that interests me is the way in which food and alllusions to food..e.g..”latte drinkers ” and “chardonay socialists” also appears in the discourse. This in an age when a whole culture of wine and food snobbery has arisen in the mass media,as in ” I just enjoyed a superb guinea fowl,with slivers of truffle(Tasmanian !) and a jus of (wild) black-currant,on a bed of Madagascan asparagus !.” Never,NEVER ‘serve your guests a Fondue(even if you have a fondue set hidden away at the back of the pantry),or even think of that 1960’ies entree…half-a grapefuit lightly grilled,with just a dash of port(or was it Marsala?)on top….I think it was the Roman Historian, Tacitus who spoke of the way in which the Roman elites impoverished themselves to pay for the exotic spices with which they smothered their food…though ,lackinf television there was now ay in which the Roman chef could become a celebrity

brian mckinlay
brian mckinlay
2022 years ago

One other aspect of this that interests me is the way in which food and alllusions to food..e.g..”latte drinkers ” and “chardonay socialists” also appears in the discourse. This in an age when a whole culture of wine and food snobbery has arisen in the mass media,as in ” I just enjoyed a superb guinea fowl,with slivers of truffle(Tasmanian !) and a jus of (wild) black-currant,on a bed of Madagascan asparagus !.” Never,NEVER ‘serve your guests a Fondue(even if you have a fondue set hidden away at the back of the pantry),or even think of that 1960’ies entree…half-a grapefuit lightly grilled,with just a dash of port(or was it Marsala?)on top….I think it was the Roman Historian, Tacitus who spoke of the way in which the Roman elites impoverished themselves to pay for the exotic spices with which they smothered their food…though ,lacking television there was now ay in which the Roman chef could become a celebrity

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Interesting analysis, Don, but on reflection I think there are a few unanswered questions. The tendency to vote against one’s economic interests is of course able to explained either in terms of Weber’s status/class distinction or in terms of a Marxian theory of ideology. But I wonder where culture fits in. Certainly at one level, debates over things like funding the NEA or the pc storm in academia or Bennett’s “values in education” stuff are part of the US “culture wars”. But it seems to me that values talk has now been transvalued as it were – towards a concentration with “moral” issues – which while perhaps capable of being articulated to an anti-High Culture agenda as it was in the early 90s – now has much more purchase in spheres outside the strictly cultural. I’d be interested, as always in your thoughts.

Tim
Tim
2022 years ago

Understandably broad brush, Don, but would be interested to see a bit more detail – some real examples of midcult, for instance. I’d also be interested to know precisely what demographic (race, income) you mean by “Red State”. What I’m getting at is that, as presented, there seems to be a presumption that there is only relative poverty rather than actual poverty in the US. In fact, as I’m sure you know, considerable numbers of kids do go hungry here, people are forced into genuine poverty by health costs etc, people do live in straighted circumstances. It’s not all about status – there is a lot of actual survival level concerns. People die for want of medical treatment and safe communities. A drive around Anacostia here in DC–the nation’s capital–is an eye-opener. As is some time spent on the outskirts of Nashville, or Memphis (not a 100 yeards from where MLK was shot) or any number of other locations. (Ohio comes to mind too)

I’m not criticising the broad brush approach–it’s a blog post! I’m just making the additional point.

Don
Don
2022 years ago

Tim,

The poverty in America is more than relative. No argument there. One of things which shocked me when I was in places like LA and San Francisco was how visible it was.

But when poverty is confined to a small strata at the bottom of society it tends to show up in political life as a law and order issue (what to do about all those irritating panhandlers etc). Zero tolerance wasn’t just about crime.

The old politics of the 19th century, the 1930s, and (to some extent) the War on Poverty Era, were different. You could win elections by getting poor people’s votes or the votes of people who identified with them.

Few Americans identify with the desperately poor these days. Just look at how hard anti-poverty advocates have to work in America. Even in the 1960s Harrington’s ‘The Other America’ was written about ‘them’ rather than ‘us.’

anthony
2022 years ago

Brian, the food switcheroonie occurred with Richard Olney’s Simple French food. Aspirants were just working their way up to home rendition of Michelin 3 star approximations and then Olney undercuts them with a book on peasant stews. Prawn Cocktail? Ha! Try offal.
This thinking has occurred in an obvious way with the slow food movement but is everywhere in ethnicism/peasantism in recipes. It’s a long way from solid meat and potatoes and certainly subversive of the food of the future industro-convenient TV dinners of the 50’s.
Bamboozled by this, today’s status obsessed go for $12 curry pastes and $30 EVOO but the real sting in the tail grand gesture is the barely used $10,000 pretend chef kitchen. These are the un-ran running shoes of the food/status world.
Our version of the Red State Cuisine? My Restaurant Rules – winners were surf and turf – wilfull food stupidity and greatly celebrated as an up yours to snobby food critics.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

On food, I had a lot of fun a few years ago when my boss, a rural sociologist, went along to a seminar in the Ag Science Faculty to talk about social attitudes to g/m food. It was a bit of a different type of analysis to what they were used to. At one stage, Geoff was talking about the cultural/social significance of different types of food consumption, and I piped up later on with a story about how enterprising young men and women at my local Coles (where everyone dresses to the nines and a notorious pick up joint) seek to impress their fellow shoppers at the checkout queue by buying Roma tomatoes destined to rot in their fridges. There’s a notorious urban myth about the New Farm Coles (retailed a number of times in the Courier-Mail) which suggests that whether your bananas (the red-tipped organic ones of course) are pointing up or down in the top tray of your shopping trolley signifies either “I’m a funky 20 or 30 something looking for a meaningless sexual encounter” or “I’m a funky 20 or 30 something looking for a meaningful relationship”. An interviewee in one of the C-M articles also said he bought cat food (despite not owning a cat) to show women he was a SNAG. Meanwhile, the homeless people in an area where around 100 boarding houses have closed in the last decade get to eat the scraps from Coles round the back…

Jason Soon
Jason Soon
2022 years ago

it’s worth noting that low-income social conservatives aren’t the only people who vote against their class interests. was it Irving Kristol who said Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Hispanics? the hated ‘limousine liberals’ themselves have been voting against their class interests for years – perhaps that is why the Right tends to reserve their greatest hatred for them since they are class traitors.

Norman
Norman
2022 years ago

When it comes to “class traitors” though, Jason, nothing matches the actions of Teacher Unions and Labor Politicians, for destroying the schools which once served working class kids reasonably well.

trackback
2022 years ago

Zizek on Frank & populism

I have just come across this forum run by the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. It rightly says that: “Australian culture is notable for the lack of intellectual engagement in issues of social and political importance in any prominent way. Th…