As a general principle, look to reject any narrative that reduces complex problems into simple causes.
This is something we should try to apply when talking about the various divisions in American culture. Pundits often fall into tropes about “left” and “right,” myself included, but while these terms may be useful shorthand for overlapping segments of the electorate, when overused they can obscure the fine-grained layering of the American public. Leaving out the geographic aspect for now, we have (at least) four main divides in contemporary American society.
- Racial divisions: White and Black, Americans and Immigrants, etc.
- Political divisions: Conservatives and Progressives, Establishment and Anti-establishment, etc.
- Economic divisions: Working poor, Working class, Middle class and Upper class, etc.
- Cultural divisions: City folk and Country folk, multiculturalism and regionalism, etc.
The first three types of division often get discussed openly and directly. That’s not to say that we have healthy public debate on these issues. We don’t. But at least the first three topics are agreed upon as divisions that exist empirically and can be talked about by reasonable people. Cultural inequality, on the other hand, is rarely if ever discussed on its own terms. On the unusual occasion that it does come up, it usually gets blended into a discussion of one or more of the other types of division.
But I would argue that it’s impossible to understand our current political environment without openly facing up to cultural inequality. The 2016 election is often framed as having been a rebellion against some ill-defined ruling elite. However, it’s hard to make sense of this narrative in terms of the three divisions that are typically offered up. Politically, conservatives have controlled two out of three branches of government for most of the past three decades. Economically, Trump actually lost to Clinton among low income voters. And racially, well… I don’t think it’s controversial to argue that white Americans have not been the primary victims of racial inequality, both currently and historically.
So then, what was it that Republican voters were rebelling against in 2016? In short, Sarah Silverman.
This is itself an enormous oversimplification, but the point is that liberals have never lacked for cultural material to identify with. Between books, movies, television, and the news media at large, liberals have always seen their issues and concerns get discussed and dissected in public forums, sometimes even with depth and nuance.
Conservatives, in the meantime, have had… Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty. These types of shows have enjoyed success, but they are relatively few in number. They also contend with bald-faced condescension from the left, paired with an almost zoological curiosity. Further, it doesn’t help that many icons from these cultural outliers have undergone politically charged media firestorms of their own, always perceived as from the left. Conservative America may hold considerable weight in politics, but in the cultural arena they are often left feeling marginalized, caricaturized, and sometimes ignored completely.
This dichotomy helps explain why Trump supporters can play the role of both victim and oppressor, depending on context. It explains why a site like Breitbart would file so many stories under “Big Hollywood.” It explains why Joy Villa’s Grammy dress garnered feelings of liberation from so many. And it explains why any cultural conservative would rise to the defense of Milo Yiannopolous in the wake of his recent scandal, despite making statements that would otherwise be anathema to conservatives. To them this is simply a natural reaction to a pattern seen far too many times before. After all, the Lady Gagas of the left are permitted to go around stirring up controversy for controversy’s sake, but anyone who does so on the right becomes a target and, ultimately, a casualty.*
Does this framing explain everything about the current environment? Of course not. (See: the opening sentence above.) There are other complicated factors to explore, including but not limited to economic anxiety, voter enthusiasm, media biases, and yes, racism. But any analysis that doesn’t take into account cultural inequality will find itself struggling to understand the full picture.
*Note: I am in no way defending the positions or career of Mr. Yiannopolous, only offering an observation about the outrage against the outrage.