The Roots of America's Culture War

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Are you a Gramscian or a Tocquevillian?

Take your time.

George W. Bush is an emphatic Tocquevillian. His plan enlisting faith-based organizations to solve social problems is a Tocquevillian project.

Al Gore, by contrast, ran a somewhat Gramscian campaign, noodling themes of class warfare and identity politics, speaking on the veiled premise that society is divided between oppressors and oppressed, between bloated white Republican clubmen and a rainbow coalition of everyone else. Oddly enough, Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman, had been on record as a devout Tocquevillian, on the side of religion, morality, patriotism and the American exceptionalism — the United Colors of Bill Bennett. Or at least he was Tocquevillian until Gore telephoned. Lieberman sold a few of his principles down the river to run with the Gramscians.

In the current issue of Policy Review, the bimonthly published by the conservative Heritage Foundation, John Fonte, a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, makes the case that for all the famous convergence at the center of American politics (supposedly a legacy of Clintonism — not too liberal, not too conservative, but a little of both), America remains in the grip of a profound culture war.

Fonte identifies the opposing armies in the war as Gramscians and Tocquevillians. The Gramscians take their name from the 20th-century Marxist intellectual and politician Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937). As Fonte remarks: "Despite [Gramsci's] enormous influence on today's politics, he remains far less well-known to most Americans than does Tocqueville," the prescient young French visitor who figured out America so brilliantly a hundred years before Gramsci's death.

Left brain, right brain: Gramsci and Tocqueville represent radically different ways of thinking about America. "Like Marx," Fonte writes, "[Gramsci] argued that all societies in human history have been divided into two basic groups: the privileged and the marginalized, the oppressor and the oppressed, the dominant and the subordinate." Europe is that way — and America is no exception. Gramsci went beyond Marx to include "also women, racial minorities, and many 'criminals.'" Therefore: The personal — in fact, all life — is political. There are no absolute moral standards: morality is socially constructed. And so on. Gramsci's American descendants, as Fonte notes, include feminists like Catharine MacKinnon ("a rape is not an isolated event or moral transgression or individual interchange gone wrong but an act of terrorism and torture within a systemic context of group subjection, like lynching") and others (in interest groups, government, universities and major corporations) who speak the neo-Marxian rhetoric of categories and conspiracies — who speak, in effect, of oppressed moral proletarians (gays, women, the disabled, people of color) and "enemies of the people," usually meaning (by process of elimination) heterosexual white males.

The Tocquevillians, on the other hand, say America is an exception. They "take Alexis de Tocqueville's essentially empirical description of American exceptionalism and celebrate the traits of this exceptionalism as normative values to be embraced." In the contemporary Tocquevillians' view, says Fonte, "Americans today, just as in Tocqueville's time, are much more individualistic, religious, and patriotic than the people of any other comparably advanced nation."

Sound familiar? Is this Gramscian/Tocquevillian split the same as the red/blue 50-50 division we saw on the electoral map in November? Yes, but not exactly. In millions of individual citizens' minds, elements of the two views blend. For example, I am essentially Tocquevillian, but the Tocquevillian American should nurture an enormous tolerance that is enabled by the assumptions 1) that American life ought, above all, to be fair, and 2) that there's enough here for everyone. But tolerance to a Tocquevillian is condescension to a Gramscian. Gramscianism lives on an invidious and Europeanized zero-sum kind of thinking about power.

Gramscian ideas are far advanced in America. You see them in "hate crimes" laws, in gender equity legislation, in forced corporate "sensitivity" training, in the menace of coerced "right thinking" in the universities. You feel the nuances of it in casual conversation. It's an attitude at a cocktail party. To speak Tocquevillian (the deepest American cultural tradition) is as bad as lighting up a cigarette at a dinner party on the Upper West Side.

The Tocquevillian is the Gramscian's right-wing fascist. But the Gramscian, you see, is a vicious Kluxer in her own right. As Bugs Bunny says, "This means war."