|Thanks for the comments, Cam; alas, I don't think Lenny and I will be tying the knot any time soon. But I do wish to address some of the issues raised by my article, because as dangerous as I think the current trends are, I don't believe that this particular election has Apocalyptic Significance. More on that below, after I answer the very thought-provoking questions posed by both Michael and Adam..|
Michael confesses puzzlement over "the significance [I] place on popular culture." But I can assure him that I have no "secret knowledge of its value." There can be no "popular grass roots cultural movement without any dynamic intellectual concepts." Still, popular culture remains a barometer of how philosophical ideas are filtered into society, and how social groups, armed with these ideas, attempt to achieve political change. (I should note that it may make no practical difference if these groups sincerely believe the ideas, or are simply using the ideas as rationalizations by which to achieve political power; sometimes the seriously committed become the "useful idiots" for those who are actually wielding that power---but this opens up a discussion that goes way beyond our current scope.)
Off-the-cuff, I'd say that "fads" are passing curiosities, like Pet Rocks, or EST. "Fads" might signify an overall pop-cultural trend if there are enough of them to constitute such a trend. "Popular culture," as such, is the way in which various ideas are produced, disseminated, and consumed, large-scale, primarily through aesthetic means, such as fiction, film, etc.
The sociological value of understanding mass acceptance of such ideas is that people, armed with ideological weapons, will influence political trends. Yes, an appeal to the masses can be an appeal to authority, but that is simply the nature of politics: you can't get elected without some kind of mass appeal.
In some respects, this is an application of Rand's view of social change. Rand tells us that philosophic system-builders will set the trend, but that professional philosophers, intellectuals, and educators will convey the dominant ideological tendencies to communications and aesthetics media: journalists, writers, artists of various stripes. In an extension of this model, I'd say that a social movement cannot become powerful without slowly dominating such media in various segments of society. Often, there are competing ideas at work within media: clearly, in a free or even semi-free society, diversity of ideas in the marketplace, anchored on diversity of private property ownership, militates against totalitarian ideology. (That's one of the reasons why private property is so essential to a free society; when the state owns everything, it also attempts to produce, disseminate, and compel the consumption of state-defined "culture.")
Since human beings need philosophy in order to guide their lives, since they need the integration that philosophy can provide, they will grab onto whatever philosophy is available to them. In the case of religious fundamentalism as a mass pop cultural force, I'd say that long-time religious ideas have been made understandable, "chewable," and digestible by various individuals in media. The ideas did not originate with these individuals.
In my essay, I mention the long-term history of pietist doctrine, for example, but there is also a long-term intellectual evolution that I don't discuss, including the evolution of the idea of the Rapture. This is a doctrine that many root in Biblical scripture, but it has also been credited to various 19th-century religious scholars, theologians, and intellectuals, such as John Darby of the Plymouth Brethren; the Rapture has now been presented to pop culture in the Left Behind series, which layers the highly abstract Revelations with a dramatic, concrete narrative that is easily digestible.
Thus, what happens in such instances is that ideas take root among intellectuals, but it is only through their mass cultural dissemination that such ideas begin to move the world. Likewise, neoconservatism may be an intellectual force today, among popular writers and political advisers, but it too has a long evolution among intellectuals: former social democrats, Trotskyites and even New Leftists (some have pointed to Strauss as a neocon forefather as well).
I have been arguing for quite a while now that this Randian model of social change has applications not merely to the domestic sphere, but globally as well. I have argued for nearly two years now that a "nation-building" enterprise in Iraq, for example, is not likely to succeed in the absence of a cultural shift in that country. Politics is not a primary; it can influence culture (especially "political culture," that is, the subculture among individuals acting in the political arena), but it is primarily a product of culture. A free society cannot simply be instituted from the top-down. If Rand believed that, she would have ended Atlas Shrugged with John Galt assuming the reins of state power. He refuses to do so. But not even the Prime Movers and Galts of this world will succeed in changing society without general, cultural acceptance of their moral code.
So, no, I don't believe that pop culture is some kind of ineffable, powerful, primary force; but it is the chief transmission belt of the ideas of intellectuals to the larger society, and, over time, that society fuels political change. That's why it is important for the right intellectuals to continue making the right arguments, and to spread their ideas far and wide. One cannot predict if, when, or how those ideas will take root as a dominant ideological force. But that is one of the reasons I have kept my eyes on pop culture as a transmission belt for Rand's ideas. Her ideas are slowly being absorbed by American culture---in film, fiction, and even comics; the forthcoming issue of The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, for instance, will focus much attention on Rand's cultural and literary impact, the first part of a two-part celebration of the Rand Centenary. I'm not saying that her ideas will need to be present in the society as long as Darby's or the Bible, but the more these ideas are developed and dispersed, the greater the possibility that they will make an impact on the larger culture and its political system.
Adam expresses disappointment that I do not commit to voting for Kerry. Yes, it is indeed possible that people of a different political stripe, such as the new JFK, might have the backing to make important policy changes. It is said that only a life-long anti-Communist like Richard Nixon could have gone to China, for much the same reason that only a "New Democrat" like Bill Clinton could have reformed welfare. Yet, as an observer of political systems and trends, I can tell you that, under current conditions, I doubt that there will be a "sea change" across the United States in the direction of Christian fundamentalism. Not yet, at least.
The reason for this is that the Congress is likely to remain split enough, with Democrats and "moderate" Republicans from the northeast and the west acting as spoilers for the fundamentalist agenda, able to block constitutional amendments and extremist Supreme Court nominations. (In any event, even the most conservative of Presidents have been known to go "centrist" on Court nominations; Reagan may have been responsible for Scalia, but he was also responsible for appointing moderates like Justices Kennedy and O'Connor.)
I don't think this is some kind of Apocalyptic Presidential Election. I think that both candidates endorse the same foreign policy, and, in effect, remain seriously committed to bolstering the welfare state (Bush's extensive and expansive Medicare reforms and budget-busting spending prove he is no free-marketer, and Kerry has been a long-time supporter of welfarism).
Moreover, I think too much has been made about the President's power in this political system. As I point out in an L&P essay, "Ideology and Myth in American Politics," as "the government [has] gradually gained more and more influence over every aspect of social life," the Madisonian checks and balances built into our constitutional system have "gradually morphed into an institutionalized civil war among competing interest groups, each vying for some special privilege at the expense of the others." The reality of the mixed economy is that it encourages "both political collectivism and social atomism: It nourishes the development of ad hoc groups, because groups become the only political units that matter. Simultaneously, it atomizes a society, as people-in-groups become increasingly fragmented and fractured across every dimension, in search of this or that privilege or exemption: a Hobbesian "war of all against all"--which goes global." Rand called this "global balkanization,"
the statist manufacturing of pressure groups, which pits "ethnic minorities against the majority, the young against the old, the old against the middle, women against men, welfare-recipient against the self-supporting," and so on and so on. Every differentiating human characteristic becomes the basis for another battle in the war for privilege: age, size, sex, sexual orientation, social status, religion, nationality, race, etc. Each of these groups attempts to use government to subsidize its ventures, socialize its risks, or otherwise restrict the access of its competitors.
It is a system that has evolved structurally, and it doesn't matter much who is elected to political office. It may matter to the specific interests who influence this or that politician---indeed, a persuasive case can be made that not every pressure group is equally represented and that this is the nature of a crony capitalism in which some cronies are more equal than others. But the elections don't affect the fundamental structure of political privilege as such.
Under this system, a President can use the "bully pulpit" as Theodore Roosevelt once called it, to affect a sea change in political attitudes. In recent times, Reagan used that bully pulpit to great effect. The President can also give voice to this or that special interest, go off on this or that foreign adventure, but he can't alter the nature of the system.
Furthermore, let's not forget that it is the Electoral College which awards the Presidency on the basis of a fractured federal structure; the red Republican and blue Democratic states will line-up, geographically and demographically, as they have done over the past 30 or so years. So the votes of individuals only matter relative to the state context in which such votes are cast; my vote means nothing in New York State, a state that votes heavily Democratic (despite having a Republican Governor, or a NYC Republican mayor).
I would seriously consider voting for Kerry if my vote did matter in a close election, especially in a state that had serious swing potential. It might be one way of sending a signal to the current administration that I am deeply unhappy with its policies. But I have no confidence that Kerry is going to make any fundamental difference; in fact, I believe that he will, at this time, endorse the current administration's foreign policy (he voted for the war in Iraq, after all, and he recently claimed he would do so again, regardless of whether Iraq possessed WMDs). The war and occupation have now been institutionalized, in any event. Economically, I don't see how Kerry "turns the corner"---not with embedded budget-busting defense expenditures, and rising welfare state costs at home, and abroad, as the US embarks on the (re)construction of welfare states in Iraq, Afghanistan, and any other countries it might invade and occupy.
So, that's my reasoning, and that's why I reject Peikoff's view that it is "immoral" to sit out this election. None of this detracts from the essence of my article, however; these are troubling cultural and political trends. But if Americans want to reverse them, they will have to affect a cultural revolution that offers a radical, fundamental alternative. It won't require changing the whole culture; but it will require a change in the dominant cultural and intellectual tendencies. That is the only means by which to transform a political and social system.
P.S. - Don't take this as a maxim that one should sit out all elections, because one's vote "doesn't matter." That is a separate question. I do think local elections matter more---"all politics is local"---and I have voted for people who are not "libertarian" per se, but who have affected a "sea change" in the political culture of my home town. Rudy Giuliani, who had both libertarian and anti-libertarian tendencies, was one such politician; I voted for him three times---once in a losing campaign against David Dinkins, and twice more to help elect him Mayor of NYC. And he did affect the culture and politics of New York---cutting everything from crime to welfare rolls. Did I like everything he did? Of course not. But one should not avoid endorsing anyone because one can't get everything one desires. Additionally, I have voted for some mainstream Presidential candidates; I didn't vote for Reagan when he ran against Carter---voting for the LP candidate Ed Clark, instead. But I did give Reagan my vote in 1984 because I thought he had affected a monumental rhetorical change in the Washington political culture, even though his political record was mixed.