The Late Chaim Potok and the 2012 Election

My apologies for my long silence.  I was gone for five weeks, mainly on my wife’s business, but the last portion of the trip was a journey through the north of Greece looking mostly at painted churches.  I should start posting from the road, though I have no desire to compete necessarily with my wife’s new sister website, Postcards for Pilgrims, which is opening up next year.  The one big travel post I did make on this blog, the San Andreas fault trip, was a bachelor trip that she wasn’t on.

And I apologize for responding to an article that is a year old.  The fact is that I just stumbled upon it.

Christopher Caldwell, in his essay after the 2012 election, drew, whether he as aware of it or not, [he doesn’t mention the name] on categories devised by the late popular author of cultural-clash novels, Chaim Potok. Potok used to speak of core cultures [centered on strongly held values] versus peripheral cultures [which are superficial and not centered on anything].  In Potok’s view, a core culture, however cultic or perverse, will always defeat a peripheral culture with no clear center.  When two core cultures clash, it results in a bloody struggle; when two peripheral cultures clash, eccentricities and madnesses appear.

Christopher Caldwell argues that Obama, in 2012, ran a values oriented campaign, and Romney, ultimately, did not.  In Potokian terms, Obama ran a ‘core’ campaign, and Romney, before most of the public, ran a ‘periphery’ campaign.  There is a contingent of people, single women and their friends, [including probably an equal number of males] who are not only pro-choice as a value but will vote [like Thomas Frank’s Kansans, in reverse] for economic policies they don’t like in order to secure that right.  And similarly with access to contraception and gay marriage.  Now abortion is the one social issue on which the Millennial generation is still open to a pro-life point of view, or at least many of them are.  But to what extent any of them will prioritize it in their political choices, we do not know.

California, and other states with ballot initiatives, present an interesting case, because where you have ballot initiatives, issues, especially social ones, can be isolated from their partisan Democratic versus Republican context.  Social conservatives come in all colors, but social conservative ‘values voters’, who will let their partisan choices be driven by social issues even to their economic disadvantage, are mostly white; and large numbers of those people have left California since the crash of 1990.  So, in 2008, Proposition 8 was separated and detached from the partisan issues between Obama and McCain; and the more an ethnic group, in consequence, favored Obama, the higher Proposition 8 polled among them.  It is pretty clear that the leadership of Republicans thought of these ‘social issues’ as a means, not as an end; I think I remember Jeffrey Bell writing many years ago that elites and local elites [in other words not just the Cultural Establishment, but the Chamber of Commerce and country club types in any community] regard ‘issues’ as a means to get their guy in office, whereas the people at large think of guys in office as a means to the end of public policy. And of course, virtually all actual elected officials come from the local elites, and what’s more, raise money from them – I call them the ‘donorate’ as opposed to the ‘electorate’ – and socialize mostly with them.

Caldwell adds also, “A modern, divers democratic republic is something very different from a company.  It relies for cohesion on shared narratives passionately believed in . . . Run it as a business and it will fall to pieces.  Obama has made a lot of mistakes, but running the country as a business is not one of them.”  This thought appeals to my Kuyperian-Fukuyamaist mind, which understands that business and politics are two different spheres with different kinds of authority.  I only wish that this could be understood at the local level.  The whole concept of the traveling ‘city manager’ who is hired from someplace else [would we advertise abroad for our President?] implies a confusion about the nature of City Hall; that it is some kind of a business rather than a political entity.

And, as I have probably said before, the Republicans are constantly missing the point made by Francis Schaeffer 40 years ago, when he declared that only a minority of what was then called the Silent Majority was really values-oriented; the majority of the Silent Majority, he concluded, [and this was about the Greatest or World War II generation, though he saw signs that the Boomers were going to follow that path too] had only two values, affluence and personal peace.  I think this is most obvious at the level of local government, where our true beliefs about the role of government are most likely to surface.  And, for 80% of the American people, affluence has declined in the last 40 years, while they have had to watch the other 20% still prosper.  As far as personal peace, well at least the crime rate has declined so I can’t say the average suburbanite has less ‘personal peace’ than she had 40 years ago.  That’s something to investigate.

In Response To: “Values Voters Prevail Again” by Christopher Caldwell at The Weekly Standard.

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