Ours is the age of misplaced priorities. Instead of art and culture, we focus on politics and punditry. Chatting over lunch, we talk about the upcoming elections or Sarah Palin’s significance for the conservative movement or the effects of the Chinese trade surplus. Imitating news analysts, we speculate about what it will mean for the future.
These days, the ability to talk about politics in a knowing way is treated as a mark of sophistication, so much so, I think, that we’ve come tacitly to regard political analysis as the rightful domain of intelligence. If George Stephanopoulos were to make passing reference to John Milton or Henry James, the TV host would very likely treat it as a joke. But his slightest speculation about Barack Obama’s latest public statements are treated with high seriousness.
Ordinary conversations follow the same trajectory. Everyone wants to be Michael Barone. We do the “inside politics” commentator in different voices.
It was not always so. Far from indicating effete and irrelevant erudition, the capacity to talk about Jane Austen or T.S. Eliot or James Joyce was once seen as clear indication of a highly developed and socially relevant mind. Literature, theater, film, the visual arts—a certain acquaintance with and command of these domains made people intellectuals. For Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun and their readers, debates about novels and poetry seemed more fraught with public significance than the ins and outs of current electoral politics.
It’s hard to know exactly why things changed. Some say our media have dumbed-down popular culture. But that’s not true. TV is in a certain sense far, far more sophisticated today than it was when I grew up. The irony of the Colbert Report would have been inaccessible to mass audiences in 1970.
The CBS show “60 Minutes” made a big splash because it often gave twenty minutes to a single story. Today news shows devote hours and hours. A plane makes an emergency landing in the Hudson River, and immediately switchboards light up as newsrooms call experts. Retired pilots, safety experts, and airline executives offer expert analysis. Aeronautical engineers and oceanographers provide deep background.
So, no, things have not been dumbed-down. Instead, our interests have shifted. The post-war years saw a flourishing market for the “great books.” I remember, for example, the bookshelves of the homes in my neighborhood. They almost always featured the collections of classics that middle class Americans bought to bring culture into their newly purchased suburban homes.
The impulse to buy the Harvard Classics (known as “The Five Foot Shelf”) undoubtedly stemmed from class anxieties, but it also reflected a real desire to rethink modern identity. The traumas of the Great Depression and World War II profoundly disoriented Americans, as did the rapid growth in income and increase in status so many experienced, and many felt the need to answer basic questions about society and human destiny. Some turned to the classics of the past, others sought answers in Marxism or Freudian psychology, and still others drew inspiration from the cultural experimentation that culminated in the 1960s.
In this atmosphere, the pressing question about politics was not “Who is going to win?” but instead the question “What is politics for?” It was a question that required examining our more fundamental views of what human life is for, and what role society plays.
Today as we shift toward a seemingly ever-increasing interest in the machinery of partisan politics, we’re becoming Marxists by default. Marx held that economic realities are fundamental, and questions of culture are epiphenomenal.
To use the technical terms of Marxist theory, the struggle for economic power functions as the base of social reality, while literature and poetry, music, and the arts are part of the “superstructure” that is determined by the base. Thus the primacy of politics, for whoever controls the levers of state power can influence and guide economic affairs, and thus control everything.
Not every controversial political issue boils down to economics (though it’s amazing how much passion gets invested in whether the top marginal rate is 35% or 39%). The question of who controls the Supreme Courts also looms large. Yet across the board we assume that politics is about power—getting it and wielding it. The question, asked by Plato and Aristotle, as well as Augustine and Aquinas, “What is politics for?” is irrelevant, and indeed uninteresting.
This tacitly Bolshevik mentality is mistaken. Yes, of course people vote their pocketbooks. “It’s the economy, stupid,” as Bill Clinton reminded his campaign in 1992. But we also vote in order to forestall what we fear, and to achieve what we hope for. We’re only likely to put our shoulders behind political causes we believe necessary or desirable, which isn’t a matter of syllogisms, surveys, or social scientific analysis.
This is why the most potent force in political life is the human imagination, not control over the levers of state power. Utopian fantasies and exaggerated dreams of national greatness agitated millions in the twentieth century, providing legitimacy to communist and fascist regimes.
Nightmares about cancerous aliens made Nazi anti-Semitism seem plausible. And today it is the cultural imagination of the Islamic world—not its oil wealth or official foreign policies—that makes the region so volatile.
At the end of the day, elections don’t shape or influence our cultural imaginations. On the contrary, our imaginations influence our elections, as the naive nation builders who thought that bringing elections to Iraq would transform the country discovered, much to their dismay.
As the midterm elections approach, it’s worth remembering that the future of America will turn on culture, not politics: the poetry of our moral and social imaginations, not punditry. So by all means vote, but don't neglect the real and deeper sources of public life.
R.R. Reno is a Senior Editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.