Like Garrick Davis (“Geoffrey Hill, Prodigal,” August/September), I too had the fortune of having Geoffrey Hill as an instructor. In 2004, I was a student in the Boston University writing seminars, and a few of us from the writing program took Hill’s Gerard Manley Hopkins seminar on Tuesday afternoons, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. The class was on the upper floor of one of the buildings on Bay State Road, a beautiful view of Charles River and Cambridge beyond. Like Davis, my classmates and I were uncertain of what Hill would be like—the cover photos on his books portrayed a very serious demeanor.
But as it turns out, Geoffrey Hill was one of the kindest and humblest persons I have had the pleasure of knowing. As an instructor, he encouraged our questions, was patient with our disagreements, and was willing to listen to our thoughts. It was also a delight hearing him read Hopkins’s poems. His attire was always very casual. He often came to class in an old pair of sweatpants, or some other slacks, and a regular jersey or shirt. He was also humorous: Once, when we told him that William Logan had called him the greatest poet alive, Hill responded with, “Well, he’s a sensible man, isn’t he?”
Even when I was no longer taking a course with him, I still visited him in office hours. We talked about various things, from poetry to Edmund Burke, whom he knew influenced my outlook. He liked early James Wright and early Robert Lowell, and did not think highly of writing programs. One time (I’m not sure if it was during office hours, but the door was half-ajar), I approached as he was working on something. I felt like I was interrupting genius, but when he saw me, he welcomed me. On another occasion, he was kind enough to sign and dedicate a rare copy of A Treatise of Civil Power. He also gave me a copy of a 1998 lecture he gave on Isaac Rosenberg.
His approach toward poetry, his respect for it and those whose shoulders he stood on, is the same approach I have had toward my own writing and poetry in general.
My objection to “Culture War as Class War” (August/September) is to its use of the term “elite.” The essay completely overlooks the ways in which cultural differences serve as a proxy for a struggle between two elites: the professional classes and the business classes. The elites differ in their core cultural values and even more in their material interests. But the conflict between the two principally takes the form of constructing governing coalitions, which involve contrasting core values often defined in terms of their opposition to each other.
The Democratic coalition, which dominated American politics from the New Deal to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, defined itself in opposition to the robber barons and lords of finance who oppressed workers, cheated customers, and caused the Great Depression. It also involved the resentment of intellectuals against the business elite, Catholic working classes against the Protestant upper middle class, and the South against Northern domination. What united the three groups was their opposition to the dominant governing group of the time. By mid-century, the coalition’s values had become the technocratic values associated with professionalism and rule of law: expertise, problem-solving pragmatism, equality, and procedural regularity. A commitment to gay rights follows directly from these values.
Today’s conservative Republican coalition defines itself in opposition to professional values. The new coalition reflects the values of a revitalized business elite. It celebrates hierarchy (the winners deserve their riches, Christianity is the true religion) over equality. It recharacterizes the values associated with the rule of law (anti-discrimination laws, mine safety regulations) as bureaucratic obstacles that reward the undeserving and stand in the way of greater efficiency. It sees expertise as bias that elevates professional judgments over commercial ones (climate change). It sets problem-solving pragmatism in opposition to standing up for what’s right (abortion is murder, homosexuality is a sin). And most fundamentally, it objects to the imposition of value-neutral judgments (all couples are equal in the eyes of the law) over individual value commitments (I should be able to celebrate my religion in the public square and run my company on my own terms).
To be sure, not all business executives share these values—and many professionals embrace conservative cultural positions. Nonetheless, the construction of a governing coalition involves using the clash between values to supply identity and command loyalty. In this sense, the role of abortion is emblematic. Abortion became a politically potent issue because it does not lend itself to compromise, technocratic expertise, or process-based resolutions. As it became a marker of identity, those who opposed abortion for religious reasons became more likely to vote Republican. After 2000, however, those who embraced a conservative, Republican identity became more opposed to abortion, even if they were not religious or belonged to a religion that did not oppose abortion. The cultural mindset became paramount in the construction of political identity, and it served to unite business resentment of the professional elites with traditionalist resentment of modernist values. Using issues like abortion and marriage equality to define the terms of the values conflict has been a winning strategy in the creation of a conservative governing coalition. But it is a mistake to present the conflict as one that casts “elites” on only one side of the culture wars.
university of minnesota
Darel E. Paul replies:
It is always satisfying when one’s work is taken seriously by serious scholars. Thus I thank June Carbone for her comments, especially because her work with Naomi Cahn plays an important role in my book From Tolerance to Equality, which is the basis of my article.
Carbone’s main critique is that I fail to recognize the role of culture in political struggles “between two elites.” This charge is largely misdirected. My article notes in its very first paragraph that the “culture war” has long been a struggle within the American professional-managerial class. That said, the normalization of homosexuality is so important to the culture war between elites and the masses because these “two elites” have come to considerable cultural agreement on the question and together have made normalization a symbol of their distinction. The threatened capital strikes against Arizona in 2014 and Indiana in 2015, as well as the actual capital strike against North Carolina in 2016–2017, are cases in point, and much more evidence is presented in my book.
I couldn’t agree more with Carbone’s argument that entrepreneurial politicians use cultural symbols to unite individuals and groups in coalitions. Which symbols succeed, however, is not a foregone conclusion. In particular, why homosexuality became such a potent symbol of distinction is a fascinating story of cultural and material power. Contrary to Carbone’s claim, normalization very much did not follow from “technocratic values associated with professionalism and rule of law.” If it had, homosexuality would have been normalized in the 1970s rather than the 2010s. Instead, normalization flowed from the cultural values and practices of “blue families” (a term coined by Carbone and Cahn) characteristic of the country’s professional-managerial class. It flowed from the broader American elite ideology of diversity. And it flowed from political conflict and coalition formation.
Any framework which posits “conservative” business standing against “liberal” professionals is a throwback to the 1980s and ’90s and fails to recognize how “modernist” (I would say “postmodernist”) American capital’s values have become. For every Chick-fil-A or Hobby Lobby, there are a hundred Googles and American Airlines and JPMorgan Chases and PepsiCos and Nabiscos and Targets. Woke capital has joined the culture war, and it’s fighting on the side of progressives.
In his analysis of growing divisions between social conservatives and libertarians among young center-right Americans, Philip Jeffery (“Conservatism’s Next Generation,” August/September) argues that “dismissing or insulting identity-obsessed college students for the purposes of shoring up the conservative coalition is the wrong move.”
At the root of identity politics, Jeffery suggests, is a search for something once provided by religion and other forces that facilitated social cohesion. For all its warped conception of humanity and essential hollowness, identity politics, Jeffery says, fills a vacuum. It allows people to express their desire for community, something that he maintains libertarians are too inclined to dismiss as an atavistic tribalism which threatens their idol of autonomy.
No doubt there is something to this. As a conservative who supports free markets, I often encounter libertarians who have little to say about what the founder of modern conservatism Edmund Burke (an admirer of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, committed free trader, and skeptic of most government economic interventions) called “little platoons.” More generally, we live in a world in which that vast intermediate sphere of associations otherwise known as “civil society” is slowly imploding. Humans are simultaneously individual and social beings, and that sociability has to extend beyond the family and contracts if humans are to flourish.
I’m less convinced, however, that identity politics reflects a longing for community. As Jeffery acknowledges, the world of identity politics is dominated by the nomenclature of repression. That’s not a coincidence. It reflects identity politics’ roots in Marxist cultural analysis—something which cultivates and fuels preexisting resentments and provides often-violent outlets for that rage. Identity politics also thrives upon breaking down those bonds that conservatives typically value, whether it’s the patriotism that sustains nations or those religious commitments found, for instance, in Judaism and Christianity which temper patriotism by reminding us of truths that transcend national boundaries.
Jeffery is correct to portray identity politics as a substitute for the religious longing intrinsic to being human. Yet so too is Marxism, as the liberation theologians understood all too well. By all means, conservatives should be pressing libertarians to acknowledge the importance of non-Gesellschaft forms of human sociability. But conservatives should also be relentless in critiquing the ways in which identity politics perverts and destroys the social bonds which help to make freedom, in the richest sense of that word, possible in the first place.
grand rapids, michigan
Philip Jeffery strikes me as a Tea Party guy. He would abhor the label—too many baby boomers and libertarians—but he tells their tale of a perfidious Republican establishment selling out its voters, even indulging a “suspicion that Republican loss of ground on social issues is systematic and intentional.” The documented decline in American religiosity is an alternative explanation for certain defeats, but Jeffery never mentions it.
I do not share Jeffery’s view of conservatism’s next generation. I’m envious of him: All his friends seem to talk about G. K. Chesterton or the limits of “‘autonomous’ individual preferences.” I worry there are many more young conservatives, the mainstays of College Republicans and Turning Point USA chapters, whose only orthodoxy is justice as the advantage of the stronger. Except when they are weaker, of course, in which case free speech becomes the order of the day. Jeffery is absolutely right that free speech isn’t enough. Conservatives must have something to say, something more than that we should be able to say it.
I cannot say whether Jeffery is correct about new trends in the student pro-life movement. But I wonder why he positions the two anti-abortion approaches antagonistically. By all means, make “arguments that an ethic of life promotes the common good of mother and child.” This does not abase but complements our “liberal” pro-life argument: A fetus is an innocent human, and has the right to live, so abortion is tantamount to murder.
With free speech and abortion, Jeffery claims young traditionalist conservatives are tired of classical liberalism and question the value of the fusionist conservative coalition. I think he overstates the phenomenon because he is too close to it. The coalition still makes sense for traditionalists. Classical liberals are successfully leading the fight for school choice, which will do more to sustain American religious life and education than any other policy. The same coalition, armed with classical liberal arguments, preserves the right of orthodox Christians to practice their faith. It also developed a classical liberal legal movement and won enough elections to get its members on the Supreme Court, such that Roe v. Wade could be in danger.
“If the modern student tends to break out, denounce, and rampage,” wrote Christopher Derrick, “he is behaving in a highly traditional manner.” Let’s listen to that student, but keep our heads.
new york, new york
Philip Jeffery replies:
Elliot Kaufman concedes at least the appearance of Republican withdrawal from social issues, though I would find his alternative explanation more plausible had the withdrawal been nearly as gradual as the decline in American religiosity—or had there been no arguments for traditional marriage beyond “because God says so.” He and I also agree that there is, at least for the moment, a convergence between social conservative policy preferences and a classical liberal stance on abortion. But the deeper differences may become unavoidable should Roe be weakened or overturned, allowing debate over abortion to enter legislatures. “Government should defer to individual rights and choices” (the Republican comfort zone) is helpful enough when the judiciary intervenes to promote abortion, less so if a state legislature is considering an abortion ban.
His point about religious freedom and school choice bothers me. I see many constituencies bound to a political party not because that party does anything to advance the group’s positive interests, but because it positions itself as guarantor of the group’s self-preservation: Vote for us or they will deport you, incarcerate you, or preserve systematic threats to your existence. Religious freedom strikes me as that kind of issue: Vote for us to guarantee your continued existence, sectioned off in enclaves. Granted, I’m happy not to be taken to court for my religious practices (or, for that matter, to be deported or beaten by police). But that’s a far cry from the fusionist promise that liberalism would be a constructive partner to religion, not its condescending patron.
I appreciate Samuel Gregg’s consideration of my account of identity politics. To bolster my claim that its adherents desire community, I’d point to any university’s list of student clubs. At my alma mater, student-run LGBT institutions (Queer Alliance, Q House, GendeRevolution, Queer & Asian, Queer & Coding, to name a few) outnumber religious ministries. The question isn’t whether identity politics drives people to form spontaneous and voluntary associations, but whether such associations address the same human needs that the “necessary societies” do.
Finally, I’m reluctant to dismiss any idea simply for being descended from Marx. Marxists can be quite helpful in defining the relationship between traditional norms, liberalism, and identity politics. For instance, consider Malcolm Cowley’s argument that interwar bohemian radicalism worked in tandem with market growth, tearing down traditional institutions that placed “puritanical” limits on consumption. As Matthew Schmitz suggests in “Cultural Realpolitik” (August/September), that partnership between radical and corporate America lives on.