Recently, reading David Brooks’ argument that the problem with the Democrats is their “materialistic mind-set,” I found myself wanting to respond by paraphrasing what Raymond Williams said about advertising: the problem with the Democrats is not that they’re too materialist, it’s that they’re not materialist enough. And then I found myself reliving my early encounters with the debates within and about cultural studies.
Brooks points out that Democrats habitually “break national problems into small, interest-group-size chunks and then deliver pandering policy promises. . . . every demographic or interest group gets its own pander.” His problem with this is that “Voters are worried that the whole society is falling apart. If Democrats think a crisis of national identity can be addressed with targeted tax credits they are living in a different century.” On this particular score, Brooks has a point. But what he is describing is not so much materialism as it is interest group theory, created as a criticism of American politics in the 1960s and then inverted by beltway Democrats in the 1990s into an organizing vision. It’s a mode of thought that can not see the importance of broad social structure.
So I turned to Bernie Sanders’ admonition to the Democrats also in the New York Times: “Donald Trump could benefit from the same forces that gave the Leave proponents a majority in Britain. [This] should sound an alarm for the Democratic Party in the United States. Millions of American voters, like the Leave supporters, are understandably angry and frustrated by the economic forces that are destroying the middle class.” As he has for his entire political career, Bernie rattles off the disturbing statistics about unequal distribution of wealth and its consequences: poverty, hopelessness, ignorance. Tackle those forces head-on, he argues, or we could all be very, very sorry. Economic structure matters hugely.
OK, I thought to myself, true so far as it goes. But while many African American intellectuals supported Bernie in the primaries, regular African American voters, less so. And while Bernie did pretty well compared to Hillary with white working class voters in many states, many others in that same category were showing up in force at Trump rallies. Some of that may be a matter of timing; to this day, Bernie’s footprint across today’s ocean of mainstream media is a blip compared to Trump’s wide swath. But I couldn’t help worrying that, as the U.S. progressive movement struggles to turn its current toehold into an enduring, forceful presence, it’s going to need something more.
So I find myself reflecting back on where cultural studies came from: all the complex discussions, studies, debates about the relations between hearts and minds and social structure. About how class relations play out in cultural forms from subcultures to everyday life, about how relations of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and more become intertwined with but not reducible to each other and to class, about the search for a materialism that was not reductionist, about how all of it was infused with a search for a more small “d” democratic future.
I don’t have an answer to the question, “what would Stuart Hall do” about the current moment. I’m just trying to start a discussion. But remembering the mix of concerns he and the other creators of cultural studies brought to intellectual life gives me hope. For one, do the work to understand the experiences and points of view of those different from me and my friends. We need to get beyond simply being appalled. I’m pretty sure that most Trump supporters, if forced to carefully read several days’ worth of my social media feeds full of anti-Trump arguments, would only be more solid in their support for Trump. Second, identities matter, but they are not pre-given things but constructions over time. For example, masculinity in America is deeply troubled, sometimes toxically so, but subject positions can be changed, if slowly. We need to think through ways that can happen.
I don’t have any clear answers yet, but maybe those of us who know the cultural studies tradition might be able to come up with more useful ideas. Please feel free to do so below.