Bringing Together Conservative Voices

MacIntyre: How the left codes the culture war as low-class

Looking out on the cultural wasteland that surrounds us, it can be difficult for many to understand how we arrived at our current moment. Gender ideology is pushed on kindergarteners, sex changes are pushed on teenagers, riots receive the sanction of the government, borders are wide open to human traffickers, and homeless encampments filled with drug users have become a regular feature of major American cities.

While centrists and moderate liberals often express their amazement at what they see as the sudden and radical decline in the quality of American life, they should realize that they were warned about the inevitable consequences they are currently witnessing. For decades cultural conservatives sounded the alarm about the disastrous direction the nation would take if it abandoned its moral and cultural traditions, but those warnings fell on deaf ears. Cultural tastemakers assured the population that they were too sophisticated to be bound by the small-minded and primitive mores of their social inferiors, and now the cost is coming due.

Status signaling is a very powerful tool. People naturally want to be seen as interesting, desirable, sophisticated, and worthy of respect. No one wants to be seen as simple, foolish, or low-class. Individuals instinctually look to those at the top of the social hierarchy to understand what their society perceives as upper-class, what is worthy of emulation. Despite what our trite cultural propaganda tells you, most people are not unique and delicate snowflakes who generate their own perceptions of social value a priori. Instead, they look to those who have achieved higher social standing, assume that those individuals know something the average person does not, and adjust their behavior accordingly.

This is not to insult or belittle anyone for this behavior; it is a natural and easily observable pattern that everyone falls into, myself included. There is no virtue in denying the truth of human behavior, and by being honest about these facts we can gain a greater understand about how we arrived at our current state of cultural decline.

Traditions are the avenue through which societies transmit their collective knowledge. Lessons that were learned at great cost by our ancestors are encoded deep in our psyches through moral values, rituals, and taboos. This social continuity, this great chain of being, is one of the key things that binds a group together and makes them a cohesive people or nation. It is what grants us identity, purpose, and a sense of belonging.

If you want to fundamentally transform a society to grant you or your group more power, one of the most effective things you can do is work to alter the underlying traditions and morals of that society, but achieving this is harder than it sounds. These truths are usually deeply ingrained in the fabric of a society. They are woven at every level into the day-to-day existence of the average person. These traditions inform family formation, religious observance, workplace interactions, artistic pursuits, and even casual entertainment. The project of replacing those values must alter the moral framework that guides the lives of members of that civilization, and the best way to do that is to hijack the system of social signaling.

As we established previously, most people will look to those above them in the social hierarchy to understand what behaviors are rewarded by their culture. For much of human history, however, the common people did not regularly interact with the cultural elites of their society. Aristocrats might seek to lead by example, but there was no way for them to constantly influence the day-to-day perceptions and interactions of the average person.

The era of mass communication has altered that relationship considerably. The process that first began with the newspaper and radio has radically accelerated through movies, television, the internet, and now its ultimate incarnation, social media. These technologies allow America’s elites to deliver a constant stream of propaganda. An omnipresent pipeline of elite influence is disseminated to American citizens every moment of every day. Cultural tastemakers from the coasts can reach deep into the heartland and shape the values of communities they will never see or visit, much less care about or understand. This media apparatus has been used steadily over time to undermine the moral traditions of the United States and ruthlessly mock those who noticed.

The idea that Hollywood does not share or promote conservative values is not an earth-shattering revelation. The average Republican voter has lamented this fact for decades, but it is worth taking the time to analyze a particularly important aspect of the left’s media strategy: coding the culture war as low-class. Make no mistake, progressives have understood for a very long time that they are in a war for America’s culture. They take every opportunity to portray those who are spreading the left-wing gospel as virtuous, sophisticated, and deserving of higher social standing in all forms of media.

The left used to pretend to be the champion of the working class, but curiously one never sees an Appalachian coal miner championing progressive causes in movies or television. Every character parroting back Democratic talking points is a well-spoken college graduate who is frustrated because he must educate his community of backward, intolerant rubes.

Despite being portrayed as underdogs, progressive characters are coded as high-status, with only their racial or sexual identities indicating that they might be subjected to oppression. In reality we know that these characteristics would actually grant the individual special privileges and protections, but this status sleight of hand allows those at the top of the social hierarchy to obfuscate their privilege. Wealthy, well-educated, high-status people get to portray themselves as victims of poor, lower-status people if they are deemed sufficiently diverse, or a more clarifying term might be holy.

Conservative views, in contrast, only ever issue from the mouths of characters who are coded as ignorant, backward, and low-class. Warnings about moral decay or loss of national identity are delivered by cruel, poorly spoken blue-state caricatures of those who issue from locations deemed undesirable, like rural towns and trailer parks. These individuals serve as heels, totems of hate held up for mockery and ridicule so that the audience can feel both sophisticated and morally superior for disapproving of the character’s disgusting behavior. This shared moment of collective disapproval for those beneath them forges a cultural bond in the audience, pushing them away from their previous understanding of traditional morality, which is now perceived as low-status, and toward the new high-status moral framework.

The idea of infinite moral progress is particularly useful to the left in this regard. There is always a hierarchy to disassemble, always another barrier to take down, always something sacred for the revolution to devour. The simple fact that a restriction or tradition is old is self-incriminating, a justification for it to be torn down. Who cares what ancient evil it might be holding in check?

The tactic of status signaling is particularly effective when it comes to suppressing pattern recognition. The media regularly portrays completely rational observations about consistent patterns as the hyperbolic ramblings of the terminally low-class who are engaged in the “slippery slope fallacy.” The only problem is that these people have the very annoying habit of being correct.

In fact, the only error of the religious right movement of the 1980s and ’90s who are, to this day, viciously derided is that they underestimated what was to come. Even those evangelical grandparents who warned that the redefinition of marriage would have disastrous consequences could not have predicted drag queen story hour or puberty blockers for 8-year-olds. Who could forget the mocking of parents concerned about the war on Christmas, or the famous “South Park” episode insulting working-class Americans worried that unrestricted immigration would result in the loss of economic opportunity for the current population? All of these concerns were valid, all of them came to pass, but those who noticed that the emperor was wearing no clothes were shouted down and dismissed.

This practice is of course alive and well in the current year. Even as the most dire predictions of those who were mocked in the past come true before our eyes, those who dare to notice are labeled conspiracy theorists or purveyors of misinformation. The public is told that critical race theory is not being taught in schools, sex reassignment surgeries are not being performed on young teens, and politicians are not using illegal immigration to permanently alter elections in the United States. Those who notice are dismissed as dangerous QAnon conspiracy theorists, until the evidence becomes overwhelming, and then the leftists celebrate these victories as if they had never denied them in the first place. Many in the GOP establishment, and sadly even the “New Right,” insist that these issues that deeply impact the well-being of their voters should be ignored because they are lowbrow distractions.

The good news is that this tactic seems to have reached a point of diminishing returns, first with the rise of the populist movement and Donald Trump, then with the organic pushback by parents against gender ideology and critical race theory in schools. The stakes are too high and the time is too short to be shamed into silence. Some politicians, like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have been able to take action on these issues, but the right will need more leaders willing to ignore the mockery and ridicule of the media and cultural left and fight for the issues that truly matter to those tired of watching the country around them decay.