In a radio address to the nation, delivered in 1943 as the tide of war was beginning to turn, Franklin Roosevelt surveyed the progress on America’s home front as it churned out materiel at lightning pace: “I saw thousands of workers on the production line, making airplanes, and guns and ammunition … I saw hundreds of thousands of soldiers. They are mastering the superior weapons that we are pouring out of our factories.” Marvelling at the industrial might of the emerging superpower, Roosevelt declared: “The American people have accomplished a miracle.”
His speech spoke to the unbreakable sense of unity and purpose that defined the Greatest Generation, but it was also indicative of how Americans conceived of their politics and government. Throughout the modern era, from the Industrial Revolution onwards, politics was fundamentally about conflict over the material conditions of life: the organisation of production, the focus of investment, the contest of classes and interests — these were always up for grabs. Indeed, in his soaring inaugural speech 10 years earlier, FDR was eminently grateful that, despite the depths of the country’s Depression-era troubles, they nonetheless concerned “thank God, only material things”.
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But then something happened not long after the Roosevelt era. In the post-war years, as the children of the Greatest Generation, the Baby Boomers, grew up and came of age amid an unprecedented level of mass middle-class affluence, a different conception of politics took hold. By the Sixties, issues relating to self-expression and cultural recognition became more important than economic questions. Ronald Inglehart, the late political scientist and founder of the World Values Survey, saw this shift reflected in survey data and called it “post-materialism”: a seismic break with the practical orientation of generations that gave rise to culture war as the new paradigm of American politics.
It began on the Left with the emergence of the counterculture and the various political and lifestyle movements associated with it. By the decade’s end, though, the Right under the leadership of Richard Nixon and Phyllis Schlafly eventually caught on and began to mobilise voters primarily on the basis of their own conservative moral, symbolic and affective attachments as a means of fighting the counterculture.
This was something new in US history. Up to this point, the main cleavages in each era were grounded in differences over competing models of political economy. Hamiltonian nationalism against Jeffersonian agrarianism; the Southern slaveocracy against Northern industrialisation; New Deal liberals against small government conservatives. This is not to say that earlier Americans were not moralistic: they pursued moral and material progress together, often channelling their deeply held moral convictions into larger projects of material economic transformation. Other cleavages either arose from economic divisions (racial inequities stemmed from the legacy of slavery — an economic institution) or were secondary to it (Prohibition, for instance, borne of lifestyle differences between Protestant and Catholics, may have been prominent in its day but it never superseded the centrality of the economic divides).
Every decade since the Sixties witnessed a reversal of this logic, whereby moral and cultural issues largely determined whether one was on the Right or Left, even more than policy differences over taxes or regulation. By the Nineties, even as the two parties claimed to be fighting over the size of government, the motivations underlying vicious partisan feuds became rooted more in irrepressible cultural antagonisms. This was evident in the strange, outsized significance placed on the personal foibles of Bill Clinton by his conservative enemies, who treated the first Boomer president and his feminist wife Hillary as the ultimate embodiments of the Sixties ethos, even as he shared their programme of free-market globalisation. In effect, the culture war amounted to the de-politicisation of the economic and the ultra-politicisation of the personal: the persistent polarising power of social issues such as abortion, guns and battles over school curricula — as factories were leaving the Midwest and widespread economic inequality was taking off — can be understood in light of this paradigm.
These trends reached their fullest expression in the latter half of the 2010s, after the failures of both the post-racial aspirations of the Obama era and the lopsided recovery from the Great Recession laid bare the exhaustion of the status quo on both the mainstream Left and Right. The election of Donald Trump has been interpreted as a revolt of conservative America and as an escalation of the culture war. And while that was the ultimate result of his presidency, his first campaign for the White House was actually, in many ways, a repudiation of the logic of the culture war and a bold reassertion of materialist politics.
After all, underneath the vulgar and bombastic Trump-style that debuted on the day of the escalator ride, there was a pointed critique of globalisation and the outlines of an alternative political economy. Candidate Trump criticised free trade and financialisaton while his bromides on immigration, though needlessly crude and provocative, could be read as a blueprint — not for a white ethnostate — but for a system of greater labour market security that could materially benefit working-class Americans of all races. Even on wedge issues, Trump, a socially liberal New Yorker, rejected the dogmatism of social conservatives in his party: he happily held up a Pride flag and said he didn’t care where Caitlyn Jenner went to the bathroom; he also had little time for the abortion issue, pointing out that Planned Parenthood did “very good work for millions of women”. As if mocking the pieties of the GOP, Trump said: “I’m a conservative, but at this point, who cares?” It seemed for a moment as if Trump would attempt the politically impossible: to reduce the salience of intractable moral issues while refocusing America’s energies on rebuilding its decaying towns and cities, perhaps even presiding over an industrial renaissance while punishing Wall Street plutocrats — just like Roosevelt did.
However, upon entering office, the promise of a genuine materialist revolution evaporated. President Trump made two tacit bargains, one with conservative elites and another with liberal ones. To please Republicans, he governed like a conventional Reagan-Bush conservative on economics as well as culture: he passed Paul Ryan’s tax cuts for the benefit of multinationals, who used the money for buybacks (and made only the most halting progress on trade); he then assented to the hard-line demands of social conservatives such as Mike Pence, reinforcing the rigidity of the culture war.
With liberals, the bargain was more subtle but no less cynical: by upping the intensity of his culture-war antics and abandoning the heterodox economic positions he ran on, he provided his foes with cheap fodder for their own media circus, galvanising the “Resistance”, giving “rocket fuel” to the New York Times, and handing the Democrats victory in 2018 and 2020. (Had he taxed the rich or expanded healthcare, he would have confounded the Democrats — maybe won a second term.) In exchange, the President got to sit back, act out, not put in the work of governing, and still endlessly occupy the spotlight.
Nowhere is Trump’s collusion with the Swamp he was supposed to drain more glaring than in his failure to settle the immigration issue: he passed over the chance for comprehensive reform when his party had full control of Congress and refused to endorse the policy of mandatory E-Verify, which would have worked a thousand times better than a symbolic wall (which, by the way, was also not built). Beneath all of Trump’s bravado and slogans, he essentially sustained the open borders status quo which enriched both red and blue-state elites — not to mention his own family business — and passed it on to Joe Biden.
With another election looming next year, the compelling economic critique that Trump introduced seven years ago has vanished; and in line with the purely symbolic thrust of post-materialism, Trump himself — having been detached from any specific, discernible policies — has become a symbol that signifies nothing tangible; he’s a mere trigger for the emotions of both supporters and detractors. The unending psychodrama of the Trump indictments has taken up all the attention of the media and political classes while saying nothing about economics, trade, immigration or anything else of substance. Where America could be debating the best way to re-industrialise the Midwest or the most efficient means to fund infrastructure, it is lost in a sea of legal trivia about misplaced documents and hare-brained conspiracy theories about stolen elections. Republican efforts to make Hunter Biden the centre of the national psychodrama are just as illustrative of America’s decline as a serious country.
While ordinary Americans are still concerned with bread-and-butter issues and consistently remain moderate on most culture-war issues, their bipartisan leadership has succumbed to post-materialism, which is, at the end of the day, an elite disease. One may be tempted to hope that, since Inglehart first recorded its symptoms among Left-wing Boomers over 40 years ago, the post-materialist mind virus will eventually die out with that decadent generation. However, worryingly, the very same symptoms are even more visible among Millennials and Gen Zs. In fact, it’s come full circle, with the countercultural Right now openly proclaiming its desire to imitate the post-materialist sensibilities of the Sixties: the result is that young conservatives, no less than their progressive enemies, are just as incapable of thinking in practical economic or institutional terms and now only covet the immaterial “cultural power” that they believe is their due.
Here, the unfortunate tale of Nate Hochman is most telling. Once heralded as a champion of the young Right, he was disgraced and fired from Ron DeSantis’s campaign after he was revealed to be the maker of a bizarre video that appeared to feature an obscure Nazi symbol. As today’s young Americans become the first generation ever that’s set to be materially worse off than their parents, this rising star didn’t die on the hill of any grand policy or programme that might have been too radical for his superiors to contemplate; instead, he was felled by his attachment to a set of aesthetics, demonstrating how the next generation of American elites is effectively trapped in a self-referential world of symbols and memes that is everyday more removed from reality. This is post-materialism in a nutshell; and it is why America can’t have nice things and — if this is what the future looks like — why America will never have nice things again.