Cultural Backlash

Today’s reflection concerns the ‘backlash” that is a familiar part of every news medium.  If you could divide news sources cleanly into liberal and conservative (you can’t) you could say that conservative sources emphasize the “back” and liberal sources, the “lash.

Let me offer an example from my years of teaching at Portland State University. [1]  During some of those years, I used a text in which the chapter on U. S. foreign policy began with an account of the attack of 9/11.  I asked the students, just as an exercise, to substitute the word “reprisal” for “attack.”  Then we would talk about it a little.

backlash 7One result of this discussion was the open amazement expressed by some students that Arab nations had grievances against the U. S., and yet “reprisal” clearly presupposed that.  The word requires that we had done (at least as they saw things) something bad to them and this was the bad thing they were doing to us in return.  “What did we ever do to them?” was the first question to come off the pile.  It wasn’t an objection; it was an honest question based on near-total ignorance.

A backlash is like a retaliation is one way.  It imagines that  some offense has been committed to which this action is the response.  In the political setting, which is of interest to me here, there is the further supposition that some burden had been placed on a particular population, then another burden, then yet another.  And finally, it is just too much.  There was once an expression “the straw that broke the camel’s back;” now often shortened to “the last straw.”

When Joseph Welch rebuked Senator Joe McCarthy with, “At long last, sir, have you no decency?”—it was the “at long last” that suggested the addition of one offense to many others.  In considering “backlash,” we are in the “at long last” area.

But if you ask people today just what offense the practitioners of the cultural backlash are protesting, the room goes suddenly quiet.  Why is that?  I think the reason is that people today are as clueless about what conservatives have lost as my students were about what Arab nations had lost.  So let’s look at that.

What has been lost?

The chart below, the source of which I no longer remember, shows the correlations between “traditional” and “secular-rational” values.  If I wanted to emphasize the findings, I would provide a good deal more information about the study, but I want only to borrow the category names.  These statements are phrased so as to be compatible with “traditional” values. [2]  If you look at the prompts (forgetting the actual numbers) you see an emphasis on God, on obedience, on patriotism, and respect for authority.  Abortion is clearly opposed.


If you asked conservative voters why they were participating in the great cultural backlash represented by the Trump administration, they would say that they want “back” these precious values that had been taken away from them. 

All the readers of this blog I know personally are decidedly liberal, so I will ask you to stop and take a breath and note that all these numbers establish is the there are voters with grievances and it suggests what some of those grievances are.  There is no need at this point to argue about whether we think these people have a right to feel aggrieved.

The lower part of the chart does the same thing using a different value dichotomy.  Herebacklash the categories are “survival values” and “self-expression values.”  Again, the prompts are phrased so as to be acceptable to “survival values.”  Again, I am interested only in the category names.  This is “liberal backlash.”  After 9/11, “we” chose a Muslim woman as Miss America as quickly as we could.

You can see here that economic and physical security are highly valued.  Trust is hard to come by, as is participation in public affairs (the petition).  These people are both less happy and less gay. [3]  If these people have seen their own economic status decline (they have), have withdrawn from public affairs, and are untrusting in general—trusted people are drawn from face to face settings–you can see that things are not going well for them.  Homosexuality is widely accepted—they would probably say “flaunted”—where earlier in their lives is was silenced and opposed.  And they are not not happy.  At least, they are not as happy as the people who emphasize self-expression, who also make a good deal more money than they do.

These (Traditional/Survival) are people who highly value economic security but have lost it.  That helps to explain their relative disinterest in “self-expression values” and very probably their opposition to those who believe self-expression is very important.  The world used to be a much more welcoming place for people with “survival values” and now it is not.  It is not hard to see why they think that something valuable has been “taken away” from them.

Who took it?

If that were a serious question, it would be vexingly complex, but it is not a serious question.  The question of whether you are now without something you value and deserve and the question of “who took it?” are really the same question and are answered at the same time.  “They” took it away from you, although they had no right to.

Culturally, “they” is “Hollywood liberals.” [4]  Socially, it is the “professional/managerial class.” [5]  Politically, it is the Democratic Party.  Ordinarily, you don’t have to distinguish; you just gesture and everyone in your tribe gets the idea.

The major message of the Republican party in recent years is that invaluable ordinary backlash 4people, the left-behinds, have been defrauded of what they are due by the Democrats and their allies.  For that reason, the question of “Who took it?” seldom comes up.  Who took it and that it was unfairly taken from you are part of the same message.

That brings us back to backlash, understanding, on this pass, not only the “lash” which has always been clear to liberals, but the “back” which is not nearly as clear as it should be.  Knowing what the problem is is still a long way from solving it, but it is better than trying to solve it without knowing what it is.

[1]  It isn’t that I don’t teach there anymore.  I still substitute for class sessions when old friends are out of town.  My official title at PSU since my retirement is “adjunct professor emeritus.”  Really.  

[2]  The “secular-rational” phrasings reverse the values, e.g. the second would would read “It is more important for a child to learn independence and determination than obedience and religious faith.”

[3]  It’s an old joke, but I was so close I stopped by just to say hello.

[4]  Vice President Pense made a special detour in his address to the graduating class at Liberty University, just to blame “Hollywood liberals” for meddling in state affairs in the south.

[5]Many thanks to Joan Williams, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter, for her clarity on that matter.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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