Blame Canada Culture

June 23, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Culture as a concept has always fascinated me –all those different groups with their different ways of thinking and reacting. But I’ve also grown skeptical of culture as an explanation for things we don’t like – especially when the explanation invokes the general culture for a problem that is more specific.

Here, for example, is Ramesh Ponnuru writing earlier this month at Bloomberg

Trump’s success in the presidential race so far reflects a cultural rot: It would once have been impossible for someone like him to win the nomination. But it also deepens that rot. If we elevate a man we know to be cruel, impulsive, insecure, vain and dishonest to the most powerful position in our country, that choice helps to define our own character and shape our expectations for one another. It also means that our political debate will be dumber, nastier and more content-free.

Is our culture in fact rotten? Ponnuru offers no evidence that it’s any more rotten than it was in the past. Instead, he offers this circular logic.
  • Why is Trump winning in the primaries? Because of cultural rot.
  • How do you know there’s cultural rot? Because Trump is winning. 
The other problem is that Ponnuru is blaming the entire culture for the actions of the Trump voters and supporters. At least I think he is. In much of the article he talks about “conservatives” who support Trump. But when he says “if we elevate . ..” and “our own character,” he seems to be casting a wider net. By “we” Ponnuru might mean conservatives or Republicans, but he never mentions  “conservative culture” or “Republican culture,” so I get the sense he means American culture.

But cultures don’t vote; people do. So political scientists rarely talk about cultural rot. Instead, they ask who are these people who support Trump — what age, gender, race, region, economic position, policy views, etc. But if, like Ponnuru, you are a conservative* and a Republican, you probably don’t want to say that a lot of the people who have been voting for your side all these years are morally rotten. And you don’t want to blame your party for those voters’ rotten choices. Instead, you’re like the parent whose kid is arrested and who says, “He’s a good kid, he just got swept up by the wrong crowd.” So you take a “Blame Canada” strategy and say that all these Trump voters got swept up by the cultural rot that is at large in the US.


* Ponnuru focuses on another factor dear to conservatives – character. He cites JFK, Gingrich, and Bill Clinton for their infidelities. But supporting Trump is worse, he says, because “the public had no way of knowing about most of their vices before voting for them. (Nixon’s swearing on the Watergate tapes, while not the focus of public concern, was scandalous.)” Yes, that’s right. The worst character flaw Ponnuru can find in Nixon is his swearing.

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