Precursor to Illiberal Government
This week’s culture war battleground is Joe Rogan. Battlegrounds these days seem to be people, not places or ideas. Nor are the people themselves any more important to the battle than the city of Manassas was to the Battle of Bull Run, the greatest significance of which was to reveal the incompetence of both sides in what would become a bloody and protracted war.
The soldiers in this battle are celebrities lining-up on Team Rogan and Team Woke. To be clear, the combatants on Rogan’s side are not particularly concerned with either free speech or government-sponsored science. Nor are the woke warriors offended by Rogan’s ancient discussions of vernacular or the opinions of his guests. They are engaged in the next generation of virtue signaling – what I would call team signaling. Team signaling is about revealing which side you’re on, not as a matter of virtue, but as a matter of networking. Announcing that you’re on a team affords you great membership benefits in terms of acceptance and exposure, the currency of the modern realm.
For his part, Rogan is trying to play both sides, having apologized to Team Woke. Time will tell whether he is big enough to succeed in not choosing a side. But Rogan himself is merely a battleline, not the spoil. What each team is fighting for is to win the larger audience and with it, greater acceptance and exposure. Very few voices are heard claiming that Rogan is not so important, Rogan himself coming perilously close to doing so in his apology video.
A more important example of team signaling is Anthony Fauci, whose statements of science neither his detractors nor his supporters are qualified to evaluate. The idea that he should matter much less than he does is voiced by few, mostly libertarians, who just want to be left alone.
The most important example of course is Donald Trump, who has spawned several battles, including providing each side with plenty of opportunity to exaggerate their views of the relative importance of January 6. The team-signaling in this battle has been made explicit in its use of Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger: Should they be on the Committee? Should they be censored by their own party? The skirmish over voting rights is revealing in that Democrats’ claims that ID requirements would favor Republicans are no more defensible than Republicans’ claims that such rules would reduce fraud. Yet both sides use the threat to democracy as a recruiting and retention vehicle to build their bases.
The reason the evolution of the culture war into team-signaling meta-conflicts matters is that the combatants include more important institutions than celebrities and politicians. Our country is moving toward becoming segregated at the commercial level. While media companies may have been the engine, the caboose of the same train are retail businesses. The latest example is the GoFundMe announcement that it had chosen to side against the Canadian truckers’ protest of vaccine mandates (Freedom Convoy) despite having actively promoted the 2020 Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). How long will it be before we are able to consume woke snacks while watching MSNBC or drink conservative coffee while reading the Daily Wire. Whoops.
Here’s the rub. Segregation undermines a community’s sense of common purpose, without which either side of a political argument can justify its use of any means necessary to keep the other side out of power. History shows that when the fear of fellow countrymen exceeds the fear of authoritarianism, pluralistic liberal democracy is the next casualty.