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“Real Housewives” and the Decline of Civic Virtue

Why has support for progressive politics seemingly collapsed? While there are clearly many reasons, this essay focuses on the role commercial culture plays in the production of anti-progressive, anti-republican values. Using the “Real Housewives” franchise as an example, I argue that trash television shows undermine the possibility of collective action and government for the common good, by encouraging selfishness, glorifying wealth and status, and exacerbating in people feelings of superiority over and resentment towards others – sentiments more appropriate for an aristocratic hierarchy or corporate oligarchy than for an egalitarian republic. The more such sentiments spread through the population, the easier it is for right-wing forces to dismantle programs that benefit the public at large.

Our Machiavellian Moment

According to J.G.A. Pocock, one of the main challenges of republican self-government is the maintenance of the republic in time – preventing the erosion of the fundamental values, upon which republican self-government is based – and I believe we are facing such a moment right now. On the one hand, we hear a lot of rhetoric these days about the republican founding, but ironically it mostly comes from those who do not actually embrace republican values, which include not only liberty – about which we hear a lot of rhetoric[1] – but also equality (including economic as well as legal equality), popular sovereignty within the confines of the rule of law, government for the common good, and civic virtue, the capacity that makes you care about the good of your fellow citizens. Case in point, Tea Party supporters and their elected officials are trying to lay waste to any program or entity that advances the common good or creates greater levels of economic equality, even when such programs or entities have the support of the majority of the public. That agenda directly undermines the republicanism they claim to support.

At the same time, many on the left seem to view republicanism as a conservative tradition, disregarding the longstanding republican commitment to an equitable distribution of wealth, which dates all the way back to Aristotle, or its emphasis on giving power to the people as encapsulated by the concept of radical popular sovereignty constrained by the rule of law. Indeed, Marx, Engels, and their early followers saw themselves as the legitimate heirs of the republican legacy of the French Revolution.[2] In the American context, think Thomas Paine, a radical republican thinker whom Glen Beck has strangely tried to claim for the right.[3] Clearly, the man has never read Agrarian Justice.

The republican tradition may be viewed as the province of the right not only because they actively claim it, but also because the concept of civic virtue has a conservative ring. Oftentimes, people tend to conflate civic virtue with moral virtue, but the concepts are totally different in history and meaning. Civic virtue is sometimes defined as simply patriotism (love of country and its laws)[4], but I generally describe it as the capacity that makes you care about the common good and your fellow citizens. When we unpack what that capacity must entail, it seems to me that civic virtue requires a sense of public-spiritedness, a collectivist outlook, a sense of reciprocity, and respectfulness towards others. These are the characteristics that are necessary for people to care about and work together for the common good, rather than just focusing on more selfish desires. Indeed in the republican tradition as a whole, self-interest and luxury were considered synonymous with corruption. It seems to me that there can be no progressive movement – no left-wing populist movement – unless people have civic virtue, even if some prefer the term solidarity.

Remarkably, the concept of popular sovereignty sometimes drops out of understandings of republicanism. That is to say, republicanism is often confused with representative government because that is how James Madison defines it is Federalist 10, where he argues against popular sovereignty in order to protect the interests of propertied elites. That depiction is almost the opposite of what the republican tradition stood for historically, however.[5] Republicanism historically emphasized popular sovereignty within the confines of the rule of law – not right-wing populism or simple majoritarianism in other words – and a participatory vision of citizenship.[6] While at this point in time I am personally more concerned about advancing a progressive agenda than I am about doing whatever the people want, it seems to me that any progressive vision would have to include the ability of people to control the forces that govern their lives through participation and democratic decision-making. And unless they are misguided in some way, the people should support an agenda that serves the common good.

The Problem of “False Consciousness”

During a time of great economic crisis, when even many of those in the white middle class have been struck down by market contraction, it seems there would be support for progressive politics, as there was during the New Deal – and indeed many public opinion polls do show support for social programs and public workers. Yet the 2010 elections ushered in a crop of far right-wing politicians, not only opposed to the expansion of social programs to help during the economic crisis (e.g., stimulus money, unemployment insurance, health care reform), but also dedicated to the destruction of anything that serves the public at large instead of just the wealthy elites (whether individuals and corporations), including Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, the public schools, public radio, public unions, government workers, and college professors. While many public opinion polls show that most Americans reject that radical agenda, when asked about specific items, there still seems to be broad support for the right-wing ideological line – and certainly no one wants to raise taxes to pay for government programs. And while many in Wisconsin did rise up in 2011 against attacks on public servants, a progressive movement has not yet emerged. We are losing ground.

In the 1930s, there was widespread support for the New Deal, so why is there not a similar political will today? On the basis of material interests, today’s working class people ought not to be voting Republican, especially during an economic downturn. Yet, according to the recent “Race and Recession” survey, “Fully half of all whites without college degrees identify as Republicans or are GOP-leaning independents, and 42 percent call themselves conservatives, more than other groups.”[7] How can this be? Why would working class whites support the pro-corporate party of wealthy elites that favors outsourcing, benefit-cutting, and other policies that immiserate working people? Indeed, it was neo-liberal political and economic policies, strongly supported by the GOP, that arguably caused the Great Recession of 2008, and it seems that the Republican Party is currently pursuing a strategy that will make things worse – cutting taxes in a way that will not stimulate the economy, pursuing an anti-Keynesian budget-cutting approach that will further slow economic growth, and trying to destroy programs that help people who are being hurt by market contraction or that provide a non-market based safety net for the vulnerable. Why would non-college-educated whites, who are vulnerable to lay-offs, probably under-insured, and definitely facing an insecure future, support the party that seeks to make them weaker? Racism certainly plays a role in this phenomenon, but I do not believe it accounts entirely for the widespread support for economic libertarianism. Perhaps it’s time to revive the term “false consciousness.”

Thomas Frank explores this conundrum in What’s the Matter With Kansas? (2004). He argues that conservative non-elites, working class or otherwise, do not see “the connection between mass culture, most of which conservatives hate, and laissez-faire capitalism, which they adore without reservation,” and they conflate the former with Liberalism.[8]

The corporate world … blankets the nation with a cultural style designed to offend and to pretend-subvert: sassy teens in Sketchers flout the Man; … hipsters dressed in T-shirts reading “FCUK” snicker at the suits who just don’t get it. It’s meant to be offensive, and Kansas is duly offended. The state watches impotently as its culture, beamed in from the coasts, becomes coarser and more offensive by the year. Kansas aches for revenge. Kansas gloats when celebrities say stupid things; it cheers when movie stars go to jail. And when two female rock stars exchange a lascivious kiss on national TV, Kansas goes haywire. Kansas screams for the heads of the liberal elite. Kansas comes running to the polling place. And Kansas cuts those rock stars’ taxes.[9]

For some reason, many ordinary conservatives and the religious right don’t understand commercial culture as the direct by-product of the market they valorize and so as a reason to criticize the under-regulated market and the materialistic values it generates.[10] Instead, they blame “liberals.”

People no longer understand left and right in economic terms, only in social terms. That is why conservatives insist that the corporate-owned media is “liberal,” by which they mean socially left. They think the media are “liberal” because they confuse celebrity culture, sexual exhibitionism, vulgarity, and moral bankruptcy with the left. Because of the omnipresence of the media, conservatives think the left dominates society. As Frank puts it, “In America where the chief sources of one’s ideas about life’s possibilities are TV and movies, it’s not hard to be convinced that we inhabit a liberal-dominated world.”[11] People don’t understand that in economic and political terms, the left has been completely marginalized. Indeed, the fact that many on the right call President Obama a socialist demonstrates that they have no idea what a left political or economic agenda would look like.

Consequently, conservative voters attempt to enact change by voting liberals out of office, but no change results. They return an entire phalanx of pro-business blowhards to Washington, and still the culture industry goes on its merry way. But at least those backlash politicians that they elect are willing to do one thing differently: they stand there on the floor of the U.S. Senate and shout no to it all…. In all of its rejecting and nay-saying, it resolutely refuses to consider that the assaults on its values, the insults, and the Hollywood sneers are all products of capitalism as surely as are McDonald’s hamburgers and Boeing 737s.[12]

Non-elites are confused about and distracted from attending to their true interests by the commercial media. So in essence, Frank argues that many ordinary Americans have false consciousness because corporate elites give them “bread and circuses.”

In the end, however, Frank blames the Democrats for the sorry state of the left in America. He concludes that ordinary working Americans, who should form the base of the Democratic Party do not vote Democratic because the Democratic Party has no progressive agenda – no left populist agenda. And while I think Frank is essentially right about that, I also think he is too quick to dismiss commercial culture as a mere distraction, instead of examining the ideological work done by the commercial culture industry.

The Ideological Work of Trash Television

This essay, as noted, strives to think through the effects one part of commercial culture has on republican values. Attributing part of our civic decline to television is not a new claim. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam notes that that the well-documented decline in civic engagement and social capital in America since 1964 directly correlates with the rise of television.  Putnam defines social capital as “connections among individuals – social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” and sees it as related to civic virtue. “The difference is that ‘social capital’ calls attention to the fact that civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations.”[13] That is why theorists who seek to strengthen civic identity and engagement tend to prefer smaller societies in which people know each other and have some degree of concern for each other’s well-being (civic virtue).[14] While liberal citizens of the world may care about fellow human beings in the abstract, that sentiment may not be strong enough to underwrite collective action.

Putnam documents that while social capital rose during the Cold War, around 1964 “this beneficent trend was reversed, initiating a long-term decline.”[15] At the same time, civic engagement also declined precipitously. For example, “nearly half of all Americans in the 1960s invested some time each week in clubs and local associations, as compared to less than one-quarter in the 1990s.”[16] Americans became simultaneously less connected and less engaged with each other since the mid-1960s.

Citing a correlation between exposure to television and civic decline, Putnam speculates that the “effect of electronic entertainment – above all, television – in privatizing our leisure time” bears about 25% of the blame for the disintegration of social capital and civic engagement. This is an important issue. First, time in front of the television can substitute for more social forms of engagement, which may produce a sense of connectedness and caring. Second, television arguably accustoms people to passivity, since a person cannot actively engage with the television. Third, while Putnam does not mention this, since most television shows are nationally available, watching TV fosters a national level identification, rather than a local one, which is probably one reason why more people vote in federal, as opposed to local, elections.

What Putnam does not discuss are the ways in which television might have a negative effect on social capital, participation, and civic virtue because it fosters anti-republican values in viewers. Granted the types of shows on television have varied greatly since the 1960s, but anti-republican values can be fostered in multiple ways. For example, in the 1960s, Westerns may have played a role in fostering individualist notions of freedom and antagonism towards government. In the 1980s, shows like “Dallas” and “Dynasty” glorified wealth and legitimized greed. During the 2000s, “Sex and the City” helped popularize extremely overpriced luxury items, fuelling consumerism and legitimizing status-seeking. Corporate-owned television is certainly not the sole impetus for anti-republican sentiments, but it surely must play a role.

It makes sense that television shows produced by corporate-owned media would manipulate the emotions of viewers in a way that increases support for neo-liberalism because while non-elites often do not seem to base their political behavior on their own material interests, elites generally do. Putnam misses this point. While he briefly considers whether “big business, capitalism, and the market” have played a role in civic decline, as many argue, he quickly dismisses the argument: “The problem with this generic theory of social disconnectedness is that it explains too much: America has epitomized market capitalism for several centuries, during which our stocks of social capital and civic engagement have been through great swings. A constant can’t explain a variable.”[17]

But capitalism should not be considered a “constant,” given that its fundamental character is change. As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels explain,

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. … Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.[18]

Capitalism has been dominant in the U.S. since the nineteenth century, but along the way it has helped radically transform much of the country from rural to urban/suburban, from small communities to disconnected conglomerates, from religiously grounded to commercially-based. As communities and families disintegrate, capitalist values become balder and less buffered by counter-forces.

Central to this transformation has been the media, including television. In the beginning, we got wholesome, family shows, like “Ozzy and Harriet,” “Father Knows Best,” and “Leave It to Beaver,” which projected a certain ideological vision of the family and gender roles that played into Cold War politics. But as the colonization of the market has “torn” the “veil of sentiment” from familial and communal relations, leaving only the cash-nexus, we find ourselves watching “Real Housewives,” “Bridezilla,” and “Jersey Shore.”[19]

My Experience Watching “Real Housewives”

What ideological work does trash television do? While the current American lack of civic virtue is multi-causal, it is my contention that contemporary commercial culture plays a key role in undermining civic virtue, by encouraging selfishness, glorifying wealth and status, and exacerbating in people feelings of superiority over and resentment towards others – sentiments more fitting for an aristocratic hierarchy than an egalitarian republic. On that note, it is interesting to consider, the recent spate of shows that seem to glorify the British class system – “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs” (as well as the movie “The King’s Speech”) – not to mention the hyping of the Royal Wedding.

The notion that commercially produced trash television shows might be doing important ideological work occurred to me as I was watching episodes from the “Real Housewives” series in an attempt to plug into what is often termed popular culture, but should more accurately be labeled commercial culture. Honestly, I find the women repulsive and wondered why the franchise is so popular, as evidenced by its replication. I blogged about it for “Tikkun Daily,” and many people told me that the post really resonated with them.[20] It remained number one on the “most-read posts” list for weeks.

The shows are popular, but why? Does anyone really admire or want to emulate those women? I hope not, since the women seem to think that selfishness, aggression, and rudeness are admirable qualities. I find stunning the disjunction between what the women think the show is about and what is really going on. That is to say, while the “housewives” apparently think they are bona fide celebrities and the envy of all, most viewers probably find the women totally despicable — money-grubbing, ostentatious, classless, immature, narcissistic, catty, and vulgar. At least I hope that is the case.

So what is the appeal of “Real Housewives” and similar shows? I think the women who watch such shows — and I suspect it is mostly women — watch them because the shows make them feel good, by inducing in them a sense of smug superiority, or at least that is how they make me feel, as evidenced by the above paragraph. This has political relevance, I believe, because it seems to me that the desire to feel superior is one of the strongest underlying forces in American politics right now. Many people want to feel superior to others — to “illegal” immigrants, to gays, to Muslims, to the poor — or, on the Left, to Sarah Palin and the interpellated masses living in Kansas. This is a problem because feelings of superiority threaten to erode the principle of political equality, upon which self-government is based, and the reciprocity and respect for others required by civic virtue. Unfortunately, indulgence in media depictions of outrageous women fuels these anti-republican sentiments.

Moreover, those who admire the housewives – and there must be some – also have their anti-republican feelings and desires exacerbated. The shows valorize and reward narcissism, legitimize status-seeking and hierarchy, and normalize incivility through their storylines and character depictions, while stimulating in viewers possibly feelings of envy and most likely the desire embrace the lifestyle and attitudes the show embodies. As viewers indulge in those anti-republican emotions, it undermines feelings of public-spiritedness, a collectivist outlook, reciprocity, and respectfulness towards others. The resulting lack of civic virtue erodes democratic society, making it much more difficult to work together or support government aimed at the common good.  Needless to say, these shows do not act alone, but form part of a wide range of forces pulling people away from republican values.

What Is To Be Done?

While this essay has used the “Real Housewives” franchise to illustrate an argument about the anti-republican and anti-progressive consequences of commercial culture – we can all think of many other examples – I have no real solutions to offer. This essay simply adds another item to the long list of problems that result from having essentially all of our media, including news journalism, controlled by a handful of for-profit corporations. While I am certainly not making a unicausal argument – and indeed there may be more important factors contributing to the decline of progressivism – those who care about making the world a better and more just place need to understand all the many ways in which ideological support for neo-liberalism is produced.

Two strategies might help to ameliorate the effects of this ideological apparatus: 1) educating people to prefer better entertainment and to maintain a critical perspective when they do engage with more problematic shows and 2) producing alternative entertainment and providing some guarantee that it will be available by protecting non-market dependent venues, such as public television. Obviously the right is actively trying to prevent both from happening, and there is a lot of money behind its efforts. I am not optimistic about the prospects for progressive politics because of this. However, as dark as these times we now live in are, it has been worse in the past. In the early twentieth century, progressive gains emerged out of the ashes of fascism. Consequently, with odds that are less daunting (for now), we should be able to do something positive.


[1] We hear a lot about liberty, but mostly as freedom of from interference, a liberal concept, rather than freedom from domination, which is Maurizio Viroli’s definition of republican liberty. See Maurizio Viroli, Republicanism (New York: Hill & Wang, 2002).

[2] Stephen Eric Bronner, Socialism Unbound, second edition (New York: Westview Press, 2001).

[3] Glen Beck, Glen Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine (New York: Mercury Radio Arts/Threshold Edition, 2009).

[4] Viroli, Republicanism.

[5] Robert Dahl, On Democracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000).

[6] Viroli, Republicanism.

[7] “Embittered by Recession,” Washington Post, February 21, 2011 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/graphic/2011/02/21/GR2011022105161.html?sid=ST2011022201441>.

[8] Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives won the Heart of America (New York: Owl Books, 2004), 248.

[9] Frank, Kansas, 249.

[10] Christian Right organizations do call for boycotts of some companies under certain circumstances, to advance an anti-gay agenda, for example. However, they do not actually critique the market mechanism itself, as opposed to its effects on moral values in particular instances. In contrast, the religious left, on the other hand, does see the market as destructive of many of our society’s important values and seek to regulate it, but they are not as politically powerful yet.

[11] Frank, Kansas, 241.

[12] Frank, Kansas, 241-242.

[13] Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), 190.

[14] For examples, see Michael Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) and Rogers Smith, Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Memberships (Cambridge University Press, 2003).

[15] Putnam, Bowling Alone, 139-140.

[16] Putnam, Bowling Alone, 62.

[17] Putnam, Bowling Alone, 282.

[18] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in ed., Terrell Carver, Marx: Later Political Writings (Cambridge: The University of Cambridge Press, 2000), 4.

[19] Marx and Engels, “Manifesto,” 4.

[20] Claire Snyder-Hall, “Personal Reflections on ‘Real Housewives’ and the Virtue of Modesty, Tikkun Daily, February 3, 2011, <http://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2011/02/03/personal-reflections-on-real-housewives-and-the-virtue-of-modesty/>.

Claire Snyder-Hall is an associate professor of political theory and director of the Interdisciplinary Studies program at George Mason University. She is the author of Gay Marriage and Democracy: Equality for All (2006) and Citizen-Soldiers and Manly Warriors: Military Service and Gender in the Civic Republican Tradition (1999), as well as numerous articles and essays on democratic theory, feminism, and right-wing politics.

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