The Red/Blue Cultural Divide

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

September, 2018

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One key to understanding the multifaceted dangers associated with authoritarian populism is to understand the nature of the cultural conflicts that divide liberals and conservatives. This post focuses on how this conflict manifests itself in the United States by looking at the origins and traits associated with the competing cultures.  It goes on to consider the argument that these differences have evolutionary, neurobiological origins and that it is unrealistic to expect that they will, somehow, be resolved by either the decisive defeat of one side, or their realization that they were wrong all along. This realization leads to the obvious conclusion that the only viable path toward the social peace needed to resist the authoritarian threat lies in the principles of tolerance, coexistence, mutual respect, and, constructive confrontation (for those cases where intolerable differences exist).

Full Transcript:

Lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. In this post I want to continue my efforts to map the many interlocking conflicts associated with authoritarian populism and, in general, the big political divide in the United States. I also think that this is a problem that is experienced by lots other countries, though in different ways.

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Slide 2. Again, a disclaimer before we go too far. Political conflict in the US is now so highly polarized that lots of folks on both sides pretty much view the other side as so evil that their views (and anyone who expresses them) ought to be openly condemned. And, they assert, if you can keep those views from being expressed at all, so much the better.

What we are trying to do in this series of posts is talk about how we might make peace between the left and the right. That will require a fair amount of understanding and a willingness to look at the other side with some sense of sympathy and empathy. So, if you find me appearing to justify views with which you disagree, please don't immediately disregard what I have to say. Instead, try to listen and think about the issue in a more empathetic way.

Slide 3. What I want to talk about in this post is the culture divide, the culture war, and the lifestyle questions over what's right and what's wrong that divide liberals and conservatives.

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Slide 4. To start with, let's look at conservative cultural beliefs. There are a lot of different aspects of this, obviously.

Slide 5. Maybe the best place to start is this notion of a social community built around patriarchal families where you have a breadwinner and a homemaker. This is a cultural view that was dominant in the United States in the 50's and 60's. There were very sharp role differences between men and women. And men would go and work (in construction, coal mines, factories, etc.) and women would stay at home with the kids and be homemakers – which was, to be fair, a bigger job back then (because of all of the labor saving products and services that have become available since).

Slide 6. This was also a period when, at least for a lot of the country, there was a pretty high degree of cultural and religious homogeneity built largely around the various Christian denominations.

Slide 7. There was a sense in which folks were responsible for helping others in their community. Metaphorically, at least, this is reflected in traditions like a barn raising where everybody comes together to build a barn for somebody in their community.

Slide 8. This was also a time and a culture that came out of the Great Depression and World War II. My parents had 15 years of their lives torn apart by the War and by the Depression that preceded it. These pictures from VJ (Victory over Japan) Day at the end of the war reflect the sense of everybody wanted to be done with all the turmoil. They wanted to get married, settle down, have kids (the baby boomers). They got through the war by sticking together and respecting authority and they were inclined to continue to do that.

Slide 9. This led to the rise of suburbia. It was, in many ways, the economic Golden Age. We built the interstate highway system, we built houses, there were jobs for everybody, and the level of social equity was much greater (the proportion of the society's wealth that went to the very rich was much less). In some sense, I think, that this is what people who say they want to make America great again, want to go back to.

Slide 10. Now, it's also true that this was the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the rebellion against absolutely unconscionable racist segregation. The pictures that come out of that era reflect the horror and tension of the time. I don't want to convey the impression that everything was perfect back then. Still, there were parts of it that were good for many, and there was a set of cultural beliefs that people enjoyed. While there are many today who would not want to live in such a society, there are many who wanted it then and many who still want it today.

Slide 11. So, to summarize this a bit, the more conservative side of the cultural divide reflects what was (and to a significant degree still is) the mainstream, dominant, Christian, white culture. It's pretty homogenous, there is a respect for tradition, a respect for authority. There is a sense in which people, at least on cultural issues, should subordinate themselves to the traditions of the larger community. There is also a moral clarity and clear image of what's right and wrong, pride and patriotism, and willingness to defend the group. So that's one side of the cultural divide.

Slide 12. On the progressive side, things look quite a bit different.

Slide 13. To a very real degree, I think Democrats are a misfit coalition. Will Roger's famous line, "I don't belong to any organized political party, I'm a Democrat" makes a lot of sense. This quote from a recent New York Times article (see the reference section for a citation) also highlights the differences, "The Republican Party can be described as an ideological group, while the Democratic Party is better thought of as a collection of interests." In other words the Democratic Party is a coalition of very different interest groups.

Slide 14. Some of this comes out of the Civil Rights Movement and Johnson's signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. With this legislation, the Democratic Party effectively said that they were going to be the champion of those who have been racially discriminated against since the very earliest beginnings of the United States, a monumental step.

Slide 15. Another thing that shaped the current progressive culture and the Democratic Party certainly was the Women's Movement. I remember going to class in the early 1970's and hearing my male sociology professor say that he thought that the then emerging women's movement was going to be a very big deal because the deep inequities and the many legitimate complaints that women had. When I was a graduate student, I worked in the same office as Elise Boulding when she was writing the book, The Underside of History, which turned out to be an enormous volume that documented horrible stories about how women had been treated in culture after culture, after culture through the ages. This was obviously just the beginning of a rebellion that challenged the traditional patriarchal culture.

Slide 16. This was also the time of Earth Day and the rise of the Environmental Movement. Folks who weren't alive back then have trouble understanding just how terrible the pollution problem was. Today, we sometimes talk about a brown cloud in Denver. Back then it was a black cloud. I remember seeing pictures of 50 foot walls of soap suds coming off Lake Erie. This was the time when the Cuyahoga River--in Cleveland-- literally caught fire--four times!-- because it was so polluted.

So, you had all different interest groups based on racial, gender, and environmental issues that came together and they challenged the "establishment" which was, in a very strong sense, being championed by the Republicans.

Slide 17. There were also changes in immigration policy that came out of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. This is an interesting article that documents just how much more diverse our society has become since that act was passed.

Slide 18. Democrats have a at least one reason to be thankful to Ronald Reagan's deregulation efforts. It led to a plummeting in the cost of air travel, which made it possible for a whole generation of young people to travel the world and do things like "study abroad." This helped give rise to the cosmopolitan international culture associated with the "modern world." This kind of international experience is something that earlier generations couldn't do in large numbers, because they couldn't afford it.

Slide 19. So the progressive side of the cultural divide consists of lots of different groups with different agendas. Not surprisingly, this is a coalition that expresses strong support for individual rights (and the Declaration of Universal Human Rights).

Slide 20. This individually-focused approach embraced moral relativism and the belief that everyone has a different set of beliefs--and for them, that's okay. There is no absolute. This obviously challenged a lot of basic, traditional Christian ideals and led to a lot of tension.

Slide 21. This is also reflected in progressive family and gender roles that further challenge traditional conservative beliefs.

Slide 22. The bottom line is that we have a set of cultural traits on the progressive side that are very much at odds with the traits on the conservative side. This is what you might expect from a misfit coalition of people who have been alienated from mainstream society. It's culturally and racially diverse. It's tolerant of many cultures. It embraces moral relativism. It does, however, embrace a set of progressive values that folks are asked to adhere to. The progressive culture is more individualistically focused, critical of traditional society, and distrustful of authority.

Slide 23. So all of these things are coming into conflict. Let's try to back up a bit and look at the big picture of what's going on here.

Slide 24. The first thing to keep in mind is that "within group" differences are still very, very large – in many ways larger than the "between group" differences. These are pictures of Obama and Trump's inaugurations. They look pretty much the same. There are just different people in the audience. And there is a lot of variation within both the conservative and progressive coalitions. So, don't get the idea that they're all monolithic and homogenous.

Slide 25. The cultural divide is also reflected in something that Bill Bishop called "The Big Sort" – a process through which society is progressively sorting itself into liberal and conservative communities. I grew up in Colorado Springs which is now very, very conservative. I now live in Boulder, Colorado which is very, very liberal. The two communities are not far from each other (both located at the base of the Colorado's Rocky Mountains) but they are culturally very, very different.

Slide 26. Tom Edsall, in the New York Times, runs a series of articles that are, in a sense, literature reviews that try to help readers understand some of today's big issues. This article "The Contract with Authoritarianism" is an excellent one (though the title is a bit misleading). What he does is review of various theories about the cultural differences between liberals and conservatives. Since he is a liberal, the whole article is a bit tilted toward the liberal side of things. Still, it gives you an excellent window into the nature and causes of these cultural differences.

Slide 27. Since there is a high degree of similarity between the various theories on this topic, I'm going to just highlight a couple of ideas. George Lakoff has written a lot on the nature of these cultural differences and I recommend his work. In particular, I like his distinction between conservative, "strict father," "father knows best" cultures and the "nurturing parent" culture of progressives.

Slide 28. Our colleague, Mari Fitzduff, has been looking at these issues from the perspective of the emerging field of neuroscience. She thinks that there is good reason to believe that, in any population, there are going to be large numbers of people who fit both Lakoff's strict father, traditionalist model and folks who fit the nurturing parent model that encourages a considerable amount of individuality, creativity and a willingness to go off and try new things.

Slide 29. In evolutionary terms, this makes sense. The reason that human societies have been so successful is because people have been able to work together successfully. It is, therefore, not surprising that there are strong biological and cultural incentives for people to "stick with the script" and not deviate too much from traditional norms. Still, to be successful, society needs creative people who are willing to try new things, especially in response to changing conditions. The bottom line is that a society needs both personality types. The question is, what's the proper relationship and balance between them?

Slide 30. Liberals like to think of themselves as adherents to the creative culture and the "culture of peace" which is tolerant of lots of different views. Still, there is a certain sense in which they, too, abide by strong traditions--it's just that their traditions are a little bit different than Republican traditions. This is reflected in the many ways in which liberal societies discourage deviations from "politically correct" orthodoxies.

Slide 31. Another way to look at this is in the context of William Ogburn's notion of "cultural lag." Over time, cultures adapt to changing conditions within the society. Not surprisingly, some folks adapt faster than others and some societies adapt faster than others.

Slide 32. For example, this chart (you can follow the citation to look at the details) shows how "what women want" in men and vice versa has changed from 1939 to 2008. You can see that, over time, there have been huge cultural shifts.

Slide 33. Or, you can look at this chart which illustrates changes in support for same sex marriage over time. Again, you can see, there were big cultural changes on this issue.

Slide 34. In this context, people who disagree with you on cultural issues may either be lagging behind your group in adapting to social changes, or they might be leaping ahead. In a very important sense, those that are lagging or behind or leaping ahead aren't evil, they are just at a different developmental stage. Rather than fighting gigantic culture wars, it would be better to just give the folks who are lagging behind a chance to catch up, or to give those who have leapt ahead a chance to realize that maybe they have leapt too far too fast, and go back.

Slide 35. It is also important to recognize that many cultural issues are not really compromisable. These are right-to-life and pro-choice demonstrations. And if you believe abortion amounts to infanticide, it's hard to imagine people compromising and saying that killing some babies is okay, as long as you don't kill others. So, when we think about how best to deal with cultural issues, we have to include strategies for dealing with their non-compromisable character.

Slide 36. Two big ideas, tolerance and coexistence, provide what I think is the best approach to handling cultural divides. (There are articles on these concepts on Beyond Intractability.) If the evolutionary neurobiologists are right and all societies have these groups, then the only way in which they can live in peace is with the spirit of coexistence and a willingness to let everybody live the way they want to live and to tolerate differences (as long as they let others do the same).

Slide 37. One of our colleagues is founder of the Humiliation, Human Dignity, and Humiliation Studies group which has been cataloging the many ways in which disrespect are a big driver of destructive conflict. So, if you're going to make coexistence and tolerance work, it needs to be accompanied with a sense of mutual respect.

Slide 38. There's some reason to believe that folks are catching on to this. This is, I think, an encouraging article that talks about how there is strong and increasing support for gay marriage and gay sex even though a lot of people who support it still think that it is immoral. That's coexistence and tolerance. People allow others to do things of which they disapprove. It is a formula that I think can work.

Slide 39. Now there are obviously limits to tolerance. And, certainly the Islamic State represents a culture that that has exceeded the limits of tolerance and must be opposed. The question is how can that be done most constructively (and with minimal violence).

Slide 40. The Peacebuilding Challenge is to figure out how we can have these two very different groups live together with some form of coexistence, but still a certain amount of constructive competition over ideas. This is the key to defusing what is already a highly escalated and destructive confrontation.

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