How do we define our differences?
There are a number of possible divisions:
- young vs. old
- rich vs. poor
- female vs. male
- urban vs. rural
- coastal vs. interior
- college-educated vs. high-school-educated
- white collar vs. blue collar
- left vs. right
- Democrat vs. Republican
- liberal or progressive vs. conservative or traditionalist
- white vs. non-white
- people who practice religion vs. those who do not
And there are controversial issues that divide us such as:
- LGBTQI+ rights
- Global warming
We can certainly see that there are many ways that Americans could be grouped on this axis—the demographic characteristics/political identification and hot-button issues.
The most obvious split is in the realm of attitudes toward government and politics.
Pew research has documented this division in a study entitled “The Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider: Sharp shifts among Democrats on aid to needy, race, immigration.”
Among other questions, survey participants were asked to choose between pairs of statements and asked which one comes closest to their own beliefs—the first statement, or the second (asked in random order):
The conclusion was that partisan divisions between Democrats and Republicans had grown from 15% in 1994 to 36% in 2017. However, the gap between other demographic groups is much smaller and has not changed appreciatively since 1994:
Are Americans dividing themselves into tribes?
To listen to pundits and social media, one would definitely think so. In Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, Amy Chua observes that tribalism is part of human nature—the urge to be with others who are like ourselves.
However, Chua argues that America has become something more than a tribe: a “super-group…a group in which membership is open to individuals of any background but that at the same time binds its members together with a strong, overarching, group-transcending collective identity,…a connection to the land, of being bound by a shared constitution.”
We wholeheartedly agree. There is more that unites us than what divides us—even though these cultural bonds that tie us together may be largely unacknowledged or even unconscious.
Let’s explore this issue further.
American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know
By Maryanne K. Datesman
October 30, 2018 DRAFT
Chapter 4: Culture wars, and rumors of wars: What divides us now?
A few months ago, I heard a sad story. A friend of mine told me she had actually lost her best friend of 30 or 40 years because she (my friend) had voted for Trump! I was incredulous. She stressed how close this relationship had been and how shocked she was when her friend said she didn’t want anything more to do with her. My friend had protested, “But I voted for Obama before—doesn’t that count for something?” No, it did not. Her friend just couldn’t get past that vote for Trump, and their friendship was over.
This is a dramatic illustration of the profound emotional fissures in the United States today.
Up to this point, we have been emphasizing what unites us—the traditional cultural values that we share as Americans. We’ve looked at Hall’s cultural iceberg with its largest bulk below the surface of the water—the unseen repository of our deep-seated cultural beliefs and values. It’s these values that are largely unconscious but dictate how we see life.
But here’s the question: If our cultural values unite us, why are we so bitterly divided?
In a nutshell, it’s because we can’t agree about what the role of our government should be!
This is not a new argument—the Founders of our country had severe disagreements about how much power the Federal government should have. John Adams and the Federalists advocated for a strong, centralized, Federal government, while Thomas Jefferson and the Anti-Federalists thought that the power of the national government should be limited. Jefferson believed that most of the governing power belonged at the state and local level.
This brings us to a vexing paradox: At the deep, hidden part of the iceberg where our usually unconscious values live, there is general agreement. But above the surface, where our conscious beliefs and behaviors exist, there is great disagreement. This is where we debate how our government should protect and embody these deep cultural values.
When Donald Trump was elected President, Americans started thinking and talking a lot about our national values. How was he able to defeat all the other Republican candidates and capture the nomination? And then win the election? What caused his core supporters to be so zealous? Trump famously bragged that he could shoot someone in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue and his supporters would still follow him.
This is where that vexing paradox emerges—Trump appeals to all of our deep cultural values:
Freedom and Self-Reliance, Equality of Opportunity and Competition, The American Dream and Hard Work.
Trump talks a lot about the forgotten workers who want to regain access to the American Dream, and who are willing to work hard if they can just have an equal chance at a good job. He says they know how to take care of themselves, and they don’t need a union or a government agency to tell them how to do it. He is a strong advocate for competition and the free enterprise system, and he believes in the freedom of individuals to do what they want (as long as they don’t try to oppose him).
Even though Trump appeals to those largely unconscious cultural values, the controversies begin when he delves into the arena of conscious beliefs and behaviors.
When Trump starts to talk about the role of the government, he becomes divisive and people start choosing sides. On the one hand, reducing government regulations has caused American businesses to flourish and the economy is booming. On the other hand, many worry about the resulting loss of environmental regulations, safety protections for workers, and consumer rights.
Some of the most controversial issues probably fall into the category of moral beliefs—particularly those concerning our immigration policy.
How should undocumented immigrants seeking asylum be treated on the southern border? Should children be separated from their parents? What about immigrant gang members who threaten the lives of innocent Americans? How can we protect ourselves from dangerous people trying to cross the border? What actions should the government take?
How do people on the left and the right look at the role of government and our cultural values?
Let’s take another look at our paradigm of six basic cultural values:
Equality of Opportunity
The American Dream
Most Americans would probably say they agree with the three rights or benefits: everyone should have individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and the right to pursue the American Dream. Even though these ideals do not always reflect reality, they are still extremely important. But we have to remember that these are aspirational goals, ideals we strive to reach.
It is the enabling values—the responsibilities side of the paradigm—where there may be concern. Are self-reliance, competition, and hard work still part of the American value system? Some would say that these beliefs have fallen on hard times. They question whether some young people still believe in self-reliance, competition, and hard work—especially certain 20-somethings living in their parents’ basements, playing video games, and not looking for a job.
Those on the left would probably say that ideally, Americans should eventually be self-reliant. But some people are so poor or badly disadvantaged that the government has a responsibility to reach down and give them a hand up. These individuals need help to get up to the starting line so they can compete on a level playing field. Eventually, they will be able to work hard and hopefully achieve the American Dream.
Those on the right would probably say that if the government gives these people too much help, it will enable them to be dependent—undermining the important values of self-reliance, competition, and hard work.
Every American should have the right to individual freedom, equality of opportunity, and access to the American Dream—but they have the responsibility to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and work hard for their own success.
Ultimately, what should be the role of government in securing and protecting our rights?
Here’s where we see the even greater controversy.
The disagreement about what rights the government should guarantee has caused the “values divide” or the “culture wars” that began in the early 2000s. John Kenneth White has written about the split in The Values Divide: American Politics and Culture in Transition, with an introduction by John Zogby.
White discusses the fact that those on the right and the left disagree strongly about the role of the government in solving the country’s problems. He says that those on either side of the values divide live in “two parallel universes. Each side seeks to reinforce its thinking by associating with like-minded people.”
In a series of articles in The Washington Post titled “America in Red and Blue: A Nation Divided,” David Von Drehle explored the political split:
This split is nurtured by the marketing efforts of the major parties, which increasingly aim pinpoint messages to certain demographic groups, rather than seeking broadly appealing new themes.
Why have the parties targeted certain groups for various political messages?
- First of all, the use of computers and demographic studies have made it possible to do so.
- Second, many Americans are only interested in one or two political issues. They respond well to targeted political messages about specific issues that concern them.
- Third, many potential voters are not registered members of either party, and both parties must try to persuade them to vote for their party’s candidate. Neither party can win without securing some of the Independent votes. Increasingly, however, most Independents tend to lean toward one party or the other. Indeed, the country has become more and more polarized, to the point that the national government seems to have difficulty functioning.
Both political parties seem to make decisions more on the basis of ideology and less on the best interests of the nation. There is too often gridlock, and too seldom compromise, many would say.
We will return to this dilemma in future chapters. Suffice it to say now, the debate over the true role of our national government that began nearly 250 years ago is alive and well today. And maybe it is actually a sign of the vitality of our country.
As the national government stalls, state and local officials are finding creative solutions for their community problems and are moving forward.
This is who we are.
Interested in American cultural values?
Are you concerned about passing them on to your children and grandchildren?
We are, and that’s why we’re writing the American Handbook.
The new book is tentatively titled, “American Handbook: What your grandparents want you to know,” written from my perspective as a grandmother.
This is an awesome task, even though we will be drawing on the six cultural values presented on our website and developed in American Ways.
Here are working titles for the first twelve chapters:
- Chapter 1: Desperate times call for desperate measures!
- Chapter 2: Behavior, beliefs, and values: Chipping away at the cultural iceberg
- Chapter 3: We are our beliefs: An overview of our traditional American cultural values
- Chapter 4: Culture wars, and rumors of wars: What divides us now?
- Chapter 5: Our rights and freedoms: What’s so important about our Constitution?
- Chapter 6: Equality of Opportunity: A mighty aspiration and a challenging paradox
- Chapter 7: Self-Reliance: Use it or lose it
- Chapter 8: Competition: Sports and the entrepreneurial spirit
- Chapter 9: Hard Work: What do you do?
- Chapter 10: The American Dream: Dead or alive?
- Chapter 11: Patriotism is not a dirty word
- Chapter 12: Civil Discourse: Talking across the political divide
The final draft version will be out on or before March 1, 2019. It will be available as an eBook, and possibly in a print version in the future.
We’d like to invite you along on this journey—let’s begin a dialogue.
We want your opinions, your stories, and your wisdom. During pre-sale, which ends March 1, 2019, you can buy the book for $5.00. Pre-sale purchasers will not only get the book, but you’ll also get behind-the-scenes updates (via email) as we move this project forward, and then you will be the first to receive the final draft version, on or before March 1st, 2019.