The “culture wars” that began some decades ago have never ended and are, in fact, more intense and divisive. In the broadest sense, two cultures are deeply at odds with each other. The chasm between the two political parties, symbolized by the Red State and Blue State dichotomy, is the manifestation of the cultural split.
Recently, Ron Brownstein of the National Journal wrote that the GOP represents a “Coalition of Restoration primarily representing older, white, religiously devout, and nonurban voters who fear that hurtling change is undermining traditional American values. Democrats in turn are championing a younger, more urbanized, diverse, and secular Coalition of Transformation that welcomes the evolution in America’s racial composition and cultural mores.”
In a paper published by Jesse R. Harrington and Michele J. Gland of Department of Psychology, University of Maryland, the authors use another category to amplify this division. They describe the states in various degrees of tightness and looseness based upon its strength of punishment and degree of permissiveness. As they explain, “Compared with loose states, tight states have higher levels of social stability, including lowered drug and alcohol use, lower rates of homelessness, and lower social disorganization. However, tight states also have higher incarceration rates, greater discrimination and inequality, lower creativity, and lower happiness relative to loose
states.” Not surprising, the 14 tightest states are mostly from the South; and the 14 loosest states are largely from the East and West Coasts. This, of course, tracks with the division between Red and Blue States.
Cultural attitudes can become embedded in individual behavior with long term political implications. The cultural changes of the 1960s, with its emphasis upon satisfaction over self-restraint and its contempt for traditional codes of behavior have percolated through our political system. The most recent manifestation is growing social acceptance of gay marriage and the legalization of marijuana, particularly in the Blue States. What else, other than cultural differences explains why Arkansas and Kentucky, two of our poorer states are voting more Republican; while Connecticut and Maryland, two of our richer states, are solidly Democratic.
Brownstein’s description of the Culture of Transformation vs. the Culture of Restoration gives an unsubtle hint of which one will eventually dominate. Culture is more easily transformed than restored, particularly when it trends with demographic change. Even if the Republican Party captures the Senate this fall or the White House in 2016, the trends are working against them. The older America of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century is already in the process of a profound transformation. As the “Greatest Generation” and its successor “The Silent Generation” fade away, and the “Baby Boom Generation” reaches old age, the generations that follow appear to have an attenuated connection to that older America. Their memories of the great events of mid-century America are pale and second hand.
America had from its origins monumental achievements – a successful experiment in self-government, religious tolerance, the development of a middle class, and medical and industrial breakthroughs. Its roots were in the Enlightenment and the Protestant Revolution, movements that placed an emphasis upon personal responsibility and social obligation. That America had its faults: the early toleration of slavery and the later toleration of Jim Crow. But the fundamental commitment to self-government eventually forced the country to correct those faults in the passage of the Civil Rights Amendments in the 1860s and Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws in the 1960s.
In the late 19th and early 20th century immigrants left their native land with few regrets and became enthusiastically “Americanized.” They and their progeny drank Coca-Cola, followed baseball, danced to big band music, loved rock ‘n roll, engaged in civic society, fought in our wars, and proudly claimed this country as theirs. Through mid-century America the schools and the popular culture re-enforced all those impulses.
What does it mean to be “Americanized” today? Indeed, many immigrants still embrace their new country. But what are they embracing? The culture that absorbed previous generations of immigrants is slowly disappearing. Patriotism, strict discipline, and religious faith were once openly encouraged in the public schools. In many public schools there were opening prayers, cadet corps, and tough minded teachers. Students that took the required course in American history came away with a strong sense of America’s uniqueness. It was a self-confident culture. Opening prayers in the public schools disappeared over 50 years ago (admittedly there was a strong constitutional argument against them). Yet their disappearance presaged what was to come: weakening academic and deportment standards, poor student performance, and a far more skeptical approach to the teaching of the American experience. International students who attend our universities often take courses in American history and politics taught by professors with a strong critical, if not Marxist, approach. No wonder many of these students return to their home country with a disdain for America.
A self-confident culture undergirds a self-confident politics. The America that conquered the Great Depression, won World War II, remade the politics of Western Europe, expunged militarism and fascism from Germany and Japan, stood up to the Soviet Union, saved South Korea, conquered polio, landed a man on the moon, created the computer and internet revolution, and won the Cold War was not ashamed of its past. Slowly, a softness insinuated itself into our public life. Self-expression trumped self-control; public vulgarity became the coin of public humor; and the slightest offense to a victimized group required enforced silence.
Americans did not ask to be world leaders. It was thrust upon them after Pearl Harbor. Instinctively, the country and its leaders realized such leadership required toughness and self-sacrifice. One wonders: did success bring its own perils? Does prosperity, the entitlement state and cultural tolerance undercut the underlying toughness leadership requires? The events of the past year tell us what the world would look like without a strong and engaged America. Has it become just too hard? Would we rather sit back and live off the wealth of our past? Or can we recapture the habits and values that brought a better life to our citizens and hope to the rest of the world?