A Smarter look at America’s divide.
By David Brooks, Opinion Columnist
Every few years one research group or another produces a typology of the electorate. The researchers conduct thousands of interviews and identify the different clusters American voters fall into.
More in Common has just completed a large such typology. It’s one of the best I’ve seen because it understands that American politics is no longer about what health care plan you support. It’s about identity, psychology, moral foundations and the dynamics of tribal resentment.
The report, “Hidden Tribes,” breaks Americans into seven groups, from left to right, with names like Traditional Liberals, Moderates, Politically Disengaged and so on. It won’t surprise you to learn that the most active groups are on the extremes — Progressive Activists on the left (8 percent of Americans) and Devoted Conservatives on the right (6 percent).
These two groups are the richest of all the groups. They are the whitest of the groups. Their members have among the highest education levels, and they report high levels of personal security.
We sometimes think of this as a populist moment. But that’s not true. My first big takeaway from “Hidden Tribes” is that our political conflict is primarily a rich, white civil war. It’s between privileged progressives and privileged conservatives.
You could say that tribalism is the fruit of privilege. People with more stresses in their lives necessarily pay less attention to politics. People with college degrees are more likely to describe their ideology as central to their identity. They are much more likely to derive moral meaning from their label, more likely to affiliate with a herd based on their label and more likely to vote on the party line.
My second big takeaway from the report is that ideas really do drive history. Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives organize around coherent philosophical narratives. These narratives aren’t visions of a just society. They are narratives of menace — about who needs to be exorcised from society.
Devoted Conservatives subscribe to a Hobbesian narrative. It’s a dangerous world. Life is nasty, brutish and short. We need strict values and strong authority to keep us safe.
Ninety percent of Devoted Conservatives think immigration is bad, while 99 percent of Progressive Activists think it is good. Seventy-six percent of Devoted Conservatives think Islam is more violent than other religions; only 3 percent of Progressive Activists agree. Eighty-six percent of Devoted Conservatives think it’s more important for children to be well behaved than creative. Only 13 percent of Progressive Activists agree.
Progressive Activists, on the other hand, subscribe to a darkened Rousseauian worldview. People may be inherently good, but the hierarchical structures of society are awful. The structures of inequality and oppression have to be dismantled.
Ninety-one percent of Progressive Activists say sexual harassment is common, while only 12 percent of Devoted Conservatives agree. Ninety-two percent of Progressive Activists say people don’t take racism seriously enough, compared with 6 percent of Devoted Conservatives. Eighty-six percent of Progressive Activists say life’s outcomes are outside people’s control; only 2 percent of Devoted Conservatives agree. Progressive Activists are nearly three times as likely to say they are ashamed to be American as the average voter.
This philosophical dispute is not new. There have always been some people who thought we need hierarchical structures to keep us safe and others who thought we need to be emancipated from oppressive structures so we can be free.
What is new is how cultish this dispute has become. The researchers asked a wide variety of questions, on everything from child-rearing to national anthem protests. In many cases, 97 to 99 percent of Progressive Activists said one thing and 93 to 95 percent of Dedicated Conservatives said the opposite. There’s little evidence of individual thought, just cult conformity. The current situation really does begin to look like the religious wars that ripped through Europe after the invention of the printing press, except that our religions now wear pagan political garb.
The good news is that once you get outside these two elite groups you find a lot more independent thinking and flexibility. This is not a 50-50 nation. It only appears that way when disenchanted voters are forced to choose between the two extreme cults.
Roughly two-thirds of Americans, across four political types, fall into what the authors call “the exhausted majority.” Sixty-one percent say people they agree with need to listen and compromise more. Eighty percent say political correctness is a problem, and 82 percent say the same about hate speech.
Unfortunately, people in the exhausted majority have no narrative. They have no coherent philosophic worldview to organize their thinking and compel action. When they get one I suspect it will look totally unlike the two dominant narratives today. These narratives are threat narratives. But the people who make positive change usually focus on gifts, not deficits. They tell stories about the assets we have and how we can use them together.
I don’t know what the next political paradigm will look like, but I bet it will be based on abundance, not deficits; gifts, not fear; hope, not hatred.