columns

Jun 13, 2018

Culture War Partisanship and Its Discontents

America may be increasingly polarized—but the split is cultural, not ideological.

Recent years have witnessed much consternation about America’s purportedly deepening political divide and its increasing polarization. American public intellectuals eager to signal their level-headed pragmatism and moderation, their commitment to “working across the aisle” and “getting things done,” anxiously lament the withering of the reasonable center. There once was, we are told, a moderate consensus in political life that has since contracted as Americans move out to the ideological extremes, increasingly intransigent and hostile to the opposing “team.” Yet apparently at odds with this thesis is a body of work, popular and scholarly, contending that most Americans are actually quite indifferent to political ideology, unconcerned with comprehensive theories of liberty and justice. Ordinary people are just not terribly interested in ideas, in abstract theory and political philosophy, consumed with the more mundane and wearisome engagements of working life. If human beings desire deeply to belong to groups, then the totems around which we gather don’t tend to be ideological manifestos, much less dense theoretical texts by academic political theorists. Your average political partisan neither knows nor cares what William F. Buckley, Jr. or John Rawls thinks.

How, then, do we reconcile these facts, the apparent lack of ideological commitment among Americans and the stark polarization that is the subject of so much worry? A reconciliation may be easier than it first appears. After all, principled ideological commitments make difficult the mindless team-rooting of partisanship. Where Americans are polarized is in the clashes of the Culture War, which are not (superficial appearances aside) actually contests between competing political ideologies.1 The divisions of the Culture War, admittedly deep, are instead related to cultural sensibilities, aesthetic preferences, and perspectives on moral values. Yes, Americans may describe themselves in facially ideological terms, but their loyalties and hostilities are in fact rooted not in ideology, but in their affiliations with certain groups —  culturally defined. For more on this thesis, see Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public, in which Donald R. Kinder and Nathan P. Kalmoe argue that most Americans, “[p]arochial in interest” and “modest in intellect,” are ideologically innocent, reconciling that claim with evidence that may seem to say otherwise. It is the “attachments and antipathies of group life,” Kinder and Kalmoe tell us, that ultimately give rise to public opinion.

As George Hawley observes in his review of that book, “most people do not even understand what the major ideological categories stand for.” He is, of course, right; he must be, for even highly sophisticated and apparently ideological political commentators seldom have a robust understanding of political philosophy or the history of ideas, concerned instead with prefabricated left-right categories that are internally self-contradictory, theoretically incoherent, and historically accidental and thus arbitrary (points on which I’ve elaborated elsewhere). This doesn’t bother the adherents of these left-right ideologies because the practice in which they are actually engaged and invested is partisan team-rooting, doing their part in the Culture War. Normal Americans, if we may, cast a critical, suspicious eye upon ideology, regarding it as opposed to pragmatism and common sense. Indeed, a 2016 study from the Pew Research Center found that political partisans in both major parties tend to see their own party as ideologically moderate, the other as extreme. Once again, partisan loyalties seem to be about something other than political philosophy or ideology, associated with an individual’s sense of his place on the cultural map—for example, is he rural or urban, lacking in formal education or highly degreed, traditional or unconventional, religious or secular, unsophisticated or cultured, parochial or broad-minded, provincial or cosmopolitan? These divides drive polarization much more than does thinking about political ideology, and Americans’ answers to such questions are increasingly predictive of their partisan identifications.

Recent research suggests that the psychological pull of partisanship is indeed so powerful that it can compel people to change the way they look at their religious faith. In research published in a paper this month, social and political scholars at the University of Notre Dame and the University of Akron found that religious and secular orientations are not actually exogenous to politics, as is generally assumed, that instead individuals’ religious affiliations are often an outgrowth of the way they think about politics. Indeed, these scholars note the surprising and counterintuitive fact that political orientations and affiliations have a more significant impact on attitudes concerning religion than such attitudes have on one’s politics. In the United States, it is commonly thought that, if anything, one chooses her political “team” based on her stance on religion, with secular people clustering in progressive groups and the Democratic Party and traditional, religious people gravitating toward conservatism and the GOP. It appears that the causal relationship between religion and politics may in fact be the reverse: partisans of the left are rejecting traditional religious practice because it would signal the wrong Culture War alignment, associating practitioners with conservatism and the GOP.

In his notable work The Liberal Tradition in America, political scientist Louis Hartz famously articulated the thesis that the American political landscape is defined by “an absolute and irrational attachment” to the liberal ideas of John Locke, processed through the “explosive” nationalism of the nineteenth century. Lockean liberalism is, in Hartz’s account, a kind of shared national religion, present across the supposed political divide. Some years later, political scientist Dominic Tierney followed Hartz, arguing in The Atlantic “that the United States is probably the most ideologically united country in history,” united in commitment to a national ideology: liberalism. If only it were so.

If indeed Americans are ideologically united, it is (quite unfortunately) not under the liberal banner of “Economy, Retrenchment, and Reform!,” borrowing the liberal motto of Richard Cobden. Rather, Americans have long been united in their acceptance, admittedly tacit, of what we might call, building upon the work of James C. Scott, high-modernist progressivism; this ideology is defined fundamentally by its faith in the bureaucratic nation-state and its ill-considered attempts at social engineering, overconfident in the ability to rationally design the social order “commensurate with the scientific understanding of natural laws.”2 Because they’re not ideological, Americans on both left and right unwittingly default or defer to an ideological substructure that is thoroughly authoritarian (in both its left and right flavors). In terms of their impact (or lack thereof) on the characteristics and operations of the American state, then, Culture War divides are merely decorative, more superficial than substantive. To the extent that political skirmishes are substantive in public policy terms, they are nonetheless marginal, a battle of inches playing out on an authoritarian fundament the defining features of which are unquestioned in either the left or right camp.

A more meaningful conversation about politics would require a wholesale reimagining of our conceptual categories and the language we use to describe them. Linguistic relativity is a philosophical idea exploring the “possibility that the language we speak influences the way we think,”3 that our very worldviews are shaped in large part by whether we speak, for example, English or Hopi. But even within one language, how speakers of that language talk about a thing affects how they think about it. It would seem to be clear enough that the language of partisanship and the left-right political spectrum—and the assumption that this language is representative of something true—informs and constrains our thinking about political theory. Talking about political ideas in this way is a current quietly and invisibly drifting us away from talking and thinking about such ideas in alternative ways. Certain highly complex and “linguistically coded propositions constrain the collective political imagination,”4 hidden in the infinitely complex universe of subtext, context, and connotation. Rather than aiming for conceptual clarity, focused on identifying specific points of disagreement, we’re allowing the language we’ve adopted to dictate the terms of the debate and the positions therein. Without this kind of clarity, the two teams can’t even agree on what it is they disagree on. No debate—assuming we’re using the word properly—is possible given such a regrettable situation. Language indeed seems to exercise a kind of tyranny over our thinking, reminding us, perhaps, of George Orwell’s brilliant exploration of this idea and its terrifying implications in 1984. As Syme explains to Winston,

Even the literature of the Party will change. Even the slogans will change. How could you have a slogan like “freedom is slavery” when the concept of freedom has been abolished? The whole climate of thought will be different. In fact, there will be no thought, as we understand it now. Orthodoxy means not thinking—not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness.

To the extent that we have forfeited the capacity for critical thinking to the orthodoxy of the Culture War’s language and categories, its inadequate account of the country’s political state, Americans have started down the intellectually stifling road Orwell described. To remedy this, we should undertake to dismantle this repressive rhetorical structure piece by piece. Upon reflection, it becomes apparent that the ready-made, off-the-shelf ideologies of the widely-used left-right spectrum are essentially meaningless—or, at the very least, random agglomerations of ideas that have no logical or necessary relationship with one another. Scott, for example, observes the similarities between the ideas of Friedrich Hayek, to whom Scott inaccurately applies the label “right wing” (inaccurately because Hayek’s ideas are a development of liberalism, Hayek consistently challenging attempts to lump him in with either the political right or conservatism), and the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, who noted, “It is impossible to legislate for the future.” The claim that the libertarians of the putative left ought to be positioned on the political spectrum as far away as possible from those of the putative right speaks more to the flaws and inadequacies of the left-right political spectrum than it tells us about the ideas of these thinkers.

Indeed, in his chapter on “Free Agreement” in The Conquest of Bread, Kropotkin frequently sounds very much like a present-day libertarian, impressed by the “thousands and thousands of human groupings which form themselves freely, without any intervention of the law, and attain results infinitely superior to those achieved under governmental tutelage.” Kropotkin’s ode to free agreement, to that which is “accomplished every day by spontaneous groups of men,” highlights several examples, among them, the network of rail lines connecting Europeans of all nations. This marvel, Kropotkin observes, would have been unimaginable to the grandparents of his contemporaries, a fantasy of the madman. He wonders at the fact that so many unthinkingly accept the fallacies of centralized government power, the idea that a project of such scope must require the enforcement of a central government. Common interest alone proved sufficient to produce this astounding monument to true progress and social cooperation—no armies being necessary to dragoon “refractory members.” Kropotkin sounds still more like today’s libertarians in his analysis of the causes of monopoly power. Answering those who look to the state to protect workers and the public, he points out the perversity of their logic, by which the very source of monopoly privileges would be made the benefactor of workers and the public good. Political and economic hierarchies do not actually compete—they rather coincide in a venal, centralizing symbiosis. Both the left and the right have failed to understand this, like so much else.

Libertarians are, in important ways, the discontents of prevailing Culture War partisanship, principled and ideologically-consistent oddities, undistracted by the hollow non-debates featured on cable news. Instead of working backwards to our political positions from our cultural symbols and loyalties, we systematize from basic, self-evident truths and observations about the kinds of political arrangements that have led to prosperity and human flourishing to this point. The menu of political choices presented by the mainstream left-right spectrum is extraordinarily small and filled with utter nonsense. Reject it. Better yet, follow philosopher Crispin Sartwell’s advice and think about it rather than from it.


  1. Indeed, one may be an intensely committed ideological radical—an anarchist libertarian, for example—and find himself a moderate, or just indifferent, on the Culture War and partisan battlefields.
  2. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State (Yale University Press 1998).
  3. John A. Lucy, “The Scope of Linguistic Relativity: An Analysis and Review of Empirical Research” in Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, edited by John J. Gumperz and Stephen C. Levinson (Cambridge University Press 1996).
  4. David B. Kronenfeld, “Language and thought: Collective tools for individual use” in Explorations in Linguistic Relativity, edited by Martin Putz and Marjolijn H. Verspoor (John Benjamins Publishing Co. 2000).