We hear, with regularity, that we’re a deeply divided country. There’s some truth in that statement; however, many times the explanations given are overly simplistic and don’t really get to the heart of the matter.
Red state vs. Blue state. Liberal vs. Conservative. Republican vs. Democrat. White / Black / Hispanic. Boxers or briefs. Etc., etc.
Well, I’m going to step right into this minefield, and propose an explanation for what truly divides us as a people. I’m sure what is being put forth here has flaws, but having given this a lot of thought over months and years, I’d like to sketch out a continuum with 2 deeply divided end points, and then dig a bit deeper into what makes up the continuum between the two.
On one end of the continuum is what we might call, for lack of a more imaginative term, the AmeriCAN spirit. On the other end, just to be sure at least some people reading this have a chance to take offense, the AmeriCAN’T spirit (in this context, spirit = the animating perspective that shapes how one views life and country).
The AmeriCAN spirit, in short, appreciates this country’s founding values and traditions, has positive feelings about America’s political and social distinctives, focuses on this country’s opportunities and blessings, and takes pride in his/her identity as a citizen of this country. The AmeriCAN’T spirit tends to denigrate the historical roots of the nation, feels that American society is loaded with unfairness and oppression, focuses on things that are perceived to be wrong with America, and may feel an enduring sense of shame and grievance about the nation.
I’d venture to guess that most of us would self-identify as being influenced in both directions, to one degree or another along the continuum. And, we all have the capacity to be both grateful and critical, and we can all live together in peace with quite a diversity of views. But what polarizes us, in my opinion, is a certain cynical view of our national identity, which is what I’m pointing to as the chief characteristic of the AmeriCAN’T spirit. Which, again, we can live with in this great American experiment of freedom…until it takes the form of extremism.
One side of the continuum tends to view progress as continuing to build on a sturdy and reliable foundation. The other sees progress as dismantling and replacing a foundation seen to be archaic and relatively defective. To put it in more recent historical terms: the AmeriCAN’T spirit has a lot in common with the turmoil of the 1960’s, and in many ways grew out of it.
(full disclosure: I’m a recovering cynic, a former semi-AmeriCAN’T who grew up in the ’60’s and 70’s. And my voyage along the continuum has taken decades. Just so you know.)
Now, in our quest to avoid overly blurry or binary explanations of things, let’s think about what actually makes up the classic AmeriCAN spirit (and its opposite). To say that someone embraces or rejects “classic American values” is too simplistic – certain perspectives that have marked us as a people may be embraced, while other perspectives, perhaps, not so much. It seems to me that there are perhaps six elements that will help us delineate some core values, each of which we will tend to embrace or reject somewhere along a continuum. Tending to be a mnemonic kind of guy, each of the six key word starts with the letter “P”:
Here’s my thesis: the real division between us stems from the vastly differing attitudes, behaviors and policies between those holding to lower “p-values” compared to high “p-value” people. And the lower/higher the combined p-value of the person or group, the more apparent and acrimonious will be the division. A highly productive, patriotic, independent (personal liberty) and pragmatic American (as described below) will be at polar opposites with someone who rejects a personal work ethic, trash-talks the country, and seeks to impose collective government solutions.
You might say, “well, that’s just conservatives and liberals!” But let’s dig below those labels, shall we, and see how the spirit that animates us, and specific values we hold, shape the debate. And then let’s identify where the real danger is for all of us, which is radicalism.
Let’s note right now that you can have high or low p-value people on either coast, of any race or ethnic background, etc. It’s not race or geography that divides us (though there may be tendencies of people-groupings to occupy various places on the p-value continuum), it’s the spirit embodied by the presence or absence of these six values and their opposites. You can find high p-value African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and people of every other background – and lower p-value folks of every stripe as well.
Yes, each of these could be a book chapter. No, I’m not going to attempt to do them justice with links, historical footnotes, quotes from the Founding Fathers, etc. – for the sake of this quick overview, I’ll just give a quick snapshot of each of the p-values. And, ask you to ask yourself – what’s the spirit you have imbibed?
The classic AmeriCAN spirit is Productive – that is, we believe that we are here to create value and produce goods and services. When the country was founded, everyone (who could) worked. Everyone contributed. It was a key part of the ethic of our European settler-forefathers; this view of labor and vocation and self-support was rooted in principles of both religion and practical living. The idea was not to find a free ride, but to maximize skills and efforts to contribute to individual, family, and the community good. Instinctively, we tend to resent freeloaders, and with good reason – everything being consumed by those not pulling their weight and contributing by positive labor is being actively taken away from the productive by thievery or excessive taxation. Low productive-value people tend to be value-destroyers, viewing life as unfair and themselves as deserving of unearned or disproportionate benefits (you can easily see the outworking of this in both unprincipled “capitalism”, as well as those who make a lifestyle of government handouts. And tort lawyers and career politicians are definitely not excluded!). You can be a productive card-carrying Democrat, and a value-destroying staunch Republican voter. And vice-versa.
The classic AmeriCAN spirit is Pragmatic – that is, we tend to be a figure-it-out and get-it-done people. It’s embedded in our DNA – we tend to have a can-do, whatever works best approach, a trait which spans our political spectrum. Americans have typically possessed an instinctive drive to balance ideals and principles with realities on the ground. The entire structure of representative government assumes this give-and-take, balanced, pragmatic approach. And this is why extremists and utopians have, historically, not been able to usurp power for extended periods. Utopians of every stripe will always be among us, but these unrealistic thinkers are rarely too dangerous unless they have the levers of power or the tools of destruction. Folks with a low-pragmatic value tend to only see one side of the coin, and often are so arrogantly self-righteous they will seek to game the system for the sake of some “higher cause.” Pragmatism, for such, may only take the form of “the end justifies the means,” which is another way of saying petty tyrant instead of practical citizen.
The classic AmeriCAN spirit has always embraced Personal liberty and responsibility – meaning, “We the people…” and our individual pursuit of liberty and happiness (within the boundaries of lawful society) are at the core of culture. Our Founders ventured out on the radical idea that Americans did not need oppressive regimes or detailed, externally-imposed codes of conduct, but that we’d instead be motivated by enlightened self-interest and self-control. Most people on the planet have never known such an astonishing foundation, which is why so many flee to come to these shores. Every employer covets high p-value people on this axis! Citizens low on this p-value trade off individual freedom for the false security of some form of collective leveling, where carrying the load to better one’s lot in life is cast off in favor of raiding someone else’s camp, and whining about being a victim.
The classic AmeriCAN spirit is Pluralistic – that is, we believe that we are enriched by people of various backgrounds who legally and willingly take on the mantle of American citizenship, and embrace our (historical, current, and evolving) culture – even contributing to it. Unlike many nations of the world, where privilege and power reside only with those of specific family and ethnic backgrounds, our ideal as a nation (which we have NOT always lived up to) is to be blind to external characteristics, and to value any and all who contribute and live lawfully among us. The opposite of this is inflaming divisions among us by constantly agitating about real or perceived oppression, or, in those most extreme form (like a theocracy), seeking to impose some alien form of uniformity, with stonings reserved for those who won’t conform. This is at the heart of our enduring friction with elements of the Muslim world – we have utterly incompatible worldviews. Those who want to impost a mono-culture with a fixed set of beliefs will always be at war with the American spirit.
The classic AmeriCAN spirit is Pious – by which I mean, this nation was founded, by our European forefathers, on the basis of religious principles and religious liberties. Anyone who has access to historical materials and our founding documents has to be willfully blind to miss this – and while we’ve never been a uniform people as to the content of religious belief (yes, we had Christians, Deists, Rationalists, and others among our forefathers), and we are a nation that does not require a religious litmus test, the indisputable fact is that Americans have always been recognized for their general, if not universal, piety. Yes, we’ve always had “believers” and “unbelievers” of every stripe, but the pious and the not-so-pious are not stoned here. America has a very unique flavor of religious tolerance, and it’s not abandonment of one’s chosen form or belief or disbelief to recognize the role that piety and tolerance has played in our culture. The divisions occur when low piety-value folks seek to commit a form of secular intolerance by actively denying the rights of others to practice their religion or even have it culturally recognized, out of some arrogant form of elitism (and, by the way, any oppressive form of civil intolerance for those that don’t share a certain form of religious belief is also a violation of American-style piety). The AmeriCAN’T spirit is not rejection of forms of religion for oneself – it’s active suppression of religious expression for others.
Finally, the classic AmeriCAN spirit is Patriotic – by which I mean here a personal pride for, confidence in, appreciation of, and attachment to one’s country, including a glad acknowledgment of its unique strengths and a sober assessment of its weaknesses. This type of patriotism is rooted in a grateful sense of blessing, and, in the case of the United States, includes (in high p-value folks) a sense of what is generally referred to as “American exceptionalism” – not some arrogant notion that American people are somehow inherently better than others (a nonsense idea), but that the American experiment includes numerous positive values that bear healthy fruit and are objectively superior to the systems of governance and social structure that mark many less fortunate lands. It is fully American to be self-critical with an eye to improvement – that is both intelligent common sense and patriotic. Ignoring all that is good while continually talking national trash really isn’t. A low-p value citizen on this part of the scale will tend to feel somehow guilty and uncomfortable with our privileged position among nations, and may try to defend the fiction that national differences do not carry moral or cultural weight and value (while, of course, voting with their feet to remain in the land of freedom and plenty). The AmeriCAN’T spirit here isn’t questioning our direction or holding our leaders to account – it’s holding up a middle finger continuously to the nation at large, and seeking to bring it down.
Those are the six “p-values” I’ve managed to distill down over the months – maybe you can think of others. By and large, the AmeriCAN spirit is marked by a confident positivism – a steady assurance that those perspectives which marked the launch of the American experiment really don’t need a major overhaul. The AmeriCAN’T spirit is more tied up with what we aren’t, can’t, shouldn’t, didn’t, and mustn’t, and may be more inclined to measure our nation, not by its own ideals, but by the standards and expectations of those outside its borders.
If we were to turn it into a personal assessment scale (and let’s skip trying to place numerical values!), someone’s p-scale might look like this made-up sample on the right. And so we see that it’s not a simple recipe of “left-right” / “liberal-conservative”, but there are going to be areas of common values, and areas of divergence. The major cultural divide is among those whose p-values diverge greatly on multiple levels.
Now, by portraying these two spirits in this fashion, I am not saying that those with a measure of AmeriCAN’T cynicism in their bloodstream have no sense of appreciation for some American values; nor am I implying that those who possess a good bit of AmeriCAN spirit are incapable of critical thought, or acknowledging what is wrong with America. But there tends to be a basic outlook animating these spirits; America’s founding principles and documents and identity and traditions are essentially good and worthy of preservation (and even extension), vs. the gnawing perspective that traditional America needs to be seriously overhauled into the image of something less…American.
As Americans, we expect to differ on many ideas and beliefs, and we seek both reasoned discourse and representative governing structures to move the cultural needle in accordance with our convictions. But…the real danger, for all Americans, is extremists - those of any stripe who despise personal liberty, seek to overturn constitutional structures, and impose whatever set of beliefs on others without regard for the rule of law and the American spirit.
There are many implications that come out of this AmeriCAN <–> AmeriCAN’T continuum, and the p-value elements that make it up. Let me just briefly highlight one. Do you have a hard time understanding the appeal of conservative talk radio? Here, in two summary paragraphs, are some core perspectives that drive it:
There’s a combustible mix on the dance floor when those who (at core) deny personal liberty, and overthrow sensible pragmatism for a utopian view, propose to waltz with those who have surrendered true American pluralism and patriotism. When zealots meet an angst-ridden and tentative people, then every form of extremism is invited to the table. When the AmeriCAN spirit is displaced by the AmeriCAN’T perspective, then the ability to say “This is really stupid!” begins to be lost. That’s because the low p-value people have been given the dictionary, and allowed to define themselves as smart and everyone else as dumb and old-fashioned. Which is why those who stand up for classic AmeriCAN values are regularly drawn and quartered in the AmeriCAN’T media machine. Can’t tolerate those kind of traditional values in our pluralistic society, after all!!
You see, not all extremists come with a turban and a bomb. Many cross the border of our souls with words and a guilt trip. They plant IEDs – Improvised Extreme Declarations – to maim reasoned discussion. They harp on fear and grievances, and display a readiness to impose their will via intimidation or unprincipled judicial activism. And given the choice of ramming a radical agenda down your throat or respecting your freedom, guess what comes out on top?
Now, whatever you may feel about the accuracy or tone of what’s depicted above, the driving force behind the AmeriCAN revival is this: a profound fear of the erosion of freedom because radicals (not just people with different political views along the p-value scale, but extremists) are increasingly pulling the levers of power and seeking – unrealistically – to re-shape that which has been handed down by our forefathers. If you don’t grasp the deep concern and anger of people who aren’t all that enamored with the spirit of the ’60’s, this is your key to understanding it.
Furthermore, people who hold to classic American values profoundly resent being portrayed as “right-wing extremists”. Yet that is how they are depicted, over and over again – as out-of-touch rubes trying to impose their morality on an unwilling nation. I can assure you that tolerating this type of intellectual and cultural deceit does not advance the national discourse. Extremists are those that reject what America has always been about, not those who uphold it.
Across the political spectrum, there are smart, productive, freedom-loving people. We may differ on many things, but one thing we can certainly agree on – those that most endanger our society are those who run roughshod over our personal freedoms and erode the value of personal responsibility and productivity in headlong pursuit of narrow agendas that do not serve the common national good. Doesn’t matter if they are Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Independents, Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, male, female – we all stand to lose if extremists of any kind seek to undermine core American values.
That is the cultural divide we face. It’s a matter of spirit, and it’s all in the p-values. Or is it? Your thoughts? Feel free to add your perspectives in the comments; I only ask 2 things:
1. Please refrain from name-calling and shallow repetition of dumb stereotypes. We’re here to reason together.
2. If you disagree with aspects of what is written, please explain by using logical thought processes instead of being dismissively shallow and attacking the messenger.
Only abusive and spammy comments will be moderated out.
(note: for those who think the CAN…CAN’T dichotomy may be a bit simplistic, I agree – as do a couple of my early advisor/reviewers. I spent many hours trying to come up with something simple, catchy, and reasonably accurate, and that’s the best I could conjure up!)