In this very strange election cycle, pundits and politicians alike are at pains to explain the cause of its strangeness, and most have concluded that it is the anger of the American people at the political establishment and the status quo of government that accounts for the astonishing inability of the Republican Party to offer a plausible nominee for the presidency, the weirdly persistent appeal of Bernie Sanders’ repackaged socialism to millions of millennials, and the bored cynicism with which Hillary Clinton’s inevitable candidacy has been greeted.
By these accounts, the voters’ anger is rooted in the economy and its overly leisurely recovery from the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression. On the right, the hope is that Trump’s vulgar egocentrism can destabilize the status quo and deliver us back to a halcyon if mythological past where every able-bodied man or woman could get a good job and America threw its military weight around with well-intentioned abandon. On the left, the hope is that Sanders’ warmed-over populism and cranky hectoring could shame the elites into bestowing still greater entitlements on the multitudes, the national debt be damned. And Clinton – poor centrist Hillary – occupies that awful twilight world of old-school politics, where all she can offer is a pallid incrementalism, and no one has the patience for that.
None of this accounts adequately for our current plight, however. The bizarre political landscape that we’ve created has deeper roots than mere economic discontent. Those roots reach down into the culture wars that have dogged American politics for more than a generation, in which two large factions of the voting public have gone their separate ways, never to be reunited by mere politics.
Forget right and left, liberal and conservative, with all the baggage those labels bring with them. The division in the body politic springs from two fundamentally different value systems.
On one hand we have Rationalists, who believe that, whatever awaits us after death, here in the present we have only ourselves to blame for most of our predicaments, and only ourselves to rely on for solutions to them. These voters, while they may be regular churchgoers, are deeply pragmatic and thoroughly secular in their view of policy issues, and hence measure them by the criterion expressed by the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham: what will produce the greatest good for the greatest number? Communal good takes precedence over individual whim or personal belief in these voters’ view. Anything that stands in the way of solving a communal problem – religious doctrine, tradition, individual eccentricity – is held suspect by these voters and must justify itself on the grounds of rational pragmatism, not absolutist belief. Rationalists are skeptical even of historical precedent, believing with Emerson that “no man will read history aright who thinks that what was done in a remote age, by men whose names have resounded far, has any deeper sense than what he is doing today.” Hence, rather than deify the Founding Fathers, they take the Constitution with a grain of salt, as the work of men of their time and place.
Rationalist voters are activist rather than fatalist, relativist rather than absolutist. They believe human experience to be malleable rather than preordained. They are communal rather than tribal, globalists rather than nationalists. They cherish individual liberty up to the point where it infringes on the well-being of the next person, and they see the work of government as a continual balancing of individual liberty against the goal of the greatest good for the greatest number.
What these values boil down to in policy terms is that Rationalists favor gun control but don’t mind gay marriage; they oppose capital punishment but not abortion; they see the need for tax regimes that burden people proportionally with their means, and for communal amelioration of individual misfortune and stupidity; they recognize that a continental republic requires a “big government,” but want it to remain solvent; they are skeptical of the efficacy of military force and sympathetic to diplomacy; they find patriotism beside the point and moralism a distraction from work that needs to be done.
On the other hand we have Spiritualists, who believe that God or nature has already dictated the answers to most of the policy questions of the day, that individual action, albeit pre-ordained, determines human endeavor, and that the past is always prelude. They believe in a natural law that supersedes human law and operates regardless of Bentham’s criterion of the greatest good for the greatest number. In these voters’ view, individual preference, guided by these higher principles, must always take precedence over the collective good, because they believe that out of the exercise of those individual rights will emerge a good yet higher than what any government could devise.
They are fatalist rather than activist, absolutist rather than relativist, tribal rather than communal. Many societal problems are inherent in the human condition, they believe, and to try to ameliorate them is wasteful or counterproductive. They see the Founding Fathers as secular saints and the Constitution as sacred text. They see the work of government as the promotion and protection of individual freedom.
Hence, in policy terms, Spiritualists oppose gun control and believe that God forbids gay marriage and abortion, but permits capital punishment (God is vengeful, after all). They regard homosexuality and transsexuality as a denial of nature and God’s plan. They regard big government as an inherent threat to individual liberty, and hence to the collective good that they believe will spring naturally from its exercise. For them, taxes are always too high, as they infringe on individual liberty, and they are always too progressive, because they believe that individual economic success should be rewarded, not penalized. They project tribalism from the personal to the national, and hence are ardent patriots and proponents of American exceptionalism and military intervention.
What could possibly resolve these two points of view? Their debate is as old as the Enlightenment.
Take the recent litigation brought by an order of nuns called the Little Sisters of the Poor (was ever a plaintiff more sympathetically named?), challenging not the requirement of the Affordable Care Act that employee insurance plans cover contraceptive drugs, including certain abortifacients, but the exception to that requirement already provided to employers with religious scruples about it, such as the Sisters. This exception allows such employers to “opt-out” and cause a third party to provide the mandated insurance coverage for contraceptives. But the Sisters complain that even filling out the form required to opt out makes them complicit in delivering contraceptives to their employees, which offends their religious beliefs and – more important from a legal perspective – unduly burdens their free exercise of religion under the Constitution and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (a law with a fascinating history stemming from a case in which Native Americans were prevented from being employed because they’d used peyote in their religious rituals).
Needless to say, the Spiritualists among us side with the Little Sisters on this point, and the Rationalists stand in awe that anyone would spend the time and money to fight over such things. (One can imagine the meeting in which someone else’s lawyers explained to the Little Sisters why they should be outraged by the ACA’s opt-out procedure.) No one, after all, is requiring the Little Sisters to have an open bin of birth control pills in their convent, nor that they inform or encourage their employees about contraception. The issue is whether their employees who obviously don’t share the Sisters’ religious scruples and want contraceptives will have them covered by insurance, or whether they will have to jump through additional hoops to obtain such coverage. This is spiritualism of a very high order. The employees in question will no doubt exercise their individual choice on the matter regardless of the Sisters’ position, or they already adhere to the Sisters’ doctrinal views, in which case the issue is moot. If individual choice is the ultimate good, let it rule, say the Rationalists. Do your work as missionaries of the Church and convert those Pill-popping employees to good Catholic doctrine, don’t waste your time in courtrooms parsing the degrees of your doctrinal purity.
Spiritualist views similarly animate recent accounts of bakeries and other establishments refusing to provide cakes and other accoutrements for gay weddings on the grounds that such refusal is an expression of the proprietor’s religion. Rationalists ask: In what possible way is a commercial transaction, in which an object is sold by one person to another in a place open to the public for that purpose, an expression of religious belief? If the gay couple in question wanted to buy a wedding cake to throw it against a wall, would that have compromised the proprietor’s beliefs? Presumably not, yet this suggests that religious merchants should be engaging in far more due diligence into their customers’ intentions for their products than is currently the norm. Rationalists would welcome this sort of scrutiny to be applied to, say, gun sales. But bakeries? Rationalists say: do your thing with intention and love, then let it go and let others do theirs. No harm, no foul. (All sports fans are Rationalists.) Spiritualists say: your desires take the back seat to my beliefs, and you must allow me to act out their consequences even if those consequences conflict with your desires.
Take also the recent kerfuffle over a North Carolina law that, in addition to overturning previously legislated anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people, requires that in government buildings individuals may only use restrooms that correspond to their birth gender. One of the arguments put forth in defense of this law is that little girls might be preyed upon in bathrooms by adult men pretending for the occasion to be women. Leave aside the questions of how such a law is to be enforced, or why a gradeschool girl (or boy, for that matter) would be alone in a public restroom in the first place. Are there any known instances of these bathroom sex predators in drag? None that can be cited (though the hypothetical suggests possible pathology on the part of those posing it). So it comes down to the fact that transgender persons are an affront to a higher law, one that can’t be legislated but whose consequences perhaps can be. Rationalists see this as a pointless fight over a non-problem; Spiritualists see it as a symbolic defense of a cherished norm.
Then there is the issue of gun control, which the recent atrocity in Orlando has once again brought to the fore. Rationalists see this as a relatively simple question of limiting access to military-grade weaponry for the protection of the public. Spiritualists see the right of an individual to own a gun — no matter its grade or purpose — as a Constitutional absolute that must not be infringed in any degree, presumably as a hedge against some imagined scenario where that individual might wish to rise up against his government. For Rationalists, a gun is a dangerous object like any other, one whose ownership and use we regulate. For Spiritualists, a gun is an emblem of individual freedom, untouchable as religion.
Is there a politician on the horizon who has a hope of reconciling these disparate world views? Not currently. Trump falls outside either belief system, making it up as he goes along. Hillary is a thorough Rationalist who can only offend Spiritualist standards. She will likely win, but only because Rationalists tend to congregate on the coasts, where the Electoral College assigns the most votes. For a bit longer, we will probably remain a predominantly Rationalist nation, but the underlying schism in values will remain.