The world has long been awash in enough nuclear weapons to destroy every living thing on the planet. During the cold war, this grim reality had a name: mutually assured destruction. Rational actors knew they had to avoid reducing the globe to the few cockroaches that might survive and prosper, with knowledge that in a million years we’d be back on track. The nukes stayed in their silos.
Today’s cultural nukes should stay in their silos, too. There are multiple fronts in the rapidly warming domestic cold war. Florida is taking on Disney. This latest absurdity follows barely contained battles over educational curricula, assault weapons, abortion and policing.
Mass shootings are almost all a version of “suicide by cop” but also causing pain to others in some form of personal or political payback. None of this is a solution to anything unless, of course, destruction itself is the solution.
These are microcosms of the ongoing societal tragedy, played out on a national stage by political actors and their media choruses, saying a lot and signifying nothing good. The appeal to hurt the other is driving the political trains headed at each other. Nobody’s blinking yet.
The idea of destroying society has always had an appeal. It’s biblical. “There is a time to tear down and a time to build up.” Tearing down has real consequences, and the building up is incredibly risky without a blueprint. Nihilists don’t get this. Or they just don’t care.
The differences between moralistic, individualistic and traditional political culture
So what’s this thing called political culture? In the 1960s political scientist Daniel Elazar saw an America characterized by approaches to government – moralistic, individualistic and traditional. In the individualistic political culture, the government exists mainly to keep order in the marketplace. It need not concern itself with fostering the “good society.” Rather, individual responsibility is stressed.
A moralistic political culture stresses the public good over the rights of the individual. Government enters people’s lives to ensure that desirable outcomes are achieved. This culture supports a government that spends more to provide more social services. A moralistic culture promotes diversity and equity measures and actively addresses racial disparities.
In a traditionalistic political culture, government is involved in protecting long-standing values – marriage, religion, free enterprise and gender roles – rather than expecting the government to ensure a certain level of public welfare. Elazar attributed these differences to settlement patterns, reflected today with the mountain West as more individualistic, the South as traditional and the coasts as moralistic.
The contemporary divide of woke and anti-woke
The three perspectives have morphed into two competing contemporary camps, increasingly unable to communicate and seemingly motivated more in annihilating the other than in finding commonality. The divide is increasingly urban vs. rural, college educated vs. less educated and mainstream vs. evangelical religiosity.
There are lots of ways to label ourselves and “the other.” The simplest is through the joining of much of the individualistic and traditionalist vs. the moralistic. Think of “woke” or today’s “progressives” as summarizing the new moralism, encapsulating the view that the purpose of government is to ensure equitable outcomes and to overcome what they see as the damages inflicted by the individualistic concentration on guns and obsolete attitudes toward race, sex, gender identity and abortion.
The anti-woke, or variant of “conservatives,” see the role of government as ensuring freedoms, in particular those connected to the Second Amendment, and keeping traditional values intact. They see identity politics as undermining and eventually destroying individual responsibility and American society.
These cultures have their own media and their own language. As the recent events in the Tennessee General Assembly demonstrated, they inhabited different political worlds.
Human beings are rational actors. It’s been said in many ways by many wise people that “A nation divided cannot stand.” Necessity will inevitably force difficult conversations. The inevitability of mutually assured destruction will eventually produce leaders dedicated to easing rather than stoking conflict. This is the time for building up.
William Lyons is Director of Policy Partnerships for the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy and Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Tennessee. He also served as Chief Policy Officer for Knoxville Mayors Bill Haslam, Daniel Brown and Madeline Rogero.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Howard Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy or the University of Tennessee.