Why Both Conservatives and Progressives Are Out of Touch With Mainstream Americans

Trust a Canadian to unearth the reason why both conservatives and liberals feel angry and under siege in America. Pollster Michael Adams, whose last book Fire & Ice explained the growing divergence of values between Americans and Canadians, now dissects the American ‘culture wars’ in a new book American Backlash and concludes that:

It’s not the values of the politically ascendant conservatives or the values of politically challenged progressives that are growing most rapidly — but the values of the 50% of America that is politically disengaged — risk-taking, thrill-seeking, fatalism, survival-of-the-fittest false Darwinism, exclusion, ostentatious consumption, and status-seeking… The values of the politically disengaged lack any sign of idealism: These Americans seem to reject both the Republican (traditional religion and values, father-led home, obedience to authority) and Democratic (gender equality, inclusion, tolerance, and personal spirituality) visions of the good life and the ideal community.

On the chart above, the 110 values surveyed (defined in the book) are plotted according to where they fall on the 2-by-2 grid. The values that have become significantly more important to Americans since 1992 are shown in bold. An acceptance of violence as inevitable, persuasive and cathartic (multiple questions were asked to get at the different aspects of this value, and the different aspects of all the values surveyed) showed the greatest increase of any of the 110 values. There has been a commensurate drop in the proportion of respondents holding many of the values that both conservatives and progressives hold dear (those in the upper left quadrant).

The book contains an interesting perspective on the Lakoffian ‘frames’ of progressives and conservatives. The conservative frame sees the values in the single vertical dimension depicted in the above chart — those at the top are highly valued, while those at the bottom are despised and often ascribed (incorrectly) to liberals. Likewise, the progressive frame sees the values in the single horizontal dimension depicted in the above chart — those at the left are highly valued, while those at the right are abhorred and often ascribed (incorrectly) to conservatives. Since the prevailing trend of values is towards the lower right, both conservatives and progressives, through their different, one-dimensional frames, see ‘America going to Hell’ — moving away from their cherished values. They’re both right, and both wrong.

Adams has accumulated an exhaustive set of data from detailed interviews with thousands of Americans over twelve years. The book explains how he digs for the underlying values, not the surface manifestations of them, and looks for significant trends and demographic differences. His findings will be controversial: Not only does he find a growing proportion of Americans disengaged, disenchanted, and fatalistic, but this small plurality is especially pronounced in young Americans of all stripes, races, regions and economic backgrounds, and is growing among older Americans. Here’s where the average American, by the most significant demographics, now places his/her values on this grid (arrows show the directional trend, where known):


As reported in his earlier book, US values are not only very different (fire and ice) from those of Canadians and Europeans (excepting the British) but diverging. The recent trend of voting Americans (towards the upper right quadrant) has favoured the conservatives, but it is dwarfed by the contrary, and more marked, fuck-it-all nihilism of the larger group of non-voting Americans, who, despite being repeatedly told the 2004 election was the most important in a generation, mostly remained indifferent to both parties’ pleas and warnings. The age and gender breakdown, shown in red dots above, suggests the trend is accelerating and is especially prevalent among young Americans — good reason for both conservatives and progressives to be very worried. The regional breakdown is interesting — the East and West coasts are far apart, with New Englanders’ values closely aligned to Canadians’, and Pacific coasters (as always) trend-setting the growing alienation and disenchantment of the nation.

Adams’ counter-intuitive assessment — that liberals and conservatives are closer in values to each other than either group is to non-voting Americans, is backed up by a lot of intriguing data in the book — such as the fact that church attendance of Americans has remained essentially unchanged for a half-century, and that independent polls consistently show that Americans have grown much more suspicious of, and indifferent to the plight of, their fellow citizens, a trend that started long before 9/11.

In the latter part of the book, Adams surprisingly seems to write off this angry and disengaged plurality and instead focuses on how progressives and conservatives can broaden their appeal among the voters who are still paying attention. Maybe my idealism is getting the better of me, but it seems to me it would be worthwhile for Adams, and for those who would rescue the disengaged from their political indifference, to delve further into what lies behind the fatalism, ostentatious consumption, thrill-seeking, and anomie (and, considering the threats of global warming, the end of oil, and overpopulation, especially what Adams calls ‘ecological fatalism’ — the widely-held view among the disengaged that the environment is beyond saving) — and fix it before it starts to tear the country’s social fabric apart. I am a little too young to remember the last wave of disengaged youth (in the 1950s, rebel without a cause years), but that might be a place to start. Youth disengagement has, on many occasions in human history, been a precursor to especially brutal exhibitions of civil and international violence. America may well be, as Adams says, “perpetually exceptional”, but when what makes it exceptional is intellectual, psychological, and emotional withdrawal on a massive scale, that sounds to me like cause for alarm. There’s a generation gap larger and more perplexing than anything we’ve seen in a half-century, and book or two in this line of investigation for someone.

Note on the graphics: I have reversed the left and right-hand labels, and positions of all segments and values on these graphics accordingly, from those shown in the book, to bring them into conformity with the accepted liberal-libertarian/ conservative-authoritarian minus/plus 2-by-2 orientation, which for some reason Adams chooses to flip. I’vedone this solely to make the graphics more intuitive.

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4 Responses to Why Both Conservatives and Progressives Are Out of Touch With Mainstream Americans

  1. Rayne says:

    Too much to say to post here. I’ll send you an email.

  2. That’s a whole bunch to digest Dave! For what it may be worth, I was reminded of the difference between the Canadian “life, liberty and security of the person” and our American “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Despite Adam’s conclusions I see an enormous amount of confusion around me about what “life” means, how much “liberty” we can stand, what “happiness” is, and how it ought to be “pursued”. I suppose what bothers me about the charts above is that they present a picture when, in fact, what is happening is a process — a full-blown crisis of values that neither political party seems capable of grasping. Maybe because the problem is not political but spiritual.

  3. Great post. I see so much in this assessment that rings true. I think it’s all rooted in one form of escapism or another. TV is partly to blame, making people think they should all live like the people in glossy magazines, along with politicians who refuse to admit things might be going badly for anyone in the country. (I’m reminded of Nero fiddling.)

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks all. Dick: If you’re sure the problem is spiritual, then you know the 51% non-voting, agnostic, disengaged proportion of North Americans much better than I do. My sense is that it’s psychological, an illness that spirituality alone will not be sufficient to ‘cure’.

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