Two Cultures

Writing in 1998 the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb predicted the victory of Donald Trump eighteen years later. Well, not exactly. But her analysis in One Nation, Two Cultures  does provide an explanation for the surprising results of the recent presidential election. The “two cultures” of which she speaks are the dominant culture and a dissident culture. The former consists of roughly 60% of the population, including the “elite” (her word) who help shape and mold opinion, college professors, journalists, certain bloggers I know of, together with the vast majority in this country of those who lean toward a more liberal take on such things as science, sex, marriage, religion, and morality — which they regard as relative.  The latter consists of a polyglot group clustered around what might be called “moral issues,” issues such as abortion, the Bible, sex in the schools, prayer in the schools, the sanctity of marriage, and the like — not to mention patriotic values, which they regard as closely related to religious values, issues such as respect for the flag, support of the military, and pride in our country. Also, they are uniformly critical of the public school system which, they feel, has too long been controlled by the dominant culture. In Himmelfarb’s words:

“[It is]not only fundamentalists who feel disenfranchised; so too, does a much larger and more varied sector of the population, including many people who are not notably religious but who have strong religious concerns.

“Like the dominant culture, the dissident culture exhibits a wide spectrum of belief and behavior, ranging from a rigid adherence to traditional values only occasionally violated in practice, to a more lenient set of values more often violated. But even the laxer representatives of this dissident culture tend to subscribe to a more “austere” moral code, and to do so more conscientiously than their counterparts in the dominant culture. They do not think of sexual morality as a “personal matter” that can be “boxed off,” as is now said, from the rest of their lives. Nor do they think of religion as a “private affair” that should not encroach upon the “public square.” Nor are they apt to engage in such circumlocutions as “Who am I to say….?” or “Personally… but….”

“At one end of the spectrum of this dissident culture, paralleling the “elites” of the dominant culture, is the religious right, a hard core of determined and articulate activists. Although this group receives most of the public attention, it is only a small part of this culture, for beyond it is a much larger and more varied group of evangelicals, as well as traditionalists another churches — mainline Protestants, conservative Catholics, Mormons, and some Orthodox Jews. There is also a growing number of people who have no particular religious affiliation or disposition — but who have storing moral convictions that put them at odds with the dominant culture.”

The two cultures are neither monolithic nor static, she is careful to point out. There are folks who identify with values in both camps. And people change from one culture to another from time to time.

Yet “In general there is a common set of mind, a confluence of values and beliefs, that locates most people, most of the time, for most purposes, within one or the other culture.”

Of interest is the fact that a large portion of the dissident culture, who generally regard themselves not only as “God-fearing” but also as true “patriots” are very much involved in public, and especially political, affairs. 68 percent of the dissidents strongly believe that “our system of government is the best possible system,” as compared with 53 percent of the whole. And while many of those in the dominant culture are disenchanted with politics, prefer a Third Party candidate in major elections,  or are even too busy to vote, the vast majority of the members of the dissident culture are actively involved in politics. A great many of them have both wealth and position — which explains their presence in the Electoral College and their subsequent unwillingness to switch their vote to Hillary Clinton despite the fact that she had won the popular election by nearly three million votes. Those in this group are involved and they are well positioned to exert political pressure beyond their numbers.

This all helps to explain how a man like Donald Trump won the presidency. He tapped into the deep well of resentment and frustration that characterize the dissident culture and gave them a voice and credibility. It is no wonder that the dissidents refuse to listen to criticism from the dominant culture, especially the media, since their Man is here to deliver them to the promised land where many, if not all, of their hopes and dreams will be realized. After generations of seeing the dominant culture hold sway over this country they now see themselves with a tight hold on the reins of power. And their commitment to this man runs as deep as their resentment of the dominant culture — so much so that if and when Donald Trump is impeached there will be a very loud hue and cry indeed. The culture war which Himmelfarb regarded in her books as a mere metaphor for the rift between the two cultures, will become an actual war with casualties.





Most Interesting

As one who has pondered the question why so many would follow a figure like Donald Trump I found this analysis most interesting and pass it along for your consideration. It is important, I think, for us to understand the “Trump Phenomenon” as I have called it, since it seems we are now playing a totally different political game. The rules have changed and new players have emerged, many of them rather frightening.

In June, not long after Donald Trump wrapped up the Republican nomination, an unusual book by a first-time author named J.D. Vance entered the national conversation. Hillbilly Elegy was, in part, a captivating memoir — of an Appalachian childhood in an impoverished family he describes (with some exceptions) as shiftless and dysfunctional, and his improbable escape to Yale Law School and a business career in Silicon Valley. But it was also an exercise in explaining the milieu in which he was raised to the people who were now his peers — to whom a poor white boy from Kentucky is a being almost as exotic as (and considerably less sympathetic than) a Somali herdsman or a Bolivian peasant. And as one result, Vance has become the go-to source to answer the question that has echoed at cocktail parties all year from East Hampton to West Hollywood: What do those people see in Donald Trump?

And the answer is, they see a reflection of their own rage at a privileged world that is leaving them behind, that sneers at their parochial loyalties, their lack of education and refusal to take part in the global rat race. Disputing much of the commentary on the 2016 election, Vance told Yahoo News, “I resist the idea that this is a reaction to economic dislocation. What’s really going on is if you take rising rates of divorce and the heroin epidemic and everything else, there’s this sense of malaise. … Trump is the first person to recognize that there’s a lot of opportunity to exploit people’s frustration and sense of alienation.”

This message defies traditional left-right analysis: Vance is equally dismissive of the economic determinism of liberals and the “culture of poverty” rhetoric from the right, usually directed at minority families in big cities. Trump, Vance has written, brings out the worst in both sides; he “inflames the tribalism of the Right” and “encourages the worst impulses of the Left.”

“My sense is that most of the people that are voting for him at this point — it’s not really about him, it’s [a] cultural protest vote,” he told Yahoo in mid-October. “At the end of the day, we really have two cultures: the culture that I grew up in and the culture I encountered when I went to Yale Law School. My sympathetic view to where I grew up is that it’s not totally unjustified to say the elites of the country are really disconnected from or condescending to the pejorative ‘flyover country.’ It doesn’t give a lot of room for people to switch their vote to Hillary Clinton.” — By Jerry Adler

With all due respect to Mr. Vance there may be a sound reason why the “elites” (among whom I must include myself) have looked down on the “other culture.” They are not only angry and frustrated, they are also armed and dangerous. But, in the end, it is imperative that we try to understand one another if we are to live together and in this regard I thank Mr. Vance for this insight into another world.