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Cultural Theory And The American Parties

I haven't posted anything of substance for a while because I've been reading stuff for my dissertation. One major topic has been the cultural theory of risk, most famously championed by Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky. In brief, they propose that there are four "ways of life" or "cultural biases" that compete to run society their way. One of their examples is early American history, when (they say) an alliance between individualists and egalitarians during the Revolution gave way to an alliance between individualists and hierarchists when the egalitarian-inspired Articles of Confederation proved unworkable. So I've been thinking about how the proposed cultural biases would map onto modern American politics -- can we describe the Democrats and Republicans as coalitions of these biases?

First, a quick overview of the theory. Cultural theory proposes that there are two dimensions of social life: group and grid. Group refers to solidarity and communalism among people. Grid refers to restrictions imposed on a person's behavior. If each of those dimensions has a high and low manifestation, we get a typology of four biases: hierarchical (high group, high grid), egalitarian (high group, low grid), individualist (low group, low grid), and fatalist (low group, high grid).

Hierarchists prefer bureaucratic structures that define a place and a duty for each person. Individualists like the free-wheeling contracts of a market-based system. Egalitarians form close-knit consensus-based sects. Fatalists figure that nothing they do really matters and just hope for a lucky break. So which of these attitudes is found in each party?

Let's start with how each party would define itself. A typical Republican view, I think, would be that the GOP is composed of individualists -- self-made men and women who rise and fall by their personal merits in the free market -- and egalitarians -- close-knit religious communities. The Democrats, they would say, are the party of hierarchists -- those who want big government to solve our problems -- and fatalists -- welfare queens and others who have adopted a victim mentality and given up on bettering themselves.

Democrats, on the other hand, would arrange things somewhat differently. They would agree that free-market-loving individualists are part of the GOP, but they would say that their coalition partners are the hierarchists -- religious conservatives who want the government to impose tightly prescribed gender roles, religious observance, etc. The Democrats would see their own party as made up of civic-minded egalitarians, fighting on behalf of the great masses pushed into fatalism by the poverty and discrimination that individualists overlook. (Douglas and Wildavsky initially proposed that these diagonal coalitions were the most common and most stable).

But things are a bit more complex than that. Many conservatives would agree with the need for well-defined roles of the type that indicate hierarchical bias -- though they generally insist on framing their argument as if they were egalitarians (look, for example, at the attempts to claim that wives submitting to husbands are not in an unequal position). Republicans also often charge the Democrats with harboring radical egalitarians (the environmental movement) as well as radical individualists (the ACLU and sexual libertarians). The Democrats would lay claim to the latter group. They would also charge that the GOP has (unjustly) gained the support of many fatalists -- the famous poor whites duped into voting against their interests.

It seems, then, that in some way each bias can be found in each party. In part this is a result of each party wanting to frame itself in a similar way. Whatever one's actual disposition, everyone seems to want to say and think that they're egalitarian or individualist, because of the resonance those lines of thought have in the overall political culture. On the other hand, nobody wants to claim the mantle of hierarchy, even though both parties make extensive use of it.

Cultural theory dwells at length on the conflict between the four cultural biases. But this overlooks the extensive competition between factions within each bias. Just because two egalitarian groups both feel intre-group solidarity doesn't mean they'll make common cause with each other against the individualists and hierarchists. Similarly, there can be competing hierarchies whose hierarchization is based on different principles and goals. The split position of the individualists is the old libertarian dilemma -- disagreement over which ally will best serve individualist ends.


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