In its February 2013 edition, First Things magazine reports on the results of a three-year investigation conducted by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. The study breaks down family cultures into four categories: the Faithful, the Engaged Progressives, the Detached, and the American Dreamers. The latter two categories pretty much accept the status quo, with children of the Detached shaped by popular culture in a mindset of helplessness, and the American Dreamers somewhat more positive, but they want their children to succeed as success is defined by others.
The Faithful and the Engaged Progressives are much more assertive, raising their children on their own terms, each harboring “well-formed, confident, and comprehensive worldviews”. Both categories are approximately of equal size, with the Faithful constituting 20% of American parents and the Engaged Progressives 21%.
These two cultures represent strikingly opposite worldviews. One example: 91% of the Faithful reject the view that “as long as we don’t hurt others, we should be able to live however we want”; over 50% of the Engaged Progressives affirm this view and 83% agree that we should be tolerant of “alternative lifestyles”. The Faithful are overwhelmingly Republican; Engaged Progressives are Democrat by a four to one margin. And these people vote. You get the idea.
The animosity between these two categories is clearly evident in the study. The Faithful are alienated from public institutions and the dominant cultural forces at work in our society, and they largely reject the forms of social authority that are dominated by the Engaged Progressives. And for all their talk of tolerance, the Engaged Progressives are fundamentally hostile to the Faithful.
So the culture war continues, showing no signs of abatement, and with these two well-armed and committed antagonists we’re talking about over 40% of the parental guidance of the country, with the balance either totally gullible or in the “whatever” column. Clearly, there is a serious divide between the two dominant family cultures in the definition of “the good life” and, even though I want my side to prevail and very much believe that it is essential to our future prosperity, I suppose this divide is to be expected in our exceptional country founded on a proposition (see the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence). And I’m OK with that, as long as we continue to be committed to the proposition.
The worldview of the Engaged Progressives, with plenty of help from the Detached and the American Dreamers, won the last election by a narrow majority, at least on a national basis, and they are about their objective of “Europeanizing” the American political regime. They know that their chief obstacle to this mission is the traditional American family as represented by the Faithful, to which they have been hostile since the beginning of the progressive movement a century ago. This is the wedge issue that is playing out today in the same sex marriage debate and before the Supreme Court, the decision on which will have ramifications far beyond the “right to marriage”.
The very notion that this issue is debatable is problematic for the Faithful. As David Brooks has written, people everywhere have entered into what we might call the “age of possibility” and have become intolerant of any arrangement that might close off their personal options or autonomy. I have previously written about Michael Sandel’s view of the “procedural republic”, a regime governed by people with full autonomy, with no encumbrances of tradition or culture, no intolerance, and no judgmentalism, with all moral judgments bracketed from public deliberation. This is the opposite of the American founders’ concept of civic republicanism, and Brooks himself believes that this age of possibility is based on a misconception. He writes: “People are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice–commitments to family, God, craft, and country. The surest way people bind themselves is through the family”. This is the worldview of the Faithful and we allow it to dissipate at our peril.