Big changes are coming to politics in America. Here’s why

Connor Wood

Tug of War

Because I lack a television at home and was unable to watch Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos premier on Fox this weekend,* I find myself in need of another subject for this week’s Science On Religion article. Here’s one: It is, unfortunately, an election year. Already, newspapers and columnists are greedily discussing the likelihoods for this November’s outcomes, with perhaps more energy devoted to the unpleasant possibilities than the pleasant ones (depending on how each publication or writer evaluates these things). As always, citizens across the country will rally around tribal identities and partisan allegiances, and our inboxes will positively flood with emails from people who Want Our Money. But in the coming years, I foresee some big shifts in the alliances that hold together our current political and intellectual cultures. Changes are coming. Let me help you get ready for them.

First, libertarians and social conservatives are heading for divorce. Leah Libresco, reporting on this year’s CPAC convention, described Republican libertarians as mostly dismissive of the perspectives of social conservatives. This isn’t surprising; as I’ve written elsewhere, libertarians do not hold values that are compatible with social conservatism. Social conservatism is about using traditions and rituals to knit tight, interdependent communities together in ways that don’t require a lot of energy. Libertarianism is fundamentally opposed to this kind of in-person communitarianism, prioritizing instead the individual freed from social obligations. Partly, this difference is mediated by cognitive styles (which I’ve also written about recently) – libertarians exhibit a cognitive profile that is much more similar to liberals than to conservatives, in that both liberals and libertarians tend to have more analytic processing styles, while conservatives have more holistic styles.

And a similar relationship has been found between libertarian and conservative morality. NYU psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that conservatives and liberals differ significantly in how they process moral scenarios. For conservatives, five major cognitive instincts are involved in making moral decisions, including instincts aimed at preserving authority structures, maintaining standards of purity and sanctity, and ensuring loyalty to the group. Liberals, meanwhile, only emphasize two moral instincts: fairness and the prevention of harm to others. The three instincts that conservatives retain but liberals ignore – authority, sanctity, and group loyalty – are all, according to Haidt, aimed at keeping groups knitted together. Guess where libertarians fit on this scale? Well, actually, they place relatively little emphasis on any of the moral sentiments. But they place even less on the three “conservative” ones – making them much more similar to liberals than to conservatives.

Clark Ruper, a columnist for the libertarian website Cato Unbound, is at the forefront of the debate about the relationship between economic neoliberal libertarianism and social conservatism (a relationship he calls “fusionism”). In an essay last year (in which, full disclosure, he cited one of my own blog posts), Ruper pointed out that

libertarians and modern liberals share an ideological ancestry, both tracing our roots to the classical liberal tradition of Locke, Hume, Smith, Mill, and others.

Ruper went on to explain that the tension between libertarianism and social traditionalism

is the same core conflict between a holistic worldview that emphasizes tradition against a more analytic worldview that prioritizes the individual.

Meanwhile, on the other end of what we currently, and probably incorrectly, think is our national political spectrum, Ruper’s same observation could apply with equal aplomb. Unless Democratic Party leaders do some quick thinking and grab the wheel in the next decade, their ship will run aground on the shoals of massive cultural dissonance. Serious tensions are already subtly building up between the social and economic liberals at the left wing of the party and the more communitarian and religious minorities and immigrants who form so much of its base. While the situation isn’t yet quite as serious as that within the current Republican alliance, it could easily become dire unless someone in charge pays attention, and soon.

Again, the salient issue is cosmopolitan individualism versus traditionalist collectivism. A bit like elements in a centrifuge,† the Democratic Party today is being strained out into a highly educated, affluent, more secular and more liberal faction and a more moderate, more religious, and less affluent faction. The latter group counts many African-Americans, Latinos, and immigrants – groups that have traditionally been highly religious. If the left wing of the Democrat Party continues to gain ascendency, its relatively secular, individualistic social modus operandi will almost certainly begin to alienate these more traditionalist constituencies, much as it did to working-class whites a generation and a half ago.

A communitarian** theory of religion explains this uncomfortable dynamic: less-privileged groups are often more religious because religion is the tool that creates in-person communities most efficiently, with minimum cognitive overhead – allowing people without a lot of free time or extra energy on their hands to focus most on what matters in life. It does so by using tools like ritual, evocative symbols, and established traditions to ensure that everyone fulfills their obligations to the collective and to each other. It also outsources structural and meta-ethical decisions to tradition in order to free up believers’ mental space for more immediate (especially relational) concerns. Religion, then, is not the only way of forming community – not by a long shot. But it is almost certainly the most efficient way of forming robust, reliable in-person communities. And in-person communities are what make life – physical, material life, with its demands for food, resources, and shelter – possible for people who don’t have privileged access to large-scale economic systems.

This is why, as I’ve written before, it takes tremendous subsidies coming from such large-scale systems to make individualism – of either the supposedly conservative, libertarian kind or the liberal variety – tenable. Individualism, which both liberals and libertarians value so highly, does not exist outside wealthy democracies. Even within such democracies, it is usually limited to those groups with most access to education and economic resources. And because of this, many of the traditionalists and social conservatives who reject individualism do so, in part, because individualism would be an utterly disastrous bet for themselves and their families.

On both sides of this story, individualism and liberty are in dire tension with communitarianism, constraint, and tradition. (In fact, this tension is possibly the single most ubiquitous theme in all of world literature.) The political alliances that we have known in the US for over a generation are groaning painfully in reaction to these tensions. The current conservative coalition is much closer to a breakup than the liberal one, but the same tensions run through both. Unless both parties successfully, and equitably, work out their relationships to the unsexy questions of collectivism and tradition, the American political landscape may be on the verge of a major shift.


* If lacking a TV makes me a hipster, that’s a price I’m more than willing to pay for still not knowing who Kim Kardashian actually is.

† A centrifuge composed of rampant economic polarization, geographic self-sorting patterns, and stray episodes of the Daily Show.

** Read: Durkheimian.