Science explains why America is going off the rails

Connor Wood

Hammer man

This blog, Science On Religion, is supposed to be about scientific approaches to understanding religion. But it’s been hard to focus on science recently, when my country – the United States – might be entering the first stages of longterm political disintegration. So I thought I’d write about American society and our current sociopolitical situation – which, of course, centrally includes religion. (In fact, I’d say it’s pretty much impossible to understand society without understanding religion.) Foreign readers, don’t feel left out: unfortunately, what happens in the United States in the coming years will definitely affect you. 

So: why are politics in the U.S. so messed up? Why are we in genuine danger of electing Donald Trump, a demagogue Catholic leaders have (correctly) called “manifestly unfit to be president,” to the highest office in the land? As usual, the scientific study of culture and religion helps shed light on the turmoil.

A lot of the current scientific study of religion is focused on the question of whether religion helps society to bond and function. As I discussed in my recent post on the “big gods” hypothesis, a growing number of scientists think that religious rituals and beliefs are a kind of social glue that encourages people to cooperate and commit to social norms and expectations. One recent study by experimental anthropologist Martin Lange found that listening to sacred music induced religious believers to cheat less on a mathematics test. Other experiments have found that religious settings and rituals increase prosocial behavior, cooperation, and generosity – particularly for believers.

The data on religion and cooperation will continue rolling in for decades, but at this point the empirical case is pretty clear: religion actually does play a critical role in promoting cooperation within societies. Above all, religion seems to generate parochial altruism – that is, believers generally help in-group members only. (As the international section of any newspaper reminds us daily, religion’s track record at establishing ties between groups isn’t so hot.)

In other words, religion is socially adaptive but objectively amoral. It helps humans survive by helping groups function – and by defining group boundaries so that people know who to cooperate with. Without shared symbols, rituals, and emotional commitments, human groups don’t scale. Polities based purely on self-interest fall apart. Polities based on irrational commitments to shared symbols are the ones that last.

Now, let’s apply this observation to the realm of politics.

The History of American Solidarity

As nations go, the United States is unusual because it didn’t coalesce around a common ethnic identity or religion. From the beginning, the thirteen colonies attracted immigrants from England, Wales, Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. It was especially appealing for religious nonconformists like Puritans and Quakers. African slaves added to the diversity. And as the new country grew, it annexed great swathes of land ruled by French- and Spanish-speakers (stolen from American Indians). The term “melting pot” has never been quite right, but it’s always been a diverse place. How on Earth was such a ragtag assortment of ethnicities, different languages, and religious splinter groups ever going to cooperate effectively enough to become a country?

Well, we did it by forging a new shared identity, complete with new symbols. The new flag, the new songs and stories, and (let’s not forget) the new pantheon of Founding Fathers helped us see each other as members of the same enormous tribe. This is how humans work: by emotionally responding to the same shared symbols, we learn to recognize one another as confederates, and we become more willing to cooperate. To invest in the collective.

And invest we did. Flush with optimism and commitment to our shared society, Americans built a nationwide infrastructure that became the envy of the world, from railroads to bridges to sewers. We founded a network of top-flight public universities, many of which are among the world’s most prestigious research institutions today. We seemed to be able to accomplish just about anything we set our minds to.

In short, we had what historian and systems theorist Peter Turchin calls asabiya – an Arabic word meaning “group solidarity.” In a community with asabiya, everyone is willing to contribute  without being coerced. In the U.S., people were willing to invest so heavily in the nation because, for the most part, each of us felt committed to the country, and – more importantly – we were confident that everyone else felt committed, too. 

That last part is crucial. Investment in collectives doesn’t just depend on individual commitment. It depends on individuals being confident that everyone else is committed. It’s a bit like a group class project in high school. If your fellow group members are slackers, you get resentful, so you cut back on your own investment in return. The project founders. But on the rare occasions when every member of the group throws their effort into the project – when there are no free riders – then guess what? The project succeeds.

Countries and nations are basically very large group projects. And, just as in school, everyone who belongs to a country wants to make sure that others are contributing their fair share. Religious or ethnic homogeneity helps streamline this process, but in the United States we substituted a broad civic culture for ethnicity. We built up a culture of patriotism and generic but optimistic “American” identity. We developed a civil religion of national holidays, revered figures, and poetic mystique surrounding mountains and prairies. Each of these things increased people’s intrinsic motivation to invest. They increased our asabiya.

But these days, our asabiya is declining. We can’t seem to cooperate effectively enough to keep up our existing (and increasingly decrepit) infrastructure, much less commit to big, new, bold projects. Our political system is frozen by partisan fighting. Coastal liberals can’t stand to be associated with unfashionable rural people, and rural Southerners have little affection for big-city smart-alecks. As detailed in Bill Bishop’s book The Big Sort, we’re increasingly self-segregating into ideological enclaves across the nation, with political affiliations replacing older sources of communal identity like churches and clubs. Instead of feeling like we’re all on the same team, we’re seeing each other as enemies, or as incomprehensible aliens. Is it any surprise that our infrastructure – both physical and social – is falling apart?

Asabiya and Inequality

This collapse of commitment to the common good is driven, in part, by inequality. Turchin argues that national asabiya rises and falls in cycles. A society starts out with relatively low levels of inequality and high levels of emotional commitment. Everyone feels like they’re all in it together. But high levels of social solidarity make cooperation possible, which leads to economic growth. Over generations, economic growth invariably ends up concentrated in the hands of just a few people. The society becomes less equal and more polarized.

When this happens, people at the bottom of the social ladder start feeling what Nietzsche called “ressentiment,” or envy and hatred of the ruling class. It no longer feels like everyone’s on the same team, working together. If you’re a peasant or impoverished worker, investing in society starts to seem like a sucker’s bargain.

So people withdraw from the social consensus. Their feelings of loyalty and emotional commitment evaporate and wither, and they become less willing to sacrifice for the collective. The collective pool starts to shrink.

It seems pretty clear that the United States is experiencing the butt end of one of Turchin’s cycles right now. We’re ludicrously unequal, both economically and socially. We’re culturally polarized. Our levels of patriotic commitment and shared investment have dipped – especially in the youngest generation, the people the media insists on calling “Millennials.” We increasingly distrust institutions, from marriage to organized religion. Whereas in previous generations people expected to sacrifice – at least a little, maybe a lot – for the country and for their community, few people seem willing to do so now.

It’s Everyone’s Fault – Including Mine. And Yours.

The secret to understanding Donald Trump’s rise is that the inequality that’s driving the collapse of American asabiya isn’t just economic. Cultural and educational gaps are growing wider. For example, students at the most highly ranked, prestigious colleges and universities are trained to see the world in a way that’s almost completely alien to how most people see it. Their educations teach them to be fiercely individualistic, extremely analytical, and preternaturally resistant to social obligations. They see social conventions and traditions as illegitimate, usually oppressive, constraints on personal freedom. Their business professors teach them to “disrupt” and “innovate” – but never to “preserve” or “maintain.”

In this way, the most well-educated Americans set themselves off culturally and morally from the working classes who produce food, build things, and maintain the country’s physical infrastructure. Across societies, working-class folks tend to be more culturally conservative than literati. People who hang drywall for a living can’t afford to be hyper-individualistic, because manual work is fundamentally about meeting responsibilities imposed from the outside. If you “innovate” or “disrupt” too much, you’ll get canned. Period.

To put it bluntly: “disruption” is a prerogative of people who don’t owe anything to others.

See, society fundamentally depends on a bedrock of people who are willing to owe something to other people – to do things out of obligation. But economic and cultural polarization has twisted the relationship between those bedrock people and the privileged folks who depend on them, zapping social solidarity. For instance, the privileged are increasingly “fiscally conservative but socially liberal” – a fashionable combination that slams working people from both sides. Fiscal conservatism moves factories to Mexico at the drop of a dime, shredding working-class communities. Excessive social liberalism moves society’s moral goalposts to just such a position that working-class people are essentially guaranteed to be seen as Bad People or bigots – which ensures that the literati in Boston or San Francisco don’t have to feel guilty about the evisceration of working-class America.

This is the portrait of a society where asabiya is in decline. Our shared emotional commitment to the collective has been replaced by more narrow interests, and different factions of society are pitted against one another. It’s the perfect petri culture for a populist, nativist demagogue to arise and wrest power from the decent and the educated. And, voilà, it’s looking increasingly likely that we’ll get exactly that.

Recent years haven’t been all bad – our first black president is about to complete his second term. Gays and lesbians are treated like people. We’ve made progress on some fronts. Yet, as the work of moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has shown, progress isn’t just about leveling inequality and fixing injustice. It’s also about keeping the community together, about motivating investment and participation in the collective. But because the Americans with the most influence and education have mostly turned up their noses at those community-binding functions, we’re standing on very rocky ground. And, unfortunately, it’s probably about to get a lot rockier.

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