It has been almost two weeks since an important US presidential election, and there is a lot to reflect on. Some are talking about an historic change in the American electorate. Some are speaking of demographics. Some are telling us that America is still a polarized nation, and that change will be hard.
I share many of those thoughts and reflections, but have another important observation to add to the mix as well. What struck me about the election can be captured in a simple phrase.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people, including political pundits, talk about worldviews as I have in the last two weeks. I live in a country that is divided not just by left and right, liberal and conservative, but by multiple, distinct worldviews that inform people’s thinking about everything and which frame reality in different ways. In the election, some of those worldviews were rejected by the majority of Americans, especially those that involve pre-rational, anti-science attitudes, and views of women’s issues that involve too much of both.
Worldviews are the critical tectonic plates that underlie so much of what we see in our political and social lives. In my recent book, Evolutionaries, I spent several chapters exploring worldviews, what they are, how they are created, how they evolve and how understanding them is a key to global politics. Understanding the evolution of worldviews helps us understand not just surface issues, but the deeper dynamics of how things are changing, or staying the same, in the subterranean corridors of our collective psyche. So worldviews matter, both nationally and globally. Indeed, how we negotiate the multiple worldviews of our global political landscape matters a great deal.
One conclusion I think we can draw from the election is that the socially conservative, traditional worldview that we have all come to know and love over the last 30 years is beginning its long, slow march toward decline and irrelevance in the U.S. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying that the Republican Party is in decline. That would be a rash conclusion, and one I would certainly doubt. But it will be going through a period of transition. For the last few decades, the socially conservative, often religious worldview embodied in the Ralph Reed’s, Pat Robertson’s and Jerry Falwell’s of the world has been a kingmaker, capable of swinging elections, capable of striking real fear into politicians on both sides of the aisle. It has been a national force, not a majority, but a force nonetheless. I’m sure it will continue to be powerful and relevant, but its national power is waning. And its days as full blown Kingmaker in the presidential election may well be over.
Let’s remember how this wing of the Republican Party began. It important to see that it emerged, in its contemporary form, in the 70’s as a reaction to the socially liberal, “postmodern” worldview that burst onto the scene in the 60’s and 70’s. Civil rights, women’s rights, environmental justice, the peace movement — remember the moral currency they had in those heady days of protest and newfound progressive power. The that power was temporary, and by the end of the 70’s, that movement, what I am broadly calling postmodernism had created it’s own counter-reaction in the culture, and the powerful new, united, socially conservative, reactionary wing of the Republican Party was born. Energized and optimized for elections, and outraged by the what it saw as the excesses of the progressive currents of the 60’s and 70’s that were undermining the country’s “moral” majority”, it helped carry Reagan to victory and begin to inform the agenda of the party for years to come. And just as most movements are largely defined by their birth story, this one was defined by its reactionary nature, by what it was against, by what it wanted to stay the same, by where it didn’t want the country to go, by what it didn’t want the government to do. The way you won national elections was to play to that base, to energize it, and to pick the issues that highlighted the excesses of the 60’s and 70’s and pin those on your opponent. Carter was a weak peacenik. Dukakis lacked any sense of law and order. Clinton was an indulgent boomer with no morals who probably inhaled. Hillary was a radical, militant feminist. Gore was an anti-capitalist environmentalist. Kerry was a flip flopping relativist. The point wasn’t to be perfectly (or even partially) true. It was to conflate your opponent with those scary postmodernists and their anti-American, dangerous progressive agenda.
By the 1980’s the progressive agenda that had enjoyed some real political weight during the 70’s was fading as an effective rallying force, even as the country itself continued to shift and change beneath the surface. In fact, just about all of the major social and environmental legislation so dear to postmodern progressives was either passed before 1980 or ended lost and forgotten in the heyday of Reagan’s revolution. Simultaneously, the generation of conservative politicians that came of age during that time were weaned on that reactionary cocktail of militant anti-liberalism and triumphalist conservatism. And every social or political position that was dear to postmodern preogressives by default became loathed by this new incarnation of a very traditional worldview. It’s no accident that when Rick Santorum uses the word ‘Satan” you could replace it with postmodernism and it would mostly make sense. Try it; it’s fascinating.
Republicans when I came of age politically were still considered to be the grown up political party, the party of the intellectual realists, the economic stewards, the bottom-line businessmen, the party of self-reliance, independence and free markets, country club conservatives who sought to preserve the status quo and shape a relatively high-minded, business oriented agenda. Bush 41 was the last president of that breed. Romney styled himself that way at the end (and arguably governed that way in Massachusetts) but it was a hard sell. Somehow he always felt slightly tangential even to his own party, whose strongest voices no longer live by that creed. Indeed, by the time Reagan came around, that wing of the party was under attack. The once democratic South and the fiercely independent West begin to exert more influence and the party began to change. Here we stand over thirty years later, and I watch commentator after commentator proclaim that the Republican Party needs to get back to its centrist (modernist) base. And they’ve been saying this for years as if there is this silent majority that will now re-assert itself and I wonder: who is left to hear that message? After thirty years of relying on that traditional, conservative base, are the core elements of that old order still coherent enough to lead the way? I doubt it. They won elections over the last twelve years by doubling down on a shrinking but highly motivated base. But like an economic system propped up by debt, depending more and more on less and less only makes the reckoning, when it comes, that much harder. They are in for a rough ride, as they struggle to find a way forward more rooted in what America is becoming, not what it was. It will be an interesting time, and a healthy re-assessment of exactly what worldview, or mix of worldviews, the Republican Party should embody in the 21st century.