In last week’s essay, I noted that our ability to function effectively as a nation has been deeply compromised by the conservative movement’s reflexive reliance on Us-versus-Them politics. Allowing a winners-and-losers worldview to dominate our country is a dangerous self-indulgence, I argued. History is littered with the corpses of great empires and economies that were toppled when their people got distracted from their shared identity and goals, and gave in to internal culture wars that weakened their countries to the point of eventual collapse or conquest. And it’s all too clear now, looking back on what 40 years of wanton right-wing civil war has wrought, that America cannot hope to be history’s first exception.
When the conservatives declared their “culture war” and effectively seceded from America in the early 1970s, they recklessly (and, on at least some fronts, knowingly) doomed us. When we reckon the toll — the loss of a broad middle class and the educational, financial, social, and physical infrastructure that produced it; the criminal abuse of military and police power; the squandering of the intangible capital of our economic and diplomatic prestige in the world; and now the complete structural inability to address the most important issues we face — we can no longer deny that the conservatives’ inbred compulsion to create and fight external demons has weakened us militarily, economically, environmentally, and culturally.
Our survival depends on finding an alternative. Fortunately, there is one.
Several commenters on last week’s piece fretted that I might be winding up to the suggestion that we get all kum-by-yah and fuzzy with the conservatives, admit they were right, and find a way to build bridges to them. Fret not. I grew up with these people, and have written extensively on how and why the hard core authoritarians among them — the intransigent 12-15% — can never be reasoned with. They have always been among us; and they always will be. But — and here’s the point of this week’s essay — we have not always allowed their paranoia to run the show. For much of America’s history, we chose another path. And it’s a path we can get back to, if we choose, with progressives showing the way.
Two Kinds of Americans, Revisited
The legendary historian Arnold Toynbee postulated that all cultures throughout history have run under one of three basic cultural operating systems (or, more often, a hybrid of two or all three in which one was usually dominant). These essential storylines appear in all cultures; and every culture has unique variations on these archetypes at play. Most importantly: each of the three has its own internal logic; and that logic deeply influences the way we view the future, interpret reality, and assess events.
The first of these cultural archetypes is Us versus Them (or Winners and Losers), which is all too familiar to anyone who’s spent the past 30 years in America. In this view, the world is seen in polarities: black/white, right/wrong, male/female, either/or. Humans are driven by competition and conflict; life is a zero-sum game in which survival depends on your ability to seize control over a piece of a finite pie. Winners (who are assumed to be high-prestige males) matter, and deserve to dominate. Losers deserve whatever happens to them; and winners cannot be bothered to care. Evil is caused by the deliberate workings of the enemy, and its existence is proof that that enemy must be defeated at all costs.
Us versus Them exists because it’s a useful and adaptive worldview in a few limited circumstances. It’s the natural logic of war and revolution — and also of political elections, class and race conflicts, and fundamentalist religion and holy warriors. Business often operates in this mode (though not always). So do certain professions, most notably law enforcement. But, as we’ve seen, this winners-and-losers logic can corrode the foundations of a civilization if we allow it to dominate every aspect of our lives, or stay stuck in it too long. It’s useful in short doses, but extremely toxic in the long run.
The biggest danger of Us-versus-Them is that it makes it almost impossible for cultures to invest in the common good, let alone plan coherently for the future. When people are in this mode, ideology and fear carry every decision. Those who want to discuss other worldviews or see a wider range of possibilities are considered traitors; and this forecloses almost all creative responses to problems. Furthermore, every resource the culture has must be diverted to winning the battle at hand, without regard for the future costs. Over time, relying on the Us-versus-Them archetype drives societies to eat their seed corn, leaving them bankrupt on every possible front. Still, this is the worldview that defines conservatism.
The second archetype might be called “Challenge and Response.” In this view, problems aren’t seen as evidence of evil; and they’re not framed in terms of victory or defeat. At best, they’re character-building opportunities for personal growth or gain; at worst, they’re just a natural part of life that must be responded to with wisdom and ingenuity. Identifying allies and enemies is incidental to the larger goal — which is to fix the problem, not the blame. There is no Them. There’s just Us, and We have a situation on our hands that We need to figure out how to handle.
Challenge-and-response thinking is the natural logic of extended families and towns of all sizes. It’s the basic habit of mind for a wide range of professions — medicine, agriculture, engineering, management, and all the creative arts. You can’t blame a virus, blight, gravity, or the behavior of markets on an evil Other — and it’s a waste of resources to try. Your job is to deal with the situation you’re given today, as intelligently and resourcefully as you can; and think through preparations that will allow you to respond better or avoid this kind of problem entirely in the future. In these cultures, your level of status and prestige depends at least as much on your proven reliability as a wise and effective problem-solver as it does on how much of the pie you control. (Furthermore: owning more of the pie increases both your ability and your obligation to solve problems.) This is the world most progressives would far prefer to live in.
On a grander scale, solving problems and recovering from great challenges together builds up the internal levels of mutual trust and confidence within a society, which in turn fosters ambitious and well-considered future planning and encourages large investments in the common good. It enables groups to forge lasting alliances with other groups, expanding their networks of influence and trade. It lends itself to the establishment of meritocracies, flatter hierarchies, and other types of social order that are highly adaptive and flexible in the face of change. According to French historian Emmanuel Todd, every successful empire the world has ever seen ran on an expansive, inclusive challenge-and-response paradigm during its glory years — and invariably fell apart when that ecumenical view devolved, for whatever reason, into defensive Us-versus-Them blame games.
One of the advantages of a Challenge-and-Response culture is that it provides a secure playing field for small and often very productive Us-versus-Them games. Police can be set to catch crooks, under the authority of the state; an army can be raised, as long as it remains under civilian control; the zero-sum games of business can be played for keeps under the watchful eye of government regulators and courts. But this only works as long as none of these zero-sum activities is allowed to become the society’s guiding purpose. According to Toynbee and his modern heirs, successful societies throughout history grew and prospered as long as Challenge-and-Response remained the dominant mode — and lost ground rapidly when that balance changed.
(Toynbee’s third archetype, which isn’t really germane to this discussion, is the logic of evolutionary change. These narratives assert that human cultures are prone to grow and mutate slowly over time. Evolution stories can be positive (things are slowly getting better) or negative (we’re in a gradual state of decay). You often see this assumption at work in technology, biology, some of the social sciences, and certain religions; and it’s not unusual to find it blended up with one of the other two archetypes as well. For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to sidestep this less common archetype, and focus on the first two.)
Both of these major storylines feature largely in American history — and both are accessible (and usually operating simultaneously, with one dominating) at any given time. We’ve slipped back and forth often as history demanded different things from us. Breaking a frontier and building a farm is a Challenge-and-Response endeavor. Starting a revolution against a distant king — or fighting a Cold War — is Us-versus-Them.
However, over the grand sweep of our history, America has drawn strength from its persistent preference for the logic of challenge and response. And looking back, it’s easy to see how our historical commitment to this confident, trusting, open-minded worldview had a lot to do with our eventual rise to power.
But it’s also easy to see how the growth of the postwar military-industrial complex, and its entrenched position at the core of our economic and political life, has empowered an elite who are constantly seeking to pull us away from Challenge-and-Response, and plunge us into a permanent (and permanently profitable) state of Us-versus-Them. In recent decades, the two narratives come into serious competition, with Us-versus-Them enjoying a level of widespread, long-term acceptance we’ve seldom seen in the country’s history. Right now, it’s not clear which one will dominate the country’s discourse in the years ahead.
Getting Back to Challenge and Response
But we do know how the shifts between these two worldviews happen — and it’s almost always through some combination of design and default. Something changes in the world, and a historical moment opens up that requires a different response. And, usually, there’s a leader — often backed by a movement — standing by, ready to seize the wheel and turn it in the other direction.
FDR took power at the worst economic moment in the nation’s history, as Us-versus-Them power struggles were threatening to destabilize the nation — and then leveraged that chaos to discredit entrenched power, and justify a great progressive restructuring that unleashed our best problem-solving instincts. We have nothing to fear, he told us, but fear itself. It was a classic challenge-and-response thing to say.
Nine years later, that same president confronted the devastation of Pearl Harbor, and moved us deftly and productively back to an all-out Us-versus-Them war footing.
After the war, JFK captured the rising challenge-and-response spirit of an optimistic nation, and aimed it directly at the moon.
Conversely, Bill Clinton came to power as the Communist world was collapsing — but failed to realize the full potential of that extraordinary moment because he failed to reckon with the ferocity of the old cold warriors’ backlash. He might have had it in him to slap down this resurgence of Us-versus-Them — but this time, that mindset turned out to be more fiercely stubborn than anyone thought. Failing to locate any other new enemy to demonize, the conservatives settled for destroying Clinton himself.
We’ve been stuck in the resulting mess for the past 15 years. At this point, it seems, we no longer know who We are unless we have a Them to triangulate ourselves against. Vast sectors of our economy are now invested in identifying, tracking, and defeating Them. And our increasingly desperate and paranoid search-and-destroy missions to root Them out wherever They may lurk have made Us a serious threat to much of the rest of the world.
If we want to change this, here’s what we need to do:
1. Be clear on where we’re going. The open-ended, inclusive communal problem-solving style of challenge-and-response cultures is inherently progressive — and deeply ingrained in the American character.
Half the battle is simply being aware that we have a choice — and then making the true nature of that choice clear to everyone involved. We can listen to the blamers and take the counsel of our fears — and produce cramped, narrow solutions that usually benefit a few a at the expense of the many, and will in time doom the nation. Or we can remind our fellow citizens — over and over, for as long as it takes — that Americans have always done best when they’ve taken on big problems with implacable courage, extravagant generosity, and incandescent ingenuity. Moreover: they’ve often enriched the entire culture in the process. Which way to go? It’s a choice we get to make all over again with every fresh problem we face.
Another way to keep the difference clear in our minds is to find and celebrate the people who are making challenge-and-response politics work — people like Majora Carter and Van Jones, who received progressive service awards at Take Back America. Those people are everywhere (and remember: they’re not all progressive), and they’re creating a vast store of intangible social capital that makes us all a little wealthier. In a time of grinding and intractable Us-versus-Them thinking, we need to make an affirmative example out of everyone who’s choosing to operate the other way.
2. Be ready for the moment. You can push and push until you’re black and blue; but this kind of shift doesn’t happen until the stars line up just right and that historical window pops open. Still, the best definition of “luck” I’ve ever heard is that it’s what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And, after 15 years of non-stop conservative hatemongering, you gotta know that moment’s not too far off now.
And that’s why we organize and blog and write letters and donate money and support new media and volunteer down at the party office. We’re gaining skills and building the infrastructure of a movement — and one of the goals of that movement is to be standing by, ready to lean hard on our leaders and make them do the right thing when the moment comes. Even Bill Clinton might have made different choices when his moment came if we’d been this organized in 1993.
3. Leaders matter. We all know this anyway, but this is one major reason why. The right leader can act in ways that help us make the most of those moments when we must transition from one set of assumptions to another. As we’ve learned bitterly every day since 9/11, the wrong one can seize those moments and turn them into ruinous disaster. And a truly extraordinary leader may even be able to create the shift from one paradigm to the other without any kind of external moment presenting itself at all.
When we vet candidates, this should be one of the major traits we look for. If we want a challenge-and-response culture, we need to elect people who operate naturally in that mode. If we elect people who play a mean game of Us-versus-Them, we’ll have nobody but ourselves to blame when their worst authoritarian impulses kick in, and our politics curdle back into fear and division.
The difference between these two modes of thinking — Us versus them and Challenge and Response — is one of those things that’s so obviously simple (and so simply obvious) that we seldom stop to realize that it is the core difference between civilizations that prosper and flourish; and those that rapidly spiral into decline and death. The difference is not in the specific problems we face; it’s in the logic and processes we choose when we set about solving them. In deciding which of these two worldviews will govern our decisions and our politics, it’s not an exaggeration to say that we are deciding nothing less than the country’s future.