Political Identities

In a Library Juice blog post some time ago, Rory Litwin recommended an essay by Karl Mannheim entitled “Conservative Thought.” In the essay, Mannheim argues that political groupings can be distinguished by specific “styles of thought” (though a style of thought will not be limited to politics). Styles of thought characterize more than just the subjective thinking of individuals. At the same time, they are not entirely objective. Individuals participate in a style of thought which will survive their coming and going, but it does not exist apart from the individuals. Mannheim goes on to illustrate this by describing the style of thought that made up the German conservatives of the 19th century. In essence, Mannheim was trying to answer the questions, “who were the German conservatives and what was it that made them a distinct and coherent political group?”

This got me thinking about what unifies political groupings today which led me to read George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant, Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and Chinni and Gimpel’s Our Patchwork Nation. Each of these works examines political identities in recent U.S. politics more or less in the manner that Mannheim sought to make sense of the political identity of 19th century German conservatives. Lakoff examines what distinguishes conservatives from liberals. His attempt to discover a master trait that explains all or most of this political divide comes closest to Mannheim’s attempt to find a “style of thought” that governs German conservativism. In contrast to this, Frank examines the distinctions between moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, and liberals. Here the similarity with Mannhiem is that Frank defines conservative Republicans in opposition to liberals rather as Mannhiem defines conservativism in opposition to Enlightenment rationalism. Chinni and Gimpel take a slightly different approach by positing and examining twelve different “nations” within the United States, each composed of counties having similar demographic characteristics. It is noteworthy that Lakoff contrasts two abstract ideological systems as does Mannheim, while Frank and Chinni and Gimpel approach the question more concretely by distinguishing specific policy positions and character traits that hang together sociologically.

There is much in each of the three works on the U.S. political landscape to recommend them. Chinni and Gimpel is perhaps best; however, each of them underestimates the complexity of political groupings within the U.S. If librarians are to understand better our patron populations and their relations to politics, we’ll need to see deeper into the body politic than any sociological assessment thus far has seen and we’ll need to be sympathetic to a multiplicity of political perspectives. We need not abandon our own political views, but to accurately understand the views of our patrons, we must see them as complex rational individuals and avoid the easy shorthand of political stereotypes.

Of the three works under examination here, Lakoff’s book is the most ambitious in that it purports to identify a master trait that distinguishes liberals from conservatives; however, in doing so, it becomes the most superficial. Lakoff believes that American politics are driven by two models of the family: the Strict Father Model and the Nurturing Parent Model. These models serve as frames for how conservatives and liberals respectively think, not just about family life, but also about politics and other spheres of life. Lakoff argues that conservatives implicitly have recognized that emphasizing the values inherent in the Strict Father Model reinforces voters’ tendency to employ these values when thinking about politics. After emphasizing this family model for four decades, conservatives have established in the electorate a way of thinking about politics that prevents voters from accepting (and sometimes even understanding) the policies advanced by liberals.

Lakoff’s theory is initially attractive, as one often can see ties between the family models and a number of Republican and Democratic political positions; however, as important as family dynamics are to establishing our world views, the idea that all of the variations within U.S. politics are rooted a single social-psychological character trait that admits of only two values overlooks the complexity of the political world in the interest of theoretic simplicity. I suspect that Lakoff’s dichotomy was both generated by and helped to entrench the Red-Blue vision of U.S. politics that has done so much to mask political reality. Mostly, the Red-Blue divide is an artifact of our two party system which requires people of quite diverse opinion to band together against a single political opponent. Were our two party system to be transformed into a multi-party democracy, the importance of the two family models might quickly disappear.

In contrast, Frank’s work distinguishes three political groupings: moderate Republicans, conservative Republicans, and liberals. Mostly, Frank examines the two Republican groups. Frank’s thesis is that the working class population of Kansas has become hopelessly distracted by hot button social issues and has been fooled into voting for moderate Republican politicians who are undermining their economic interests. Working class conservatives are trading away their economic future in exchange for lip service from moderate Republicans on social issues. While there is something to this argument, it fails to understand economic issues from the conservative’s perspective. Frank clearly is viewing the question from a liberal perspective, i.e., that one’s attitude toward the legal framework regulating economic activity should be based on how well-off that framework will make you. I suspect that this view may not be shared by the great majority of working class, conservative Kansans. Instead, they are – true to their words – “values voters,” but not simply in the sense of caring about abortion, “traditional” marriage, and prayer in school. They also bring their values to economic questions, particularly, the values of personal responsibility, self-sufficiency, respect for fair play, and most of all meritocracy.

Republican doctrine has long opposed taxes and regulation. They are seen as alien impositions on the main business of America which is, on this view, business. Taxes and regulations are merely ways by which the productive members of society are made to support and defend politically powerful, but unproductive, members. If one sees the main activity of life as making a living within the constraints of a fair system of rules, then such a point of view may seem not unreasonable. Surely, many if not most working class people in Kansas find making a living an all-consuming activity. This is particularly true of people who are self-employed or sell their labor job to job. For them, taxes (no matter how progressive) are an obstacle to getting ahead or even just staying afloat. Furthermore, regulations on businesses limit the kind of economic activity that they believe is necessary to remain in business or simply remain employed.

In addition to this, the ideology of individualism, personal responsibility, and fair play can seem to trump government assistance for the disadvantaged. Material well-being may certainly be an important value for the conservative working class, but if earning what you acquire is a greater value, then taxation, regulation, and social programs can be seen as undermining this more important meritocratic value. Living in a meritocracy might mean that one is not made as well-off as one might otherwise be, but getting what you deserve and only what you deserve seems to be important to the ideology of the working class conservative.

Of course, what liberals will find missing in this analysis is the importance of equal opportunity. A libertarian economic order provides only the legal pretense of an equal starting point for economic success. It does not recognize the unequalizing effects of such things as sex, gender, and racial prejudices, and especially class privileges; but in the case of the Kansas working class, the degree of inequality of opportunity may not seem so great as to justify liberal programs like affirmative action, housing assistance, publically financed health insurance, and food stamps. They may find their own situation is too close to the beneficiaries of public assistance to be sympathetic to transferring any of their wealth or opportunity to the least well-off. To speak productively with the working class conservatives, one might do well to speak in meritocratic terms, but to emphasize how the accidents of birth undermine meritocratic values. The liberal needs to make clear and convincing that what is preventing the working class from realizing the deserved benefits of their own efforts is not transfers of wealth to the least-well off, but systemic advantages accruing to the richest of the rich in our society. The liberal must make the case that these advantages distort meritocracy much more than social programs for the least well-off and that social programs are a way to rectify distortion of a meritocracy.

Chinni and Gimpel’s Our Patchwork Nation is motivated by the desire to avoid the Red-Blue dichotomy that Lakoff examines. Instead, Chinni and Gimpel divide the electorate into twelve distinct communities, and maps them onto the nation county by county. Hence, one county may be part of “Tractor Country” while the neighboring county is part of “Immigration Nation.” Very much is gained by this nuanced analysis, but even here, there is a tendency to disregard minority populations within counties or even majority populations. For example, “Immigration Nation” is composed of counties that have a large Hispanic population: on average, 44% of the people who live there are from Spanish-speaking backgrounds. This, of course, is enough to make these counties significantly different from others that do not have such a high percent of Hispanics, but labeling the county part of “Immigration Nation” masks the other 56%. Counties in “Evangelical Epicenter” are composed significantly of white fundamentalist Christians, but they sometimes contain a significant number of African-Americans who are the essential (though seldom the majority) element of “Minority Central” counties. All of this is simply to say that the demographic constitution of Chinni and Gimpel’s twelve communities are more complex than their labels can allow and that much more must be considered to understand adequately the electorate. In all fairness, though, a single work can only do so much. Theory can never completely describe reality, but theorize we must.

After reading Lakoff, Frank, and Chinni and Gimpel, I am led to think that Mannheim’s investigation into “styles of thought” and other sociological studies of its kind must be handled with care. The best of them might reveal some subset of features of an electorate, but they are more likely to lead one into the trap of thinking that one’s theory about political ideologies is more accurate and stable than it is. Political groupings in the U.S. may have much less to do with a shared political ideology or “styles of thought” and much more to do with a two party system that requires uneasy alliances. Applying these insights to our patron populations can help keep us from falling into the trap of serving a cardboard cutout of a patron. Instead, it may remind us to serve the patron who actually stands before us.

One comment on “Political Identities

  1. I just want to point out that Mannheim’s essay (Mannheim was an important sociologist) was largely about European intellectual history and how these “styles of thought” developed differently because of the different historical situations in different European countries. The fact that Germany never had a revolution that was inspired by Enlightenment thought was part of his explanation for why Enlightenment responses to traditionalism were weak there.

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