The American Cultural Divide: Freedom for One, or Freedom for All?

When candidates for political office debate or make short public statements, they sometimes wax on vague notions such as their vision of America and the nature of freedom.  They try to connect with voters by referencing what many Americans think are basic national virtues.  However, the cultural divide between Right and Left has widened over the last half century, and the very definitions of essential American virtues have themselves been changed with this divide, as the two sides redefine these virtues through increasingly divergent perspectives.  The most essential divergence between Right and Left is on the definition of that most seemingly American value: that of freedom itself.

While both the Right and Left view themselves as fighters for freedom, the two view freedom through substantially different perspectives.  The Right views freedom from within the context of a zero-sum game, in which freedom and personal rights are finite and competitive.  One person’s freedom limits another’s, and the expansion of one’s freedom means a contraction of another’s.  The Left, on the other hand, views freedom as inherently indefinite and communal; the extension of freedom for any member of the community expands overall communal freedom, benefiting all other members.  This cultural divide informs both sides’ views on the nature of the American community, with the Right portraying the community as a Darwinian survivalist competition, a dog-eat-dog collection of individuals each seeking to survive at the expense of the others, while the Left sees the American community as a shared environment which itself strengthens the community’s individual members, each member gaining from the extension of freedom to any of their own.

The cultural divide, and the differing perspectives on American community, plays out through both large-scale approaches and specific issue positions.  Both sides, alike, recognize that the American culture largely evolved from the social dominance in Europe, colonial America, and the post-revolutionary United States, of rich, white, European, Christian men.  However, while the Right sees any movement to extend rights, freedom, opportunity, and wealth to other classes and identities, as an effective attack on the rights of existing dominant groups (in effect, a “culture war”), the Left sees the expansion of freedom not as a “war” upon some within society, but as a strengthening of freedom for all in society including the existing dominant groups (especially considering that those dominant groups themselves are often core supporters of both the Right and Left).  To the Left, freedom is not a war between groups for power over the others, but a bounty which any can access, and which itself grows with the size of the population able to access it.  The Left therefore champions multiculturalism, to extend freedom as much as possible, to grant access to freedom to as many as possible, to better improve and increase the freedom of all.  The more freedom we share, the more allies we have against groups trying to take that freedom away; and the more freedom we share, the harder it is for the courts to legitimize restrictions on those freedoms.  The Right, however, sees multiculturalism as a “culture war” or “class war” against the existing freedom of prevailing dominant groups.  The Right sees society as “one against all, and all against one,” (in essence an “army of one” against oppression), while the Left sees society as “one for all, and all for one” (effectively a mutual defense treaty against oppression).

We can see these large-scale approaches in specific issue platforms.  For example, on the same-sex marriage issue the Right sees the expansion of rights to marriage as an “attack on marriage” (thereby necessitating the now overturned Defense of Marriage Act), whereas the Left sees any expansion of access to the legal rights extended to married couples as effectively strengthening the institution of marriage and the freedoms and benefits accruing to it.  The Right does not care that more kinds of people getting married takes nothing away from those already allowed that right; the expansion of freedom must, they feel, somehow decrease their own agency and freedom whatever the reality might be.  There is, of course, a greater cultural war by the Right to delegitimize those not like them, and restricting access to traditional institutions is a part of that cultural war to keep freedom from being shared or expanded.  Meanwhile, the Left cannot fathom any kind of logical basis for conservative reaction against same-sex marriage, as those on the Left come from the perspective that more people getting married can only create a greater social push toward providing protections and benefits to all married couples, regardless of what groups they represent.  The Right sees marriage as a zero-sum game; the Left sees it as a freedom shared by and strengthening the community.

Other issue positions are similarly determined by the large-scale approaches of the zero-sum competition and the shared-rights community.  For example, the Right exploits racism and xenophobia by directing national urges to fix our problems toward hatred against immigrants seeking to join our City on a Hill, while the Left reaches out to those communities.  Although the Right, when in power, never actually pursues any “solution” to “immigration problems” (because they are ultimately dependent on exactly those population groups that would be affected by such “solutions”), they fan the flames (especially when not in power) to gain political points by speaking about freedom and opportunity within the framework of a competitive zero-sum, in which “they” are coming to take “our” freedom and jobs.  The Left is informed and supported by ethnic groups who have themselves created jobs and expanded American freedoms by their very arrival and work here, making our nation ever greater, stronger, and richer.

Other lesser examples can be found in cultural symbols like the conservative myth of a so-called “War on Christmas,” seeing multiculturalism as somehow taking away Christmas or Christ from those celebrating such images.  The majority of Leftists who are themselves Christians obviously see things differently, understanding that the expression “Happy Holidays” is not an attack on their faith, or a restriction of what they can believe or celebrate, but merely an inclusion of others into the national merriment that the dominant Christian majority has always vocalized and expected everyone to join.  Another lesser example can be found in the recent “flagger” debate between some southerners (who generally gained the sympathies of the Right) feeling that the Confederate battle flag represents southern history and culture; and those (north and south, and generally gaining the sympathies of the Left) who feel that the South has plenty of legitimate, non-racist symbols of pride, and that the selection of a symbol with an obvious racist legacy therefore also demonstrates what image of the South pro-flag advocates want to portray:  a white-dominated, racially ordered and enforced community of racially selective freedom.  The “flaggers” prefer a symbol of the zero-sum approach (where blacks fighting to secure their freedoms have to fight against whites for those freedoms, and take away white freedoms in the process), whereas other southerners prefer other symbols of the South that portray its greater, diverse community and the South’s many champions for freedom for all races and peoples.

The Right also prefers some issues precisely because they do show a tendency toward zero-sum competition for rights.  The right to bear arms (under the ambiguous language of the Second Amendment) is an excellent example.  The Right believes that the Second Amendment rights of those Americans seeking to use them trump the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness recognized by the Constitution’s preamble as the cornerstone for all American rights.  Second Amendment rights are to the Right more important than the basic rights of the 40,000 Americans killed by gun-fire each year to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and those deaths (roughly equivalent to losing the Vietnam War all over again every single year) are an acceptable “cost of doing business” for those demanding the justice of an overarmed populace.  Of course, with violent crime in the US at an all-time historic low, the Second Amendment is itself a greater threat to our freedom than those threats seemingly recommending a nation-in-arms.  Such an argument relegates the protection of individuals and families to police and communal law enforcement (taking rights to such away from gun-owners, and confirming the zero-sum nature of this particular issue); but also recognizes the greater rights of the greater American community to the most essential freedom, that of life itself.

While both those on the Right and those on the Left claim to believe in and defend the American promise of freedom, their vision about what that promise holds has diverged into conflicting perspectives on the nature of community in America.  The Right insists on, and fights to preserve, an anarchic collation of competing individuals and forces, living in an environment of restricted and finite freedoms, which cannot be shared or realized communally (at least not without taking away such freedoms from the individual).  The Left insists on, and fights to preserve, a vision of a community of shared rights, with every individual’s own rights extending the rights of others in the community, and of the community as a whole.  The Left’s vision is far more compatible with the earliest vision of American community, John Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” vision of an America acting as a greater, cohesive community to foster greater agency, greater responsibility, and greater morality at both individual and communal levels.  The Right’s vision, on the other hand, is effectively a failure of faith in the expansive nature of freedom, in the nature of the American community, and in the nature of the religious faith to which American conservatives often pretend to defer.  The Left’s vision is more compatible with the traditional American vision, with the argument on American exceptionalism, and with the Christian faith upon which that vision and that argument were originally based.  Whether the core of American conservatism will find its way back from the great divide, and embrace an expansive vision of American freedom, shall remain to be seen.


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