What Stories Are Americans Living? Escaping the Curse of the Culture War Narrative -- Blog One

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Escaping the Curse of the Culture War Narrative -- Blog One

By Carol S. Pearson

Every day, our airwaves and social media reverberate with the opening blasts and counter retorts of the culture war. Is this just a self-destructive, self-fulfilling false narrative pitting us against one another? I believe it is. If we are to address this self-destructive cultural narrative, we must learn how it happened, and what we can do about it. Answering these questions requires an understanding of differential motivations, assumptions, and story patterns of major cultural players, especially our political parties.

This is the first of three blogs that  offer an archetypal analysis of our cultural dialogue and strategies for how to get from here to where we want to be.

Blog One:  Archetypes, Idealist and Realist World Views, and Politics

I was inspired to write this blog after reading a David Brooks column in The New York Times. According to Brooks,

A February Economist-YouGov poll asked Americans which statement is closest to their view: “It’s a big, beautiful world, mostly full of good people, and we must find a way to embrace each other and not allow ourselves to become isolated” or “Our lives are threatened by terrorists, criminals and illegal immigrants, and our priority should be to protect ourselves.” Over 75 percent of Biden voters chose “a big, beautiful world.” Two-thirds of Trump voters chose “our lives are threatened.”

The poll and Brooks’s column underline how archetypes, and the power of story, give shape to what people do. It has been my life’s work to study archetypes and how they affect our behavior.[1] After years of research, I created a model of the 12 archetypes, with six major dyads, that are key to human survival and evolution and to individual success and fulfillment. These include the Idealist and Realist, Warrior and Caregiver, Seeker and Lover, Revolutionary and Creator, Sage and Magician, Ruler and Jester. These archetypes provide frames for our thinking and for the feelings that drive our actions. They do this by providing recognizable plotlines – because the brain makes meaning in narrative form. For example, you might recognize immediately that the Warrior lives a war story, the Lover a love story, and so on. Confronted with the same situation, however, the Warrior in you might suggest marshalling your weapons to assert and get what you want, potentially leading to conflict. Your inner Lover might alternatively propose bonding with others, perhaps by showing interest in their ideas or desires, and then utilizing charm to seduce them to go along with what you want, even as you might also end up with an uncomfortable compromise. In most of us, the choice between such stories is made unconsciously by which archetype is most active in us at that time. A few such plotlines generally predominate in an individual or group in any given time.

Drawing on this model, one could surmise that contemporary Republicans and Democrats are expressing the Realist and Idealist archetypes. Today’s Republicans lean toward the pessimistic side of the Realist archetype. Inside, the Realist often feels like an orphan with an abandoning mother (in this case government) that cares for everyone else, but not them. In such a case, it is important to be strong individually, or alternatively by aligning themselves with loyal allies. At its best, the Realist archetype is an expert at recognizing potential dangers and preventing them. However, in its less developed forms, it sees danger everywhere, particularly in the unknown and in people conceived of as Other. Democratic alignment with groups that scare Republicans results in Republicans working to save their own groups.

Present-day Democrats express the optimistic side of the Idealist, which focuses on living America’s cultural dream in order to make it a reality. Inside, the Idealist yearns to find or create paradise, leading to perfectionism and dissatisfaction with the status quo. At best, this can lead to progress, but it also can have unforeseen side-effects that activate chronic disappointment. Idealists also try to live their ideals and values. For Democrats, the American Declaration of Independence assertion of “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”  reinforces a belief in the equality of all people and the need, therefore, for mutual concern for one another. Behaviors by Republicans that seem to devalue some of our people are viewed by Democrats as threatening the soul of America, which then needs to be saved.

Poet W.H. Auden used different terms in addressing this same divide, which continue to be evocative and helpful for these times. He wrote that most people are either Edenists or Utopians. As conservatives, Realist Republicans tend to romanticize the past and emphasize the problems of the present and future as reasons to return to what was. As liberals and progressives, Idealist Democrats emphasize the promise of the future to realize human dreams like peace on earth or liberty and justice for all. They want to provide support for historically undervalued and represented groups to rise to their rightful place as equal full citizens of this great land. Understanding these divergent viewpoints helps us realize why Democrats are sympathetic to pulling down statues of Confederate generals originally constructed to intimidate the Black population. It also is helpful in recognizing why these actions scare and anger Republicans who believe that the past is being defiled. In truth, we are, as a country, faced with the challenge of how to venerate our past without whitewashing the harm we have done and do not want to carry forward.

Both the Realist and the Idealist are important to human evolution. Where would we be if our ancestors did not learn from the past and the present while also dreaming about what could be better? Even today, life improves when we combine common sense grounded in the real world around us with a willingness to take action to improve our lives. To me, it seems obvious that the same is true for governing.

In my work with individuals and organizations, I have learned that certain paired archetypes are expressed in evolved ways when they exist together in the same person or organization. Each archetype may start out being lived in a very primitive form and develop over time, but as sidekicks, they can help one another grow and develop. For example, the Realist’s sense of reality in its primal form is rigid and limited and the Idealist’s visions are elusive daydreams. The Idealist’s vision can help Realists avoid getting totally stuck in the past and more able to appreciate progress. And Realist practicality helps Idealists come up with grounded and practical possibilities and strategies. Similarly, the Realist identification with the past can result in obliviousness to human suffering in the present, especially that which initially was caused in our collective history, because of the inference of cultural guilt. The Idealist’s identification with the future as the place where the promise of equality is fulfilled can lead to intolerance of those who have not caught up with others in realizing the importance of dealing (realistically) with issues that have not been on their radar before.

However, we all like to differentiate ourselves from others, to become truer to who we are. We also assume that the differences that make us unique and authentic also raise our status. That can lead us to devalue the strengths of others that we may lack and repress them in ourselves because we see them as inferior traits. When we do, the archetype in us devolves even more than before, perhaps then even undermining an archetype that usually is a strength for us. So, the Idealist who feels superior to the Realist may then fail to recognize unforeseen side-effects of actions that undermine success in realizing a beautiful dream.

This is true even for political parties, which then develop policies that fit their dominant archetype’s narrative, demonizing that of the other. This is true today for Idealist Democrats and Realist Republicans. This is equally true of the impact of the Warrior and Caregiver story pairing on Republicans and Democrats, which will be the subject of Part Two of this blog series.

Why is it so important to understand the archetypes in play in an apparent culture war? It’s important because this information helps unveil the motivations, mental framings of reality, and assumed plotlines that define what people assume they should do. Right now, these are the engines of the divide, but if we become conscious of them, they could also be the drivers for our coming back together as a people. Understanding these dynamics is essential for helping the archetypes active in our politics evolve in their expressions and recover when they devolve.

So now back to Brooks. In his column, Brooks, who has been a lifelong Republican, expresses concern about the future of the Republican party, and our country, because its “level of catastrophism, nearly despair, has fed into an amped-up warrior mentality.” A week after the January 6th attack on the Capitol, Brooks writes, “nearly a quarter of Republicans polled said violence can be acceptable to achieve political goals.”[i] What Brooks clearly means by an “amped-up warrior” is not a good thing. It is regressive. This can happen to any archetype that repudiates its complementary pair, as happens in this case when caring becomes equated with communism or authoritarian socialism and when meanness, or even cruelty, becomes viewed as a leadership strength.

It is easy to see how our superficial good/bad “culture war” way of seeing reality is undermining “domestic tranquility” and the capacity of government to function in a bipartisan way. To get a handle on the bigger picture – and discover what we might do about it – it is important to understand the functions both parties have performed in the modern era and how they relate to achieving the essential goals of governing as outlined in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.

[1] My most recent book, What Stories Are You Living? Discover Your Archetypes – Transform Your Life, explores this in depth. It also provides detailed descriptions of all 12 archetypes.

[i] “The G.O.P. Is Getting Even Worse,” The New York Times, April 22, 2021.

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