Wednesday, June 30, 2021
What Stories Are Americans Living?
Escaping the Curse of the Culture War Narrative
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 second 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.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution
When things have worked well in the recent past in governing, Republicans have taken the lead on providing for “the common defense,” informed by the Warrior archetype, and Democrats on “promoting the general welfare,” informed by the Caregiver archetype. Such a successful partnership depends on mutual respect and openness to the perspective each brings. Throughout human history, both the Caregiver and Warrior (like the Idealist and Realist) have been necessary to group survival and thriving. Humans are a relatively frail species. We need a good bit of care from infancy through old age to stay alive and to learn, grow, and innovate. For all this caring to happen, we also need to be protected, originally from the elements, predators, and violence. Today, evolved Caregiver narratives focus on developing people within supportive environments and Warrior ones on winning through conflict and competition.
The Caregiver Archetype Plotline. Its prototype is the nurturing parent, doing for a child what the child needs, and teaching the child all the attitudes, behaviors, and skills that are necessary to be independent and successful. Living a Caregiver story helps us learn to care for ourselves, our family and extended networks, our property/possessions, and our communities. It helps us, at best, to become kind and generous people – qualities historically linked to America’s majority religion in Jesus’s emphasis on loving one’s neighbor as oneself. The virtues this archetype promotes are those of compassion, nurturance, generosity, and concern for the good of others. Over time, in this country and internationally, governments have greatly increased how much and in how many ways they need to help their citizens be able to compete and succeed, thus leading to increased social programs, such as public education, healthcare, and various social safety nets.
The Warrior Archetype Plotline. A country goes to war against an enemy, perceiving itself to be right and the enemy as wrong, either to protect itself or to invade and conquer. Warriors are expected to be loyal to a cause, to carry out whatever is demanded of them, and to follow the guidance of authorities on their side. In its cultural expression today, the Warrior can be expressed literally in violent conflict or as a metaphor. As a metaphor, it helps us compete within a capitalist system, pursuing our goals like a warrior going into battle or an athlete into a game. Living the Warrior story helps us defend ourselves and those we are responsible for, not just from physical attack but also from emotional harm and the threat, or reality, of poverty. It also supports us in our ability to win, defined as getting what we want.
Let’s explore more deeply how these two archetypal stories show up in our political parties. We’ll start with the Republicans, then move to the Democratic party, and then return to how we can free ourselves from the tyranny of the culture war story.
The Republican Party
Common Defense GOP Style: The Republican party has long been strongly influenced by the Warrior archetype as it is expressed in nationalism and patriotic loyalty to the country; hawkishness in foreign affairs; a high valuation on personal, political, and national strength; a focus on protecting borders; a fear of overly providing support for people, lest our citizens become weak; and supporting capitalism as a driver of hard work, purpose, focus, and excellence. Republicans also promote personal discipline, the ability to defend against weakness and immorality, or, as defined in religious traditions, sin. All this builds on the Realist awareness that life is hard, so it is essential to be strong. The military might be viewed as the way to peace, the arming of police with military gear as how to stop crime, and gun ownership as a primary right, foundational to defending one’s home. The Warrior worldview assumes that the point is to win, not get along.
The Caregiver Archetype for Republicans has been valued primarily in private, not public, life. They have focused on family values, understood generally to mean the traditional family with defined gender and other roles. Citizens have been expected to care for their own, for places of worship, and for their communities, a focus that leads their party to see its members as the “moral majority” that care for themselves and one another in private life and stay true to traditional standards of sexual morality. From time to time, Republicans have cooperated with Democrats on social programs for those who cannot care for themselves, but get outraged if they think such help is encouraging weakness, sloth, or sexual license. Just as the military ranks people related to their functions, Republicans have long assumed that various groups have different places in society. Faced with all the various liberation movements challenging those assumptions, Republicans have resisted offering affirmative support and caring to those who challenge roles many Republicans assume to be natural and right for them. In recent years, the Republicans’ primarily caring focus has been on an anti-abortion drive to protect the unborn.
Today’s Republican Coalition is united by seeing the world through some variation of a Warrior archetype frame of mind and plotline. This includes (1) evangelical Christians (as well as adherents of some other conservative religions) whose theology contains the idea that the faithful are soldiers on God’s side in a war against Satan, and anyone who breaks traditional religious laws, especially those about sex and reproduction, is on Satan’s side, potentially provoking God’s wrath against this country; (2) business leaders who are committed to economic competition that rewards loyalty and hard work and levies severe consequences for failure (like poverty); (3) whites who want to be shielded from competition or rebellion from refugees and nonwhites; and (4) all those who rally against paying taxes to help people they think of as slothful or otherwise undeserving, or those who just want government out of their business.
A Devolution of the Republican Warrior is clearly in progress in Trump’s base, as the party has become even less caring: snatching refugee babies out of their mothers’ arms; capitalizing on the upsurge of white supremacy and overt racism; supporting violence against other Americans; promoting policies that increase economic inequities and result in painful poverty for many; treating communication more as propaganda than as truth, including the big lie of a stolen election; and the irrational deification of guns, including those capable of massive slaughter. This effect is so pronounced that now a good number of Republicans say that violence against other Americans is warranted, suggesting that Democrats are now enemies, not just competitors, while some Republican officials are waging war on access to voting for many Americans.
At the same time, traditional Republicans now see President Trump as invading their party and fear he will completely conquer it. In archetypal terms, this would mean that the level of the Warrior archetype that is expressed will be rather primitive and autocratic. This version of the archetype emerges from the demonization of caring, as it did in the McCarthy period in the 1950s, when many Republicans viewed policies that supported the general welfare as “godless communism.” Desperation for voter support devolves party messaging from propaganda into outright falsehoods, such as maintaining without evidence that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, or that the January 6th invasion of the Capitol was just a peaceful protest. Such strategies do not bode well for the long-term future of the party, but short-term, party leaders embrace this tactic for fear of offending Trump supporters.
The Point: Republicans now have so little Caregiver, and their Warrior has so devolved that it threatens to harden into behaviors associated with fascism. Thus, the future of the Republican Party is uncertain. However, active archetypes that have regressed in this way do have the potential to evolve over time.
The Democratic Party
Promoting the General Welfare, Democratic Style: Democrats generally define morality as caring for people, especially the least fortunate, at home and abroad. They want to create a level playing field where everyone has a chance, and fear the pain and destitution that occurs when collective empathy for others is lacking. Thus, they stress programs like day care, quality education, and health insurance, so that people can be prepared to compete and succeed. They support unions so that workers can be paid equitably, work in safe conditions, and be treated with respect. Similarly, they favor community policing. Increasingly, Democrats also promote concern for the earth and for all its species, recognizing the interdependence not just of person to person but person to planet, promoting the triple bottom line in business (People, Planet, Profits). While Republicans place their primary emphasis on capitalism and competition, Democrats focus on democracy and the good of individual citizens and groups.
Democrats, however, also value the Warrior archetype and the need for defense, for individuals to compete, and for citizens to be strong and competent – many of the Warrior virtues. However, Democrats want these to be complemented and ameliorated by the Caregiver. The general welfare is understood to require caring, but arguments for it continue to be defended as preparation for success in competition – individual, corporate, and national. Why? In our country, Warriors tend to be extolled and Caregivers taken for granted (and historically Warriors are thought to be male and Caregivers female, reflecting patriarchal assumptions about roles and their values.)
Caregiver/Warrior Balance. A Warrior balance with the Caregiver staves off the Warrior tendency to be ruthless, while the Warrior saves the Caregiver from being taken advantage of or enabling dependency. When the parties cooperate, the excesses of each are avoided because both archetypal perspectives are heard. Republicans might defend going to war primarily with arguments about self-interest, but Democrats often go along, especially if they see themselves as on a humanitarian mission. In Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, the duty to care was likely emphasized more than Americans were ready for. President Biden won and governs by emphasizing how Caregiver strategies are necessary to achieve Warrior goals, a strategy that worked for FDR and many democratic presidents since then.
The Democratic Coalition includes college-educated professionals, women, people of color, young people, mainstream Christians and other progressive religious groups, LGBTQIA+, and many other minority groups. Traditionally, the working class has been the party’s backbone, but less so recently, except for unions, although that may improve under the current administration. While these groups do not necessarily share all the same interests, they all tend to emphasize equality and interdependence over competition. Some, of course, jockey for power with one another, but most believe in showing generosity to one another as it is in their power to do so. Over all, this coalition shares a belief in our national need to care for each other — as in wearing masks during the COVID pandemic.
The Democratic Advantage: Right now, the Democratic Party has a slight political advantage, which is one reason why it won the presidency and the House of Representatives and has good poll numbers. At some level, many Americans believe that the general welfare matters and recognize that not all that threatens us can be addressed through Warrior means. Moreover, science and data matter too. At the same time, the concept of general welfare has expanded internationally way beyond what the framers of our Constitution could have imagined. In addition, the rise of the modern Democratic Party has been assisted by increased public awareness about findings in the social sciences, ecological and systems thinking, and developments in the field of education that support mutuality, interdependence, and growth through learning rather than harsh consequences.
Democrats balance their Idealism with Realism, but of a different kind than Republicans. Because they are less trapped in a Warrior paradigm, they can notice 21st century dangers that cannot be addressed by guns or force. Influenced by the social sciences, they understand how equal opportunity requires access to healthcare, quality education, and other services that prepare citizens to realize their potential. It is not that Democrats fail to see the importance of strength, but, rather, that they either empathize with others, including refugees and historically underrepresented groups, or take a principled stand for “liberty and justice for all” as is affirmed in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. However, current Republican devolved strategies trigger outrage in Democrats who see Republicans as cruel, heartless, and immoral in their lack of kindness and generosity, causing them to engage in trumped up battles while ignoring the ones that matter (like climate change). Yet because empathy and justice for all are valued, Democrats can become perfectionistic, which results in political correctness and in turn a lack of empathy for the empathy-challenged.
The Point: The Democrat archetypal balance gives them an advantage in governing – for now. However, outrage can cloud the eyes and the ability to see the other party clearly when change is in progress. If the Democrats throw the positive Warrior out with its negative underbelly, their Caregiver could regress into behaviors generally associated with the cultural image of an overly controlling mother, an image that provokes the rebel adolescent in many Americans.
A Warning: While the Warrior just wants to win, the Warrior/Caregiver wants to collaborate and get along. As I’m writing this, a bipartisan group of senators has proposed a compromise alternative to the president’s infrastructure bill. The good news is that the innovations, research, roads, and bridges that make America more competitive with China are viewed as likely to get included and passed because these are associated with the U.S. winning economically. However, Biden has stressed how winning also requires equal opportunity, education, healthcare, a living wage, and such, so that citizens can be prepared for the challenges of the 21st century.
Bipartisanship requires compromise, and that means that in most bipartisan deals, Warrior issues are likely to find agreement while Caregiver ones may not. Moreover, if the GOP Warrior fails to recognize long-term challenges such as climate change that cannot be solved by force or threat, the results can be deadly. Without a shared political valuing of caring and the welfare of individuals, business and the stock market may do well, and the country can still consider itself #1 in the world, while individuals struggle, many financially, and most in the quality of our lives. Over time, this creates a stressed and angry citizenry, who then seek to blame whomever they are convinced is at fault for their circumstances. This is a slippery slope with potentially dangerous consequences.
I’m very pleased to publish this guest blog from pioneering educator Katherine Culpepper. Her work with high school students provides a model that I would love to see replicated widely in schools today.
Corey Boutwell, an Australian fitness and entrepreneurial coach, who does work with archetypes that have been stressed in the men's movement, treated me to a very engaged interview.
Have you ever had something wonderful happen and found yourself stressed and disoriented? I just did that in starting to write this newsletter welcome, so I decided to share my process of shifting my storyline.