Two Cultures, Two Americas — Post-Election 2016 Edition (Philosophical Reflections on an Empire In Decline)

Part of me is still reeling: one of the reasons I haven’t posted on the topic yet. While I certainly was not pulling for Hillary Rodham Clinton to win the election, I believed she would win. I believed she was the favorite of the globalist elites or the Establishment or the international financial oligarchy or whatever you want to call it, and that they had engineered her path to the White House. I began to doubt that judgment when James Comey reopened the FBI investigation against her practically one week before the election. She dropped in the polls. But not to a spot beneath Trump. I still thought she would win.

I was wrong. Many of us were wrong. A minority, from across the political spectrum, from leftist Michael Moore to conservative (sort of) Brandon Smith, called it right. Respected musician, experimental composer, visual artist and occasional commentator Brian Eno also got it right. So did economist and former Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Donald Trump would win, all said. These are intelligent people. Except for Moore, who seems to me a blowhard extraordinaire, I hadn’t encountered their views earlier. While one may not agree with all their assumptions or conclusions, their considerations are worth a look. Hence the links.

Trump won, and will be the next U.S. president. I am working under the assumption that attempts to overturn the results of November 8 via lobbying the Electoral College or via a revolt within the Electoral College itself will fail, as surely it is obvious that so unprecedented an action would open a legal and constitutional Pandora’s Box, not to mention potential civil unrest that could lead to violence. I sincerely hope that I am not wrong again!!

I’d stayed up on November 8 until past midnight, watching election returns. I thought I remembered Hillary getting ahead in the electoral vote count. My friends say she didn’t. I look back at my live journal notes from that night and cannot find where I actually wrote down that she’d gotten ahead. I am not sure what happened. Maybe I dozed off at my computer and dreamed it. In any event, I went off to bed, still sure Hillary would win. I awakened with a jolt at around 6:30 am (these are all Santiago, Chile times, by the way). It was light outside. The sky hadn’t fallen. I made my way to my computer.

The U.S. had elected Donald Trump President.

Later I saw the electoral map, broken down county by county. It showed geographically small areas of blue, clustered around big cities and larger population centers mostly on coastal regions … surrounded by vast seas of red elsewhere. The latter, of course, elected The Donald president, when denizens of the former who had polled, broadcasted, and predicted from their safe havens (or are they echo chambers?) said Hillary would be a shoe-in, in some cases by a landslide. Even some mainstream Republicans preferred her to Trump, thinking they could make some kind of a comeback for 2020. Dream on. It wouldn’t have happened.

Trump did not win by a landslide. He did not win the popular vote, assuming his claims about millions of illegal aliens voting for Hillary Clinton are groundless. This has a lot of people up in arms. They do not appear to accept that the Electoral College elects the president, not the popular vote. They believe it should be the popular vote. In fairness, Trump inveighed against the Electoral College in the past; after the election he conveniently decided he approved of it. The Founders designed the Electoral College because they did not trust the popular vote. An irony is that Trump came under attack for his ambiguous remark about accepting the results of the election should he lose. He didn’t lose. Those who did are the ones trying to resist the outcome. Not My President say their signs.

The implications of the stark contrast between those who voted for Hillary Clinton and those who voted for Donald Trump are what I wish to discuss. Two cultures. Two Americas. Unequal, unyoked, mutually hostile, and — other things being equal — on collision course. A philosopher should have something to say about this situation, especially a philosopher with a sense of history and its relevance, as well as one aware of the existence of contrasting worldviews. That would be a philosopher such as myself, schooled in the work of Thomas S. Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, long aware of the incommensurability problem (it was my dissertation topic, after all!), and thus aware not just of the philosophical problems created by accounting for vast divides but the dicey practical problems involved in communicating across them.

These sorts of events are not limited to the U.S., obviously. The British voted for Brexit on June 23, which many pundits also thought would fail. Nigel Farage, one of the most visible Euro-skeptics, was one of the brains behind Brexit. The French might well put National Front president Marine Le Pen in charge of their country when the time comes. At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me. What some call “populism” and others, “economic nationalism” (and still others, simply racism and xenophobia) is on the rise around the world. What it is, is a mass rejection of globalism / globalization. Many common people have figured out that what globalism / globalization has done is enrich a tiny elite, destroying middle classes in its wake in places like the U.S., and destabilizing their communities without bringing them tangible benefits. In Europe, much anti-globalism is in response to the flood of Middle Eastern migrants, primarily Muslims, from third world countries, and the rising tides of terrorist attacks, sexual assaults, and other violent crimes they’ve brought with them. Eurocrats, CEOs, and bankers may think open borders are a good idea, but they don’t have to wipe up the blood!

I’ve previously commented on the so-called “alt-right” in the U.S. which has little use for a “movement conservatism” it sees as impotent, and which clearly was already dead in the water: one of the most basic reasons Trump rose to the top despite attacks from within his own party. One wonders how much soul-searching will go on within the upper echelons of the GOP to figure out that Trump, with his media-savvy and ability to use even media hostility to his advantage, had very little to compete with. There wasn’t much in the way of ideas discussed in the GOP debates, because Trump’s competitors didn’t have any! Had Trump not run, however, issues such as globalism, immigration, trade agreements, and border controls wouldn’t have been on the table! Everyone with a functioning brain knows this!

Be this as it may, the open antagonism that developed over Trump’s candidacy, and now over his victory, are indicative of more going on. One could argue that the culture war has just gone to the next level. The left thought it had won hands down (largely because of the collapse of “movement conservatism”). But that was before Donald Trump, and now we are seeing a rising clash between the two cultures, two Americas, both pre- and post-election 2016?

How can we best characterize these two cultures?

The “blue” culture of the big cities and population centers is sophisticated-appearing and sounding, urban and urbane, and accepting of anonymity as its members pass hundreds of (like-minded?) people in crowded city streets or in traffic or on subways they have never seen before and may never see again. Typically they are well educated in the formal sense (advanced degrees; Ivy League credentials are best). They work in banks or in other big businesses or for government agencies or in the professions, usually full-time and sometimes more. They are career- and money-oriented, investment-savvy, and on top of the latest technology. Cosmopolitan and secular, they have little use for religion. They tend to trust government and technocratic expertise. Globally-focused, multicultural, valuing diversity (of faces that is, at least on paper), they are tolerant of any and all lifestyle choices, and committed to “equal rights.” They easily affect a casual sense of superiority, perhaps a natural product of their formal educations and urbaneness. Late children of the Enlightenment, one might call them, the walls of their offices feature their diplomas; those of their condos are adorned with sometimes expensive classic paintings. Knick-knacks brought back from that trip to Europe stand on bookshelves displaying trendy bestsellers they probably haven’t read, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.

The “blues” tend to move around, whether renting or buying and then selling McMansions or upscale condos with multiple guest bedrooms; there is always something bigger and fancier, after all. Unless they are inside gated communities, however, they lock their doors and throw deadbolts at night because of fear of crime: this despite the “experts” telling them violent crime has been falling for years. They have no cognitive dissonance about this.

They do not like guns. Basically, they are afraid of guns, associating them with violent crime and criminals because of what they see on TV. What they know about their groceries is that they come from grocery stores, and that if they want to shop for “health food” there is always Whole Foods. A few can perhaps change the oil in their car or change a tire or do basic household repairs, but it’s easier to hire some marginally visible flunky to do it so they can go back to TV or video games when not at work. Their favorite drinks are wine, foreign beers, and perhaps Scotch; their drug of choice (for those who indulge) is likely to be cocaine (a few may deign to smoke marijuana, because it should be legal, you know). Their musical tastes run to jazz, reggae, so-called world music, maybe some classical, or just the classic rock they grew up with — or whatever is trendy.

The “red” culture of rural regions — such as so-called “flyover country” — is locally oriented, filled with people who have lived in one place and known each other most if not all of their lives. They live with far more green and open space than do city-dwelling “blues,” the latter accustomed to concrete and asphalt and steel. Their pace of life is slower and more relaxed. Ability to work with their hands is something they prize, whether in farming or in assembly-line manufacturing. Earning one’s living solving practical problems with your hands is a badge of manhood, in their view. Their preferred method of education, were they allowed to choose it, would be the apprenticeship, learning a trade by doing, from someone who has already mastered it. “Reds” are family-focused, with extended family dwelling in small towns or on farms (or what is left of them) or down in “the holler.”

They are Christian in a broad sense which can include all sorts of denominations or none at all; what they can’t fathom is a world without a God of some kind in it to provide a basis for salvation and morality. While few will think about the matter much, if they did they might tell you that the hardships and sufferings of this world only derive meaning through insight into some other existence. They don’t tend to trust button-down bureaucrats and other so-called professionals from outside their personal orbits: whether rightly or wrongly, we aren’t here to judge this just now. “Reds” prefer a smaller government that provides basic services such as keeping the streets and roads maintained, delivering the mail and also jailing the handful of troublemakers; but is not otherwise meddlesome, telling them what to do, who to hire in their workplaces, who they must do business with, where they can place Nativity scenes at Christmas, or otherwise micromanaging their lives and communities. A reason they disdain workplace meddling was once stated to me: “Nothing big city liberals do ever works!”

Government bureaucrats and professionals with no callouses on their hands are one thing: aware of vaster differences, “reds” have even less trust for strangers or people who do not look, speak, or act like them; this is akin to indigenous cultures of the past who did not know if gestures from newly-arrived strangers in large ships from elsewhere were overtures of friendship or preludes to an invasion. (Ask Native Americans about this.) “Blue” city-dwellers condemn this as racist or xenophobic, not realizing they are condemning what has been the norm for almost all of human history, the past couple of centuries or so in the West being an anomaly. They haven’t studied history in any depth, though, because it doesn’t make them money.

“Reds,” unlike them, grew up with guns, have known how to use them from childhood, and so are comfortable with them. Seeing guns as a source of protection and safety, as they swill down Miller Lite they find themselves making fun of the “blue” culture’s fear, hidden behind city-bound superiority. They worry, however, that the big city mindset is spreading uncontrollably, like weeds or insects. Their parents and grandparents could leave their doors unlocked at night, but they cannot anymore because of the sense that their surroundings are changing and their culture is under attack. Crime is definitely worse than it used to be, and there are too many people around they don’t know anymore. Some, building the houses, mini-malls, fast-food franchises, and other signs of the “blue” invasion along the interstate highway, don’t speak or understand English.

Since the factories closed and went to Mexico, the “reds” don’t have ready cash to spend, as Walmart and the fast food franchises don’t pay as well. The drying up of local clientele has forced local shops and generations-old restaurants to close, turning once-vibrant areas of downtown into boarded-up structures in front of vacant lots: increasingly run down, dark, quiet, and vaguely frightening. The “reds’” children used to take for granted the availability of work in farming or manufacturing but cannot anymore, and so are forced to leave home and move to the cities or suburbs to go at least to community college to have any hope of finding work. All have a distressing sense of having lost control over their lives. Walmart is full of cheap Chinese crud that breaks or falls apart after a few months or even weeks, as opposed to the products of those skilled craftsmen who, now unable to earn their livings, are drinking themselves into oblivion.

The “reds,” whose living room walls may be adorned with posters featuring local sports teams or NASCAR scenes, turn on their televisions (networks programmed by “blues” in the big cities) and watch facsimiles of themselves being ridiculed or degraded, while lifestyles they find depraved are promoted openly. “Are there no sitcoms without lesbians kissing in public anymore, and where the characters can speak three sentences without swearing?” one such person might ask out of frustration? Then, following the recent election coverage and still smarting somewhat from Barack Obama’s description of them a few years past as “bitter clingers” (to their guns and their God), they hear Hillary Clinton dismiss them as the “deplorables.” Most of them are now on the Internet and increasingly tech-savvy themselves, and so they know about Hillary’s long list of scandals from “alternative” sites. They have to laugh at her description of them, but find their distrust of what the city people have to say having gone up one more notch. Their favorite drinks, lest we forget, are the above-mentioned Miller Lite or Bud (“Beer’s beer!” I once heard one such person say dismissively of imported foreign brands like Becks or St. Pauli Girl); their drugs of choice are marijuana or meth. They don’t care whether these are legal or not; they are readily available, and with all the corruption it is clear: the big city people don’t respect the law, so why should they? Their music is Country & Western, obviously, as it tells hardship stories they can relate to. Some will listen to gospel for the same reasons; many of their youth prefer hard rock cranked up to earsplitting levels because it expresses what they feel inside. Rates of substance abuse and suicide are higher than ever before.

These descriptions are stereotypical, of course, and I don’t claim they apply to any one person or community or everyone in those environments. There are, after all, the construction workers and other common laborers in the cities, all but invisible to the sophisticates unless they need someone to fix that leak. Plus, there are the countless waiters and waitresses who, they will quietly remind you if you ask them, accept tips especially as you look like you can afford it. There are bound to be people with a few characteristics of both. Out in the “boonies” there is the occasional professional who may be fairly liberal in his political leanings but moved there because he thought he could make money more easily: perhaps he’s the only optometrist or podiatrist in town, or the only gastroenterologist at the local hospital. Finally, somebody had to be assigned to manage that Walmart, or oversee the hiring of surly teenagers in that Waffle House or McDonald’s out by the highway.

The “blues” with their formal educations, their secular cosmopolitanism, their respect for “diversity” and their global sensibilities, look down their noses at the tieless and unshaven rural rabble. They casually use words and phrases like redneck, trailer trash, white trash, and so on. Their affect says, “We know what’s best for you and your world, and we’re going to do it whether you like it or not.” Their candidate in this election was Hillary Clinton. With her Yale law degree and her six-figure Goldman Sachs speaking engagements, she was one of them. They might not like everything about her, but — her experience, her wonkish mastery of policy specifics, her superb qualifications generally, as opposed to that toad-faced, abrasive alpha male, that racist, xenophobic, woman-molesting, authoritarian proto-fascist who once spoke of how his celebrity allowed him to grab women’s … er, you know. And on top of that, he has no grasp of the economics of a global economy; he’s a nationalist and a protectionist, and we know what terrible things those are to be.

Stronger Together, Hillary’s slogan, resonated with the “blue” mindset, especially as she was the only real alternative to that nasty piece of alpha-male work who connived his way into the Republican nomination. Gary Johnson wasn’t going to get elected, nor was Jill Stein, not that any city-dwellers outside university campuses took either one seriously.

The rural people — the “reds” — in their “uneducated” fashion, lacking the sensitivities of the city dwellers, respond when they can, “Leave us the hell alone!” In the past, when this kind of response fell on deaf ears, they sucked it up, seeing as they had very little choice. Lose your good-paying factory job; go to work waiting tables in that Waffle House or flip those burgers in the McDonalds, or find a job in that slick new mall three exits down. Their parents had been card-carrying Democrats, but there’s nothing clearer to them now than that the Democratic Party kicked them to the curb years ago.

In 2016, however, they saw a champion and voted for him in record numbers both in the primaries and then in the general: Donald Trump, a businessman instead of a member of the political class, a known quantity from his television appearances, who they saw as speaking their language which isn’t politically correct, and representing their interests even if he is a New York real estate billionaire, and should therefore be a “blue.” Instead he told them, in effect, “your enemies are my enemies,” and gave them back hope for the future. They responded by attending his rallies by the thousands, even at the risk of being physically assaulted by “blue” troublemakers outside.

Make America Great Again resonated with their sense of living in a society with government run amuck, the local economy destroyed, the culture being trashed, the younger generation leaving for the cities out of sheer boredom and coming back from its universities with humongous debt, their heads filled with “socialist” pap from their left wing “blue” professors. America, that is, had stopped being great and the time had come to take their country back!

These two cultures, these two Americas, are incommensurable. What does it mean to say this? The word is tricky to define. The concept behind it is borrowed from basic mathematics: the relationship between rational and irrational numbers is one of incommensurability because the latter cannot be expressed in the form a/b, and so there is no single formal number system able to contain both without residue, a quantity left hanging and unaccounted for. Keeping the technicalities to a minimum, the same basic principle applies to contrasting conceptual systems (as Kuhn and Feyerabend both claimed were illustrated during scientific revolutions) or forms of life (the later Wittgenstein, a major influence on both) and their vocabularies, and to larger cultural systems and the values underwriting them. I would define it thus: two cultural systems are incommensurable if and only if they are unable to be subsumed under a single set of shared norms or values, or expressed within a single shared and larger vocabulary, or brought within a single consensus defined by a single set of rules for resolving conflicts, without residue or a sense of something important not properly accommodated. Were this a journal article we’d need more clarification and specification, but since this is a blog post this will do for now.

It should be clear: the two Americas are incommensurable in their basic outlooks. For starters, one is secular, therefore sees all values as products of this world, and focused primarily on economics (from a globalist standpoint). The other is basically Christian, sees values as rooted outside this world, and is more focused on family and culture, even if this means restricting the economic freedom of corporations to do as they please, such as shipping jobs to cheap-labor countries. Neither one sees as real what is most important to the other. The “blue” culture dismisses the “reds” as uneducated, but worked out, their views of what it means to be educated have almost nothing in common. The former trusts formal university classroom education, credentialing, and technocratic expertise, that which the Ivy Leagues produce being the concept’s center of gravity. It sees knowledge in global or universal terms, which justifies applying it everywhere, including to the recalcitrant “reds” tiny worlds. The “reds,” meanwhile, trust their collective eyes and ears as well as tradition — what has “worked” in the sense of maintaining stability and civility in the past — and otherwise go off immediate experience. They do not understand, much less trust or value, abstract formulations, economic or otherwise. There is a sense in which (although no one in the “red” culture would express matters this way) they see knowledge, apart from Biblical revelation, as local and tactile, based on what can be done with one’s hands by those one knows and trusts, as opposed to what is supposedly universal and abstract. Such ideas shouldn’t be all that unfamiliar: anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz worked out versions of them when investigating undeveloped cultures — undeveloped in the Western Enlightenment sense, of course.

The “blues” value “diversity” which is somehow always a diversity of faces; “conservative” ideas are not allowed in its Halls of Ivy because of their ties to tradition and religion. The “reds” see a diversity of faces as vaguely threatening because of its potential disruptiveness, and because they can view it as having been forced on them. Donald Trump, in this case, represents pushback. If they thought to do so, they could point to the disruptions Muslim migrants are causing all across the open-bordered and increasingly dysfunctional European Union, and which are doubtless contributing to the rising nationalism there: Greece’s Syriza Party was pushback against EU-imposed “austerity” even if it failed. Brexit was pushback which succeeded, as might Marine Le Pen.

The two cultures, the two Americas, are not just incommensurable, they are on collision course. Trump, the most visible product of the “red” culture, hasn’t even been officially elected president; this will not occur until December 19. His enemies in “blue” city civilization know this. I have never seen this level or hostility directed towards an Electoral College winner. Some, as I noted near the outset, are taking the unprecedented step of trying to thwart the Electoral College vote which is needed to officially place Trump in the White House on January 20, 2017. A few Electoral College members themselves are toying with the idea of a revolt. Doing anything this reckless and irresponsible, as I also noted, could bring the two cultures, the two Americas, into open and potentially very dangerous confrontation.

One of the most troublesome features of contrasting incommensurable spheres I haven’t yet mentioned: neither sees the other as legitimate, because each brings its own sense of legitimacy to the table. The “blues” see the “reds” (to use Obama’s phrase again) as “bitter clingers” whose world is doomed to its downward spiral, especially as demographics continue changing and if the manufacturing jobs do not come back. The “reds,” however they came by the conclusion, see the “blues” as bearing primary responsibility for these changes; they didn’t just happen by accident! Their view is indeed unacceptably (to “blue” sophisticates) paranoid and conspiratorial. They see the “blues” as having disrupted their world in the name of their secular gods, money and power, which authorized them to bully, insult, and humiliate because they can. Every time a “blue” columnist or commentator calls Trump a bully or an authoritarian proto-fascist, the “red” who reads or hears this wants to tell her that if she wants to see a bully or an authoritarian or a proto-fascist, she should go look in the mirror.

The problems created by two cultures, two Americas, will not go away, however we see them originating (that is a separate blog post). Existing commentary on both sides of the divide clearly indicates how little either side truly understands, or wants to understand, the other. Clearly, of course, the bulk of money and power lies with the “blues” who control the big banks and other corporations: many of whose footsoldiers surely want essentially the same things from life as the “reds”: a sense of achievement; meaning and purpose, of being somebody and not nobody; connection, companionship, and love. Despite the population concentrations in big cities and urban areas, the “reds” have plenty of numbers on their side; time will tell whether this matters. They are also sufficiently fed up that, having voted for Donald Trump and electing him, they could turn on him and his administration in a heartbeat if for any reason he fails to deliver!

I might as well just say it. The two cultures, the two Americas, cannot reconcile, and cannot exist indefinitely under the same governing roof. That means one of two things, or possibly both. The first: this election cycle has already seen the brewing of a cold civil war, which could turn hot if the “blues” continue with their efforts to impose their values and agendas on the “reds” by force, especially if this includes the continued destruction of their local economies by outsourcing, immigration, and replacing human workers with technology. The other: separation, with the formation of new and autonomous governments, outside each other’s immediate spheres of political authority. Secession stirrings in various states such as Texas and in the Southeast were described as malicious when not dismissed as nuts; but now that “progressive” Californians have floated the idea in the wake of the Trump victory, all of a sudden it isn’t malicious or nuts.

I predict we will see more such talk in the future, probably from both cultures, both Americas. Initially it may go nowhere, of course. But gradually, it will cease to be mere talk as moves are made by secessionists to gain seats in legislatures and then governorships, or perhaps in the form of efforts to partition states when, for example, the “red” hinterlands of Washington State and Oregon decide they want nothing further to do with the “blue” Seattle area, or Portland. Separatists will gain support in many of the same ways Trump has: by appealing to the frustration and anger of those who see themselves as having been thrown to the curb by those with money, power, and a will to humiliate. Their message to the city dwellers won’t be, Make America Great Again, but rather, We Want Out of Your Empire. To be sure, there will be huge hurdles to be crossed in any such move. What happens to Social Security, Medicare, etc.? Whether, and to what extent these will continue to be obstacles, will be an index of how costly it will seem to remain in the “blue” dominated Union, which after all includes Washington, D.C. even as many “reds” now openly sarcastically call it the District of Criminals.

Bottom line: the U.S. is indeed an empire, and it is doomed. It is in decline. Trump will not reverse this in four years, or even in eight, or in 20 if he had that long. The division between the “blues” and the “reds” has been allowed to develop and fester too long, is now too deeply rooted, and doubtless other divisions will emerge into the light of day once the right subjects are broached. Trump’s overriding platform, meanwhile, has been largely economic, so that even he is only partly responding to the concerns of the “red” culture which include myriad social and moral issues in which he has shown, when all is said and done, little interest.

Eventual peaceful partition of states, parts of states, or regions seeking independence and self-governance would be the logical choice. But human nature being what it is, and those who love money and power being who they are, I doubt very much that the coming break-up of the U.S. empire will be peaceful.

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About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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2 Responses to Two Cultures, Two Americas — Post-Election 2016 Edition (Philosophical Reflections on an Empire In Decline)

  1. Thank you Dr. Yates. Very thoughtful essay to be read slowly.
    Unfortunately, I agree with you that the break up of the U.S. empire — which is actually the empire of the globalist conspirators ensconced at the Council on Foreign Relations — will not be peaceful.

  2. Pingback: The “Two Americas”: Further Reflections | Lost Generation Philosopher

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