Republicans and Democrats have long clashed on the American political stage in a battle we've come to know as the "culture war." Yet, though Republican and Democratic voters may be opposed on the political spectrum, they are far from being opposites. According to Environics co-founder and Fire and Ice author Michael Adams, Americans who choose to mark an X on voting day have infinitely more in common with one another than they have in common with America's non-voting population. The real "culture war," Adams claims, is between voting and non-voting Americans.
In his latest book, American Backlash: The Untold Story of Social Change in the United States, Adams contrasts the rise of conservatism in the American political arena with its demise in American society on the whole-he claims that not all Americans are becoming more conservative, just American voters. A non-voting American, Adams argues, rejects authority and instead values immediate gratification and the pursuit of his or her self-interests, by engaging in intense experiences (including violent activities) and by purchasing status symbols. A voting American, on the other hand, respects authority and willingly defers immediate gratification for long-term fulfillment through spirituality and by earning his or her peers' respect.
According to Adams, these conflicting groups share a common origin-their supporting ideologies can be perceived as a "backlash" against the progressivism that dominated American politics for the larger part of the twentieth century. FDR's "New Deal" socialism; the idealism behind the feminist, civil-rights and environmental movements; and the hedonism of the countercultural movement offended Republican political and moral sensibilities and bolstered the neo-conservative movement. It also spawned a group of highly competitive individualists who eschew idealism and embrace self-serving consumerist hedonism.
Despite sharing some common ground, Republicans and Democrats won't be merging anytime soon, and with a near fifty-fifty split in support among voting Americans, the 2008 election is anyone's game. The key to winning the next presidential contest, Adams suggests, will be to create a campaign that balances the values of both "core" and "moderate" voters (both are defined and profiled in Adams's book) and convince voters in the middle to pick a side. Adams goes on to name the presidential candidates he'd like to see in a showdown as he believes they best fit the values of Republicans and Democrats: Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, respectively.
I caught up with Michael Adams in the cafeteria of the CBC building in Montreal to talk about the impact of his findings on America's political future:
RH: In terms of the American backlash, you've named two reactions to twentieth-century American progressivism: an increased conservatism among voters and a shift in values in non-voters [toward a hedonistic individualism]. I'm curious about the latter group of people. It isn't as though reverting to traditionalism and completely turning away from it are the only two options-why do you think that the non-voting population has adopted that option?
MA: Well you see how the Canadians and the Europeans went when they latched onto state activism, socialism and intervention-they went all the way ... and the Americans said, "It's not for us, we want return to more traditional values." Traditional American values are: You start with nothing and work your way up. The problem with that is that Darwinism means there are going to be a lot of people left behind.
I think that for those folks for whom civic engagement is a ridiculous idea, actually being informed, participating in parties and getting out to vote just makes no sense ... There is going to be no policy platform that's going to change their lives. The only way that's going to happen is with another Great Depression, where the middle class felt so threatened that they would support state activism. So essentially these folks have given up-it's all about you, it's about working hard in a Darwinist world with escapism because there's lots of stress.
RH: You've noted that following 9/11, between 2001 and 2004, there was a bit of a reversal and resurgence toward traditional values.
MA: Yeah, back to basics, back to work; that headlong direction into nihilism took a little jot up and toward more traditional values.
RH: How lasting a change do you think this will be?
MA: I don't know ... We have the national culture of fear [in America], the fear of other people-the underclass, the kids and the crazy stuff-and the media violence. And then there's the fear that comes now in America about the rest of the world-the terrorism and wars of preemption. And you get the fear of America being activist on the neo-conservative agenda; that generates a reaction-a lot of people out there would like to pop off a few Americans.
If you continue in that way, we can see [the trend] continue ... toward traditional values. If that declines, I suspect it'll continue to go in the direction of escape, hedonisms, thrill-seeking, fun. That appears to be-young people appear to be-headed in that sort of a direction.
RH: Short-term thinkers.
MA: Very short-term... they look like they're living to be rich and famous and they're waiting for an audition to get on The Bachelor. ... They're all ready to audition for that big break. Norma Jean becomes Marilyn Monroe. They believe that if they keep working hard they'll get their big break too.
RH: During the 2008 election and with the upcoming change in leadership, do you think that the war, despite seeming to lose a little of its momentum now, will reenter the spotlight?
MA: Well if you were a conspiracy theorist you would say yes.
RH: Hmmm. I was thinking in terms of linguistic framing. There's the conservatives' ability to make the last election about their issues so that the Democrats were constantly forced to adjust their conversation to address this certain kind of dialogue. The war is a powerful way of re-affirming the push toward traditionalism and, in doing so, bolstering the neo-conservative message.
MA: One would predict that a war footing would be better for Republicans because they're seen as better at defending the nation ... but that's a classic when countries want to unite the population.
RH: Right, you need a common foe.
MA: And the "War on Terror" means there is a common foe forever.
RH: What kind of common foe do you think the Democrats could rally behind to gain control over that linguistic space, or have they just got to adapt?
MA: They have to play the role of optimists with respect to the American dream-working hard and getting ahead-and with respect to environmentalism. I have a proposal for them on environmentalism, which is that they embrace an environmentalism that says we have to be the best in the world. We can't rely on old rusting technology from the nineteenth century. We've got to come up with a hydrogen-powered Hummer. They have to get Americans to again put their faith in political leaders and a more activist agenda-but it's got to be American jobs, American technology, America first.
RH: With the environmental problem, it would be fun to see people have a technological race to see who can be the most environmentally sound country. That would be a great way of energizing the international community to work toward that goal-it's nice to hear that you think that should be integrated into the Democratic platform.
MA: I think that should be something. Now whether Hillary Clinton can articulate that or not [is another question]; but it needs to be optimistic, positive. You're not going to overcome the fear. I mean Hillary Clinton standing there as commander-in-chief just is not going to be as credible as some general or whoever is going to replace Bush. They'll figure out ways of continuing the tradition of George Bush, a guy who's pro-military, strong. You know: "You don't turn the other cheek-you punch back and get yourself a good gun."
RH: In terms of the predictions that you make in the book for the 2008 election-yet another Bush-Clinton match-up.
MA: Pretty off the wall, maybe, but a little bit of fun.
RH: Well the predictions are very fun, and it's nice that the reader can see how directly they stem from the values data that you had. Have you shifted your thinking at all about who would be the likeliest Democrat or Republican candidates?
MA: I wouldn't change a word in this book right now.