When Bush, Cheney and the conservative ideologues pontificate on
the American appetite for energy as an indicator of rational self-interest,
they are defending a "business lifestyle"--one dominated by the
marketplace values of "winner take all" and "live for today." But
we can choose not to be energy gluttons. We can choose another lifestyle--one
that emphasizes sustainability. To provide a reasoned response to
the energy crisis, progressives need to champion their alternative
Conventional American political commentary identifies ideology
along a one-dimensional spectrum: left, center and right. By definition,
the far-left and the far-right are extremes, and the center is moderate.
But this simplistic typology doesn't adequately describe politics
in the United States--where behavior is multi-dimensional, and the
triangle, not the straight line, is a more apt representation.
Recent demographic studies have identified three distinct American
lifestyles. In their book The
Cultural Creatives: How 50,000,000 People Are Changing the World,
Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson describe contemporary society as composed
of "traditionals" (25 percent), "moderns" (49 percent) and "cultural
creatives" (26 percent).
Traditionals are social conservatives who live in the patriarchal,
religious, rural, xenophobic, rules-based family system associated
with the pre-'60s American family. Their moral code is traditional
or family-values centered. The church is their dominant form of
social organization. Christian conservatives can be placed in this
In a second corner of the contemporary political spectrum are the
moderns, the denizens of consumer society. Their moral code is marketplace
values--urban, cynical, hedonistic and short-term in perspective.
The corporation is their dominant form of social organization. From
a media perspective, modernism is the values system that dominates
most of American culture.
Ray and Anderson divide the moderns into four sub groups: "economic
conservatives" who are well-off represent 6 percent--these are the
winners in the winner-take-all morality. The second cluster is "conventional
moderns"--folks who subscribe to marketplace values but haven't
grabbed the brass ring (12 percent). The third subgroup is "the
striving center"--those who are upwardly mobile and religiously
conservative, mostly people of color (14 percent). The fourth cluster
is "alienated moderns" who "reject all of the above in terms of
values and worldviews" (17 percent). "Angry white males" can be
found in this latter category.
In the third corner of the American political triangle, Ray and
Anderson place the "cultural creatives," a catch-all category for
people whose values are other than social and economic conservatism.
Their examples are primarily environmentalists and feminists (60
percent of cultural creatives are women) with a New Age twist. Their
moral code features supportive, nurturing relationships within the
framework of community. Contemporary progressives can be seen as
occupying this vaguely defined niche. As the book suggests, being
a progressive is perhaps best defined as someone who is neither
a social nor economic conservative.
When voters self-identify as conservatives (40 percent), they are
either social conservatives from within the traditional lifestyle
or economic conservatives from within the modern/business lifestyle.
Political independents come from within the third and fourth subgroups
of moderns (strivers or alienated) or they are cultural creatives
who do not identify themselves as "liberal" or "progressive." This
last group of independents are the most likely prospects to join
a revitalized progressive coalition.
To win them over we need to convey a viable alternative to the
culture of marketplace values. We need to clarify our values and
emphasize what we are for rather than what we are against--tying
these values to specific policy issues. In my next column, I will
argue that the energy crisis provides an opportunity to do so.
As always, I welcome your feedback ([email protected]).