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 lifestyle.
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 category.
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.