Culture Wars/Current Controversies

A Psychological Theory of the Culture War

On class resentment as the byproduct of greater wealth, feminization, and modern communications technology

The American culture war is part of a global trend. The German far right marches against covid restrictions and immigration. In France, Le Pen wins the countryside and gets crushed in urban centers. Throughout the developed world you see the same cleavages opening up, with an educated urban elite that is more likely to support left-wing parties, and an exurban and rural populist backlash that looks strikingly similar across different societies.

What explains this? I think a good theory needs to do two main things. First, it has to explain things that are happening globally by pointing to factors that are operating across borders; otherwise we wouldn’t see the same trends everywhere we look. Second, it needs to explain why this polarization appears to be particularly bad in the United States, hopefully being able to isolate variables that exist here and not in other nations.

This article presents a psychological theory of the culture war, and posits a dynamic social system in which the actions, rhetoric, and behaviors of each side influence the other. People are not seeking their own economic interests nor even working towards a moral vision, but responding to a built-in drive towards trying to achieve status, which involves tearing others down. It’s something of a LARP because those who are most unaware of their own motivations can act with the most certitude, and therefore have the largest effects on our political culture. In its most extreme form, my model suggests that if all the hot-button issues that supposedly cause so much division in this country like abortion and immigration were taken off the table, it wouldn’t have all that much effect on the level of class resentment we have, which is the fuel of the culture war. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I’m sort of tempted to. See this theory as claiming that issues are overrated as causes of our divides, rather than them not mattering.


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