Features, Politics, US Election

Reassessing Cultural Divisions in the United States

If there was any doubt before, this election cycle brought home how divided the U.S. is on issues of national identity. It also brought political and cultural tensions to the surface, displayed in acts of outrage and the strident expressions of the partisans of different views. Old ways of dividing the social landscape no longer apply, and some of the events of the last few years are so bizarre it is difficult to believe, had they been scripted as a movie, the plot could have been pitched as anything other than satire even five years ago. Yet this is the world we wake up to every day.

Consider arch-progressive Michael Moore’s resounding expression of the popular sentiment in support of Trump, or the fact that we now have a president-elect that was once used as a throw-away joke on the Simpsons in 2000, someone who retweets his fans’ remarks, and who campaigned in large part on his business acumen while his business life reads like the scandalous decline of a B-grade Hollywood starlet. This is to say nothing of the more-and-more blatant hypocrisy that pundits and news organizations have been displaying on all sides of the political spectrum.

Events like these indicate that the usual lenses through which we understand the political and cultural scene, the concepts and explanatory frameworks we bring to bear on the social world, no longer offer the resolution needed to keep things in focus. As a consequence, effective group agency is inhibited by fruitless confrontation rooted in misunderstanding. These occasions thereby provide opportunities for reflection on the nature of the breakdown, and for the assembly of a new understanding on the basis of what we learn through that reflection.

Toward that end, I want to highlight two places where it seems to me our concepts have come under stress to the point of fracture during this election cycle, and to offer two distinctions that are meant to reconstruct a better perspective from the result. I will close with a suggestion that educators have a duty to make use of the second distinction in a particular way.

If one thinks of Trump’s voting bloc as ‘conservative’ in the sense associated with the contemporary Republican Party, it is difficult to make sense of Michael Moore’s remarks. At the same time, it is clear that as a populist Trump drew support from people who (in some sense) think of themselves as putting America and Americans first over the interests of extra-national individuals and organizations. Meanwhile, a large bloc of Hillary Clinton supporters, and some who identify as Republican, sees this populist or nationalist sentiment as, at bottom, jingoistic and racist.

This being so, I propose we think of the split in the last election not along Democrat and Republican lines, but rather between urban globalists and non-urban nationalists. This demarcation is not perfect, and I offer it in the spirit of a proposal to be vetted by criticism. Of course, the individuals in question quite often voted for Democrats and Republicans, so that distinction is not to be disregarded. But when our aim is to understand the motivations of those who voted Democrat and Republican, it seems to me that ‘urban globalist’ and ‘non-urban nationalist’ better approximates the divide than ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’ as commonly understood.

The urban/rural division in American culture is a perennial favorite; for an illuminating recent take see Victor Davis Hanson in the City Journal. I have used ‘urban/non-urban’ rather than ‘urban/rural’ because suburban sprawl, and the strip-malled highway system in the eastern half of the country, is home to many of those who would fall in the non-urban camp without living in a rural setting.

Either way, this division in American life is sometimes characterized through the lens of education, with the political positions of non-urban Americans reduced to the rantings of the ignorant and those of urban Americans rendered as elitist and morally depraved. Both tendencies should be guarded against. Urban and rural or non-urban Americans value different things in lifestyle and community. To disregard those differences in favor of a story about the educated and the ignorant, or the moral and the depraved, is to mislocate the source of the disagreements that divide us. Instead, we should strive to be sensitive to the nuanced forms of life that urban and non-urban Americans value.

Coming from a fairly rural middle-class family background, and having spent the last decade among the academic urban class, I find myself particularly dismayed by the way urban Americans tend to look down on rural and agrarian communities. I do not recall a time when an offhand denigrating remark about rural Americans was ever given anything but a pass or affirmation. But rural American habits of mind, deed, and value, conceived in part by contrast with the habits that urban environments offer, run back to the founding of this country. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in correspondence with James Madison:

I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries; as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as in Europe.

Unfortunately, the globalist/nationalist divide achieves some of its most stark and unsettling expression in white nationalism, and that lends itself to another confusion concerning urban globalists and non-urban nationalists. This aspect of the Trump phenomenon is often highlighted in stories about his popularity: e.g. at The Atlantic, The American Spectator, CNN, The New York Times, Newsweek, and thinkprogress.org. Trump’s victory, we are told or intimated, is primarily the product of white racism and it should be treated that way.

It should go without saying that these sources are not all on a par when it comes to standards of impartiality, or of journalistic integrity more generally. Caveat Lector. But while expressions of white nationalism have been a predictable consequence of the rightward expansion of the Overton Window in the wake of Trump’s political rhetoric and unconventional media presence, we should not lose sight of the fact that Trump rode a wave of populism in winning the election. Indeed, comparing the demographics of Trump’s voters to those of Romney in 2012, Trump showed the largest gains among blacks and Hispanics.

Yet these facts too often lead those on the left to double-down on the charge of ignorance  — Republican voters are too stupid to know what’s in their best interest. Rarely is it suggested that different values, and so different interests, lie at the base of the disagreement. Melinda Byerley, a San Francisco CEO, writes:

One thing middle America could do is to realize that no educated person wants to live in a shithole with stupid people….We especially don’t want to live in states where the majority of residents are still voting for things that are against their own interests just because they don’t want brown people to thrive.

The vocal minority of white supremacists notwithstanding, what divides nationalists from globalists in America today is not usefully conceived through the lens of race, and those on the left who reach for that understanding are doing a gross injustice to most of the Americans they classify in those terms. We all would be much better served if the nationalists and the globalists had a more frank and unremitting conversation about the character of this country, both concerning local issues in different states and communities, and in terms of the nation’s role in the world today.

Together these reflections on our situation suggest the following: as we try to make sense of the changing political landscape, we need to avoid the tendency to think that Republican voters are uneducated racists, and that Democrat voters are elitist reprobates. That will require having some alternative notions concerning what unifies and divides Americans today. I propose urban globalism and non-urban nationalism as one way of proceeding.

* * *

A recurring theme in this election cycle was the condemnation displayed, on all sides, to the political opponents of different positions. Thoughtful dialogue went out the window early, and by the end of the election one felt as though one’s sources of news and commentary were obviously bent toward a particular view. Trust in news organizations plummeted, while instances and accusations of ‘fake news’ quickly became commonplace. I propose that one source of this trend was the excessively ideological character of the political conversations we were exposed to.

In political discourse the ideological stance or attitude deserves special contrast with the critical. The ideological stance is characterized by epistemic certainty, and it is brash, monological, and exhortative. The ideologue knows what she thinks, and she knows what you should think, too. The critical stance is characterized by epistemic humility, and it is careful, dialogical, and inquisitive. The critical person sees political conversation as a dialogue, and she is both interested in learning from conversation and willing to change her position on the basis of what she learns.

The ideologue is convinced that she is right, however, and conversation can only be an opportunity to convert non-believers to the Truth, to agree with like-minded thinkers about what the Truth is, or to castigate non-believers as Wrong.

Too often in political disagreement, the ideologue allows herself to move from epistemic to moral castigation — what began as a charge that the ideologue’s opponents are factually wrong resolves itself into an accusation that her opponents are evil. This allows her to leverage social condemnation on those she thinks wrong. When the ideologue is surrounded by similarly-minded ideologues, that condemnation is easy to elicit. And so the political ideologue fosters factionalism in a polity.

One who manifests a critical attitude, however, is careful to give her interlocutor the benefit of the doubt on matters of epistemic concern, and so she is in that regard protected against the slide to moral condemnation that the ideological stance brings with it.

Had there been more critical and less ideological commentary during the last election, we might have hoped to have less invective thrown around. Had there been a more critical and less ideological populace, we might have hoped for a different political landscape. We might also have ended up in a position where news organizations were not deemed so untrustworthy.

* * *

This brings me to a final consideration. I believe that educators have a duty to employ the ideological/critical distinction in a particular way. In their pedagogical guise, these attitudes shape the way a classroom is run. As educators, we are (at least in some cases) presumed to be in mastery over the material that we impart to our students. This involves adopting an ideological stance, as characterized above.

That may be well and good when the subject matter is settled in the discipline. Where the subject is contentious, however, and certainly where the instructor does not have mastery over it, one should cultivate a critical pedagogy. This should be all the more true when the issue in question is of live political interest and the pedagogical setting is higher education (it is for this reason that an organization like the Heterodox Academy is a reassuring sign of the recent times). An academy that fosters political ideology is an academy that, where the politics is contentious, does not prepare its students for the active duties that wait in the workforce and public life.

Notice the clause — we all draw a line somewhere, and to the extent that it comes up we should of course be ideological about, e.g., race war or genocide. By the time students are undertaking higher education, however, that ideological indoctrination should already be taken care of. What should be avoided is ideological pedagogy over issues that remain of ongoing social debate. By adopting a critical pedagogy, on the other hand, the educator fosters the difficult process of trying to sort out what to think about the issue, while instilling in her students the attitudes needed to navigate these disagreements in their professional and public lives.

The pathologies of ideological pedagogy in higher education become particularly evident when students taught by ideologues find themselves around people who were not indoctrinated into their ideology. Without the resources to dialogue with and try to understand the viewpoints of the other, the workplace and social world become riven with discord. As a consequence, some young ideologues seek only like-minded colleagues in business and social circles. This results in the formation of professional and social enclaves of orthodoxy.

And so political polarization spreads out from higher education, into the workforce and the institutions of our everyday lives. To avoid becoming the unwitting progenitors of social discord, the monks of academia must strive to be sensitive to the differences that animate us politically. And that requires adopting a critical stance about matters of contentious social concern.

* * *

There can be no doubt that the current American political landscape is characterized by polarization and extremism in many forms. One question is what to do about that fact. Another, in certain respects prior question, asks why there is so much polarization. I do not think we have the beginning of an adequate answer to the latter question, and for this reason I think we should all of us endeavor to be more critical and less ideological in our stances toward one another.


Preston Stovall is a lecturer at St. Vincent College, an adjunct instructor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and a researcher with Studium Consulting.


  1. Although there is a distinction between urban globalists and non-urban nationalists somewhat interesting because of the proliferation of cities, I doubt that most people think in terms of globalist values as being urban-centered, or that this difference captures the Party lines.

    It should be recognized how the Republican Party has changed during the 20th Century and how it manifests itself today in neoliberal and patriarchal disguises. The Republican Party has since WWII pursued an imperialist military agenda (the only President to oppose this was assassinated). The Republicans have constructed a two-tiered class formation, like pincers, an elite military-business corporate conglomeration and a working class, white, family-values, male-dominant communitarian aggregation. These aligned sectors speak to each other like officers to enlisted personnel.

    The larger context however consists in significant changes in the labor force and higher education where women are predominant, and in two severe social movements: Black Lives Matter, as the recent form of organized Black protest, and LGBTQ organizations represented recently by the legalization of gay marriage.

    The expectation for ‘responsibility of intellectuals’ when the Universities are in full tilt towards an adjunct dominant faculty and the dissolution of a tenured elite faculty by making the distinction between critical and ideological stances a prerequisite depends on whether the competency is present in the public to connect argumentation and evidence against prejudice.

    We have seen several Presidential elections corrupted: the Johnson-Goldwater election by the claim that Goldwater would engage in nuclear war, the Reagun-Carter election by Reagun’s manipulation of the Iranian hostage crisis, Bush-Dukakis election by the racist claim that Democrat’s would permit murderers to go free from jail, both Bush-Jr elections by manipulating the election count in swing states, and now the throwing of the election by gerrymandering and Voter-Id restrictions.

    Certain values like truth, liberty, and equality are not part of any ideological camp or attitude. The rejection of these values, the failure to abide by these values, is the evidence of ideological prejudice. The incoming Republican administration must still address this validity requirement – these values cannot be eschewed or rejected without consequences. It is one thing to address Party platforms and notice their polarity, it is another to campaign for certain values just to foment war and acquire more wealth. Was LBJ, Nixon, Reagun, Bush Sr., or Bush Jr. successful? Did the Republicans make the US stronger or better in any way? The Great Recession, like the Great Depression, speaks to that question. It is not a polarization, Preston Stovall, it is raw domination and power!

  2. John V says

    Great piece.

    I would add as a side note that we as a flawed species are more prone to accepting ideologies over critical thinking, only because ideologies are satisfying,reassuring and essentially a closed loop. Where as critical thinking is messy, hard work and often open ended with an ability to leave a person wallowing in uncertainty, a place which is not so comforting.

    Educators have this biological and monumental roadblock to get around if we are to improve our current situation of society’s screaming matches.

  3. bowneps says

    This is the best article I’ve read on these topics, and I’ve read some good ones. Thank you for pulling it together! As someone who also came from a rural setting, I especially appreciated the reminder that rural used not to be synonymous with unenlightened. I also identified with the difference betwen ideological and critical thinking, and the importance of training students in the latter. I will be recommending this article to my colleagues.

  4. Pretty much a lot of baloney and the solution is hilariously vacuous. Yes, everybody should just “learn to be more critical and less ideological” says the author. If only we would just teach that, rainbows and unicorns would reign. Then despite the fact that the author says that “we don’t have the beginnings of an adequate answer as to why there is so much polarization” he proposes a solution to a question he can’t answer.

  5. I can’t seem to respond to posts individually, but let me just quickly note to the GreenPoisonFrog: I agree the solution you outline is hilariously vacuous. Anyone who thought the prescription “be more critical and less ideological in your political conversations” was going to give us rainbows and unicorns would be nuts. But I didn’t make that proposal as a solution to the question of why we are so polarized; I offered it as a propaedeutic, a condition on being able to have the pointed conversations that will allow us see where, exactly, we’re divided. That was the point, at the end, of saying that the question of why we are so divided is in a certain sense prior to the question of what to do about it. The understanding of why we are so polarized, if it comes at all, will come through more critical and less ideological conversations with one another. My apologies if that wasn’t clear enough in what I wrote.

  6. @bowneps
    Thanks bowneups and John V, I’m glad you got something out of it. I’d say I agree that critical thinking is messy and hard, leaving us in a place of uncomfortable uncertainty. But we can try to cultivate an appreciation for that state, or at least to come to see its value. That recalls a remark from Timothy Leary that Tool sampled to good effect:


    Also, we’d all do well to listen to more Tool.

  7. Well, evidently the ‘reply’ function is working now. Thanks Frederick (if I may), this was helpful. I agree that values like truth, liberty, and equality cross ideological divisions, and that one indication of ideological prejudice is the violation of these values. And you’re no doubt right that most people in America don’t think of globalism as a set of values associated with urbanism. That’s given me pause, so let me try to clarify what I mean (or should have meant) by urban globalist and non-urban nationalist.

    First, let me remark that the point of the label ‘urban globalism’, rather than ‘globalism’, is to allow that there can be rural or non-urban globalists, but that it’s the urban globalists that form one side of the divide I’m drawing. And by ‘globalist’ I have in mind the kind of people who identify more with citizens of London, Berlin, and Brussels than they do the communities in the U.S. that Melinda Byerley described as “shithole[s] with stupid people”, and of which Kevin D. Williamson, writing in the National Review, said “they deserve to die…they are negative assets, they are indefensible…[a] selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles”. That’s the kind of globalism/nationalism I have in mind. It is a virtue of this classification, I think, that a Republican like Williamson and a Democrat like Byerley will both count as globalists.

    Now consider the middle-class Americans in non-urban areas that historically voted Democrat but identified with Trump’s populism. I work part time in the Sewickley Valley in Pennsylvania, 20 miles north of Pittsburgh, and as the election approached I was shocked at the amount of Trump support that was on display along the highways and in the communities outside of Pittsburgh. Talking with people, reading around, and having whatever sense I do of things, these people seem motivated by a sort of nationalism that is at odds with sentiments like those expressed by Byerley and Williamson. At the same time, they tend to have a distaste for the urban lifestyle.

    Nevertheless, it’s true that some globalists on the left are not urban in any useful sense. For this reason, the urban globalist/non-urban nationalist classification doesn’t divide along the standard Democrat/Republican line. That’s part of the point, of course, as I’m suggesting we redraw some of these boundaries.

    I also want to point out that it is not a consequence of this classification that the non-urban globalists get lumped together with the non-urban nationalists. So, the non-urban globalists go undiscussed on my analysis (as do the urban nationalists). Is that a damning objection? I don’t think so, but I’m willing to consider otherwise. To me, it seems that urban globalism and non-urban nationalism were animating the bulk of the electorate. As for an explanation in terms of the Republican party and its “neoliberal and patriarchal guises”, I’m not quite sure what to say. I suspect we disagree on too much of the groundwork concerning what sorts of forces are at play, and what sorts of explanations reasonable, as to make it much use to go down that road.

    I do agree that changes in the labor force and higher education in the second half of the twentieth century bear some of the weight for the current situation. I also think the promulgation of more critical and less ideological political attitudes among American educators depends on a functioning University system and an educated populace willing and capable of distinguishing evidence from prejudice. Going forward, I hope more critical educators are found in American education and, as a result, a more critical populace results (I’m thinking in particular of problems in the humanities and social sciences, about which there finally seems to be some organized pushback in the Heterodox Academy).

    You write of the imperialist military agenda the Republicans pursued after WWII, but we should remember that this was a project that the American government, as a whole, agreed to with Europe and the rest of the ‘free world’ after the war. America would keep the peace through military buildup and long-term military expansion overseas, European nations would contribute token efforts as they rebuilt and reconstituted a European order, and the U.S. dollar would be the reserve currency for international trade (giving us the benefit of not having to convert our money when we trade in the global market). So, we live in a time where not only is the U.S. the only nation to field supercarriers, but our carrier fleet is larger than the rest of the world combined.

    This was a plan worked out and agreed to by people all across the post-war political system, and the continued obeisance to this policy on the part of American politicians has remained a clear priority for both Democrats and Republicans. The Democrats were as complicit as the Republicans in the post-war military buildup, the economic depression of the working class in favor of cheap labor and global business, and the propagation of family values that large segments of the population find distasteful or immoral.

    Any quibbling about where the brunt of the blame is placed looks like typical political disagreement to me. And I think we should be rethinking these things. The second half of the twentieth century saw the American political system bend itself toward a global order where the United States was a military and economic powerhouse on the basis of the overt and covert manipulation of financial, political, and labor markets. Here again it doesn’t seem to me that the Republican/Democrat division is all that helpful in understanding what happened.

    Unfortunately, I don’t know what to say about how to map urban globalist and non-urban nationalists back onto that discussion. I’ll have to give it some thought—feel free to jump in again, and thanks for the chance to think through this stuff some more.

  8. John Aronsson says

    This rural/nationalist – urban/cosmopolitan stuff is old wine in new bottles.

    For at least 400 years Anglo-American politics has frequently slipped into and out of the county party – court party model. Since 1640 the country party has always tended to be more democratically republican favoring local control and the court party has always tended to be more arbitrarily authoritarian and centrally controlled.

    In England, there were the parliamentarians against the monarchists followed by the levellers against the grandees followed by the grandee Whigs against the monarchists after the Restoration.

    In the Colonies, and later in the US, the same was true. In the Bay Colony, the settlers had to fight for self-government against the grantees named in the Charter. The settlers won and that is what distinguished American democracy from the whiggish sort of democracy in the UK.

    Before the Revolution, the struggle was between the inland townsmen against the coastal merchants and clergy. This continued through the Revolution, when the factions started describing themselves as republicans and Whigs. A few years later it was the anti-Federalists or Democratic-Republicans against the Federalists. These were all fundamentally country party – court party disputes and they involved the same issues we see today.

    The problem with American history, as it is taught, is that it ignores everything that happened before 1765 and ignores the economic, cultural and political divisions that had existed in American society for 200 years before 1765. The same divisions continue to this day.

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