Going our separate ways

Welcome To The Autonomous States of America

Written by Herb Bowie and published in Medium.com 5/5/2022

Poster map of United States of America with state names
Image Credit: iStock / FoxysGraphic

Based on a recently leaked draft majority opinion, it now seems virtually certain that Roe v. Wade will be overturned by the US Supreme Court sometime this summer.

I say this because the arguments contained in the leaked draft really leave no room for ambiguity or doubt or equivocation: they unflinchingly lambast the original Roe v. Wade decision as deeply flawed, and without a single redeeming judicial characteristic.

And so, with one breath, the house of cards holding up universal abortion access in America appears about to fall.

Instead, every state will once again be empowered to set its own rules on abortion, and we will have taken one more step away from the United States of America, and towards the disjointed, discombobulated, and largely autonomous fifty states of middle North America.

In many ways, this should not be surprising.

We know that a drive for autonomy is one of the key motivators for all humans. And we know that local autonomy is one of the Core Design Principles for the Efficacy of Groups, even as group sizes scale to larger populations. And so, quite naturally, each of our fifty states wants to assert and express its independence from our federal government.

And we know that, as a country, the US is riven by vast differences between its various parts. Consider:

  • We have two states that are not part of the contiguous, continental US at all, with one, Alaska, being close to polar, and the other, Hawaii, being close to equatorial.
  • Even within the contiguous 48 states, we have a number of separate regions that are very different from each other in significant ways: the Pacific coast, the Southwest, the Western plains, the Midwest, the Northeast and the Southeast, just to name the obvious ones. Differences in climate, history, culture, economics and degrees of urbanization are just some of the ways in which these regions differ from one another.
  • We have a number of states with significant coastlines, along one of two different oceans, with many of these states containing at least one major seaport, and one international airport, providing easy and regular access for goods and people entering and leaving the country.
  • On the other hand, we have a number of inland states that are landlocked, and harder to access, especially for international commerce and travel.
  • We have a number of highly populous urban areas — generally close to oceans, or to our Great Lakes, and/or to our national borders — but much of our country consists of vast tracts that are still sparsely populated.

Looking back on our US history, we can also see that some of the phenomena that once brought us together as a nation have been on the decline for some time now. Consider:

  • When the US was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, we came together as a nation to defeat fascism in WW II.
  • During the Cold War, and the race to land a man on the moon, fears of communism brought us together as a nation.
  • Broadcast TV news, as presented on our three major networks, helped to bring us together as a nation, as we all viewed the same images, with largely congruent commentary, at virtually the same time.

For the last several decades, however:

  • Technology has fragmented and fractured our news media.
  • Globalization has diluted our national identity, without providing any sort of cohesive new larger identity capable of serving as a suitable replacement.
  • Starting with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1981, our federal government has often been seen as bloated, unhelpful, ineffective, bureaucratic and guilty of massive overreach.

On top of all this, we have the anthropological phenomenon of schismogenesis going on, which I have recently learned about through the book The Dawn of Everything, by Davids Graeber and Wengrow. This book presents multiple instances in early human times when two different societies in close proximity to one another, and fully aware of each other, seemed to develop in contrarian ways that can only be explained by their innate urges to just be different from those other folks.

And so, when we look at what we think of as the partisan divide in our country, we at some point may have to accept that this is not a temporary aberration — some deviation from the historical norm that is bound to diminish over time simply through a regression toward the mean — but a more-or-less permanent feature of our national identity.

What then?

  • We may see more US citizens and companies voting with their feet, to move to one state or another, based on differences in things like abortion access.
  • The Democratic party, in particular, may find itself challenged to refocus its efforts to target governorships and state legislatures rather than placing so many of its eggs in the federal basket.
  • The forces of aggrievement that increasingly seem to power our politics may well swing in the direction of more progressive interests: overturning Roe v. Wade might well take the wind out of Republican sails, and start to fill Democratic equivalents, as women are denied abortions and forced by the state to bear unwanted children.
  • Republicans may well find that they should have been more careful about what they wished for, as their governors and legislatures become freed to do more truly stupid and terrible things, and their citizens begin to take a harder look at the realities their votes have engendered, and begin to experience buyer’s remorse.

Many of us may not like what this brave new world of disarray will look like, but at least for now, there may not be much we can do to hold it back.

If Republicans Succeed

What Happens When the GOP Catches the Car?

When minority rule and unpopular policies collide

Written by George Dillard and published in Medium.com 5/5/2022

Wikimedia Commons

My dog hates UPS trucks (and Amazon trucks, and motorcycles, and mail trucks). We’ll be walking on a sidewalk when the hated delivery guy drives by, and she’ll mightily lunge and strain to get at him. But, of course, she’s leashed, so (hopefully) we’ll never find out what would happen if my dog had a climactic showdown with the UPS truck.

The Republican Party is like my dog (in this regard only — my dog is far more kind, dignified, and lovable than most of the current GOP). They’ve been straining toward objectives that seemed unreachable, but have been restrained from reaching them. But they’ve also been gnawing on the leash that holds them back. The leash seems about to break, and we’ll see what happens when the Republican Party gets exactly what they’ve wanted for so long.

What does the GOP want? A set of staggeringly unpopular policies. The modern GOP stands for (as far as I can tell; the party no longer has an official platform):

  • Fewer restrictions on guns
  • More restrictions on abortion
  • Tax cuts for the wealthy
  • Making it harder to vote
  • Undermining the legitimacy of our democracy
  • Inaction on climate change

All of these policy initiatives are unpopular, some of them staggeringly so:

Republican politicians have spent the last decade or so — especially since Donald Trump took control of the party — performatively promising more and more radical action, especially on culture-war issues like abortion and guns, to their base. The hard-core partisans love it and have rewarded politicians who have taken the most extreme positions on these issues.

In my state of Ohio, the recent Republican Senate primary was a good example of this. It became a contest between several candidates, some of whom used to seem to be reasonable, to see who could chuck the reddest meat to the base. They kissed Trump’s ring (despite most of them having opposed him in 2016), glorified guns, burned facemasks, and lied about the election in a disgusting race to the bottom.

The modern GOP has had a great time chasing these particular cars. They’ve raised millions of dollars and won low-turnout primaries by promising to implement extreme policies that the broad majority of Americans oppose. They’ve created a whole outrage industry on cable news and the internet that encourages their base to pressure politicians in more extreme directions.

But, at the same time as their policies have become less popular, the Republicans have been gaining more actual power in government. They’ve spent the last few decades systematically taking over school boards, gerrymandering state legislatures, filling the federal judiciary with right-wingers, and using the pro-rural biases of the Senate and Electoral College to gain more power than their popular support merits. Now the GOP controls most state legislatures and the federal judiciary. After the midterms, they’ll likely control both houses of Congress. They very well may win the White House in 2024. They’re homing in on that UPS truck.

The obvious test case here is abortion. Let’s imagine that the Supreme Court goes through with its apparent desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. For many on the right, this is the summit of their political mountain. They can make good on decades of promises and hard work (including breaking many of the norms surrounding Supreme Court justice nominations — remember Merrick Garland?) by… doing something that a very consistent majority of Americans (the number has varied between 52%-66% since 1989) definitely don’t want to see.

We’re about to find out what happens when two of the big political trends of the last several decades — the increasingly unpopular extremism of the Republican Party combined with its increasing ability to exert power over all three branches of government due to demographic and structural advantages — collide.

Of course, these two trends are related. One reason that the GOP has been able to become extreme (exemplified by the Ohio Senate seat that will likely pass from “reasonable moderate” Rob Portman to “shameless Trump sycophant/culture warrior” J.D. Vance) is its structural advantage. The party knows that, through gerrymandering and hardball tactics, they can wield power despite the fact that they are in the minority most of the time. Look at the conduct of many Republican-controlled statehouses — many representatives in safe seats feel emboldened to pursue truly extreme policies.

Need I remind you that the GOP has only won the popular vote in a presidential election once since 2000 while winning the Electoral College in three of the six elections in that period? It’s not just the presidency — according to FiveThirtyEight, “the House map has had a Republican bias since at least 1968,” while the Senate has leaned toward the GOP since the 1940s. These structural advantages mean that the GOP gets more say over non-elected parts of the government, too — remember that Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, likely three-fifths of the coalition that will eviscerate Roe, would not be Supreme Court justices if the popular vote decided presidential elections (Samuel Alito, who wrote the draft abortion opinion, would likely not be on the court either, had Al Gore become president by popular vote in 2000).

We’ve been living in a country that, while not explicitly ruled by a political minority, has been veering in that direction for a while. The political minority has been doing unpopular things, all the while subverting our democratic order. It’s likely to soon do some even more unpopular things that will make it even more of a minority.

The big question is — what happens after that? It’s possible that the GOP enacts its agenda, and then becomes toxic enough that it decisively loses a few elections, causing it to moderate its positions. It’s also possible that the GOP enacts its unpopular agenda and becomes even more unpopular, but continues to win its fair share of elections due to its structural advantages.

What would happen if, despite losing the popular vote far more often than not, a minority party inflicted its agenda on an unwilling public? Would our system hold, or would a situation like this unleash unpredictable forces?

I hope we don’t have to find out.

Abortion Decision Draft

What’s Missing from Alito’s Decision to Revoke the Right to Abortion

In a leaked draft, the Justice points to “history and tradition” but ignores the context of both the past and the present.

By Jessica Winter and published in the New Yorker May 3, 2022

Just in time for Mother’s Day, a draft of the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the Supreme Court case focussing on the constitutionality of a fifteen-week abortion ban in Mississippi, was leaked to Politico, which published it on Monday night. In the draft, Justice Samuel Alito repeatedly cites the Fourteenth Amendment, which specifies that any right conferred by its due-process clause must be “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” The right to an abortion—which Roe v. Wade and its successor, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, ascribed to the due-process clause—has no such roots, Alito argues. “Until the latter part of the 20th century,” he writes, “there was no support in American law for a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Zero. None.” Alito is entirely correct that, in 1973, the Supreme Court was somewhat out of step with its time in codifying women’s rights. When Roe was decided, a married woman in the United States needed her husband’s permission to get a credit card, something that did not change until 1974. No state outlawed marital rape until 1975. No man was found liable for sexual harassment until 1977. Pregnancy was a fireable offense until 1978. Alito does not itemize forms of gender-based subjugation that persisted after Roe, many of which might be persuasively argued as “deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition.” But the history of such discrimination offers helpful context for why some conservatives might have seen the legalization of abortion—and the freedom that it conferred on women—as so radical, so potentially destructive to the social order, that they would spend nearly fifty years working toward its reversal.

Other, more recent Supreme Court decisions have rested on the presumption of a right to privacy in the due-process clause—Lawrence v. Texas, for example, which struck down so-called sodomy laws across the country, or Obergefell v. Hodges, which enshrined the right to same-sex marriage. Some conservatives viewed these progressive victories in the same apocalyptic terms as they did Roe, and some progressive activists are legitimately concerned that, if finalized, the decision in Dobbs will open the door to dismantling L.G.B.T.Q. rights. But the draft opinion, which upholds Mississippi’s ban on abortion after fifteen weeks of pregnancy, is careful to specify that reproductive rights are special, even unique. No other issue involves “the critical moral question posed by abortion”—i.e., the rights, the standing, the precise ontology of “fetal life,” “potential life,” or “an unborn human being.” This uncertainty, Alito writes, requires the Court to “return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” He adds, “At the time of Roe, 30 States still prohibited abortion at all stages. In the years prior to that decision, about a third of the States had liberalized their laws, but Roe abruptly ended that political process.” (The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg saw Roe in broadly similar terms—as an interruption to a more organic, less contentious advance of reproductive rights—albeit from the other side of the aisle.) Roe intruded on the will of the people, Alito contends. The decision was “exceptionally weak,” an “abuse of judicial authority,” “egregiously wrong from the start,” and one that “short-circuited the democratic process.”


If a majority of the Supreme Court decrees that Roe is, at its core, a subversion of American democracy, then there is some symmetry in the fact that four of the five Justices voting to end it were appointed by men who won the Presidency despite losing the popular vote, that three of them were appointed by a man who was twice impeached, and that one was appointed to an essentially stolen seat. A majority of Americans support abortion rights, but Republican-controlled legislatures in heavily gerrymandered states do not, and it is those lopsided governing bodies that are responsible for Mississippi’s fifteen-week ban, for Texas’s six-week ban, and for bills that would restrict or ban abortions in at least twenty-one other states should Roe be officially overturned. On the national level, gerrymandered districts in the House, conservative overrepresentation in the Senate, and Joe Manchin’s dedication to the filibuster will almost certainly doom any federal action that President Biden may attempt. Minoritarian rule, regardless of its merits, is also deeply rooted in this nation’s history and tradition, and it is grimly easy to foretell what will result from it now: an increase in adverse maternal-health outcomes, especially for poor women and Black and brown women; unjust prosecutions of women who suffer miscarriages; enormous pressure on already overtaxed clinics in states that preserve abortion rights; and more.

To the layperson, at least, the decades-long debate—undertaken by scholars on the left as well as the right—about if or where a right to abortion is found in the Constitution can look like a pedantic fixation. Childbirth can be physically and psychologically debilitating, and so can parenthood, even in the most favorable and desired circumstances; it would not seem to require a law degree to determine that carrying an unwanted pregnancy to term and being forced to give birth is a matter of life and liberty. Abortion rights are only a part of one of the central, most vexing, most consequential questions of our entire judicial system: Who does your body belong to? Who is in possession of you, of your self, at any given moment in your life? Is it you? Is it your parent, is it your spouse or sexual partner, is it a physician, is it a police officer or prison warden, is it a state legislature, is it the God you pray to? Is it Samuel Alito?

Lewis Powell, a moderate Nixon appointee to the Supreme Court, voted with the majority in Roe, following an incident in which a young colleague at his law firm came to him in desperation after his girlfriend bled to death as a result of a botched abortion. (Powell intervened with the local prosecutor on the young man’s behalf, and no charges were filed against him.) Powell was confronted with a body that had been harmed by the law, and he acted accordingly. In the Dobbs decision, Alito nods a bit at women’s lived experiences in a manner at once abstract and upbeat, implying that the need for abortion has diminished since 1973, owing to weakened stigmas against single mothers, prohibitions on pregnancy discrimination, and the fact that parental leave “is guaranteed by law in many cases,” among other reasons. He does not mention that American women have the highest maternal-mortality rates in the industrialized world, that America is the only industrialized nation without mandated paid leave, that sixteen per cent of its children live in poverty, that it spends something like two per cent of what some Scandinavian countries do on day care per toddler. Alito does not quantify what the end of Roe means, nor does he personify it; there are no women here. There is “the womb”—the generic vessel outside of which the fetus cannot survive—but there is no body. For all the suffering and havoc that may result from this decision, it is a bloodless text, on a matter that is all blood.

The Nine Tribes of American Politics

There’s so much more than “Red versus Blue”

Photo by Harry Quan on Unsplash

Written by Daniel Mcintosh and published in Medium.com 5/2/2022

The American political system, a “first past the post” system of elections, leads to unnatural division in American politics. Republican and Democratic, Red and Blue, one of the few beliefs all share is they have a fundamental disagreement about core American values. To some degree, that’s true. But these two groups are also coalitions of people with disagreements among themselves. They have more in common than they believe, and many people do not fit into either side.

The Pew Research Center has studied the American electorate for decades. Pew’s public opinion research began in the early 1990s. It tracks economic, social, and demographic trends. It monitors social media. Pew manages an American Trends Panel of over 10,000 adults selected at random from across the U.S. whose attitudes are tracked over time. The methods are complex and surveys are “raked” to compensate for the known variations in the population. It’s expensive to do. It’s cross-checked. And it’s the most reliable picture of the American public.

And guess what? It doesn’t fall into simple categories of “Red” and “Blue”.

The nine tribes

To make sense of the values of the American people requires a typology of no less than nine distinct groups. Some are part of the Republican coalition. Some vote with the Democrats. Some are political independents. Some refuse to get involved with American politics at all. If you wonder which group you fall into before we proceed, take this quiz. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers — they are questions of perceptions and values. The quiz shows where you are most comfortable among the nine tribes of American politics.

Pew’s labels for the nine tribes, their distribution among the general population, and their involvement with the political parties are:

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

It may not be so clear to their political opponents that “committed conservatives” have deep differences with the “populist right,” and both are uncomfortable with “flag and faith conservatives.” There are “never Trump” Republicans. “Democratic mainstays” have deep differences with “establishment liberals” and both are uncomfortable with the “progressive left.” Both Joe Manchin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez criticize Joe Biden — but from very different perspectives.

And the “stressed sideliners”? Fifteen percent of the public has a mix of liberal and conservative views but shares a minimal interest in politics. Most are women. Most are White. They have less formal education and live in lower-income households. They also have a lower than average sense of social trust. Only ten percent of them bother to vote. For many of them, it doesn’t seem to be worth the effort. When they vote, they split their votes between both coalitions.

The Republican coalition

The Republican voters are three very different conservatives, plus libertarians who voted for Trump but want him to leave.

Flag and faith conservatives are the most likely to say that any political compromise is “selling out on what you believe in.” They are, as the name implies, the most likely to believe that government should promote and protect (their) religion and its values. White and Christian, they are also firm believers in American exceptionalism: God places the U.S. above all other nations and America has a responsibility to lead the world from a position of strength. They are an important part of the Trump core, more likely to say the 2020 election was stolen, and least concerned with the January 2021 attack on the Capitol. Many of those who stormed the Capitol were from this group.

Committed conservatives also express conservative views across all issues, but without the stridency. They are open to compromise on issues of immigration and have a more nuanced understanding of America’s role in the world. They are the most likely to see the business of America to be business and to accept that a global economy requires a global perspective.

The populist right is noteworthy for having less formal education and being the most likely to live in rural areas. They are very critical of both immigrants and corporations. They are also a core of the Trump base and are sometimes willing to take violent action on his behalf.

The ambivalent right is the youngest group, and the least committed to the Republican party. They agree with pursuing small government, but that’s because they believe the role of government is to leave them alone. Market-oriented, they see issues of race and gender as better left to emergent social change than government intervention. More libertarian than other groups, they voted for Donald Trump but have no respect for him as a person. Unlike other groups, they support legal abortion and the decriminalization of marijuana. The largest group in the Republican coalition, it is also the least religious.

The Democratic coalition

The four tribes in the Democratic coalition range from political moderates to democratic socialists.

Democratic mainstays are unshakable supporters of the New Deal and the legislation of the 1960s and 1970s to protect women and minorities. However, they see little reason to further extend these reforms, believing that America has no need for radical change. The oldest of the Democrats, most identify as moderates. They are more comfortable with FDR and JFK than they are with AOC or Karl Marx. They fight for social security and against affirmative action. The largest group in the Democratic Party sometimes fears the Party is too busy pandering to the Left to listen to them and their needs.

The establishment liberals share with the democratic mainstays a distrust of radical change. Preservation of what they have achieved — always. Experimentation with reforms to better reach the promise of political and economic equality, yes, but never at the risk of radicalism. They agree that there are problems that need to be addressed, but one step at a time. These are the people willing to entertain reform of the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) but oppose the creation of a national health care system similar to those common in Europe.

The progressive left rejects what is and supports fundamental structural changes to address injustice based on race, sex, gender, or sexual orientation. Many see Europe as a model for the future of the U.S. They are the best-educated group, relatively young, and the only tribe in the Democratic Party that has a majority of non-Hispanic Whites. They also include the emerging democratic socialist bloc in the Congress and the Party.

The outsider left, like the ambivalent right, are both the youngest members of the coalition and the ones with the least personal loyalty to it. While they voted as a bloc for Joe Biden, they feel frustrated with the political system. They aren’t so much pro-Democrat as anti-Republican. If the ambivalent right is where one is most likely to find right-libertarians, the outsider left is the place to find left-libertarians. Both groups want personal liberty, but the outsider left believes the only way to achieve it is to use government as a countervailing force to compensate for the inequities built into the economic and political system, while the ambivalent right sees the government as a cure worse than the disease.

What are they fighting about?

Pew identifies two issues as the dividing lines in American politics: racial injustice and the size of government. The Republican coalition either does not see racial inequality or sees it as something that is beyond political intervention. The Democratic coalition unites in perceiving a serious problem with racial inequality but differs over how much change is required to deal with it: working within the system or changing the system at its roots.

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

Within each coalition, the differences are as great as the common ground. While Democrats are more likely than Republicans to prefer a larger government, only the progressive left favored that services be greatly expanded. The Republicans agree that government should be smaller. They differ on what it should do: enforce traditional values, or get out of the way.

Is there room in the middle?

The differences within each coalition and, in particular, the loyalties and values of the youngest members of each coalition suggest there is a middle ground that could form the core of a new political party. The populist right differs from the rest of the GOP over issues of taxes and economic policies. In their views on corporate profits and taxes on the wealthy, this group has more in common with the Democrats than they do with the Republicans.

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

Another area of common ground regards the standing of the U.S. in the world. Six of the nine tribes — ranging from establishment liberals to the populist right — describe the U.S. as among the best countries in the world. Only a majority of the faith and flag conservatives believe the United States stands above all other countries. Only in the progressive left and the outsider left are a majority willing to say there are countries better than the U.S.

The greatest number of self-identified independents, people who could serve as the core of a third political party — among the outsider left, the stressed sideliners, and the ambivalent right — poll near the center of American politics: conservative on economic issues, libertarian (left and right) on social issues. These young people are located to become the cohort to replace the democratic mainstays at the center.

Pew Research Center, Creative Commons

Unfortunately, these are also the people with the least engagement with American politics. Perhaps they are waiting for somebody who speaks for them. But the leaders of each of the major political parties have worked for decades to institutionalize themselves as the only choices available to the voters. We’re less likely to see a new party emerge than a capture of one by elements of its coalition, followed by a migration of other members of each coalition to adapt to the new political realities.

What do Americans have in common?

In global terms, the United States is a deviant case. Whether that deviance is a positive thing or negative depends on which of the nine tribes you are in.

The World Values Survey (WVS) is an international effort to identify people’s values and beliefs all around the world. Begun in 1981, it has grown from a Eurocentric study into a network of social scientists conducting surveys in almost 100 countries that enables one to trace the relative positions and movements of cultural civilizations. They plot their findings across two dimensions:

  • traditional versus secular, and
  • survival versus emancipation

Tradition emphasizes deference to authority in religion, tradition, family, and nation. Traditional cultures are local, nationalistic, exclusionary, and prefer stability over change.

Secularism emphasizes reason, experimentation, acceptance, and change.

Survival values economic and physical security. It also includes ethnocentrism, intolerance, and low levels of trust.

Emancipation and self-expression values give priority to reason and tolerance (or celebration) of diversity and equality among peoples, sexes, genders, and sexual orientations. They encourage the protection of the environment, as well as greater participation in political decisions and civic life.

Researchers plot these values at right angles: tradition to secularism on the X-axis, survival to emancipation on the Y-axis.

Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map — World Values Survey 7 (2020), Creative Commons

The general model of the survey is that modernization is important, but only in how it relates to religious and cultural traditions. While the position of any country on the map changes with time, it drifts slowly. Our history and our culture shape us. For example, while protestant Europe is less religious than ever before, it maintains values that shape its citizens and socialize its immigrants.

American politics and culture wars

It also is why “culture wars” have become so important in American politics. Note that the United States is less secular than most of Europe, and more oriented to self-expression than most of the rest of the world. It lies near the intersection of the English-speaking world, Catholic Europe, and Latin America. That means it is more likely to get into arguments about matters of values, and more likely to tie those value arguments to religious positions. Hence we have the conflict between “faith and flag conservatives” who might support a constitutional amendment requiring a president to be an evangelical Christian and a “progressive left” that rejects any notion of public policy grounded in (and for) any religion.

So while America is unique, because it sits in a special region of the global distribution, it also varies in terms of the two dimensions. Within the global chart, we can make a similar chart for the nine American tribes:

McIntosh, 2022, Creative Commons

The midpoint between tradition and secularism is the dividing line between the Democratic and the Republican coalitions. Midway between survival and emancipation values is the dividing line between those who see their way of life at risk and those who do not. The American “political spectrum” runs diagonally, from the bottom left (radical fundamentalists) to the upper right (radical progressives).

Again, this is not the full range of possible political ideologies or values. You don’t see serious calls for Islamic theocracy or a return to monarchy. America as a whole is near the middle of the map between tradition and secularism and left of the center in emphasizing personal empowerment over group stasis. There is also an extensive region in the center of the American political map where it is possible for parties to compromise and agree, even if the radicals at each end of the spectrum perceive all of “the other” as the enemy.

America needs a conversation among its tribes

America needs a variety of perspectives because each points to one of a series of fundamental truths that Americans ignore at their peril. The conservatives are right: society is miraculous and more fragile than most people believe. Humans are not insects: we have not evolved to live and function in large groups. Our saving grace is we have developed the capacity for culture: tradition, religion, laws, norms. Culture makes modern society possible and maintains it.

But the progressives are right, too: the culture we have is not the only culture possible, nor is it the best in terms of the emancipation of human potential as individuals and as a society. In addition, as circumstances change, cultures must adapt. Experiments are sometimes required. Diversity is not something to deny or repress, but to celebrate. It is our diversity, as well as our traditions, that provides the foundation that makes resilience possible. Experiments are important. Change is necessary.

And the moderates have something equally important to add: many experiments fail. Too great a step in any direction, too quickly, risks catastrophe. Either it does not cope well with the changes in the world (including both the physical world and other cultures), or it prompts a reaction that swings a society to fundamentalism that claims to bring the society “back” (by jihad, or by Trump) to a mythological “golden age” when it was “great.”

We try to avoid these failures by anticipating consequences. We apply political ideologies and the best science available. But the reality is too complex to foresee, too sensitive to initial conditions, and so influenced by unanticipated consequences that a prediction (any prediction) is little more than a guess. Humans get things wrong, and we have to plan for that. The conservatives remind us we are on unsure footing. The progressives remind us we have to keep moving forward. The moderates remind us to take small steps and be ready to pull back when the path gives way.

America needs the insight of every tribe if it is to survive and improve. And except for a few criminals and sociopaths, most people are good. They mean well, even if they disagree on what the good life is, or how to best achieve it. An honest conversation between them, with compassion for fears and dedication to facts, is our best chance to create an America where both survival and emancipation are real, and traditions can coexist within a larger secular framework.