Values in the Present Tense

How to unite the tense Divided States of America

The United States has rarely been less united than it is now. The present tense state of the Union sees Democrats and Republicans who can barely hold a civil thought about each other, far less a civil discussion to open the way to mutual understanding and reconciliation. Just under half of America voted to elect Donald Trump as their president. Their vote echoes the hopes and fears of the majority of Germans who voted to elect Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Some may have been unaware at the time, but they voted to remove democracy. I am one of many who find it difficult to imagine how democracy in the US would have survived another Trump presidency.

The Human Paradox

The typical Democrat and the typical Republican of today, if there are such things, see our single world through very different lenses. Each thinks about the best way ahead with their own unique experiences, circumstances and beliefs. They have deeply opposed views, yet neither is necessarily wrong.

What we see in today’s deeply divided nation is a paradox for humanity playing out, an eternal legacy of evolution. We inherit through our biology a paradox which offers two competing solutions. One offers a flourishing future, the other misery and destruction. We get to choose which transpires.

Humans have evolved to survive. We are equipped with the physical and mental capacities we need to meet most situations we encounter. We are also equipped with emotions and values that have a strong influence on our responses. They increase our chances of finding solutions to problems we are not evolved to fix, such as the development of a COVID-19 vaccine in an unimaginably short time frame.

The paradox of humanity is that we compete with each other for survival and we rely on each other to survive.

Core Values

Evolution has gifted us a number of core values. Our core values guide our thinking and influence our choice of behaviour. One set of values influence our personal actions that take care of us individually, such as tenacity, courage, creativity and joy. When we face danger, our value of courage offers us the option to stand and fight our ground where it is worth doing so. This is useful if we need to stare down an angry dog threatening our family, for example. Another set of core values influence our joined-together activities where it is advantageous, such as respect, togetherness, integrity and love. This is useful if we need to harness our strength to move a tree out of the road together.

As social animals, we can act alone to protect our personal interests and together to exceed our personal limitations. The paradox is that these sets of values complement each other to great effect, but sometimes they conflict with each other in unpredictable ways. Sometimes we have to choose to compete with each other, sometimes to join forces.

Our current economic model is deeply entrenched in collaboration. It requires is to spend time serving someone else’s interests in priority to our own. We do so because it offers greater overall benefits in the long run.

When people work for an organisation that is able to specialise, the organisation can achieve far greater output that each person could achieve individually. When this form of collaboration extends to the whole of the economy, the overall output is vastly greater. The specialisation multiplier, the term given to describe this increased output through specialisation, is measured in the hundreds or, in some cases, in the thousands. If we can come up with a sensible way to share out the overall gains, we should all be far better off by coordinating our work patterns, even though it looks as if we are neglecting our immediate needs in the process.

One of the failures of our current form of capitalism is its failure to share out the benefits of this enfused effort. In my view, this failure is a component of the deep divisions we see today not just in the US, but throughout the world’s capitalist societies. The question for many is whether to dispense with capitalism, reverting to an autocratic leader who we feel may serve our interests more fairly, or to come up with a more effective version of capitalism redesigned to deliver fairer outcomes.

The paradox is more deeply set than at first appears. This behaviour of individuals both competing for scarce resources and collaborating for mutual benefit is found throughout nature. Birds sit on the back of an ox and small fish swim besides sharks, in both cases the guest eating parasites on their host’s skin. If the shark were to turn on its guest, it might enjoy a quick snack but at the cost of long-term skincare. The ox and shark are better off accommodating their guests unless they are literally starving hungry.

The human equivalent is the relationship between the two communities. Both communities could compete with each other. But they may be far better off to trade with each other and to try to accommodate each other’s needs unless their survival is literally at stake. Nature equips us to reconcile our paradox, Somehow, we need to find out ways to tap into our natural capacity if we want to flourish. The paradox is not going away any time soon.

In one sense, we could characterise this paradox in political terms. It allows us to characterise our being in a battle for power. Only one party can win, the other must lose. Democrats pitted against Republicans. To sustain this simplistic view of the paradox, our politicians need to create a number of selected policies that delineate one party from the other. It is arbitrary because so many of the lines are artificial. A wealthy Republican has very different needs and desires from a Republican living in poverty. A Democrat without a work permit has very different needs and desires from a Democrat that runs one of the global technology corporations. How can the party’s policies apply evenly to everyone in their party?

This impossible conflation of vast ranges of needs and desires into a single political party does not serve society well.

Here is an alternative perspective that is better suited to finding political solutions.

Communal Values

Everyone has largely the same core values. They are an inherent part of humanity.

We also have Communal Values. These are a set of values that communities develop to help guide and regulate the behaviour of its members. Examples of communal values are and “eye for an eye”, “waste not, want not” and “global oneness”. These communal values are at the heart of our current division. They mirror the paradox.

This is the issue. Communal values are compiled in a way that reflects communal ideals around thinking and behaviour. As communities become larger, not everyone in the community shares the same thinking. Hence the conflict.

Behavioural psychologists have analysed communal values. They have identified eight distinct flavours of ideals. They can be identified from the combination of communal values adopted by the communal elders. Examples of different flavours are the tribal communities that favour blind loyalty even to the death, absolute truth communities that seek a single authority to define truth for everyone on pain of imprisonment and enterprise communities that celebrate a narrow self-focus on profits and self-advancement.

In 2016, the researcher Pat Dade surveyed 20,000 Americans. He identified a shift in the number of Americans whose views had changed from the “absolute truth” way of seeing things towards the “enterprise self” way. Fewer people were influenced by a literal faith in what their religious or other leaders defined and more influenced by a libertarian approach towards, say, abortion and same-sex marriage where individuals were empowered to make their own decisions about their own lives. This pitted one side which questioned whether individuals could be trusted to make personal decisions that benefited the whole community against the other side which questioned whether unelected leaders could be trusted to have sufficient integrity and experience to determine the needs of the community.

The balance of opinion in America had been shifting from the belief in discipline, national security, acquiescence and rules towards the belief in appearance, forgiveness, poverty awareness, openness and fairness.

The people with more traditional views felt they were being increasingly isolated. They saw this shift in the country’s morals to be unfathomable. This was especially visible in Evangelical Christian groups. Their members so feared for a dilution of their values that their members overwhelmingly sanctioned tax relief for the super-wealthy without commensurate support for the poor, accommodation of adultery and racism in its leaders and violent suppression of protection against police brutality from leadership that championed abortion, whilst rejecting a system of universal health coverage championed by leadership that favoured personal choice.

Reconciling the Irreconcilable

There is a question at play. Why do we accept an arbitrary division of policies into a highly partisan political identity? It does not need to be that way. It is divisive, intentionally so. It masks the more profound issue of whether the country should be governed according to the “absolute truth” values or the “enterprising self” values, or any of the alternatives that a number of different countries engage with. It is the basis on which so many Republicans blindly accept Donald Trump’s statement that the presidential election was rigged and absolute rejection of any evidence to the contrary. It is the basis on which Democrats have complete disregard of the traditional teachings of evangelical religious and other leaders, reviling the dishonest, divisive and corrupt actions of a president. It is divisive.

This apparently irreconcilable conflict is a mirror of the apparently irreconcilable purpose of life itself between self-interest and social cohesion. It is why Democratic senators were so outraged at the self-interested views of the COVID-infected Republican senators who refused to wear masks whilst sheltering from the mobs attacking Washington DC’s Capitol and why Republican senators were equally outraged that the Democrats sought to direct their behaviour.

The paradox is only irreconcilable if we choose it to be so. In nature, it is not.

We are capable of understanding the paradox and accommodating both of its dimensions, applying different priorities to different circumstances as appropriate.

We can switch the conversation from the divisive appropriation of individual policies by politicians to the needs, wants and hopes of people to continue to live in the type of community they feel is right for them, without one interfering with the other. We can focus on our common core values. We can to stop allowing our political leaders from appropriating life-affirming policies. We can listen to each other’s views honestly and compassionately. Our core values endow us with the skills and capacities to live with people who have different views from us, in mutual understanding and respect. Other than in dire circumstances, we have the capacity to adapt and accommodate each other’s needs. We can focus on the vast gains from living and working together in harmony and ensure those gains are spread far more fairly.

The conflicting pressures will not magically disappear — but at least the real issues will become the focus of discussion. This is the place from which people with different views can start to listen to and understand each other’s needs, desires and hopes. Mutual understanding becomes the platform from which solutions can be sought and found that avoids pitting one side against the other.

Accommodating paradox is our natural heritage. Let’s use it wisely.