By Jon Kofas.
US Culture Clashes and the Return to “Clash of Civilizations” Theory
Based on the bourgeois ideals and value system of the Enlightenment, Western open societies are culturally pluralistic but have limits in social cohesion owing to the hierarchical structure created by the political economy of capitalism. Symptomatic of the market economy, social differentiation and exclusion are a permanent fixture regardless of what the social contract promises about social integration. Founded as a colony of immigrants who conquered the lands of North America and used Africans as slave labor, America carries the legacy of contradictions from the Age of the Enlightenment promising egalitarianism and integration but in practice institutionalizing social exclusion and differentiation that precludes social cohesion. These contradictions become intense in periods of economic expansion or contraction when fissures are exposed on the surface of the social structure because socially excluded groups strive to integrate into the mainstream and demand its reform. Such societal fissures undermining social cohesion are more evident in American society in the second decade of the 21st century than they have been since the 1960s.
According to post-presidential election polls in 2016, America is more divided than at any time in post-WWII era, a reality that filters down from the political, corporate media and financial elites to ordinary people as skeptical about the legitimacy of their institutions as the elites. Republicans supporting the populist rightwing President Donald Trump have revived “Clash of Civilizations” (Samuel Huntington’s work, 1996) as a core value in US foreign policy in order to distract from the widening social divisions and presumably forge greater unification under a common foreign enemy. This theory as Republicans interpret it has broad ramifications for immigration policy, race and ethnic/religious relations and issues related to multiculturalism in an open society whose financial elites view the population as the consuming public than citizen with constitutional rights.
The US is a divided society amidst its own socioeconomic and political polarization reflected in clash of cultures shaped in part by a changing demography and shrinking middle class. While Trump Republicans are looking to “Clash of Civilization” as a means of projecting strength and rallying popular support for the flag, their Democrat opponents are trying their best to revive the Cold War US-Russian confrontation as a catalyst to appeasing the militarist and corporate elites while unifying their divided popular base. Both strategies are manifestations of a bankrupt political system that perpetuates divisions and foments more domestic culture clashes and is dumbfounded about how to deal with the contradictions of social exclusion and differentiation that has become intensified under neoliberal policies in a climate of globalization.
If people link their identity to culture and religion, according to those espousing the “Clash of Civilization” theory intended to explain the post-Cold root causes of future global conflict, then logic dictates that the same holds true for people of different cultures, religions, ethnicities, races, and ideologies inside the US. Considering the multicultural nature of the US demographic map and the dominant culture and institutions under the control of the descendants of European immigrants, culture clashes are just as inevitable when the country fails to deliver what people perceive as the social contract, namely the American Dream and keeping the nation strong in relationship to the rest of the world as Manifest Destiny promised when European immigrants created God’s “New Israel” in North America. http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/mandestiny.htm
To maintain political consensus among the disparate political, military, economic and socio-cultural elites “Clash of Civilizations” makes as much sense for Trump Republicans as the anti-Russia campaign does for Democrats. This is especially so in light of a Trump return to a Reagan-style ‘rightwing revolution’, particularly with regard to fiscal policy as the Republicans will be transferring even more wealth from the bottom 90% of the population to the top 10% by trimming social programs and raising the cost of government by contracting out more public services at a higher cost and less efficiency than if government kept control. http://www.politico.eu/article/will–donald–trump–follow–in–ronald–reagans–footsteps–elections–victory–republican/
While trying to expand their popular base, Republicans and the conservative media promote culture clashes as a means of mobilizing popular support among largely religious and cultural conservatives. This is especially in the white community that feels besieged in the age of globalization which has entailed de-industrialization and downward wage pressure; a phenomenon that has resulted in greater social exclusion from a group that identifies itself as representative of national values. Democrats and their supporters in the media also promote division largely by remaining focused on identity politics rather than restoring America’s eroding middle class and working class living standards. Culture clashes manifest themselves in congress and state legislatures over all sorts of issues, some with very broad significance such as health care others linked to narrow identity politics and lifestyle issues; all indicative of social exclusion from an institutional mainstream that claims its foundation are rooted in inclusion.
There are cultural, ideological, political divisions so deep among disparate groups that one encounters two very different Americas when traveling from San Francisco, California to Jackson, Mississippi. The concept of America as an open society may very well apply to major cities, especially coastal and urban upper Midwest, but it is a stretch for much of the rest of the country. The media, political and institutional endeavors to suppress class consciousness and opt for identity politics and culture clashes only points to cracks in solidarity among the working class and middle class against the elites lining up behind the two major parties. Because social exclusion and differentiation assumes different socio-cultural forms in different parts of the country, the political elites are able to divide the population against itself and undermine class solidarity of socially excluded groups. http://www.cultureclashes.org/book/8-conflicts/
Public opinion polls in 2012 indicated that 69% if Americans viewed their nations divided, while that number jumped to 77%-80% right after the November general election in 2016. Just as significant, they indicate dissatisfaction with the way their society functions and see their prospects becoming worse not better. These same people do not see the forging of consensus any time soon, and fully expect deeper divisions, thus reflecting recognition of social exclusion and differentiation. A reflection of deep divisions, public opinion polls a few days before inauguration range from 37% to 44% approval rating for Trump, a historic low since such polls were conducted in 1992. As disturbing as such low numbers may be given that they are below those of the outgoing president’s, an even greater concern is that they will only decline going forward once congress implements policies resulting in lower integration and greater exclusion. http://www.gallup.com/poll/197828/record–high–americans–perceive–nation–divided.aspx; http://www.trueactivist.com/trumps-approval-rating-plummets-to-historic-low-just-days-before-inauguration
This does not mean that non-urban, southern and Plains States America is any more racist, xenophobic, Islamophobic, sexist and less tolerant of non-natives than their counterparts in Russia, France, or Germany where there is a rise of ultra-rightwing political movements not much different than the populist wing of the Republican Party. Social exclusion and differentiation exists in all capitalist societies, some like the Scandinavian less, others, like Russia more. The demographic structure of US is changing and the realization of that incontrovertible fact has many whites reacting with anger amid eroding living standards and the economic pie so unevenly divided.
Naturally, an apologist of the status quo could argue that the US is hardly the world’s most divided nation, considering there are developing nations immersed in civil wars or under authoritarian regimes that maintain the status quo by police methods. Apologists of the status quo point to developing nations as authoritarian and to the US remaining a defender of human rights and civil rights, despite a record of government practices that indicate otherwise. Apologists of the status quo refuse to accept that developed Western nations are experiencing the rise of extreme rightwing political parties challenging the neoliberal centrist and conservative ruling elites. This ‘revolution’ from the extreme right will result in even deeper divisions across the entire Western World as societies claiming the legacy of 18th century Enlightenment ideals of John Locke’s liberalism and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s social democracy are evolving from liberal capitalism to an authoritarian neoliberal capitalist model. (Ian Bruff, “The Rise of Authoritarian Neoliberalism”, Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 26, Issue 1, 2014)
American Divisions in Historical Perspective
American colonists and immigrants were bound by the common goal to seek a better material life and enjoy freedom from religious persecution. However, these freedoms never translated equally for all ethnic groups and social classes in a country founded as a colony of the British Empire to advance its imperial economic and geopolitical interests. Indicative of the lack of social cohesion and political consensus among the colonists, when the War of Independence was declared, Americans were hardly as united behind the independence movement. Interested in national self-determination, largely wealthy white colonists led the revolution at a time that the colonies had slavery as an entrenched institution. Representing the landowning and commercial class, the Founding Fathers drafted a constitution declaring all men are created equal but in practice social differentiation and exclusion prevailed.
The chasm between what is declared in the Constitution about equality, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness and the reality in practice is at the heart of America’s historical divisions. The famous July 1852 speech “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?” by Frederick Douglas reveals the deep divisions in American society that has relevance to this day. “The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretence, and your Christianity as a lie. It destroys your moral power abroad; it corrupts your politicians at home. … it breeds insolence; it promotes vice; it shelters crime; it is a curse to the earth that supports it; and yet, you cling to it, as if it were the sheet anchor of all your hopes.”
Historical divisions and culture clashes stem from the gap between the political principles of equality and justice for all, and the reality of wealthy predominantly Anglo-Saxon protestant elites that owned most of the wealth and enjoyed institutional privileges from education to elected office. Institutional obstacles to progress for the lower classes, women, and minorities were overcome throughout the Republic’s history by peoples’ attraction to the promise of the constitution about equality and the pursuit of happiness for all, and by the prospect of integration into the institutional mainstream where the elites enjoyed society’s privileges. As long as the economy expanded and the social structure evolved to permit working people to move into the lower middle class and their children to secure education and create a better life, people conformed to the hegemonic culture and subordinated socio-cultural differences to the system that rewarded them at least in the domain of religious freedom and the promise for a better life.
Despite massive economic expansion as a result of the Westward expansion, industrialization (187-1900), and imperialist expansion in the form of the Spanish-American War (1898), society remained at war with itself through the struggles of workers to unionize, women and immigrants to achieve equality of opportunity as their Western European white male counterparts, and blacks fighting to end institutionalized racism that is a permanent feature of America at war with itself. Unlike ethnically and culturally homogenous societies, America as a nation of immigrants that conquered the natives is at war with itself because its only common value system is the immigrant dream of wealth and cultural freedom. Deeply imbedded in the consciousness of the people are Manifest Destiny and the dream of greatness, even if by association.
It is not only the case that 71% of Americans are Christians, but that there is a longstanding tradition of linking politics to Christian doctrine (America as God’s country with a mandate from Divine Providence). This has been the case from its early history to the present and it has been an integral part of the social contract that the elites have used to forge consensus and conformity among the masses. (Nicole Guetin, Religious Ideology and American Politics, 2009) Although the same phenomenon is less evident in urban-suburban areas and Coastal and upper Mid-Western areas where secularism and a more cosmopolitan culture prevail, the concept of expansion and America’s greatness mandated by divine providence is an unspoken underlying assumption. The degree to which political and financial elites can rely on religious leaders to help engender sociopolitical conformity and mitigate systemic divisions is an open question, although Christendom has been the catalyst to sociopolitical conformity for many centuries.
The merging of pseudo-science and religion, Social Darwinism and creationism in American history has helped to maintain sociopolitical conformity to the institutional mainstream from the 19th century to the present. As a nation that took the concept of competition more seriously than Adam Smith, Americans found it easy to merge Social Darwinism that assumed human progress rested on competition which is found in nature. It is indeed remarkable that no less than twenty-four states enacted ‘sterilization eugenics legislation’ between 1911 and 1930 intended to “weed out” the mentally ill and criminals, and the American Eugenics Society advocated laws to limit inter-racial marriages.
While Social Darwinism was popular among certain segments of society rejecting the concept of social cohesion and integration for all people as the US Constitution promises, creationism reinforced social exclusion and differentiation. With deep historical roots in culture clashes, creationist beliefs remain prominent just below the surface with a substantial percentage of Americans. In 2014, 42% of Americans believed in the creationist view of human origins, down 2% from 1982 when Reagan and the Moral Majority were contributing to the culture clash against those they demonized as humanist liberals. According to various public opinion polls, 13-28% of Americans responded that God was not involved in the creation of human beings and that evolution was responsible for life as we know it, while 51% accept the Bible as the word of God. By contrast, 69% of Britons believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution, and 61% of Canadians. The striking differences are a manifestation of far greater social cohesion in the neighboring nation to the north also a former colony with not such a strikingly different historical experience. http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/human_nature/2014/12/creationism_poll_how_many_americans_believe_the_bible_is_literal_inerrant.html
A society steeped in the psychology of realizing it potential of greatness as Divine Providence mandated necessarily finds itself at odds its own disparate elites vying for influence and control to determine the nation’s destiny and preserve their privileges, while socially excluded groups struggle for integration. Advocates of the Enlightenment secular ideology as the foundation of modern society clashing with the more conservative ad religious-oriented groups associating secularism with the privileged elites have been a permanent fixture in society. Clashes become more evident in times of glaring contradictions of economic expansion but contracting living standards. While social cohesion and integration is important to the political and financial elites in order to maintain stability in the political economy and social order, the same system produced greater social exclusion and differentiation.
De-legitimizing of the Political System
In a fierce power struggle, the Democrat Party and Republican Party elites have been delegitimizing each other in the eyes of the public. Political de-legitimization was evident ever since Barak Obama became the first black president. Although many conservatives viewed Obama’s election as the end of white political monopoly of the executive branch of government, there was hardly any change in social integration and social exclusion under an administration that faithfully served the same elites as all its predecessors. In the 2016 primary season, Trump accused his Republican opponents and Democrat nominee Hillary Clinton of serving Wall Street for a price. Trump de-legitimized all others except himself because they were conduits of social exclusion. During the presidential election season, the increased journalistic interest regarding the division of American society assumed added dimensions largely because of the surprised election of Trump, now enjoying a Republican majority in the Senate and House of Representatives, as well as in most state governments and in the judicial branch.
Skepticism about legitimacy continued when the Democrats did everything they could to link Trump’s election to alleged Russian hacking, one of the major distraction issues regardless of whether Russians were involved or not. This does not even take into account social media “fake news” and mainstream media intense propaganda campaigns reflecting and promoting the culture clash among disparate groups. America’s war against itself became more intense when Trump compared the practices of US intelligence and media organizations to those of Nazi Germany in reaction to alleged Russian video tape of Trump in a compromising situation. Ironically, the so-called ‘Nazi’ practices were attributed to the Obama-Clinton Democrats who have the institutional power to undermine the Republicans and persisted on the Russian hacking theme without ever providing evidence.
By comparing the US to the Third Reich, Trump expressed the deep divisions among the political elites while lending legitimacy to the criticism of America usually reserved for leftist critics arguing that the US has been sliding down the road of authoritarianism. If Noam Chomsky, for example, leveled the same criticism as Trump, it would have no significance beyond a small circle of those who follow Chomsky. When Trump compared his country to the Hitler’s Third Reich, it afforded legitimacy to critics’ arguments that indeed the US has authoritarian aspects, while preaching democracy to the world. Moreover, it revealed the depths of division in America that goes beyond politics and into the nature of the country’s institutions failing both in social cohesion and political consensus.
By refusing to accept Trump as a legitimate president, perhaps because he lost the popular vote or because of email leaks through WIKILEAKS via Russia as a possible source, black Civil Rights leader and Georgia Congressman John Lewis contributed to de-legitimizing the new president in the eyes of the world. As a symbolic representative of the black community, Lewis was affirming that social exclusion and differentiation cannot be legitimized by a president who lost in the popular vote. Behind the de-legitimization efforts, the media, social, academic, and financial elites naturally take sides, as do many ordinary people who watch and wonder if these clashes entail that the politics of consensus are a thing of the past and polarization the new reality. According to a Pew Research study, the partisanship and animosity between Republicans and Democrats has never been greater than in the 2016 presidential race. Each side sees the other as closed-minded, immoral, dishonest, unintelligent, and lazy, thus lacking trust in the other’s ability to represent the social contract and lead the country.
To distract from the internal clash, the Democrats keep focusing on Russia, with their European Union allies doing likewise as the latter fear Trump may be less committed to the world order as they inherited it since the demise of the Soviet Bloc. Keeping with favorite theme of racism and xenophobia, Republicans focus on the “Clash of Civilizations” thesis as a means to distract from Russia and placate the domestic elites and rally popular support behind the flag. Neither “Clash of Civilizations” with Muslims as a target nor Russia with the evil Vladimir Putin and the corrupt oligarchs is enough to quell the culture clash; and neither is a credible substitute for addressing income inequality, lack of social justice and growing social exclusion and differentiation.
America at war with itself is unlikely to change toward the kind of consensus that existed in the early Cold War from Truman to Kennedy when the US was the undisputed superpower and upward social mobility kept the population hopeful about achieving the American Dream, at least for their children. In a world where power is shifting from the West to East Asia with a resurgent Russia despite Western containment policies and sanctions, the American elites are scrambling to preserve and expand their privileges while forging some kind of political consensus that will enable them to maintain the status quo. Against such efforts comes the reality that eight individuals, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison and Michael Bloomberg, all Americans, own as much wealth as half of the world’s population of 3.6 billion.
The Nature of Division and Polarization in the US
The topic of culture clashes has been analyzed by hundreds of books and articles dealing with the deep divisions in American society. These are multifaceted divisions rooted in identity politics and class struggle politics of the last two centuries. However, the rise of social exclusion and differentiation is more evident today than at any time since the anti-war movement of the 1960s. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement to the controversial election of 2000 and the equally contentious election of 2016, more scholarly works and journal articles have been devoted to growing rift in American society and what it entails. According to one poll at the beginning of 2016, 56% of Americans believed that their children would be worse off than they were. Another poll indicated that 81% were worse off in 2016 than in 2005. By contrast, only 20% are worse off in Sweden for the same time frame, indicative of income stagnation amid massive capital concentration. While these statistics clearly illustrate a policy intended toward greater social integration in Sweden, the exact opposite is the case for the US. Money.cnn.com/2016/01/28/news/economy/Donald-trump-bernie-sanders-us-economy/; https://mishtalk.com/2016/08/07/mckinsey-study-shows-81-of-us-worse-off-than-in-2005-france-63-italy-97/
Polarization extends beyond the domain of income gap, encompassing geographic, racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and cultural issues and finding expression in the political parties and factions within factions of two major parties. Current polarized conditions are due to a general decline of the middle class and living standards among the working class at a time that identity politics – cultural, religious, racial, ethnic, and gender-based issues – is a necessary tool of the elites to prevent systemic institutional changes and maintain political consensus.
More resistant to the well-established bipartisan cooperation on key issues, including foreign policy consensus, armies of journalists, consultants, analysts, lobbyists, and academics promote the divisions of the political and socioeconomic elites. If the energy sector has vested interests in US-Russia cooperation, while the auto industry has vested interests in NAFTA, and high tech in East Asia, it is understandable that the respective corporate lobbies, journalists, consultants, think tanks, and of course politicians would disagree about foreign policy consensus. Not only is US economic power reflected in its corporate structure at a time of national economic decline, especially when taking into account that debt as percentage of GDP stands at 105 and rising, but the nature of the US economy in comparison to that of Asia speaks volumes about its dim prospects and continued socioeconomic and cultural polarization. https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/GFDEGDQ188S
Whereas China is strengthening its infrastructure and that of countries where it invests from Asia and Africa to Latin America, it also has sound domestic foundations in the primary and secondary sectors of its economy. While China has created the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank involved in nine major projects in 2016 and planning many more in the future, the US was busy trying to forge trading blocs in order to exclude China while securing better terms of trade and higher profits for multinational corporations, as the Trans-Pacific Partnership illustrates, assuming it is ever implemented. http://www.forbes.com/sites/sarahsu/2017/01/14/how-chinas-asian-infrastructure-investment-bank-fared-its-first-year/#7acaad81f4d1; http://www.globalpolicyjournal.com/blog/14/06/2016/trans-pacific-partnership-against-and-prospects
Unlike China, the US relies heavily on the service sector, largely speculative and parasitic, along with the defense industry that is even more parasitic than the financial sector. One could argue that high tech, especially robotics and biotech are pioneering areas with a great deal of growth since the 1990s and good prospects for the US economy. While many of those operations are at home they are hardly exempt from globalization. That US companies are keeping at least $2.5 trillion overseas and refusing to repatriate it under the current tax rate speaks volumes of their lack of commitment to economic nationalism. This is one reason that high tech corporations backed globalization advocated by Clinton.
Despite Trump’s tariff threats which are an admission of inability to compete by trade rule the US established, the outward trend of US capital and production will continue because of low labor costs and market share competition. One reason that the Trump administration is viewing globalization with skepticism and downplaying the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland in January 2017 where globalists gather very year is because globalization favors the US less than China, Japan and other nations. For the first time ever, China will dominate the Davos conference a historically a Western-dominated affair.
Whereas China is a producing country enjoying a trade surplus, the US is a consumption-driven economy with a balance of payments deficit and rapidly rising public debt financed in part by the artificial value of the dollar as a reserve currency still widely used around the world for transactions such as oil trade. Reflationary economics, combined with infrastructural and defense spending intended to stimulate GDP growth will work short term but add to the national debt, a prospect that will result in even greater socioeconomic inequality and greater sociopolitical and cultural polarization.
Because countries producing about one-third of the world’s output have pegged their currencies in dollars, and 39% of the world’s debt is in dollars, the greenback has value much higher than any other hard currency. With its large productive capacity in all sectors of its economy and a large domestic consumer market, the US will remain economically strong. The question is for how long would the dollar continue to enjoy such a preeminent role; what happens when other reserve currencies become more competitive, and how long can the system sustain its viability under the weight of massive defense spending combined with a corporate welfare state. This inevitable development will further weaken the middle class and workers who feel increasingly marginalized but are confused about who is exactly to blame and how to fix the dysfunctional system.
Trump’s inane slogan “Make America Great Again” by waving the magic wand of economic nationalism and flirtation with neo-isolationism reflect the realization of decline and a highly symbolic approach to stop the inevitable decline that enriches US-based multinational corporations at the expense of the socially excluded segments of society that make up the majority. His insistence that companies selling products in the US must manufacture them domestically is a tacit recognition of the corporate sector profiting to the detriment of the weakened middle class and workers. However, asking powerful multinational corporations to cooperate with economic nationalist policies without massive tax incentives, corporate subsidies, and a much more relaxed regulatory regime is unrealistic. While the president could follow some variation of a statist model, Wall Street and congress will never allow any deviation from neoliberal policies, and Trump has demonstrated his interest is to enrich his family and supporters.
Caught between policy contradictions and the realities of capitalism, the middle class and workers will pay the price because the government cannot find the money, unless it raises the national debt and slashes entitlements, for both the corporate welfare state and relaxed regulatory regime while maintaining a commitment to defense build up, higher living standards and protecting the environment. Just as the governor of Michigan opted for corporate givebacks at the expense of providing lead-contaminated water for Flint, the federal government will face similar choices and it will opt for corporate tax breaks, corporate subsidies, and privatization schemes that transfer income from the public sector to the private.
The growing absence of political consensus and the intense competition of the elites to influence policy has swept away the masses and divided them politically, ideologically, culturally, geographically and demographically and unable to grasp why there must be perpetual social exclusion and differentiation if the economy is expanding as evidenced by the GDP and stock market. Amid this political-ideological-cultural war in which America is engaged, it is ironic that establishment Democrats are not fighting their opponents from a leftist position associated with FDR’s New Deal social safety net across the board with a strong central government role in the economy, but cling to identity politics – gay rights, environmentalists, blacks, Hispanics, women, etc. Trying to out-Republican Rockefeller Republicans who have more in common with the Cold War anti-Russia neoliberal Democrats than they do with the populist extreme right wing illustrates the bankruptcy of the Democrat Party as a realistic vehicle to social integration.