Three Americas? The Stakes of Symbolic Boundaries

We are used to thinking about cultural divisions in the United States in terms of two broad categories which form polar opposites (liberals and conservatives) with moderate Americans “in the middle.” This is the “culture wars” thesis, and many of those who have attacked James Davison Hunter’s original formulation of the thesis in his 1991 book of the same name nevertheless agree with the basic topography he proposed, arguing variously over terminology, the size of the poles versus the middle, or whether the divide is more generalized or issue-specific.

In new research forthcoming in The Sociological Quarterly, a team of us here at the University of Minnesota argue that there are important cultural divisions in the United States, and that they constitute meaningful symbolic boundaries. What does this mean? We argue that there are at least three groups of Americans that have different perceptions of what our society is like and different ideas about who “is like me” and “who is different” — both in everyday life and in our national political life. People in each group have a different understanding of what the United States is actually like — and also what they would like it to be like.

Using data from the 2014 wave of the American Mosaic Project, we find that:

Optimistic Pluralists are comfortable with diversity in general and believe that members of most racial, religious, and other out-groups are, essentially, similar to themselves — and that they are deserving of the same political rights and material resources.

Critics of Multiculturalism are less accepting, in general, of out-groups or people who are racially or religiously dissimilar to themselves. Nevertheless, they mostly desire to see people who are not like them enjoy the same civil liberties as they do, and are okay with policies that redress material inequality even for those they perceive as different.

Cultural Preservationists are willing to draw strong boundaries that exclude groups of people who they perceive as not sharing a particular Protestant Christian cultural heritage. White Cultural Preservationists also associate racial minorities with a range of social problems. All members of this group are more willing to deny civil liberties to those they perceive as different than are other Americans, and to be okay with policies that perpetuate material inequality.

These groups are, we argue, relatively stable at least in our contemporary era (the present analysis is a replication of one conducted earlier with 2003 data).

Why should we care about these cultural divisions? First of all, we think that our analysis points to two different cultural fault-lines that we need to understand better. The first is how Americans react to diversity in general are people comfortable with pluralism and a shifting political landscape in which a wider range of groups lobby very publicly for their interests, and identity-based movements forcefully bring questions about biases rooted in racial, sexual, religious, and gender differences into the public arena?

The second division we highlight is between those who want to preserve the cultural and material dominance of a particular kind of Christian cultural heritage, and those who do not. Over a quarter of our sample — about 28% — are cultural preservationists. And we argue that that percentage is high enough — and this group has been around long enough — to form a strong basis for contemporary expressions of Christian nationalism. It is not that everyone in this group is necessarily a strong supporter of Christian nationalism — but they are sympathetic with both the rhetoric and the specific policy recommendations of Christian nationalist movements and leaders. Nationalist and populist movements do not arise out of nowhere, and they do not thrive unless their message resonates with a fairly large group of citizens, a cultural base that is larger than the movement itself and its most ardent supporters.

Who is like me? Who is different? The answers to those questions, we argue, help people decide what kinds of material resources, civil liberties, and political representation others should have. The stakes of symbolic boundaries, we believe, are really quite high.