The factioned state of America

The first in a four-part series of essays on the forces driving social division and political polarization in America.

If you’re a Divergent fan, you already know the book and film trilogies transport audiences to a time and place where the population is divided into factions, each with its own mindset and personality type. Loyalty and service to faction produces harmony. Until it doesn’t. Then all hell breaks loose.

That’s imaginary.

Now back to reality.

University of North Carolina political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler make a compelling case in their recently published book Prius or Pickup? that American society is being torn apart but it’s not disagreements over the issues of the day or even differing political ideologies that are doing the ripping. Rather, the culprit lies far beneath the surface, in the form of deeply ingrained worldviews that are reflected in our lifestyles — the vehicles we drive, where we choose to live, how we parent, even the pets we keep.

Hetherington and Weiler zero in on two types of worldviews, which they label fixed and fluid. Fixed sorts see a world full of danger, where other people and nature are out to get them. They feel threatened, which the authors say makes them more likely to keep a gun close by with a growling dog at their side and a heavy-duty truck in the driveway. Fluid folks, on the other hand, find the world a less threatening and generally hospitable place.  They tend to see others as basically good and the world as mostly safe — hence the hybrid car in the garage and the cat curled up on the living room sofa.

By the authors’ account, you need only ask four questions to tell whether someone has a fixed or fluid worldview. The questions have nothing to do with politics but rather are about child rearing. Is it more important for children to be independent or to respect their elders? Is it better for children to be obedient or self-reliant? Is it preferable for them to be curious or to have good manners? Is it more important to be considerate or well-behaved?

Those who want respectful, obedient, well-behaved kids who mind their manners are said to have fixed worldviews. Those thinking it’s best to have children who are independent, self-reliant, curious and considerate fall on the fluid end of the authors’ worldview spectrum.

There are political implications aplenty because Hetherington and Weiler go on to point out there’s been a “marriage of worldview and party” in American politics — a sharp departure from the mixed-worldview political parties of the past. We no longer have parties based on issue platforms. We now have factions based on personality types and ways of seeing the world, birds of a feather flocking together.

This presents a mammoth challenge. When one faction senses danger and wants protection and security and order, and the other feels plenty secure and wants to explore and be open to new experiences, how do the two even relate to each other much less hash out differences?

On the outside looking in are the mutts. Most of us are not purebreds. Not 100% this or 100% that. There are those who want their children to be strong-willed and well-behaved, curious and safe. Or who want a big dog but a small car. Are the mutts among us doomed to be politically homeless? Hetherington and Weiler acknowledge there’s a third type of worldview. They call it mixed. But they shed very little light on what might happen to the mutts in the emerging faction system.

As expected with fiction, Divergent does not leave that stone unturned. Those who don’t blend into any faction are cast out. The factionless are treated as refuse. But those who fit in several factions — the divergent — are seen as dangerous threats and are hunted down. All hell breaks loose.

That’s imaginary. Now back to reality. Where will the marriage of worldview and party take us? One can only imagine.