The term “culture war” has been a staple of American politics and public debates for decades, the latest iterations framed by the likes of abortion, marriage equality, and climate change. However, such issues don’t motivate voters as much as people on the extremes tend to believe.
You saw it in Virginia’s recent election, with exit polls showing that 34% of voters say the economy/jobs is the most important issue facing the state. Education is the second-most important issue, and with it the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that closed schools — contrary to the wishes of many parents. Critical race theory was important insofar as it related to education and the say that parents should have regarding what’s taught in local schools.
Extremes aside, the one culture war that truly matters is the battle between “equality of opportunity” versus “equality of outcome.” The former is a narrative that aims for success and values meritocracy, while the latter frowns upon success and dismisses meritocracy. One side focuses on achievement and aspiration, rather than nihilism and zero-sum thinking.
It’s impossible to not see this trend in both politics and economics. The politicization of income inequality is perhaps the clearest example, in which a static picture of inequality vies with a more dynamic picture of social mobility. Causally (and incorrectly) linking income inequality to social mobility is an idea already very entrenched in our public discourse. In truth, the latter is basically a luxury belief.
When Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders picked a fight with Time magazine’s “person of the year” Elon Musk, the culture war flared up again. Although Musk has shown leadership on so many issues that liberals support, such as climate action, the zero-sum narrative refuses to go away. The rich prosper, you see, at the expense of the poor.
The war on excellence can also be seen in states and cities that are discontinuing gifted & talented education programs. Ditto for the decision by Harvard University (among other schools) to discontinue SAT scores as a requirement for entry, regardless of the fact that doing so hurts minorities the most. Other examples include the guillotine placed outside of Jeff Bezos’ apartment last year, or the egregious case of the “Whiteness” chart displayed at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which framed achievement, hard work, and planning as exclusively “white” characteristics.
This narrative may be partly responsible for Hispanics and other immigrants moving across the aisle. According to Equis research, after the 2020 election Latino voters are now more likely to be “American dream voters” who believe that hard work pays off. The same can be said of another important immigrant group, Indian Americans, who place values like achievement above much else and for whom the American dream of earned success is alive and well.
Equality of outcomes — often re-dubbed “equity” — sees unfair treatment as inherently responsible for any disparity of outcomes, without seeking to analyze the root causes of those outcomes. In a recent survey, my organization discovered that people don’t believe that equality means everyone ending up in the same place, as members of the “equity tribe” want us to believe. The majority of people (66%) say that equality means true equality before the law and that everyone has a fair chance to pursue opportunities, regardless of where they started; 11% of people say equality means people who have disadvantages being given tools to catch up with others, while 10% believe that equality means everyone starting at the same position.
While this fundamental disagreement certainly represents a culture war, it is most likely time to stop using the term altogether. The phrase is inherently divisive, and Americans need to be more positive, unified, and forward-thinking. As an immigrant, I believe that pursuing equality of opportunity means being a firm believer in and working towards the American dream, social mobility, and human flourishing. Those are the unifying narratives that can serve as a vision statement for Americans and bring us together.
People — Democrats and Republicans — primarily care about living better, richer, and fuller lives. That is the essence of the American dream — a dream of higher social mobility and people improving their lives, despite obstacles and regardless of where they started. But that dream is based on a positive-sum narrative of equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome.
Let’s promote a culture based on a belief that we are agents in our own destiny — to paraphrase William Henley, masters of our fates and captains of our souls. For that, we need to continue fighting for the values of freedom, responsibility, and hope. What better goal for 2022 than that?