The Cultural Divide

That is the title of a new and very important paper by Klaus Desmet and Romain Wacziarg, here is the abstract:

This paper conducts a systematic quantitative study of cultural convergence and divergence in the United States over time. Using the General Social Survey (1972-2016), we assess whether cultural values have grown more or less heterogeneous, both overall and between groups. Groups are defined according to 11 identity cleavages such as gender, religion, ethnic origin, family income quintiles, geographic region, education levels, etc. We find some evidence of greater overall heterogeneity after 1993 when averaging over all available values, yet on many issues heterogeneity changes little. The level of between-group heterogeneity is extremely small: the United States is very pluralistic in terms of cultural attitudes and values, but this diversity is not primarily the result of cultural divides between groups. On average across cleavages and values, we find evidence of falling between-group heterogeneity from 1972 to the late 1990s, and growing divides thereafter…

This, from the paper, is also illuminating:

For some questions, such as several questions on sexual behavior and public policies, there is growing social consensus. For others, such as questions on gun laws and confidence in some civic institutions, we find growing disagreements. Some of these dynamics can be understood as transitions from one end of the belief spectrum to the other. For instance, on the issue of marijuana legalization, attitudes have moved from generalized disagreement to majority agreement, so heterogeneity rose and is now falling. Overall, we find some evidence of a systematic tendency toward greater heterogeneity after 1993 when averaging over all available memes, yet on many issues heterogeneity changes little.

By the way, “urbanicity” shows “declining levels of cultural fixation,” contrary to what you often read.

Overall I take this to be an optimistic set of results.


Interpretation: the authors went fishing for results in the data, saw some patterns, then come up with a non-innovative cultural transmission model to tell a story. Why can't they just say "here are some patterns, but because we used all the data and didn't set any aside, we can't actually say what the causes of the changes are"? It's mainly because they want the paper published in an econ journal rather than a poli-sci or sociology journal. But has that model really added anything? No.

That being said, look at the patterns. Just don't try to tell a post-hoc story dressed up in Greek symbols.

Since humans are prone to fits of fashion, following herds, and so on, how is this study anything other than a confirmation of "things change"?

This study is less useful than a Gallop poll for example.

1993? Branch Davidian fiasco. Was there a similar shift in 1970 after Kent State?

Also the start of the Clinton Administration. IMO he (and his wife) was the trigger for the recent hyperpolarization/tribalism craziness.

It may have gone up a notch, but it was very real during Reagan's terms too.

Eh, maybe on college campuses and so on but Congress was in no way as dysfunctional in the Reagan era as it is today. The Clinton era was when each side started to avoid making any bipartisan compromises or allowing the other side to even be considered legitimate. It really got going with Bush II and Obama of course.

I'll give you that.

Ever heard of Newt Gingrich?

Yep, he was the guy who started it, during the Clinton administration which is exactly what I said above.

Over time attitudes will converge. Consider voting: at one time the issue of suffrage for women split the nation, but today women suffrage is almost universally approved (I say almost because there are still quite a few who would prefer that women not be allowed to vote). Attitudes about divisive issues change, and change a whole lot over time; and those on opposing sides of currently divisive issues may well appreciate the stakes. Consider same sex marriage, an issue that was extremely divisive a short time ago but not nearly so divisive today. Lest one forget, President Obama opposed same sex marriage. Provocateurs change with the times too: yesterday's divisive issues may not work so well today, requiring a different set of divisive issues to provoke. When I was a child, integration was the most divisive social issue, at a time when the races lived segregated lives: segregated schools, segregated hotels, restaurants, and stores, even segregated public restrooms and drinking fountains. When I was in college, the war in Vietnam and the military draft were highly divisive issues, at a time when I might be attending class one day and six to eight months later be waist deep in a rice paddy in Vietnam. Today, the military draft doesn't even exist as an issue. Indeed, one might observe that today's most divisive issues, immigration and trade, are mostly contrived. Standing waist deep in a rice paddy in Vietnam was not contrived. An aside, in his interview by Klein, Cowen observed that social media receives far too much blame for social division. He's right: the country was never as divided as it was during integration and the war in Vietnam, yet social media did not exist. If one objects to today's divisive issues, be patient: they will change in time.

Immigration and trade are contrived issues? I'd wager that they affect our lives far more intimately than do Afghanistan and Syria/Iraq, our equivalents of the Vietnam War.

Especially if you're not White, then immigration is a key issue, intertwined with concerns about who gets to be considered "American."

I think you are looking at too short of a baseline though. For instance take the cause of "states rights", this has been more or less controversial throughout the history of the Republic. The true most divisive time in American history was fought in part over it (e.g. Virginia refused to succeed over slavery limitations in federal territory like South Carolina but was willing to succeed over Lincoln's plan to compel South Carolina with force). In the years after the civil war there was very broad consensus against the idea throughout the North and all the Republicans in the South before disenfranchisement. It likewise fell highly out of favor in the initial progressive era, The New Deal, and also saw a pretty steep fall after the civil rights era.

Conversely it became vastly more popular in the 1920s, with the temperance movement, in the 1980s and the 1880s.

Likewise, we are seeing a reversal in the public acceptance of the Catholic church. The Blaine amendments were highly popular when they were enacted, fell out of favor over the 20th century, and are now highly supported by a wide range of Americans. It is considered perfectly acceptable today exclude Catholic organizations from the social sphere if they maintain fidelity to Catholic teaching.

There are plenty of issues that have been salient for generation, silent for a generation, and then salient again. I am not so sure that this will not again be the case.

I wouldn't say Catholic specifically, but Christian in general. The more evangelical, the more so.

What does "By the way, “urbanicity” shows “declining levels of cultural fixation,” contrary to what you often read." mean?

What any of Tyler's comment mean remains a mystery.

Cultural intolerance has become increasingly divisive.

"Fox News commentator Tomi Lahren was doused with water by a woman while she was having brunch with her mother in a Minneapolis restaurant on Sunday.

Video footage of the incident shows an unidentified woman flinging a cup of water at Lahren and her mother as they were leaving the rooftop of UNION Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis.

The clip appears to have been recorded on Snapchat. It includes the captions ‘Lol’ as well as an emoji showing hysterical laughing.

The caption on the bottom of the screen reads: ‘Throws a drink on Tomi Lahren hahahaha.’

Beneath that caption reads: ‘Thanks for the screenshots I did it lol.’

Then another man approached Tomi Lahren and started cursing at her.

The man yelled: ‘F*** that b***h!’, ‘F*** that h**!,’ ‘Racist-a** b***h!.’

‘Why you even out here?’ the man asked.

Lahren and her mother then walked out of the restaurant while escorted by a bouncer.


The neo-Fascists are on the rise.

Lahren is just a child, so I'd give her a pass. But she is but one example of youthful provocateurs. Young people, maybe more so than older people, are more likely to imitate others in their conduct. With all the provocateurs and media coverage of them, one might expect their numbers and coverage to increase exponentially. Rene Girard was right.

You misread. Lahren wasn't the one acting like a child.

"Lahren is just a child, so I'd give her a pass. But she is but one example of youthful provocateurs."

Lahren was assaulted and then driven out of the establishment. Merely for her public opinions.

And calling her a "provocateur" for voicing an opinion you disagree with is exactly the kind of civil / cultural divide the country is falling into.

Not that I'm saying your choice of words is on the same level of the neo-Fascists who attacked her, recorded the attack, drove her out of the establishment and then bragged about it online. You're just being partisan. That's regrettable but acceptable.

The behavior of the crowd is not acceptable. It's beyond the pale for this kind of actions to not only occur, but then to be posted on the internet for wide review.

No, the prevalence of smartphone cameras is on the rise. Just like police brutality, people have behaved badly since forever. The only difference now is that:

1) We can watch it over and over and over again
2) Watching it over and over either makes us more disgusted or more attracted to the given act. It cuts both ways

This is completely independent of nazis/antifa/whatever.

That's a good point. The cameras mean that it's hard to deny it happened. But in this case you are ignoring the fundamental aspect that the Left wasn't denying the assault or mob behavior. They were recording it and broadcasting it.

The small divide on topics of substance and reality is more or less meaningless.

There is an entire industry devoted to constantly messaging to people that "Liberals hate you and disrespect you". There is also a political party that plays along with this message to push theoretically unpopular policies with the support of the "hated and disrespected"

Meanwhile, there is a fringe group that carries a lot of weight in a second political party and somewhat smaller but still sizable industry devoted to messaging that "hated and disrespected" are "dumb, racist, neanderthal hicks who don't know what is good for them but we, the virtuous, do".

I am not sure how we bridge that divide. The only hope is that it is smaller than it appears in the media or some political leader can change the course.

"There is an entire industry devoted to constantly messaging to people that "Liberals hate you and disrespect you"."

There's more than a little truth to the statement. Reference the post above:

"The man yelled: ‘F*** that b***h!’, ‘F*** that h**!,’ ‘Racist-a** b***h!."

That's clearly hate and disrespect. And it didn't just happen. It was recorded and published and the people involve are smugly laughing about their actions.

"The caption on the bottom of the screen reads: ‘Throws a drink on Tomi Lahren hahahaha.’

Beneath that caption reads: ‘Thanks for the screenshots I did it lol.’ "

The cultural divide is created by government that subsidizes poverty and reliance on public handouts.

How about a conversation with Amy Chua, whose book Political Tribes is a must read. It is essential reading for understanding American tribes.

Comments for this post are closed