Politics & Policy

The Frontier Lab Thesis

Can we return to a diverse but unified America?

The attacks in France illuminate more than questions about terrorism or refugee policy. It now appears that several of the Paris murderers were home-grown, and while this evil stems from myriad causes, it is certain that the French values of liberté, égalité, fraternité are no longer being transmitted as they once were.

Would that this were just a European problem, this fractious, infighting culture. But after having spent the better part of the past decade studying the values of Americans through my organization, The Frontier Lab, I have no doubt about it: Americans today live without a unifying national character. We are a nation with a fractured culture.

It wasn’t always so. “E pluribus unum” was an accurate description of America before our country took a different path, to its present state of uneasy co-existence. A nation conceived first on a set of principles, we have invited newcomers as they arrived to join in this great American experiment. The melting pot transformed the many disparate elements into one people, and the character of that people was exceptional — celebrating self-reliance over dependence, community bonds over obeisance to government.

In the last decade I have conducted in-depth interviews with hundreds of Americans in order to elicit the emotions involved in forming the connection to big American ideas. The results of our years of research have been to create maps of the thinking of the American people.

Which brings us to our Frontier Lab Thesis: The co-existers are winning, and those holding to “E pluribus unum” are in retreat.

In this fractured America, two distinct national characters vie with each other, speak over each other’s heads, fight with each other on college campuses, and contend for political power with each other. There is no longer one single American character that brings our wonderfully diverse citizenry together. The fire under the melting pot has turned to embers.

The historical American character that celebrated the equal promise inherent in each individual regardless of race, religion, or creed, and that rejected the rigid class structures that prevailed in Europe, now has competition from a divisive and freedom-undermining philosophy. I call it the communitarian culture.

Communitarians are attached to policies and politicians that promise connection to others, offer fulfillment and a sense of purpose, and promote a life where they can be assured they will not be judged by others — although they are free to mete out judgment to non-adherents.

In our Occupy Wall Street study, we tracked communitarians who spoke of their emotion upon opening the flap of their dwelling in the tent city in lower Manhattan. They described themselves as being filled with a sense of community, which they had never felt before. Affiliation with the Occupy movement provided “purpose” and “security” of their place in the world, in addition to fulfilling this void of “community.”

We’ve seen the communitarians these past weeks, as the students at Missouri and Yale demonstrate a desperation to adhere to a purpose, to show — even to themselves — that they are good, and that they are part of a community.

The Frontier Lab studied the Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during the 2012 campaign, finding that Obama’s strengths included affirming adherents’ “self-esteem” and making supporters feel that they were “good people” for choosing him.

More recently, in 2015, we conducted in-depth studies of the connection of Americans to free speech and the overarching theme of freedom. We found communitarian Americans to be driven by a desire to obtain “entertainment” and “personal safety,” and to escape judgment by others. They were far less concerned about the level of freedom in America than were the American-character originalists.

Before you condemn the communitarians for their suggestibility, consider the entrenchment of a bi-partisan political elite in Washington that relies on big donors and seems distant from ordinary Americans. High-intensity foes of “dark money” who call for the relaxation of the First Amendment in order to “out” donors spoke about their feelings of disempowerment and being shut out by the political class. For them, the desire to know more about how money travels through the system trumps the traditional value of protecting freedom of speech.

Our 2013 study of the conservative end of the political spectrum, “Switching Behavior,” examined how a similar sense of disillusionment with the power amassing on the right led many to reject the label “Republican.” Of the events that occurred in conservatives’ lives that drove this switch, one of the most common was being told by GOP powers-that-be that they must “accept the lesser of two evils.” In other words, put aside principle for the greater good.

As the 19th century drew to a close, Frederick Jackson Turner offered his “Frontier Thesis”: that the frontier was the ultimate Americanizing force, where disparate groups had set aside differences and banded together to seek out better lives. When, in 1890, the Census Bureau announced that all available land had been claimed, he wondered what the effect would be. With the frontier fading, what would happen to the American character?

We’ve seen more than just the passive disappearance of the fire under America’s melting pot, of course. Instead, progressives’ agenda has been to relentlessly attack the American story by emphasizing division and to aggrandize their own power by instilling fear.

Progressives thrive when the American character retreats. After all, the American character eschews artificial divides and welcomes all into our great experiment.

Progressives thrive when the American character retreats. After all, the American character eschews artificial divides and welcomes all into our great experiment. The progressives tell everyone they need to fight to get what is theirs — that their neighbor is against them, and to be feared. Above all, progressives prey on the most vulnerable, America’s recent immigrants.

The communitarian culture has been wrought from the progressives’ segregation and manipulation of Americans into interest groups. The progressives’ ghettoes of dependency and fear require “customers” who are desperate for community, purpose, and morality — universal human yearnings that have been historically answered in people’s homes, communities, and houses of worship.

Today we face a harsh frontier wilderness again. But the same principles that worked to make us a single nation before can return us to a diverse but unified culture again: to look at the stranger as your neighbor and not the competition; to reject the artificial divisions of the Left and to accept that we are all equally capable and deserving of the freedoms originally recognized in our great Constitution.

— Anne Sorock is the founder of The Frontier Lab, a behavioral-science nonprofit.


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