The cultural politics of the 2004 presidential election launched many Americans into a long-term funk. Some blue-staters now perceive themselves destined for defeat in a battle to define America’s moral orthodoxy. But the Bush campaign’s use of gay marriage and other symbolic issues to mobilize its base also demoralized a great many others—red, blue, and purple—who see democracy as the form of government best suited to enabling people of diverse cultural persuasions to unite in pursuit of their common interests.

Our goal is to restore their morale. We reject the proposition that any significant fraction of the U.S. electorate is bent on imposing its partisan moral vision on the remainder. On the contrary, the vast majority of American citizens want mundane things out of politics—economic comfort and physical security.

The rub is that it is very difficult for citizens to figure out which policies, supported by which candidates, will deliver those basic goods. Lacking the time and experience to become public-policy experts, they must turn to others for guidance. And often, the people they choose to trust are those who share (or appear to share) their broad cultural outlook. Politicians and other policy advocates recognize this, and the way they signal their trustworthiness is by broadcasting their positions on symbolic issues.

Culture matters, then, not because Americans are moral zealots intent on ramming their values down one another’s throats. It matters because citizens use cultural affinity as a heuristic, or mental shortcut, for figuring out which politicians and policies are most likely to put food on their tables.

This diagnosis supports a distinctive and hopeful prescription. If cultural identification is mainly a device we use for reducing political uncertainty, then perhaps we can rely on other devices—other cues and influences—when we try to make complicated judgments about what will promote the common good. Before jumping ahead to treatments, though, we must first clarify the diagnosis.

* * * 

For most Americans, the intricacies of national policy have far less day-to-day importance than their jobs, their social and family lives, and even the performance of their local sports teams. How, then, do they figure out what positions to take on such fiercely contested issues as the threat of global warming, the impact of free trade, and the efficacy of the war in Iraq?

Our answer is culture, and here we agree with the late political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. Most citizens, he argued, possess an intuitive and vivid sense of their “cultural world views” —the term that he (and the anthropologist Mary Douglas) used to refer to the basic values that underlie people’s everyday activities. We have adapted their theory to distinguish people in two ways—as hierarchical or egalitarian and as individualist or communitarian. Hierarchical people believe strongly in the wisdom and necessity of social stratification, whereas egalitarians cherish equal opportunities. Individualists believe that individual people and families must fend for themselves, whereas communitarians believe that citizens in a healthy society maintain strong bonds of trust and commitment. These viewpoints help people to align themselves with like-minded peers, authorities, and organizations whose positions they will use to shape their own political preferences.

To evaluate these ideas, we conducted a national survey of 1,800 people. We found that cultural orientation better explained the variance in attitude toward a host of policies—gun control, capital punishment, environmental protection, business regulation, drug prohibition, and gay marriage—than did any other individual characteristic, including gender, race, age, income, personality, political ideology, and party affiliation. In sum, cultural world views operate as a master heuristic, organizing political opinion in exactly the way Wildavsky surmised.

But at the same time that our study shows the influence of culture on political opinions, it also undermines the proposition that American politics is the site of a bitter culture war.

Whether the American electorate is polarized is a question that itself polarizes observers of American politics. Most journalists and some academics answer this question in the affirmative. “Culture outweighs economics as a matter of public concern,” wrote Thomas Frank in his pre-election best-seller What’s the Matter with Kansas? Karl Rove seemed to be acting on this presumption when he arranged for gay-marriage referenda to be placed on the ballots of 11 battleground states, which all ended up in Bush’s electoral column.

Most political scientists, however, take a different view. In Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America, Morris Fiorina writes, “The simple truth is that there is no culture war in the United States—no battle for the soul of America rages, at least none that most Americans are aware of.” Fiorina and others point to decades of research establishing that most Americans are decidedly non-ideological in their thinking. They conclude that the major parties’ positions on cultural issues matter only to a relatively small but vocal group of intensely partisan voters.

In our view, each side has it half right—and half wrong. The critics of the culture-war thesis correctly characterize the mindset of the vast majority of American citizens. People are relatively tolerant of (and largely uninterested in) the moral opinions of their neighbors; material well-being is their main focus. Where the culture-war critics are wrong, however, is in their assumption that because economic well-being matters more to Americans than imposing their values, culture must be irrelevant to mass political opinion. Even citizens who care only about prosperity and security still have to figure out how to vote. As our research suggests, cultural affinity proves a powerful guide to such citizens.

And it is not only powerful but pervasive. Culture exerts its organizing force not just on intensely partisan fringe voters but on the vast majority of largely tolerant, non-ideological, and under-informed middle-of-the-road voters. Whereas “liberal” and “conservative” self-identifications partly explain the preferences of politically sophisticated respondents, cultural world view predicts the preferences of even the most unsophisticated persons.

Contrary to the culture-war hypothesis, cultural values don’t motivate mass political opinion. But contrary to the political-science critique, cultural values do orient mass opinion through complex social and cognitive mechanisms. The unfortunate result is the cultural polarization of a relatively tolerant public whose aim is simply to identify which policy, party, or person will best help them make ends meet and keep them reasonably safe.

* * * 

If some citizens really did want to impose their views on the whole society, then the prospects for constructive democratic deliberation in America would be dim. But because culture plays only a heuristic role in the thinking of citizens who agree about the practical ends of politics, the outlook is brighter. Moreover, the same argument about culture that helps us explain political polarization can also help us counteract it.

One approach uses innovative methods of democratic deliberation, including National Issues Forums, Citizen Juries, Deliberative Polls, and many others. The methods differ from one project to the next, but all have shown the power of thoughtful, respectful, public exchange in generating consensus among citizens of diverse moral persuasions.

We believe that appropriately structured deliberation achieves this result first by slowing people down. As we have explained, people use cultural affinity as a guide to expedite judgments in low-information settings. Consider a California voter who has multiple ballot measures to review each election. How much time does that voter spend studying each issue? Not much. As a result, cultural cues shape this voter’s choices on everything from local zoning policy to state immigration law.

Deliberative methods seek to provide information and the time to absorb it before reaching a judgment. A typical Citizen Jury session, for example, lasts four to five days, over the course of which citizens hear from a variety of public officials and researchers. Before attending a National Issues Forum, participants must read official issue books, which furnish information and options outside of partisan frames. Under these conditions, citizens interested in pragmatic solutions to common problems can achieve a degree of knowledge that relieves them of the need to lean on culture as a heuristic crutch.

Consider British Columbia’s use of its Citizens’ Assembly to resolve the highly contentious issue of electoral reform. The assembly consisted of a representative random sample of some 161 citizens working together slowly—over the course of a dozen weekends—through a complex set of options. Initially, almost none of the assembly members had given a moment’s thought to alternative electoral systems. Had they been polled at that point, they would have had no choice but to rely on heuristics for guidance. When given the chance to deliberate over a long period of time, however, they were able to work through their initial differences and arrive at near consensus. Brazil’s participatory-budgeting process, as described by Gianpaolo Baiocchi in this issue of Boston Review, teaches the same lesson.

Deliberation also counteracts the use of culture as a heuristic by constructing an alternative basis for interpersonal trust. Forced to make rapid judgments about issues on which they have little information, individuals naturally turn to those with whom they share a cultural bond for guidance. But as they engage one another in earnest face-to-face deliberation under conditions that convey the good faith and trustworthiness of all participants (including public officials, experts, and citizens), individuals form strong emotional bonds. These bonds make it possible for citizens to listen carefully even to people whose demeanor and language signal that they hail from a different cultural world.

The case of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, shows the efficacy of such bonds. From 1999 to the present day, Portsmouth public officials and civic organizations have organized a series of deliberative “study circles” on education, race relations, and city planning. The net result has been not merely good talk but also a stronger shared sense of civic identity. This shared identity has made it possible for the city’s residents to transcend partial and partisan world views and negotiate a variety of contentious issues.

It is at least conceivable that structured deliberation could be institutionalized in American cities and states. James Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman propose a national “deliberation day” based on the Deliberative Polls that Fishkin discusses in this issue of Boston Review. Or consider a current proposal in Washington State that would put the deliberative judgments of a representative group of citizens directly into the official voters’ guide. Washington voters habitually turn to this guide to get around the paid messages they hear during initiative campaigns, and if those guides prominently featured the judgments of deliberative citizen panels, it is likely that many voters would follow that cue, acting on a civic impulse to follow the lead of their fellow citizens.

* * * 

Even if structured deliberation remains a local solution to cultural polarization, there is another strategy that is appropriate for national policymaking: frami ng policy proposals to make them compatible with diverse cultural world views.

The cultural heuristic primarily polarizes in two circumstances. The first is when a policy approach resonates with some cultural outlooks but not others. Environmental-protection laws are often divisive in this way. Individualists naturally resist these laws because they imply that markets and private orderings are dangerous and worthy of regulation. Hierarchists also resist them, seeing claims of impending environmental catastrophe as implicit challenges to social and governmental elites. Egalitarians and communitarians, on the other hand, embrace environmental protection, which regulates activities that they see as producing disparities in wealth and symbolizing unconstrained self-interest. Presented with highly technical competing claims about the significance of global warming, citizens of diverse persuasions are steered into postures of confrontation.

Citizens also often end up polarized when they perceive that public figures who share their world view sharply disagree with those with competing orientations. Unable to work through the details of a complex issue (such as global warming), most citizens can easily figure out where they should stand by referencing cultural authorities—Ted Kennedy or Rush Limbaugh, The New York Times or Fox News—and aligning themselves accordingly.

It follows that one way to generate consensus is to frame sensible policies in ways that yield multiple cultural resonances and support from leaders of diverse world views. Even in a highly partisan political marketplace, there are gains for both actors when a McCain finds a Feingold on an issue, with each earning considerable rewards from independent voters for venturing across the cultural divide.

Consider the consensus that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s in favor of tradable emission permits as a way to combat air pollution. Individualists and hierarchists were able to overcome their skepticism about environmental protection both because this policy resonated with their cultural convictions—embracing markets and empowering commercial firms to combat a social problem—and was vouched for by the conservative administration of the elder President Bush. At the same time, because tradable emission permits had initially been proposed by environmentalists, the policy also fit the world views of egalitarians and communitarians, who could then accept evidence that uniform, centrally enforced air-quality standards don’t work.

A similar strategy is beginning to generate consensus on global warming. Recently, certain ideologically diverse groups have started to tout renewed investment in nuclear power as a way to reduce reliance on the fossil-fuel energy sources primarily responsible for greenhouse-gas emissions. Individualists and hierarchists support nuclear power, which is emblematic of the very cultural values that are threatened by society’s recognition of the global-warming threat. As in the case of tradable emission permits, when they are shown a solution that affirms their identities, individualists and hierarchists can be expected to be less resistant to the proposition that global warming is a problem after all. Likewise, when egalitarians and solidarists are exposed to the same information, they are likely to perceive nuclear power to be less dangerous: the affirmation of their identity that comes with the recognition of the global-warming threat lowers the cultural cost of accepting information about nuclear safety that they have long resisted.

Thus, our view is optimistic. Unlike many social scientists, we affirm that the phenomenon of cultural polarization is real—and of real concern for American democracy. But contrary to many popular observers, we believe that the foundation of such conflict is soft. The overwhelming majority of Americans are not zealots but persons of good will who want the same things. Their disagreement is tractable. It can be civilized—perhaps even dispelled—through structured deliberation and culturally sophisticated policy framing. Our account of the cultural cognition of the American public offers a realistic psychological explanation of our current political situation. And it offers hope—the hope that politics can be something more than the struggle of elites to grab the reins of power, and that the people can, after all, govern themselves.