With Donald Trump as U.S. President and leader of the Republican Party, the ideological divide between American conservatives and liberals seems greater than ever before. From healthcare to environmental policy, educational, and economic issues, the new federal government has lunged into aggressive counter-reforms of liberal policies. This striking surge of antagonism already became apparent during the presidential election, which was characterized by a particularly violent eruption of conservative-versus-liberal polemic. While Trump accused “Crooked Hillary” of a wide palette of transgressions ranging from being a criminal and drug addict to plotting to destroy the sovereignty of the United States, Hillary Clinton has publicly charged Trump with nothing less than committing treason against his country.

Even though the highly-controversial figure of Trump has clearly rendered the political climate more volatile than usual, this apocalyptic tone is in itself nothing new in U.S. political discourse, going well beyond what is deemed acceptable in other Western countries. Indeed, accusing Barack Obama of being the Antichrist or a terrorist has become something of a commonplace in Republican circles, and prominent conservative commentators like Ann Coulter habitually reflect on their country’s political dynamics in books with incendiary titles such as Demonic: How the Liberal Mob Is Endangering America. And while the verbal attacks tend to be more aggressive from the conservative side, liberals have also been known to casually compare their opponents to Hitler.[1]

What is most astonishing about this phenomenon is that, upon closer examination, the hopelessly hardened ideological fronts suggested by these acrimonious outbursts do not really exist. Thus, when in 2005 French intellectual and activist Bernard-Henry Lévy set out to answer the question of what distinguishes Republicans from Democrats in modern-day America, he found himself at an impasse:

On the one hand, I keep meeting Democrats who think like Republicans and who without any qualms, without thinking for a single second of leaving their original party, go and vote for George Bush […]. In the same vein, I keep seeing Republicans who, also without a qualm, and even without understanding my surprise, go and vote for John Kerry […]. [We see] a novel system of membership, which has no comparison to what we know in Europe, and in which one’s attachment to a party is both very strong and very pliable, extremely tenacious and in the end somewhat empty […]. (Lévy 71)

Indeed, it often appears as if the endorsement of one side or the other is motivated more by a hazy ideological appeal based on one’s temperamental disposition rather than on a deliberate examination of political content. And while this may be true to some extent of any political identification process, this kind of “essentialist attachment” (Lévy 71) is particularly pronounced in the United States. Here, the level of emotionality and the customary stylization of the opponent as archenemy seem entirely disproportionate in the light of the relative closeness of the political agendas. Even when making allowance for the fact that a two-party system is especially prone to polarization, it is astounding that this dichotomy finds expression in acrid language and to a much lesser extent in a diversification of political programs. Particularly in view of the current political tensions dividing the nation, it is all too easy to overlook that, historically, the differences between the two parties are rather superficial when compared to the ideological landscapes of other Western political cultures.

These specifically American dynamics, which result in the leveling of political differences but simultaneous amplification of political tensions as well as surprising reinterpretations of conservative versus progressive standpoints, are closely connected to the individualist paradigm that has dominated U.S. political mindscapes throughout its history. Interestingly, this blurring of ideological positions can best be observed in two areas that are commonly perceived to be major sources of conflict between the conservative and liberal camp, namely the attitudes towards the social welfare system and the role of traditional religious values in public life.



When it comes to its social policies, the U.S. is notorious for participating to a lesser degree in the private risk management of its citizens than any other modern democracy. In a culture so deeply committed to the ideal of the autonomous “self-made man,” individuals are expected to create safety nets mostly by their own efforts. This translates into a patchy social system in which elementary social safeguards such as universal healthcare, unemployment insurance, or pension insurance are largely in the hands of private providers, while other support features like child allowance or statutory vacation entitlement are not guaranteed by law at all. Notwithstanding the U.S.’s national self-image as a pioneer of modernity—and despite having the largest gross national product in the world—the systematic implementation of social security measures was tackled only as late as 1935 and thus half a century later than in most European states. Even this only became feasible in the face of the dramatic collective mood swing caused by the Great Depression.

Nonetheless, even the regulations enacted as part of the New Deal remained fragmentary compared to other Western industrial nations. The same is true for the subsequent expansion of social benefits, most notably through the creation of Medicaid and Medicare in 1965 and, more recently, with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010, which aimed for the inclusion of 30 million previously-uninsured Americans by 2019 and represents perhaps the most decisive redistributive measure in the last decades of American social policy. But apart from the fact that the originally-proposed legislation remained well behind international standards to begin with, even the considerably slimmed-down final form of the reform package barely made it past the massive political and public resistance. The fact that Trump won the 2016 presidential election based on campaign pledges that prominently included repealing what he called the “Democrat-inflicted catastrophe” of Obamacare shows how unpopular government involvement in health care matters still is.

With the most recent push towards universal health insurance coming from the liberal side and representing one of the main battlegrounds of Republican versus Democrat policies, the hostility towards state assistance is generally perceived as a typically conservative stance. In reality, however, it is the expression of far more widespread cultural values which prescribe personal autarchy as the sine qua non for individual as well as collective well-being. Despite all the contrasts characterizing contemporary U.S. society, there is a broad consensus across lines of social status, ethnic background, gender, geography, and religious beliefs that the key to mastering collective challenges lies in citizens’ private lives. This strong individualist tradition is “both a source of vitality and the wellspring of many of the differences between the U.S. citizens and other people” (Kohut and Stokes 43). From the vantage point of a culture that celebrates radical individualism and market-generated reward mechanisms as a panacea for all societal issues, personal freedom and state influence categorically exclude each other—paradoxically even if the socio-economic range of the individual is broadened through state intervention. Consequently, even the most elemental considerations of social safety melt before the claim to unrestricted consumer choice and universal self-reliance.

But even as this isolationist interpretation of personal responsibility often looks like a merciless sink-or-swim mentality to members of other Western cultures, it is important to understand that it is anything but a symptom of social indifference or general lack of empathy. After all, Americans donate far more to private charity organizations than any other nation in the world (cf. Lipset, American Exceptionalism 277). This attests to the fact that the national aversion to institutionalized social support is not based on purely economic objections but rather on abstract moral principle. It is the result of a concept of social responsibility which dictates that help must first and foremost be self-help. Following this logic, the main purpose of government consists in creating conditions that are as inhospitable as possible to personal dependency and that allow for the mechanisms of the free market to work unobstructed. And so, when it comes to questions of welfare, Americans often call for the strict, disciplinary hand of the state, even as they are otherwise strictly averse to government paternalism.

Of course, the United States is hardly the only society in which welfare is a politically contentious topic. However, in other modern democracies more strongly shaped by social democratic intellectual currents, people are more prepared to identify downward and to consider the possibility that low-income individuals may not be inherently deviant but rather victims of less than ideal external circumstances. And so, while pejorative rhetoric against “welfare cheats” certainly also flares up in the public discourses of other Western nations, it is neither as continuously present nor as intensely ideologically charged as in the United States.

Conservative politicians, in particular, have shown a penchant for this popular ideal of “tough love.” When George W. Bush chose the label of “compassionate conservatism” for his social policies, it was in direct reference to the notion that true empathy is shown by rigorously freeing the needy individual from the shackles of dependency. Whether it be Ronald Reagan identifying the “welfare queen” as public enemy number one in his presidential campaign of 1976, or Mitt Romney accusing the 47% of Americans who allegedly do not pay any income tax to be nothing more than lazy welfare scroungers in 2012, there is a strong tendency in U.S. political discourse to generally stigmatize the reception of welfare benefits as an abnormality which could easily be remedied if only the individuals in question showed more personal initiative and character strength. “[P]overty in America is seldom the result of uncontrollable events involving the economic system,” submitted Charles Murray, author of the influential book Losing Ground. “I will argue that the old wisdom—that anyone who is willing to work hard can make a decent living—has much more truth to it than has recently been acknowledged” (Murray 5).

Granted, this assessment was given in the affluent 1980s. But even when faced with the signs of social decline brought on by two devastating financial crises that were not the result of too much but rather too little government regulation, Americans have a hard time overcoming their visceral revulsion against state involvement. “In the congressional elections [of November 2, 2010] most Americans voted for lowering taxes for the rich and for reducing social welfare benefits,” as Rainer Sommer has pointed out. “Interestingly, most of these voters either already depend on welfare benefits or will be depending on them in the future.”[2] Given the fact that the 2007/2008 collapse of the capital markets resulted in existential financial losses for large parts of the American population, destroying as much as 21% of U.S. citizens’ capital, and that today many Americans are forced to work multiple jobs just to secure a minimal standard of living, this clinging to the maxim of the built-in fairness of free markets and the effectiveness of trickle-down economy is rather baffling. It bears witness to a mass internalization of the individualist credo which declares external circumstances to be secondary if only the inner attitude is right. Consequently, structural aspects are dismissed as largely insignificant, with poverty being perceived not as a collective problem but as the result of a weak character.

This sentiment may be expressed more openly in conservative circles, but the ideological dividing lines between left and right have always been blurred when it comes to welfare, with individualist values clearly dominating across party lines. For example, when in 1987 the Working Seminar on Family and American Welfare Policy, a research group including experts of various political affiliations, published their findings on U.S. social policies, the conclusion was already expressed in the title The New Consensus on Family and Welfare: A Community of Self-Reliance, namely that social issues are ultimately a question of personal responsibility (Mead et al.). It is tempting to attribute this cross-party consensus to the generally more conservative climate of the 1980s. However, the same bias could also be observed in the liberal 1970s. In 1971, it was the National Taxpayers Union, its board comprising left-wing intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, Marc Raskin, and Karl Hess, that recommended drastic cuts in welfare benefits (cf. Lipset, Continental Divide 30). As it happens, the proposed measures were not much different from those that would later be promoted by Reagan as he advocated for shifting welfare from the state into the private sector.

Indeed, probably the most decisive cut in social benefits in U.S. history occurred under Bill Clinton. The 1996 enactment of the legislative package with the individualistically-charged name Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act was famously accompanied by Clinton’s bold promise to end “welfare as we have come to know it” and the proclamation that the “era of big government” is over. And while the basic goals of this reform—to create stronger incentives for reintegrating individuals into the job market and to prevent abuse of social benefits—were certainly legitimate, some of the stipulated sanctions, such as the restriction of government aid to a total of five years, revealed an unusual moral austerity.[3] The underlying assumption seems to be that in a world full of personal opportunities nobody has to remain in need for long—unless this state of dependency is voluntarily chosen.

Even as Bill Clinton may be atypical for the overall track record of his party in that the legislative drive under Democratic administrations was usually towards broadening the scope of state assistance, his landmark initiative shows that conservative and progressive social agendas are far from being discrete but rather fluctuate about the common ideological radius of self-sufficiency. Amidst what seems like an implicit cross-party agreement that ‘welfare’ is a dirty word, public investment becomes a potentially shameful matter. And so, unlike European left-of-center politicians who typically make a point of highlighting any efforts they are taking to expand government benefits and services, American liberals often find it wiser to stay away from the ideological minefield of welfare—or at least keep a low profile in this matter. As Anne Daguerre has recently pointed out, Hillary Clinton was mostly silent about the indecorous issue of “welfare” in her 2016 presidential campaign. Likewise, the Obama administration’s “anti-poverty efforts were often stealth policies cloaked in broadly inclusive rhetoric” as it tried “to help those in poverty more than it would admit” (Daguerre xi, emphasis mine). This palpable sense of embarrassment and timidity surrounding the left’s approach to the problem of poverty is most telling in what it says about the values of the voter base it is trying to appeal to.

With all this in mind, the common interpretation of the last decades of U.S. social policy as a triumph of conservative values applies only to some extent. Rather, more often than not, there has been a surprisingly broad value consensus between liberals and conservatives. While in Europe radicals on both the left and the right are in favor of a strong state, in the U.S. both sides of the political spectrum endorse anti-statist ideals with the claim to maximal political decentralization. “Political conservatives cast their arguments in terms of freedom from government. Political liberals do so in the name of diversity and the right to choose,” as Robert Wuthnow outlined this characteristically American ideological convergence (160). Both these argumentative strategies are in line with the individualist program hinging on the core principle of radical personal sovereignty. As a striking expression of this conformity, the unions and labor movement, elsewhere the vanguard of the left, has taken an unusual path in the United States:

The American labor movement is not and never has been socialist, despite having socialists within it. It was characteristic that its shaping leader, Samuel Gompers, “denounced national health insurance as an unnecessary paternalistic reform that would create a system of state supervision of the people’s health.” In 1916, at congressional hearings on a national commission on social insurance, Gompers attacked the Socialist “belief that government had to be called in to ensure workers’ welfare and gave a ringing defense of the success of trade unions in raising workers’ standards of living.” (Glazer 178)

Expressing a similar concurrence with the basic precepts of industrial capitalism, Philip Murray, a key figure of the U.S. labor movement who served as president for the Steel Workers Organizing Committee, United Steelworkers of America, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, famously declared that “we have no classes in this country” (Lipsitz 143). The conservative bent of considerable parts of American labor organizations is not least underscored by the fact that “many of its previous presidents ended up either as officials in the steel industry or as Republican politicians” (White 50). To this day, the American working class is one of the most conservative in the world. Having internalized the individualist tenets of absolute self-reliance no less than other social groups, even the blue-collar segment largely identifies with capitalist ideals and is notoriously hard to win over for the causes of the expansion of the social welfare system and workers’ rights.

Given such overwhelming consensus, it turns out to be rather challenging for political opponents to distinguish themselves from one another. In an effort to chisel out a recognizable profile, they tend to shift political debates to a side stage. “So deep is the conflict between welfare and core American values, that people on the left do not so much defend welfare as attack the conservative worldview of those who could curtail it” (Wolfe, One Nation, After All 196). For instance, when it comes to the problem of poverty, it often seems like the focus is placed less on finding new approaches to eliminating the phenomenon as such than on arguing over the right criteria for distinguishing between “deserving” and “undeserving poor.” And while it is certainly necessary to address questions of personal responsibility when thinking about social justice, the discourse becomes distorted when the individual’s life choices are regarded in total isolation from external forces.

Compared to the political left in other industrial nations, American liberals have shown little inclination to reintroduce the social dimension into this equation. But conservatives, too, have been known to perform unexpected political maneuvers. Attempts to expand social welfare, such as Nixon’s plans to introduce an unconditional basic income for all U.S. citizens, have uncharacteristically been initiated from the conservative side if the competition for “issue ownership” made it seem tactically opportune (cf. Béland and Waddan 46-49). This ambiguous positioning, which may look like a general lack of ideological direction, can be interpreted to be quite the opposite, namely the product of a firm agreement requiring progressives and conservatives to devise unorthodox strategies to develop a distinctive stance.

A typical example of how liberals and conservatives largely occupy the same ideological space is the case of the Detroiter James Robertson, whose story made national headlines in early 2015. For ten years, the 59-year-old factory worker had to walk 21 miles of his 23-mile work commute by foot. Even though he held a full-time job that paid 10.55 dollars an hour, which is significantly above the Michigan minimum wage of 8.15 dollars, Robertson could not afford his own car. And since there was no public transportation from his home to his workplace, he had to walk to work five days a week in any weather, with his route also leading through extremely dangerous areas of crime-ridden Detroit.

When his story was picked up by the press, Robertson was celebrated as an admirable example of a stoic work ethic that defies even the most adverse of circumstances. His boss was quoted as saying: “I set our attendance standard by this man. I say, if this man can get here, walking all those miles through snow and rain, well I’ll tell you, I have people in Pontiac 10 minutes away and they say they can’t get here—bull!” (Laitner). Robertson’s situation inspired an outpouring of public sympathy, and he was eventually donated a car as well as hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The general take on Robertson’s plight was that of a positive example of individual character strength and private charity, thanks to which a good man finally got the reward he deserved. The message seemed to be that sooner or later, unwavering personal initiative will pay off. The desolate state of the local public transport and the disastrous labor market situation were only sketched by way of providing a narrative background. Surprisingly, media coverage was more concerned with the details of how to organize the payout of donations to Robertson than with the question of how to improve Detroit’s infrastructure. And while many public voices expressed their respect for Robertson’s impressive determination and endurance, even the left did surprisingly little to challenge the promotion of a civic role model that includes risking one’s health and safety and giving up all claims to leisure and recreation just to keep afloat. David A. Graham of the The Atlantic represented a rare exception as he offered the following perspective:

The reaction has been appropriately positive. […] That’s great for Robertson. But this isn’t a feel-good story—it’s a story about policy failures, structural economic obstacles, and about what it takes to keep working despite those challenges. Robertson is no doubt deserving, but it’ll take larger changes to help other people who face similar struggles.

Revealingly, even this objection is raised in a surprisingly careful, almost apologetic tone. The fact that a leading left-of-center magazine feels the need to spell out the rather self-evident point that Robertson’s difficulties cannot be understood apart from the larger societal context shows that a collective approach to social issues is far from being natural to the American psyche. “[T]he remedying is not a work for society, but for me to do,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, the figurehead and main architect of American individualism, postulated almost two centuries ago (Emerson 85). As the Robertson episode illustrates, this attitude is still very much alive in the way Americans think and feel about politics.

This is not to say that the country has not seen any contrary positions or ideological climate changes in this matter. Indeed, there have been different tendencies since the 1930s, with the welfare state being in turn expanded and downsized. However, the expansional phases—mainly the periods of the New Deal from 1933 to 1936 and the Great Society from 1963 to 1968—were not only comparatively short but also rather narrow regarding their ideological spectrum, which never strayed very far from the individualist baseline. Characteristically, the U.S. is the only industrial nation in which socialist ideas could never take root on a larger scale, in spite of the fact that it is the most strongly developed capitalist society, with a mass industrial proletariat that seemed predestined for this political course more than any other nation according to the assumptions of historical materialism.[4] Even if it would certainly be too much of a blanket statement to call the socio-political landscape of the U.S. an ideological monoculture, it is surprisingly close to being one for a democratic society.



The same is true when it comes to the significance of religion in political life. Although constitutionally the separation of church and state is designed to be stricter than in other Western countries—for example, the United States has no official state religion, and religious institutions are not supported by church taxes—political and social life is famously dominated by religious symbols. American presidents swear on the Bible using the formula “So help me God,” although this wording is not actually provided in the constitutional text. The pledge of allegiance to the flag contains the expression “under God,” and even profane objects such as bank notes are printed with the motto “In God We Trust.” “God Bless America” has become a standard phrase in political speeches, and so far no American president has failed to mention God in his inaugural address.

Again, the infusion of politics with religious sentiment is predominantly viewed to be a Republican attribute, with the Democrats standing for a more secular world view. But on closer scrutiny the ideological contrast turns out to be rather pale. For example, a 2007 survey by the Barna Group has revealed that, while it is four times as likely to encounter fundamentalist Christian convictions in the Republican than in the Democratic camp (namely with 59% to 16%), traditional Christian concepts play an important role on both sides. Thus, 57% of Republicans and 40% of Democrats opined that the Bible is correct in all its teachings; 61% of Republicans and 48% of Democrats stated that they are unequivocally dedicated to the Christian faith; and 75% of Republicans and 65% of Democrats declared that they believe in God as the omnipotent creator and ruler of the universe.

A similar picture emerges in a poll carried out in 2008 by the Pew Forum, in which the religious attitudes of people with liberal, moderate, and conservative political views were examined. Here, too, it was confirmed that traditional religious values and affiliation with religious institutions are more often accompanied by conservative political opinions. But at the same time, religious concepts and practices have turned out to be of great importance to a considerable percentage of the interviewees of all three groups, namely to 37% of conservatives, 36% of moderates, and 20% of liberals (cf. Pew Research Center, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices”). These numbers suggest that, even as diverging tendencies can certainly be identified, religious convictions are of great significance throughout all political orientations.

Hence, the appeal to religious feelings represents one of the most effective means to reach a broad mass of U.S citizens. From Abraham Lincoln’s famous image of the house divided,[5] Martin Luther King’s allusions to biblical themes in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Rudolph Giuliani’s quoting of the Book of Job in his first public address to the people of New York following the 9/11 attacks—religious language and symbolism have become an integral part of political America. It is drawn on ubiquitously and is more likely to be taken up the more meaningful the occasion. To Western Europeans, it may sound like a remnant from medieval times when a politician underscores his claim to political leadership with the argument that “I believe that God wants me to be president,” as George W. Bush did in 2004 (Smith 406). The same may be said of Reagan’s famous summoning of the nation’s faith in 1984:

Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience. Without God, we’re mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God, there is a coarsening of the society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under. (Joint Committee on Printing Congress 114)

As outmoded as such statements may sound to citizens of other Western countries, in the United States they blend seamlessly into the general political rhetoric. And that decidedly also includes the liberal camp. For instance, it was John F. Kennedy who maintained that state power has no legitimization without a religious base by declaring that “the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God” (Kennedy 267). Even Barack Obama, who stands for a more untraditional position and is the first U.S. president to explicitly include atheists in his inaugural speech, referred to the Bible when he said: “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things” (Olive 327). And, not unlike many conservative U.S. politicians, he reverts to the concept of “sin” when talking about questionable moral choices (Obama 224).

With religious language thus providing the common vocabulary of public and political discourse, even atheists are forced to adopt a religious tone if they wish to appeal to a broad audience. So strong is the religious imperative that in fact many self-described atheists are unable to abandon the concept of a higher power. “Indeed, one-in-five people who identify themselves as atheist (21%) and a majority of those who identify themselves as agnostic (55%) express a belief in God or a universal spirit” (Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life 8). The contradiction identified in Pew’s analysis illustrates the inability of many Americans to step outside the religious frame. “The U.S. has largely avoided the secularizing trends that have reshaped the religious scene in recent decades in European and other economically developed nations,” is the bottom line drawn by Pew based on respective statistics (Pew Research Center, “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey: Religious Beliefs and Practices”).

As a manifestation of this reactionary drift, the American Religious Right has recently declared “secular humanism” to be a moral danger to the nation. Of course, this is an extreme position that is hardly embraced by all or even a majority of Americans. Still, the choice of the target in itself says a lot about the cultural climate. By way of comparison, Europe is not seeing any comparable attacks on humanist values by conservative Christians, even in traditionally religious countries such as Poland, Italy, or Greece. On this side of the Atlantic, the term “humanism” has too positive a connotation to be suitable as an object of hostility—precisely because it is more strongly associated with secular than religious historical forces. In contrast, in the United States a purely secular ethic is often rejected as a sign of general moral decline.

Given the prevalence of this sentiment, it is not surprising that the U.S. is the only rich industrial nation in which the majority of people hold the opinion that being religious is an indispensable prerequisite for an ethical lifestyle. In a 2014 Pew survey comprising 40 countries, 53% of Americans answered in the affirmative when asked whether the belief in God is absolutely essential for being a good person. This is in sharp contrast to other Western states.[6] As a direct consequence of this view, Americans have an extremely negative attitude towards atheism. To use a phrase often encountered in the press, atheists represent “the most despised minority in America.” Not surprisingly, when Gallup inquired which attribute of an otherwise well-qualified presidential candidate would keep U.S. citizens from voting for him or her, atheism made the top of the list with 43%, followed by the Muslim faith with 40%.[7]

Dwight Eisenhower is reported to have said that “[o]ur government makes no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is” (Bellah 175). Gallup’s findings affirm and refute this statement at the same time. On the one hand, it is still Protestantism in its various interpretations that forms the country’s intellectual and political mainstream. Belonging to a different religious group more often than not turns out to be an ideological Achilles’ heel for politicians, with suspicion of other faiths being a common phenomenon among Republicans and Democrats alike. Thus, for John F. Kennedy as well as for John Kerry, their Roman Catholic confession represented a significant image problem even within the ranks of their own party. And it is more than just a coincidence that, with the single exception of Kennedy, the U.S. has never had a Catholic president, although the Catholic church is the country’s largest uniform community of faith.

But on the other hand, even the “wrong” religious label seems to be preferable to none at all. This became apparent in the presidential campaign of 2012. Mitt Romney, whose Mormon confession was found to be an exclusion criterion for almost a fifth of American voters and who had also made several widely-publicized blunders during his campaign, lost by a surprisingly narrow margin against Barack Obama not least because he presented himself as a man of faith as opposed to the allegedly “godless” acting president.

A more recent incarnation of the same pattern was exposed by WikiLeaks on July 22, 2016. Tellingly, when key members of the 2016 Democratic National Committee tried to undermine Bernie Sanders’ campaign, it was by seeking to “unmask” him as an atheist. In an email of May 5, 2016, DNC Chief Financial Officer Brad Marshall suggested to other DNC representatives:

It might may [sic] no difference, but for KY and WVA can we get someone to ask his belief. Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist. This could make several points difference with my peeps. My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.

This exchange highlights that the theocratic impulse is not an exclusively conservative trait but rather a mainstream phenomenon. When it comes to explaining this strong overlapping of the religious and the political sphere, reference is often made to the country’s Puritan heritage. For, in the experience of the Protestant dissidents who would become such a significant force in the national identity, religious motivations went hand in hand with the secular goal of building a new social order. In this way, political and religious contents were amalgamated at the very inception of American society. And yet, this historical circumstance alone does not provide an entirely satisfying account of the current situation. After all, the close interconnection of church and politics also characterized the power structures of Europe. Besides, the U.S. has been exposed to a constant flow of very different cultural experiences. So why is it that conservative religious values have retained their vigor in the U.S. of all places, a country that is at the same time considered a very secular society, a technical wonderland, and the most innovative country in the world?

One explanatory approach may be that religious ideas have survived by piggybacking on the powerful ideological force of individualism. At first glance, the individualist principle seems to be at odds with religious worldviews, as the latter are usually based on the obedience to an inscrutable higher power and the submission to a pre-established value system. The freedom to radically question any and all social conventions seems incompatible with religious dogma. “The ‘believer’ does not belong to himself, he can only be a means, he has to be used, he needs someone who will use him. […] Belief of any kind is in itself as an expression of selflessness, of self-alienation” (Nietzsche 184). This is the verdict that Friedrich Nietzsche, the main representative of European individualist thought, passed on religious mindsets.

And yet, what to him seemed utterly irreconcilable resulted in a productive symbiosis under the extraordinary historical conditions of the New World. With its tradition of religious dissent and its refusal to let exterior authorities step in between believer and God, Protestantism contained a strong individualist seed that fell on particularly fertile ground in the new colonies. Thanks to their open social structures and their geographic distance from the hierarchical societies of Europe, the old order characterized by command and obedience was replaced by an emphasis on individual responsibility and voluntary associations. As observers of the young society’s formation like J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur or Alexis de Tocqueville noticed early on, this cultural setup made Americans more prone to challenge authority and follow their private conscience. This in turn gave shape to a kind of Protestantism that was inseparably imbued with the individualist ethos. It is this unique blend of religious zeal and liberal individualist esprit that has prevailed in the American mentality to this day. And so, in an otherwise increasingly secularized West, the United States is the only rich industrial society where conservative religious ideas have not only preserved their vitality but even seem to be picking up momentum.

All that said, the transfer of ideological energies does not take place in only one direction. While religious sentiments have drawn dynamism from their alliance with the nation’s vibrant individualist spirit, religion has turned out to be indispensable for the intellectual economy of a country dedicated to radical individualism. After all, in a paradigm that dismisses political institutions as either ineffective or morally corrupt, and therefore unfit to effectively regulate social life, only the presupposition of a benevolent higher power guiding all individuals provides the theoretical basis for upholding moral relativism while at the same time aspiring to social harmony. In other words, God is needed as the social glue that worldly institutions are not trusted to provide.

From the outside, this merging of politics and religion is often viewed as an anachronistic, reactionary phenomenon. Here, the fact that today religion is almost automatically assigned to the arsenal of conservative values makes it easy to overlook the fact that historically, liberalism and religious belief have often gone hand in hand. From the Protestant Reformation, which defined itself as an insurgency against a repressive order, to central figures of classic liberalism like John Locke, whose philosophy was inspired by deep religious convictions, to more recent history, when East German churches became the germ cells of a revolt against the regime in the GDR, it was often religion that provided the fuel for the struggle for more social freedom. To that effect, Corey Robin has commented that “[w]here many conservatives since 1789 have rallied to Christianity and religion as an antidote to the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the more farsighted among them have seen religion, or at least some aspect of it, as the adjutant of revolution” (Robin 92). Accordingly, the issue with the strong religious presence in American politics is not that it is a reactionary force per se but that too broad a religious consensus may easily lead to a total exclusion of irreligious concepts from the cultural tool kit. The result is a self-imposed limitation of the collective political imagination and a tendency to get distracted from pragmatic approaches by abstract ideological-metaphysical quarrels.

Such a collision of moralistic aspiration and factual reality can for example be observed in the abiding public dispute over whether contraceptives should be made available to minors. While the number of unwanted underage pregnancies is rising, conservative Americans keep insisting that abstinence till marriage should be the only accepted means of birth control. Instead of acknowledging what some may see as the imperfection of reality, namely that not all teenagers can or want to live up to the often faith-based ideal of chastity, the debate keeps being dominated by religiously-prescribed standards.

Similar signs of this ideological self-starvation syndrome can be observed no less clearly on the American left. Like a person suffering from a compulsion disorder rendering them unable to step over cracks in the pavement, U.S. liberals seem to have a psychological block when it comes to moving beyond the realm of religion-fueled radical individualism:

Feminists defending a woman’s right to choose are more likely to base their argument not on liberal beliefs about equality but on libertarian, and even conservative, ones about freedom from government interference. The response of many liberals to the growth of the religious right is not to make a defense of separation of church and state, and to show how that might be good for both reason and revelation, but to urge the creation of a religious left. (Wolfe, The Future of Liberalism 7)

Such reflexive adoptions of conservative outlooks by liberals have turned out to be the rule rather than the exception. For instance, in the now infamous 2004 Super Bowl performance by Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake that went down in U.S. media history as “Nipplegate,” the Democrats reacted to the public outcry following Jackson’s so-called “wardrobe malfunction” by focusing on the topics of “moral values” and “media decency” in their pre-election campaign. As Frederick S. Lane has argued in The Decency Wars, this shift of the debate to traditionally Republican terrain put the conservatives at an advantage from the very start. Polls that were taken immediately after the re-election of George W. Bush revealed that moral values were the most important decision criteria for 20% of the voters, three quarters of which cast their vote for Bush (cf. Lane 273-74). Referring to this fact, Frank Rich of the New York Times called Bush’s reappointment as U.S. president “the greatest coup of all” resulting from the exposure of Jackson’s breast.

Another example of this liberal readiness to passively drift along in the flow of conservative value judgements is the MoveOn movement, which was formed in protest of the public treatment of the Lewinsky Affair and developed into one of the most influential alternative movements of the United States. When, on his quest to gain glimpses into the soul of American politics, Bernard-Henry Lévy met with MoveOn initiators Joan Blades and Wes Boyds, the activists specifically made a point of stressing that the complete name of the movement is Censure and Move On, thus emphasizing that reprimanding Clinton was an equally important part of their agenda. Baffled by this uncritical internalization of conservative guidelines, Lévy reflected:

What these activists are telling us is that in order to get a hearing, one had to say that Clinton was just slightly less guilty than his persecutors—that the sin shocked them just as much as the impeachment. In the eyes of a European, this is absolutely astounding. These enlightened thinkers could have argued what some of them privately believed—that they thought that this business of the “stain” was a non-affair. They could have proclaimed that the president’s sex life was his private affair, and that in any event it was out of order to let senators, congressmen, and the press have the least opinion on the subject. But no; maybe because they knew what they had to say in order to have credibility in America, they chose to call, all at once, for the American people to “move on” (out of the crisis) and “censure” (the licentious president). They put side by side the promoters of the new witch-hunt and the venial sin that was its first pretext. These progressives, in the very act of founding their organization, ratified the keystone of conservative reasoning and thus let people think that here was a kind of axiom, an inviolable norm, a kind of prolegomenon for any political reasoning, present or future. As I say, to a European, this is astounding. (Lévy 84-85)

This likewise applies to the moralistic dispute over LGBTQ rights and abortion currently raging in the United States. While the country is confronted with burning domestic issues like the growing gap between rich and poor with all its cataclysmic consequences, liberals and conservatives are locked in a battle over the question of whether transsexuals should use public washrooms based on the sex they were born with, or whether abortion should remain a legal option. So here we have a situation where the percentage of Americans living below the poverty line exceeds 13% while the wealth of the top earners has been skyrocketing; where the U.S. health system, while including a lesser percentage of the population than any other Western industrial nation, has the highest costs per capita; and where one of the most cost-intensive educational systems in the world puts a good education out of the financial reach of a large number of citizens. Not to mention the constantly high level of violent crime, or the fact that the country keeps being shaken by escalating gun violence and scandals of systematic racism in the police force. Despite all these alarming developments, recent political discourse was overwhelmingly dominated by questions of bathroom etiquette and ProChoice versus ProLife—topics that have either been non-issues in many Western societies or have been put to rest as a point of public conflict decades ago.

Of course, America’s well-known moralistic streak is a principal factor here. “In the United States […] polarization occurs over moral issues rather than economic ones, and the politics of interest groups is supplemented and at times supplanted by the politics of moralistic reform,” as Samuel Huntington remarked. “America has been spared class conflicts in order to have moral convulsions. It is precisely the central role of moral passion that distinguishes American politics from the politics of most other societies” (Huntington 11).

Phrased in such sweeping terms, Huntington’s statement is of course problematic in that it completely fails to acknowledge the intense class clashes the U.S. experienced from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, as American laborers and industry establishment were pitted against each other in a prolonged and bitter struggle for workers’ rights that was often characterized by lethal violence. It is therefore not that America knows no class conflicts but rather that “a culture that persistently denies that class could ever constitute an authentic framework of identity and consciousness” (White 288) makes it very difficult to cast the collective plight of the working class in a language that will resonate with the broader public. A national myth that promotes soul-searching and “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” as the most admirable path to self-advancement lends itself to diverting the focus away from the question of social justice to the moralistic examination of individual input.

Accordingly, the moralistic impulse is not purely an expression of conservative religious values but again has a specifically individualist component. True to the inner logic of the religious-individualist worldview, American society celebrates the idea of dissent and non-conformist lifestyles, but at the same time it assumes that true personal emancipation is an inward journey in search of a pre-social “aboriginal Self”[8] that is privy to transhistorical, universal moral principles. Pursuant to this individualist vision, the process of finding oneself does not take place in the sociological or political but in the spiritual realm. Instead of being conceptualized as an ongoing endeavor of reflection, adaption, and negotiation within the social environment, self-realization is perceived as a spontaneous esoteric epiphany that can only be attained through radical introspection. It is therefore defined as disengagement from all exterior reference frames with the goal of uncovering divine truths. Moral antinomianism is welcomed only as a necessary intermediate step on the way to absolute morality. Thus, the invitation to uncensored experimentation and the sententious insistence on the one right way often turn out to be two sides of the same individualist coin.



This moralistic drive, combined with the lack of any substantial ideological differences, creates a dynamic in which the two main parties compulsively focus on minor disagreements while showing little inclination to question the validity of shared fundamental assumptions. Among these are the culturally normalized tendency to conceive of ethics within the confines of religious dogma and to foist off the corporate task of creating a just social system on the individual. The former leads to an unhealthy narrowing of conceptions of morality, often encouraging bigoted attitudes while disregarding practically feasible options for tackling societal issues. The latter entirely misses the complex political and economic realities of an increasingly interdependent global community.

Clearly all is not well in American politics. Domestic problems of mass poverty, dysfunctional health care, and unaffordable education, as well as a growing ideological estrangement between the U.S. and its Western allies can be read as evidence that cherished national ideals may have some limitations and that exploring new intellectual ground may be in order. But American politics seems to be seized by a primal fear of venturing beyond the terrain of radical individualism. Just like two people who have never left the confines of a small room, players on both sides of the political spectrum seem to assume that by occupying opposite corners of the individualist field they have already taken the maximally diverging positions and hence exhausted the whole range of available political options.

Already in 1981, Huntington speculated that U.S. democracy is endangered not by a lack of consensus but, quite to the contrary, by an individualist consensus that is all too broad (cf. Huntington 31). What seems most dangerous about an uncompromisingly purist interpretation of individualist precepts is that—just like any other ideology taken too far—they tend to mutate into their opposite. The outcome of the recent presidential election may serve to illustrate this point. Ironically, discontented and disillusioned U.S. citizens have opted to express their protest against the system by voting a man into the White House who, perhaps more than any other public figure, stands for privilege and the status quo. In a collective desire to “Make America Great Again,” the nation has turned full force to the simple recipe of rejecting state action in favor of individual responsibility in combination with the unleashed forces of the deregulated marketplace and thus to the very same mindset that has arguably led to many of the problems the country is currently struggling with. The American angst of losing personal autonomy to an overbearing state power is one of the main reasons why U.S. citizens have voted in a president whose campaign was dominated by anti-statist rhetoric. And yet, it is he who—in the continuation of the very same “strong-man” stance—is now hampering the freedom of the press and propagating the concept of “alternative facts,” adopting a unilateral political style and installing members of his family in key government offices in the style of a seventeenth-century autocrat.

Hence, Trump’s election is not just a crisis of the American left but a crisis of American democracy. It is a strong signal that the old individualist remedies need to be infused with fresh ideas, especially if the many admirable aspects of America’s individualistic culture are to be preserved. The future role of the U.S. in the world will depend on whether it will be able to broaden its ideological horizon and expose its collective immune system to a wider scope of political possibilities in order to devise sustainable solutions to domestic problems and find a common vocabulary with other cultures. In an international community faced with diminishing resources, existential environmental challenges, overpopulation, cultural tensions, and increasingly complex political and economic ties, national as well as personal self-determination can no longer correspond to a simplistic definition of individualism as stubborn isolation or my-way-or-the-highway moral attitudes.

While America has cast Trump in the prototypical role of the unorthodox individual who “shakes things up” to the benefit of all, in reality this shake-up has been nothing more than a head-on return to old formulas. And yet, there are also signs of a significant national mood shift being underway. In particular, the strong liberal support for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 pre-election campaign suggest that large parts of the American public are in favor of replacing radical individualism with a more balanced social-democratic political style—even as many others have predictably accused Sanders of being a “socialist.” Thus, in the current political constellation it falls to the American left to introduce a broader range of political options into the public discourse and to promote intellectual diversification in what is now essentially a one-party system.



[1] For example, Gore Vidal called William F. Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” in an ABC television broadcast on 28 August, 1968. In a similar way, Al Gore publicly accused George W. Bush of unleashing “squadrons of digital brownshirts to harass and hector any journalist who is critical of the President” in a speech of October 5, 2005.

[2] Translated from the German original: “Bei den Kongresswahlen haben die meisten Amerikaner dafür gestimmt, die Steuern für Reiche zu senken und Sozialleistungen zu kürzen. Interessanterweise waren es mehrheitlich jene Wähler, die entweder immer schon oder zukünftig auf Sozialleistungen angewiesen sind.”

[3] The individual states were given the option to modify this stipulation, however.

[4] An in-depth discussion of why the U.S. has proven to be such a hostile terrain for socialist ideas can be found in: Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. Norton, 2000.

[5] Lincoln quotes from Mark 3:25: “And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

[6] By way of comparison, 33% of Germans, 31% of Canadians, 27% of Italians, 20% of Brits, and 15% of French were of this opinion. However, the difference to Greece and Poland is less pronounced with respectively 49% and 44%. Only in large parts of Africa and Asia and in Middle-Eastern societies, is the notion that religious belief is a fundamental condition for morality even more widespread (cf. Pew Research Center, “Worldwide, Many See Belief in God as Essential to Morality–Richer Nations Are Exceptions”).

[7] Following in the ranking are homosexuality with 30%, the Mormon faith with 18%, a Hispanic candidate with 7%, Jewish faith with 6%, Catholic faith and a female candidate with respectively 5%, and an African-American candidate with 4% (cf. Jones).

[8] This expression was used by Emerson in his programmatic 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” which is still considered to be the locus classicus of radical individualism.


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Image credit: Official portrait of President Donald J. Trump (Library of Congress)” from Shealah Craighead and the Executive Office of the President of the United States, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.