Source: Wikimedia commons.
A number of recent studies have shown that America is becoming increasingly divided politically. For many of us this polarization rings true in our own experience and is a cause for concern. However, it is important to maintain an awareness of the way America has always been divided, is divided, and will always be divided: between those who like country music and those who don’t.
As critical to American life as this divide is at face value, the striking deeper fact is that the country music divide almost exactly mirrors the political divide. If all I told you about someone is that she has an abiding love for country and western, how much money would you bet that she’s also a Republican?
The reason most cited for why people don’t like country music is that they are not much moved by the imagery of dusty pickup trucks and empty bottles of whisky, which are the cultural symbols that drive the country genre. For example, one of my personal favorite country albums is Neon by Chris Young. Going through the track listing, “Lost” is a song about how “me and you and this old truck will find somethin’ to do.” There’s a song called “Save Water, Drink Beer,” which I believe is about environmental activism of a certain stripe. There’s “Flashlight” which is about Chris Young’s father fixing trucks and what he learned as a boy “just holdin’ the flashlight.” There’s also “Old Love Feels New” about the longstanding love affair between Chris’s grandparents and how he wants the same thing for his own marriage.
Contrast this with the top ten song most popular songs (as of this writing) from one of my favorite pop groups, Maroon 5. They are: Girls like You (feat. Cardi B), What Lovers Do, She Will Be Loved, Maps, Sugar, This Love, Don’t Wanna Know, Payphone, Wait, Girls Like You (not feat. Cardi B). Even if you aren’t familiar with Maroon 5’s work, you can imagine that songs with titles like “Girls like You,” “What Lovers do,” “Sugar,” and “This Love” all probably rely on a similar set of thematic imagery. Maroon 5’s repertoire is in this way not unrepresentative of popular music. The music perhaps most closely associated with the left is based on two thematic axes: love of a particularly fleeting variety, and partying, usually associated with the end of momentarily obtaining such a love.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. That Adam Levine of Maroon 5 is inclined to order bottle service in a crowded club whereas Chris Young is more interested in a bottle of whisky in a dingy tavern is a matter of preference, not artistic merit. But I take it as a relatively straightforward fact that country music appeals to more thematic dimensions than pop music does. For better or worse, country music takes into account more specific aspects of life than popular music.
There is a theory by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt that says essentially the same thing about the moral considerations of the political left and right. He calls it “Moral Foundations Theory.” The central idea of Haidt’s theory is that you can understand how a group of people thinks about right and wrong by trying to tease apart the moral dimensions on which they base that judgment. According to Haidt’s theory, liberals judge right and wrong based on two dimensions. He calls these the moral foundations of “Harm/Care” and “Fairness/Reciprocity.” The stereotype of the “bleeding heart liberal” is appropriate here. Liberals care deeply about preventing harm—to the environment, to minorities, to the poor. And they also care about creating a society in that is fair for everyone.
Conservatives, it should be said, care about these things as well. But they also bring more than these two dimensions to bear on judging right and wrong. According to Haidt, they consider five dimensions. In addition to the two previously mentioned, they are “Ingroup/loyalty,” “Authority/respect,” and “Purity/sanctity.” To play into their stereotypes, conservatives are more likely to put “America first,” place a higher value on respecting authority, and are more sensitive to acts of ungodliness (e.g., sex before marriage).
Haidt’s theory does not make a normative claim about which set of moral dimensions are the correct ones. It’s simply meant to lay out explicit differences. As a descriptive observation, conservatives take five moral dimensions into account, whereas liberals take two of them more seriously than the others.
It is worth considering, then, why conservatives prefer a more varied texture in both their music and their morality. To my mind, the most plausible answer is that conservatives represent a more tightly knit community than do liberals. When you have a community of people who share similar values, they can more easily agree on concrete symbols of their experience—pickup trucks, flashlights, and grandparents take on a very specific meaning. It would be impossible for a heterogeneous social group to make judgments of morality based on the foundations of Ingroup, Authority, or Purity if there’s no common basis to establish the group, whose in charge of it, and which cultural practices become norms and which become taboos. Harm and Fairness—like fleeting love and having a good time—are the lowest common denominators of human experience. And when you have a heterogeneous group, the common ground on which you can meet turns out to be little more than a modest piece of real estate.
Shared values, whether for music or morality, depend upon a shared repertoire of culturally significant symbols. That is why the one country song that is guaranteed to incite a positive response on both sides of the aisle is “Red Solo Cup” by Toby Keith. It is a cross-cultural truth that the Red Solo Cup signifies something very important and very specific: let’s have a party. Red Solo Cup bridges the country music divide because—as a concrete symbol requiring insider knowledge to interpret—it draws a circle around an ingroup, but draws it large enough that most everyone can fit inside. And while America’s political divide will prove more difficult to bridge, it can only be done through an appeal to mutual significant cultural symbols, such as the Red Solo Cup.