America is a paradox. For people like me who are from Europe, America seems both appealing and repulsive. It’s the most advanced nation in the world and it’s a gun lover’s paradise. It is one of the richest nations in the world and it has extremely high homelessness rates. It has the biggest scientific community and the dumbest TV shows. The US has the highest homicide and suicide rates of any wealthy nation and a staggering number of mass shootings. Incarceration rates are six times higher than in other English-speaking countries and even higher than in many developing countries.
America has been a paradox since its beginnings in colonial times. The land of the free and the land of slaves. In the South, liberty and capitalism could only succeed at the expense of slaves, which corroded a society’s values over time. The “American paradox” was — and still is — the problem of doing wrong in a country that professes to do right. In the North puritans forced people to do and believe the right thing through conformity and witch hunts.
America’s founding fathers were inspired by the enlightenment, and yet while the enlightenment brought increased secularisation to Europe, the US subsequently became more religious. Many of the founding fathers-Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison and Monroe-practised a faith called Deism. Deism is a philosophical belief in human reason as a reliable means of solving social and political problems. And yet, despite these progressive spiritual ideas the US became religiously more conservative rather than progressive. The most recent alteration of the Pledge of Allegiance came in 1954, when the words “under God” were added. And currently conservative US politicians are even using the wording “under one God”, explicitly excluding every other religion.
Are those phenomena related or all of them separate? It seems impossible to start to tackle the American paradox with a single unifying idea and it probably is. However, I will try to make as much sense as possible with a single framework: the forager-farmer framework.
The American paradox was perhaps best captured by Swedish Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal: “America is conservative in fundamental principles… but the principles conserved are liberal and some, indeed, are radical”.
Indeed conservatives can even conserve liberal principles. We would need to find a scenario in which the values of the overwhelmingly liberal founding fathers became adopted by an increasingly conservative population. The scenario I propose here involves evolutionary psychology and personality psychology. Liberalism correlates with high openness to experience (O), whereas conservatism correlates with high conscientiousness ©. I have argued that high C is evolutionarily derived from subsistence farming: dutifulness, hard-work, orderliness, obedience to authority. These traits don’t make sense for non-sedentary and egalitarian foragers. Political scientists have observed that the core of liberalism consists of the very same high egalitarianism found in foragers. So, high O people are more likely to preserve the genetic traits of foragers than high C people.
When America was colonised by European settlers, we can assume that many of the first settlers were rather high in O and egalitarian forager traits. This includes the founding fathers. We see these high O people migrate from authoritarian Europe to comparatively free America at first and later go West in order to maintain self-choice and independence. Today the West Coast is the most liberal place in the US, settled by people who had the same mindset as many of the first settlers and the founding fathers.
What happened subsequently was that high C reproduced much more quickly than high O. Conservatives everywhere in the world are known to have more children than liberals. Some places in New England had an average rate of almost ten children, which was at the time the highest in the Western world. If the founding fathers are a population of high O people, the Amish nowadays represent a population of high C people, or farmer types. Studies have consistently reported completed fertility of anywhere between six and eight children per Amish woman.
If my evolutionary scenario is correct, what we are seeing currently is a kind of boomerang effect. The “liberal” boomerang thrown out by America’s founding fathers already reached its farthest point. Now it’s returning home to farmer territory. We can see this in the abolition of individual right such as abortion rights, isolationism, depluralisation and political desecularization.
For more on the forager-farmer divide check out my book: The Forager-Farmer Framework: A new perspective on personality, society and culture