December 9, 2015

Political partisanship and career strivers vs. lifestyle strivers

When the current era of status-striving kicked off with the Me Generation during the 1970s, the domain of competition was the career world, which solidified into the yuppie phenomenon of the '80s. They also measure status by material things that cost enough money that owning them implies success in the career world -- a large house in a top zip code, second homes, luxury cars, boats, and so on.

As the career domain became saturated with strivers, the next generation took to the lifestyle domain for their status contests. See this earlier post. And now that lifestyle striving has become saturated, strivers are competing over who has the awesomest persona. For now we can group the lifestyle and persona strivers together, as forms of not-so-tangible striving, in contrast with the clearer measures of success in the career and materialist domain.

The political system responds to underlying sociological changes. During the Great Compression, both parties were not at war with each other as they were during the Gilded Age. They were not concerned with helping individuals advance their personal, or at most familial ambitions, but rather with stewarding the collective welfare of the entire nation. Republicans leaned more toward established business interests (not entrepreneurial strivers), and Democrats more toward labor unions (not identity politics groups, not outdoors enthusiasts).

As the Me Generation entered the electorate in huge numbers, so the party system came to be co-opted for the purposes of advancing the two camps of strivers -- Republicans representing career strivers, and Democrats the lifestyle / persona strivers. In a striving climate, the prevailing mood is laissez-faire -- no holds barred, when competitiveness starts soaring.

Republicans, as the career striver party, emphasized laissez-faire in the economy. In their appeal to voters, they came to be defined almost entirely by lowering income taxes, so that more of a career striver's income could go toward padding their net worth. Democrats, as the lifestyle / persona striver party, emphasized laissez-faire in the lifestyle and persona domains -- do whatever, whenever, with whoever. They came to be defined by breaking down barriers toward previously shunned lifestyles, as opposed to previously shunned business practices -- single mothers, homosexuals, drug addicts, and so on.

Republicans try to help career strivers with conspicuous consumption -- giving them more tax write-offs for homes and luxury items. Democrats try to help lifestyle strivers write off a symbol of their environmentalist lifestyle, like a hybrid car. They want to help lifestyle strivers go to college for free, since college is now training for lifestyle striving rather than career prep.

Where does the partisan conflict and polarization come from? With two separate modes of competition trying to establish themselves as the One True Status Contest by which all individuals shall be ranked, one has to degrade the other in importance. Sure, both career and lifestyle contribute to status, but (Republicans) career is more important, or (Democrats) lifestyle is more important.

Career strivers have enough trouble competing against each other -- if they could knock out the lifestyle strivers by persuading people that lifestyle contests don't matter, then they've just given themselves a huge, fast boost in status, with roughly one-half of the population now out of the status game. Likewise, lifestyle strivers will want to persuade people that career success doesn't matter, and suddenly they've eliminated half the population as status rivals.

But it only takes them so far to poke fun at the other camp -- Republicans belittling Democrats as "latte-sipping liberals," and Democrats painting Republicans as money-grubbing career drones.

What your side really needs to do is to demonize the other side. Playful ribbing won't shut them out of the status game -- portraying their entire approach to status competition as immoral and evil, will.

If the Democrats have based their appeal on laissez-faire in lifestyles, then Republicans will be forced to portray those changes as threats to the fate of the universe, in strongly moral terms. Championing gay marriage doesn't make you a loser in your career who's desperately trying to score lifestyle striver points by being a fag-hag -- it makes you someone who's opening up the gates of Hell.

And if Republicans have based their appeal on laissez-faire in the economy, then Democrats will be forced to portray deregulation and widening inequality in moralistic apocalyptic terms. It's not just those shallow materialist Republicans making it easier to keep their income, it's the forces of darkness breaking into our world.

Hence, the strident polarization we see today.

Republicans come to favor not only a deregulated economy, but a highly regulated lifestyle domain -- to shut down the other mode of status competition. And for the same reason, Democrats come to favor a deregulated lifestyle domain, but a highly regulated economy. This is all when appealing to voters, of course, since once in office the Democrats compromise and accept a fairly unregulated economy, and Republicans compromise and accept deregulated lifestyles. But they aren't total moves to the other side, they are just compromises, and Democrats remain relatively more in favor of economic regulation, and Republicans of lifestyle regulation.

In contrast, the Great Compression saw both parties aiming to regulate their domain of concern, which were the opposite of today's focus. Democrats focused on the economy, and pressed to regulate it. Republicans were focused on lifestyles (obscenity in pop culture, atheism, hatred of country, etc.) and sought to regulate them. Both sides accepted the regulations of the other, so that both the economy and lifestyle domains were decently regulated. Pornography was outlawed, but so were monopolistic business tendencies.

There's a lot more to be said. This post is to lay out the basic idea of looking at the two parties as the organized will of rivals pursuing two separate modes of status competition, career vs. lifestyle strivers. So much starts to fall into place once we see the parties from this point of view.


  1. Makes sense. If this is true, we should expect that Baby Boomers tend to be more strongly conservative(because more of them are career strivers), whereas Gen Xers and Millenialls tend to be more strongly liberal - which you have pointed out before. If inequality continues, what we will see is that the country will become more liberal as Boomers die off and most of the younger generations are lifestyle strivers.

  2. Liberal and conservative aren't really at play here. It's political party -- Republican and Democrat -- reflecting mode of status competition -- career vs. lifestyle / persona.

    Only if we define "conservative" as "whatever the Republican party consensus is" does moral intuition and political orientation come into play.

    Think of the central plank in the Republican platform since Reagan -- lowering taxes, especially on income. Has nothing to do with conservative morality. It's straightforwardly a grab to keep more wealth for oneself, leading to concentration of wealth and therefore power, which undermines the small-scale and face-to-face society that conservative people prefer.

    The obsession with lowering taxes only makes sense if we view the Republican consensus as reflecting the will of career strivers rather than conservatives.

    Ditto for the Democrats, who are not a liberal force but a lifestyle and persona striver force. Liberals are different from conservatives by not emphasizing moral intuitions about loyalty, authority, and taboo. Their instinct is to transgress, push the envelope, etc.

    Only nowadays, the Democrat party is one of the strongest forces of punishing crimethink, worshiping leaders in a cult of personality (OBEY Obama), and neutering any free-wheeling spirit if it would lower the persona points of a persona striver (identity politics warrior).

    Bernie Sanders' biggest appeal is promising free college education -- what is liberal about that? Did FDR promise that? It's a straightforward appeal to lifestyle strivers -- 4+ years of leisure and lifestyle contests, at no charge!

    Republicans wouldn't try to weaken or abolish the pornography industry, even though that must be one of the most conservative policies they could pursue, and would be immensely popular with conservatives. But it would kill the career striving of the owners and managers of the industry, so we can't go there.

    Democrats won't stick up for labor unions, especially in the private sector, even though that's a standard liberal position (providing care and justice for the lower classes). It would put them in contact with folks whose lifestyles and personas are so uncool they're contagious, and making them allies would ruin so many years of lifestyle and persona point accumulation.

  3. "Bernie Sanders' biggest appeal is promising free college education -- what is liberal about that?"

    It probably should be government-funded, but at the same time admissions made stricter(standardized tests, instead of recommendation letters) and focused on establishing careers.

  4. I've recently come across your blog and I find it very interesting your take on career/lifestyle/persona striver, and I agree with you. It's definitely a way to see the current social structure in which we live today.

    I think these three(two?) streams of strivers are a result of a phenomenon that is Ageism that has recently shifted towards younger generations. Which itself is result of technological advances as well as a shift towards a global economy that is multi-polar (it used to be US vs URSS) with US,EU, BRICK( which is a lose alliance)

    Young people are more prone to take on lifestyle and persona because they don't have a consolidated life and personality and are more tech savvy.

    But persona and lifestyle can be faked. I predict that society will learn how to weed out most of those who compete in these two categories.

    In regards to the fight between the democrats and republicans. Wouldn't the financial elite be happy for the masses to waste their lives impersonating something they're not, while they get into debt and consumption cycle?

  5. "Think of the central plank in the Republican platform since Reagan -- lowering taxes, especially on income. Has nothing to do with conservative morality. It's straightforwardly a grab to keep more wealth for oneself, leading to concentration of wealth and therefore power, which undermines the small-scale and face-to-face society that conservative people prefer.

    The obsession with lowering taxes only makes sense if we view the Republican consensus as reflecting the will of career strivers rather than conservatives."

    I've been following conservative rhetoric for years, and this seems radical off the mark. They love the concept of "civil society" contra the state, so more money in people's pocket means for them more donations to charities and churches that do the work that government would like to do. They refer to it as "crowding out" all the time.

    For Randian libertarians your conception probably applies, but not to Republicans/conservatives at large.

  6. The mainstream Republican rhetoric about keeping taxes low is so that "your hard-earned money will stay where it belongs -- in your pocket!" Same deal with promising higher tax rebates -- they don't pitch it as an extra $500 you can donate to your church, but like a winning lottery ticket that'll burn a hole in your pocket.

    The whole supply-side / trickle-down / Reaganomics story has been about lowering taxes so that people will spend spend spend to stimulate the economy, thereby driving demand for jobs. It has had zero to do with privately funding civic organizations, which haven't been in a greater state of disrepair ever.


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