News & Politics

The Cultural Creative Paradox

Will the Cultural Creatives fundamentally change our world, or is this a case of false hopes and inflated numbers? If there are really 50 million of them, why aren't they more visible?
With the publication of their book, "The Culture Creatives -- How 50 Million People are Changing the World," Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson have provoked a new chapter in the ongoing debate about how social change might evolve in the U.S. over the coming decades.

Using surveys of more than 100,000 people and data from hundreds of focus groups, the authors have come up with an attractive theory: that below the surface of American culture, a new revolutionary movement is emerging. This growing movement has its roots in the '60s and encompasses social justice movements, environmental concerns and the desire for personal growth. When the people in this subculture grasp their collective power, say Ray and Anderson, they will transform the way we live and how we solve our globe's fundamental problems.

They are the "Cultural Creatives." And according to the authors, there are already 50 million of them out there who want meaningful social change.

"The Cultural Creatives care deeply about saving the planet, about relationships, peace, and social justice," explain Ray and Anderson. "They also favor self actualization, spirituality and self expression. They are both inner directed and socially concerned. They are activists, volunteers and contributors to good causes more often than other Americans."

The Cultural Creative model is particularly interesting because it confronts a fundamental dichotomy that has foiled many potential alliances between political activists and personal growth seekers. Sarah van Gelder, editor of Yes! A Journal of Positive Future, sums it up best: "The New Age stereotype is that it is all about changing ourselves internally and the world will take care of itself. The political activists' stereotype is that we ignore our inner selves to save the world. Neither works! The Cultural Creatives are about leaving that dichotomy behind and integrating the evolution of the self and the work on the whole."

Ray and Anderson add that their research shows that the "more a person is engaged in social activism, ecology, social justice, the more likely they will be engaged also in developing their spiritual lives and in personal growth."

But as veterans of social and spiritual movements of the '60s and '70s have to admit, the capital-R Revolution never materialized. Fear not, Ray and Anderson say -- a new revolution is already underway, and it's just a matter of time before those of us involved grasp our size and potential.

Moderns, Traditionalists and Cultural Creatives

Ray and Anderson's demographic theory divides American culture into three subcultures: Moderns, Traditionalists and Cultural Creatives. The Moderns, who make up about half the population, are the largest and most powerful group. They run the political gamut from liberals to conservatives but are all part of the mainstream establishment -- the corporate America of big business, banks, mainstream churches, professional sports, etc, who get their information from the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The moderns yearn to be cosmopolitan and embrace commercialism -- a kind of Cary Grant and Lauren Bacall lifestyle.

Traditionalists, on the other hand, would identify with the more square Jimmy Stewart and wholesome June Allyson. Traditionalists are cultural conservatives, including Northern unionists, Southern segregationists, bible belt fundamentalists, ethnic Catholics and many others. They make up 25 percent of the population, hate feminism, are patriarchal, traditional, and religiously oriented. Within the traditionalists are the Christian Coalition and the radical wing of the Republican party.

The Cultural Creatives also have two wings. The "core group" of Cultural Creatives overlaps largely with left-leaning people who have a penchant for activism. This core group numbers about 24 million people, including a large proportion of the published writers, artists, musicians, psychotherapists, environmentalists, feminists, alternative health care providers, etc, who are out there shaping culture. While all Cultural Creatives care about the well being of the planet and their communities, the core group is far more likely to act on those values. And most noteably, the core group is made up of twice as many women as men suggesting to Ray and Anderson that women's values are becoming more important in American life.

Deja Vue All Over Again?

Seasoned political activists may react to the Cultural Creative theory with an exasperated roll of the eyes; "We've heard this one before." Indeed, observers of social attitudes have been predicting societal transformation for years. A virtual cottage industry has been built around books like Charles Reich's "The Greening of America," Alfred Toffler's "The Third Wave" and "The Whole Earth Catalogue," to name a few.

In one of the most ballyhooed of the visionary books, "The Aquarian Conspiracy," published in 1980, author Marilyn Ferguson wrote, "A leaderless but powerful network is working to bring about radical change in the U.S. ... Broader than reform, deeper than revolution, this benign conspiracy for a new human agenda has triggered the most rapid cultural realignment in history." As a result, Ferguson wrote, we reached a new stage of evolution. "The paradigm of the Aquarian Conspiracy sees humankind embedded in nature. It promotes autonomous individuals in a decentralized society ..." And on, and on.

In retrospect, given what's happened politically and economically over the past twenty years, these hopes were clearly out of touch with reality (Ferguson certainly didn't anticipate the go-go '80s or the dot-com revolution.) To be fair, the Ray and Anderson acknowledge this phenomenon: "Visionaries and futurists have been predicting a change of this magnitude for well over two decades. Our research suggests that this long anticipated cultural movement may have arrived."

But has it?

Measuring the Left

The question of how big the left is in the U.S. and how to grow the progressive movement has been a staple of debate since the '60s. Yet no concrete figures have ever been agreed upon.

Some have pointed to the total membership of, and contributors to, non-profit organizations working for civil rights, gun control, the environment, civil liberties, and so on. A cumulative number of these members could range from three to five million (and maybe more, depending on how members of groups like the Audubon Society and the Wilderness Society are counted). A much smaller number of subscribers to progressive magazines -- Utne Reader, Ms., The Nation, Mother Jones and the like -- might add up to half a million (with maybe triple that many readers due to magazines being "passed along"). Another historical measure of left strength -- union membership -- has shrunk pretty dramatically over the past decade, and is the lowest in 60 years. And some exit polls during the recent presidential election showed that people who described themselves as "liberal" numbered in the single digits.

Obviously these numbers are a far cry from 50 million. But there is ample evidence that the country is more progressive than is reflected in our policies and particularly in our national leadership, especially in a Bush administration. A September 11 Business Week cover story featured polls indicating that nearly 3/4 of Americans think corporations have too much power. And when Gore took a stand in the presidential campaign against big tobacco, big oil, polluters, pharmaceutical companies and HMOs, 74 percent of the population agreed with him.

There's also evidence that many demographic groups are displeased with the country's current rightward drift. The most striking election fact (except, perhaps, for the fact that Gore actually won the election) is that Bush and the Republicans were able to claim victory with the support of only one demographic group -- white men. African Americans supported Gore by 90 percent to 8 percent, and Hispanics by 67 percent to 31 percent. Union households voted Democrat 59 percent to 37 percent. Gore also took a range of female demographics, including white women with incomes over $75,000, woman with post-graduate degrees, and women in the lower economic brackets.

How did Gore lose? Simple: Bush, overall, carried white and affluent voters because of his enormous margin of support by white male voters. Affluent male voters gave Bush the nod by a 28 percent spread. College-educated white men supported Bush by a margin of 26 percent, and Bush carried the total number of white, non-college-educated men by a whopping 63 percent, according to Ruy Teixeira of The American Prospect.

The challenge these figures present, of course, is that for any version of a leftish coaltion to gain power in the U.S., libertarians, progressives, minorities, feminists, spiritualists, liberals, radicals, union members, environmentalists, civic activists, and on and on need to be focused on their common ground and not preoccupied with their many differences. And this is where the idea of Cultural Creatives becomes useful. All of those groups are comprised largely of Cultural Creatives, who share a similar worldview and could possibly be organized into a broad coalition.

So if the 50 million figure is correct, why doesn't this huge group of Cultural Creatives have more political clout? Why is the Modernist paradigm of corporate, commercial America still reigning supreme thirty years after the social revolution of the '60s?

Ray and Anderson's answer seems at once attractive and simplistic: "The Cultural Creatives are a coherant subculture -- except for one essential thing: they are missing self awareness as a whole." According to the authors, "no one is more surprised to hear about the arrival of the Cultural Creatives than themselves. Most of them think that their worldview, values and lifestyle is shared by only a few of their friends; they have little notion that there are 50 million of them."

Where Are the Good Men?

Unfortunately the theory of Cultural Creatives just needing to find each other ignores some painful realities about American politics and commercial culture. A strong case can be made that Cultural Creatives don't have political clout because the demographic is dominated by women -- 66 percent in the core group -- and a more feminine relationship to power struggles. Cultural Creatives are unlikely to be the corporate warriors and hard driving politicians who tend to dominate the political landscape.

The aforementioned voting patterns prove a more-than-obvious point: that white men continue to dominate the political landscape, even if they aren't the most numerous group. Therein lies the reason that Cultural Creative values, while bubbling up in the counter-culture and on the margins, are being held at bay. In politics, beliefs aren't enough to achieve influence. Powerful organizing efforts must be undertaken, resources gathered, and the political fray engaged.

Thus far, due a combination of personal choice and systematic discrimination, large elements of the female-oriented Cultural Creatives have not joined that struggle for power. The very attributes that make them Cultural Creatives -- empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, deep emotional committments, appreciation of private lives -- keep them from being effective political operatives. Politics is an ugly, competitive, money-soaked business; to sink to that level could violate the very tenets of being a Cultural Creative.

The lack of female presence in traditional corridors public life, where corporate dominated Moderns are running the show, will mean that Cultural Creatives may stay where they have been for the past thirty years -- a very large, but relatively powerless minority.

Of course there is another possibility -- changing the attitude of white males through a long, cultural shift of values. But is this anywhere near likely? Can men overcome their resistance to introspection and social collaboration in the face of seductive hyper-capitalism and enormous pressures to be competitive bread winners? If politics in this country are to change, then the quiet undercurrent of the Cultural Creative revolution will need to have much more influence on men and not be seen primarily as a haven for feminist values.
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