Pre-modern values, religion and culture

Many people outside the USA have watched with astonishment as fundamentalist Christians have aligned themselves with a serial adulterer and sexual assaulter who lost the recent election and is now seeking to undermine democracy in order to stay in power. Since first elected, Trump has worked hard to equate disagreement with treason. He has banished loyal opposition, sacked people for doing their jobs and called for the criminal investigation of ordinary opponents. But this alignment is not as bizarre as it seems on the surface. Fundamentalists share the value of demonizing and seeking to punish those they see as “other”, one of the key characteristics of fascism, as I discussed in my previous post. This applies to Christian fundamentalists and Muslim fundamentalists alike, as evidenced by the recent murders in France and Austria by Muslim terrorists angered by cartoons.

What is fundamentalism?

So I have extended my analysis of the the World Values Survey (WVS) and European Values Study (EVS) (see earlier post here) to see what it has to say about the extent of religious fundamentalism in the world today. Most religions developed in the pre-modern era and their sacred texts and teachings incorporate pre-modern culture and values to varying extents. Peter Herriot has written extensively on fundamentalist religious beliefs, characterized these movements as attempts to return to the pre-modern origins of their faith as prescribed by their sacred books [1]. He identifies five main general characteristics of fundamentalist religious movements:

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Trump’s threat to democracy: an attempted fascist coup?

Over recent months, there has been a steady stream of commentary in the Australian and European media arguing that the Trump program is fascist. Based on a couple of discussions with people who know much more than me about 20th century European fascism, I thought these claims were overblown, and that Trump’s program lacked a defining feature of fascism, the co-opting of industry of industry and the economy for ultra-nationalist goals. I’ve since realized this is too narrow a view of fascism, and that its expression is quite dependent on history, culture and period and may take a different form in different places and times. Mark Twain expressed this well when he said “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes”.

Wikipedia has a good summary of the debate around definitions of fascism. But I was most struck by some of its quotations from various historians who have specialized in studying 20th century fascism (Wikipedia gives references):

Robert Paxton: Fascism is a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

James Gregor: Fascism is ultimately centered around a mythos of national rebirth from decadence.

Roger Griffin describes fascism has three core components: “(i) the rebirth myth, (ii) populist ultra-nationalism, and (iii) the myth of decadence”.

Jason Stanley: “The leader proposes that only he can solve it and all of his political opponents are enemies or traitors.”

Cas Mudde: While fascism uses populist means, it is ultimately an elitist ideology which exalts the Leader, the race, and the state, rather than the people (who are generally treated with contempt as tools for the enrichment of those in power).

Well, this is more than rhyming. These are all spot on descriptions of the Trump program and its supporters. Trump’s America with a defining slogan “Make America Great Again” and apparently no real policies other than keep out non-whites, own the libs and reverse all efforts to reduce discrimination and dissent fits the descriptions of fascism above. Of course, it doesn’t look exactly like Nazi fascism and is very much shaped by the US social and political context, with its long history of racism, institutionalized discrimination, militarized police forces and more recent history of conflict with Muslim extremists. Trump has been explicitly defining those who do not support him as un-American and that politicians who oppose him should imprisoned or “go back to where they came from”.

Now three days after the election, Trump and Republican officials are openly seeking to stop valid votes being counted and attempting to derail the electoral process. As the election hangs on a knife edge, he is falsely telling the American people that votes counted after polling day are not valid votes, though they are, and that there has been massive voter fraud (the only two known cases are both Republican voters who tried to vote for someone else as well). Trump’s insistence that he won the election, and his efforts to halt counting in states where he is ahead while supporting the continuation of counting in states where he is behind, has to be a clear line for anyone professing to support democracy. There are a handful of Republican officials who are repudiating this behaviour, but the vast majority of Trump supporters are apparently fine with anti-democratic behaviour and refusal to accept the result of the election. This is a defining moment for Trump supporters: either they support democracy and free and fair elections, or they don’t.

And whether Trump wins the election or loses, America has a very serious problem. Almost half the American voting public and one of its two major political parties appear to support a system which will disallow their political enemies from winning government. American democracy is in serious trouble, and may not be far away from having elections like those of Russia and other autocracies/kleptocracies in which its mostly only votes for the government that get counted.

And this is not just about Trump, not much is likely to change if he drops out of politics. The Republican drive to maintain power despite an electorate which is becoming younger and less white or conservative has motivated a long-term systematic program of voter suppression via the purging of rolls, legal restrictions on voting, closing of polling booths and campaigns to deter turnout. Outright refusal to accept the legitimate results of elections, however, marks a step into clear fascism.

An Australian commentator, Bernard Keane, wrote yesterday that the fundamental question for Trump supporters is “Do you actually believe in democracy, or only when your own side wins? Is trashing democracy OK because in the broader scheme of things it’s more important that the “right” candidate wins?”

Variations and trends in cultural values across 105 countries, 1980 to 2020

I’ve long been interested in the relationship between the stages of development of the individual (whether stages of moral development, psychological development, or consciousness) and the stages of development of human societies and civilizations. With the increasing prominence of fundamentalist religion in some regions of the world, the rise of science denialism and “post-truth” popularist politics, differences in human values are of huge importance and can literally become life and death matters for people. More generally, it seems fairly clear that people’s beliefs play a key role in economic development, the emergence and flourishing of democratic institutions, the rise of gender equality, and the extent to which societies have effective governments.

So I have taken an interest in results from the World Values Survey over the last two decades, and last month learnt that data from its most recent wave was being released in late July. There have now been seven waves of the World Values Survey (WVS), the first in 1980-1982 and the seventh underway since 2017. There have also been five waves of the European Values Study (EVS), which includes many of the same items as the WVS, and whose most recent wave covers the period 2017-2020. With the release of the WVS 7th wave data for 48 countries in July 2020, the WVS plus the EVS now include data for 117 countries or territories and over 638,000 respondents, covering the period 1981-2020.

Data from previous waves of the World Values Survey were used by political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel to identify two major dimensions of cross cultural variation across the world. They refer to these as Traditional values versus Secular-rational values and Survival values versus Emancipative values. Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values in contrast to secular-rational values. Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. It is linked with a relatively ethnocentric outlook and low levels of trust and tolerance. Emancipative values are associated with gender equality, relative acceptance of divorce, abortion, and homosexuality and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life. Inglehart and Welzel used factor analysis to estimate where each country lies on these two dimensions are constructed what they called a “culture map”.

I set out to replicate this analysis with the full WVS+EVS dataset including the latest wave [1-4]. I decided to use a different statistical approach (item response theory) to estimate the two dimensions. I have posted a more technical summary on my professional website to give details of this analysis. In brief, I used structural equation modelling to estimate two latent variables. The survival-emancipative variable was derived from data for three questions of gender equality (jobs, politics, education) and three questions on acceptance of homosexuality, abortion, and divorce. The traditional-secular values variable was derived from data for three questions on sources of authority (nation pride, government, parents) and three questions on religion (importance, belief, practice. The values for countries with data for years 2005 or later were used to extrapolate values for year 2019. The following “culture map” shows the location of 105 countries based in these two variables.

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