A chasm has opened in America. Two cultures compete for the soul of the country. They view the world differently, care about different things, and speak different languages. Though both care about the common life of the United States, each imagines that life in a different way. To one side, we live on homesteads, settled by pioneers, built with hard labor, and invested with all the pride of human skill. We made them and they are ours. To the other side, we live in a lifeboat, hard won from disaster, filled with refugees, but rowing steadily to the shore. Only by pulling together can we pull through. In the last election both sides felt threatened, because both sides see life as precarious. Both the steader and the sailor fear starvation and exposure. Both know our actions matter. Tragically, they see hope in different directions.
Homesteaders ask for buy-in, but saying “I’m in” isn’t enough. They want people who have shown their commitment by digging the soil and putting up barns. Thus, the world is always divided between us and them. “We” have tilled. “We” have built. They have not. More to the point, they have not tilled and built here. They have not bought into our homestead, so they don’t deserve the benefits of our food and our roof. Deserving will be key to homesteaders, who think in terms of property, the fruit of their labors.
Homesteaders are careful with their resources because they live in the wilderness. If their homestead fails, there will be no harbor for travelers. They feel obligated, practically and morally, to care for their property. Their idea of hospitality embraces both charity and reciprocity. In charity, they are willing to share – on a temporary basis – those without a home. The guest only deserves their charity if they are truly in need, and only receive it if the house has room to spare. Guests must be both undeserving and needy to receive charity. In reciprocity, steaders give in hopes of getting. You can stay at my place, if I can stay at yours. I’ll go to your party, if you’ll come to mine. In short, you can’t be hospitable unless you have a house. Not only will the steader turn away those who cannot pay, those who cannot pay will refuse to enter, for fear of creating a debt they cannot repay.
Homesteaders fear vagrants – unwelcome, undeserving, needy people who take hard earned bread from the house. Ownership means everything. If I made it, only I can say how it is used. Only I can say who gets the fruits of my labor. Their default view of a stranger will be a vagrant unless and until they can be shown to be another steader – to have bought-in to the system. Categories of in and out, us and them, family and outsider are useful because they tell you who has bought in and who has not.
Sailors in a lifeboat see the world differently. They arrived by chance, not choice, and must get along to survive. Whatever goods are in the boat, also arrived by chance, so they belong to the boat and not to individuals. Everyone is quite literally onboard, sailors by default. They are expected to contribute to keeping the boat afloat and moving toward shore. Those who do not contribute are demoted to passenger. They have opted-out. Passengers, however, still deserve all the food and shelter the boat can offer. Only by acting selfishly – by hoarding, stealing, or lying to other passengers – can they lose that status.
Sailors are careful with the boat’s resources because they are at sea. If the boat sinks or if they stop rowing, all souls go down. Food and shelter are distributed so that everyone gets what they need, regardless of what they deserve. The steader worries about letting people in, but the sailor worries she might have to leave someone out, or worse yet, cast them overboard. The sailor feels responsible for all the passengers. Every stranger is a survivor, a passenger, and potentially another sailor.
For the sailor, stewardship embraces both charity and equity. Charity means sharing with those in need, without thought to excess or deserving. It involves self-sacrifice. It means pulling people out of the water, even when the boat is packed. It means keeping the passengers comfortable, even when the crew suffers. In equity, sailors distribute food by some standard of equality. Everyone receives the same ration. This means sailors are more likely to give things to people who have less. Useful divisions identify people who can help and people who need help so that the one can serve the other.
Sailors fear defectors – passengers willing to get to shore by harming others. The mission means everything, but not just any mission, the mission of getting everyone home. They have a particular horror for defectors pretending to be crew – claiming to work for the common good while plotting to save themselves alone. Not only does it get in the way of the mission, it poisons the trust between passengers, because trust necessary for us to work together.
Smart steaders will doubt the need for crew or the idea that we are headed anywhere together. They made a homestead so that they could get away from others and others, as deserving as they might be, can pick up their own hoe and plant their own crops. Smart sailors will reply that the only alternative to the boat is the ocean and that even the boat will not work without rowers and bailers.
Steaders want a minimal government that they can opt into when it suits them. They want government of the deserving, by the deserving, and for the deserving. Sailors want a strong government that insures long-term cooperation, because cooperation is essential. They want government of the needy, by the needy, and for the needy. Both sides find the other horrifying.
The more I think about the two mind-sets, the more they explain the recent election. Steaders see Trump as a powerful ally. He represents a convenient associate for the moment to achieve personal success. They think that their support of him will be reciprocated. More than that, they find his ideas appealing: us and them, the deserving and the undeserving, mine and yours. Evangelicals and Libertarians have been thrust together by a common language of deserving, in and out, and the charity that flows from the laborer to the needy. At the same time, steaders fear that Obama and Hillary wanted to make them responsible for too many vagrants and strangers.
Sailors see Trump as a proud defector. He brags about both his self-sufficiency and his willingness to take advantage of others. They believe he will willingly sacrifice the good of the ship for his own interests. Worse still, he is putting steaders in charge of the boat, knowing that they will intentionally dismantle the systems that make cooperation possible. Sailors felt that Obama and Hillary represented responsible, self-sacrificing leadership that effectively moved the country in the right direction.
The two mindsets have radically different ideas, not only about the nation, but about charity and morality. Steaders find the obligatory charity of the lifeboat to be tyrannical – true charity must be freely given. Sailors find the surplus charity of the homestead to be arbitrary and condescending – true charity does not judge. Only by recognizing the size of the gap can we begin to bridge it. It truly is a question of how we view the world.