Show Hide image

Who owns the future? How the prophets of Silicon Valley took control

In an era when politics is bereft of grand visions, bioengineers and Silicon Valley tech geeks are claiming the mantle of leadership and prophecy. But what do they want and where are they leading us?

For much of the 20th century, politics was a battle between grand visions of the future. Communists, fascists and liberals sought to destroy the old world and build a new one in its place. Lenin, Stalin and Mao tried to dismantle the structure of human society, and to engineer scientifically something far better. In the process, they treated communities, families and human beings as mere clay, killing tens of millions of people while explaining that “in order to make an omelette, you need to break some eggs”.

Hitler and his minions employed even more ruthless methods in the service of even more ambitious plans. The Nazis aimed to remake the human animal ­itself, rather than just human society. They planned to re-engineer human biology, speed up evolution and create superhumans. Whatever you think about people such as Lenin or Hitler, no one can accuse them of being narrow-minded.

Liberals were perhaps more moderate in their ambitions but not by far. Custodians of utopian Enlightenment visions, liberals hoped to create paradise on earth through mass education and technological progress. They overturned millennia-old hierarchies, empowering women, minorities and the young. Even more astonishing, after millions of years of evolution during which families and communities were the stable building blocks of human societies, liberals gave centre stage to the individual. They freed people from parents, neighbours and elders, creating a new “society of individuals”. In the process, they might have condemned us to hitherto unknown levels of alienation and loneliness. The liberal vision was more benign than the communist and fascist visions but it wasn’t less radical. It seems to us unremarkable and even trite simply because we live in it.

Whatever their disagreements about long-term visions, communists, fascists and liberals all combined forces to create a new state-run leviathan. Within a surprisingly short time, they engineered all-encompassing systems of mass education, mass health and mass welfare, which were supposed to realise the utopian aspirations of the ruling party. These mass systems became the main employers in the job market and the main regulators of human life. In this sense, at least, the grand political visions of the past century have succeeded in creating an entirely new world. The society of 1800 was completely destroyed and we are living in a new reality altogether.

In 1900 or 1950 politicians of all hues thought big, talked big and acted even bigger. Today it seems that politicians have a chance to pursue even grander visions than those of Lenin, Hitler or Mao. While the latter tried to create a new society and a new human being with the help of steam engines and typewriters, today’s prophets could rely on biotechnology and supercomputers. In the coming decades, technological breakthroughs are likely to change human society, human bodies and human minds in far more drastic ways than ever before.

Whereas the Nazis sought to create superhumans through selective breeding, we now have an increasing arsenal of bioengineering tools at our disposal. These could be used to redesign the shapes, abilities and even desires of human beings, so as to fulfil this or that political ideal. Bioengineering starts with the understanding that we are far from realising the full potential of organic bodies. For four billion years natural selection has been tinkering and tweaking with these bodies, so that we have gone from amoebae to reptiles to mammals to Homo sapiens. Yet there is no reason to think that sapiens is the last station. Relatively small changes in the genome, the neural system and the skeleton were enough to upgrade Homo erectus – who could produce nothing more impressive than flint knives – to Homo sapiens, who produces spaceships and computers. Who knows what the outcome of a few more changes to our genome, neural system and skeleton might be? Bioengineering is not going to wait patiently for natural selection to work its magic. Instead, bioengineers will take the old sapiens body and ­intentionally rewrite its genetic code, rewire its brain circuits, alter its biochemical balance and grow entirely new body parts.

On top of that, we are also developing the ability to create cyborgs. Cyborg engineering does not limit itself to using only
organic structures but makes use of inorganic parts as well. It merges the organic body with non-organic devices such as bionic hands, artificial eyes or millions of nano-robots that will navigate our bloodstream, diagnose problems and fix damage. This may sound like science fiction but it is already a reality. Monkeys have recently learned, using electrodes implanted in their brains, to control bionic hands and feet disconnected from their bodies. Paralysed patients are able to move bionic limbs or control computers by the power of thought alone. If you wish, you can control the electronic devices in your house using a “mind-reading” headset. The headset does not require any brain implants, because it functions by reading the electric signals passing through the scalp. If you want to turn on the lights in the kitchen, all you need is to put on the headset, imagine some pre-programmed mental sign (your right hand moving, for instance) – and the lights turn on. You can buy such headsets online from around £200.

Yet even cyborg engineering is still ­relatively conservative, inasmuch as it assumes that organic brains will go on being the command and control centres of life. A bolder approach dispenses with organic parts altogether and hopes to engineer completely non-organic beings. Neural networks will be replaced by intelligent software that can surf both the virtual and non-virtual worlds free from the limitations of organic chemistry.

Life scientists have recently come to believe that life is really just data-processing and that living beings are a collection of biochemical self-replicating algorithms that natural selection improves ever so slowly. Computer scientists and mathematicians have simultaneously honed their skills in deciphering and writing algorithms. If organisms are indeed algorithms (a big IF, but this is the current orthodoxy) then it should be feasible to create non-organic life. After all, algorithms are algorithms. As long as the maths works the same, what does it matter whether the algorithms are manifested in carbon, silicon or plastic? This opens the possibility that after four billion years of milling around inside the small pond of organic compounds, life will  suddenly break out into the vastness of the inorganic realm, ready to take up unimaginable new shapes.

 

***

 

In science fiction ruthless, Hitler-like leaders are quick to pounce on such new technologies, putting them in the service of this or that dangerous political vision. Yet flesh-and-blood politicians in the early 21st century, even in authoritarian countries such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, are nothing like their Hollywood counterparts. They don’t seem to plot any Brave New World. The wildest dreams of Kim Jong-un and Ali Khamenei don’t go much beyond atomic bombs and ballistic missiles: which is so 1945. As for Barack Obama and David Cameron, they can barely manage to enact health and education reforms. Creating new worlds and new human beings is far beyond their agendas.

Hence, the novel technological vistas notwithstanding, present-day politicians are thinking on a far smaller scale than their predecessors a century ago. In the early 21st century, politics is bereft of grand visions. No political party has any far-reaching conception of transforming the world. No political party aims to turn society upside down, let alone create superhumans. Compared to the ideological wars of the mid-20th century, present-day debates seem like scholastic hair-splitting. While one needed a telescope to follow the visions of a Lenin or a Hitler, today, when it comes to the basic outlines of human societies, you need a microscope to tell the difference between Republicans and Democrats, or between Labour and the Conservatives.

Yes, Ed Miliband and David Cameron had somewhat different visions of the European Union, the NHS and tax policies. But the differences are nothing like those between the communist and fascist visions a century ago. No party is in favour of creating a British empire, abolishing private property or gassing minorities. This sounds so obvious that we never bother to note it. But that’s the point. A century ago it was anything but obvious. There were powerful political parties with millions of followers that openly preached imperialism, genocide and the abolition of private property.

One very good reason politicians lost their appetite for grand visions is the terrible outcome of the ideological wars of the 20th century. If thinking big leads to Auschwitz, Hiroshima and the Great Leap Forward, humankind is far better off in the hands of petty-minded bureaucrats.

Another factor is that the biggest 20th-century achievement weighs down on politicians of all shades and colours. The mass education, welfare and health services now demand enormous resources and constant care and attention. Moreover, any attempt to achieve some new grand vision would likely upset this behemoth. So politicians play it safe and devote most of their efforts to just keeping the system running. They tweak here and there but are afraid to make any real structural changes.

Third, after the smoke of the 20th-century
ideological wars cleared, neoliberalism was left standing as the ultimate victor. And neoliberalism, having shaped the economy and society to its own taste, now preaches inaction. Like Zen gurus, so the neoliberal masters advise the politicians: just do nothing. Each person should focus on his or her immediate job, without losing sleep over the long-term consequences. Builders should build, singers should sing, engineers should engineer – and let market forces take care of all the rest. They will chart our way forward better than any philosopher or statesman. Governments and political parties generally follow this advice and focus on managing the state and its day-to-day crises, without giving much thought to the more distant future. Governments manage – and, generally speaking, they are doing a fine job of it – but they no longer plan or lead.

Yet the mantle of leadership and prophecy has not gone unclaimed. Abandoned by politicians and political parties, it has been picked up by business entrepreneurs and corporations. If you want to hear grand visions about the future of humankind, you will waste your time in Downing Street, the White House or the Kremlin, but your ears will start ringing once you approach Silicon Valley. That is where you will find the Lenins of our time. Let me make this absolutely clear: the tech wizards of Silicon Valley aren’t communist. Nor are they anything like as ruthless as Lenin. I am comparing them to him only in the audacity and scope of their visions, and in their aspirations to tear down the old world and build a completely new world in its place.

For when it comes to audacity and scope, even Lenin couldn’t hold a candle to the silicon prophets. Lenin and his followers still thought and operated within the confines of existing economic models and realities. They took for granted that resources are scarce, that demand must be balanced with supply, that human beings are essential for the economy and that work is a vital ingredient of human life. In contrast, today’s visionaries are looking towards a post-scarcity future, in which algorithms replace human beings in the economy, supply no longer puts the lid on demand and life no longer revolves around work.

At the core of this vision is the decoupling of intelligence from consciousness. Until today, high intelligence always went hand in hand with a developed consciousness. Only conscious beings could perform tasks that required a lot of intelligence, such as playing chess, driving cars, diagnosing diseases or killing terrorists. However, Google, Apple, IBM and other tech companies are now developing new types of non-conscious intelligence – based on machine learning and big data – that can outperform human beings in all of the above tasks and many more besides.

This raises a novel question: which of the two is really important for the economy –intelligence or consciousness? As long as the one always went hand in hand with the other, this question was a pastime for philosophers. In the 21st century, it is becoming an urgent political and economic issue. And it is sobering to realise that, at least for the economy, intelligence is mandatory but consciousness by itself has little value.

 

***

 

In 2013, two Oxford researchers, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne, published The Future of Employment, in which they surveyed the likelihood of various professions being taken over by computer algorithms within the next 20 years. The algorithm developed by Frey and Osborne to perform the calculations estimated that 47 per cent of US jobs are at high risk. For example, there is a 99 per cent probability that by 2033 human telemarketers and insurance underwriters will lose their jobs to algorithms. There is a 98 per cent chance that the same will happen to sports referees, 97 per cent that it will happen to cashiers and 96 per cent to restaurant cooks.

For paralegal assistants, tour guides, bakers, bus drivers, construction workers, veterinary assistants, security guards, sailors, waiters, bartenders, archivists, carpenters and lifeguards the probability of redundancy ranges from 67 per cent to 94 per cent. There are, of course, some safe jobs. The likelihood that computer algorithms will displace archaeologists by 2033 is only 0.7 per cent, and for occupational therapists it is 0.3 per cent.

Even if new professions come along to compensate for the losses, they will probably require much more creativity and flexibility. It is far from certain that a 50-year-old cashier or bus driver will be able to make the necessary readjustment. Whereas the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century created a vast new class of urban workers, the 21st century might witness the rise of a vast new class of economically useless people.

If this indeed happens, it will pose a far bigger challenge than the Industrial Revolution and will demand new social and political models far more ambitious than those offered by Marx, Lenin or Mao. Socialists and communists tailored a new ideology to answer for the novel needs, hopes and fears of the industrial proletariat. The 21st-century class of useless people will also generate new wants, dreams and worries. To answer them, the silicon prophets are coming up with fantastic socioeconomic models, fit for a post-scarcity society in which human beings no longer produce anything and are merely consumers.

Yet the silicon prophets don’t stop there. They dream not only about remaking society and the economy, but also about overcoming old age, defeating death, engineering superhumans, creating the Internet of Things and merging human beings into the Internet of Things to form some kind of cosmic consciousness. Google recently established a sub-company called Calico whose stated mission is – drums please! – “to solve death”. Google has also appointed an immortality true-believer, Bill Maris, to preside over its Google Venture capital fund. In an interview last March Maris said: “If you ask me today, ‘Is it possible to live to be 500?’ the answer is yes.” He backs up his brave words with a lot of hard cash. The Google Venture fund is investing 36 per cent of its $2bn portfolio in life sciences start-ups, ­including several ambitious life-extending projects. Using an analogy from American football, Maris explained that in the fight against death, “We aren’t trying to gain a few yards. We are trying to win the game.”

The PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel has confessed that he aims to live for ever. “I think there are probably three main modes of approaching [death],” Thiel explained. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.” Many people are likely to dismiss such statements as teenage fantasies. Yet Thiel is somebody to be taken very seriously. His private fortune is estimated at $2.2bn and he is one of the most successful and influential entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley.

As a historian, I am in no position to ­comment on the feasibility of such visions. Yet, as a historian, I know that what people hope to achieve is often far more important than what they can actually do. The 20th century was shaped by the communist attempt to overcome human inequality, even though this hope was never fulfilled. Our century might be shaped by the attempt to upgrade human beings and overcome death, even if this hope is a bit premature. The spirit of the age is changing. Equality is out, immortality is in.

This should concern all of us. It is dangerous to mix godlike technology with megalomaniac politics but it might be even more dangerous to blend godlike technology with myopic politics. Our politics is becoming mere administration and is giving up on the future exactly when technology gives us the power to reshape that future beyond our wildest dreams. Indeed, technology gives us the power to start reshaping even our dreams. If politicians don’t want the job of planning this future, they will merely be handing it on a platter to somebody else. In consequence, the most important decisions in the history of life might be taken by a tiny group of engineers and businesspeople, while politicians are busy arguing about immigration quotas and the euro.

Yuval Harari is a historian and the author of “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind” (Vintage). More info: ynharari.com

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the future?

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars