Category Archives: Random Blogging

When Partisanship Overwhelms

When I was researching various aspects of American polarization for my most recent book, I came across Lilliana Mason’s all-too-accurate summary of the role political identity currently plays. Mason, a political scientist, argues that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”

Partisanship has increased to the point that parents today disapprove more strongly of their children marrying across party lines than across racial or religious ones.

Political scientists tell us that Democrats and Republicans like each other a lot less than they used to because people today have “sorted themselves” into parties of the like-minded–their partisan affiliations reflect their attitudes on race, religion and ethnicity, as well as economic and social policy.

More troubling is the fact that close identification with a political party actually changes ideological commitments–today, when a political party takes a position, partisans who originally felt otherwise fall in line.  They don’t change parties; they don’t even demur. They change their original positions.(Think about the  acquiescence of Republican lawmakers and voters to policies of President Trump, like tariffs and family separation, that are wildly at odds with longtime Republican positions.)

Obviously, intellectually honest people don’t allow partisanship to trump (no pun intended) their beliefs. Their numbers aren’t large, but I give big props to the “never Trump” Republicans and former Republicans like Charlie Sykes. Sykes was a talk radio conservative who teamed up with Bill Kristol in 2018 to establish a conservative site called “The Bulwark.” The Bulwark argues–along with people like Joe Scarborough of “Morning Joe” and GOP strategist Rick Wilson–  that Trump has blatantly violated foundational conservative principles, from foreign policy to federal deficits, that were once deemed basic to Republican identity.

In a recent article written for the Bulwark, Robert Tracinski argues that today’s excessive, arguably fanatical partisanship has overtaken rationality. He begins by pointing to Rush Limbaugh’s obvious hypocrisy in ignoring characteristics in Trump that he excoriated in Democrats.

“That Limbaugh is being a complete hypocrite is a trivial observation,” Tracinski asserts. “If a Democratic president had been caught doing this, of course Limbaugh would be screaming for his impeachment with equal volume and ferocity. What is more interesting is the rationale he offers: a simple appeal to hatred of the opposition — as a justification, as an inducement, as an end in itself.”

But the fact that Trump isn’t a Democrat, Tracinski stresses, doesn’t make him a good president. And Limbaugh, he adds, is typical of all too many Republicans who are more interested in partisanship than conservative principles.

“Conservatives have sold their souls for the sheer pleasure of partisan hatred,” Tracinski laments. And it’s not going to be easy to break this spell.”

Tracinski also lambasts Sen. Lindsey Graham in his piece, noting that as much of a Trump sycophant as he has become, he was “left out of the loop” when Trump decided to withdrawn U.S. troops from Syria.

“But why should Trump have consulted Graham?,” Tracinski asks. “He’d already sold his soul. He’d already indicated that he will back Trump no matter what; so, why should Trump bother to inform him about future compromises that will be required? This is where everyone will end up eventually.”

Hatred of “the other” takes many forms. When your partisan affiliation becomes the most important aspect of your identity, loyalty to your political tribe overwhelms everything else–common sense, the values you espouse, the obvious evidence of betrayal.

Reasonable Americans watch the embarrassing spectacle that is Donald Trump and find it difficult–if not impossible–to understand how anyone could continue to support this pathetic, ignorant, self-absorbed child-man. Tracinski may have solved the conundrum: the “base” isn’t supporting Trump so much as they are defending their identities–and indulging their hatred of their tribal opponents.

Unfortunately, tribal warfare is inconsistent with democratic self-government.

Book Burning As “Symbolic Speech”

The First Amendment protects the transmission of ideas–all ideas, good or bad–including messages conveyed through what the courts call “symbolic speech.” Flag burning and Nazi marches, among other examples, are offensive precisely because they send messages with which other people strongly disagree.

So much for legal analysis. Symbolic speech can also tell us a great deal about the health of a society and the nature and significance of its cultural conflicts .

In the 1930s, university students in college towns across Germany burned thousands of books they considered to be “un-German”–by which they meant inconsistent with the country’s growing Nazi ideology.

Last week, students at Georgia Southern University burned books written by a Latina author who spoke about white privilege. According to the Washington Post,

In response to Jennine Capó Crucet’s talk on the Statesboro, Ga., campus Wednesday, where she focused her discussion on white privilege, students gathered at a grill and torched her novel “Make Your Home Among Strangers” — about a first-generation Cuban American woman struggling to navigate a mostly white elite college.

Jennifer Wise, a university spokeswoman, issued a statement:

“While it’s within the students’ First Amendment rights, book burning does not align with Georgia Southern’s values nor does it encourage the civil discourse and debate of ideas.”

A subsequent event was canceled, according to Crucet, “because the administration said they could not guarantee my safety or the safety of its students on campus because of open-carry laws.”

A Time Magazine report about the episode had this added–chilling–information:

The university decided to relocate Crucet to a different hotel outside of town after a crowd began to form outside her original lodging. Photos and videos of her book being burned also began to appear on social media, including by many who tagged Crucet in tweets. (Some of these messages have since been deleted.)

This is what happens when prominent people–like the President of the United States– trash the most basic norms of civility in furtherance of racial and religious intolerance, creating an environment in which denigrating the “other” replaces respectful debate, and unwelcome perspectives are met with rage and threats of violence rather than with contending arguments.

This is what happens when people fear the loss of hegemony and yes, privilege. It’s what happens when a President and his political party appeal to those fears and intentionally inflame racial animosities in order to win votes.

We don’t know how many of the students at Georgia Southern University participated in this orgy of resentment and anti-intellectualism. We can only hope they are not representative of either the institution’s student body or the population of Georgia.

I think it was the political philosopher Alexander Meiklejohn who said “People who are afraid of an idea–any idea–are unfit for self-government.” Meiklejohn was right.

I don’t remember who said “It can’t happen here,” but I’m very much afraid that whoever it was, was wrong.

 

 

 

It’s Not Easy Being Green

I recently received an email announcing this year’s “Greening the Statehouse” event sponsored annually by the Hoosier Environmental Council.

Greening the Statehouse will be held at the IMMI Conference Center in Westfield, Indiana on November 16th. The day will be filled with informative panels, presentations, and a keynote address all focused on solutions to the climate crisis. As you may recall, GTS is a full day that also includes a light breakfast and lunch. You can learn more at www.hecweb.org/gts

In my more optimistic moments, I think Americans are finally taking environmental concerns–notably, climate change–seriously. It is past time to do so.

I’ve followed the work of organizations like the Hoosier Environmental Council, and shared the dismay of rational people as we’ve watched the current administration not only block progress, but gleefully regress.

I know I’ve written this before, but the climate calculation is simple.

What will happen if the 97% of climate scientists who warn about climate change are proven wrong (or, as conspiracy theorists would have it–plotting to fool us for some mysterious reason), and we nevertheless listen to them?

What if we proceed to clean up our air and water, improve conservation and move to cleaner energy sources–and then find out that all those scientists were wrong?

In that case, we’ll be “stuck” with a healthier, cleaner environment–air our children and grandchildren can breathe and water they can drink; cheaper and more reliable energy sources, and fewer pesticides in our foods. Bummer. True, the bottom lines of fossil fuel companies will shrink, and they might lose some of the 60 billion dollars in yearly subsidies we taxpayers provide them, but those are the breaks in a market economy.

On the other hand, what if all those climate scientists are right, and we follow what passes for policy in the Trump administration–“saving” coal, subsidizing fossil fuels, failing to clean up our waterways, rolling back air pollution standards…and issuing warnings that wind turbines cause cancer?

In that case, we’ll hasten the time the earth can no longer support human life, at least not human life and civilization as we know it.

This “risk to reward” ratio seems like a no-brainer to me, and I am cautiously optimistic that most people are getting the message. The children certainly are–and it may be the children who save us. Greta Thunberg, the remarkable Swedish teenager, minced no words at the recent climate action summit in New York, telling world leaders “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.” She accused them of ignoring the science behind the climate crisis, saying: ‘We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth – how dare you!”

Can we dare to hope that at least some of them were listening to her? Can we dare to hope that enough of us are working on voter turnout in 2020–turnout that will dislodge the corrupt and incompetent Trump Administration and install a scientifically-literate one in its place? Can we dare to hope that a majority of earth’s population has come to understand the magnitude–and imminence–of the threat?

I’m writing this in Indiana, where temperatures were in the nineties the first week of October.

If you can, go Green the Statehouse.

 

Peter Wehner Explains The Inexplicable

Like most Americans today, I occupy a bubble. My friends, family, colleagues and neighbors all tend to see political reality largely the way I see it.

So I was taken aback–floored, really–by a conversation I had during a weekend visit to New Buffalo, Michigan. Our daughter and son-in-law had treated us to the visit and a tour of the 1932 World Fair’s “Homes of the Future” sponsored by Indiana Landmarks. We were staying in a lovely Bed and Breakfast, and while I was getting coffee, I chatted with a guest who turned out to be from Carmel, a suburb of Indianapolis.

What began as a cordial exchange devolved when he mentioned that he “loved” President Trump. (I’m sorry to report that I didn’t bite my tongue; I suggested he’d been drinking the Kool-Aid, and he stomped off.)

This encounter bothered me immensely. Here was a person who was obviously comfortable financially, who didn’t look like someone who ignored the news, or was mentally incapacitated. Why would he “love” this pathetic excuse for a human?

My husband’s theory was that Trump justifies the guy’s probable racism, but the exchange was still rankling when I read Peter Wehner’s column in Monday’s New York Times, titled “What’s the Matter with Republicans?”

One might hope that some of the party’s elected officials would forcefully condemn the president on the grounds that there is now demonstrable evidence that he had crossed an ethical line and abused his power in ways even beyond what he had done previously, which was problematic enough.

But things are very different today than they were in the summer of ’74. Mr. Trump was on to something when he famously said, during the 2016 campaign, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, O.K.? It’s, like, incredible.” What most people took to be hyperbole turned out to be closer to reality.

Wehner–who was formerly a staunch  Republican–then asked the same question I had asked: why? What would account for continued fealty to someone who is not only a demonstrably unfit President, but a truly repulsive human being with what Wehner accurately describes as “a mobster’s mentality”?

Why, then, are so many Republicans yet again circling the Trump wagon rather than taking this opportunity to denounce what the president did and declare some independence from him by doing so? Why has Mr. Trump, an ethical wreck of a man both before and after he reached the White House, earned such fealty from Republicans?

Wehner says it isn’t policy, and I agree.

Understanding the close compact between Mr. Trump and the Republican Party starts with acknowledging the false hope many establishment Republicans placed in the shady real estate mogul as he rose to power. They misdiagnosed the individual they were dealing with, assuming that Mr. Trump would “grow in office” and that they, the “adults in the room,” would be able to control and contain him. At the outset of this unholy alliance, they were convinced they would change Mr. Trump more than Mr. Trump would change them. But the transformation turned out to be in them, not him.

Wehner acknowledges that politicians’ self-interest is threatened by the loyalty of the GOP base to Trump. But what accounts for the devotion of that base–of people like the man I had encountered?

As a conservative-leaning clinical psychologist I know explained to me, when new experiences don’t fit into an existing schema — Mr. Trump becoming the leader of the party that insisted on the necessity of good character in the Oval Office when Bill Clinton was president, for example — cognitive accommodation occurs.

When the accommodation involves compromising one’s sense of integrity, the tensions are reduced when others join in the effort. This creates a powerful sense of cohesion, harmony and group think. The greater the compromise, the more fierce the justification for it — and the greater the need to denounce those who call them out for their compromise. “In response,” this person said to me, “an ‘us versus them’ mentality emerges, sometimes quite viciously.”

“What used to be a sense of belonging,” I was told, “devolves into primitive tribalism, absolute adherence to the leader over adherence to a code of ethics.”…

As the psychologist I spoke to put it to me, many Republicans “are nearly unrecognizable versions of themselves pre-Trump. At this stage it’s less about defending Trump; they are defending their own defense of Trump.”

“At this point,” this person went on, “condemnation of Trump is condemnation of themselves. They’ve let too much go by to try and assert moral high ground now. Calling out another is one thing; calling out yourself is quite another.”

And then there’s that shared racism….

 

About The Fall Of Rome….

Pundits increasingly compare America in the 21st Century with Rome–as in “the fall of Rome.” The comparison isn’t usually a happy one, but a few days ago, I came across an article suggesting that although we may be experiencing a decline much like that of the Roman Empire, we should take heart from the fact that Rome’s various parts didn’t do all that badly in the aftermath.

James Fallows has been traveling the U.S. for The Atlantic and writing stories about cities and towns with innovative programs and civically-engaged populations. In this article, he revisits what we know about the period following Rome’s fall, and wants us to be more upbeat about what comes after “empires” disintegrate.

It’s time to think about the Roman empire again. But not the part of its history that usually commands attention in the United States: the long, sad path of Decline and Fall. It’s what happened later that deserves our curiosity.

 As a reminder, in 476 a.d., a barbarian general named Odoacer overthrew the legitimate emperor of the Western empire, Romulus Augustulus, who thus became the last of the emperors to rule from Italy.

 The Eastern empire, ruled from Constantinople, chugged along for many more centuries. But the Roman progression—from republic to empire to ruin—has played an outsize role in tragic imagination about the United States. If a civilization could descend from Cicero and Cato to Caligula and Nero in scarcely a century, how long could the brave experiment launched by Madison, Jefferson, and company hope to endure?

The era that began with Rome’s collapse—“late antiquity,” as scholars call it—holds a hazier place in America’s imagination and makes only rare cameo appearances in speeches or essays about the national prospect. Before, we have the familiar characters in togas; sometime after, knights in armor. But in between? And specifically: How did the diverse terrain that had been the Roman empire in the West respond when central authority gave way? When the last emperor was gone, how did that register in Hispania and Gaul? How did people manage without the imperial system that had built roads and aqueducts, and brought its laws and language to so much of the world?

It turns out, Fallows tells us, people actually did quite well.  The breakup of Rome’s empire gave birth to what became modern countries, and generated a good deal of what we now consider modern and valuable in contemporary culture–from new artistic and literary forms to self-governing civic associations.

A recent book, Escape from Rome, argues that removal of centralized control ushered in “a sustained era of creativity at the duchy-by-duchy and monastery-by-monastery level” and eventually led to broad cultural advancement and prosperity.

Here is where Fallows’ trips around the country provide him with a degree of optimism. He acknowledges that our federal government is broken, paralyzed by partisanship and unable to accomplish much of anything. But he points out that our counterparts to the post-Rome duchies and monasteries—our state and local governments—are still mainly functional.

You need to click through and read his whole analysis, but because I’m reluctant to see the Decline and Fall thesis tested,  I was particularly struck by this paragraph:

Five years ago, after writing about a “can do” attitude in local governments in Maine and South Carolina, I got an email from a mayor in the Midwest. He said that he thought the underreported story of the moment was how people frustrated with national-level politics were shifting their enthusiasm and their careers to the state and local levels, where they could make a difference. (That mayor’s name was Pete Buttigieg, then in his first term in South Bend, Indiana.) When I spoke with him at the time, he suggested the situation was like people fleeing the world of Veep—bleak humor on top of genuine bleakness—for a non-preposterous version of Parks and Recreation.

Fallows quotes a former member of the George W. Bush administration for the proposition that national-level politics has become an exercise in cultural signaling—“who you like, who you hate, which side you’re on”—rather than about actual governance.

Meanwhile, the modern reserves of American practical-mindedness are mainly at the local level, “where people have no choice but to solve problems week by week.”

If we are going to make one more effort to fix our national government, rather than crossing our fingers and hoping to emulate the duchies left after Rome collapsed, maybe we should elect someone like Mayor Pete, who has a track record of problem solving and who has demonstrated a commitment to–and talent for– actual governance.

It’s a long shot, I know–but a girl can hope…..