This is a very difficult time for those of us who are old enough to remember a much different politics.
When I was in City Hall, most elected Republicans and Democrats (granted, not all) could disagree over certain policies while agreeing about others. State Senators and Representatives could argue on the floor of a Statehouse chamber and go to lunch together afterward. Both Republican and Democratic Congressmen (yes, they were all men) would carry the City’s water in Washington.
And politicians of both parties honored election results and participated in the peaceful transition of power.
Why has that changed? Why do members of Trump’s hard-core MAGA base seethe with resentment and hatred of “the libs”? Why do so many of us respond to their hostility with incomprehension– as if they were representatives of a different species?
Well-meaning observers–pundits, political operatives, writers–counsel Americans to listen to one another, urge us to try to understand and respect each other, to make genuine efforts to bridge our differences.
Why do those pleas fall on deaf ears?
I think most thoughtful Americans struggle to understand the abyss that exists between the MAGA true believers (and the integrity-free officials who pander to them), and the rest of us–the “rest of us” encompassing everyone from genuinely conservative “Never Trump” Republicans to the Bernie and AOC wing of the Democratic Party.
Like many of you, I have struggled to understand why Americans’ political differences have magnified and hardened. Clearly, our information environment has contributed greatly to the construction of incommensurate realities. That said, however, I think there is a deeper reason, and we find it at the intersection of politics and morality.
Political contests are about power, of course–about who gets to make decisions about our communal lives and behaviors. And power is obviously a great aphrodisiac. But purely political battles center on policy disputes–everything from where the county commissioners are going to put that new road to whether the country will enter into a particular trade agreement.
When politics works, the battles are overwhelmingly “how” arguments: how will we provide service X? What sort of law will solve problem Y? Who should benefit from program Z? Those battles certainly implicate morality, but not in the way or to the extent that our current disputes do. Increasing numbers of Americans believe they are engaged in a battle between good and evil–and to the extent the issues dividing us really are fundamentally moral ones, there is little or no common ground to be found.
Unless you’ve been marooned on the International Space Station, you know that Trumpism is racism, blatant or latent (here’s a summary of the voluminous evidence). That makes the cap no different than a Confederate flag. It’s racial animosity woven in cloth, unwearable without draping yourself in its political meaning. It would be like donning a swastika and expecting to be taken for a Quaker.
We Americans are still fighting the Civil War. As an article in the Guardian noted yesterday, the GOP has morphed into the Confederacy.
There has been a steady exodus from the GOP as its MAGA core has assumed effective control of the party. And to be fair, there are still plenty of people who continue to vote Republican who do not fall into that category, although their willingness to ignore the obvious makes them complicit at best.
Those of you reading this post may disagree with the assertion that Americans are fighting over morality, not politics as we typically understand that term. But accurate or not, millions of thoughtful Americans believe they are engaged in a battle for the soul of this nation, and are horrified by what they see as the willingness of some 40% of their fellow-citizens to spit on the aspirations of our founding documents and subvert the rule of law in order to retain a privileged status that they enjoy solely by reason of their skin color, gender and/or religion.
This isn’t politics as usual. It isn’t even politics as that term is usually understood.
Americans are having a profound and fundamental argument about reality, the nature of justice, the obligations of citizenship, and the kind of country we will leave our children and grandchildren.
That’s a hard chasm to bridge.