Tag Archives: politics

Rural Red, Urban Blue

Talk about living in bubbles….

It isn’t just the Internet, or our very human tendency to consult information sources compatible with our biases and beliefs. I’ve written before about The Big Sort, the 2008 book by Bill Bishop which tracked the “sorting” of Americans into residential tribes–especially urban and rural–a phenomenon Bishop warned was “tearing us apart.”

Since the publication of that book, the divisions between city and rural dwellers have only deepened–with suburbs appearing to move toward the urban side of the scale. Given the other long-term trends that I’ve been noting (and about which I’ve been posting) the ability of Republicans–at least, in their current iteration– to retain control of the national government over the long term looks decidedly grim.

Last month, The New York Times ran a story about the urban/rural divide, noting that the GOP is simply out of touch with diverse urban areas.

The Times interviewed Jerry Sanders, a Republican who had served two terms as mayor of San Diego. The story noted that in 2012, Sanders was the most prominent Republican city executive in the country. A former police chief who was close to the business community, in a rational world, Sanders would seem to be a a political role model for other urban  Republican mayors–he was a political moderate who worked with the Obama administration on urban policy and endorsed gay marriage.

Sanders left the GOP on January 7th.

The report noted that Sanders’ sour evaluation of the GOP’s urban appeal was borne out in off-year elections.

From Mr. Sanders’s California to New York City and New Jersey and the increasingly blue state of Virginia with its crucial suburbs of Washington, D.C., the Republican Party’s feeble appeal to the country’s big cities and dense suburbs is on vivid display.

Where the G.O.P. once consistently mounted robust campaigns in many of these areas, the party is now all but locked out of all the major contests of 2021.

The realignment of national politics around urban-versus-rural divisions has seemingly doomed Republicans in these areas as surely as it has all but eradicated the Democratic Party as a force across the Plains and the Upper Mountain West. At the national level, Republicans have largely accepted that trade-off as advantageous, since the structure of the federal government gives disproportionate power to sparsely populated rural states.

Indeed, as the article makes clear,  the only metro areas where the G.O.P. maintains influence are in red states (like Indiana) where Republican governors and state legislators can impose their policy preferences on local leaders.

The consequences of this urban/rural “big sort” are mostly negative. From a governance perspective, the ability of  significantly fewer rural voters to thwart the electoral choices and policy preferences of popular majorities is dangerously anti-democratic . If the structural influences that give undue power to those “sparsely populated” rural areas aren’t countered, that situation will continue to undermine the legitimacy of the federal government. (It has already facilitated a gridlock that has gone a long way toward destroying its stability.)

But it isn’t just political structures that are damaged by the dominance of liberals in cities and conservatives in rural areas. The divide damages our ability as citizens to participate in reasoned debates with neighbors who have different perspectives. Conservatives living in urban areas feel politically powerless, as do liberals who reside in rural precincts of the country. The media’s tendency to lump voters into categories of “red” or “blue” also blurs the very real differences within those categories. 

Most concerning of all is the ability of “sorted” populations to inhabit wildly different realities. As a long-ago student from a small town in Indiana reminded me during a class discussion of the Filter Bubble, bubbles can be geographic as well as informational. 

If we fixed the structural glitches that allow today’s Republicans to ignore urban constituencies, perhaps the GOP would once again embrace contemporary versions of Jerry Sanders, Bill Hudnut and  Richard Lugar, in order to become competitive in the nation’s cities. And perhaps Democrats would come out of their rural closets.

Yeah, I know. Perhaps pigs will fly…..

 

 

 

Religion? Or Politics?

The phrase “culture wars” usually brings to mind the current political polarization between self-described conservatives and the rest of us: more and more, that’s a line of demarcation that runs between Republicans and Democrats (and Democratic-leaning Independents). However, as a recent essay from the Guardian points out, cultural issues are also creating huge tensions within the more fundamentalist religious denominations.

Barry Hankins is a professor at Baylor who has authored several books and articles about the Southern Baptist Convention, and in the linked article, he examines the effects of the culture wars on that Evangelical denomination.

He begins with a question:

Is the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest and arguably most powerful Protestant denomination in the United States – being held together by culture wars instead of Biblical teaching? That is the question in recent weeks, as thousands of Southern Baptists gathered in Nashville for their annual meeting to determine the bitterly contested future of the convention.

Many conservative members of the denomination seem to have seen in Donald Trump’s populist authoritarianism a last-gasp chance to save white Christian America – theology, and, for Trump, Christian morality, be damned.

Hankins has been a longtime scholar of the Southern Baptists, although he is not himself a member of that denomination, and he says that in the past he has defended what he terms their “serious theology,” despite the influence of cultural concerns on that theology. But by 2020, he says he had come to recognize that “conservatives of the right wing of the SBC were not just subordinating theology to the cultural concerns of white Christian identity politics, but had in fact lost their way as Baptists.”

At the SBC’s recent meeting–widely covered by the national press–we casual readers were relieved when the less political, less strident candidate, Litton, won the presidency of that body. But he won by a very narrow margin, suggesting that control by those Southern Baptists who want a less partisan voice–and independence from identity with the Republican Party–is tenuous.

Hankins points to the narrowness of the vote as a sign  that the Convention has not “turned a corner.” And he insists that the differences are not theological. (Both sides are anti-gay, anti-abortion, pro-submission of women. The list goes on…) The debate, he says, is political.

The side that lost last week, wants to be more political, more explicitly aligned with the Trump-era Republican party, and aggressively prosecute the culture wars. They are motivated, I believe, by an inordinate fear of being out of step with the Republican party’s brand of white identity politics – and its de facto leader, Trump. They believe white Christian America is embattled and surrounded by a hostile secular-liberal culture. Their only chance of survival, they believe, is to stay aligned with the Republican party against a radical left that threatens the Christian faith’s very existence in America and whose ideologies are seeping into the SBC, as Mike Stone charges. As he said as he geared up for his run at the SBC presidency: “Our Lord isn’t woke.”

There’s more in the linked essay, and it’s fascinating, but aside from the specifics–doctrinal or cultural– the description of this denomination’s internal conflict raises a fairly profound issue: how does religion differ from political ideology–if, indeed, it does?

I did a bit of Googling, and came up with the following definitions.

Religion is an organized and integrated set of beliefs, behaviors, and norms centered on basic social needs and values. Religious beliefs–as opposed to religious rituals– are the specific tenets that members of a particular faith believe to be true.

A political ideology–as opposed to the messy realities of campaigning and/or governing– is  a set of “ethical ideals, principles, doctrines, myths or symbols of a social movement” that explains how society should work and offers a political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order.

At the very least, there is considerable overlap.

The question for an increasingly multi-ethnic country that is legally and constitutionally prohibited from favoring one religion over others (or religion over non-religion or vice-versa) is: how do you decide what is genuinely religious and thus worthy of the governmental deference required by the Free Exercise Clause, and what is really a thinly-masked political campaign to protect a formerly privileged tribe?

Is the Southern Baptist insistence on the supremacy of White Christian America religious–or is it political? And even if religious, does it really deserve deference?

 

All Art Is Political

It isn’t much of an exaggeration to say that in the past several years, the performing arts have been dominated by Lin Manuel Miranda. The Broadway version of In The Heights was followed by the overwhelming event that was and is Hamilton and more recently, we’ve had the updated movie version of In The Heights. 

These productions secured Miranda’s reputation as an impresario, and his activism and demeanor secured his reputation as a nice guy with good political values. Given his prominence, it wasn’t a surprise to come across recent references to an essay he wrote in December of 2019 for the Atlantic.

It was titled “The Role of the Artist in the Age of Trump,” and it argued that the arts are always and inevitably political.

I was particularly open to Miranda’s thesis because I had just finished reading Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War. I lived through the events of that time-period, and I was familiar with many–but certainly not all–of the artists and philosophers and cultural icons that Menand meticulously describes (and frequently deconstructs), but I hadn’t recognized how deeply they were influenced by the times they lived in, nor how deeply they influenced those times in turn. (I recommend the book, but with the warning that it’s a pretty dense read.)

Miranda’s opening paragraph makes his thesis explicit:

All art is political. In tense, fractious times—like our current moment—all art is political. But even during those times when politics and the future of our country itself are not the source of constant worry and anxiety, art is still political. Art lives in the world, and we exist in the world, and we cannot create honest work about the world in which we live without reflecting it. If the work tells the truth, it will live on.

What Miranda’s essay and Menand’s book both underscore is that “art” and “political art” are not the exclusive province of the more rarified and snobbish precincts we call “high” art.

Miranda makes that point by looking at the messages conveyed by–of all people– Rogers and Hammerstein.

Consider The Sound of Music. It isn’t just about climbing mountains and fording streams. Look beyond the adorable von Trapp children: It’s about the looming existential threat of Nazism. No longer relevant? A GIF of Captain von Trapp tearing up a Nazi flag is something we see 10 times a day on Twitter, because all sorts of Nazis are out there again in 2019. As last spring’s searing Broadway revival of Oklahoma! revealed, lying underneath Hammerstein’s elephant-eye-high corn and chirping birds is a lawless society becoming itself, bending its rules and procedures based on who is considered part of the community (Curly) and who is marginalized (poor Jud … seriously, poor Jud). Or consider your parents’ favorite, South Pacific. At its center, our hero, Nellie Forbush, must confront her own internalized racism when she learns that the new love of her life has biracial children from a previous marriage. Let your parents know if they forgot: Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals form the spine of Broadway’s “golden age,” and they also deeply engage with the politics of their era.

In the essay, Miranda discusses the “message” of In The Heights, and its depiction of immigrants as human beings (a “radical act!”), the contrast of that portrayal with the dehumanizing rhetoric of then-President Trump, and the reason such portrayals are important.

What artists can do is bring stories to the table that are unshakably true—the sort of stories that, once you’ve heard them, won’t let you return to what you thought before.. ..I believe great art is like bypass surgery. It allows us to go around all of the psychological distancing mechanisms that turn people cold to the most vulnerable among us.

At the end of the day, our job as artists is to tell the truth as we see it. If telling the truth is an inherently political act, so be it. Times may change and politics may change, but if we do our best to tell the truth as specifically as possible, time will reveal those truths and reverberate beyond the era in which we created them. We keep revisiting Shakespeare’s Macbeth because ruthless political ambition does not belong to any particular era. We keep listening to Public Enemy because systemic racism continues to rain tragedy on communities of color. We read Orwell’s 1984 and shiver at its diagnosis of doublethink, which we see coming out of the White House at this moment. And we listen to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, as Lieutenant Cable sings about racism, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” It’s all art. It’s all political.

No wonder so many reactionaries hate Hollywood.

 

 

 

Politics And The Courts

I hate sports analogies, but sometimes, they just fit.

For those of you who are sports fans (I am not one of you), here’s a question: how much would you enjoy watching a game if you knew that the umpire or referee had been bribed, or even just recruited from a group of rabid fans of one of the teams on the field?

The decisions America’s founders incorporated in our constitution haven’t all stood the test of time–exhibit one, the Electoral College–but one that has was their determination that  the judiciary should be protected from political pressure to the extent possible.

There are sound reasons that federal judges are not elected–not “answerable” to the public in the same way that members of the legislative and executive branches are.

When we discussed judicial independence in my classes, I didn’t use the sports analogy; instead, I would pose a different hypothetical: let’s say you live in a small town where you are a party to a lawsuit. Trial is in the local court, where the judge has been elected. What if the lawyer representing the other guy was one of the biggest donors to that judge’s campaign, and is a regular at the judge’s Wednesday night poker get-together? If the judge ruled against you, how likely would you be to believe you’d been judged fairly and impartially?

Or let’s assume a judge is presiding over a high-profile case in which a majority of local folks are emotionally invested. Assume too that controlling law is on the side of the publicly disfavored position–and further assume that the judge is facing re-election. She’s a widow with a mortgage and a couple of kids in college, and she knows that following the law means losing the election.

You get the picture. Even if every judge in these hypotheticals is a paragon of virtue who ignores personal considerations and “calls them like s/he sees them,” public trust in the process would be hard to maintain.

Separation of powers was the division of our government into three branches. Two of those branches were intended to be answerable to public opinion, even public passion. The third was tasked with being an impartial arbiter, insulated from electoral pressure. When judges are wrong–and there are plenty of times they will be–we want them to be wrong because they misread the law, not because they were in thrall to donors or interest groups.

That’s why the constitution requires an appointed judiciary in the federal courts, a decision that has slowed–but certainly not stopped–efforts to politicize America’s court system.

It is admittedly impossible to keep politics completely out of the judicial selection process–especially selections for the Supreme Court. But the problem is far worse in the large number of states that continue to elect their judges. A recent report from Governing Magazine shows just how far state-level politicians (mostly, but not exclusively, Republicans) will go to game the court system.

Last Monday, Republicans in the Louisiana House tried to pass a proposed constitutional amendment to redraw election districts for the state Supreme Court, while adding two seats to it. The effort came up short, but it was just the latest move by a state legislature to try to change how high court justices are elected. Just three days earlier, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat, signed a bill that redraws election districts for his state’s Supreme Court, a move observers believe is aimed at maintaining his party’s 4-3 majority in next year’s elections. And Republicans in Montana and Pennsylvania passed bills in the past year to create districts for their high courts, both of which currently have progressive majorities and whose members are now elected statewide.

The article focused on what it termed “judicial gerrymandering,” and like all gerrymandering, the goal is unearned power. In states across the country, politicians are redrawing their state’s high court election districts in ways that favor their party’s candidates.

Admittedly, there is no way to entirely insulate courts from political pressures. Here in Indiana, where a judicial nominating committee considers candidates for the State Supreme Court and sends three names to the Governor, it’s a given that the ultimate choice will be someone from the Governor’s political party. For that matter, the committee members will be impressed (or repelled) by the identities and politics of the people “lobbying” for particular candidates.

Nevertheless, Indiana’s process significantly attenuates the role played by partisanship. It recognizes that when the umpire is effectively a member of one of the teams on the field, the teams and their fans are all losers.

 

Fundamentalism

A couple of years ago, I came across a fascinating article in a legal journal comparing constitutional and biblical cherry-picking. I no longer recall the journal, the title or the authors, so no link, but I do recall the thesis: certain personality types have a need for bright lines and a profound discomfort with ambiguity, leading to the use of selected passages from religious and legal texts to confirm their pre-existing biases.

When evangelical Christian denominations embraced Trump–some pastors insisting he’d been chosen by God– it was tempting to describe religion in general as a big con. Like most generalizations, that characterization is both under and over-inclusive. The problem is not religion per se, but fundamentalisms of all sorts. As the referenced article made clear, religious dogma isn’t the primary problem (although some certainly is very problematic), it is fundamentalists’ insistence on its inerrancy.

In other words, there’s a great deal of similarity between Second Amendment absolutists and fundamentalists of all religious persuasion–and I do mean all religions. American Jews provide just one example. Pew recently published a study of American Jewish attitudes and beliefs. Unsurprisingly,  the study found that a majority of Jewish Americans lean politically liberal and currently favor the Democratic Party. However, Orthodox Jews (our fundamentalists), were “a notable exception.”

The survey, which was conducted in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, finds that 71% of Jewish adults (including 80% of Reform Jews) are Democrats or independents who lean toward the Democratic Party. But among Orthodox Jews, three-quarters say they are Republican or lean that way. And that percentage has been trending up: In 2013, 57% of Orthodox Jews were Republicans or Republican leaners.

There is further evidence that the content of belief is less troublesome than the intensity of that belief.

The Christian Science Monitor recently published an essay asking whether politics has become the new religion. The article featured examples of Americans for whom politics has become an identity and a quasi-religion–suggesting that the waning of traditional  faith commitments isn’t leading to a reduction of conflict, as many of us had fondly supposed; rather, those for whom lines must be bright and beliefs should brook no dissent have simply transferred their fundamentalist passions elsewhere.

The United States has long been known for what some sociologists call “civil religion” – a shared, nonsectarian faith centered on the flag, the nation’s founding documents, and God. But the God factor is waning, as so-called nones – atheists, agnostics, and those who self-identify as “nothing in particular” – have risen to one-third of the U.S. population, according to a major 2020 survey out of Harvard University. 

From MAGA devotees on the right to social justice warriors on the “woke left,” political activism that can feel “absolute” in a quasi-religious way is rampant. At the same time, American membership in houses of worship has plummeted to below 50% for the first time in eight decades of Gallup polling – from 70% in 1999 to 47% in 2020.

The article points out that Americans have been moving away from organized religion for several years–and notes that–rather than easing intergroup tensions– the shift has dovetailed with the rise of an intense form of partisan politics. For personalities that need certainty about “righteousness,” political ideology provides a sense of “devotion, belonging, and moral certitude” they might once have found in a religious congregation.

The problem isn’t Christianity, Islam, Judaism or any other theology. It’s the certitude motivating adherents’ intransigence and unwillingness to live and let live.