Tag Archives: politics

What’s Driving America’s Polarization?

I recently “guest lectured” in a colleague’s class; my assignment was to address the issue of America’s extreme polarization. As you might imagine, that’s a topic that could consume several hours, if not days, of discussion.

I had twenty minutes….

I began by sharing my version of  The American Idea—the conviction that allegiance to an overarching governing philosophy–one that that emphasized behavior rather than identity- could create unity from what has always been a diverse citizenry. This nation was not based upon geography, ethnicity or conquest, but on a theory of social organization, a philosophy of governance that was meant to facilitate e pluribus unum—out of the many, one. The American Idea set up an enduring conversation about the proper balance between “I” and “we”–between individual rights on the one hand and the choices and passions of the majority on the other.

Admittedly, that approach doesn’t seem to be working right now.

As I told the students, I think it’s important to note two things about our current divisions:  our political polarization has been asymmetric—during my lifetime, the GOP has moved far, far to the right, abandoning genuinely conservative positions in favor of authoritarianism and White Supremacy. When that movement first began, public notions of what constituted the “middle” prompted the Democratic party to move to the right also;  what is today being called a move to the left is really a return to its original, center-left orientation.

Today’s GOP is a cohesive, White Supremicist cult. For a number of reasons, the Democratic party is a much bigger tent than the GOP—making the forging of party consensus very difficult. 

So yes, we are polarized. At the same time, however, it’s also important to recognize that many of America’s apparent social divisions are exaggerated by media outlets trying to grab our attention and by people pursuing political agendas. (The current coverage of fights over Roe v. Wade is an example. Polling tells us that three-quarters of Americans support Roe–hardly the even division often suggested by the media.)

 The research is pretty clear about the source of our current divisions: White Christian Americans—predominantly male—are incredibly threatened by the social and demographic changes they see around them. White Evangelicals overwhelmingly tell researchers that only White Christians can be “true Americans.” Their belief that White Christian males are entitled to social dominance—to “ownership” of the country– is being threatened by the increasing improvements in the positions of “uppity” women and people of color.

There are other factors, of course, but the underlying reality is frantic resistance to social change by Americans who harbor racial resentments, misogyny and homophobia.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of our current media environment, which enables confirmation bias and allows us to choose our own realities. The death of local journalism, and the influence of Fox News and its clones, are huge contributors, and recent revelations about the business model of Facebook and other social media demonstrates the impact those platforms have and their role in disseminating misinformation, conspiracy theories and bigotry.

To be fair, media bubbles aren’t the only bubbles Americans occupy. I’ve posted before about “The Big Sort,” the”Density Divide,” and the immense and growing gaps between urban and rural Americans.

I continue to believe that a majority of Americans are sane and reasonable, but several painfully outdated governance systems have enabled a not-nearly-so-sane minority to exercise disproportionate power. Those outdated systems include the Electoral College, gerrymandering, and the filibuster–not to mention that each state gets two senators regardless of population (by 2040, about 70% of Americans are expected to live in the 15 largest states. They will have only 30 senators representing them, while the remaining 30% of Americans will have 70 senators representing them.)

Our current low-key civil war has illustrated our problems. How we fix them is another matter….

 

Religion As Politics

I still remember those college dorm arguments about religion and politics–the debates over where to draw the line between purportedly religious beliefs, on the one hand, and devotion to political ideology, on the other. Back in those days, the focus was usually on Soviet Communism–was it a political identity? Or was commie “true belief” actually akin to religious devotion?

That debate has morphed over the years, especially for the growing number of Americans who tend to be skeptical of organized religion. If we didn’t have so many other, more pressing issues to argue about, I suspect that a recent report from Pew would trigger a new and acrimonious round.

Pew was investigating whether there had been an exodus from far-right Evangelical Protestant churches due to the support for Trump displayed by those denominations. They found no exodus–instead, the research uncovered  “solid evidence” that White American “Trumpers” who weren’t Evangelical before 2016  “were much more likely than White Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020.”

The data also shows that Trump’s electoral performance among White evangelicals was even stronger in 2020 than in 2016, partially due to increased support among White voters who described themselves as evangelicals throughout this period.

The study confirms what many of us have suspected: Americans are sorting ourselves into  tribes, and one such tribe is composed of the “Christian” White Supremicists who identify with Trumpian Republicanism. These are the people who tell pollsters that only (White) Christians can be considered “real Americans.”

According to Christianity Today, they are increasingly likely to call themselves “political Evangelicals.”

The Survey Center on American Life  –a project of the conservative American Enterprise Institute-reports that White Evangelical Republicans are far more inclined to believe in claims about the Deep State, to believe in QAnon, and to believe that antifa was responsible for the January 6th violence at the US Capitol. They also are more likely than other Republicans to accept Trump’s Big Lie:

Given how widely accepted the belief in voter fraud is among white evangelical Republicans, it is not surprising that they express far greater skepticism about the fairness of the 2020 election than their co-partisans. Only 27 percent of white evangelical Republicans say that Joe Biden’s election win was legitimate, compared to more than half (56 percent) of nonevangelical Republicans. Three-quarters (75 percent) of white evangelical Christian Republicans say Biden was not legitimately elected.

As an essay from the New York Times just after the 2020 election put it, White Evangelicals have now

blended so seamlessly into the broader Republican base that adherents and observers say that the label has become more a political than religious one. Electing Republicans has become, for many evangelicals, an end in itself.

Those of us on the outside of this Evangelical/GOP cult have marveled at the contortions required for “family values Christians”–a movement based on Christian principles and presumably devoted to  concerns about character– to support someone like Donald Trump. The Times essay quoted a Pew researcher who cited data showing that” White Evangelical Protestants are not only Republican; they have been and continue to grow more Republican over time.”  In 2018 and 2019, 78 percent of White Evangelical Protestants identified with the Republican Party; in 2000, that number was 56 percent.

Michele Margolis is a political scientist who studies how political affiliation influences religious beliefs and practices, “a cause-and-effect that reverses traditional assumptions.” People may like to believe their faith informs their vote, but her research shows it is often the other way around.

Charles Blow recently quoted another academic, Anthea Butler, for the observation that evangelicals may wrap themselves in religious rhetoric, but that what the movement has really been since the 1970s is “a political arm of the Republican Party.” Evangelicals now “use moral issues as a wedge to get political power.”

Butler concluded, “We need to quit coddling evangelicals and allowing them to use these moral issues to hide behind, because it’s very clear that that’s not what the issue is. The issue is that they believe in anti-vaxxing, they believe in racism, they believe in anti-immigration, they believe that only Republicans should run the country and they believe in white supremacy.”

Whether we consider these Evangelical denominations genuinely “religious” or see them as pseudo-religious political cults frantic to protect America’s longstanding White Christian dominance depends upon just how capacious our understanding of “politics” is, and how we define the difference between religious and  secular commitments.

We might also think about the difference a label makes when these folks go to court to protect what they insist is their “religious liberty.”

Looking On The Bright Side…(NOT The Monty Python Version)…

I get tired of posting “gloom and doom” essays–and you are all probably just as tired of reading about the precarious state of national and global institutions.  Every so often, it’s a good idea to remember the old adage that “dog bites man isn’t news; but man bites dog is”–to remind ourselves that what is newsworthy is by definition not ordinary. So today, as we head into fall, I want to focus on the other side of the equation: hopeful news–evidence that the hostile and crazy people who provide fodder for our newsfeeds and generate our ulcers are not representative of humanity writ large.

Let’s start with climate change.

Yes, political barriers have delayed a rational, co-ordinated response. But as the evidence of that phenomenon becomes too powerful to ignore, so does evidence of efforts to abate it. Take, for example, reports about floating wind turbines.

In the stormy waters of the North Sea, 15 miles off the coast of Aberdeenshire, in Scotland, five floating offshore wind turbines stretch 574 feet (175 metres) above the water. The world’s first floating windfarm, a 30 megawatt facility run by the Norwegian company Equinor, has only been in operation since 2017 but has already broken UK records for energy output.

While most offshore wind turbines are anchored to the ocean floor on fixed foundations, limiting them to depths of about 165ft, floating turbines are tethered to the seabed by mooring lines.

Installing these turbines in deeper waters, where winds tend to be stronger,  promises  to generate huge amounts of renewable energy: reportedly, close to 80% of potential offshore wind power is found in deeper waters.

Then there’s new appreciation for algae. It can be used to make eco-friendly plastic and fertilizer,  it can be used as fuel–it can evidently even reduce the methane from cow farts ..

The World Wildlife Federation reports that low cost solar, wind, and battery technologies are on “profitable, exponential trajectories”–and if those trajectories are sustained, they should be enough to cut emissions from electricity generation in half by 2030.

Wind and solar energy now regularly out-compete fossil fuels in most regions of the world. Electric vehicle growth has the potential to reach a 90% market share by 2030 if sustained, but only if strong policies support this direction.

The Federation also reports that nearly half of the country’s largest companies–some of the world’s largest energy users–now recognize a responsibility to tackle climate change and preserve the planet for future generations. (Granted, a good deal of this “recognition” is PR–it’s up to us consumers to pressure the business sector to make good on those public promises.)

More theoretical, but the subject of current research efforts, is “carbon capture,” which wouldn’t simply reduce carbon emissions, but would allow for actually sucking carbon out of the air. (Think negative emissions.) Even the most recent IPCC report--with its dire, widely disseminated warnings–had some good news tucked in.

It isn’t just climate change.

Vox recently had a report, complete with charts, demonstrating a range of improvements that have made life better for humanity. It described the decline in global poverty, the rise in global literacy, a dramatic improvement in global health, and even–despite the current backlash being  waged by various populist movements–an increase in democracy and individual freedom.

Sometimes, taking the “long view” allows us to escape from the doom and gloom of the daily news. In my lifetime, I have seen city centers and historic neighborhoods revitalized. Women’s rights have dramatically expanded (prompting the hysterical backlash that most recently gave us Texas…). Gays have emerged from the closet and married. Membership in fundamentalist churches has declined. Despite the daily episodes of racist behavior caught by our ubiquitous cellphone cameras and the morphing of the GOP into the White Supremacy Party, the country has made considerable progress against racism, as evidenced by the multi-racial composition of last year’s Black Lives Matter marches.

And we should be heartened by the enormous negative reaction to Texas’ effort to empower anti-woman vigilantes. That anger promises an energized and expanded Democratic vote.

The bigots and assorted crazies in Washington can slow down human progress, but ultimately, reality will bite them. (Hopefully in time to avert disaster…)

If people of good will focus only on the problems we face and the threats posed by the hysterical people resisting progress, we will get too disheartened to work for the continuation of positive change. Google “good news,” take a deep breath, then volunteer with a group that is working to solve a  problem you care about.

And if you can, send money.

PS If you want the Monty Python version, here are the lyrics…..

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?