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The nation’s current deep political polarization was brought home to me in a personal way in recent days when I telephoned an individual, whom I have known for many years but have not seen in some time. Instead of polite conversation and catch-up, I was subjected to an unforeseen political diatribe. Here is a sampling of the claims I heard expressed:

  • The Russian intervention in the presidential election of 2016 was a hoax rigged by the Democratic Party.
  • If the Democrats win in November, the nation will shortly be overtaken by Marxism and Socialism.
  • If the Democrats prevail in the presidential election, they will seek to protect the environment, which, while fine in theory, would both go too far and also cede the country to control by bureaucrats.
  • While George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer was wrong, America’s cities are now aflame and out of control as a result of leftist extremists like the Antifa and too many Blacks looting. We need law and order and instead, the states are coddling hoodlums and terrorists.
  • Former GOP presidential nominee and now Senator Mitt Romney (R-Utah) is profoundly disappointing since he has too often accepted Fake Media claims and he voted for one article of impeachment against President Donald Trump.
  • Americans collectively sacrificed by staying at home to address COVID-19, but now they must live their lives and the economy must reopen; if that means some die, then such must occur.
  • While talking about the pandemic, the person I telephoned argued that they were not going to stop living their life and that they would go to Home Depot and the grocery store, even if the government would not allow them to go to church. Importantly, this person was never prevented from going to the supermarket or home center, but they were asked to do so with precautions. Churches were indeed closed for a time, and some remain shuttered or open only with precautions, to prevent the possibility of spreading the virus.
  • This individual suggested that the public health professionals do not know what to do about COVID-19 and they do not trust Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and other medical experts in any case, since they have not always embraced wearing masks. Whatever occurs, this person emphasized that the most important issue was to get the economy going again.
  • This individual said three times that they love this country and believe it is the best nation that has ever existed and that it cannot lose its history by allowing extremists to tear down monuments that celebrate its heritage. They also argued they were tired of being called a “white racist,” as they were not responsible for what happened 200 years ago.

There was more, but this list provides an idea of the contentions that passed for a conversation during which I primarily listened. I am still not sure why this unexpected rant occurred. Something like a psychological cork popped for this person I suppose. Let me share two additional points to provide context for the observations I share below.  First, this individual possesses a master’s degree and is not disadvantaged, at least in terms of income and education.

Second, while professing deep aggrievement about what they termed the Fake Media and the “Democrat” Party’s efforts to undercut a president who is doing things the individual likes, this person made clear their contempt for all who did not see the superior sense of what they espoused. I found this dimension of our conversation ironic, as many commentators and analysts have written for the last several years that a good share of Trump’s support has arisen from his constituency’s belief that Coastal elites were “talking down to them.”[1] Paradoxically, I certainly was talked down to for the duration of this telephone encounter.

I have found myself continuing to reflect on that unexpected conversation and here share some of my thoughts. First, every contention this individual raised has been a talking point and a systematic misrepresentation offered repeatedly by the President, his party and/or the Fox Network during the Trump presidency. None of these complaints bear even a faint relationship to the truth or to the facts concerning the matters they purport to address. The arguments that the entire intelligence establishment of the U.S. government and Robert Mueller, the extraordinarily non-partisan, professional and methodical special prosecutor in the investigation of Russian involvement in the 2016 election, can be dismissed and his investigation labeled a mere partisan “hoax” are especially outlandish. So, too, is the view that the nation must simply accept COVID-19 infections and deaths (which are again rising precipitously as I write) in the name of the economy.

Similarly, the belief that the United States will shortly become Marxist/Socialist if Democrats win in November and that the nation should not be concerned with the rights of all of its citizens, but instead should focus on a non-existent law and order crisis, while echoing Trump’s claims, also represent egregious misconceptions. Neither of the United States’ principal political parties has ever embraced Marxism or socialism and there is no chance of either of the parties or the population doing so now. Likewise, Antifa is a small Anti-Fascist protest movement and is not responsible for the many large and largely peaceful protests occurring throughout the country concerning abridgments of civil and human rights. The notion that we need to take militaristic action to stop the protestors from harming our way of life because “they” are out of control, is offensive and utterly false. All Americans enjoy a Constitutional right to protest their government’s actions and to call for change as they believe necessary and appropriate. That can include, I must add, calls to remove from public view statuary honoring those who committed treason against this country.

More generally, plaints this person shared with me constitute a vision that blames unnamed others for conditions undermining this individual’s conception of who they are and their perceived social role in America. The governing narrative shared with me during my recent telephone conversation followed virtually word for word what sociologists Arlie Hochschild, Jennifer Silva and Robert Wuthnow have found when interviewing individuals in rural communities across the country and have dubbed the “deep story” of that population—a view that stigmatizes unnamed others for rapid social and economic change and yearns for a less pluralistic nation that places them and their perceived interests at the top of its social (read racial for many) and economic hierarchy once more.[2]

It also seems clear, if this well-educated individual is any measure, that GOP and Fox Network attacks on minorities and anyone who might disagree with their constructions of reality are succeeding as propaganda. Even individuals who have had the benefit of a college education appear willing to believe these fabrications to shore up their sense of self and society, especially regarding the question of human difference. It is particularly concerning that anyone with access to multiple forums of communication and the capability of using them, would nonetheless accept the obviously false contention that investigations into and reporting of Trump’s corrupt criminal behavior were instead a carefully contrived conspiracy to undermine him undertaken by nefarious political enemies.

I woke the morning following the conversation highlighted here with the poignant song, “The Boxer,” by singer-songwriter Paul Simon, on my mind. I was not at first sure I understood why, but as I reflected, it became clear. Here is the first stanza:

I am just a poor boy
Though my story's seldom told
I have squandered my resistance
For a pocket full of mumbles, such are promises
All lies and jests
Still a man hears what he wants to hear
And disregards the rest.[3]

Simon’s observation that human beings too often give up their “resistance,” their capacity for reasoned deliberation, for “mumbles” and promises that provide psychic assurance strikes me as part of the explanation for why the individual with whom I spoke has accepted the systematic misrepresentations they shared. In this case and in countless others, the person wants to believe these propositions, facts notwithstanding, to overcome cognitive and emotional dissonance. While that proclivity is certainly human, it does not solve the puzzle of what rationalizations led to that desire and to its acceptance. Social scientists are finding that the reasons for according credence to propaganda are multivalent and multilayered and I am sure that was so in this case as well.  This is why listening carefully to what these individuals say and how they legitimize their stances is crucial, and that work demands that they be accorded dignity even when their positions are abhorrent or worse.

Finally, this conversation has set me thinking once again about the issue of scale, how so many in the nation could believe manifestly nonsensical lies. As one symptom of that situation, we are failing utterly to confront the COVID-19 crisis. Many of our citizens are prepared to condone thousands of unnecessary deaths rather than call out the incompetence and partisan posturing that have contributed to that ongoing tragic outcome. The root of this predicament is the continued fragmentation of our population. While Americans have always been an individualistic people, the Republican Party particularly has spent decades arguing that citizens should distrust their government’s legitimacy, revere the market and otherwise view themselves as lone actors in their society, in competition with all others for such resources as capitalists are willing to provide them.

Accordingly, the political economy has been deeply marketized across those fifty or so years. Laborers, for example, are now commonly referred to as “human capital” or “human resources” and students are often considered “customers.” New York Times columnist David Brooks recently captured this point neatly in a column published on the eve of our nation’s commemoration of its independence on July 4:

What’s the core problem? Damon Linker is on to a piece of it: ‘It amounts to a refusal on the part of lots of Americans to think in terms of the social whole — of what’s best for the community, of the common or public good. Each of us thinks we know what’s best for ourselves.’

I’d add that this individualism, atomism and selfishness is downstream from a deeper crisis of legitimacy. In 1970, in a moment like our own, Irving Kristol wrote, ‘In the same way as men cannot for long tolerate a sense of spiritual meaninglessness in their individual lives, so they cannot for long accept a society in which power, privilege, and property are not distributed according to some morally meaningful criteria.’[4]

I would suggest that the deeper crisis of legitimacy to which Brooks pointed is very closely linked to the encouragement of the conditions of atomistic individualism that have accompanied GOP attacks on governance for decades. The scenario that Kristol and Linker have highlighted is collectively self-imposed and presents the concerns Brooks has raised. Small wonder that so many, including the individual with whom I spoke, look for others to blame for their situation and are willing thereby to deepen inequality and to fragment their society via scapegoating in a quest for false certainty and security.

Many elected leaders and those hungry for power have been only too happy to feed that anti-democratic propensity for their personal aggrandizement. It remains to be seen whether this nation’s citizens can summon themselves to demand that their representatives consider all of the country’s residents as they craft policies and actions, or whether a majority of  that population will instead continue to content itself with a government that effectively serves very few while disaffecting the remainder, including, perversely, those who support it. Those estranged, in their turn, too often appear content to deprive vulnerable populations of their rights and place in our pluralistic society in efforts to palliate the pain arising from the bitter reality they now perceive. This dual-pronged, self-inflicted wound is clear and festering. It is, however, unclear whether the nation is yet ready to undertake the difficult work necessary to heal itself, even as it confronts multiple crises and doing so is obviously a social and political imperative of the highest order.

I offer my experience with this telephone conversation as anecdotal evidence of my deep concern on this count, even as I recognize that many individuals across this nation have had similar exchanges with family members, friends, neighbors and co-workers. Cultivated polarization in the name of power is a dangerous and now far too pervasive phenomenon.

Notes

[1] Giridharadas, Anand, “Why Do Trump Supporters Support Trump?” The New York Times, January 17, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/17/books/review/the-new-class-war-michael-lind.html, Accessed July 1, 2020. 

[2] Hochschild, Arlie Russell, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New York: The New Press, 2018; Silva, Jennifer, We’re Still Here: Pain and Politics in the Heart of America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019; Wuthnow, Robert. The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.

[3] Simon, Paul, Lyric Find, “The Boxer,” Universal Music Publishing Group, https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1-d&q=lyrics+for+the+Boxer, Accessed July 2, 2020.

[4] Brooks, David, “The National Humiliation We Need,” The New York Times, July 2, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/02/opinion/coronavirus-july-4.html, Accessed July 2, 2020. 

Publication Date

July 6, 2020

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