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Why the U.S. Is Uniquely Divided: Engaging a Scholar from New Zealand

My last column for BNG, “Covid Wars,” offered a lament over our divided nation. It did not propose solutions, only sorrow and grief.

Of course, we must do better than that. We must try to understand how we got here and figure out what we can do about it, if anything.

After my piece posted, I received a very helpful communication from Professor Jonathan Boston, a friend of mine who teaches public policy at Victoria University of Wellington. Just for kicks, I report that Wellington, New Zealand, is exactly 8,212 miles from Atlanta, where I write. Sometimes a perspective from very far away helps, as we here are so enmeshed in our constant battles and our warring tribes.

With Boston’s permission, I quote him, and make a few comments of my own. His comments are in italics.

The U.S. has had an extraordinary explosion of income and wealth inequality over the past 40 years. What has happened is morally repugnant. My assessment of the international evidence is that highly inegalitarian societies are likely, for all manner of very obvious reasons, to become more polarized culturally and politically. Reducing income and wealth inequality in the U.S. is critical, but politically very hard. Last century it took two world wars and a Great Depression to reduce inequality significantly … maybe this century it will take regular pandemics and ecological breakdown … (both of which are likely, but not comforting!).

Comment: There is no question that income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have grown dramatically since the Reagan presidency. This is a factor in our current polarization, but its effects have not been simple. We do not have anything as obvious as partisan/class conflict between the rich and the poor, full stop. We do not, for example, simply see the Republicans standing up for the wealthy and getting all their votes, with the Democrats standing up for the poor and getting their support.

The Trump era saw a very rich (if highly leveraged, multiple-times bankrupt) TV star-businessman mobilize a significant number of working-class white (and some nonwhite) voters with a message mainly of cultural resentment but also economic nationalism. He brilliantly manipulated the cultural and economic cleavages that have opened up especially between the college-educated, liberal-minded, upwardly mobile and the less-educated, culturally more conservative, economically insecure. In general, the greater the income and wealth inequality, the less people share in terms of their life experiences and therefore their views of the world.

“It will be acutely important to find out if inequality-reducing policies (if enacted) will matter as much as the deep-seated cultural resentments now tied to partisan identity.”

President Joe Biden and his team understand this. Biden and his congressional allies are trying to address income and wealth inequality with their massive economic and social-welfare proposals, in part to pry downwardly mobile working-class voters away from Trump and reduce cultural divisions. Emergency pandemic relief also has been structured to address the needs of the middle class and the poor and has had some success at it. It will be acutely important to find out if inequality-reducing policies (if enacted) will matter as much as the deep-seated cultural resentments now tied to partisan identity. In other words, culture wars trumping pocketbook issues.

Political institutions: Many of your U.S. institutions have been corrupted through gerrymandering, the lack of controls on political finance, etc. When people lack confidence in their political institutions (for good reasons), democracies become unstable. Political/electoral/campaign finance reforms in the U.S. are essential. But again, extraordinarily difficult given your constitutional framework.

Comment: I totally agree that gerrymandering has corrupted the districting process all over the country and has produced ever-more-extreme political candidates, who fear being primaried by even-more-extreme candidates from their own party and who have no incentive to reach middle-of-the-road voters. This is taking the Democratic left further left and the Republican right further right. The Trump Big Lie effect is also playing a huge radicalizing role on the GOP side.

It is also painfully clear that our divisions mean that mainstream governmental institutions and leaders operate with weaker authority and legitimacy. This may help explain why bodies like the FDA and CDC and public servants like Anthony Fauci are themselves subject to such distrust.

“This is taking the Democratic left further left and the Republican right further right.”

The U.S. media and social media: I probably don’t need to say anymore.

Comment: One can only despair over the content of Fox News, mainly the demagoguery of evening show hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. (At least, if you are part of my tribe, the one that sees things clearly and rightly, you will join me in my despair. Right?) And social media, born not so very long ago of the seemingly innocent desire to connect people into social networks (while making billions of dollars), indisputably has become not only an ideological accelerant of social division but often the main platform for both threatening and organizing violence. It is a disaster. Reform of our media universe is essential.

The rejection of core scientific theories and understandings by large sections of your U.S. Christian community for over 100 years … societies cannot agree on facts if lots of people deny the basis on which facts are generated. Sorry to say, but I think the Christian community in the U.S. (and especially the more conservative evangelical and Pentecostal communities) are at the heart of the problem of polarization, at least on some issues. It is an absolute tragedy with terrible ramifications, as you know.

Comment: Again, I totally agree. I address this issue at length in my 2020 book After Evangelicalism. Obscurantist Christianity has struggled with science since at least Copernicus, 500 years ago. While mainstream Catholicism finally found some ways to modernize, to integrate rather than to oppose faith and science, fundamentalist versions of Protestantism have not. A tradition of hostility not just to science but to (non-fundamentalist) academic elites of all types has blinkered many Christian minds. This has been painfully apparent during the pandemic, and it has cost many thousands of lives.

“Obscurantist Christianity has struggled with science since at least Copernicus, 500 years ago.”

Boston hastens to add that there are a number of other drivers of division in the U.S. that also need to be addressed: technological changes, immigration issues, major shifts in cultural/moral values, expensive and largely failed U.S. wars, and the longstanding tragedy of racism. I agree, have addressed these issues in other posts, and will continue to do so.

Contrary to what some critics said about my last piece, I am not guilty of “both-sides-ism.” I do not believe that the left and the right are equally guilty in contributing to our divisions, although I would say that failures of both liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, are shared (if not equally) on items 1-3 above — far less so with item 4, which is a conservative religious/political American problem.

Here is how my smart New Zealand friend ends his missive to me:

What is happening in the U.S. is truly fearful. And most of you, sadly, have guns … and lots of them!

Comment: It is indeed frightening. To be precise, there are nearly 400 million guns in private ownership in the US. Many of them are military-grade. The risk of violent civil unrest is real enough that the sober Brookings Institution recently put out an analysis of the possibility of civil war here.

“Civilizational failure does not have to look like civil war.”

Even if there is no civil war, as former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin put it in a New York Times Book Review treatment of Adam Tooze’s new book Shutdown, “The separate understandings of our world and its risks have become so divergent and so entrenched that they pose their own existential threat by impeding our ability to plan for, prevent and react to the crises to come.”

In other words, civilizational failure does not have to look like civil war. It might look like our failure to respond adequately to the pandemic, climate change and other crises. In other words, it might look like right now.

May God have mercy on our land. All the time, I pray for this dangerous fever to pass. I seek to make a constructive civic contribution at the level of rhetoric, analysis, policy, citizenship — and recognizing the fellow humanity of those with whom I disagree. I urge others to do the same.

This article originally appeared in Baptist News Global.

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1 thought on “Why the U.S. Is Uniquely Divided: Engaging a Scholar from New Zealand”

  1. Dave: At age 87 I am of no longer of use to anyone other than to donate money of which little is available on a small teachers’ pension (although it seems eveyone on the internet is begging for it and assumes I have it in abundance.) I do appreciate what you are saying but as a Never-Trumper I have virtually no voice in evangelicalism any longer. Keep up the good work!! Dick Pierard

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