This Week in Polarization: David Brooks’ View

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This week… David Brooks (see below) painted a dim view of the state of the electorate, saying that we are as divided as ever. That “very little has changed over the past two years…everybody’s political positions are more dug in….the Venn diagram is dead. There’s no overlapping area.”

I think he’s both right and wrong. Right because it probably is an accurate snapshot of America today. But wrong because this kind of “snapshot” is a distortion. Snapshots are static, tightly-focused, one-dimensional pictures. But real people are not static, tightly-focused, one-dimensional.

Imagine witnessing a couple fighting: “F.U! …You don’t understand… You never listen to me…I’m leaving you…I don’t believe you….I never want to see you again…” The resulting snapshot would be, “Boy, this couple hates each other! There’s not much hope for them working things out.”

But open up the scene to take in the couple’s full breadth, depth and context. The years of shared experiences, feelings, beliefs, responsibilities, values and more. And to complete the picture, imagine two other people in the room, both of whom have a stake in egging on both sides and exacerbating the conflict. (Self-serving divorce lawyers, perhaps)?

This is the fuller view that Mr. Brooks’ snapshot of the electorate is missing. Not that the reds and blues ever had a particularly happy marriage. And yes, we’re deeply polarized, and haven’t seen much improvement. But as Americans, (though we may not talk about in the heat of political argument) we do share an enormous, deep well of common values, loves, concerns and history. Love of country, of freedom, of fairness, honesty, courage and decency. Respect for the rule of law. Desire for opportunity, safety, security, good health. Pride in our history. Compassion for the less fortunate. Love of the beauty of our land. Appreciation for the sacrifice of past generations. And we both have also been subject to a non-stop onslaught of polarizing propaganda in the cynical cause of winning over our money…our clicks…our votes…our allegiance…

So, to say “we are divided,” while true, is not the full, and therefore fully accurate, story. It is a more complex picture, with more points of contact, common ground and opportunities for rapprochement than the harsh red/blue snapshot suggests. And as the ongoing experiences of Braver Angels’ workshops confirms again and again. The number one quote from people coming out of these gatherings that bring reds and blues together into discussion is “We’re not as far apart as they (the media and the politicians) tell us we are.”

The flaw of narrowly defining the electorate as red vs blue is the same flaw at the heart of authoritarianism: Namely, defining people more by static category (tribe…race…class…ideology…religion…nationality…party…blood…soil…) rather than dynamic potentiality. For much of human history that static vision of humanity was the rationale for the entitlement of rulers and the repression (and enslavement) of subjects: That is their “place” because that is who they are.

The genius of the founders of America was to reject that idea, declaring instead that all people were equal at birth (without category); that they were born not into fixed stations, but, by contrast, with the freedom to become whatever and whoever they can. The founding fathers, in short, understood that human beings have agency—essential, of course, to having sovereignty, the bedrock of democracy. They could have opened the Declaration with the statement “These truths are self-evident.” But they chose to precede it with the words “We hold,” a profound, revolutionary declaration of that agency.

Back in the 1960s the somewhat trendy philosopher Marshall McLuhan uttered the famous phrase “the medium is the message” – meaning the form of communication often shapes the content of communication in ways we barely notice. As the narrow, declarative medium of Twitter overwhelms the broad, discursive medium of the editorial, we must be on guard that our imaginations and minds don’t follow suit.

Yes, we are reds and blues. But we need to remember — and perhaps be reminded — that we are more than that. We are also Americans.

The Retrenchment Election

David Brooks, Opinion Columnist
New York Times, November 1, 2018

Nobody is moving, just settling into place.

One of the pleasures and challenges of this job is you do a lot of traveling. I’ve been in 23 states over the last three months. The general impression I get is that I’m not covering a midterm election campaign. I’m covering two separate electorates.

The biggest difference is atmospheric. In urban and suburban America, Donald Trump’s outrage du jour is on everybody’s lips: Did you see what he tweeted now? Did you see his racist ad? Where will the Mueller investigation go?

In rural America, by contrast, all that stuff is like a thunderstorm in Inner Mongolia. It’s something happening very far away with no particular relevance here, and so no one’s paying much attention.

In urban America people talk about Trump constantly. In rural America people generally avoid the subject. Even if 80 percent of the locals support Trump, you never know how somebody will react if you mention his name — they might call you a racist — so it’s not a safe topic of conversation.

The other big impression I get is that grand canyons now separate different sectors of American society and these canyons are harder and harder to cross.

On the one hand, as Amy Walter of Cook Political Report has pointed out, very little has changed over the past two years. In 2016, 54 percent of white voters supported Trump, and the exact same percentage of those voters support him today. In 2016, 38 percent of college-educated white voters supported Trump and 38 percent support him today.

A lot has been said, but few minds have been changed.

On the other hand, everybody’s political positions are more dug in. College-educated suburban woman really don’t like Republicans. White men without college degrees really don’t like Democrats. Urban America is really blue. Rural America is really red. The race in 2016 entrenched those positions on the presidential level. The 2018 race entrenches them all the way down the ticket.

I’m with Ron Brownstein of CNN and the former Republican representative Tom Davis: This is not a wave election; it’s a realignment election. The results Tuesday will not be shaped by some crest of momentum behind the Democrats. They are going to be shaped by the fact that people are hardening into their categories, and those categories tend to produce a Democratic House and a Republican Senate.

The Republicans were saddled with an unpopular president, and the normal thing to do would have been to try to get House races to turn on local issues. But Trump makes everything about himself, and so has nationalized all the races.

Congressional elections are now mostly just mini-versions of presidential elections. The quality of any individual candidate matters a lot less, and there’s much less variation in how different candidates are conducting their campaigns.

In Missouri, for example, the Republicans are running Josh Hawley for Senate. Hawley could have run an interesting campaign that would have crossed a lot of boundaries. He went to Stanford and Yale Law School. He wrote a fine book on Theodore Roosevelt, and several excellent essays for the journal National Affairs, including an erudite one on epicurean liberalism. But he’s embraced Trump and run as a pretty standard Trumpkin Republican.

Nationalized politics forces local candidates to act mostly like Trump or Pelosi stand-ins and less like themselves.

The one word that the two electorates have in common is “unraveling.” Both groups have a sense that America is unraveling. If you ask them what “issues” matter most, they’ll say health care or immigration. But that’s not the right question to ask, because it doesn’t get at the sense of existential anger and angst that is really driving things.

Of course, the two electorates tell entirely different unraveling stories. In rural America, the sources of unraveling are the immigrants (symbolized by the caravan) and the radicalized mobs of educated elites (symbolized by the media). In rural America basic values like hard work, clear gender roles and the social fabric are dissolving before people’s eyes.

Timothy Carney had a very fine piece in the Times on Thursday that captured the sense of social despair. “I got a loaded .22 right by my door,” one man in rural Pennsylvania told Carney, “I don’t trust nobody in my apartment complex.”

Urban Americans see the unraveling coming from the rising tide of nativism, the way Trump eviscerates social norms, the underground army of alt-right extremists with guns. If anything, the blue sense of unraveling is more comprehensive.

Democratic ideology is increasingly dominated by the educated upper-middle class. As polls show, those Democrats are losing faith in capitalism itself, in the American dream itself. White liberals describe racism as a bigger problem precluding black advancement than do African-Americans.

As Emma Green noted in The Atlantic, for many, progressivism isn’t just a set of political beliefs; it’s a set of liturgies, rituals and moral doctrines for the secular unchurched.

Politics is no longer mainly about disagreeing on issues. It’s about being in entirely separate conversations.

The Venn diagram is dead. There’s no overlapping area.

More to explore

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