After WWII, The Country was United, but divided by Language

um how did the country get so divided is there hope for the country to be reunited or are we in the precious of

another civil war the country got divided by language i mean this is the whole point of of how the south won the civil war

uh the the the deliberate use by the movement conservancy so what

happens is that you get the republicans and you got the democrats coming out of world war ii and both of them agree on what they

call the liberal consensus the idea that the government has a role to play regulating business and and protecting

uh basic social safety net promoting infrastructure and you know people forget until the corona las verona virus fell it was um

dwight eisenhower who a republican who pushed the largest um uh public works program in history

that’s the interstate highway act and uh until a coronavirus uh stimulus and um it’s also republicans who uh

who passed brown versus board of education that is a unanimous decision coming out of a republican supreme court

and it’s also republicans a republican court uh who um decide roe versus wade in 1973

and that decision is written by a republican i mean this is this isn’t something that people agree on but what happened was that

in 1960 um there’s a phil not a philosopher he becomes a

political scientist a guy named phil converse who writes this piece in which he called the american voter in which he

says you know it’s really not worth appealing to people based on ideology because democrats and republicans agree

with each other so what you really need to do to win elections is you need to go ahead and try and nail together coalitions of like

you know mark twain readers over here and duluth typists over here and you know you nail

together these coalitions and stop talking about lofty ideals and you can really see this if you’re interested in if you can go to

youtube and you can watch the um nixon kennedy debates and you will be shocked at the level of the discussion

because they are literally talking about the meaning of government the direction of government

what it means to chair certain committees in congress you know they’re really talking about the kind of stuff i

talk about in the letters and that goes all out the window because um of converse’s idea that you

stop that because we all agree on that now we just got to worry about promising you know my my typists in duluth that they’re going

to get cheaper typewriter ribbons and when that happens uh the movement conservatives who are

those who disagree with the concept of the liberal consensus altogether put in place that policy that um or that

program that william f buckley jr outlined and gotten men at yale in 1951 in which he said you

know we basically have to reject the enlightenment and by the way the subtitle of that book is the superstition of academic freedom and

what he was trying to say was the idea of academic freedom the idea of the enlightenment that you should in fact

move society forward by um presenting factual arguments and people will but you know

the majority people will choose the right one um and move society forward he says you know we got to reject that we have to

start from the principle that the liberal consensus is wrong it’s just dead wrong

it’s like communism we have to start from the principle of what he called free enterprise by which he meant no regulation of business

and christianity um which was he was a devout catholic and from that you know we can maybe talk

a little bit about stuff but that’s our story and instead of trying to impress upon we uh

voters that they want that because every time we try and tell them that they vote for another damn liberal and that would include um

republicans as well as democrats because he’s really going to go rabbit after the election of uh dwight eisenhower who’s a republican

that’s when he starts after brown for support of education is when he starts the national national review instead of actually

appealing to people’s reason we simply have to tell them a story we have to appeal to their emotion and we have to to rise you know to make

them angry and to get them on our team and in 1915 in 1954 when um joe mccarthy senator joe

mccarthy from wisconsin goes after what he calls communists in congress he really gives him a blueprint

for attacking and you know mccarthy says he’s an outsider protecting the country against communism it’s crap he’s a

he’s a senator himself and he doesn’t have a list of communists in congress i mean he made that up

um but he manages to get attention and he lies and he blusters and he

portrays this image of this individual against the behemoth state and that really takes off with the john

birch society which is formed around the idea of john burch a young man in china who discovers that

the state department is deliberately spreading communism and he gets assassinated for his uh for his um his

uh exposure exposing that plot and that idea of the individual against society

is of course such a mythic one i mean it’s really tied into the bible and it’s tied into gilgamesh and it’s tied into you know

every possible little guy story and that i think that language is what captures

so many voters especially when because of american history it’s tied into racism

you know the whole idea of that lone cowboy standing against you know savages and the government is

one that’s born right of reconstruction when the idea arises among those who are opposed to the republicans control of

reconstruction and their use of the government to promote equality for african americans

the idea that that is socialism or communism which they begin calling it in uh that in 1871 long before there’s any

bolshevik revolution or anything else um you tie that idea of the little guy against the state and then you say the

state is helping people of color and later feminist women after 1970 and that’s an idea that

really resonates with a number of people who are increasingly left out of american society first in the

1960s by the social movements in the anti-war movement if you remember in 1980 you

probably don’t but in 1970 time magazine’s person of the year was the middle americans

who um who stood against the people in the streets um time being a conservative magazine

and then um and then that really takes off uh under ronald reagan and the the failure of the the um the

the the abandonment of the fairness doctrine in 18 1987 with the idea that you no longer have to

present both sides of the story and you no longer have to have your ideology based in fact and you know the story that they tell on

places like fox news is a very compelling story it’s a story that of course we reprised in star wars in 1977 right

before ronald reagan is elected and it’s a story that is actually if you do the studies of fox news designed to

release endorphins the same way that professional wrestling is so people really do literally get hooked

on that political story so i think we got divided by that uh by the language that was implied

employed um can we heal from that absolutely we need uh we need leaders that that refuse to divide people and

instead play to the middle and you can see if you’re watching this i should write about this now i think about it if you watch um joe biden and people the

people who who tend to think left on um twitter i was like stop talking about

about working across the aisle um you know i think you have to be a little careful with what biden is doing does he really mean to

um to sort of give up the ghost and and do what republicans say i think what he’s really doing is using

language to reassure people that he can return to a world without

division and if that were the case um the if you look at every single

statistic about gun control about abortion about welfare about all the hot button issues um more than

like on all of the ones i just mentioned more than 70 percent of americans agree

um you know everybody wants some form of gun control every not everybody at least 70 percent

at least 70 percent of americans believe that abortion should be safe and legal under some circumstances

you know there’s there’s all these things on which we agree but you know the whole point of movement

conservatism was to go ahead and movement conservatism of course took over the republican party was to go

ahead and divide people and to convince them to vote for people like george w

bush by convincing them that the libtards as um rush limbaugh used to say i hated

them and that that you know i just think of andrew dice clay the comedian he was incredibly hot and incredibly

popular until suddenly he wasn’t you know suddenly the country turned on the bully and i think that now you’re

seeing people turn on the republican party because they are so blatantly bullying the rest of us

that being said they hold an awful lot of cards right now

okay do i have any reflections about the mobilization after the uh the murder of george floyd especially about the historical role of

policing in the us racial order um you have a lot of thoughts about that and because this is a somewhat closed

group i will actually tell them to you um first of all can i just say long overdue uh one of the things i like

to point out when we talk about black lives matter right now is that the violence against african americans did not begin

in the recent past and the story that i tell about that is um one that um if anybody’s eating

their lunch you should put it down um jeffrey dahmer jeffrey dahmer who was running around

in the early 1980s most people don’t know that they know jeffrey dahmer because he was a serial killer and i’m

so sorry for those of you who are eating your lunch he um he was horrible do not google him

do not read what he did because i did um because i was actually because when i was doing my last book the police

officer who was in charge of him had the same last name as one of the guys in my book i want to say it was

norquist to be honest but i could be wrong about that and so these stories kept coming up and i thought well what the hell’s going on here why should you read about this and

then i did and i regret it anyway um uh dahmer um

dahmer not only uh killed his victims he killed them in terribly gruesome ways that i will not

elaborate upon but he also consumed them and

um one of the things that doesn’t show up in in our popular culture about jeffrey

dahmer is that serial killers almost always specialize in a certain demographic that is that’s

generally how they find them they are obsessed with a certain demographic dahmer is different in that and that

demographic almost always is their own racial background i mean according to what i’ve read i’m

not i’m not a forensic expert but that’s what i read when i was doing all this dahmer was different because dahmer

killed a craw he killed young men and he killed across races but interestingly enough he did not

uh he did not do the it’s hard to say this without saying that the stuff involved um the the really

horrific stuff he did he did not do to his white victims he tended to kill his white victims and dump them

for the people of color he killed uh asian young men boys and african-american

either boys or young men he did worse things now i mention all this because this was in the early

1980s and dom this is important because dahmer lived on the line in milwaukee between the black

community and the white community the black community called the cops on dahmer again

and again and again and again and they kept saying something is really not right here his apartment smells things are bad and

on at least one occasion the police came and checked out dahmer and actually one of his victims had

escaped and they returned the victim to dahmer laughing about the fact as dahmer told

them it was a lover’s spat um and when finally

the um the uh one of the victims um escaped and the

the and took the police back to thomas apartment and the police opened the door and there

were photographs of the victims and everything around i mean it was bad when that came out the black community

took to the took to the newspapers and took to the streets and said we told you we told you that this was going on and

you know first of all under reagan you have cut all of our job programs all of our education programs

all of uh you know all of the things that were making us equals in american society and giving us you know leveling the playing field now

you there’s a white guy who is literally eating us and you are still doing nothing

so milwaukee put together uh um uh uh commission to go ahead and look at

whether or not there really was racial bias in policing in milwaukee this is in the early 1980s and um and

the conclusion was yeah things are really bad here does anyone remember that study i mean it it it came out it fell

into the water and it disappeared so my point is that the george floyd stuff yes but oh come on

i mean this should have and that was the 80s but it’s been going on all along so why now the question is why now and i

always equate what’s going on with the george floyd protest and the black lives matter protests to

abolitionism when you know again the idea of um of the evils of human enslavement

is not new when the abolitionist movement takes off in the 1830s and the abolitionist movement doesn’t really go

anywhere hugely in the 1830s it doesn’t go hugely anywhere in the 1840s never really goes hugely anywhere

never gets more than about one percent of the northern population but that being said it really begins to affect american

political american politics in the late 1840s and 1850s why because at that point the

abolitionists are able to connect what the elite slaveholders are doing to

their enslaved human beings to what is happening to white americans and their civil

liberties i think abolitionism really takes off when abolitionists are able to convince

white americans that the attacks on black people in the 1850s 1840s 1850s

are just the forerunner to what’s going to happen to white people and i don’t necessarily mean literally

white people might not literally have believed in the 1850s that they were going to be enslaved but they certainly believed that they

were going to lose their civil liberties and their economic opportunities at the hands of those large slave

holders and that’s really clear from the writing and i look at that and i think you know why

suddenly does the do the floyd protest take off well they take off in part because they’re cameras now

but they’ve been cameras i mean we’ve seen this stuff at least since the 1980s and the 1990s

once you had cell phones these videos were there and the stories are they are truly horrific um you know

there’s there’s a um a group that’s chronicling these one at a time um and the the stories

are there they’ve been there and and again uh you just feel so so horrible for these families who’s

whose family members were shot in the back and and ignored really anyway um uh so

why now why now because i think the excesses of the trump administration have made americans in general recognize

that their own liberties their own rights are on the table and the george floyd

especially but also brianna taylor um those two especially i think um have

given us an individual they have personified that overreach and of the the federal

government and its attack on civil liberties and um and so i think that jumps out i will say that that

um for for at least i think maybe for women of my age briana taylor was really

a kick in the gut because she’s our children’s age and and you know you look you look at that beautiful young face

and you think oh i remember somebody just like her sitting in my kitchen table and and she was

murdered and in her bed and there’s an argument about whether or not she was in her bed but i you know she wasn’t doing anything um so

i think that gave us a person to to to solidify this fear of civil liberties

by the way i’m telling you what i think about this stuff i’m not the voice of god here i’m just bringing history to this this

this stuff and i could be dead wrong but but you asked me what i think about it so i’m going for it all right

uh yeah i do think so the question is uh do i think that all of the black lives matter movement

and calls for progress will help bring real change to inequality or will things go back to the way they’ve always been since the news dies down

i think that there i think that we’re at a moment of extraordinary change it would this moment parallels that of

the other three major changes of historical changes in american history so if you think about the times

we have brought about real change uh for progress in american society they were the civil war of course

they were which is spar i’m sorry it’s sparked by um uh by westwood expansion that’s a huge

crisis for the country i mean again our textbooks kind of say oh it’s great you know whatever except for the the people were

overrunning but the reality is it’s a societal crisis demographics are messed up as voting is

messed you know it’s a crisis uh the next crisis of course is industrialization in the late 19th

century which gives us the progressive era the next crisis is um globalization if

you will the the rise of a global world after world war ii and now of course we have an internal

enemy an internal fear of the rise of dictatorship and the destruction of democracy in each one of those eras we have come

back much stronger and much better and um the but the kicker to

all of those is that there is one um similarity to all of them that we don’t emphasize enough

and in the on the heels of all of those things what we have had was a a compression

of the economy so that there is not there are not extremes of wealth that we that extremes of wealth and extremism

poverty come much much closer together and whenever people feel like they are um they can feed their families and they

have enough money they are much more likely to suggest that um that the the playing field

should be level they’re much less likely to turn against each other so that’s why i’m always harping on economic rights

over any other kind of rights because you know everyone’s talking about black rights or women’s rights all of which are important

but i’m the one sort of not the one one of the ones saying we’ve got to fix the economy first

that being said there’s also something else really big at stake and that is that rising up from age 30 and under

are people now who see the world in a much more global way than people my age because they were reared under the

internet and they have a really different idea about race and about class

and about upward mobility and about america’s position in the world and they see the world in a

much more multi-valenced way than the people my age and older who remember the ussr

and who grew up through the cold war who really i think tend to see things in an extraordinarily black and white way it’s

us versus them we’re the winners or we’re the losers for people um like under 30 the world is much more

nuanced there’s a lot more gray they understand what it’s like to live in constrained spaces without being a loser

and this is one of the things that i thought um was really apparent with i know he’s older but i

think he um he really picked up on this uh barack obama’s foreign policy

because he he really recognized um multi-faceted foreign policy as

opposed to simply us being the elephant in the room and that i think drove the older guys who were used to americans

simply throwing their weight around absolutely insane because they they thought he was giving something up in fact i think he was really just

recognizing what the world was going to look like if there was not neither a cold war nor

a war on terror and and the fact that we seem to have walked away from that and tried to return to

america throwing its weight around i think is a real loss because i think we were a leader in a new kind

of foreign policy and we have just jettisoned it and that’s that that is unfortunate

so i do think there will be real change there has to be real change look at the climate i mean

it’s either real change or death and you know humans at the end of the day are not stupid democracy is slow

but that that ship does turn around

what can each of us do to help improve the challenges the country is facing perhaps in terms of economic equality so

i’m gonna tell you what i’m gonna what my take on that is but then i’m also going to tell you about somebody else

um my take on this again because i have come to believe that what changes

politics is language is my thing is always take up oxygen

always take up oxygen you know when somebody you don’t have to be horrible about it you know ruth bader

ginsburgs do it in such a way that other people want to join you i think is uh an important one but

you know for a long time people who did not agree with the direction in which the country was going kind of smiled politely or looked the

other way when their neighbor talked in ways that were really unacceptable and um i think we take that space back

and say you know you’re not welcome in my house if you’re going to talk that way or um or on social media um

when somebody posts something you know bashing insane or whatever um saying

not like you’re an idiot but oh did you see that this story was debunked here um and oh i feel stupid you know or i

feel i hate it when i get fooled by these or something like that because what will change

politicians is their constituents so my thing on it is always call people

right people take up oxygen push back think of it like a cocktail party you know you want to isolate

that guy who’s spouting crap in the corner until you can either bring him around or throw him out of the room that being said there are an awful lot

of mechanical things one can do as well in addition to voting and there’s all kinds of organizations

which i’m about to post on my facebook page by my professional facebook page by the way uh gathered by

um by uh one of my readers you know there are their campaigns to text voters

in in other states to help make sure people get to um to the polls to make plans for voting

to put pressure on senators right now not to hold the confirmation hearing for whomever

um donald trump nominates for ruth bader ginsburg’s seat to um to you

obviously to donate money but but actually to to actually mobilize the country and um

you can look for that that’s actually not my thing i’m not really an organizer i’m much more of

an observer but this woman whose name is susan rogan she has a list called rogan’s list um she’s very

good um she has a lot of ideas that what people can actually do and then in terms of economic equality

pressure pressure on your congress people you know as a friend of mine said if i if i hear any more about

i’m sorry by the way somebody who voted for trump and is a republican so you know if i hear any more about tax cuts you know i don’t need i don’t need an

expletive tax cut i need you know for my kids to be able to work a job without

and to get decent pay and and for the all the monies to stop going to the top so just make your voice heard

uh what should we read listen to and watch in order to be well informed of the issues from all sides personally i

read individuals less than papers although that being said i think the la times and the washington post have been

absolutely knocking it out of the park lately i also really like um

um there’s a new crap i can never remember the name of it it’s not the bulwark it’s the new one

there is a new um uh conservative not republican some of them

are never never trumpers um uh conservative magazine what the heck is can somebody help me

out what the heck is it called it’s it’s it’s uh bill crystal writes for it got a lot of young new voices and

they’re really good um crap i can’t think of the name of it i’m sorry um

it’s not it’s the something but it’s not the bulwark has good stuff too but it’s not the bulwark

that being said um we’re in a funny moment because um because the the trump people really are

way outside the norm way outside the norm so when people say oh you’re you’re

you’re not being fair to trump it’s like well well you know i can’t be you know i would love to be fair to

true conservative ideas like the ones that are presented in the bulwark or in oh come on crap

and so it’s a red and black just drawn a blank on it or that i mean those ideas are worth reading and they’re worth engaging with

um but they are um uh those are you know republicans

trumpers call them um call them left wing and and they’re simply not you know right now

we are so far to the right and every statistic will say say that to you it’s very hard to read things that defend trump that are not

way way off the charts so if you’re interested in again in stuff from the right as well as from the left

um uh well jennifer rubin has been again knocking it out of the park although she took the word conservative

off of her id the other day because she said i can’t i just can’t even have this word here anymore because the people who

call themselves conservative are off the charts crazy um but the wall street journals has some stuff some good stuff

and i read i always read tom nichols i always read just security i always which that’s a blog tom nichols

is a is a security guy i always read tom nichols i always read um uh lawyer’s guns and money

i always read the law fair blog actually you get some really good stuff from from uh people on the right writing

on law fair blog um who else is good that i will never overlook um that’s that’s enough i think

isn’t it i always look at talking points memo simply to see what josh marshall is watching um he’s got some he’s got tierney snead

she’s a great new writer and um uh not the weekly no no nope it’s not it’s not the ball work

or definitely not weekly standard which has been crappy crappy late i’m sorry i shouldn’t say that which per never mind

i’m not the ball work um i just can’t can you if that’s uh cassie can you uh can you look at uh

william crystal and see um and and um

the thing is actually published on sub stack so you can go to sub stack and and see um see if you can figure out which one

he’s writing for anyway you guys can google it too i’m sorry i just can’t think of the name of it i’m getting old here

um so um it looks like that is the end of our uh 50 minutes

is that i don’t know if that’s correct tim do you want to come back on and and hit anything else that you might like to

hit uh yeah sure hi everybody um first of all i wanted to thank you heather for engaging and indulging us

in a provocative conversation that at least on my part has produced plenty of endorphins i think of a

construction constructive sort i can’t often think of the magazine either i’ve been googling wildly but

let me you talk and i will do it right now because it’s actually really quite good um and also wanted to thank everybody

for for joining in um as heather says this is a moment for her book um it fits uh in so many ways in its

provocativeness but also the kind of historical thoughtfulness that it’s not just provocative it’s based

in history and historical context it makes it very special so i’m simply filling time while heather

looks up the magazine which is not the bulwark and not the weekly standard but

okay let’s hold on um

go ahead tim tell us what you got on the on the uh on the docket these days oh well um that’s such a good question

uh happy too let’s see uh the book that i’m excited about at the moment uh is lou mazur’s concise history of

united states history um it’s 260 pages um of lou mazer’s aggregated wisdom over

50 years of teaching and thinking about it and it’s just such a good book it’s like a short jill lapore

um really it’s about yeah it’s about a third the size of it but um so i’m hoping that that book will do

well it’s called the sum of our dreams uh a concise history of america so that’s what i’m excited about

but i’m also excited that your book is still selling so let’s not uh you know that that goes without saying

did you find it i did it’s the dispatch again you don’t have to agree with everything that’s

written in the dispatch but there’s some you know what what i found really exciting about it was that it’s got really it’s got new ideas

and it’s got new internally logical ideas and it’s you know it’s pushing new intellectual

envelopes and that’s really overdue i think for uh the conservative movement because it has

become such a such an echo chamber and a lot of these people have stepped out of that echo chamber and are making you know

arguments that are worth grappling with and so i was a huge fan when i found that um and it would be good if i could

actually remember the name more often wouldn’t it and send more people to it well there you are and now we know and now we’ve been provoked um

so um i can sort of see your next book which i think is the language of politics

how language defines narrative and how narrative defines us which in many ways of course is what you’ve already written

but slightly different um just thinking about you’re taking on hayden white and really sort of philosophical basis

of narrative and language itself and the political unconscious um anyway enough of this we definitely could do

that but i think my next book is sleep how do i love them

absolutely deserved again thank you heather so much thank you for everybody for joining in and signing off

America Has Split, and It’s Now in ‘Very Dangerous Territory’

Why did the national emergency brought about by the Covid pandemic not only fail to unite the country but instead provoke the exact opposite development, further polarization?

I posed this question to Nolan McCarty, a political scientist at Princeton. McCarty emailed me back:

With the benefit of hindsight, Covid seems to be the almost ideal polarizing crisis. It was conducive to creating strong identities and mapping onto existing ones. That these identities corresponded to compliance with public health measures literally increased “riskiness of intergroup interaction. The financial crisis was also polarizing for similar reasons — it was too easy for different groups to blame each other for the problems.

McCarty went on:

Any depolarizing event would need to be one where the causes are transparently external in a way that makes it hard for social groups to blame each other. It is increasingly hard to see what sort of event has that feature these days.

Polarization has become a force that feeds on itself, gaining strength from the hostility it generates, finding sustenance on both the left and the right. A series of recent analyses reveals the destructive power of polarization across the American political system.

The United States continues to stand out among nations experiencing the detrimental effects of polarization, according to “What Happens When Democracies Become Perniciously Polarized?,” a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report written by Jennifer McCoy of Georgia State and Benjamin Press of the Carnegie Endowment:

The United States is quite alone among the ranks of perniciously polarized democracies in terms of its wealth and democratic experience. Of the episodes since 1950 where democracies polarized, all of those aside from the United States involved less wealthy, less longstanding democracies, many of which had democratized quite recently. None of the wealthy, consolidated democracies of East Asia, Oceania or Western Europe, for example, have faced similar levels of polarization for such an extended period.

McCoy and Press studied 52 countries “where democracies reached pernicious levels of polarization.” Of those, “twenty-six — fully half of the cases — experienced a downgrading of their democratic rating.” Quite strikingly, the two continue, “the United States is the only advanced Western democracy to have faced such intense polarization for such an extended period. The United States is in uncharted and very dangerous territory.”

McCoy and Press analyzed the international pattern of polarization and again the United States stands out, with by far the highest current level of polarization compared with other countries and regions, as the accompanying graphic shows.

Levels of Polarization in the U.S. Stand Out


Note: Polarization ratings are aggregated among countries by region, with not all regions shown. A rating of 0 indicates that opposing political groups tend to interact in a friendly manner, ranging to a rating of 4 that indicates that they tend to be hostile.

Source: Varieties of Democracy Institute

By The New York Times

In their report, McCoy and Press make the case that there are “a number of features that make the United States both especially susceptible to polarization and especially impervious to efforts to reduce it.”

The authors point to a number of causes, including “the durability of identity politics in a racially and ethnically diverse democracy.” As the authors note,

The United States is perhaps alone in experiencing a demographic shift that poses a threat to the white population that has historically been the dominant group in all arenas of power, allowing political leaders to exploit insecurities surrounding this loss of status.

An additional cause, the authors write, is that

binary choice is deeply embedded in the U.S. electoral system, creating a rigid two-party system that facilitates binary divisions of society. For example, only five of twenty-six wealthy consolidated democracies elect representatives to their national legislatures in single-member districts.

Along the same lines, McCoy and Press write that the United States has “a unique combination of a majoritarian electoral system with strong minoritarian institutions.”

“The Senate is highly disproportionate in its representation,” they add, “with two senators per state regardless of population, from Wyoming’s 580,000 to California’s 39,500,000 persons,” which, in turn, “translates to disproportionality in the Electoral College — whose indirect election of the president is again exceptional among presidential democracies.”

And finally, there is the three-decade trend of partisan sorting, in which

the two parties reinforce urban-rural, religious-secular and racial-ethnic cleavages rather than promote crosscutting cleavages. With partisanship now increasingly tied to other kinds of social identity, affective polarization is on the rise, with voters perceiving the opposing party in negative terms and as a growing threat to the nation.

Two related studies — “Inequality, Identity and Partisanship: How Redistribution Can Stem the Tide of Mass Polarization” by Alexander J. StewartJoshua B. Plotkin and McCarty and “Polarization Under Rising Inequality and Economic Decline” by Stewart, McCarty and Joanna Bryson — argue that aggressive redistribution policies designed to lessen inequality must be initiated before polarization becomes further entrenched. The fear is that polarization now runs so deep in the United States that we can’t do the things that would help us be less polarized.

“The success of redistribution at stemming the tide of polarization in our model is striking,” Stewart, Plotkin and McCarty write, “and it suggests a possible path for preventing such attitudes from taking hold in future.”

In a reflection of the staying power of polarization, the authors observe that “once polarization sets in, it typically remains stable under individual-level evolutionary dynamics, even when the economic environment improves or inequality is reversed.”

In response to my emailed inquiries, Stewart explained:

A key finding in our studies is that it really matters when redistributive policies are put in place. Redistribution functions far better as a prevention than a cure for polarization in part for the reason your question suggests: If polarization is already high, redistribution itself becomes the target of polarized attitudes.

In other words, a deeply polarized electorate is highly unlikely to support redistribution that would benefit their adversaries as well as themselves.

In addition, Stewart wrote, polarization can arise independently from conditions of increasing inequality:

We find that cultural, racial and values polarization can emerge even in the absence of inequality, but inequality makes such polarization more likely, and harder to reverse. We also find that the features of identity which are most salient shift over time, with the process of “sorting” of identity groups along political lines driven by similar forces to those that drive high polarization. And so cultural, racial and values polarization are a force independent of inequality, with inequality acting as a complementary force that points in the same direction, and redistribution a force that acts in opposition to both.

In “Polarization under rising inequality and economic decline,” Stewart, McCarty and Bryson argue that economic scarcity acts as a strong disincentive to cooperative relations between disparate racial and ethnic groups, in large part because such cooperation may produce more benefits but at higher risk:

Interactions with more diverse out-group members pool greater knowledge, applicable to a wider variety of situations. These interactions, when successful, generate better solutions and greater benefits. However, we also assume that the risk of failure is higher for out-group interactions, because of a weaker capacity to coordinate among individuals, compared to more familiar in-group interactions.

In times of prosperity, people are more willing to risk failure, they write, but that willingness disappears when populations are

faced with economic decline. We show that such group polarization can be contagious, and a subpopulation facing economic hardship in an otherwise strong economy can tip the whole population into a state of polarization. Moreover, we show that a population that becomes polarized can remain trapped in that suboptimal state, even after a reversal of the conditions that generated the risk aversion and polarization in the first place.

At the same time, the spread of polarization goes far beyond politics, permeating the culture and economic structure of the broader society.

Alexander RuchAri Decter-Frain and Raghav Batra studied the political and ideological profiles of purchasers of consumer goods in their paper “Millions of Co-purchases and Reviews Reveal the Spread of Polarization and Lifestyle Politics Across Online Markets.” Using “data from Amazon, 82.5 million reviews of 9.5 million products and category metadata from 1996-2014,” the authors determined which “product categories are most politically relevant, aligned and polarized.”

They write:

For example, after Levi Strauss & Co. pledged over $1 million to support ending gun violence and strengthening gun control laws, the jean company became progressively aligned with liberals while conservatives aligned themselves more with Wrangler. The traces of lifestyle politics are pervasive. For example, analyses of Twitter co-following show the stereotypes of “Tesla liberals” and “bird hunting conservatives” have empirical support.

Analyzing these “pervasive lifestyle politics,” Ruch, Decter-Frain and Batra find that “cultural products are four times more polarized than any other segment.”

They also found lesser but still significant polarization in consumer interests in other categories:

The extent of political polarization in other segments is relatively less; however, even small categories like automotive parts have notable political alignment indicative of lifestyle politics. These results indicate that lifestyle politics spread deep and wide across markets.

Further evidence of the entrenchment of political divisiveness in the United States emerges in the study of such related subjects as “social dominance orientation,” authoritarianism and ideological and cognitive rigidity.

In a series of papers, Mark BrandtJarrett Crawford and other political psychologists dispute the argument that only “conservatism is associated with prejudice” and that “the types of dispositional characteristics associated with conservatism (e.g., low cognitive ability, low openness) explain this relationship.”

Instead, Crawford and Brandt argue in “Ideological (A)symmetries in Prejudice and Intergroup Bias,” “when researchers use a more heterogeneous array of targets, people across the political spectrum express prejudice against groups with dissimilar values and beliefs.”

Earlier research has correctly found greater levels of prejudice among conservatives, they write, but these studies have focused on prejudice toward liberal-associated groups: minorities, the poor, gay people and other marginalized constituencies. Crawford and Brandt contend that when the targets of prejudice are expanded to include “conservative-associated groups such as Christian fundamentalists, military personnel and ‘rich people,’” similar levels of prejudice emerge.

Low openness to experience is associated with prejudice against groups seen as socially unconventional (e.g., atheists, gay men and lesbians),” they write, whereas high openness is “associated with prejudice against groups seen as socially conventional (e.g., military personnel, evangelical Christians).” They continue, “Whereas high disgust sensitivity is associated with prejudice against groups that threaten traditional sexual morality, low disgust sensitivity is associated with prejudice against groups that uphold traditional sexual morality.”

Finally, “people high in cognitive ability are prejudiced against more conservative and conventional groups,” while “people low in cognitive ability are prejudiced against more liberal and unconventional groups.”

In “The Role of Cognitive Rigidity in Political Ideologies,” Leor Zmigrod writes that the “rigidity-of-the-right hypotheses” should be expanded in recognition of the fact that “cognitive rigidity is linked to ideological extremism, partisanship and dogmatism across political and nonpolitical ideologies.”

Broadly speaking, Zmigrod wrote in an email, “extreme right-wing partisans are characterized by specific psychological traits including cognitive rigidity and impulsivity. This is also true of extreme left-wing partisans.”

In a separate paper, “Individual-Level Cognitive and Personality Predictors of Ideological Worldviews: The Psychological Profiles of Political, Nationalistic, Dogmatic, Religious and Extreme Believers,” Zmigrod wrote:

When a series of cognitive behavioral measures were used to assess mental flexibility, and political conservatism was disentangled from political extremity, dogmatism or partisanship, a clear inverted-U shaped curve emerged such that those on the extreme right and extreme left exhibited cognitive rigidity on neuropsychological tasks, in comparison to moderates.

While the processes Zmigrod describes characterize the extremes, the electorate as a whole is moving farther and farther apart into two mutually loathing camps.

In “The Ideological Nationalization of Partisan Subconstituencies in the American States,” Devin CaugheyJames Dunham and Christopher Warshaw challenge “the reigning consensus that polarization in Congress has proceeded much more rapidly and extensively than polarization in the mass public.”

Instead, Caughey and his co-authors show

a surprisingly close correspondence between mass and elite trends. Specifically, we find that: (1) ideological divergence between Democrats and Republicans has widened dramatically within each domain, just as it has in Congress; (2) ideological variation across senators’ partisan subconstituencies is now explained almost completely by party rather than state, closely tracking trends in the Senate; and (3) economic, racial and social liberalism have become highly correlated across partisan subconstituencies, just as they have across members of Congress.

Caughey, Dunham and Warshaw describe the growing partisan salience of racial and social issues since the 1950s:

The explanatory power of party on racial issues increased hugely over this period and that of state correspondingly declined. We refer to this process as the “ideological nationalization” of partisan subconstituencies.

In the late 1950s, they continue,

party explained almost no variance in racial conservatism in either arena. Over the next half century, the Senate and public time series rise in tandem.” Contrary to the claim that racial realignment had run its course by 1980, they add, “our data indicate that differences between the parties continued to widen through the end of the 20th century, in the Senate as well as in the mass public. By the 2000s, party explained about 80 percent of the variance in senators’ racial conservatism and nearly 100 percent of the variance in the mass public.

The three authors argue that there are a number of consequences of “the ideological nationalization of the United States party system.” For one, “it has limited the two parties’ abilities to tailor their positions to local conditions. Moreover, it has led to greater geographic concentration of the parties’ respective support coalitions.”

The result, they note,

is the growing percentage of states with two senators from the same party, which increased from 50 percent in 1980 to over 70 percent in 2018. Today, across all offices, conservative states are largely dominated by Republicans, whereas the opposite is true of liberal states. The ideological nationalization of the party system thus seems to have undermined party competition at the state level.

As a result of these trends, Warshaw wrote me in an email,

It’s going to be very difficult to reverse the growing partisan polarization between Democrats and Republicans in the mass public. I think this will continue to give ideological extremists an advantage in both parties’ primaries. It also means that the pool of people that run for office is increasingly extreme.

In the long term, Warshaw continued,

there are a host of worrying possible consequences of growing partisan polarization among both elites and the public. It will probably reduce partisans’ willingness to vote for the out-party. This could dampen voters’ willingness to hold candidates accountable for poor performance and to vote across party lines to select higher-quality candidates. This will probably further increase the importance of primaries as a mechanism for candidate selection.

Looking over the contemporary political landscape, there appear to be no major or effective movements to counter polarization. As the McCoy-Press report shows, only 16 of the 52 countries that reached levels of pernicious polarization succeeded in achieving depolarization and in “a significant number of instances later repolarized to pernicious levels. The progress toward depolarization in seven of 16 episodes was later undone.”

That does not suggest a favorable prognosis for the United States.

Divide and Conquer

Can they? Yes, by working on single issues and not trying to convert each other but respectfully work as a coalition.

Have they done this before? Yes the people of the US work together out of common cause and interest all the time.

It doesn’t make for good spin bullshit as news, so it doesn’t get air time.

The owners class likes to keep the bottom 98% mad and at each others throats for their own self-preservation.

The Splintering of the Evangelical Soul

Why we’re coming apart, and how we might come together again.

New fractures are forming within the American evangelical movement, fractures that do not run along the usual regional, denominational, ethnic, or political lines. Couples, families, friends, and congregations once united in their commitment to Christ are now dividing over seemingly irreconcilable views of the world. In fact, they are not merely dividing but becoming incomprehensible to one another.

Recently, a group of my college friends, all raised and nurtured in healthy evangelical families and congregations, reconnected online in search of understanding. One person mourned that she could no longer understand her parents or how their views of the world had so suddenly and painfully shifted. Another described friends who were demographically identical, who had once stood beside him on practically every issue, but who now promoted ideas he found shocking. Still another said her church was breaking up, driven apart by mutual suspicion and misunderstanding.

“These were my people,” one said, “but now I don’t know who they are, or maybe I don’t know who I am.”

What do you do when you feel you’re losing the people you love to a false reality? What do you do with the humbling truth that they have precisely the same fear about you?

The quandary is not unique to evangelicals. But fellow believers who once stood shoulder to shoulder now find that tectonic shifts have thrust them apart, their continents are separating, and they cannot find a bridge back to common ground. How could our views of reality diverge so dramatically—and is there anything we can do to draw together again?

The plausibility curve and the information curve

Among the most persistent interests of my academic career was the question of how people form beliefs. Not how they should form beliefs, in some idealized vision of perfected rationality, but how they actually form beliefs as embodied creatures embedded in communities and cultures. I want to introduce a simple conceptual tool, influenced in part by the work of Peter Berger, that may help us understand what is happening.

Imagine a horizontal plane that curves downward into a bowl, rises back again, and returns to a horizontal plane. The curve, from one end of the bowl to the other, represents the range of claims an individual finds believable. Let’s call it a plausibility curve. Claims that fall in the center of the curve will be perceived as most plausible; they require little evidence or argumentation before an individual will consent to believe. Claims falling near the edges are increasingly implausible as they deviate from the center, requiring progressively more persuasion. Claims falling entirely outside the plausibility curve are beyond the range of what a person might believe at a given point in time, and no amount of evidence or logic will be sufficient.

What determines the plausibility of a given claim is how well it conforms to what an individual experiences, already believes, and wants to believe. The full range of a person’s beliefs is rather like a photomosaic (see an example here): Thousands of experiences and perceptions of reality are joined together, and out of those thousands emerge larger patterns and impressions, higher-order beliefs about the nature of reality, the grand narratives of history, the nature of right and wrong, good and evil, and so forth. Attempts to change a single belief can feel fruitless when it is embedded in countless others. Where does one begin to address a thousand interlocking disagreements at once? Evidence to the contrary is almost irrelevant when a claim “fits” with an entire network of reinforcing beliefs. This is part of what gives a plausibility curve its enduring strength and resistance to change.

Desire plays a particularly complicated role in the plausibility curve. We may desire not to believe a claim because it would separate us from those we love, confront us with painful truths, require a change in our behavior, impose a social cost, or so on. We may desire to believe a certain claim because it would be fashionable, confirm our prejudices, set us apart from those around us, anger our parents, or for countless other reasons. We will require more persuasion for claims we do not want to believe, and less for those we do.

Like the Overton window in political theory, a plausibility curve can expand, contract, and shift. Friends or family members whose plausibility curves were once identical may find that they diverge over the course of time. Claims one person finds immediately plausible are almost inconceivable to the other. But how does this happen? That’s where the information curve comes in.

Imagine a mirror-image bowl above the plausibility curve. This is the information curve, and it reflects the individual’s external sources of information about the world—such as communities, authorities, and media. Those sources in the center of the information curve are deemed most trustworthy; claims that come from these sources are accepted almost without question. Sources of information on the outer ends of the bowl are considered less trustworthy, so their claims will be held up to greater scrutiny. Sources outside the curve entirely are, at least for this individual, so lacking in credibility that their claims are dismissed out of hand.

The center of the information curve will generally align with the center of the plausibility curve. The relationship is mutually reinforcing. Sources are considered more trustworthy when they deliver claims we find plausible, and claims are considered more plausible when they come from sources we trust. A source of information that consistently delivers claims in the center of the plausibility curve will come to be believed implicitly.

Change can begin on the level of the plausibility curve. Perhaps an individual joins a religious community and finds it is more loving and reasonable than she had expected. She will no longer find it plausible when a source claims that all religious communities are irrational and prejudiced, and this will gradually shift her information curve in favor of more reliable sources. Or another person experiences the loss of a child, and no longer desires to believe that death is the end of consciousness. He is more open to other claims, expands his sources of information, and slowly his beliefs shift.

Change can also begin on the level of the information curve. An individual raised in a certain community with well-established authorities, such as her parents and pastors, goes to college and is introduced to new communities and authorities. If she judges them to be trustworthy sources of information, this new information curve will likely shift her plausibility curve. As her set of beliefs changes, she may even reach a point where the sources that once supplied most of her beliefs are no longer considered trustworthy at all. Or imagine a person who has lived his entire life consuming far-left media sources. He begins to listen to conservative media sources and finds their claims resonate with his experience—only slightly at first, but in increasing measure. Gradually he consumes more and more conservative media, expanding or shifting his information curve, and this in turn expands or shifts his plausibility curve. He may reach a point where his broader perceptions of the world—the deeper forces at work in history, the optimal ways of organizing societies and economies, the forces for good and evil in the world—have been wholly overturned.

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Consider the 9/11 Truth movement and the QAnon movement. Most Americans will find the notion that the Bush administration orchestrated a massive terrorist attack in order to invade the Middle East and enrich their friends in the oil industry, or that global liberal elites would construct an international child trafficking operation for the purpose of pedophilia and cannibalism, beyond the bounds of their plausibility curve. Others, however, will find that one conspiracy or the other resonates with their plausibility curve, or their information curve may shift over time in such a way that brings their plausibility curve with it. Claims that once seemed impossible to contemplate came to appear conceivable, then plausible, then reasonable, and finally self-evident. Of course conservatives would sacrifice thousands of innocent lives to justify a “war for oil” because conservatives are greedy and that’s what conservatives do. Of course liberals would sacrifice thousands of children in order to advance their own health and power because liberals are perverse and that’s what liberals do.

As a final definitional note, let’s call the whole structure, the plausibility curve and the information curve, an informational world. An informational world encompasses how an individual or a community of individuals receives and processes information. Differing informational worlds will have differing facts and sources. Our challenge today is that we occupy multiple informational worlds with little in common and much hostility between them.

What does all of this have to do with the evangelical movement? A great deal.

The evangelical crises

The American evangelical movement has never been comprised of a single community. Depending on the criteria, estimates generally put the number of American evangelicals at 80-100 million. Even if we split the difference at 90 million, this would make the American evangelical population larger than every European nation save Russia. It is also diverse, reaching across all regions, races, and socioeconomic levels. What held the movement together historically was not only a shared set of moral and theological commitments, but a broadly similar view of the world and common sources of information. Their plausibility curves and information curves largely overlapped. There were some matters on which they differed, but the ground they shared in the middle served as a basis of mutual understanding and fellowship.

This sense of commonality grew increasingly strained as groups not formerly identified as evangelical came to be lumped together, defining the category “evangelical” less in theological terms and more in social, cultural, and political terms. This broader evangelical movement today is dividing into separate communities that still hold some moral and theological commitments in common but differ dramatically on their sources of information and their broader view of the world. Their informational worlds have little overlap. They can only discuss a narrow range of topics if they do not want to fall into painful and exasperated disagreement.

One group within American evangelicalism believes our religious liberties have never been more firmly established; another that they have never been at greater risk. One group believes racism is still systemic in American society; another that the “systemic racism” push is a progressive program to redistribute wealth and power to angry radicals. One is more concerned with the insurrection at the Capitol; another with the riots that followed the killing of George Floyd. One believes the Trump presidency was generationally damaging to Christian witness; another that it was enormously beneficial. One believes the former president attempted a coup; another that the Democrats stole the election. One believes masks and vaccines are marks of Christian love; another that the rejection of the same is a mark of Christian courage.

There are countless groups in between, of course, but these examples illustrate the tension: We occupy the same reality but starkly different worlds. There is a real question whether these worlds can (or should) draw back together again. This is a critical moment for our movement.

What, then, can be done? The model itself suggests where to start. If we move the information curves toward a common center, the plausibility curve will follow. Information comes through three sources: media, authorities, and community. One reason for our disunity is that these three sources are in crisis in American evangelicalism. I will only briefly outline these points.

First, the crisis of media is acute. Even as media today has grown more powerful and pervasive, it has also grown more fragmented and polarizing. The dynamics of modern media reward content that is immediate, angry, and hyperbolic, rendering the media into a marketplace for scorn sellers and hate merchants. Evangelicals find themselves torn between social media platforms and legacy media sources that openly advocate progressive causes and cancel conservative voices and far-right sources that traffic in paranoia and misinformation. In short, the digital media landscape has evolved to profit from our vices more than our virtues, and it has become incredibly effective at dividing audiences into hermetic media spheres that deliver only the information and commentary that confirms the audiences’ anxieties and antipathies.

This presents an extraordinary challenge for Christian discipleship. Media consumption has been climbing for years, and it soared amid the pandemic. Members of our congregations may spend a few hours a week in the Word of God (which should always be the Christian’s most important source of information and authority) but 40 hours or more mainlining the animosities of the day. Once the information curve begins a leftward or rightward drift, the algorithms of digital media and the manipulations of politicians and profiteers accelerate the momentum. Soon Christian communities that once shared a broader view of the world find they only agree on the bare essentials of faith. It will be difficult to address other parts of the information curve until we have brought some semblance of sanity into our media consumption. The longer we live in separate media worlds, the deeper and broader our divisions will become. The longer we give ourselves to media gluttony, skimping on the deeper nourishment that cultivates Christ within us, the less we will have in common.

The media crisis reaches across the whole of society, but the evangelical movement also faces an authority crisis of its own making. A generation of evangelical leaders who commanded immense respect, at least across the broad middle of American evangelicalism, have passed away. The current generation of evangelical institutional leaders, though markedly more diverse than their forebears, struggle to rise above the rampant ideological othering of our time. Moreover, the movement has seen countless leaders fall from grace in spectacularly destructive ways. At the same time, we have seen the rise of the celebrity pastor. It was once the case that a long obedience in the same direction, a life of humble study and service, earned a person a modicum of spiritual authority and a modest living. Today, a dashing profile and a talent for self-promotion can earn wealth and stardom in the Christian celebrity marketplace.

The consequence is disillusionment and division. While younger generations head for the exits, those who remain in our churches become further entrenched in their own ideological camps. If it is ever to be true again that broadly respected authorities form an important part of our shared information curve, it will be because we turn from a culture of celebrity to a culture of sanctification, where leadership is less about building a platform and more about carrying the cross of Christ. It will be because we remember the words of Jesus that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant” (Matt. 20:26). It will also be because we relearn how to listen to men and women of wisdom, leaders as well as neighbors, without crucifying them over political differences.

The third way to shift the information curve is to address our crisis of community. Community is essential to Christian life. It deepens our knowledge of the Word, forges our shared identity in Christ, cultivates Christian character, and disciples our young. Yet the pressures, temptations, and glowing distractions of contemporary life have strained the ties that bind us, replacing the warmth and depth of incarnate community with a cold digital imitation. The pandemic has only deepened our isolation, causing many to look outside their churches to political tribes or conspiracist communities for a sense of purpose and belonging. Further, the hyper-politicization of the American evangelical movement has led to a political sorting. Congregants who do not like their pastors’ stances depart for other churches whose politics are the same as theirs. But congregations comprised of individuals whose informational worlds are nearly identical will tend toward rigidity and increasing radicalism—what Cass Sunstein calls the Law of Group Polarization.

Rather than withdrawing into communities of common loathing, the church should be offering a community of common love, a sanctuary from the fragmentation and polarization, from the loneliness and isolation of the present moment. The church should model what it means to care for one another in spite of our differences on social and political matters and affirm the incomparably deeper rootedness of our identity in Christ.

Michael O. Emerson, a sociologist and scholar of American religion at the University of Illinois at Chicago, recently said he has studied religious congregations for 30 years but has “never seen” such an extraordinary level of conflict. “What is different now?” he asked. “The conflict is over entire worldviews—politics, race, how we are to be in the world, and even what religion and faith are for.” What I have offered above is a model for understanding how we have come to such a pass, and a mere suggestion of how we might begin the generational project before us.

We are not without hope. Lies ring hollow at the end of the day. Hatred is a poor imitation of purpose, celebrity a poor replacement for wisdom, and political tribes a poor comparison to authentic Christian community. We are a people defined by the resurrection of the Son of God. We are called to be redeemers and reconcilers.

So perhaps we can begin to build bridges across our informational worlds. Perhaps we can nurture a healthy media ecosystem that offers a balanced view of the world and a generous conversation about it. Perhaps we can restore a culture of leadership defined by humility over celebrity and integrity over influence. Perhaps we can invite those who have found counterfeit community in their political tribes to rediscover a richer and more robust community in Christ. All of these things will be essential to rebuilding a shared understanding of the world God created and what it means to follow Christ within it.