Dark Clouds and Silver Linings

The electors have made it official: in January, a schoolyard bully will assume the office of President of the United States.

Those of us who didn’t believe this could happen, who thought that Trump was too crude and scary and unqualified to elected president, have had several weeks to argue over who’s to blame. Racists! Misogynists! Bernie! Jill! The Electoral College! Sleepwalking Democratic Party strategists who ignored flyover country!

I have participated in this to an extent, but I’m done. I’m not going to blame anyone any more. I’m moving on.

(I still don’t trust electronic voting machines and the corporations that own them and the people they hire to program them, but I have no proof, and someone else will have to break that story. I think Greg Palast is still working on it.)

I’ve become more interested in (and concerned about) how divided we are as a nation, how stubbornly partisan we are, and how little that is changing right now in any meaningful way. And trying to figure out the true nature of presidential elections. This much I think I know: as long as we use the electoral-college system, which tilts the playing field toward smaller states and Republicans, elections are not necessarily a case of “may the best candidate win” or even “may the most popular candidate win.” It is more like a football game in which either side can put up numbers, late momentum counts, and a good strategy for winning coveted swing states can pull out a last-minute victory like a trick-play touchdown with the clock running out.

A little more than half of eligible citizens vote; about half of them vote Republican and half vote Democratic. And only a minuscule percentage of the electorate really counts: the people directing the ground game, and the voters they turn out (or turn away), in states like Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Florida.

Demographic trends do not appear to favor a Republican future, unless the party figures out how to appeal to more minorities and women, but Republican voters remain doggedly loyal, even when the candidate at the top of the ticket is saying things that make them wince. One of the most revealing things I’ve noticed in conversations—live, on Facebook, and in other media I’ve seen and heard—is that when milder, mainstream Republican voters (not the “alt-right” fringe whose only apparent mode of conversation is to shout crude insults) are asked how they could support such a dangerous and unqualified man for president, they usually respond with some variation on “Nothing could be worse than the last eight years.”

It almost doesn’t matter what actually happened in the last eight years—to most Democrats, it’s been lovely, to most Republicans, it’s been a disaster.

According to recent surveys by the Pew Research Center, people’s views on the accomplishments and/or failures of the Obama administration vary dramatically along party lines, by a wider statistical margin than with any administration since Eisenhower. As for this year’s two major-party presidential candidates, both Trump and Clinton received historically low “thermometer ratings” from members of the opposition party. Generally, the nation is more divided along partisan lines than at any time since Pew surveys on this subject were first conducted. More than ever, Democrats and Republicans are highly unfavorable toward both the opposition party and its members, and report being “fearful” of each other and view each other’s policies as a “threat” to the nation.

Looking at these numbers only confirms the depressing conclusion many people have already reached: we are a profoundly divided nation, lacking in common ground and shared ideals. We are in the midst of a long-running political civil war that does not appear to be ending any time soon.

There was a time not all that long ago when Americans supposedly shared core values and beliefs that were more important than our disagreements. In the post-World War II era, there were prominent American intellectuals who advanced a theory called “consensus history,” which rejected a class-conflict-based approach and stressed our presumably shared belief in capitalism and economic individualism. And if there was any one media icon the nation looked to for reassurance during the turbulent sixties and seventies, it was Walter Cronkite and his soothing baritone voice. But a consensus of white men in suits could never adequately speak for all of America, which became apparent as more marginalized people began to find their voices. Still, even as more non-mainstream ideas vied for attention, the two major parties seemed more similar than different in their generally capitalist value systems. And whatever party was in power, the rest of us lived with it.

Was Bill Clinton’s presidency the turning point, when Republicans, instead of working with him, tried to undermine him at every turn? I’m not sure, but ever since those years it seems as if our disagreements have shifted from differences over policy to differences over what is truth and what is fiction. The divide is so complete now that many people who identify as liberal or conservative simply don’t believe each other’s preferred media. I’ve heard plenty of criticisms of The New York Times over the years, but only this year did I begin seeing right-wingers refer to it as “fake news.” And this has an echo effect on how public opinion shades other important issues. For example, many on the right not only doubt climate scientists (who, they say, are advancing theories on global warming merely to advance their own careers), but also the media who report on such left-wing “hysteria.”

Are you ready for a silver lining yet? I’ve got one.

The Republican Party has long supported dirty energy and opposed regulation aimed at curbing pollution, and Republican voters tend to listen to the party’s reasoning as filtered through right-leaning media. So Republicans are typically measured to have low trust in the validity of climate science and to be generally anti-regulation. That is the party line, after all.

But ask people a slightly different question, and the silver lining appears. According to Pew, there is now broad, bipartisan support for expanding investment in wind and solar power—more so than for any fossil fuels.

Partisan environmental politics aside, clean energy is making more and more sense to more and more people. The future brightens.

Martin Luther King Jr., borrowing from Theodore Parker, famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Race relations in America have been severely strained in recent years over the many deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police or overzealous vigilantes. But Pew has found a silver lining here too. After the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, American opinion split significantly across racial and partisan lines on police culpability, case outcomes, and whether race played a significant role. There were also smaller but significant differences across age, with younger people being more critical of the killings and more sensitive to the racial issues.

However, while there was and still is a predictable disparity between black and white respondents to the questions of whether blacks’ rights are being violated, and whether racism in society is a significant problem, an interesting thing happened after the percentages remained fairly steady from 2009 to 2014. In 2015, across all races, the numbers of people saying society should give more attention to racial problems spiked significantly.

In dramatizing the need for change and driving public opinion, social movements matter. Occupy Wall Street brought a measurable change to the words media used to describe class issues—it mattered. And what the 2015 survey on race relations tell me is that Black Lives Matter does, in fact, matter. There’s a long way to go, but maybe the arc has begun to bend, however slightly, toward justice.

One more.

In a 2001 Pew survey, 35 percent of respondents supported same-sex marriage, and 57 percent opposed.

In 2016, 55 percent supported, and 37 percent opposed. And while younger people have driven a great deal of this change, the shift in support for same-sex marriage, and LGBT rights, has taken place across all generations.

Bending toward justice, indeed. And I don’t believe this one will ever bend back.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon

 

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