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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


Before Fox and Fake News, It Was Daddy’s Job to Indoctrinate the Racism


The headmaster of the prep school was a former military man, and the overall atmosphere was conservative to the point where few of the more liberal faculty members dared or bothered to voice their opinions. Instead they went about their business teaching math or English or history, coaching lacrosse or baseball or ice hockey, sitting at the ends of long wooden tables at meals to ensure that the young men seated with them learned the manners they would need later in their lives of privilege, making sure the students on their hall had their noses in their books until lights out, and gathering at one of the local pubs a couple of nights a week to unwind.

I wasn’t much different, but it was the middle of the Reagan presidency, and if I hadn’t realized I leaned left before, it was starting to come out. My students noticed, and soon I was known to them—somewhat affectionately, I think—as “Mr. Liberal.” Some of them seemed conservative, occasionally reciting some right-wing wisdom they had been spoon-fed back home. Others seemed apolitical, concerned more with normal teenage preoccupations like sports and girls and impressing their peers with sarcastic remarks in class. Then there was Paul.

A fairly quiet, serious kid from Memphis, Paul wasn’t shy when it came to expressing his conservative views. And he took a liking to me, singling me out as his sparring partner. I returned the favor, challenging him (not too aggressively, he was only 15 or 16, and I didn’t want to make him angry and earn myself a trip to the headmaster’s office) with ideas and points of view he might not have considered before. It actually was quite fun, sort of a political chess match, and I came to really like Paul. I don’t know what became of him, and I left the school after a year.

One thing that stayed with me is the story he told me one day of his father packing him in the car and driving him around Memphis (cue Springsteen’s “Your Hometown”). As his father drove through African-American neighborhoods, he told Paul to count all the Cadillacs, just in case he ever felt a twinge of compassion, which the memory of all the luxury cars would quickly extinguish—because the blacks in these neighborhoods could never afford Cadillacs unless they were drug dealers or welfare cheats.

I do recall from the ’70s and ’80s the stereotype that blacks were particularly fond of Cadillacs, and observed that there appeared to be some truth to it. (Even the ’70s blaxploitation films acknowledged the place of Cadillacs and other luxury sedans as status symbols in black culture.) And apparently, statistics on car buying during this era do bear out that African-Americans were proportionately more likely to purchase Cadillacs than whites were. Does that mean they were all drug dealers and welfare cheats? Of course not.

And as always, there’s a story behind the stereotype.

General Motors was on the verge of ceasing all Cadillac production in 1932, when a company official named Nicholas Dreystadt made the audacious proposal to market the cars to blacks. Prior to that, corporate policy had been to not sell Cadillacs to blacks at all. But there was a small, growing black bourgeoisie of doctors, small businessmen, boxers and entertainers, and Dreystadt had noticed, while working as Cadillac’s service manager, that a surprising number of blacks were bringing the cars in for service. Unable to purchase the vehicles themselves, they had paid whites to front for them and buy the coveted cars. As Ed Cray wrote in The Chrome Colossus, “Dreystadt had investigated this unexpected phenomenon and found that the Cadillac was the only success symbol the affluent black could buy; he had no access to good housing, to luxury resorts, or to any other outward signs of worldly success.”

Dreystadt’s foresight turned the Cadillac division around and inspired other businesses to market to minorities. And as more and more blacks earned enough income to afford the cars, the love affair with the Cadillac grew. The Cadillac became the status symbol of choice for many upper- and middle-income blacks, who did not move out of predominately black neighborhoods en masse just because they had taken a few steps up the economic ladder, in part because of the long-persistent barriers to moving into more affluent, white neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, by the late ’60s, white, conservative critics of welfare had created the fictional but enduring stereotype of black “welfare queens” who drove Cadillacs, despite the reality that poor blacks were less likely to even own a car than any other segment of the population (which helped keep them poor, but that’s another story).

So by 1980, what Paul was seeing through his father’s car window seemed consistent with the racist stereotypes now embedded in the nation’s conservative consciousness. The stereotypes were inaccurate, though I’m not sure Paul’s father understood that any more than his son did. They saw what they wanted to see. Today all they’d have to do is troll Facebook to find the sites and stories that line up with their worldview. I’m tempted to give Paul’s father credit for actually driving them through real neighborhoods to observe real scenes. The problem was that they didn’t know what they were looking at. And I tend to doubt they would have believed any information that would have conflicted with the conclusions they had already drawn—which sounds suspiciously like the world we live in today.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon