Americans are becoming more tolerant of everybody, except the people they disagree with.
I have no idea if this is an interesting, obvious, or idiotic observation to most people. But I find it pretty interesting. And since I control the vertical and I control the horizontal–as they say in Outer Limits–I’m going to discuss it for a moment.
There’s been a lot of talk lately–much of it whiny–about “polarization” in American politics. Wahhh: Michael Moore is hellspawn. Or: Wahhh: Michael Moore is a secular prophet and the Pharisees of the ruling class are crucifying him.
Others have complained that liberals and conservatives don’t read the same books anymore so they can’t even agree on common facts for reasonable disagreements (which would explain the Hellspawn v. Prophet thing).
David Brooks has been pounding the keyboard until his fingers run bloody on the issue lately. And he raises several interesting observations and facts in the process. For example, for all the self-congratulatory English-major talk about how education breeds independent thinking and clear-eyed appreciation for the nuances of reality… Oh wait, English major talk sounds like this: “Do you want foam on that half-caf latte?” Political-science majors are more likely to spew all that stuff about the enlightenment and independent thinking that comes with education.
Anyway, whoever says that stuff is wrong, the fact is that the more educated you are, the more partisan and ideological you are likely to be. High-school graduates are more likely to vote across party lines than college grads. And education does not track only with becoming more liberal. If you’re a conservative with a college education you become more conservative. If you’re a liberal, ditto. Indeed, college-educated liberals tend to become “professionals” while college-educated conservatives become “managers.” Brooks breaks all that stuff down even more, but I think you get the point. Though maybe the guy running the espresso machine can’t hear me.
Anyway, in his book, On Paradise Drive, Brooks compiles a massive amount of evidence that Americans are self-segregating ideologically and politically–by county, by school, by state, by church, etc. An example he doesn’t use, but which comes immediately to mind, are National Review cruises. As many of you no doubt know, NR has been a pioneer in the practice of conducting cruises for ideologically simpatico and faithful readers. They really are quite a lot of fun. But part of the logic is that while people want to go on cruises, they don’t necessarily want to go on cruises with other people who want to go on cruises. I remember talking to one very impressive, and very conservative, retired judge on an NR cruise. He told me how he’d gone on a regular cruise and got stuck with a convention from a teachers’ union or something. Everywhere he went, every dinner table, every game of blackjack was intruded upon by the sound of people saying things he thought were crazy. That’s no vacation. So on the NR cruises, people of like–though certainly not of identical–political views get to attend some fun conferences and panels, but they also know they can have a pleasant dinner conversation. This isn’t a plug for NR cruises. This is But it is interesting how everybody uses the NR model now–or tries to. The Nation, The New Republic, The Weekly Standard, the NRA, Salon, the Heritage Foundation, etc.
Anyway, David Brooks thinks this sort of polarization and self-segregation is bad. Moreover, he’s been taking what I think is something of an unfair shellacking from various liberal writers. In a sense he’s becoming the Rodney King of American conservatives. No matter how severe the beating he receives, he continues to say “Why can’t we all just get along?”
Well, I have no intention of joining the beat down; I like and respect the guy too much. And, I agree that there are definitely some serious drawbacks to the polarization of the national discourse. Though, truth be told, I despise phrases like “national discourse” or “social dialogue” precisely because they tend to be used by liberals who believe “increasing dialogue” means in fact “educating the Huns to agree with us.”
But, as Bob Dole would say, whatever.
There’s also a very good side to all of this polarization. Critics of identity politics–and I am most certainly one of them–tend to focus almost exclusively on the separations, divides, clashes and chasms such politics create between groups. Blacks vs. whites, rich vs. poor, South vs. North, Springfieldians vs. Shelbyvillians, and so on. What they rarely look at is the unity such “identitarian” movements create. This was, after all, one of the central dynamics of fascism–it was a cross-class movement of national unity. Rich and poor alike joined hands in their unity under the swastika. And Communism, no less a reactionary force than fascism (and often more of one), caused ethnic Ukrainians, Tartars, Uzbeks, Russians et al. to lay down their ethnic differences in their common struggle against the ruling classes.
America is hardly immune to these laws of social attraction and repulsion. Take McCarthyism. Liberals love to point out the Manichean worldview behind McCarthyism. How it created enemies within. How Tail-gunner Joe’s followers went after anybody–Jews, blacks, whites, Catholics, Protestants, Republicans, Democrats–anybody who he believed to be a Commie or ComSymp. Without getting into that whole argument again, let’s just say fair enough. But, one thing left out of this analysis is how the McCarthyites didn’t go after Jews, blacks, whites, Catholics, etc., who agreed with McCarthy about the Red menace. This may be an obvious fact of logic but it’s actually much more revealing than it seems.
“Manifestations of ethnic intolerance today tend to decrease in proportion as ideological intolerance increases. In sharp contrast, both bigotries used to increase together,” wrote Peter Viereck in 1955. What Viereck noticed was that radical “right-wing” anti-Communist groups were reaching out to blacks and Jews (those quotation marks around “right-wing” are necessary for reasons we’ll get into another day). The same thing, of course, had already been taking place on the other side since Communists believe in class-loyalty and all that gibberish. In other words, pro-Communists and anti-Communists alike welcomed rich and poor, Jew and gentile, black and white into their respective ranks–so long as the applicant in question agreed on the “big issue.”
Liberals still talk about the 1960s as if all real Americans were sitting around, holding hands, and singing “Kumbaya” (See my Division Diversions). How many misty-eyed stories have we heard about how blacks and whites, Jews and Christians, all marched together for peace and love and whatnot? What they always leave out is that there were often whites, blacks, Christians, and Jews on the other side of the pickets who disagreed with them. In others words, ideological causes breed unity and disunity at the same time.
Viereck called this dynamic “transtolerance,” a terrible word that perfectly describes what is happening in America today. For example, there is no more philo-Semitic group in America than evangelical Christians. Indeed, they love observant Jews more than most Jews do. Why? Because the Right side of the culture war wants “traditionalists” of all stripes in its corner. Similarly, the American Right loves blacks–right-wing blacks that is. The Right hasn’t caught up with the Left yet, where the “open-mindedness” of liberals causes their brains to fall out for any member of the Coalition of the Oppressed. But conservatives are certainly moving in that direction.
We see this in the ghettoized communities Brooks is so adept at chronicling. I sincerely doubt there are very many affluent “red state” counties in America that wouldn’t love to have a socially conservative black stockbroker move into their community. I’m sure there are some racist country clubs and the like still around, but generally I would bet that most country clubs would leap at the opportunity to snap up a black or Jewish or Asian cardiologist. Why? Because conservatives very much believe–and want the world to know–that their views are principled, not prejudiced. Meanwhile, the Left has been reaching out to folks like George Soros, Arianna Huffington, and Teresa Heinz who are, essentially class-traitors in Marxist thought. The Left doesn’t really believe in class-warfare it merely believes in class warfare against the rich folks who disagree with them.
As Viereck noticed, we have something new in American history: Ideological movements used to reinforce racial, ethnic, or class bigotries. For the last 50 years they’ve increasingly transcended them. This is an upside of living in an ideological age–or a downside, depending on how you see things. And those who bemoan the current polarization need to ask themselves whether polarization isn’t the natural order of things. And, if it is–and I think it is–isn’t this sort of polarization preferable to most of the other options?