Where Fear and Hate Take Us

In the wake of the 2016 election, Michael Gerson has proved to be one of the more thoughtful observers of our depressing political scene. Gerson, as many of you will recall, was a speechwriter for George W. Bush, but he is no partisan hack; although he looks at our contemporary scene through a decidedly conservative political lens, he is no apologist for today’s GOP.

In a column for the Washington Post written after the election in Virginia, Gerson considered the current fragmentation of both political parties.

We have reached a moment of intellectual and moral exhaustion for both major political parties. One is dominated by ethnic politics — which a disturbingly strong majority of Republican regulars have found appealing or acceptable. The other is dominated by identity politics — a movement that counts a growing number of Robespierres. Both seem united only in their resentment of the international economic order that the United States has built and led for 70 years.

Normally, a political party would succeed by taking the best of populist passion and giving it more mainstream expression. But in this particular, polarized environment, how is that possible? Do mainstream Republicans take a dollop of nativism and a dash of racism and add them to their tax cuts? That seemed to be the approach that Ed Gillespie took in the Virginia governor’s race. But this is morally poisonous — like taking a little ricin in your tea. Do mainstream Democrats just take some angry identity politics and a serving of socialism — some extreme pro-choice rhetoric and single-payer health care — and add them to job-training programs?

What Gerson calls “ethnic politics” is, of course, virulent bigotry–mostly racism, but also homophobia, anti-Semitism, and a variety of other “isms.’ What he calls “identity politics” is class-based animus.

This fracturing of the American citizenry into tribal identities and various “us versus them” configurations is the ultimate challenge to the promise of e pluribus unum–out of the many, one.

It’s ironic that at a time when more and more Americans claim to be political independents, partisanship has become so toxic. A recent survey found a third of American parents would strenuously oppose their child’s marriage to someone who is a member of the other party. The Governor of Alabama was quoted as saying she’d vote for Roy Moore–even though she believed the allegations against him– rather than a Democrat, because keeping control of the Senate was more important than repudiating immoral behavior.

Extreme tribalism has also corrupted a significant number of evangelical Christians. Pious pronouncements about morality have proved no match for promises of power. Majorities of so-called “bible-believing’ evangelicals “forgave” Trump for his three wives, his boorish behaviors and his admitted (indeed, boasted about) sexual offenses in return for his promise to restore their theocratic version of Christianity and return its tribal adherents to the privileged position they once held–a privileged position now threatened by demographic change.

These deep-seated divisions aren’t the result of incommensurate philosophies. Political science research confirms that relatively few people vote on the basis of policy agreement or disagreement–instead, most voters choose their political affiliations based upon identity–upon a perception that “the people in this political party are like me,” and the comfort that comes with being among those who are like- minded.

Among the many unprecedented challenges we face–politically, economically, socially–the most important of all may be re-knitting the various racial, religious and social class threads into a single cloth, a fabric representing an inclusive American tribe.


  1. It appears that Americans no longer have a shared vision of what the country should be, what it should look like, what it holds as its principles. Both political parties used to share that same vision, only differ in how to achieve it. Not so anymore. And what brought us to this point?


  2. Why do people in this country continue to equate any single payer healthcare system as evil and label it “Socialism” ? We are living in the only industrialized country in the world without some form of government controlled healthcare for all.

    “Do mainstream Democrats just take some angry identity politics and a serving of socialism — some extreme pro-choice rhetoric and single-payer health care — and add them to job-training programs?”

    I understand the author was expressing extremes of both parties, but why can’t we have National Healthcare without labeling it pejoratively? It just fuels the fire.

  3. The Gerson column was spectacular. I can somehow envision the Dems picking of the pieces from the wreckage of what was their party and moving away from identity politics on race but not so much economic class. The one constituency that helped run them into the ground was Wall St., their money and influence in the Boston-DC corridor, and their mantra of “trust us – these policies will float all boats” (sounds very similar to trickle down econ). The fact is the US and all other industrialized countries have had a massive over-supply of unskilled and low-skilled labor, and the demand for that labor has been dropping for decades. Corporatist-Globalist policies and emerging technologies of the past 40 years have exacerbated the problem by opening up national average wage rates to global market pressures – driving them inevitably downward. The difference is that the US is the only country among the G20 that didn’t do anything to slow the de-industrialization process down, nor help communities deal with the impacts (in fact, many so-called economic development initiatives sped the decline in real wages up). The political class of both parties, as well as the CEO and business-school simply chortled the usual “we’ll need to retrain them” nonsense, with little awareness or regard for the actual impacts on millions of people that made up the backbone of our consumer-driven economy. And then the orangutan showed up.

    So, if the Dems have any chance of getting into power, it will likely need to be on a sustained “fair deal” platform that appeals to the millions of American who believe they got, or are getting screwed. Whether they are justified in making that claim is another thing – I happen to know of a few people who only screwed themselves by making terrible choices in life, but that reason doesn’t account for what has happened across the land. Given that the cornerstone of any fair deal HAS to be civil rights – including every topic this blog’s author has discussed, one would THINK a few good leaders could create a political groundswell. But therein lies the problem – WHO ARE those leaders on a national level?

    The only other fault-lines in American politics that still seem intractable is that of abortion and guns. The anti-choice crowd is similar to the anti-gun-control crowd, and they overlap quite a bit but not completely, in that they view one’s position taken on the issue as perfectly binary. But I still have hope. In the blink of an eye historically, the nations views have significantly changed on LGBTQ rights. Enough so that even in red-state Indiana, the out-of-touch governor got an anti-LGBTQ law passed by a general assembly run by an equally out-of-touch GOP only to have that bill shoved up his ass by important people in his own party. I think the same can happen on gun-violence, but it has to be part of the overall “fair-deal” and not a single issue.

    I don’t have a clue on the abortion divide. Then again, I’m not a woman and could never have been faced with such a decision so…….


  4. Gerson’s comment > “Both seem united only in their resentment of the international economic order that the United States has built and led for 70 years”.<<< This pure rubbish designed to confirm and affirm the correctness of Neo-Liberal Economic Policies. Of course we have had nearly non stop wars for the past 70 years too.

    This Neo-Liberalism has resulted in a vast concentration of wealth at the top. Further there are all these "legal" methods the wealthy and multinational corporations have available to avoid taxes. The Paradise Papers Are Proof That Capitalism and Racism Fuel The Global Plutocracy

    Gerson labels those of us who do not buy into this crap as Robespierres. Somehow, those of us who believe the wealthy and multinational corporations should pay their fair share of taxes and we want Universal Health Care are some radical fanatics ready to bring out the guillotines.

    The Democratic Leadership has been silent on the legal subterfuge employed by the Billionaires and Multinational Corporations as revealed in the Paradise Papers.

  5. This virulent tribalism may just be our revolution from the decades of wealth inequality. We long ago passed the threshold where other societies have openly rebelled after the rich had so much more than the poor. I also think our diversity has helped prevent the open rebellion that so many other third world countries (Yes, we are behaving like a third-world country) endured before realized that people needed to eat.

    When we finally resort to open rebellion, the super-rich will take their money and run to Aruba or some other island they bought. The greed is so deeply entrenched with the oligarchs that they will never cede to the fact that those who made them rich are starving and have no hope of achieving anything like the American Dream.

  6. “Among the many unprecedented challenges we face–politically, economically, socially–the most important of all may be re-knitting the various racial, religious and social class threads into a single cloth, a fabric representing an inclusive American tribe.”

    This is our most important challenge but how do we do this given that we don’t even have control of our own media which has been a huge driving force in creating this chaos? How do we reach a consensus regarding the protection of the system we have that will serve as the underpinning of this “reknitting” of the fabric of an inclusive American tribe when we currently have no real way of keeping foreign actors out of our political discourse and skewing it for their own designs?

    Once again, the free and open society we have will make us vulnerable to those that want to keep the current chaos going or possibly enhance it? How do we keep it truly American in the face of this onslaught when the very thought of having some controlling entity overseeing it is basically foreign to us? How do we get media moguls that were slow to understand what was happening and in some instances condoned it as being a method to raise broadcast revenues in the process? Are we even capable, given the chaos that Michael Gershon has described, of having the huge “national conversation” that will be needed to do such a thing?

    While I’ve always been an optimist in regard to this country, given how many times it is reinvented itself when it has needed to, is this too tall an order to pull off given the chaos that we are currently dealing with which is probably not reached its zenith yet? Who or what is going to lead is out of this and do so with the consistency of purpose that we will need to renew the social and political fabric of this country? The absence of having any true statesman today or any other politicians or other types of leaders that are not tainted already by scandal, or the suspicion of scandal, will likely mean that the leadership we need has to come from another source-the people themselves. Who will they be?

    While we will be definitely in uncharted territory in many ways this could end up being a wonderful thing for this country if we can stay true to our principles and shrug off the division that is been forced on us and that which is already existed and reknit ourselves. Tons of questions still remain and the cohesion that will likely be necessary to knit together a game plan will work and restore the social and political equilibrium of this country is a big unknown right now. Hopefully, we can find a way out of this downward spiral but we’re the ones that are going to have to do it and do it by ourselves.

  7. Citizens United sped up the ability of corporate wealth to take control of our government and our country. Ever since scotus passed this abominable law we citizens have demanded that it be overturned, yet the oligarchy makes sure this will not happen.

    Many citizens do not want to be associated with either major political party. Most of us identify as Independents, but there is no party or leadership that we can join. The leaders within the two major parties have wedded themselves to Wall Street and wealthy corporations. They have sold themselves to those entities and the unfortunate consequence is that we, the people, have been forced into slavery.

    History proves that ordinary citizens who have been forced into slavery will eventually turn on their ‘owners’ once they have nothing to lose. We are going to see this happen in our country. It may take another 10-15 years, but it will happen.

    Great comments by PJ and Monotous today.

  8. This point by PJ pertaining to those left behind by automation and globalism, is extremely important point:

    The political class of both parties, as well as the CEO and business-school simply chortled the usual “we’ll need to retrain them” nonsense…

    We cannot “retrain” are way out of this. We must re-frame our response as a society. My own belief is that it should be a combination of government guaranteed employment, a higher minimum wage, and a substantially more robust safety net.

  9. Whatever happened to the melting pot theory that supposedly and in time ends distinctions of race, class, religion etc.? Is such an offering a design by the ruling class to suppress dissent and civil commotion so that such class can pursue its profit-making in peace? Is the melting pot theory itself racist? Are we as individuals continuing reservoirs for hatred based on race, class etc. while publicly pretending to be otherwise in order to meet the social tolerance of the day and, if so, did Trump plug into that hatred and provide an avenue for the expression of our true feelings in the anonymity of the voting booth? Does that voting result tell us who we really are?

    What do we really believe? It’s hard to know from the looks of things (see millions of evangelicals, who have somehow accommodated the teachings of the gentle Nazarene with the views of the libertine currently sitting in the Oval Office). Melting pot and tribalism theories, like oil and water, cannot and will never mix. We have a choice to make; either we can practice economic, social and political justice for all undergirded by our democratic institutions or we can continue to split ourselves up through distinctions of race, religion etc. and provide the for the demagoguery of Trumps, Moores and Dukes. I vote for a real melting pot and democracy.

  10. typo express > In the next to last sentence of my offering, I wrote “and provide for” when I meant to write “provide the fodder for.” mea culpa. . .

  11. I believe that Tom Lund said it here best. It’s one thing to recognize where we are, quite another to structure a return to where we were.

    Sheila quoted “the people in this political party are like me,” which by my training as a junior anthropologist is also the definition of culture. I learned my culture by observing the people who I thought to be like me. Now, following that age old adage we have split culture yet again into the Republican and Democrat tribes in addition to all of the traditional ones like male/female, wealthy/poor, by religion and race, by class and geography and ethnicity, etc. What’s one more?

    IMO the secret new toxic ingredient is media borne extremism. What I am is the only right instead of one of the tribes. It seems that extremism no matter where it starts is viral. Now it’s pandemic and without cure.

    It has always been hard to forge a national culture from individual ones but America has always been noted for doing that more successfully than most countries. After all other cultures are all we had to work with. Now that ability has been compromised in service of media make more money regardless of the impact on others.

    Is it possible for entertainment to fix what entertainment broke? Will the “social” restore what the for profit media broke?

    I don’t know.

  12. @Steve Smith, Thank you for the link to the TED talk on IA and how it is applied in our political world. I understood a lot more than I thought I would and learned to understand where I was being “nudged” by apolitical algorithms intent on selling me product.
    For those who have the time, this TED talk is worth every minute you can spare. I have reposted the link and intend to share on my FB page. It will be interesting to see what those algorithms decide I should see after that.

  13. Great TED talk. “Persuasion architecture” is the key to understanding why we seemingly all of a sudden are acting crazy. What’s even more scary in the talk is that it’s being developed to sell us stuff but is just as effective in selling us politicians.

  14. People recognize that they are not players anymore, their right to be part of the government/citizenship game–their vote and their wishes–have been rendered meaningless; they have been cut from the team. So, what is the natural reaction to being cut from the team? Become a fan, choose a team and root like hell. Become a cheerleader. Become a member of the booster club. Or opt out altogether. It is what we are seeing.

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