American Polarization

I have been attending a conference on American Political History, for which I prepared a paper. The following is my (abbreviated) presentation of that paper–still considerably longer than my daily posts, so be forewarned….


America’s first motto was e pluribus unum, “out of the many, one.” That motto has always been more aspirational than descriptive, but thanks to a number of factors– from residential sorting to the hardening of racial and religious attitudes– America now faces fissures in the body politic that call even the aspiration into question.

Humans are hard-wired to be tribal—to prefer those we see as our “own kind” to members of groups that register as “other.” Recognition of this aspect of human nature is hardly new; multiple studies deal with aspects of human tribalism, and there’s an equally large number detailing the various mechanisms through which humans express, reinforce and justify tribal prejudices. History records the frequently horrifying consequences of dehumanizing people deemed to be “other” during wars and other conflicts, and the equally appalling behaviors that stem from the demonizing of targeted minority populations by dominant majorities within a single country.

The term tribalism is shorthand for this human predisposition to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups. There is considerable evidence that some degree of in-group favoritism is an inescapable attribute of group membership. It is the favoritism that is problematic; the human need to be part of a family, clan or tribe is not in itself a negative. Just as our families and more extended clans provide us with emotional and material support, membership in a larger group with which one identifies has its benefits. The presence of what sociologists call bonding social capital provides people within the relevant groups with cultural norms, and (at least within one’s group) supports increased levels of interpersonal trust and reciprocity, assets that facilitate collaborative action.

It’s when identification with a tribe operates to exclude and demean anyone who isn’t a member—when it creates a world peopled by “us” (good) and “them” (bad)—that it becomes destructive. It becomes especially dangerous when the definition of “us” is narrow, dependent upon immutable characteristics or upon rigid adherence to a particular ideology or religious belief that excludes and distrusts others. When negative stereotypes of an out-group are endorsed by celebrities or political authority figures, the damage can be substantial; for example,  researchers have linked Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets to spikes in anti-Muslim hate crimes.

Although the terms “identity” or “identity politics” can mean different things depending on the context, for purposes of this analysis, the terms reference an individual’s group affiliation, or social identity. As noted, identification with others in a particular group or category can confer feelings of acceptance and provide role models: this is how “we” behave. When individuals conclude that “I am like the other people in this group” and I am unlike “those people in other groups,” that recognition can lead to a sense of belonging and a recognition of interdependence with others in the relevant “tribe.” That said, membership in a tribe is usually accompanied by some degree of suspicion of those who fall outside that tribe. Trouble starts when that suspicion is heightened, and members of other groups are seen as competitors, enemies, or threats that must be subdued or eliminated. When “we” are God’s chosen, and “they” are by definition abominations, tolerance of difference is simply not possible.

The United States has not been immune from tribal conflicts, and today’s citizens continue to struggle with their legacies. America may have abolished slavery, but racism has proved much harder to eradicate. Religious conflicts and anti-Semitism have been—and remain—a constant. Women continue to struggle against an attitudinal “glass ceiling” that works against genuine equality in both the home and workplace. It wasn’t until the 1960s that LGBTQ citizens began emerging from the closet in significant numbers, and homophobia, like racism, continues to characterize much of American culture. And the country is experiencing yet another eruption of the hostility with which we have repeatedly greeted successive waves of immigrants.

In much of America’s admittedly contentious past, except for individuals who were automatically categorized as “other” by virtue of an immutable characteristic like race or gender, American affiliations have tended to be cross-cutting, meaning that people often identified as a member of several different communities having limited overlap. Individuals with such heterogeneous affiliations are likely to interact on a regular basis with fellow citizens holding views contrary to their own, and less likely to stereotype and malign people with whom they disagree as a result. In his seminal study The Social Requisites of Democracy, Seymour Martin Lipset concluded that that democratic stability is enhanced when individuals and groups have a number of cross-cutting, politically relevant affiliations. As a 2018 article in The Guardian noted, “[R]esearch has lined cross-cutting cleavages with toleration, moderation and conflict prevention.”

For a number of reasons, America’s “tribes” have become far more overlapping, meaning that people’s various identities have coalesced in ways that reinforce each other. As a result, and thanks also to the residential “sorting” documented by Bill Bishop in The Big Sort, most Americans have much less interaction with people who have opinions different from those of their tribes, and are less likely to engage with ideas and beliefs different from their own.

Historically, American tribal conflicts have centered upon identities and affiliations that were difficult or impossible to change: the ethnic, racial and religious differences that have been a source of human conflict for centuries. Those differences remain potent today. Racism, in particular, has re-emerged with a vengeance, and it isn’t limited to the White Nationalist movements that have become active across much of Europe and the United States. Longstanding racial and religious fault-lines have been deepened by the emergence of newer ideological and cultural cleavages, many of which are exacerbated by geography: in today’s U.S., for example, the worldviews of urban and rural inhabitants are frequently incommensurate. Research has documented deep differences in values and outlook between Americans who are well-to-do (or at least economically comfortable) and the poor, and between white people with a college education and white people without. Americans’ affiliations have become increasingly reinforcing rather than cross-cutting, enabling the growth of a toxic partisanship that sees the world in stark terms of black and white and right versus wrong. These world-views demand winners and losers.

Thanks to a variety of factors, significant numbers of Americans currently occupy “bubbles” populated largely by people who share and fortify their preferred worldviews. Even a cursory examination of the 21st Century media and policy environment allows  identification of several of those worldviews, as well as the environments that created and nurture them.  A caveat: the following list is not exhaustive—and due to time constraints, the categories are described in far more depth in the paper.

  • Cosmopolitan and Parochial.  Cosmopolitanism challenges the primacy citizens place onattachments to the nation-state and other parochial shared cultures. The cosmopolitan/parochial divide shares many attributes with classism.
  • Richer and Poorer.The economic divide between America’s rich and poor is now as damaging as it was during the Gilded Age.  This dangerous and growing gap between struggling Americans and the well-to-do means they have increasingly disparate life experiences and live increasingly segregated lives.
  • College Educated and Not. In the 2016 election, white voters divided sharply based upon their levels of education. Clinton carried counties with high numbers of educated voters, and even high income low education counties voted for Trump.
  • Urban versus Rural.Urban Americans are more than three times more likely than their rural counterparts to say that religion isn’t particularly important to them, and attitudes on social issues reflect that difference. They are also far more likely to be Republican.
  • Republican versus Democrat, Liberal versus Conservative.An individual’s self-identification as Republican or Democrat has come to signify a wide range of attitudes and beliefs not necessarily limited to support for a political party. Lilliana Mason notes that “A single vote can now indicate a person’s partisan preferences as well as his or her religion, race, ethnicity, gender, neighborhood and favorite grocery store.”  Partisan identity has become a shorthand encompassing racial, professional and religious identities. Party identification now outweighs ideological commitments, as can be seen by the acquiescence of Republican lawmakers to Trump’s tariffs that are wildly at odds with longtime Republican positions.
  • Black, White, Brown. It is impossible to talk about tribalism, of course, without addressing the stubborn persistence of racism. Age-old racial hatreds have been fed by economic anxieties and by demographic changes that threaten white Christian Americans with loss of their long-time social dominance and privilege. The  election of America’s first African-American President exacerbated long-simmering racial resentments, giving rise to the so-called “birther” movement, while Donald Trump’s overt appeals to racist sentiments have unleashed a sharp increase in racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant assaults.

America’s cultural and political polarization has been facilitated by the Internet and the reduced reach of so-called “legacy” media that previously provided the country with (relatively homogenized) information. The current media landscape allows Americans to consult a multitude of news and opinion sites of widely varying credibility and to choose the “news” that accords with their partisan preferences. Social media has encouraged the sharing of dubious assertions and unfounded accusations. One result has been a widespread loss of confidence in our ability to know what is factual and what is not—to distinguish between journalism and propaganda. The widespread availability of disinformation is especially troubling because the American public has abysmally low levels of civic literacy.

Economic insecurity, the threatened loss of jobs to global trade and especially automation, and the rapidity of social and technological change have contributed to widespread fear and uncertainty. Too many political figures have appealed to those fears rather than trying to ameliorate them. There is also the increasing complexity of the national and international issues we face, and the failure to reform antiquated government structures that are increasingly inadequate to meet the challenges posed by changes in where and how today’s Americans live.

All of these developments and many others have been consequential. That said, it is impossible to analyze the ways in which these changes have been experienced and various tribes have been formed without recognizing the degree to which America’s historic struggle with racism has exacerbated the salience of all of them.

Whatever our beliefs about “American exceptionalism” today, it behooves us to recognize that the founding of this country was genuinely exceptional—defined as dramatically different from what had gone before—in one incredibly important respect: for the first time, citizenship was made dependent upon behavior rather than identity. In the Old World, the rights of individuals were largely dependent upon their identities, the status of their particular “tribes” in the relevant political order. (Jews, for example, rarely enjoyed the same rights as Christians, even in countries that refrained from oppressing them.) Your rights vis a vis your government depended largely upon who you were—your religion, your race, your social class, your status as conqueror or conquered.

The new United States took a different approach to citizenship. Whatever the social realities, whatever the disabilities imposed by the laws of the various states, any white male born or naturalized here was equally a citizen. We look back now at the exclusion of blacks and women and our treatment of Native Americans as shameful departures from that approach, and they were, but we sometimes fail to appreciate how novel the approach itself was at that time in history. All of what we think of as core American values—individual rights, civic equality, due process of law—flow from the principle that government must not treat people differently based solely upon their identity. Eventually (and for many people, very reluctantly) America extended that founding principle to gender, skin color and sexual orientation. Racism is thus a rejection of a civic equality that is integral to genuinely American identity.

When the nation’s leaders have understood the foundations of American citizenship, when they have reminded us that what makes us Americans is allegiance to core American values—not the color of our skin, not the prayers we say, not who we love—we emerge stronger from these periods of unrest. The political divisions that are so stark in our polarized time represent, at least in part, a clash between those who fear we are departing from that essential (if imperfectly recognized) commitment to equality and those who want to “return” to an imagined White Christian America.

Religious Liberty?

As America becomes more diverse, and White Christians face the loss of cultural hegemony, they have increasingly turned to the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause to make arguments about their right to an expansive and ahistorical “religious liberty.”

A bit of history for this history conference: What the phrase “Religious liberty” meant to the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock was the “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The idea that Church and State could even be separated would have been incomprehensible to the Puritans; the liberty they wanted was freedom to “establish” the True Religion, and to live under a government that would impose that religion on their neighbors.

The Puritans defined liberty as “freedom to do the right thing,” to impose the correct religion.

A hundred and fifty years later, however, the men who crafted our Constitution had a very different understanding of liberty. The philosophical movement we call the Enlightenment had given birth to science and empiricism, privileged reason over superstition, and caused philosophers to reconsider the purpose and proper role of government.

Liberty had come to mean the individual’s right to self-government, the right to decide for oneself what beliefs to embrace. Liberty now meant the right of individuals to live their lives in accordance with their own consciences, free of both state coercion and what the founders called “the passions of the majority,” so long as they did not harm others, and the Bill of Rights limited what government could require even when a majority of citizens approved.

The problem is that, although America’s Constitution and legal framework were products of the Enlightenment, many American citizens remain philosophical Puritans.

Many of the fundamentalist Christians fearing loss of cultural hegemony are deeply Puritan: anti-science, anti-reason, anti-diversity. They are absolutely convinced of their own possession of the Truth, and like the original Puritans, absolutely convinced that a proper understanding of “religious liberty” should give them the right to make rules for everyone else.

Under the Constitution, Americans have the right to believe anything they want. They do not have an absolute right to act on those beliefs. (You can sincerely believe God wants you to sacrifice your first-born, but the law doesn’t let you do that.) Many people have trouble understanding that distinction.

Opponents of civil rights for LGBTQ citizens argue that rules preventing businesses from refusing to hire employees who offend their religious beliefs, or from firing or otherwise discriminating against such individuals, denies them religious liberty. (This is a variant of the argument that anti-bullying legislation infringes the “free speech rights” of those doing the bullying.) They argue that they should be able to discriminate against gay people—or black people, or women, or Muslims–if they claim a religious motivation. Of course, an exemption for discrimination based upon “religious motivation” would eviscerate civil rights laws.

This is the same argument that erupted when Congress enacted the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Opponents argued that being forced to hire or do business with women or people of color violated their liberty to act upon a “sincere religious belief” that God wanted women to be subordinate and the races to be separate. And it did limit their liberty. In a civilized society, the right to do whatever one wants is constrained in all sorts of ways: I don’t have the liberty to play loud music next to your house at 2:00 a.m., or drive my car 100 miles per hour down city streets. And so on.

Civil rights laws are an outgrowth of the social contract. The citizen who opens a bakery– or a shoe store or a bank or any other business–- expects local police and fire departments to protect her store, expects local government to maintain the streets and sidewalks that enable people to get there, expects state and federal agencies to protect the country, to issue and back the currency used to pay for his products, and to ensure that other businesses and institutions are playing by the rules and not engaging in predatory behaviors that would put him out of business. People of all races, religions, genders and sexualities pay the taxes that support those government responsibilities, and in return, have a right to expect those who are “open for business” to provide cakes or shoes or other goods to any member of the public willing and able to pay for them.

The religion clauses of the First Amendment give religious folks the right to exclude those they consider “sinners” from their churches, their private clubs and their living rooms. That right does not extend to their hardware stores.

Today’s Americans live with over 330 million others, many of whom have political opinions, backgrounds, holy books, and perspectives that differ significantly from their own. The only way such a society can work–the only “social contract” that allows diverse Americans to coexist in reasonable harmony–is within a legal system and culture that respects those differences to the greatest extent possible. That means laws that require treating everyone equally within the public/civic sphere, while respecting the right of individuals to embrace different values and pursue different ends in their private lives. Only a legal system that refuses to take sides in America’s ongoing religious wars is able to safeguard anyone’s religious liberty.

History teaches us that social change that threatens the privileged status of dominant groups will be ferociously opposed by those groups. Throughout American history, when previously subordinated populations have demanded a seat at the civic table, those whose hegemony was threatened have resisted. That resistance may not completely explain today’s polarization, but it has massively contributed to  it.

As Mark Twain is said to have observed, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.

We live in rhyme time.


  1. Sheila,

    “We live in rhyme time.”

    We’re rhyming with the end of RECONSTRUCTION which was in effect for only about a dozen years. So much for INTEGRATION, we’re now on the way back to SEGREGATION. It’s taken 50 years for us to finally elect an outspoken segregationist [fascist]as President.

  2. What an appropriate and metaphorically compatible essay on the day Christians remember the Holy Spirit came and made all kinds if people understand and hear what was being said by the apostles each in his or her own local dialect and language.

    Then as now such clarity only comes on occasion and lasts momentarily. Then we go back to fighting for thousands of years.

    Thanks for this moment of clarity.

  3. Sheila … you sure know how to whack the silence of an otherwise sanguine Sunday morning. Holy Mackerel! If the summary this morning is just a small piece of a larger treatise, how many bottles of expensive wine must I have on hand to cogitate reality. You are a 21st Century Plato projecting Socrates on the ‘blessed community’. You nailed the “producers, auxiliaries, and guardians” of our day that Plato delineated around 400 B.C. Rhyme? Face it. I know my basic weakness. Straight white men like me have no rhythm.

  4. Religious extremism is not limited to America. All over Africa and the Middle East the “wrong religion” or being gay can be a death penalty. It some cases it is state sanctioned.

    Recently in London two gay women were attacked, mugged and robbed. Five men have been arrested.

    Here in the USA the Evangelical Bible Thumper’s have tried to use “Freedom” as a way to legitimize their imposing of their religious beliefs on others. Not only do the bible thumper’s lack any toleration, they as their mission or crusade must convert people who are “sinners” or plead persecution when the Secular Laws supersede or over rule their beliefs.

    What seems to be common thread for Religious Extremism here in the USA and all over the world is Male Authoritarianism.

    Ever since the Right Wing Reactionary Republican Party added the Evangelical element, they have been doing everything in their power to impose their bible thumping beliefs on America.

    President Agent Orange is the perfect leader these days for the GOP and with his lap dog Pastor Pence no elected official is going to openly challenge this situation.

  5. “Many of the fundamentalist Christians fearing loss of cultural hegemony are deeply Puritan: anti-science, anti-reason, anti-diversity. They are absolutely convinced of their own possession of the Truth, and like the original Puritans, absolutely convinced that a proper understanding of “religious liberty” should give them the right to make rules for everyone else.”

    And herein lies the modern (relatively) root of disharmony in our society. As ML suggests, these religious imperatives poison all societies around the world…and always have. The extended irony is that humans will probably cause themselves to become extinct by their own hand based on a “philosophy” conflict for which there is NOT a shred of hard evidence and cannot be tested for proof of a theory.

    Well done, oh great intelligent beings. No wonder highly religious people in this country vote Republican.

  6. As we recently shared thoughts about the private prison industry, I would say this point may require another look: “America may have abolished slavery, but racism has proved much harder to eradicate.”

    The Southern prisons are leasing out inmates for $3.00 a head to farmers. If this isn’t slavery, I don’t know what is considering how most of the prisoners are black and are guilty because of their skin color.

    And I hope you paused a second after reading this statement or read with emphasis because this truth is the bomb:

    “Many of the fundamentalist Christians fearing loss of cultural hegemony are deeply Puritan: anti-science, anti-reason, anti-diversity. They are convinced of their own possession of the Truth, and like the original Puritans, absolutely convinced that a proper understanding of “religious liberty” should give them the right to make rules for everyone else.”

    Applause, applause, applause…

  7. Christian teachings – SEVENTY YEARS AGO!! I was exposed to Saturday morning religious studies along with other male 11 & 12 yr old ‘heathens’ by Brother Michael.
    His opening comments have not been forgotten: Holding up the Holy Bible he stated, “This is NOT a book of History. This is NOT a book of Science. This is a book of Faith and Theology.”
    and our lessons began.

  8. I think it behooves us to acknowledge our own tribalism. I also note our vitriol. Personally, I struggle with how to think about, how to control and manage it. How I can reach out to the “other”.

  9. Bravo, bravo, bravo!! A truly excellent summation of who we are and where we’re at as opposed to where we could be!! The more we know about ourselves, none of it being sugar-coated in any way but instead straight up and in our faces, the more we can hopefully fix! I hold out hope for this even though, right now, that hope is like a very tattered and torn flag that should be replaced with a new one.

  10. This morning is a reminder of why I come here every day. Sheila’s words and thoughts are so well expressed, so expert, so thought provoking, so compellingly supported by research by herself and others that I can’t help but be taught everyday by this experience.

    Sheila relates to us her profound academic achievements over a lifetime invested with a certain unmistakeable humility. She’s justifiably proud of her achievements but remains always open to learning. Often her lessons are from (I will use the following phrase advisedly) the least of us compared to her lifetime of academic accomplishment.

    The combination of knowing yet still listening openly is exceptional.

    Are there ways to summarized Sheila’s profundity? Not without losing some of the meaning, some of the nuance, some of the knowledge imparted. However, here’s an attempt: authoritarianism.

    The least common denominator of our growing political woes is authoritarianism, people of the opposite demeanor from many here. People who take a little knowledge and demand entitlement from it.

    I have always maintained that the growth of authoritarianism to Reich proportions and intensity here followed the growth of entertainment media from a novelty to influential in absolutely everyone’s lives. Was it sports? Was it advertising? Was it fake news? Was it amplified opinionating by professional mouths if not professional minds? Was it wars fought in our living rooms relayed by intrepid real time front line reporting? All of those I’m sure contributed but what they have in common are screens we live immersed in.

    The real question is, can democracy survive authoritarianism? I don’t know. I just don’t know.

  11. Very well said, Shiela. I wonder, however, why you chose the word “anyone” instead of “everyone” in your second-to-last paragraph:

    “Only a legal system that refuses to take sides in America’s ongoing religious wars is able to safeguard anyone’s religious liberty”

    It seems to me that if a legal system were to take sides, it could effectively protect SOME people’s religious liberty – to the detriment of everyone else’s. And I believe we’ve recently started down that path (thanks, Mitch). Only a legal system that refuses to take sides can indeed protect everyone’s religious liberty impartially.

  12. A bully only respects force. That is the fundamental problem. Lincoln understood this. The question is, will the Founders’ anti-bullying system protect us this time?

  13. The discussion here today is somewhat related to another I’m coincidentally having on Facebook about the distinction between advertising and fake news.

    I wrote there:

    Both journalism and advertising are difficult skills to master but for entirely different reasons.

    Journalism is reporting without emotional bias.

    Advertising is reporting with extra emotional bias.

  14. The apostle Paul was filled with inner conflicts when he panned this statement in Romans the 7th chapter, “the good that I wish I do not do, but the bad that I do not wish is what I practice. Miserable man that I am!” When individuals look at the weight of life’s every day problems, then they look at the amount of people all claiming to worship or believe, they feel dwarfed by the magnitude of everything, dwarfed and lost in the voices of humanity. How would a God hear one person’s voice? If God could hear my voice, would I be worthy? So therefore, how can life really have meaning for everyone?

    May be as Christians, we should have faith! Isaiah the 40th chapter and verse 15 states; “Look! The nations are like a drop from a bucket, and as the film of dust on the scales they are regarded. Look! He lifts up the islands like fine dust. Then the 17th verse, which reads; All the nations are something nonexistent in front of him; he regards them as nothing, as an unreality. So God does not look at the large groups of nations he’s looking for individuals, like, the apostles of Christ. Those men’s hearts were righteously deposed for good and open to the teachings of Christ.

    Look around, if we are to believe, Romans tells us in chapter 1 and the 20th verse, “For his invisible qualities are clearly seen from the world’s creation onword, because they are perceived by the things made, even his eternal power and Godship, so that they are inexcusable.” When material possessions become things that people worship, when status becomes something to strive for, when money is more important than your fellow man or life itself, the meaning of life is skewed. We no longer put a supernatural and spiritual value on life, it’s simply transactional. If there is no immediate response from God, no instant gratification, if our faith is nonexistent, then we move on because we wish to seek that transactional gratification to fill that empty space somewhere else.

    In Job the 1st chapter and verse 6, to the 2nd chapter verse 8., Also, the 11th chapter of Hebrews, it kind of draws perspective in how we should consider the expanses of humanity and creation along with the universe as it relates to ourselves.

  15. So then, Sheila and Marv, just what is next for us and where do we go from here?

  16. You hit another home run today Sheila. Your blog today reminded me of a statement attributed to Golda Meir in a conversation with Jimmy Carter who had shared the difficulties of navigating inflexible religious and political divisions in the U.S. She said (paraphrasing), you have your fundamentalists and I have mine.

    My Christian faith teaches that God gave us free will to decide whether or not to accept and follow him/her and NOT by spiritual or governmental coercion. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faiths (and perhaps others) teach us to welcome and assist the stranger who may be unlike ourselves. If only all people of these 3 major faiths would practice what our holy books teach.

  17. welcome to NoDak, (north dakota… )very fitting, land locked,mind locked, instep with the above ideals of steping back 250 years..
    they passed a medical marijuana bill here,
    but we still have the blue law.
    maybe theres hope.

  18. Betty,

    Our next step should be the reading of the “Fifth Column and four unpublished stories of the Spanish Civil War” by Ernest Hemingway.

    The most important question we need to explore is: How does Donald Trump differ from the Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco?

    One vital point, to remember, is that in no way could Francisco Franco be labeled a DRAFT DODGER.

Comments are closed.