How Did We Get Here?

Last Thursday, I participated in a (virtual) presentation for my university’s Senior Academy. The focus was upon the election, and since most of us are laser-focused on November 3d, I thought I’d share my remarks, which followed a colleague’s presentation on partisanship and political psychology.


Like most of you, I’ve followed the ways in which partisanship and our incommensurate realities have affected our elections, but since 2016, I’ve been obsessed with a different question: How did we get here? What explains our current tribalism? What explains the 35 or 40 percent of Americans who continue to support Donald Trump?

I’ve concluded that the answer is deceptively—and depressingly—simple: the central motivation is racism (with a fair amount of misogyny and religious bigotry thrown in.) The tools that Mitch McConnell and his ilk use—tools that allow a minority of American citizens to effectively dominate the majority—are elements of our legal and electoral structures that have outlived whatever usefulness they may once have had.

There’s growing awareness of several of those structural defects: both parties gerrymander, for example, although the Republicans are much better at it; the Electoral College, which has given us a President who lost the popular vote twice since 2000; the filibuster, which as currently used effectively requires a Senate super-majority to pass anything; and the dubious legality of a variety of thinly-veiled vote suppression tactics.

There are other systemic flaws that we are only beginning to recognize, especially the degree to which population movement and demographic change have turned the U.S. Senate into a massively unrepresentative body. Currently, over half the U.S. population lives in just nine states. As a result, fewer than half of the population chooses 82 percent of the country’s Senators.

Republicans currently hold a Senate majority while Senate Democrats  represent well over half of the American population.

Recently, Nate Silver sorted the country into four categories—or as he called them, “buckets”– those with fewer than 25,000 people living within 5 miles were classified as rural; those falling between 25,000 and 100,000 were exurban; between 100,000 and 250,000 were suburban or small city; and over 250,000 were urban.

Silver found that these “buckets” were almost even: 25 percent were rural, 23 percent exurban/small town, 27 percent suburban/small city, and 25 percent urban core/large city.

Silver then looked at the Senate, and found a major skew to rural areas in that chamber’s representation. It turns out that the Senate has “two or three times as much rural representation as urban core representation … even though there are actually about an equal number of voters in each bucket nationwide.”

Since rural areas tend to be whiter, it means the Senate represents a whiter population, too. Silver says it’s almost as if the Senate has turned the clock back by 20 years as far as the racial demographics of the country goes. Rural residents also tend to be more Christian, more socially conservative and less tolerant of diversity than residents of urban areas. Don’t get me wrong; these folks deserve representation. But they don’t deserve wildly disproportionate representation.

When we connect the dots, we realize that the dominance of rural interests at both the state and federal level owes a lot to gerrymandering. Since rural folks tend to be Republican and urban areas these days are solidly Democratic, when Republicans draw the district maps—as they do in Indiana—they cut up urban areas and put the pieces in districts that are largely rural. It’s been estimated that for purposes of the Electoral College, each rural vote is worth 1 and a third of each urban vote.

This isn’t the way a small-d democratic republic is supposed to work.

One reason we’ve gotten to this point is because we’ve neglected civic education, and have ignored the importance of informed civic engagement.

So long as most Americans don’t understand the rules we already have, or the reasons we have them–so long as they fail to recognize the profound effect legal structure exerts on the mechanics of government, we are ignoring one of the most dangerous threats to ethical and constitutional governance: widespread civic ignorance.

Too many Americans vote for presidents and governors and mayors without understanding either the skills required for those jobs or–even more importantly–the constraints applicable to those positions. They evidently assume that they are electing temporary kings and queens–people who will take office, issue decrees, and change reality. (Trump’s base, for example, evidently thinks his constant stream of “Executive Orders” all have legal effect, although many don’t.)

Worse, they fail to recognize the ways in which structures that were useful (or at least, less harmful) in the past have distorted the exercise of the franchise and given us a system in which rural minorities and thinly populated states dominate an overwhelmingly urban country.

When you don’t understand how a system works–or why it is no longer working properly–you can’t make informed choices at the ballot box. We desperately need a voting public that understands why America’s systems aren’t functioning properly–and that recognition requires knowing what “properly” looks like.

We actually are fortunate that Donald Trump is so visibly incompetent and corrupt that even an electorate that is constitutionally-illiterate can see it. If the polls are right and the monumental turnout we are already seeing is as anti-Trump as it seems, we will have narrowly escaped an existential threat.

Still–over a third of the voting public is more concerned with protecting white privilege than repairing our democracy.

We have our work cut out for us.


  1. Sheila: “When you don’t understand how a system works–or why it is no longer working properly–you can’t make informed choices at the ballot box. We desperately need a voting public that understands why America’s systems aren’t functioning properly–and that recognition requires knowing what “properly” looks like.”
    OMG: That is precisely why I am among the thousands who are voting straight Democrat ticket.
    Four more years of Trump on TV will frighten the children if we voters give him the chance. Let’s make it a landslide as a message to republicans to change their unholy ways.

  2. Well Sheila, excellent and thought-provoking as always!

    I agree on a lot of points you made and those of Nate Silver.

    I might add,

    Throughout history, what have men who wanted power done to incite fanatical self-destructive and laser focused behavior?

    Righteous Crusades!

    Righteous Crusades to demonize Africans as cursed which allowed in easing of conscience concerning slavery.

    Righteous Crusades to slaughter aborigines and remove aboriginal children from their homes in New Zealand and Australia, and indoctrinate them into a belief system that was completely foreign!

    Righteous Crusades that allowed extermination of the 1st Nations on this continent and the one right below us! Also the removal of those children from homes indoctrinate them in the same belief system that they had done on other continents.

    Righteous Crusades that allowed eugenics in so-called free societies (the United States and Britain) to sterilize those deemed undesirable!

    Righteous Crusades to allow the forcing certain religious beliefs on civil society and controlling a person’s wholly owned being by force.

    Righteous Crusades that demonize certain groups of citizens that believe in a different form of religion or worship. Doesn’t matter if they are Christian or not.

    Righteous Crusades that promote fanaticism to the point of surrendering a life or taking a life and justifying that behavior as divine!

    Other forms of this behavior would be the Jihad which were not just Islamic, the Crusades were a jihad, just promoted by Christians! Jews used of the jihad or crusade against enemies in the Old Testament, eradicating entire populations of nonbelievers.

    The belief that you can annihilate those you deem unworthy by righteous decree, and that you will be rewarded with divine glory, is a powerful force, it’s an attractive conduct, that wrongly, you can annihilate your neighbor, your brother, even your enemy with impunity and be rewarded!

    Mitch McConnell and his ilk have just continued a human tradition carried on by a flawed human condition of superiority and power! Because they believe in a divine calling that somehow gives them the ability to construct a Panacea of authority which they control.

  3. Racism explains much of why he is so popular with his base, as does hatred of “the other”, but I think another reason is fear of losing power. This all seems like a desperate attempt of the white male to cling to the historic position of power and privilege that he has enjoyed throughout history. And when a group feels threatened, they are more likely to resort to violence and the use of force.
    The sociologist C. Wright Mills stated that a group in the position of power will do whatever it can to maintain that power, and we are seeing that play out today. Perilous times indeed.

  4. “I’ve concluded that the answer is deceptively—and depressingly—simple: the central motivation is racism (with a fair amount of misogyny and religious bigotry thrown in.) The tools that Mitch McConnell and his ilk use—tools that allow a minority of American citizens to effectively dominate the majority—are elements of our legal and electoral structures that have outlived whatever usefulness they may once have had.”

    I did some Google research this morning and finally found information on that Republican committee formed in 2008 to obstruct President Obama on all issues; as they admitted in the past this committee was based on his race, not his politics. The Time Article on the “new new deal”; “The Party of NO:…” by Michael Grunwald, August 23, 2012 contains information to explain much about “How Did We Get Here”. Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee for the presidency is to them a continuation of obstructing President Obama’s progress. But; Joe is his own man with his own campaign foundation, adjusted to fit the limited public campaigning during this Pandemic. It is up to the general public, lacking in civic education, to see past Trump’s clownish and dangerous public spreading of the virus and recognize the sanity of the Democratic “masked campaign” by Joe and Kamala.

    The Republican plot to obstruct President Obama, was led by Eric Cantor, House GOP Whip and Mitch McConnell, Senate minority leader at the time. McConnell stated “…unified resistance is our ticket for coming back…” And here they are! The Republican “plot to obstruct Obama” continued under Trump by repealing progress on many levels and many issues, taking credit for President Obama’s moving the country forward regarding joblessness, the economy, medical care, immigration, etc. As McConnell moved forward to his current powerful position in the Senate; the Republican stronghold on the presidency and the nation seems to be cemented in place. Supporting even the life-and-death issue during this Covid-19 Pandemic which is killing off Democrats, Independents and Republicans without regard for political affiliation.

    Republican racist politics brought us here and only Democratic leadership using democracy, Rule of Law and supporting the Constitution of the United States of America for all Americans can get us our of here.

    “We have our work cut out for us.”

  5. If you want to know how we got here, just look at GOPAC. The extremism started then and its author was Newt Gingrich.

  6. Sheila writes, “When we connect the dots…”

    This country only connects some of the dots. Those of you who are amazed that honest to goodness Americans could support Donald Trump is looking upon a microcosm of the problem.

    Yes, how could these people vote for this slug, or how can they support a Republican platform that does nothing for them? If anything, it is harmful to them.

    Some of us say the same thing about the Democratic platform and have been saying this for a very long time. Why are you people voting for a platform that does nothing for the average American?

    I know, I know, this time it’s different.

    The adjective form of delusional is “characterized by or holding idiosyncratic beliefs or impressions contradicted by reality or rational argument.”

    If you only connect some of the dots, but not all of them, you’re not dealing with reality.

  7. Is it Trump? Clearly the present failure of government is. Is it the electorate? Certainly voter apathy in 2016 allowed Putin to seat his preference into power here knowing that Trump would do his part in leading us to failure. Is it the Republican Party? They certainly want power in order to reward their donors with economic prosperity through wealth redistribution up. So it’s Republican donors investing in politics and expecting a very high return on investment (ROI) which they certainly have received from the tearing down of government?

    Systemic means across the board. All parts of our political parts are in need of repair.

    We can launch them in at least the possibility of that rebirth this election season with a successful blue no matter who campaign right now. Recovery will be slow, halting and uncertain but we simply are out of choices. It’s now or probably never.

  8. Two MUSTS as we move forward, especially after the census: non-partisan re-districting and improved/non-partisan civic education.

  9. Todd,

    If you look at history, throughout recorded history, men have always claimed it was different during that time!

    When someone gives you a permission slip, and most of the time, actually every single time, it’s a religious permission slip to discriminate and do harm, including enslave and murder your fellow man, individuals with those leanings willfully delude themselves and feign ignorance as in willful ignorance, to that hypocrisy!

    It’s all done under the guise of righteousness and that those who dominate their fellow man will receive some sort of righteous Glory! It’s because those individuals are a bunch of insecure malcontents that managed to aggrieve themselves, and somehow, the equate that to their own personal holy war to give themselves divine glory! I guess we can say they’ve aggrandized themselves has some sort of holy warriors! Holy warriors that will keep the barbarians and heretics at Bay!

    I suggest everyone read Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden”

    It pretty much spells it out!

  10. Yes, racism, but also negligence; negligence in protecting the threads that make up our democracy. With Newt and Cantor (who never bought the 14th Amendment) we saw resistance to a mixed race society, and it has gone downhill from there. Newt and Cantor and their ilk have losers in the long run, but we are living in a series of short runs at the present. Our job is to do what we can (and Sheila is a shining example) of facilitating and accommodating the coming change while keeping our democracy intact.

  11. How did we get here???

    I reckon it started when the first slaves arrived in the Americas. Since then through slavery and Jim Crow a segment of our population has morphed into Neo-Confederates. The KKK and Night Riders enforced White Supremacy after the Civil War, along with “legalized” Jim Crow. Concurrently there was a war of genocide against Native Americans.

    This philosophy of intimidation characterized by the KKK and Night Riders is now part of these so-called armed militias that seem free to roam our streets brandishing their firearms at will.

    How did we get here??? The GOP playbook provided the answer – FEAR. Since Joe McCarthy the GOP has played the FEAR Card. Other than cutting taxes for the already rich and corporate America, with also curbing environmental rules – The GOP has no platform for the betterment of the proles. All the GOP has is FEAR for the Proles.

  12. Yes M Languor, it is fear. I have heard it said that fear is the devil’s favorite tool , and I think apathy is a close 2nd.

    Fear stimulates the old animal brain which puts us on high alert when we encounter people who are different from us. It’s a survival instinct. It can create tribalism.

    Racism, homophobia, misogyny are all based in fear and the lust for power over others especially minorities. No one gives up power willingly.

    There is nothing wrong with rational caution but it is fear not caution that is dominating politics now.

    Should Biden win, one of his biggest challenges will be trying to unite the country and returning us to a civil discourse and a rise in civic engagement.

  13. Yeah, I don’t buy that racism explanation. There are racists in the GOP, no doubt, but that racism is the major motivating factor for the rise of Trump, seems an over-simplistic explanation that easily breaks down upon closer examination. There are plenty of Trump people, after all, who voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012.

    If you talk to Trumpers, which I too often have to do, unfortunately, you find out very quickly they all have the same thing in common – the information they receive about politics is confined to right-wing media outlets like Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, etc., and their social media “news” feed means they only hear from like-minded people. They are being spoon-fed certain “facts” and others do not get presented to them at all.

    It’s that feedback loop which is a huge problem and has poisoned our politics It isn’t that everyone is getting the facts, and one side is going in another direction b/c of racism. The problem is that people have different sets of facts.

    How do you fix the problem – get Trumpers to listen to facts they don’t want to hear? I have no idea.

  14. Apologies for paraphrasing my post from last week…we came here, via fear of a multi-faceted tsunami (even before Covid, which is the cherry bomb on top)…fear of globalization, fear of technology, fear of disintegration of all mores (language, behavior, ethics, etc.) fear of climate change – all punctuated by the ever-implicit fear of “the other” of every kind.

  15. I have my own theory about how we got here:
    When did this tribalism get started in earnest? A lot of people point to the election of President Obama as it stirred up racism and, while that’s certainly a factor in where we are today, it’s not when it began.

    As far back as 2001, I wrote a blog post about the secessionist movement. So we were already at loggerheads at least that long ago. Aamof, it had been growing for quite a while prior to that year.

    So — when did computers become ubiquitous? Well, I came fairly late to the party [I was poor so had to wait for the second-hand stores to start carrying them] and I bought my first one in 1991. By that time, they were a pretty standard household appliance.

    Now, the internet can, by its very nature, bring people together and drive them apart. That’s certainly part of the equation — but I don’t think it’s the sole driver.

    So here’s my theory: suppose Russia began its strategy to sow distrust among Americans as soon as computer use became widespread in the US? If they began their attack in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s, it would stand to reason that by about the year 2000 it would be bearing fruit and we were already at each other’s throats by that point.

    And, of course, the Russians have had help, wittingly or unwittingly, from numerous factions within the US itself. The Republicans’ Southern Strategy and Red State Strategies certainly play into their hands perfectly. As do white supremacists and numerous other hate groups. I’m sure there are more I’m not thinking of at this moment.

    And here we are.

  16. How did we get here? I think it is through man’s fundamental desire to be a person of at least a little consequence. The unremitting drive to feel that you count, you matter, you make a difference, you amount to something, even if you don’t. People driven by this need are attracted to short cuts, one of the most popular of which is the readiness to say, “Look, he’s black and I’m white, therefore I’m superior to him.”

    Such phrases are certain to be met with applause and heads nodding in agreement in certain circles, and that acceptance is sufficient to meet the lifetime emotional needs of 33% of our population. It avoids the necessity to do or think or say something worthy of approbation, a feat generally beyond the ability of shortcut takers. “Tis enough. Twill suffice.” It’s appeal is known to anyone who has demurely accepted a word of undeserved praise. I.e., to most of us.

  17. Peggy’s comment about Gingrich sounds right to me. His “Contract With America,” was a contract ON America, and it is good that he never won the presidency.
    I agree with your thesis, but want to dd that we are also here because the “Fairness Doctrine” was eliminated, and paved the way for the bigly polarizing Fox News Propaganda system.
    Ronald Reagan’s somewhat veiled bigotry did nothing to help the racists in the country understand that their perspective of white superiority was venal and odious.

  18. Oft repeated: The Republican use of Fear has gotten us here.

    Not repeated enough: The Democrat failure to use Fear has gotten us here just as surely as the Republican’s robust use of Fear.

    There are a multitude of outcomes to fear from Republican administrations–fear of middle class bankruptcy, fear of disappearing opportunities for advanced education, fear of a wealth-biased judicial system, fear of isolationism, etc.–but Democrats can’t seem to express those fears in fearful terms, nor with any zeal. Democrats prefer to bore voters with positives. Why? Do we not understand the fundamental mental incapacity of our fellow citizens?

  19. The black middle class has failed to lead the black race in America to presenting a more desireable image of itself. Without a fight, it has let the old stereotypes live on.

    Now, wait…First, you have to accept that there IS a black middle class. For ten years, up until I retired, I saw that black middle class purchase thousands of my paintings. I met them. I talked to them. I listened because I wanted to know how they got where they were. Think integration of schools, increased education grants, quotas in schools and work places, etc., opportunities that grew out of Eisenhower’s 1950s and the Kennedy/Johnson 1960s. Those policies got results and a black middle class was born.

    Sadly, they–the members of that black middle class–often told me that their secret was in keeping their rise a secret. Keeping their success a secret! They feared the retaliation and exclusion by other members of their race who were still fighting to survive in ghettos, and they were leery of white retaliation also. Thus, while the black middle class chose to avoid setting an example, there in those ghettos the pimp and the drug dealer and the gang boss were still king of the role models. And because the drug dealer and the pimp and the gang boss are not shy about strutting their stuff, they have formed the picture many Americans see when they think of black America.

    Thus, also, the black preacher has risen in prominence in black life and in white stereotypes. Along with the black preacher came the black demonstrators…and the white backlash. And the black middle class, as well as the black wealthy class, has mostly surrendered leadership and image to the preacher, gang, pimp, and dealer.

    It is as necessary that the black middle class step up it’s leadership as it is that whites step up their willingness to include.

  20. Larry…a related memory

    I taught in an all-Black inner city high school in a southern city the year they first integrated the faculties. There were 4 white teachers among the many Black middle class teachers. The only time I ever heard the “N-word” in reference to students was from the Black teachers, fairly regularly….

  21. I find it interesting that all of the experts are talking about what black folks should do!

    After the abolition, and before Jim crow, there was a burgeoning, quite rapidly burgeoning black middle class. Those former slaves and descendants of slaves were doing very well for themselves in many areas. It caught the eye of self entitled whites, but they they couldn’t figure out how to function in this new society. So they formed the KKK and enacted Jim Crow laws!

    And just to make sure those dark folks stayed in their place, you had Tulsa, Rosewood, Knoxville, and other Juneteenth slaughters!

    So, is it any surprise that Black folks that make it to middle class status now figure it’s going to be taken away because white folks are scared of a social change?

    You will always have those individuals no matter what ethnicity, that will work against their own best interests! As in the Jews that fought for and with the Nazis, and/or black folks that hunted runaway slaves.

    Unfortunately those folks thought they found a way to fit into white society, unfortunately almost all met the same fate as those of their brethren they fought against or turned on.

    Back in the day, they called black folks hanging from tree branches, purple fruit of the hanging tree! So, I don’t think you have the place to talk about what black folks should do, because you haven’t lived it!

  22. John, you’re right; I try to avoid the shoulds and thou shalts of the world. In fact, the word ‘should’ is not in my post. I closed by referring to ‘necessity’ (something needed for white perception of black culture), actually a relative necessity…to a careful reader.

  23. Larry,

    You are right, it does pay to be a careful reader! Although you didn’t use the word should, your word smithing implies that very thing!

    That being said, in times of crisis people turn to those who they feel have some sort of divine direction! That would be the black preacher! My wife’s great-great-grandfather was a black preacher with a church on his ranch! The kkk’s Knight riders burnt down his barn, killed his horses, and burnt down his church! He was the wealthiest and most influential individual in that area of Missouri at the time.

    What took a lifetime for him to build and cultivate, not just for him but his entire family, was lost in one night. That family line never recovered their wealth nor their social status. Opportunity was lost and their trajectory changed for the worst.

    From time immemorial, folks ran juke joints and houses of prostitution, heck, Donald Trump’s grandfather did that.

    But the real kicker, the government was the one that brought drugs into the black communities, one of the first areas was Harlem. And you can’t say that it wasn’t done for humanitarian purposes either. It was done to destroy the black community because it was deemed a threat once again. There were a million reasons given as to why the government would have been involved in something like this, but the fact remains, they are responsible for the misery inflicted upon generations.

    When something hurts so bad, sometimes you have to embrace it.

    Black folks have lived their lives through centuries of inequitable conditions and discriminatory practices. All of them inflicted by the White race! And when the few laws that have been put on the books to help, only exist for a short period of time before they’re rolled back because of the endless whining of discrimination by whites, no less!

  24. Sheila, I applaud your passion regarding civics education. I love all education-based initiatives. 🙂

    I’m afraid, though, that your bias toward this subject causes you to inflate its impact. In the current state, I am confident that knowing more about civics would have a negligible–if even detectable–effect on election outcomes. People are simple too polarised, too distrusting of the other side. This is especially true for Republicans. That group would have no interest in the topics your civics classes would address. It would be dismissed as more eexample of big government getting in the way, I bet. Anyway, I think the behaviour of the GOP and its constituency over the past few decades has provided more than enough evidence for my position. As a simple example, even when they win, they don’t bother actually governing, and the base doesn’t care in the least.

    Am i just cynical? Maybe.

    But I think not.

Comments are closed.