All posts by Sheila

Red States, Blue States…

The battles over abortion are highlighting some previously under-appreciated differences between life in Red and Blue states. Those differences include health outcomes as well as economic circumstances..

As Jennifer Rubin summed it up in the Washington Post, 

 If you live in a red state, your risk of getting and dying from covid-19 is higher than in blue states. On average, your life span is shorter, your chance of living in poverty higher, your educational attainment lower and your economic opportunities are reduced relative to blue-state residents.

There are–as Rubin also acknowledges– policies being pursued in Red states that are increasingly persuading people to decamp and live elsewhere:  If they have a choice, “diverse” workers–LGBTQ+ folks, women and members of minority groups with skills needed by high-tech businesses– frequently choose to live in places they find welcoming, or at least safe. (As we saw when Indiana passed RFRA, unlike Republican politicians, local business enterprises understand that they are significantly disadvantaged in unwelcoming states. Low taxes– accompanied by a corresponding lack of public amenities and a poor or mediocre quality of life–simply aren’t enough to attract either new business or the skilled workforces on which those local enterprises depend.)

Red states like Indiana that have participated in the unremitting right-wing attack on public education tend not to produce the educated workforces that appeal to companies looking to relocate. Those disadvantages have produced the significant differences between Red and Blue state economies. As the Brookings Institution has reported,

To be sure, racial and cultural resentment have been the prime factors of the Trump backlash, but it’s also clear that the two parties speak for and to dramatically different segments of the American economy. Where Republican areas of the country rely on lower-skill, lower-productivity “traditional” industries like manufacturing and resource extraction, Democratic, mostly urban districts contain large concentrations of the nation’s higher-skill, higher-tech professional and digital services.

Many of these differences have been apparent for years–and as the Brookings report noted, they have recently been accelerating.  But that’s not all. As Rubin writes,

And then came the abortion bans. Thousands, if not millions, of women of childbearing age might reconsider their residence if they want to avoid the potentially life-threatening bans — or if they simply want to be treated like competent, autonomous adults.

There are signs the reality of forced-birth laws are registering with those most affected. Reuters reports: “The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized abortion nationwide has some students rethinking their higher education plans as states rush to ban or curtail abortion, according to interviews with 20 students and college advisers across the country.” While the evidence is anecdotal at this point, “in the wake of Roe’s overturn, college counselors said abortion has figured prominently in many conversations with clients, with some going as far as nixing their dream schools.”

Lest you be tempted to “pooh pooh” the effect of Dobbs on the college choices of talented young women, I have an example close at hand. My granddaughter–an excellent student–immediately removed Texas’ Rice University–an otherwise highly desirable school– from her list of schools to consider. She’ll attend the University of Chicago, in Illinois, a pro-choice state.

The Times reports that blue-state governors have begun “depicting their abortion rights policies as a business advantage, reinforcing the appeal of the wealthier and more progressive states that many businesses opt to call home in spite of their taxes.

In fact, multiple data points confirm that, among other things, the GOP’s cult ideology decreases life expectancy and keeps many women out of the workplace. It also contributes to the “brain drain” that sends a state’s college graduates to places with more educated populations and a higher quality of life. And if you don’t think any of this really makes a difference in individual life prospects, Brookings will disabuse you of that belief

With their output surging as a result of the big-city tilt of the decade’s “winner-take-most” economy, Democratic districts have seen their median household income soar in a decade—from $54,000 in 2008 to $61,000 in 2018. By contrast, the income level in Republican districts began slightly higher in 2008, but then declined from $55,000 to $53,000.

Underlying these changes have been eye-popping shifts in economic performance. Democratic-voting districts have seen their GDP per seat grow by a third since 2008, from $35.7 billion to $48.5 billion a seat, whereas Republican districts saw their output slightly decline from $33.2 billion to $32.6 billion.

Retrograde public policies have real-world consequences. And those consequences are substantial. Indiana has long suffered the economic and health results of an unhinged and provincial legislature, but it’s about to get much, much worse.

 

A Down-Ballot Threat

A recent article from Time Magazine highlighted yet another threat to American democracy–and this particular threat is especially worrisome, because it involves political contests that voters rarely focus on. In our highly polarized era, most voters no longer split their tickets, and few even bother to look “down ballot”–beyond the more publicized races to local contests.

That lack of attention could be especially costly this year. As the Time article reported, the midterm elections will see numerous election deniers “MAGA hardliners who trumpet former President Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen” running for positions that oversee elections at the state and local levels.

Inspired by Steve Bannon’s so-called “precinct strategy,” far-right activists have flooded local precincts, signed up en masse to be poll workers, and orchestrated harassment of existing officials.

At the same time, election deniers are winning GOP nominations for key election-related roles in major swing states. According to data compiled by States United Action, a nonpartisan nonprofit devoted to protecting elections, 13 election-deniers are running for Attorney General in 11 states, 19 are running for Secretary of State in 15 states, and 25 election deniers are running for Governor in 15 states as of July 11. More than one-third of Attorney General and Governor races in 2022 include an election denier, and more than half of the candidates for Secretary of State have embraced some form of the Big Lie.

A newsletter authored by Robert Reich echoed the message, warning about a dark-money group called the America First Secretary of State Coalition. As he wrote,

The coalition was formed by radical MAGA candidates who are running for secretary of state in key battleground states. In most states, the secretary of state oversees elections—including determining who is eligible to vote and with the power to kick voters off the rolls, throw out votes, and declare the winners of elections.

The goal of the America First Secretary of State Coalition is to elect Trump marionettes to the top elections administration in critical swing states so that when the 2024 election comes, they will have the power to declare Trump the winner—no matter the true will of the voters.

As I have previously reported, Indiana has one of those “Big Lie” supporters running for Secretary of State. Republican nominee Diego Morales has called the 2020 election “a scam,” and promised to make “voter fraud” (apparently, people voting for Democrats) a focus of his efforts if elected. Morales has vowed to purge voter rolls, limit absentee ballots and allow voting only on Election Day. 

You need not take my word for it: I’ve previously quoted James Briggs of the Indianapolis Star, who seemed incredulous about Morales ‘nomination. Briggs wrote,

The Indiana Republican Party on Saturday nominated a secretary of state candidate so broadly unacceptable that the selection must be setting some kind of record for political ineptitude.

Their choice, Diego Morales, once worked in the secretary of state’s office. That would normally be a good thing. Experience!

Except…

Except that, well, Morales got fired in 2009 over incompetence and a “lack of professionalism,” according to his personnel file. Morales disputes the record, as IndyStar’s Kaitlin Lange wrote, but his file doesn’t leave much ambiguity as to whether he met expectations in his job as a special assistant under Todd Rokita.

Anyone rational–let alone patriotic– willing to spend even a few minutes contrasting Morales with the Democratic candidate, Destiny Wells, would have no difficulty deciding to vote for Wells. She’s a U.S. Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel, a lawyer and an entrepreneur. She says

I’m running for Indiana Secretary of State to safeguard democracy and the freedom to vote right here at home. I have worked at all levels of government—local, state, federal, and the multi-national level with NATO. As an attorney, I’ve been Associate Corporation Counsel for the City of Indianapolis and Marion County, and Deputy Attorney General for the State of Indiana. And as a military intelligence officer, I have seen first hand the state of democracy across the world.

This choice should be a “no brainer.” But this is Indiana, where far too many voters reflexively choose anyone with an “R” by their name, no matter how flawed, dishonest or otherwise unacceptable. So, Indiana readers, please spread the word. Tell your friends and family. Visit Wells’ website (and send her some money so she can run a visible campaign. I just did.) The last thing Hoosiers need is an incompetent “Big Lie” proponent overseeing our elections.

Help defeat Indiana’s “Trump marionette.”

 

 

 

Christian Nationalism

I frequently inveigh against Christian Nationalism without explaining exactly what it is. In the wake of Marjorie Taylor Green’s recent declaration identifying herself as a Christian Nationalist, I decided I should be more explicit about what that label means–because it doesn’t simply indicate a religious identity.

As the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty recently wrote,

Christian nationalism is a political ideology and cultural framework that merges Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s promise of religious freedom. It relies heavily on a false narrative of America as a “Christian nation,” founded by Christians in order to privilege Christianity. This mythical history betrays the work of the framers to create a federal government that would remain neutral when it comes to religion, neither promoting nor denigrating it — a deliberate break with the state-established religions of the colonies.

Though not new, Christian nationalism has been exploited in recent years by politicians like former President Donald Trump to further an “us vs. them” mentality and send a message that only Christians can be “real” Americans.

An article in The Week pointed to the substantial role played by Christian Nationalists in the insurrection on January 6th. As one observer reported  “Crosses were everywhere that day in D.C., on flags and flagpoles, on signs and clothes, around necks, and erected above the crowd,”  Bible verses were plentiful in the crowd, and a number of rioters actually paused for prayer during the attack. One rioter recorded herself justifying her participation by saying  “We are a godly country, and we are founded on godly principles. And if we do not have our country, nothing else matters.”

A 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center identified 77 percent of Republican respondents as “church-state integrationists” who hold a variety of views “consistent” with Christian nationalism. That might be overstating things somewhat. A 2017 survey found that one-in-five Americans hold such views. The scholars at Political Behavior found that “support for the Capitol attacks is a minority position among any slice of the American religious landscape.” But they also noted that 17.7 percent “of white weekly churchgoers fall into the joint top quartile of justification of violence, Christian nationalist beliefs, perceived victimhood, white identity, and support for QAnon.” That percentage — while relatively small — “would represent millions of individuals.”

The article noted that Christian Nationalism is gaining an “increasing foothold ” in Republican politics. Greene and  Boebert are two of the more explicit proponents of Christian nationalism, but less well known members of the party are also adherents. “Doug Mastriano — a former Army officer who chartered buses to ferry protesters to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6, and who has declared the separation of church and state a “myth” —  is the GOP nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, and is now running a close race with his Democratic opponent.”

What is truly terrifying is that Christian Nationalism is being normalized. Republicans who shared the ideology  but previously denied the label are increasingly willing to admit to it: as the linked article notes, ” Marjorie Taylor Greene might have made news by openly embracing the term, but she might not be that unusual.”

As the Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty wrote,

I care about dismantling Christian nationalism both because I’m a practicing Christian and because I’m a patriotic American — and no, those identities are not the same. As Christians, we can’t allow Greene, Boebert or Trump to distort our faith without a fight.

We must speak loudly when our faith is used as a political tool, we must uproot it from our own churches and communities and we must form alliances with religious minorities and the nonreligious — who suffer the impact of Christian nationalism the most.

Religion, and Christianity in particular, has flourished in America not because of government aid or favoritism, but for the opposite reason: religion’s freedom from government control. Government involvement in religious affairs doesn’t aid the free exercise of religion. And as Christians, we are called to love our neighbors rather than make them feel unwelcome in their own country…

Christian lawmakers don’t need to erase their faith from politics. My fellow Baptist, Georgia Democrat Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, has modeled what it looks like for a pastor to serve in Congress without insisting on a privileged place for Christianity in law and society….

It’s not just Christian political leaders that need to do better, it’s all of us. Earlier this summer, I joined a group of prominent Christian leaders in launching the Christians Against Christian Nationalism campaign. More than 25,000 Christians have joined the campaign as we seek to elevate an alternative Christian public witness.

The Christian Nationalist takeover of one of America’s major political parties poses an enormous threat to us all.

 

 

 

School Scandal

I recently had a disquieting conversation with a friend of mine about the political perspectives of certain college students. She teaches as an adjunct at my former university, and noted recent conversations with students who were expressing opinions that could only be described as  examples of Christian Nationalism. 

She also noted that these sentiments almost always came from students who had come to the university from private Christian schools–many of them thanks to Indiana’s massive voucher program.

There are plenty of reasons to criticize that program, and I have done so repeatedly–in just 2021, I explained its dangers  here, here and here.

The voucher program in Indiana has not only failed to improve educational outcomes, it has funneled money primarily to religious schools, allowing many of those institutions to produce students who are–at best–unacquainted with democratic diversity and unaccepting of Americans with different values and beliefs. At worst, they teach students to disdain Americans who don’t share their fundamentalist dogmas.

Steve Hinnefeld’s blog, School Matters, recently reported on the massive growth of Indiana’s voucher program, and its staggering costs.

Indiana awarded $241.4 million in the 2021-22 school year to pay tuition and fees for students to attend private schools. That’s 44% more than the state spent on vouchers the previous year.

The increase, detailed in a Department of Education report, isn’t surprising. The Indiana General Assembly in 2021 vastly expanded the voucher program, opening it to families near the top of the state’s income scale and making the vouchers significantly more generous.

Nearly all the 330 private schools that received voucher funding are religious schools. Some discriminate against students, families and employees because of their religion, disability status, sexual orientation or gender identity. Indiana is bankrolling bigotry.

Initially, vouchers were sold to the public as a way to allow poor, primarily minority children to escape failing public schools. Perhaps that was the goal of a few proponents, but it is now evident that the primary goal was to construct a “work-around” of the First Amendment’s prohibition on publicly funding religious institutions–Hinnefeld reports that some 20% of voucher households last year had incomes of $100,000 or more. (Indiana’s median household income is $58,000.)

When the program started, supporters said it wouldn’t cost anything, because, if the students didn’t have vouchers, the state would be paying for them to attend public schools. They don’t even pretend to believe that anymore. In 2021-22, 70% of voucher students had no record of having attended a public school in the state. Most voucher funding is going to families that intended all along to send their kids to private schools — and often had the means to do so.

The program initially served both low- and middle-income families. Last year, the legislature threw the door open to high-income families. Now, a family of five making $172,000 can receive vouchers worth over $5,400 on average per child. For about half of all voucher students, the award covers the full cost of tuition and fees at their private school.

Vouchers also promote racial segregation. Far from being a way for poor Black families to escape inferior “ghetto” schools, Hinnefeld reports that  Indiana’s voucher population has grown whiter and markedly less poor–some 60% of voucher students are white. Considering that vouchers tend to be practical primarily in urban areas, that is an over-representation. Only 10.5% of voucher students are Black, compared to 13.5% of Indiana public and charter school students.

The program might still seem justifiable if Indiana private schools were academically superior. They aren’t. Researchers at the universities of Kentucky and Notre Dame found that students who received vouchers fell behind their peers who remained in public schools.

Hinnefeld quotes Doug Masson, who insists that there were three real reasons Indiana legislators created the voucher program: to reward their friends, to punish the teachers’ unions, and to fund religious education.

And that “religious education” is overwhelmingly fundamentalist and nationalist. A study I referenced in one of my previous posts analyzed textbooks from two major publishers of Christian educational materials ― Abeka and BJU Press–used in a majority of Christian schools. The study examined  the books’ coverage of American history and politics and found that they delivered what you might call a “curated”(i.e. skewed) history, and taught that contemporary America is experiencing “an urgent moral decline that can only be fixed by conservative Christian policies.”

Even more troubling, the analysis found that language used in the books “overlaps with the rhetoric of Christian nationalism, often with overtones of nativism, militarism and racism as well.” One scholar was quoted as saying that, as voucher programs have moved more children into these schools, Christian Nationalism has become more mainstream.

Your tax dollars at work……there’s a reason I call Indiana’s General Assembly the World’s Worst Legislature.

 

 

 

 

 

About That Civil War

I’ve been brooding a lot over the fragmentations and hostilities of American life, and the gloomy predictions of a “civil war”. Since America’s divisions tend to fall along lines of urban and rural, a traditional “war” featuring some sort of widespread armed conflict is unlikely and impractical, but the “sides” are pretty clearly arrayed, and we seem incapable of talking to or understanding each other.

I especially thought about the growing differences of Americans’ realities a couple of weeks ago. We were driving home from South Carolina, where for the past forty-plus years our family has enjoyed a summer week at the beach. We used to take the  state’s (relatively) major roads from our place at Litchfield Beach to Columbia, where we accessed the interstate, but since the advent of GPS, we’ve been able to save time by following directions along the lines of “take a right through farmer Brown’s sorghum field, then go 500 feet and turn onto narrow, scary unpaved county line road…(Okay, that may be a bit exaggerated, but it is amazing how desolate some parts of our country remain, and how long you can drive without encountering human habitation…)

What isn’t exaggerated is the isolation through which the GPS took us. We would go miles and miles without passing a gas station or seeing anything remotely resembling a town. We would, however, occasionally pass a trailer that had seen better days, often with an equally-dilapidated truck or van sitting in an un-mowed yard. Other times, we would pass a more substantial small home sitting forlornly in a field, alone and–so far as we could tell– far from neighbors or shops.

I cannot help wondering about the people who live in these homes. Do they have internet access? Television? Where is the nearest school, and do they have children who attend that school? Is there a library anywhere close? Where’s the nearest grocery? (Given the number of churches we pass on these trips–far, far more numerous than gas stations– I do know there’s a church near by, although I have no idea whether it is the “right” church…)

So here’s the thing.

Living in the heart of a mid-sized city, my experience of American life is radically different from the experience of the folks who inhabit these precincts. It isn’t a matter of “better” or “worse” (although we all have our prejudices)–it’s a matter of really dramatic distance. The skill sets of people who must fix their own cars, grow much of their own food, and rely on their immediate families and fellow religious congregants  for the bulk of their human interaction is obviously different from that of city dwellers who live near multiple other people–most of whom don’t go to their church or share their backgrounds or experiences.

Although I’d be the first to admit that I have no way of knowing, I’m pretty sure that the things I fear are not the things these folks fear. It’s also likely that the things I know and am familiar with are very different from the things they know and are familiar with, just as our respective skill-sets are likely to be very different. 

How do we talk to each other as Americans? What does being an American mean to each of us? Are there areas of agreement, of commonality? 

Research confirms that MAGA true believers come disproportionately from these very rural environments, and that many of these inhabitants deeply resent the “elitists” and “woke folks” they think occupy urban America. Urban dwellers can be equally dismissive of rural folks.  

As a 2018 Pew study reported,

Against this backdrop, a new Pew Research Center survey finds that many urban and rural residents feel misunderstood and looked down on by Americans living in other types of communities. About two-thirds or more in urban and rural areas say people in other types of communities don’t understand the problems people face in their communities. And majorities of urban and rural residents say people who don’t live in their type of community have a negative view of those who do.

A 2020 study by scholars at  Washington University found  that the urban-rural political divide is rooted in geography and not merely differences in the type of people who choose to live in these places. How close people live to a major metropolitan area (defined as cities of at least 100,000) and the population density of that urban environment significantly affect political beliefs and partisan affiliations. The researchers found that “The distance we live away from a metropolitan area shapes what we think about the political world and the partisan labels we adopt.”

There really are two Americas, and they are increasingly at odds. Perhaps it isn’t “civil war”–but it’s uncomfortably close.