There Are Bubbles..And Bubbles

In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, Perry Bacon penned a very thought-provoking defense of the geographic “bubble” he inhabits.

Bacon lives in a very Democratic area of Louisville, Kentucky. But he strongly rejects the notion that he is sheltered from diverse opinions. As he notes, it has become fashionable to assume that neighborhoods dominated by voters of one or another political party are filled with people who are participating in a “prejudice” akin to religious or racial discrimination.

Bacon was originally from Louisville, so he was aware of the political tilt of the neighborhood into which he was moving. His motives, however, weren’t political–they centered on such things as walkability and other attractions of urban life.

I didn’t move here in 2018 because I was explicitly looking to live near others who voted for Hillary Clinton. I was moving from Washington, D.C., and I wanted to keep some parts of my old life, so my wife and I sought out a home within walking distance of restaurants and coffee shops. And here’s the thing: Our current political polarization is about urbanization and attitudes about diversity and cosmopolitanism as much as issues such as tax policy. A person who says they want to be able to walk to bars and coffee shops is essentially saying that they want to live near a lot of people who voted for Clinton.

He writes that he had initially hoped to come across at least a few neighbors who supported Donald Trump because he thought they would offer insights that would improve his political writing.

On the other hand, I was becoming increasingly alarmed and frustrated at Trump’s conduct as president. I wasn’t sure that I actually wanted my nonwork hours to include people who would rave about the then-president.

Bacon writes that, by 2020, his experiences in his overwhelmingly Democratic urban neighborhood had  brought him “to a different place”–that he now embraces being in a heavily Democratic area. (For one thing, his friends and neighbors are all vaccinated, so they can “hang out” together.)

But the really important insight he shares is one that many of us still find it difficult to recognize–the fact that our current political polarization differs–dramatically– from previous political differences.

A lot of the discourse casting polarization and partisanship as bad assumes that the two sides both want a free and prosperous democracy, but just disagree on how best to get there. But that’s not what American politics is about today…

I am not against living near Republicans; I just don’t want to spend a ton of time with people trapped in Trumpian thinking, which right now is a lot of Republicans. I would have been more conflicted living in a heavily Democratic area a decade or two ago, when the parties weren’t so firmly divided into a reality-based party and a reality-skeptical party.

But that doesn’t mean I am opposed to living around people with different views than my own. Our two-party system leads to the idea that there are two and only two sides — Democratic or Republican — to most issues. But that’s not how life really is. I disagree with my neighbors on a wide range of things. We just aren’t debating whether you should wear a mask, or whether Joe Biden won the 2020 election.

I have reluctantly come to the same conclusion.

When I first became involved in politics and political philosophy, the arguments in which I participated were about means, not ends. Everyone I knew (now, of course, I realize there were a lot of people I didn’t know), for example, claimed they wanted poor families to be able to feed their babies. The debates were about what sorts of economic policies would achieve that goal without inadvertently destroying innovation or discouraging incentive.

Those disputes were real and heated, but they were different in kind from the wacko ugliness emanating from the Trumpers.

I realize now that there have always been plenty of people who really didn’t want all babies to have enough to eat (especially if they were Black or brown babies). But until Trump gave people who felt that way permission to voice their actual views, most Americans–even those who may have harbored similar bigotries– pretended (or believed) otherwise.

Today, political arguments between Trump Republicans and the rest of us are like arguments between sane Americans and flat-earth-believers or members of Heaven’s Gate. As Bacon concludes,

Democratic-leaning people moving to areas or states with lots of other Democrats isn’t a rejection of diversity or free thinking. It’s a way to ensure that they can live out the values that they assumed we all had until millions of Americans embraced Trump.


Let’s Talk About…Sea Shanties?

I am generally oblivious to popular culture. This is not a characteristic that has developed with age–unfortunately, I have never been “with it.” (My students came to recognize the blank look that was my response to musical references more recent than Dean Martin.)

This personal history is by way of explaining my confusion over recent references to the popularity of Sea Shanties. 

I consulted Dr. Google, and found that Sea Shanties are “unifying, survivalist songs,” designed to transform a large group of people into one collective body, all working together to keep the ship afloat. Their sudden resurgence of popularity has been attributed to the anomie of our time, and the fact that so many people are desperate for connection–evidently, the original goal of the Sea Shanty was to foster community, as sailors worked long hours aboard a ship.

That desire for connection has also manifested itself in current calls for national unity. In the case of the Trumpian “fellow travelers” in the Senate– Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and their ilk–those calls are deeply dishonest and self-serving, but others, including the incoming administration, seem genuinely committed to healing the deep rifts that separate ordinary Americans.

One question, of course, is whether healing and unity can ever be achieved in the absence of accountability. Another is the nature of unity in a radically diverse society. There is ample evidence that people are longing for connection, for community, for belonging–but connection to what? What defines the community we aspire to join? 

My entire research focus has been devoted to that question. How do very different people live productively together? What sort of governing arrangements can both function for everyone and still honor/respect individual and group differences?

My conclusion lies in what has been called America’s “civic religion”– allegiance to the overarching  values embodied in America’s constituent documents–values that are central to what I call the American Idea. During his inauguration speech, President Biden quoted St. Augustine for much the same sentiment–that a “people is a multitude defined by the common objects of their love.”

In 2004, I wrote a column in which I listed what I saw as the values that define us as Americans–the values that should be the “common objects of our love.” These are the overarching principles that infuse the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and that, at least in my view, are absolutely central to what it means to be an American–hyphenated or not.

Here is that list.

Americans believe in justice and civil liberties—in equal treatment and fair play for all citizens, whether or not we agree with them or like them or approve of their life choices.

We believe that no one is above the law—and that includes those who run our government.

We believe that dissent can be the highest form of patriotism. Those who care about America enough to speak out against policies they believe to be wrong or corrupt are not only exercising their rights as citizens, they are discharging sacred civic responsibilities.

We believe that playing to the worst of our fears and prejudices, using “wedge issues” to marginalize gays or Blacks or Muslims or “east coast liberals” (a time-honored code word for Jews) in the pursuit of political advantage is un-American and immoral.

We believe, as Garry Wills once wrote, in “critical intelligence, tolerance, respect for evidence, a regard for the secular sciences.”

We believe, to use the language of the nation’s Founders, in “a decent respect for the opinions of mankind” (even non-American mankind).

We believe in the true heartland of this country, which is anywhere where people struggle to provide for their families, dig deep into their pockets to help the less fortunate, and understand their religions to require goodwill and loving kindness rather than legal or cultural dominance.

We believe that self-righteousness is the enemy of righteousness.

We really do believe that the way you play the game is more important, in the end, than whether you win or lose. We really do believe that the ends don’t justify the means.

It’s true that America’s aspirational values have never been wholly realized, but pursuing them is what unifies us. They are our Sea Shanties.

Healing and unity will require that Americans committed to those values reclaim the vocabulary of patriotism from those who have hijacked the language in service of something very different. 


Declaration Of Independence– From Trump

Anyone who follows the news even superficially recognizes that America is at a watershed of sorts.

Intellectually honest people know that we frequently haven’t lived up to the ideals of our founding–“liberty and justice for all” has been and remains tantalizingly elusive. I would argue, however, that so long as we at least aspire to the values of liberty and equality, so long as we recognize when we fall short, and try to address those failures, the country is moving in the right direction.

We fought a Civil War over the idea of equal human worth. As we are seeing, that war–and the debate over that idea–isn’t over. The Americans who voted for Donald Trump, who endorsed his attacks on immigrants, who “overlooked” his encouragement of the so-called “alt-right,” applauded his vitriol against Muslims and elevated him to an office for which he was manifestly unfit, did so because those sentiments resonated with them. They are the philosophical heirs of the slavery apologists and the thugs who beat and killed civil rights workers.

The good news is that the rest of us aren’t going along with this effort to define “American” as White Christian.

The most gratifying response to the election has been the enormous groundswell of civic engagement by people who had not previously been politically active. Marches and protests haven’t been confined to the big, blue cities like New York or San Francisco; businesses and churches and nonprofit organizations have spoken out forcefully against the re-emergence of the KKK and Nazis, and in opposition to Trump’s heartless decision to rescind protections for the Dreamers. New organizations have been formed–in Indiana, Women4Change, created in November after the election, has some 14,000 members. “Resistance” chapters dot the national landscape.

I recently came across another of those new efforts, Declaration 17.

Declaration 17 is an open alliance of private individuals who have joined in opposition, challenge and resistance to the policies and practices of President Trump.

Our goal is to rekindle public commitment to the founding documents that first articulated America’s core values.

If you share our faith in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the core American values we hold to be self-evident, please add your name and stand with us in opposition.

I don’t know how robust this particular effort is, but I really like the fact that it is emphasizing what makes us American–and what makes us American is not the color of our skin, not the God we worship (or don’t), not the geography of our birth. What makes an American is allegiance to the values of those founding documents.

Those of us who understand America in that way are engaged in a struggle against people who want to change the very essence of our system, who want to define Americans by their identity rather than by their willingness to embrace this country’s principles and values. They are a loud and destructive minority, but they are a minority.

As the description of Declaration 17 puts it,

We want the people to have hope—not despair. We want the people to remember that throughout our history, when America’s values have been threatened from without or within, we have prevailed in upholding those core values—and we will prevail again.


Tribalism Versus Americanism

Permit me a “Sunday morning meditation”…

We Americans are a cantankerous and argumentative lot. We hold vastly different political philosophies and policy preferences, and we increasingly inhabit alternate realities. Partisans routinely attack elected officials—especially Presidents—who don’t share their preferences or otherwise meet their expectations.

Politics as usual. Unpleasant and often unfair, but—hysteria and hyperbole notwithstanding– usually not a threat to the future of the republic. Usually.

We are beginning to understand that Donald Trump does pose such a threat.

In the wake of Trump’s moral equivocations following Charlottesville, critics on both the left and right characterized his refusal to distinguish between the “fine people” among the Nazis and KKK and the “fine people” among the protestors as an assault on core American values. His subsequent, stunning decision to pardon rogue sheriff Joe Arpaio has been described, accurately, as an assault on the rule of law.

It’s worth considering what, exactly, is at stake.

Whatever our beliefs about “American exceptionalism,” 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, countries had been created by conquest, or as expressions of ethnic or religious solidarity. As a result, the rights of individuals were dependent upon their identities, the status of their particular “tribes” in the relevant 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 upon who you were—your religion, 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, anyone (okay, 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 our core American values—individual rights, civic equality, due process of law—flow from the principle that government must not facilitate tribalism, must not treat people differently based upon their ethnicity or religion or other marker of identity. Eventually (and for many people, reluctantly) we extended that principle to gender, skin color and sexual orientation.

Racism is a rejection of that civic equality. Signaling that government officials will not be punished for flagrantly violating that foundational principle so long as the disobedience advances the interests of the President, fatally undermines it.

Admittedly, America’s history is filled with disgraceful episodes in which we have failed to live up to the principles we profess. In many parts of the country, communities still grapple with bitter divisions based upon tribal affiliations—race, religion and increasingly, partisanship.

When our 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. When they speak to the “better angels of our nature,” most of those “better angels” respond.

When our leaders are morally bankrupt, all bets are off. We’re not all Americans any more, we’re just a collection of warring tribes, some favored by those in power, some not.

As the old saying goes: elections have consequences.