Telling It Like It Is

Sometimes, a single observation accurately explains an otherwise confounding situation. Such an observation was included in a guest essay in last Wednesday’s New York Times.

The author began by citing survey results showing that Republicans are far more unhappy with their party’s lawmakers than Democrats are with theirs.

He then wrote:

The problem isn’t that Republicans don’t win legislative victories. It’s that legislative victories can’t answer the party’s underlying discontent, which is less about government policy than about American culture. Democrats worry about voting rights, gun control, climate change and abortion — enormous challenges, but ones that congressional leaders can at least try to address. What Republicans fear, above all, is social and demographic changes that leave white Christian men feeling disempowered, a complex set of forces that Republicans often lump together as “wokeness.”

When Donald Trump won the Presidency, those of us who attributed his support to racism were excoriated for oversimplification–characterizing all Trump voters as bigots was clearly unfair! Suggesting that votes for Trump and embrace of his MAGA message were evidence of White Supremacist attitudes oversimplified a complicated landscape and overlooked the impact of economic factors!

In the years since, however, numerous studies have confirmed that the single most reliable predictor of a vote for Trump was “racial resentment.” (As my youngest son has put it, only two kinds of people voted for Trump: those who agreed with his racism, and those who did not consider that racism disqualifying.)

The essay also cited to research identifying the GOP base as the population most upset by the current state of American culture.

Despite Republican power in Washington, these shifts have produced a deep gloom among the party’s base. A 2021 poll by the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life found that white evangelical Protestants — the heart and soul of the modern Republican Party — hold a bleaker view of America’s future than any other major racial or religious group. They’re more than 30 points less optimistic than Black Americans, the Democratic Party’s most reliable voting bloc. As the conservative writer David French noted in 2019, “one of the most striking aspects of modern Evangelical political thinking is its projection of inevitable decline.”

This pessimism is inextricably bound up with demographic change. A poll last year by the University of Maryland found that more than 60 percent of Republicans want to declare the United States a Christian nation. But according to the Pew Research Center, the share of Americans who identify as Christian has dropped to 64 percent as of 2020 from 90 percent in the 1970s. Almost 60 percent of Republicans believe that “American customs and values” will grow weaker if white people lose their demographic majority. But non-Hispanic white people now constitute only about 60 percent of the population, down from around 80 percent in 1980, and already make up a minority of Americans under the age of 16.

It is no secret that the frantic opposition to immigration–especially immigration from the country’s Southern border–is an expression of racism.But as the essay points out, even if the United States totally stopped all immigration tomorrow, legal or illegal, the White share of the population would keep declining, because White Americans are much older than the population at large.

And the Court decision in Dobbs overturning Roe v. Wade–a long-held aspiration of the hard Right–will not and can not reverse the changes in the gender norms of American society, changes that have empowered women and infuriated the MAGA base.

 A 2020 survey by the research firm PerryUndem found that Americans who oppose abortion rights are also deeply hostile to the #metoo movement and believe that “most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.” Overturning Roe won’t change the fact that most Republicans think American society discriminates against men.

Bottom line: Looming over all of the other problems faced by a self- emasculated Kevin McCarthy is the real nature of the GOP’s discontent. McCarthy can’t return America to the 1950s or even the 1980, but ultimately, that’s what the MAGA warriors want. The impossibility of that demand is why today’s GOP has no agenda, no philosophy and no platform. The (very slim) Republican House majority can only continue to engage in performative antics, throwing tantrums and acting out.

For today’s GOP, nostalgia for lost privilege is everything. Governing is entirely beside the point.


The Times They are A’Changing

Last weekend, my husband and I attended the wedding of City-County Counselor Zach Adamson to his longtime partner Christian Mosberg.

The couple had been married legally the week before, in Washington, D.C., since Indiana does not recognize same-sex marriages, but a second celebration was conducted back home in Indiana. There was a religious ceremony, involving clergy from several faith traditions, and a reception at Talbott Street that doubled as a fundraiser for Freedom, Indiana–the organization formed to fight HJR6.

Indiana culture warriors Micah Clark and Eric Miller would have been in despair; indicators of social and cultural change were everywhere, and it went well beyond the enthusiastic participation of clergy.

The ceremony wasn’t just attended by friends and families, although there were lots of both. The sanctuary was crowded with local politicians from both political parties. The Republican Mayor was there, as were several Democratic and Republican members of the City-County Council. A number of them also came to the reception, where they mingled with the kind of large and diverse group of friends that is one of the great benefits of urban living.

I couldn’t help thinking about the first time I’d been to Talbott Street, back when it was a truly transgressive venue featuring female impersonators and frequented by patrons who were mostly still closeted. My husband and I were both in City Hall at the time, part of the Hudnut Administration, and we’d come to see a friend perform. We were enjoying the show, when I was approached by a young man I recognized as a city employee. He was absolutely ashen-faced. “Please, please,” he said, “don’t tell anyone you saw me here.”

That was approximately 35 years ago–a long time in my life (although the years certainly seem to have sped by) but a ridiculously brief period as social movements go.

It’s no wonder the pronouncements from the “Christian” Right have taken on a shrill and frantic quality. In what seems like the blink of an eye, GLBT folks have gone from a frightened, despised minority to a group of friends and neighbors with whom we are happy to celebrate life’s rites of passage.

Think I’m exaggerating the degree to which attitudes have changed? Yesterday, notoriously timid Indiana University announced it was joining Freedom Indiana.

Indiana’s legislators may be the last to get the memo, but homophobia is so last century!


Priscilla–15 Years Later

We are in New York for a long weekend, and last night, my husband, son and I went to see the Broadway musical version of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. We’d loved the movie when it came out in the early 90s…a poignant, funny depiction of life from the perspective of three Australian drag queens.

The show was full of energy–with fabulous consumes, special effects and good music. The audience clearly loved it; there was lots of laughter and a standing ovation. But it was no longer the bittersweet portrayal of nonconformity that I remembered.

The world has changed a lot in the last 15 years, and as much as I use this space to complain about our increasingly bizarre political class, our gilded age economics and our collective historical amnesia, much of that change should be applauded.

When I first saw Priscilla, a lot of people still equated “gay” with “drag queen.” And those who were drag queens were objects of scorn within what a friend of mine called the “straight” gay community. The violence encountered by the protagonists was pretty common, and the notion that each of us should be free to be whatever it is we are was not part of the culture’s messaging.

As we were walking back to my son’s apartment, we talked about the cultural shift that made Priscilla resonate so differently a mere fifteen years later. While homophobia is still present and violence not nearly as rare as it should be, we have seen a sea change–especially in cities. (Rural and small-town America is a different story, although even there, things are better.) And it isn’t just better for the GLBT community; it is better for women and other minorities. When I was growing up, all the social messages I received defined a woman’s role very narrowly; women weren’t lawyers or college professors unless they were too unattractive to find a husband, and our worth was judged largely on how successful that husband was and how well our children turned out. Most of the African-Americans I met were servants, and if I knew anyone who was Hispanic or Muslim, I was unaware of it.

I’m approaching a very big birthday, and I’ve been mulling over the challenges and lessons that come with getting old. But living a long time also gives you a perspective that isn’t available to young people. From my perspective (which is clearly not shared by a whole lot of people), the cultural shifts during my lifetime have been primarily positive.

Constructing a society that celebrates our individuality and enables personal autonomy is a good thing, even if it makes an occasional Broadway show seem like a period piece.