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For several years now, this blog has tracked growing political partisanship in the U.S., the estrangement between grassroots Republicans and Democrats that echoes some of nineteenth-century inter-party vitriol, although does not reenact some of nineteenth-century bloodshed (yet). The division is increasingly about culture and identity rather than about policy. Differences on issues such as health, immigration, and entitlements are not fundamental–witness red states voting for Medicaid expansion and raising the minimum wage. Instead, more and more voters are basing their policy preferences (and a lot more) on their parties. Furthermore, party lines increasingly match regional, state, and community borders, which intensifies the political consequences.

This polarization had been under way for a few decades among political elites but not among the wider public until more recently. Trump’s victory depended critically on that polarization; his campaign and presidency, in turn, widened it. Both in 2016 and 2018 Trump spurned the “big-tent” outreach strategy of the GOP elites and instead revved up the base over cultural topics.

One result of this year’s midterms is, as many commentators have noted (e.g., here), yet further widening of the cleavage. The very size of the midterm turnout is one sign: Massive mobilization against Trump seemed to spur massive mobilization for Trump. In the end, a handful of culturally red states purged themselves of anomalous Democratic senators as many culturally blue congressional districts purged themselves of anomalous Republican representatives–often by replacing them with the sorts of victors who provoke the Trump base: career women, minorities, LGBT, and even Muslims.

Where is this bitter polarization heading?

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Americans have in the last few generations increasingly sought “authenticity”–authenticity in things such as food and music, but most especially authenticity in others and in themselves. Twentieth-century philosophers and scholars of popular culture have noticed this growing pursuit of the authentic. We can even put numbers on it. Phrases like true me, real self, and authentic self appeared much more often in American prose at the end of the twentieth century than they did a century earlier. In contrast, the phrases better me and better self became scarcer–a comparison to which I will return.[1]

The O.E.D. presents many definitions of authentic, but states that its “usual sense” these days is “genuine,” and particularly, with respect to people, “truly reflect[ing] one’s inner feelings; not affected, unfeigned,” or more generally, “the condition of being true to oneself.” This definition assumes that there actually is a stable, core, distinctive “oneself” to which one could be true.

Such an assumption is novel and strange in human history (even if mouthed c. 1600 by the buffoonish Polonius in Hamlet, which at that time likely meant “look out for number one” rather than “find your true self.” Globally, people have typically understood most individuals to be parts of the social organism rather than as unique and autonomous agents. (See this earlier post.)

Nonetheless, Americans, long heavily engaged in self-perfection, have been lately searching more and more for this elusive true self–a pursuit that has affected our politics up to and including the 45th president.

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On August 24, 2018, President Trump warned 100 evangelical leaders who had been summoned to the White House that the fall’s midterm elections are “very much a referendum on not only me, it’s a referendum on your religion.” White evangelical Protestants had overwhelmingly–77% of them– voted for candidate Trump in 2016 (versus 57% of white mainline Protestants), while the religiously unaffiliated had voted overwhelmingly against him–only 24% for Trump. A year and a half later, white evangelicals and the unaffiliated were virtually unchanged in their rates of heavily supporting versus heavily opposing the president.

Religion and politics have been intertwined through much of American history, especially since Catholics starting moving here in large numbers. Americans’ party allegiances tended to follow their religious allegiances. Seemingly new to this century is the extent to which the reverse is true, that politics is driving religious identity.

Since this possibility was first discussed by some of us about 15 years ago (1, 2, 3), this reversal of mover and moved has become increasingly apparent. A few weeks after Trump’s declaration to the assembled evangelicals, the election-predicting website 538 posted a story titled “Americans are Shifting the Rest of their Identity [sic] to Match their Politics,”drawing on an as-yet unpublished study I discuss below.

Two recent developments in this story lead me to update earlier posts (4, 5, 6): In the academic world, research on how politics shapes religious expression has boomed. And in the real world, the mutual influence between Caesar’s realm and God’s realm has tightened.

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I hate to beat a dead horse. Well, maybe this horse I do want to beat, because it never actually gives up the ghost.

Over the last few years, I have complained about a meme propagated in the popular media, abetted by a few academics, that Americans are suffering an “epidemic” of loneliness. Repeatedly since at least 2011, if not earlier, I have argued that there is no reliable evidence for any real trend in loneliness–nor in social isolation (which is not the same thing)–over the last 40-plus years. But what can this little blog do when The New York Times and The Atlantic keep flogging the loneliness horse for all the clicks it can deliver?

Two comprehensive reports on the “loneliness epidemic” have just come out. Perhaps they will finally put down that nag. Probably not.

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Behind the front-stage soap opera–or is it the Shakespearean tragedy? The Moliere farce? The Marx Brothers stateroom buffoonery?–that is Washington today, much of import is going on backstage.

Legions of conservative activists, former corporate executives, and former lobbyists are working to dismantle the modern American state. Most of this would be happening if we had a President Cruz or Walker, too. (Some of us are old enough to recall an earlier such period, when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, only then the deconstruction was done with some finesse and principle.) In such an era, it is worth taking a brief historical glance at how the federal government, stepping in for an ineffective market, has sustained average Americans–even if many of these instances of help are now largely forgotten.

Postal Savings

Boy Scout Making Deposit, 1913

Indeed, forgetting such help from the past–and even overlooking it in the present– seems to be a general American trait.

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Feel-Good or Do-Good Politics

A few recent developments have again highlighted a tension in left politics. One is the public shaming of Trump administration officials, calling them out in venues like restaurants, a tactic encouraged by at least one Democratic congresswoman. Another is a never-say-die mobilization against Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, a campaign that is supremely unlikely to succeed and would, if it did, simply lead to someone else at least as conservative being appointed. A third are calls to abolish ICE, the agency that has been deporting the undocumented, an event about as likely to happen in the near future as the Congress abolishing Trump golf courses.

mai 68

So, what is the point of calling for such bootless initiatives? Mainly, it appears, it is to energize people, to join them together in righteous and exciting solidarity, to declare their indignation and moral purity. And what about actually getting something done? Not so much.

Left activists have done this before, declaiming outrage, while right activists have more quietly but effectively advanced by focusing on what matters: votes. Some on the left have learned this lesson, as new grass-root groups have flipped Republican-held districts, but others are still stuck in the “Occupy” mind set.

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Controversies over “zero tolerance” have exploded recently in two very distinct contexts: the Trump administration’s policy for undocumented border-crossers, dramatized most starkly in its separation of migrant children from their parents, and the #MeToo debate over how firm policies should be toward men who press themselves on women, highlighted by liberals’ torment over the resignation of Senator Al Franken.

traffic stop

Zero tolerance controversies pop up in other places as well, such as over strict drug and alcohol policy (should one lapse lose a worker his or her job?), enforcement of discipline in schools (is it creating a school-to-jail pipeline?), and the “broken windows” policing strategy (is alienating a community a long-term losing strategy for law enforcement?).

Across a wide range of public policies, however, Americans do not support zero tolerance–even when American lives are stake. Indeed, it is not clear that societies could function well with zero tolerance.

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