Is there anything left in American public life that isn’t an occasion for political rancor and division? NFL games are now nothing more than crude pieces of political theater. On Sunday even Vice President Mike Pence got in on the act, showing up to a Colts-49ers game then leaving after a few players knelt during the national anthem. Next day was Columbus Day, which the cities of Los Angeles and Austin decided this year to replace with “Indigenous Peoples’ Day,” because Christopher Columbus is apparently the new Robert E. Lee. And it’s only Tuesday.
It should be obvious by now that our culture wars will henceforth be constant and unending; the next battle could be triggered by almost anything. Whether it’s the reactions (or non-reactions) of Hollywood celebrities to the unsurprising news of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misdeeds or the outraged calls for the repeal of the Second Amendment the instant news broke of the Las Vegas massacre, very little can happen in America now without it being an occasion for an appeal to one’s own political tribe. No matter how tawdry or horrifying the news, there is vanishingly little room for solidarity because there is no appetite for it. Not even late-night comedy shows with their shrinking audiences can resist the urge to devolve into partisan political rants.
For all his eagerness to wage the culture wars in his improvised, bombastic style, this didn’t begin with Donald Trump. It didn’t begin with Barack Obama, either, but a recent study by Pew Research Center found that divisions between Republicans and Democrats on fundamental political values reached record levels during the Obama administration. You don’t need a Pew survey to tell you that, of course, but the data helps illuminate an otherwise vague feeling that American society is coming apart at the seams, and has been for years.
Right and Left Are Moving Farther Apart, And Fast
The Pew study measures responses to issues Pew has been asking about since 1994, things like welfare, race, and immigration. On almost every count, the gaps between Republicans and Democrats held more or less steady up until around 2010, when they began to widen. Today, “Republicans and Democrats are now further apart ideologically than at any point in more than two decades,” with the median Republican more conservative than 97 percent of Democrats and the median Democrat more liberal than 95 percent of Republicans. Here’s what that looks like in a chart:
Pick your issue. On immigration, 84 percent of Democrats say immigrants strengthen the country, while only 42 percent of Republicans say the same. Ten years ago, those percentages were nearly identical. On environmental regulation, 77 percent of Democrats say more regulation is worth the cost, compared to just 36 percent of Republicans. A decade ago, that spread was 67 and 58 percent, respectively. On whether Islam is more likely than other religions to encourage violence, 65 percent of Republicans say it does while 69 percent of Democrats say it doesn’t. When Pew first asked that question in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, the partisan gap was just 11 points.
Here’s the other notable thing about Pew’s findings. Among the ten questions about political values that Pew has asked since 1994, the partisan gap is much larger than divisions based on demographic differences like age, race, and education. For example, the average partisan gap has increased from 15 to 36 points, whereas 20 years ago the average partisan differences on these issues were “only somewhat wider than differences by religious attendance or educational attainment and about as wide as the differences between blacks and whites (14 points, on average). Today, the party divide is much wider than any of these demographic differences.”
The Pew survey is a rich trove of fascinating survey data, but it mostly confirms what we can all see for ourselves: Americans are sorting themselves into political tribes that have less and less in common. Partisanship has even crept into the online dating scene. Last month the dating website OkCupid announced a partnership with Planned Parenthood that allows users to attach a badge to their profile, the obvious purpose of which is to avoid accidentally going on a date with someone who doesn’t share one’s views on abortion.
Identity Politics Is Poisoning American Civic Life
That brings us to something else that might get lost in the Pew numbers: the median Democratic voter has radicalized much faster than the median Republican voter, and most of this radicalization happened while a Democratic president was in office. That counterintuitive trend points to a larger problem with how the Left in particular understands the American project and our prospects for living together in peace and prosperity. Although it’s true that Republicans have moved further to the right as Democrats have moved further to the left, it’s the leftward slide that should worry us.
For all their shortcomings, conservatives at least have a limiting principle for politics. Most of them believe, for example, in the principles enshrined in the Constitution and maintain that no matter how bad things are, the Bill of Rights is a necessary bulwark, sometimes the only bulwark, against tyranny and violence. In contrast, here’s Timothy Egan of The New York Times arguing unabashedly for the repeal of the Second and Fifth Amendments.
The rapid radicalization of Democrats along these lines follows a ruthless logic about the entire premise of the American constitutional order. If you believe, as progressives increasingly do, that America was founded under false pretenses and built on racial oppression, then why bother conserving it? And why bother trying to compromise with those on the other side, especially if they reject progressives’ unifying theory that America is forever cursed by its original sin of slavery, which nothing can expiate?
Before you scoff, understand that this view of race and America is increasingly mainstream on the American Left. To read someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose recent article in The Atlantic is a manifesto of racial identity politics that argues Trump’s presidency is based on white supremacy, is to realize that progressive elites no longer believe they can share a republic with conservatives, or really anyone with whom they disagree.
Coates has attained near god-like status among progressives with his oracular writings on race and politics, which take for granted the immutability of race and racial animus. So it’s deeply disturbing when he writes, as he does in a new collection of essays, that “should white supremacy fall, the means by which that happens might be unthinkable to those of us bound by present realities and politics.”
What does Coates mean by that? It isn’t hard to guess, and lately Coates isn’t trying too hard to disguise it. In a recent interview with Ezra Klein of Vox, Coates expanded on this idea. Writes Klein:
When he tries to describe the events that would erase America’s wealth gap, that would see the end of white supremacy, his thoughts flicker to the French Revolution, to the executions and the terror. ‘It’s very easy for me to see myself being contemporary with processes that might make for an equal world, more equality, and maybe the complete abolition of race as a construct, and being horrified by the process, maybe even attacking the process. I think these things don’t tend to happen peacefully.’
This is the circuitous, stumbling language of man who knows precisely what he wants to say but isn’t sure if he should come right out and say it. Coates isn’t alone in feinting toward violence as a means—perhaps the only means, if Coates is to be taken at his word—of achieving social justice. On college campuses, progressive activists increasingly don’t even bother mincing words, they just forcibly silence anyone who disagrees with them, as a Black Lives Matter group did recently during an event featuring the American Civil Liberties Union at the College of William and Mary. (Ironically, the talk was supposed to be about students and the First Amendment.)
For a sincere progressive, almost everything that happened in the past is a crime against the present, and the only greatness America can attain is by repudiating its past and shaming—or silencing, if possible—all those who believe preserving our constitutional order is the best way for all of us to get along.
Seen in that light, the radicalization of Democrats is something qualitatively different, and much more dangerous, than the radicalization of Republicans. It means, among other things, that the culture war is now going to encompass everything, and that it will never end.