Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on November 24, 2013
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A Strange Unease
“Mostly, I could tell, I made him feel uncomfortable. He didn’t understand me, and he was sort of holding it against me. I felt the urge to reassure him that I was like everybody else, just like everybody else. But really there wasn’t much point, and I gave up the idea out of laziness.”
― Albert Camus, L’etranger
“How can the polls be neck and neck, when I don’t know one Bush supporter?”
― Arthur Miller (2004)
Certainly a weekend of reliving the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination and the fractures it has exposed in the various limbs of the body politic has been sobering. For the many thousands who have sorted and sifted through the second and thirdhand “evidence trail,” leading to little but distrust in Official Authority wherever it may be constituted, it’s far too late for catharsis. Bust as we sift through the record, as I did for my recent recollection for the 50th, one becomes reacquainted with the virulent strain of right wing hatred mobilized whenever someone discusses policies that lead in any direction other than the maximization of profit for a handful of powerful, old white men. One difference was that in 1963, these were “fringe” thoughts and ideas, held by a handful of bigots, haters and associated hangers-on. (The right everywhere has always had a retinue of “useful idiots,” eager to feel themselves better than somebody.) Now these ideas have their own political party, a 24/7 TV news propaganda outlet, a variety of hyperventilating websites, and an AM radio space they share with fundamentalist grifter preachers and an occasional Latino broadcast.
So 53 years removed from when JFK exhorted us to “Ask not what our country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,” we find the operant question is, “What have you done for me lately?” We find ourselves separate and estranged from one another in a way not seen in my lifetime. Indeed, the entire notion of a “country” that we serve, in the manner that JFK and other members of his generation served, is becoming increasingly alien. We find ourselves with less in common, and less inclined to seek common ground. We choose media and opinions that reflect our own, and do so with an impunity no other people on the planet have ever enjoyed. And thus are our biases reconfirmed. We even want to group ourselves in increasing homogeneity, and exclude those not like us.
Perhaps you recall the story about how voters in a corner of Colorado recently voted on whether to secede from the state. Even though that movement failed, the underlying discord remains. It is reflected across the country in countless “red versus blue” electoral matchups which pit rural populations against urban. (Even here in Virginia, where Terry McAuliffe (D) defeated Tea Party darling Ken Cuccinelli, the conservative carried a vast majority of counties. It was McAuliffe’s lock on the urban and university areas that earned him his surprisingly narrow win.)
The Colorado vote failed, as only five of the eleven counties voted in favor of secession, but the wellspring of wanting to have it your own way, to separate into enclaves, to exclude THOSE people, and the ancient feelings such loathing taps into, remains.
But it’s fascinating that we are witnessing the culture-ization of politics, the trumping of shared culture over shared political traditions and agreements that go back generations. We’ve seen it around the world. Czeckoslovakia splitting in two. Yugoslavia splitting in five. The movement to split Iraq into three, which didn’t take hold but had the backing of some serious people. Back in the day, peoples of different cultures banded together to form states because there was more power in being larger, in the post-Congress of Vienna era of the nation-state. But eventually they circled back to the core unavoidable truth of not being able to stomach one another.
Well, now we’re getting to the same point domestically. In the last 20 years, we’ve herded ourselves into clusters like snarling breeds of dogs. See Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. Pretty prescient, no?
In a place like Colorado, the clustering has been reinforced by the immigration of lots of college-educated hipsters to the state. It has grown from a population around 3 million in 1990 to around 5 million, and the newer arrivals have moved to or near the cities and have plainly made Colorado a more Democratic and liberal state. (Here is everything you’ll ever need to know about Colorado demography.) The values of Denver and Boulder and Arapahoe County—a not quite big-L Liberal area but an upscale, arugula-friendly, and certainly not right-wing zone—dominate in the state capital… Culturally, there’s little doubt about it. Colorado is two states.
In Maryland, the western counties want to form their own state, on the same grounds that the rural traditionalists feel totally outnumbered by us liberal, pro-Kenyan citified types. The same could easily happen, and I think will, in virtually any state where one or two big cities hold most of the population.
The above-mentioned Bill Bishop noted this Balkanization of American life in the above-mentioned 2004 book The Big Sort.
Apparently Bishop and Robert Cushing did a number of little sorts of different data sets and come up with conclusions about our many divisions: extremities of the two major political parties (although it says in my personal political mapbook that political discourse in this country has swung 70 degrees rightward, with Ds now holding positions espoused by mainstream Rs a generation ago, and the Rs having delved full bore into Bircherism.) The institutions that provided the social “glue” a generation or two ago, such as civic groups and mainline churches, are in a death spiral of decline. Advertisers and political advisors group and sell populations according to increasingly “microtargeted” segments. As noted above, the three news networks of yesterday have become the thousand channel universe serving all interests and tastes. (Look in vain for any authentic left wing or socialist thought on any gate kept corporate media.) Thus we choose our own facts–blogs and RSS feeds enable us to create and inhabit a cultural universe tailored to fit our social values, musical preferences, and tastes. (The Irony Police inform me that I must mention that the Doomstead Diner itself certainly qualifies as a part of this phenomenon.) Years back Robert Putnam wrote “Bowling Alone;” now we “bowl” only with those who resemble us, and agree with us, in nearly every conceivable way.
From the book’s web site:
The nation we live in—our culture, economy, neighborhoods, and churches—has been sculpted by the Big Sort over the past thirty years:
•People with college degrees were relatively evenly spread across the nation’s cities in 1970. Thirty years later, college graduates had congregated in particular cities, a phenomenon that decimated the economies in some places and caused other regions to flourish.
• The generation of ministers who built sprawling mega-churches in the new suburbs learned to attract their stadium-sized congregations through the “homogenous unit principle.” The new churches were designed for cookie-cutter parishioners, what one church-growth proponent described as “people like us.”
• In 1976, only about a quarter of America’s voters lived in a county a presidential candidate won by a landslide margin. By 2004, it was nearly half.
• Businesses learned to target their marketing to like-minded “image tribes,” a technique used by Republicans in the 2004 campaign.
Living in politically like-minded groups has had its consequences. People living in homogenous communities grow both more extreme and more certain in their beliefs. Locally, therefore, governments backed by large majorities are tackling every conceivable issue. Nationally, however, Congress has lost most of its moderate members and is mired in conflict.
Does one buy this sort of analysis or does one not? We are arguably more politically polarized at any time since the Civil War. So, I went to see what some of the smart kids had to say. From Amazon:
Over the past three decades, we have been choosing the neighborhood (and church and news show) compatible with our lifestyle and beliefs. The result is a country that has become so polarized, so ideologically inbred that people don’t know and can’t understand those who live a few miles away. How this came to be, and its dire implications for our country, is the subject of this ground-breaking work.
From Publishers’ Weekly:
Consequences of the Big Sort are dire: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life. Bishop’s argument is meticulously researched—surveys and polls proliferate—and his reach is broad. He splices statistics with snippets of sociological theory and case studies of specific towns to illustrate that while the Big Sort enervates government, it has been a boon to advertisers and churches, to anyone catering to and targeting taste.
How did zip codes become as useful to political activists as to mail carriers? In the relatively new cultural dynamics of political segregation, Bishop discerns a troubling transformation of American life. Complex and surprising, the story of that transformation will confound readers who suppose that recent decades have made American society both more diverse and more tolerant. Pinpointing 1965 as the year when events in Vietnam, Washington, and Watts delivered body blows to traditional social institutions, Bishop recounts how Americans who had severed ties to community, faith, and family forged new affiliations based on lifestyle preferences. The resulting social realignment has segmented the nation into groupthink communities, fostering political smugness and polarization. The much-noted cartography of Red and Blue states, as Bishop shows, actually distorts the reality of a deeply Blue archipelago of urban islands surrounded by a starkly Red rural sea. Bishop worries about the future of democratic discourse as more and more Americans live, work, and worship surrounded by people who echo their own views. A raft of social-science research underscores the growing difficulty of bipartisan compromise in a balkanized country where politicians win office by satisfying their most radical constituents.
Worthy observations all. Yet for all the stated concern, one notes that it is only members of what passes for an intelligentsia doing all this handwringing. Away from the “deep blue enclaves” of the chattering classes, here in “flyover country,” those who have sorted themselves off into enclaves seem to have no such angst.
In one article, John Sides argues that maybe we make too much of this, and that it really doesn’t matter anyhow.
[Samuel] Abrams and [Morris]Fiorina argue that, even if political segregation in neighborhoods has increased, it may not have negative consequences. Citing the work of Robert Putnam and others, they argue that a decreasing amount of interaction—political and otherwise—takes place among neighbors. And so they conclude:
In sum, neighborhoods are not important centers of contemporary American life. Americans today do not know their neighbors very well, do not talk to their neighbors very much, and talk to their neighbors about politics even less. And they do not see themselves as swimming in a sea of like-minded people who have intimidated or cast out anyone who believed otherwise; they are aware that their neighbors differ politically. Even if geographic political sorting were ongoing, its effects would be limited by the preceding facts about contemporary neighborhood life.
In some places, neighborhoods clearly matter, and people gather together in expressly homogenous groups for expressly homogenous purposes. Why are there so many angry white men?
In Slate, Michael Kimmel reported on the appeal of the far right and why they gather into enclaves.
In that sense, the contemporary militias and other white supremacist groups are following in the footsteps of the Ku Klux Klan, the Posse Comitatus, and other Far Right patriot groups who recruited members in rural America throughout the 1980s. They tap into a long history of racial and ethnic paranoia in rural America, as well as an equally long tradition of collective local action and vigilante justice. There remains a widespread notion that “Jews, African-Americans, and other minority-group members ‘do not entirely belong,’” which may, in part, “be responsible for rural people’s easy acceptance of the far right’s agenda of hate,” writes Matthew Snipp. “The far right didn’t create bigotry in the Midwest; it didn’t need to.”
Many have moved from rapidly de-industrializing cities and foreclosed homes to seek community with like-minded people. Many are doing the same things that we discuss on the Diner. They prepare, they stockpile food and weapons, refine survival techniques and prepare for a final cataclysm when TSHTF, in our own version of an end times eschatology. Many are radicalized so-called “Christians”, along the lines of the Christian identity movement. His Christian identities focus on racism and antisemitism, plus its paramilitary ways, that fuels a constant sense of aggrieved victimhood. Indeed, Christian identity teaches that nonwhites are “mud people,” Jesus wasn’t Jewish (and was actually northern European), and that America and Britain’s birthright is to colonize and dominate the world.
For my money, I’m happy these people want to congregate in their own little communities. For the rest of the time that I walk the earth, I hope these communities will remain at some substantial distance from me. Yet for all of the obvious caricature, you would not want to sleep on these people. This far right remnant represents a class consciousness inspired by downward mobility, economic uncertainty, and diminished options. There is an entire generation of working-class people who have, for all intents and purposes been dropped from the economy. An entire generation who, when we were young, would’ve found work in factories find there are no factories to be had, their jobs having been exported to the Pacific Rim. And with employment went a sense of dignity, of pride, of accomplishment. Of being able to provide for a family. As much as I decry the racial politics, and laugh at the spluttering invective, honesty demands that I acknowledge the sense of helpless rage and betrayal at the inability to find a place in a world where the 1% has abandoned them, and while using them as political cannot fodder, secretly hope that they have the decency to die, and die quickly.
And the sons of the working class are obliging. The waves of suicides that rippled across the American heartland in the 80s and 90s as farms were foreclosed upon has been mirrored by a rash of suicides in the military services today, as infantrymen face their fifth deployment.
Michael Kimmel defines who these people really are:
They’re every white guy who believed that this land was his land, was made for you and me. They’re every down-on-his-luck guy who just wanted to live a decent life but got stepped on, every character in a Bruce Springsteen or Merle Haggard song, every cop, soldier, auto mechanic, steelworker, and construction worker in America’s small towns who can’t make ends meet and wonders why everyone else is getting a break except him. But instead of becoming Tom Joad, a left-leaning populist, they take a hard right turn, ultimately supporting the very people who have dispossessed them.
They’re America’s Everymen, whose pain at downward mobility and whose anger at what they see as an indifferent government have become twisted by a hate that tells them they are better than others, disfigured by a resentment so deep that there are no more bridges to be built, no more ladders of upward mobility to be climbed, a howl of pain mangled into the scream of a warrior. Their rage is as sad as it is frightening, as impotent as it is shrill.
And in a confluence of ironies, it is these people, who consider themselves to be the true heirs of the real America, the ones whose forebears built the American system and who feel themselves entitled to share in it, who find themselves in competition with some minority or immigrant for a minimum wage job at the local Burger Betty. And their rage is focused, not on the capitalists and financiers who exported the factories and the jobs they contained in return for tax rebates, but on the Other.
So fifty years after the assassination of JFK, he remains dead, his widow is dead, and his son is dead as well. And something has died in us as well, as we, like Camus, n0 longer wish to explain ourselves to one another, but to move somewhere where we can be left the hell alone.
Surly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants and articles on this site, and has been active in the Occupy movement in Southeastern Virginia, where he lives with Contrary and a shifting menagerie of adult children.