As this election season comes to a close, I find myself caught in a dilemma. It’s one that has increased over the last number of years. And it centers on how we relate to political disagreements. My basic instinct is to believe that we all want the best for our country, we simply disagree on methods. I treasure my friendships which span from the Tea Party to Marxist and the ability to discuss contested issues knowing that afterwards we will remain friends.
And I’m concerned about the polarization that has dominated public life. It’s not that I don’t mind the clash of ideas, I think that is healthy for a democracy. But when you can define our politics by what beer you drink, what sports you enjoy, what grocery store chains you visit, we’ve made politics invade every area of life. And we’ve made it fundamental to our identity. There is no personal sphere anymore.
And when your politics is fundamental to who you are, then my disagreement with you is no longer a debate about this or that policy, it is a fundamental threat to your selfhood. And this becomes all the more exacerbated by the kind of self segregation Americans are engaged in, such that we may not or rarely will encounter those who disagree with us. We end up living in self contained bubbles.
This happens with the media as conservatives watch Fox News and liberals watch MSNBC. It happens in the churches we go to. I serve as a pastor of a largely blue church though the self selection process has tend to drive conservatives to church and liberals away from the church. It even contributes to the decision of where we live. The Big Sort, indicates that “values” of a community will be a key predictor of where we live. And in increasingly mobile society that process has accelerated.
You can see this in how few states and districts are actually contestable. Here in Oklahoma there is no reason for either party to spend resources because we know how the election will turn out. And it’s not just that the GOP controls Oklahoma and the Democrats control Vermont, it’s that the control is so total, that likeminded folks are attracted to the area because of that fact, so reversing the trend is not likely.
Even where I have a job is defined by this phenomena. I live in the bluest town in Oklahoma, where there is a university, and therefore a threshold has been reached that there is a need for a liberal church. My politics and theology is wrapped up into the fact that I was a candidate for the position. That is not unusual for the job market. For instance, if you are gay, where would you rather live, a state with a non discrimination ordinance or one without one?
Our values, our identities drive our social relationships, our connections, and with that our job prospects and that bears on our quality of life. It’s hard to disentangle politics from that mix. So I don’t have any solutions to that phenomena except that it would take a special effort on our part to purposely move outside of our bubbles to engage other folks, including those that disagree with us.
I do think some of this phenomena is not that politics has overtaken all of life as earlier surmised. Rather politics has been replaced by cultural identifiers. I think of politics has having to do with the distribution of goods and services, of democratic say about how our economy works. And those have, in the last 40 years, been removed from the public sphere. As such, the only thing we have left is whether I can identify with a certain set of cultural norms as embodied by this or that politician.
If Sarah Palin warms your heat, as rural, as a hunter, as an evangelical protestant or if Obama warms your heart, as cosmopolitan and as a community organizer, this will tell me more about your cultural sense of things then whether we can get a minimum wage increase. It may be the loss of our politics and any sense that we have input on central economic questions that “whether I’d like to have a beer with a candidate” is the leading question of our time.
So here’s all a precursor to lead to my dilemma. I take the GOP as an existential threat. That is, this is not a debate over just a set of policy differences but rather every election now presents us with a fundamental question about the nature of our democracy. 2010 was that election, 2012, and now 2014 has taken on that same kind of urgency. And past election results, especially living in states taken over by the Tea Party ( I lived in Kansas, now Oklahoma) bear out that fear.
This is not because I think the Democrats are swell. This is not a case of tribalism. I have few champions in Washington these days except Bernie Sanders, who is an independent. This boils down to two phenomena we’ve seen over the last number of years. The breakdown of the social contract that says we are responsible for one another. The second is the changing of our democratic structures to make the conservative majority a permanent one by shutting out millions in the process.
To the first, Paul Ryan introduced a budget and the GOP has introduced this every year ,where 3/4 of the budget cuts are directed against the poor, where Social Security and Medicare are privatized, where most poverty programs are ended and made into block grants for the states to do as they will. This has become the gold standard budget that almost every Republican member of congress and any national candidate, endorsed, ran on, and voted for. In other words, each election now is a referendum on a radical remaking of our society.
To the second, the GOP has embraced a form of the poll tax and thereby they are excluding millions from the electoral process. From Kansas to North Carolina to Texas, early voting, same day registration, voting on campuses are eliminated or reduced as the hoops to provide the paperwork to vote grows extensively, largely since 2006. With the Supreme Court gutting the Voting Rights Act, the ability to vote is endangered in this country.
At the same time, the right to join a union has either been curtailed or outlawed, depending on what job you have. Wisconsin’s Scott Walker has become a celebrity on the right for his efforts. In Michigan, democratically elected governments are suspended as state appointed managers radically gut pensions and public services. This is to say, the means by which we could democratically resist is being restricted or dismantled by tea party governments in every region of the country.
So I want to hold together two things. I don’t want to contribute to a tribalistic politics, where one side is evil and another is golden. I want to continue the good discussions I have with my friends, especially those on the right. I want to puncture the bubbles that we live in. And yet I also want folks to know that I consider the GOP a threat to our democratic structures and to the social contract that made the 20th century. Is that too much to hold together?
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma