We, They, and Us: UU Tactics and Strategy for 2020

We stand today a month removed from the 2019 UUA General Assembly, under the theme “The Power of We.” The tagline, and the Assembly content itself, has helped promote a discussion on what “we” within Unitarian Universalism means. From that, the logical next step is to discuss the not-we, the “they”. And in a dialectical fashion, with “we” the thesis and “they” the antithesis, “us” is the inevitable synthesis.

Or is it?

I attended a summer gathering in New England last Sunday, in which the topic was on the we-they-us trifecta. From the description, I wasn’t exactly sure what direction the sermon was going to take. Additionally, because the summer gatherings often had discussion segments, I didn’t know how the random mix of people who showed up that Sunday would interpret the title and topic.

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Ultimately I was disheartened by what I heard from the individual leading the service. While in a recent post I dismissed the “generation gap” hypothesis explaining the tension within the current UU church, the content of the sermon clashed strongly with my political socialization, and the realities of America as it exists in 2019.

The address focused in part of the term “political tribalism.” This is an old concept, but it was revived by author Amy Chua in a new book Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Chua has a fairly lengthy, fairly controversial history- she authored Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which ignited a national debate on high-expectation parenting and whether that had a negative effect on child development. More recently she was a leading voice arguing Brett Kavanaugh was a great leader of young women and carried water for him during the rape allegations that threatened his nomination to the US Supreme Court (her daughter was later rewarded with a Kavanaugh clerkship in a blatant and cynical quid pro quo). She authored a giant Atlantic feature to uncritically lay out her entire thesis of political partisanship tearing apart the constitutional system of American government.

I’m not going to devote this entire post to Chua, who I think is decent at historical analysis but pretty consistently wrong in her contemporary social commentary (for the record, I read her comparative historical book Day of Empire when I was a teenager and thought it was pretty good). The idea of “political tribalism” in the sermon was, from my perspective, a fundamentally misleading concept for a number of reasons. It’s also been taken pretty much at face value in the media. Let’s list three big problems:

  • The term has an imperialist mindset. “Tribalism” is used as a way to say our politics are more primitive, brutish, and violent than they were previously. Whether that is true or not isn’t the point in this case. Many communities exist as tribes today, they are not a historical stage of development. To suggest that tribes and “tribalism” (whatever that means) are primitive and inferior is both cultural erasure and pretty racist.
  • It’s a false equivalence. Dividing America into “left” and “right” tribes, or “red” and “blue”, or saying tribes fall under racial, ethnic, national, and gender lines is painting with a broad brush and saying all these “tribes” are short-sighted and destructive. Conflating the alt-right, who have murdered people in cold blood in places like Charlottesville and Christchurch, with the left, who in this period haven’t killed anyone, is misleading and indicates a politically useless centrism. It also treats ideological difference as little more than bickering, rather than a life-and-death struggle for universal health care, an end to the climate collapse, and justice for communities of color targeted by police violence.
  • Its logic is entirely backwards. The idea is that political partisanship is undermining the Constitution and the government that stems from it. This is both really obvious, but also misidentifies the problem. Partisanship is not what’s hurting society. It’s the Constitution. As I wrote in 2016, in “The pre-democratic American Constitution“, the Founder were fundamentally opposed to democracy and willfully ignorant that partisanship and political parties would arise around issues such as taxation, the extent of federal power, and most importantly, slavery. The Constitution has never been rewritten to establish America as a contemporary democracy, unlike every other modern country, developed or developing. Reducing partisanship is not only not going to happen, it’s not even going to solve the core problem. 

The sermon then transitioned from political tribalism to reaching out to the “they”, creating dialogue with the other side. This means talking with “reasonable” Trump supporters, finding common ground, and using moral suasion to stop the racist Trump regime. The individual giving the sermon talked about regular discussions with a Trump-voting gym acquaintance, and how productive all their discussions have been.

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Here’s a reality check: of all the potential options for 2020, this person is most likely voting for Trump again. 2020 will be a very high-mobilization election, this is very clear. Basically everyone who voted in 2016 is going to vote in 2020 as well- with the exception of those being disenfranchised by Republican state governments, the Trump-packed court system, and the Department of Justice. So, it’s not likely that this person abstains from voting for president. There’s a slight chance they vote third party instead of voting for Trump, but people who say they’re going to vote third party often end up voting for a major party candidate. So is this proud Trump voter really going to vote for a Democrat, even a centrist like Joe Biden? Let alone a progressive like Warren, or Sanders? To do that, they would have to like the Democrat more than they like Trump, and Trump has 90% approval among Republicans, which is as high if not higher than approval ratings by Republicans for previous GOP presidents.

Is it worth the time and effort to try to persuade one Trump voter to vote for the Democrat? Probably not.

Gene Sharp, in his influential pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy, talks about four ways for a nonviolent resistance campaign to win- conversion, accommodation, nonviolent coercion, and disintegration. Here is the section where he discusses the probability that opposing forces will convert to the resistance’s side:

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(Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy, p. 35) (full text)

Now this applies more to mass action at a very large scale, like what is currently happening in Puerto Rico. The mainland has not had mass action of this scale for any sustained period- not during the Women’s March(es) or the airport protests, or the recent Lights for Liberty vigils.

But it can be fairly applied to the one-on-one conversations we have with political opponents. Can Trump voters be converted? Maybe, a few? I was politically socialized starting around the beginning of the Iraq War, with the first phase ending with the election of Obama. The “bipartisan” period in American politics is dead, and has been for a long time. The parties are now, for the first time in a long while, if ever, ideologically coherent. There are no longer sectional differences, meaning liberal Northern Republicans and reactionary Southern Democrats. Trump has control of the Republican Party, and its voting base agrees with what he’s doing. They don’t want someone “moderate.” The party will not be taken back by Trump opponents, who are a tiny fraction of the party and politically irrelevant. People who think individual moral suasion is a viable political tactic want to go to a mythical past that, if it ever existed, hasn’t in my 29 years on this planet. The desperate need for “normalcy” is wanted, but there never was normalcy. Unless you were an upper-middle class professional white person, for whom the profound injustice and violence of the US political and legal systems do not reach you, except in documentaries and charity outreach.

Alternatives to Converting “Moderate” Trump Voters

  • Register a street to vote. Or a neighborhood. You have a lot of time to do it. Every hour you argue with an uncle or a tennis friend or whomever in your social lives voted for Trump, you could do something that a) affects more than one person, and b) uses energy to uplift marginalized communities
  • Fundraise and organize rides to the polls.
  • Phonebank for candidates and ballot issues.
  • Collect signature for popular ballot issues (like the minimum wage or legalized cannabis) which boost turnout.

All of these things are better uses of your time. It is not about reaching across and compromising with “they” to create “us.” Not everyone should be compromised with. The leader of the service suggested “not leading” with UU values like trans inclusion and marriage equality. To hide these issues in discussions is to treat them as, ultimately, political expendable. This election is about mobilizing and empowering the “we”, more than reconciling with “they.”

“They” need to be defeated politically. Their policies need to be repealed. The courts they packed need to be countered. The concentration camps need to be destroyed and their inhabitants freed. I don’t really care whether my uncle votes for Trump in 2020. Because I’m going to find people to cancel his vote out and then some. That’s the way forward.

The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.

 

The San Diego cycle: UU Fellowship of San Dieguito

Earlier this month I moved from Northern to Southern California. Exciting, a bit uncomfortable, but San Diego is a place of great promise and opportunity. Starting this week I will be a new transfer student at the University of California, San Diego; since I know very few people here, the half dozen local Unitarian Universalist congregations are a great starting place. Getting integrated into the community, both on a social level and as an activist, is deeply important. So I’ll be doing a write up of each place I go.

The fellowship's band performs in the outdoor amphitheater
The fellowship’s band performs in the outdoor amphitheater

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito (UUFSD, website here) is located in the hills of Solana Beach, just east of I-5. It typifies all things Southern California. The landscaping is arid shrubs and drought-resistant trees, the buildings are of grey stone and of the flat, pueblo style. What gives it a unique flair is the outdoor amphitheater where services are held, weather permitting. A hemicycle of benches surrounds a modest red-brick stage, its back butting up against a sandy hill. Beach umbrellas shield most congregants, though if one is quite pale and sensitive to sunlight (your truly fits the category) you may have to keep shifting in order to match the rising sun.

The centerpiece of the 11am service was the coming of age program, where youth start the transformation towards having their own ideas about meaning and spirituality. In total there were twenty-five teens moving forward to the next stage, an impressive amount given my original congregation had serious issues with an imbalance between elderly and youth congregants. Overall it felt like the “moving up” days of my early schools years; this was not a graduation but more an acknowledgment of progress and the foundation of future work.

Rev. David Miller, who like many in the UU tradition has the ministry as a second career, gave a speech entitled “The Edge of Reason: Faith in an Unreasonable Age”. It dealt with the great clash in society and within all UU congregations- how does reason interact with faith, science with mysticism? He called attention to the waste that comes with hair-splitting and semantics, and that ultimately what science and religion do for individuals and the world is more important than whose ideas are better.

Walkway between amphitheater and building complex.
Walkway between amphitheater and building complex.

 

His point regarding the ‘edge of science’ and what can and cannot be proven was well taken. It reminded me of an article recently put in a Scientific American compilation called “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?” by George F.R. Ellis (PDF here). Multiverse- the idea that there are other universes outside of our own, in some structure- reaches the edge where physical theories become metaphysical conjecture. Ellis points out that if there is no way to test for a multiverse, and the theory is not provable nor falsifiable, there is no place for science. Rev. Miller illustrates that we must not lean on science for everything, because its method has only so many uses. But also, implicitly, that superstition and dogma cannot creep into the territory that science can explain.

As one hopes, the congregants were very welcoming. I was offered the chance to introduce myself early in the service and took it. Rev. Miller pointed out that given my shirt (this one from Northern Sun, only with the old logo) I was probably not a stranger to the religion. Several people came and talked about their history at UU of Palo Alto, where I came from. It was nice to talk to people from Southern California and get a sense of what the community is like down here. Members were also helpful about other congregations in the area.

View towards the Pacific from the campus.
View towards the Pacific from the campus.

I plan to visit all the congregations in the county (five of them, with the largest one in downtown having a branch with overlapping content), and this was an encouraging start. The low-70s weather was perfect for outdoor worship, and the campus itself has character. What the amphitheater had was character- not run-down, but also not sparkling and impersonal.

Given that I only have one class this week, I should be ready for a new congregation next week- Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

Edit: I ended up going to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego for that Sunday. The piece on that visit is here.