A new podcast, Inherent Worth, which talks about the intersection between the political left and the liberal religious tradition of Unitarian Universalism, is out! “Interdependent Webs” talks about environmentalism, ethical consumption, what’s essential and what’s BS in the 21st century capitalist economy, and the ups and downs of UU online worship and community-building.
I assume UU General Assembly 2020 is not happening in Rhode Island. It’s in June, large gathering will still be a terrible idea if not outright banned, and a lot of high risk people come to it.
That being said, Rev. Chris Rothbauer, minister of the Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and Sharon Welch, professor at Meadville Lombard, along with me will present a workshop called “Building Communities to Counter White Nationalism/White Power”which deals with political extremism, radicalization and counter-radicalization, and the role of new forms of media on progressive and right-wing sources reaching audiences.
I hope you’ll join us (probably on Zoom). More details forthcoming.
This is a follow up to part one, which explored the historical tension and relationship of liberal and leftist communities, both in general and within the Unitarian Universalist faith.
While there is a centuries-long dialogue between liberal and leftist traditions, sometimes constructive and sometimes conflict-ridden, this relationship does not exist in isolation. The political and cultural Right is ideologically opposed to both liberals and leftists, and has benefitted from the two groups being at odds with one another. Reactionary forces have fruitfully employed divide-and-conquer. This continues to the present day. I will examine this largely through the lens of the Unitarian Universalist experience, though trends and events that involve larger milieu will be involved.
Free Speech: Tip of the Spear
I was recommended P. E. Moskowitz’s The Case Against Free Speech (released in August 2019) by a UU minister during our conversations on the rise of white nationalism and the alt-right pipeline. As one might expect, the title is not a comprehensive summary of the content of the book. A key point made is that free speech has been an issue triumphed by the political Right, which uses it in a bad-faith way to support the powerful and allow dangerous groups to organize and propagate.
You’ve probably heard their arguments before: They claim to be opposed to censorship, “no-platforming” (when people are excluded from online or offline forums because of the views they express), and any attempts to discourage the open expression of ideas. These figures—who self-identify as classical liberals, conservatives, and libertarians—say that their project is completely non-ideological: It’s just about giving everyone a fair hearing.
It’s easy to dismiss the outrage and inconsistency of online free-speech warriors who profit off of controversy. But there’s a more serious and troubling dynamic at play: The “free speech movement,” including not only online pundits but also think tanks, academics, activist groups, and their mainstream popularizers, has always been about free speech for the right—and suppressing the speech of everyone else. It is by and large funded by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers, who whip up anger about the “intolerant left” in order to stymie opposition to their social, economic, and political agenda.
Free speech has been a key wedge issue between liberal and leftist communities. This is a very old phenomenon, with the planned Nazi march through the village of Skokie, Illinois being a historical example. The American Civil Liberties Union is proud of its long history of defending hate speech (and actions), being the prototypical liberal organization that looks at right-wing hate through a rights-based framework. The National Lawyers Guild (NLG), which has long been to the left of the ACLU on most issues, has criticized how this defense works in practice, such as the propagation of far-right discourse and hate speech on college campuses. Note that the NLG article refers to the ACLU as “our allies”, indicating that free speech is an issue that can create tension, but does not mean that liberal and left communities need to fragment in the face of right-wing assertiveness.
There are two ways the Right uses free speech to attempt to drive a wedge between liberals and leftists (or between certain degrees and tendencies within those two groups):
Latch onto a fringe group without resources. As the Prospect article mentions, there are now a group of “free speech proponents” (largely online, who exploit controversy to make money and enter mainstream conversations) that will promote any view, however marginal it is in the real world. This may not be material supporting them with money, but instead given them massive amounts of free publicity, and making liberal and leftist groups form a response to them (which can foster a divide).
Directly fund divisive individuals and groups. The Federalist Society has been enormously influential in driving a rightward turn in the American judiciary, and directly places controversial and/or hateful speakers in places like college campuses. If a divide opens up on how liberals and leftists should respond, it is instigated by the Right. The Right has all the initiative and drives the conversation. When a liberal group like the ACLU expends time, resources, and political capital to defend this speech, it is doing so in service of right-wing aims beyond the speech itself. The Koch brothers and other billionaire reactionaries are wasting a finite amount of liberal and leftist resources.
Leftist Stereotypes and SJW Hysteria
Another tactic these right-wing grifter/propagandists (they’re really one and the same) engage in is to promote left-wing (or “left-wing”) voices in ways that make them seem unreasonable, violent, or otherwise antithetical to “free speech” (the right-wing version that liberals have largely embraced or at least not rejected). There are a few variants of this:
Promote a truly marginal view. Sometimes there are just bad takes on social media or protest speeches. These voices are not representative of larger communities or ideologies, they’re just idiosyncratic and flawed. Note that this doesn’t mean the person is a member of a marginalized group, but that the position itself is marginal- one with no real currency among any existing organizing group or collective.
Promote a reasonable view but remove its context and otherwise butcher it. You can take a good take on social media or a protest and make it look like the first bullet point through selective editing. We see this all the time with the Project Veritas crowd and its imitators, who have since the ACORN “expose” over a decade ago have infiltrated leftist spaces, recorded usually fairly normal and reasonable statements, and edited them to sound violent or otherwise unhinged.
Just falsify a leftist. Creating fake accounts is easy. Instagram influencers do it, governments do it, and so do political propagandists and their billionaire funders. It’s incredibly easy to have a “leftist” Twitter account post something inflammatory, unhinged, or violent and point to it. YouTube personalities like Tim Pool specialize in going through leftist social media that may or may not be completely fake. The outrage certainly is.
The end destination is the same- put liberals on the spot and say “do you agree with what these people are saying?” The result is a trap- as presented, liberals aren’t going to agree with them (at the very least because it’s leftist ideology that has different core principles, but more likely because it’s intentionally presented as poorly thought-out or advocating for violence). The right-wing provocateur and the liberal are thus joined together promoting free speech, and a divide is created between the liberal and the leftist that would not exist, or be as deep and complete, without right-wing interference. As stated in Part I, liberal-left disagreements within Unitarian Universalist communities are historical and will always exist, but they can be manufactured too. Free speech is the best example of an issue that is almost wholly a domain of the right- liberal groups that triumph or defend free speech are frequently doing it in support of right-wing groups, or using right-wing language and terminology. This in some ways resembles fishhooktheory, which is a counter to horseshoe theory. Here’s an explainer of the difference in the Pacific Standard:
The main argument for Horseshoe Theory is that both the far left and the far right are opposed to the centrist, neoliberal/capitalist status quo. Communists and fascists in the 1930s criticized the aging imperial democracies of Britain, France, and the United States as weak, corrupt, and—post-Great Depression—as hurtling toward a final collapse. More recently, the argument goes, left-wing radicals opposed centrist Hillary Clinton and France’s Emmanuel Macron. By doing so, they offered de facto (and sometimes more than de facto) aid to racist, nationalist opponents like Trump and Marine Le Pen. We are told that left and right both want to destroy democratic norms and the sensible center. Therefore, Horseshoe Theory says, they work together.
and Fishhook Theory:
Centrists enable fascism with such predictable frequency that the left has come up with an alternative to Horseshoe Theory: Fish Hook Theory. Fish Hook Theory suggests that the political spectrum is shaped like a fish hook, with the left out on one end and the far right bending around like a hook to wind up close to the center.
Free speech is an example where the alt-right and the center (which if we’re talking truly far-left and far-right ideologies here, liberalism is definitely in the center) converge and differentiate from the right. Liberals are not without principles, though they may also be “moderates” and end up trying to balance two very uneven sides in a way that slides to the right. But these principles can be hijacked. Free speech is an obvious one. Protection of private property is another one- if you hold a liberal, principled defense of private property, then you’ll align with the right when leftists damage security cameras, bank windows, or privatized immigration detention camps. The right has a lot of media salience and a lot of financial backing to make these cleavages happen- they can couch it in reasonable language like “don’t you want freedom of speech?” or “aren’t people entitled to what they’ve earned?”, but this may mean sliding to a right-wing conclusion of those starting points.
An obvious ending point for this series is a discussion of this summer’s major controversy, Rev. Eklof’s The Gadfly Papers. Like many people who witnessed the initial fallout of its publication, I don’t want to give the Reverend $7.99 to see whether it’s in fact racist and transphobic (though I believe UU groups when they publish responses calling it that, and those that aren’t friends with him that have written critiques of it). That may be for another day.
One of the overarching points to this summer’s “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right” series is that right-wing language, tropes, and influence-peddling tend to make their ways into progressive circles. Part of this is due to my looking at Unitarian Universalist communities online, rather than in-person within parishes, where this infiltration of right-wing language is easiest. Another is that large money interests have created a spectrum of media outlets, think tanks, and front groups to inject topics (and in particular, a certain framing of a topic) into the mainstream. When things are “the mainstream”, they are picked up by establishment conservative and liberal voices. I’m not going to talk about that particular battle, because when talking about Unitarian Universalism, we’re not usually talking about old-style establishment conservatives, at least not in 2019. Instead, I’m going to visit a very old and vibrant disagreement within UU circles between “liberals” and “leftists”.
Now what is meant by “liberals” and “leftists” is difficult to nail down. Making my point for me, right-wing figures in Fox News were painting President Barack Obama, who represented a form of business-friendly, socially liberal centrism, as a socialist before he was even elected. Liberalism is maybe the most malleable word in the English political lexicon. Its meaning depends on whether it’s being used academically or politically, as a term for past or present people and movements, and whether it’s referring to American or European ideologies.
Here are some principles I’ll lay out, that are not definitive but I find to be helpful in a discussion like this:
Liberals and leftists are, historically and presently, distinct. The flourishing moment of modern liberalism were the 1848 Revolutions that took place all over Europe. Liberalism, mixed with a rising nationalism in many groups that were either fragmented across political states (like Italians), or one of many groups in large empires (like Hungarians in Austria), led to a series of revolutions characterized by an end of absolute monarchy and the promulgation of written constitutions with certain enshrined freedoms like the right to publish, worship, and petition.
1848 also saw the rise of a politically-distinct set of loosely-knit together ideologies: radicals, socialists, and anarchists. While 1848 was the year that the “Communist Manifesto” was published, mature Marxism was still years away. As Mike Duncan explains in his podcast Revolutions (season 7 deals with the many, many different uprisings in Europe), while liberals focused narrowly on “the political question” like constitutional liberties and free trade, leftists were interested in “the social question”, like wealth and social inequality, the existence and state protection of private property, and a political system that generally ignored anyone who wasn’t a man of a certain social class.
The failure of 1848 to lead to long-lasting change was in significant part due to disagreements between liberals and leftists on the scope of change and the tactics used to obtain it.
Liberals and leftists, oftentimes, have a rich exchange. There is overlap in the books, film, and other culture that liberals and leftists consume. Over the course of one’s lifetime, liberal individuals may migrate to more radical political positions, or may become more moderate and incrementalist in their politics.
Unitarian Universalism has considerable amounts of liberals and leftists today. Differences abound in how religious source material is interpreted (was Jesus a socialist? ; as Paul Rasor advocates in Faith Without Certainty, should UUs embrace liberation theology?), how commonly-held ideas like the Seven Principles are viewed (is Principle Five about a narrow or a holistic view of democracy?).
This spectrum of opinion is held together by religious liberalism, which is distinct, though often conflated, with political liberalism. I’ve been in multiple groups of UUs where a discussion on religious liberalism (or general non-creedal religious thinking) gets merged into political liberalism. “We as liberals” gets said a fair amount, but as someone who doesn’t identify as politically liberal, that term only carries meaning in certain context. The search for truth and meaning leads people to different views on how religion informs politics, and vice-versa.
Liberals and leftists have long-standing disagreements. These include where UUs should stand on the spectrum between incremental reform and revolutionary change. Some of this is informed by the waves of civil rights movements in the 20th and 21st centuries, which have had different goals and influences. If, how, and when to be confrontational with political conservatives and the alt-right is a current issue of debate, as Unitarian Universalism attempts to navigate a Trump presidency and the more open embracing of white supremacy.
That is it for Part I. In Part II, I will discuss how right-wing efforts attempt to take these disagreements and exacerbate them in ways that prevent constructive dialogue, and inject right-wing definitions and conceptions into the liberal-left debate.
The idea of a “schism” in Unitarian Universalist has gained a limited salience this summer. Todd Eklof proposed some kind of separation between the Unitarians and Universalists in The Gadfly Papers, and a limited number of people who have longstanding issues with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the continued findings of the Commission on Institutional Change have been attempting to stir up some sort of breaking off.
One might think that Unitarian Universalism was, unusual in the Protestant-influenced tradition, an anti-schismatic faith. Whereas the Reformation church was already splintering within the lifetime of Luther and the initial Protestant rebels over shades of dogma, UUism attempts an almost impossible attempt to be theologically inclusive. An ongoing discussion in the UU Discord is how typical Unitarian Universalist worship and texts like Singing the Living Tradition are full of a type of compromise that attempts to provide something for everyone, while being at least a bit unsatisfying for many. Hymn lyrics, sermons, readings, etc. are all attempting to fit God, god, gods, god?, and no god under one framework. Schisms have allowed Protestant churches to speak to one very narrow band of individuals. The obstacles of putting together a cohesive UU service are manifold. It’s part of why becoming a minister requires such a broad and comprehensive theological education.
But the idea of some large schism seem pretty unlikely. Grievances about church governance are nothing new, and exist in the day-to-day living of basically all religious institutions. What’s more concerning to me are the many “silent schisms” that exist within Unitarian Universalism. People who come once and never return. Long-standing members who begin to drift away because the congregation hasn’t kept up with their interests and spiritual needs. The loudest in the faith, that so utterly dominate inter-congregational UU spaces online, drown out the people with initial and ongoing doubts about their place in the faith and how their congregation and ministry relates to them. I’ve devoted a lot of attention to a developing Unitarian Universalist pipeline to the political Right, but there are plenty of people who might leave the church or drift away for reasons unrelated to UU efforts to create a social justice-oriented, authentically anti-racist faith.
I’ll admit that worship services, hymns, and sermons often don’t speak to me. I have a pretty eclectic background in pop culture, I’m not spiritual in the slightest, and so I’m not, as my mom often says about herself, “the target demographic”. What keeps me around is the knowledge that service has to speak to a very broad group of people, and can’t always be targeting my particular interests and needs. Every so often I get a service that hits me right in my emotional center, and that can sustain me. But not everyone is willing to wait like that. It speaks to the importance of a congregation to do what it can to extend beyond Sunday service- an hour or so a week can only cover so much ground. Small group ministry has been a very fruitful development, which we can extend all the way back to the Unitarian efforts to launch lay-led fellowships, which created many smaller congregations in communities that could benefit from a church. A ministry that is reciprocal and based in dialogue can do much that a broad Sunday morning service cannot. It’s a way of engaging the full membership, and recognizing that there is much to be gained from sitting towards one another, rather than all towards the pulpit.
Content Warning: This post discusses mass shootings and other acts of terrorism, along with the racism and xenophobia that surround it.
It is uniquely American that, for record-keeping purposes, I have to mention at the beginning of this post which mass shootings I am writing in response to. When I began forming this post there was white supremacist shooting in El Paso, Texas. That has been joined with another mass shooting, again by a young white man with access to high-end body armor and weaponry, in Dayton, Ohio.
Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, noted the importance of naming the ideology of the El Paso shooter, and how that aligned with the policies and rhetoric of the Trump Administration:
The manifesto of the El Paso shooter indicates that white supremacist violence is an international contagion, wherein earlier shooters form a model, in their rhetoric and actions, for later terrorists. Though most mass shootings, and most mass shootings by white supremacists, happen in the United States, high-profile terrorist acts like the Christchurch shooting earlier this year in New Zealand, and going back further, the violence of Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011, show that this is an international phenomenon in white, developed countries.
Efforts to address white supremacist terrorism at the state level have been largely token, and programs started under President Barack Obama have been either reversed or cut. White supremacist violence has spiked since 2016. Even admitting that white supremacists are the top terrorist threat, and that home-grown terrorism is much more an existential threat than Islamic radicalism, remains a political third rail. Thus discussions after white supremacist attacks often avoid ideology and instead talk about mental health and video games (among the right) and gun control measures (among mainstream liberals).
It’s important to avoid political amnesia and treat this phenomenon as uniquely connected to Trump. The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Rightby David Neiwert, which talks about white supremacist rhetoric and how it informed violent acts against liberals, people of color, and other communities, was published in May 2009. Even it is quite dated, because of the many acts of violence tied to an ever-radicalizing media and conservative establishment under the Obama Administration. But white supremacist terror has existed my entire lifetime, going back to the Patriot movement of the 1990s and acts like the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.
What has existed for a while, and is most nakedly apparent since January 2017, is a rise in state-influenced stochastic terrorism (n.), which is defined as:
thepublicdemonization of a person or groupresulting in theincitement of a violentact,which is statisticallyprobablebutwhosespecificscannot be predicted:
Thelone-wolfattackwasapparentlyinfluenced by therhetoric of stochasticterrorism.
Acts of terror presently are in essence state-sanctioned, in that the President, and his political party which holds most of the power at the federal level, operate under the same rhetoric and influences.
The increasingly-punitive immigration policy, family separation, and demonization of asylum-seekers, all aim to do the same thing the El Paso shooter was doing- reverse demographic shifts that lead to white-minority societies.
I’m 29. Of all the presidential elections held in my lifetime (seven of them), the Republican Party has won the popular vote in exactly one of them (2004, which many would argue was the result of a badly botched Democratic campaign). Despite arguments made that the Republican Party needed to broaden its base and become more competitive among non-white populations (which followed consecutive defeats in 2008 and 2012), the Party has just steadily migrated further to the right, becoming even more the party of a particular sub-set of white people. The links between Republicans and evangelicals, forged in 1980, have continued to deepen. 2016 saw the “death of a euphemism“, as the latent white supremacy in conservative arguments about immigration and diversity was brought forward and made the explicit policy of a winning presidential campaign.
The American Right has gained and retained power through victories in low-turnout elections, widespread vote suppression, and policies of intimidation that maximize the political power of an ever-narrowing white majority. In many places, like California where I grew up, and in Texas where the mass shooting was, the society has become “majority-minority”, presaging a time about thirty years from now where the entire country will be white-minority. Texas especially is a point of huge right-wing anxiety, as demographics and organizing make the possibility of Blue Texas more possible, which would fundamentally change American elections. About half of white people are deeply fearful and apprehensive about these demographic shifts. Changes, made clear by developments like a rise in progressive legislators of color, threaten white elite rule. “Lone-wolf” stochastic terrorism is just another tactic to sustain minority white rule, one that is at a surface level condemned by the right-wing establishment, but below that is clearly being encouraged.
Some issues that are emerging in the past few years include three shifts in the media landscape:
The rise of Sinclair Broadcast Group and its consolidation of local news stations. Many people avoided being radicalized by Fox News- even at its peak, most Americans don’t watch any cable news, including Fox. But an entire population that thought they could trust the local news is instead exposed to a right-wing reactionary politics.
The talk-radioization of cable news. The rise of outright white nationalists like Tucker Carlson has made cable news more like the more radical, openly white supremacist talk radio landscape. Talk radio has always been a beta test for televised news- new reactionary arguments emerge there then are laundered into Fox News and Sinclair. The separation between talk radio and TV news has become increasingly blurred.
The rise of predatory online reactionaries. As I stated in the “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?” series, especially part IV: Anatomy of a Pipeline, the online right-wing landscape has become filled with figures whose job it is to hook people on far-right politics and talking points. Individuals like Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin and others make their money through radicalization. Spaces like 4chan and 8chan are so toxic now that they are dumping grounds for mass shooter manifestos, like the El Paso shooter’s.
More must be done than trying to wait out the clock until November 2020. The actors moving to preserve white minority rule never rest. And the policy of the state, and the actions of “lone wolf” terrorists, are ever-more entwined.
Due to serious moderation issues in the existing Facebook UU group “Unitarian Universalism – Faith of the Free“, which saw an influx of outright white nationalists, and a subsequent crackdown on both racist users and users pointing out said racism, a new Facebook group has been created to better introduce people to our living tradition.
She also cites the UUA Commission on Institutional Change (CIC), which, in doing their great work, came across similar patterns of behavior, and proposed similar solutions. Coming from an outsider’s perspective with a limited understanding of the UUA’s investigations into white supremacy, white fragility, and institutional racism within the faith, that I came to similar conclusions strengthens the importance and relevance of their work.
Please join us in the UU Discord if you’d like to talk about these issues, or anything else that relates to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
So, how do we learn to address white fragility, white supremacy, and otherwise offensive and disruptive behavior within congregations? The congregational structure of Unitarian Universalism tends to wall off larger discussions- something upsetting happens in a congregation, it doesn’t travel far. It may end up elsewhere in the form of rumors, but those are not constructive. If a church has to deal with problematic behavior within its own community, an honest, instructive account of what happened is unlikely to appear. This limits the ability of communities to learn from one another, to develop best practices, and to effectively counter instances of white fragility and racially insensitive behavior.
There are many problems with simply publicizing events and providing a timeline of a disciplinary process, or the interactions between disruptive people and marginalized groups. It singles people out. It can re-traumatize and open up not-yet-healed wounds. It stands against principles of privacy and that things said in the confidence of a congregation is kept confidential.
So, is there a way through? I have something to propose.
The Ethnographic Approach
Ethnography is a research method used in multiple academic areas, primarily anthropology and sociology, alongside disciplines that emerged during the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, like ethnic studies.
Here’s a definition of ethnography that’s pretty good:
Ethnography, emerging from anthropology, and adopted by sociologists, is a qualitative methodology that lends itself to the study of the beliefs, social interactions, and behaviours of small societies, involving participation and observation over a period of time, and the interpretation of the data collected. (source)
Besides a general definition, ethnography as it is performed in developed nations has some best practices:
Information about places, persons, and unique features are anonymized to avoid negative impact and conduct research in an ethical way.
Notes, observations, and interviews are kept stored in standardized ways that limit access and make sure that anonymity is preserved.
An example of a highly-regarded modern ethnographic study is Evicted by Matthew Desmond, a MacArthur grant fellow, about how poor Milwaukee individuals and their families struggled to make rent, dealt with eviction and its consequences, and remained trapped in a cycle of poverty.
While there was great insight, and vivid observations within Evicted, names and places were changed to avoid retaliation from the people followed, in order to have them speak freely.
So, could ethnography be a way for congregations to learn from one another on how to deal with disruptive behavior, and become authentically anti-racist? Good ethnography is a skill to be learned, but it does hold the promise of helping describe how congregations addressed problems- whether formal or informal conflict-resolution measures were used, whether the problem was addressed at lower stages or had to be escalated, and the lasting impact upon the congregation.
Here’s an example of how a Unitarian Universalist ethnography could start:
During a recent winter, Green Hills UU Fellowship, a congregation in the suburbs of mid-sized Midwestern city, had a middle-aged couple (Jane and Joseph) who would use language found to be offensive during the “joys and sorrows” portion of Sunday service. They described conflicts they had with their neighbors, who were families of color, and invoked harmful stereotypes, while raising their voices in a way some felt alarming.
After an informal group of congregants attempted to resolve the issue with Jane and Joseph directly, it was decided that a meeting be held to discuss the Fellowship’s Covenant, and how Jane and Joseph’s actions did not constitute right relations . . .
Would this be helpful to other congregations? I’m not sure, I’ve only recently started going to my current congregation, and have lived in four different areas in five years. But by taking an ethnographic approach, stories of disruptive behavior could be shared with:
Congregations who have found their current policies lacking in some manner, and hope to draft new ones that are more effective.
Congregations currently experiencing a disruptive behavior situation, and wonder how other congregations have addressed it.
Ethnographic accounts could be drafted by lay leaders, perhaps trained at General Assembly or through virtual chat by those with experience. They could be housed at the UUA in a central location where they could be accessed by congregational request.
Would that help? I’m not sure. But I don’t want each congregation to start from scratch in their attempts to be authentically anti-racist and to counter white fragility, congregants using alt-right language, or other actions that target marginalized peoples.
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.
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 Empirewhen 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.
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:
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.