‘It’s gone too far’: Exploiting cultural fissures for political gain has unraveled our social fabric

December 7, 2020 12:01 am

Protesters argue during a “Reopen Virginia Rally” in Richmond, Va., April 22, 2020. (Parker Michels-Boyce/ For the Virginia Mercury)

Don’t imagine for a second that electing a new president is going to close or salve the open wounds and raw nerves that the 2020 political campaigns exposed. Not even close.

Passions have not cooled from President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump last month. That’s clear from Trump’s own delusional tweets and public statements alleging massive fraud — something officials in all 50 states and now his own loyalist attorney general dispute, and that his administration’s election security czar was fired for publicly refuting. It’s also clear from the death threats his own followers have made against local election officials in numerous states — Democrats and Republicans — including a 20-something technician in Georgia. “It’s gone too far. All of it,” Gabriel Sterling, a senior Georgia GOP election official, said during an emotional news conference last week that was still trending on social media over the weekend.

Nor are we immune from the anger unleashed by this widening societal chasm even in our own comfortable enclaves.

Gabriel Sterling, voting systems implementation manager for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, criticized President Donald Trump and Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on Tuesday for not publicly condemning threats of violence after a technician working in Gwinnett County received death threats. (Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder)

My wife and I were out for a Sunday afternoon walk around our leafy neighborhood, soaking in the balmy late November sun, when we heard staccato horn blasts of a car about half a block away. At first, I mistook it for someone fumbling a key fob and triggering a car alarm. But the car, a dark gray late model Dodge Challenger, was braking in the middle of the street in front of a neighbor’s house that still sported a Biden yard sign next to a “Black Lives Matter” sign.

I didn’t give it much thought until the car, driven by a 40-ish fellow with a crew cut, stopped in front of us and the driver began incoherently shrieking. I don’t think he was looking for a fight as much as an audience, and a couple of a certain age walking along the curb was the closest thing he could find.

“All lives matter! What’s wrong with people? Alll liiives matterrrrr!” he bellowed out his window at two bewildered people.

I motioned for him to move on, and he repeated his mantra before gunning the engine and speeding down the street, howling at the top of his lungs, “Goddaaaaaamn yooooouuuuuu!”

So much for a relaxing Sunday stroll.

Clearly this was no ally of the BLM movement and, I strongly suspect, he did not vote for Biden. Perhaps his unprovoked behavior evidenced a cry for professional help. Or maybe it’s just years of pent-up grievance nurtured by a steady diet of social media and cable news. No matter the cause, it’s good that I had no ready response. Arguing with fools seldom yields a fortunate outcome.

What I wish I’d been nimble enough to say was, “All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.” It’s calm, and it’s manifestly logical and true. I wish I could claim it as my own, but I have to confess that I first heard it in a persuasive video released months ago featuring members of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team and their coach, Nick Saban.

The critical takeaway is this: America is profoundly riven by forces far deeper and personally held than anything one election can cause or can fix. In fact, if Sunday’s encounter on a tranquil residential street is any indication, the election and its continuing recriminations may have only exacerbated it.

It’s unsettling to contemplate how — or even whether — these differences are reconcilable. There are forces, foreign and domestic, actively working to alienate Americans one from the other. Lately, we’ve allowed them to succeed all too well.

Our politics has turned far more caustic than we could have imagined during the ’70s or even as late as President Ronald Reagan’s two terms. Though he was an unflinching conservative who Democrats swore would end the world, Reagan established a sunny sense of comity, civility and shared purpose that trickled down through American society. For instance, the Republican president never demonized Democratic House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill; rather, the two naturally gregarious politicians forged a friendship, grounded in their shared Irish heritage, that allowed them to disagree on policy and remain agreeable personally. Things got done because neither leader laid down the inflexible ultimata that poisons statecraft today, not just in Washington but in statehouses nationally.

Ideological rifts in particular have widened between members of the two parties during the past 25 years over policy positions, especially regarding immigration, race-based inequity, international relations and public aid to those in need, according to a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center. In 1994, the study shows, there was only a 15-percentage-point difference of opinion between respondents who identified themselves as members of or leaning toward one of the two major parties. By 2017, the poll of 5,000 people found, the margin had widened to 36 points.

During the 23-year span of Pew’s study, it noted that the percentage of Democrats who held an unfavorable or very unfavorable view of the GOP grew from 57 percent to 81 percent and, among Republicans, those who held similarly dim views of Democrats climbed from 68 percent to 81 percent. The key, however, is the subset of partisans who expressed very unfavorable views of their rivals: The number more than doubled among Democrats and nearly tripled among Republicans during that span. Most of the resentment was in place before Trump began his single polarizing term, but those feelings have intensified under his watch.

We saw the consequences in the tragic separation of small children who entered the United States with their asylum-seeking parents only to be forcibly detained, sometimes in wire cages, in detention centers along the Mexican border. It manifested itself violently, beginning in Charlottesville in 2017 and raging in cities nationally last summer after George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police. And it continues with more than 12 million Americans facing imminent eviction and homelessness wrought by the coronavirus pandemic’s economic wreckage as a balkanized Congress — reflective of its tribalized constituencies — gives only bickering lip service toward an economic relief package.

But the differences are deeper than policy and issues. Underlying it all is “identity politics” and a worsening culture war. It’s as though each side not only abhors the other’s politics, it believes their rivals are intrinsically malignant people. Republicans find it easy to loathe Democrats as condescending, educated, urban and suburban elites clustered mostly along the coasts, who mock their heartland values and want to take their guns. Democrats picture Republicans as racist, semiliterate rubes and xenophobes, contemptuous of the rule of law, who put instant gratification of their urges ahead of the wellbeing of fellow Americans and even the future of the planet. Both are hopeless mischaracterizations and fundamentally wrong. 

In another era, before the Internet hastened the fragmentation and demise of trusted information sources and enabled the unchecked global dissemination of violent beliefs and bizarre conspiracies, it was easier to keep the fabric of society from unraveling. Maybe that’s why Reagan could bring in a transformative brand of conservatism in 1980 and have the nation, including apoplectic Democrats, respect his victory and afford him the benefit of the doubt. Then, after eight years, the two sides were still on speaking terms, America’s essential institutions were healthy and the Soviet Union was in hospice.

But it’s also because Reagan was Reagan and he set the tone. He never labeled other Americans “enemies of the people” or mocked the disabled or exhorted rally crowds to beat hecklers or instruct a violent right-wing group, the Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by.” He left office encouraging Americans to view their nation as “a shining city upon a hill,” not dreading a dark and uncertain winter of disease, death and discord.

At its heart, this isn’t a Democrats vs. Republicans problem, nor is it a liberals vs. conservatives dilemma. In the not-too-distant past, we’ve seen the two countervailing forces coexist and compromise in a free, functioning and self-governing land.

The problem is we’ve become a people predisposed — and actively prodded — to think the worst of one another and to act on those feelings, even on a street in a sleepy neighborhood on a peaceful Sunday afternoon.


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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]