America’s petty tribal arguments are now driving the bus on serious policy. Here’s why we should worry.
To understand how American politics got the way it is today, it helps to rewind the tape to the presidential campaign of John McCain—specifically to his effort to win back a listless crowd at an otherwise forgettable campaign event in south-central Pennsylvania in the summer of 2008. The Republican nominee had opened by promising a country-over-party approach to politics, recalling his compromises with Democrats like Ted Kennedy: “We’ll have our disagreements, but we’ve got to be respectful.” The Republican crowd sat in silence. McCain then denounced Vladimir Putin’s incursion into independent Georgia, warning that “history is often made in remote, obscure places.” No one seemed interested in that particular remote and obscure place.
McCain just couldn’t connect with the crowd, until he unleashed a garbled riff about how Congress shouldn’t be on recess when gasoline prices were soaring. “My friends,” he said, “the message we want to send to Washington, D.C. is: ‘Come back off your vacation, go back to Washington, fix our energy problems, and drill and drill now, drill offshore and drill now!’” It lacked the poetic brevity of the “Drill, baby, drill” line his future running mate, Sarah Palin, would use to fire up crowds, but the York Expo Center suddenly erupted with raucous cheers. It felt visceral, almost violent, as if McCain had given his supporters permission to drill someone they hated. McCain flashed an uneasy grin, like a kid who had just set off his first firecracker, delighted but also a bit frightened by its power. He wasn’t really a drill-baby-drill politician, but he could sense his party drifting toward drill-baby-drill politics.
The Republicans clamoring for drilling that day in Pennsylvania weren’t reacting to the science of global warming or the economics of petroleum or the geopolitics of energy policy. They loved the idea of drilling now, and drilling everywhere, because their political enemies hated it. They were enjoying the primal experience of owning the libs, lashing out at the smug Democratic hippies who wanted to take away their SUVs and guns and Big Gulps. Oil exploration is a complex issue, but in the arena it was just another blunt-force weapon in a simple culture war.
A decade later, McCain is dead, bipartisanship is just about dead—hisfuneral felt like the rare exception that proved the rule—and the leader of the Republican Party is a world-class polarizer who mocked McCain’s service while cozying up to Putin on his way to the White House. President Donald Trump has pioneered a new politics of perpetual culture war, relentlessly rallying his supporters against kneeling black athletes, undocumented Latino immigrants and soft-on-crime, weak-on-the-border Democrats. He reverses the traditional relationship between politics and governance, weaponizing policy to mobilize his base rather than mobilizing his base to change policy. And in the Trump era, just about every policy issue is a wedge issue, not only traditional us-against-them social litmus tests like abortion, guns, feminism and affirmative action, or even just the president’s pet issues of immigration and trade, which he has wielded as cultural cudgels to portray Americans as victims of foreign exploiters. These days, even climate change, infrastructure policy and other domestic issues normally associated with wonky panels at Washington think tanks have been repackaged into cultural-resentment fodder.
At a time when Blue and Red America have split into two warring tribes inhabiting two separate realities, and “debate” has been redefined to evoke split-screen cable-news screamfests, this ferocious politicization of everything might seem obvious and unavoidable. But it’s also dangerous. It’s as if the rowdy cultural slap-fight the kids were having in the back seat has moved into the front, threatening to swerve the national car off the road. Transforming difficult analytical questions into knee-jerk emotional battlegrounds will dramatically increase the danger that thoughtless short-term choices will throw off our long-term national trajectory. And even beyond the impact on the quality of our public policy decisions, the ferocious politicization of everything is not healthy for the American body politic, which is why a Russian troll farm used fake social media accounts to gin up protests and counterprotests about hot-button issues like police shootings and Trump’s border wall. Our foreign adversaries like it when we yell at one another.
Honestly, though, we don’t need much prodding. Democrats and Republicans are increasingly self-segregated and mutually disdainful, each camp deploying the furious language of victimhood to justify its fear and loathing of the gullible deplorables in the other. One side boycotts Chick-fil-A (over gay rights), Walmart (over sweatshops) and companies that do business with the National Rifle Association, while the other boycotts Nike (over Colin Kaepernick), Starbucks (over refugees, gay marriage and non-Christmas-specific holiday cups) and companies that stop doing business with the NRA. We live in an era of performative umbrage. Every day is Festivus, a ritual airing of our grievances about Kathy Griffin, Roseanne Barr, fake news, toxic masculinity and those fancy coffee machines that Sean Hannity’s viewers decided to destroy for some reason. Every decision about where to shop or what to drive or what to watch is now an opportunity to express our political identities. The 24-hour news cycle has become a never-ending national referendum on Trump.
Politically, it makes sense that debates over highly technical challenges like energy and climate change have been transformed into shirts-and-skins identity issues. Ron DeSantis, the Trump-loving Republican former congressman running for governor of Florida, recently proclaimed that he’s “not in the pews of the Church of Global Warming Leftists,” a very 2018 way of expressing opposition to carbon regulations, renewable energy subsidies and other forms of climate action. He wasn’t disputing that the planet is getting hotter, or questioning the scientific data on the dangers of fossil fuels. He was clarifying which team he’s on, and more specifically which team he isn’t on, the team of tree-hugging scolds who look down on ordinary Americans for eating bacon and using plastic straws. You can see that sentiment expressed in less genteel ways if you search YouTube for “rolling coal,” where pollution-porn videos flaunt diesel trucks (sometimes dubbed “Prius repellents”) retrofitted to spew thick clouds of black smoke into the air, the transportation version of a middle finger to the opposing tribe. And there’s no denying that the opposing tribe of conspicuous composters and recyclers and Tesla drivers have their own identitarian rituals that pointedly broadcast their wokeness.
But while DeSantis may win points with his base by distancing himself from the Church of Global Warming Leftists, just as Trump does by dismissing global warming as a hoax manufactured in China, global warming is real, no matter who belongs to its church. Greenhouse gases don’t care whether they’re a wedge issue. Culture-war politics are often a crutch, a look-at-the-shiny-ball distraction, an easy way to shift complicated policy debates from inconvenient facts to emotion and identity.
As long as America keeps sorting itself into two factions divided by geography, ethnicity and ideology, pitting a multiracial team of progressives who live in cities and inner-ring suburbs against a white team of conservatives who live in exurbs and rural areas, this is what debates about public policy—or for that matter about the FBI, the dictator of North Korea and the credibility of various sexual assault allegations—will look like. We will twist the facts into our partisan narratives. The self-inflicted wounds will infect more and more of our lives. And if you want something else to worry about, consider where it might be spreading next.
Politics has always been adversarial. Traditionally, though, we’ve had a fairly robust national consensus about a fairly broad set of goals—a strong defense, a decent safety net, freedom from excessive government interference—even though we’ve squabbled over how to achieve them. What’s different about drill-baby-drill politics is the transformation of even nonpartisan issues into mad-as-hell battles of the bases, which makes it virtually impossible for politicians to solve problems in a two-party system. Cooperation and compromise start to look like capitulation, or even treasonous collusion with the enemy.
Take infrastructure spending, which was once reasonably uncontroversial, at least in principle. Today, many conservatives portray it as a liberal plot to siphon rural tax dollars into urban bike paths, subways, and high-speed rail boondoggles that unions will build and Democratic city slickers will use. The Trump administration actuallychanged the rules of the most prominent grant program for local transportation projects so that it explicitly favors rural projects, infuriating liberals who now see it as a slush fund for sprawl roads to nowhere serving out-in-the-boonies Trump voters. The war over Obamacare has a similar mine-versus-yours feel; many Republicans see it as a scheme to redistribute tax dollars (and the hard-earned Medicare benefits of older Americans) to lazy and entitled Barack Obama voters, while Democrats see the intense opposition to universal health care as generational warfare on behalf of the aging white GOP base.
There’s no denying that the opposing tribe of conspicuous composters and recyclers and Tesla drivers have their own identitarian rituals that pointedly broadcast their wokeness.
Trump has never shown much interest in the details of policy, but he does understand how to use the levers of government to reward his allies and punish his enemies. He froze the pay of federal employees, a key Democratic constituency, while approving a $12 billion bailout for farmers, who, like other industries, have taken a hit from his trade wars, but, unlike other industries, tend to vote as a Republican bloc. Trump’stax bill hammered blue states by reining in deductions for state and local taxes, while his energy policies have provided relief to red states that rely heavily on fossil fuels. His administration has picked fights with California, the epicenter of coastal-elite Blue America, over fuel-efficiency standards, net neutrality and water policy.
Policy skirmishes tend to metastasize into cultural battles when they involve identity issues, and after spending time on the campaign trail recently, I got the sense the next big Republican culture war will be a war on college. For generations, the notion of higher education as a ladder of opportunity for everyone has been an anodyne nonpartisan talking point, even if Democrats and Republicans disagreed on the appropriate levels of federal funding and regulation. But Republican attitudes are changing. In Ohio, I heard them talk about taxpayer-funded school bureaucrats who trick kids into believing that expensive and often useless liberal-indoctrination universities are the only way to get ahead in life; siphoning students away from vocational programs that could prepare them for well-paying jobs.
It’s probably not a coincidence that this shift is happening at a time when college-educated voters are trending Democratic and noncollege whites have been Trump’s most reliable constituency. Policies that hurt colleges, like policies that hurt cities, are policies that hurt Democrats. To listen to pols talk about college these days is to watch a wedge issue in its embryonic stage, as substantive questions about the cost and relevance of higher ed, the burdens of student debt, the adequacy of worker training and the power of political correctness on campus start to morph into red-meat attacks on pointy-headed elitists who look down on ironworkers and brainwash America’s youth. Republicans are starting to fit the Democratic push for universal free college into their larger critique of the Democratic urge to hand out free stuff to Democratic voters. And they’re portraying a liberal arts education as a culturally liberal thing, like kale or Kwanzaa or reusable shopping bags.
I saw a soft-edged version of this anti-college theme at a manufacturing roundtable that Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, the Republican candidate for governor, held in September in Youngstown. DeWine listened for an hour as a group of executives complained how teenagers are constantly told they need college degrees to get ahead in life, how students who might flourish in programs to prepare them for factory jobs are steered into mainstream classes they hate. DeWine perked up when the director of a local career center said that only 12 percent of students who pursue four-year degrees end up earning enough to pay off their loans and that many never learn about other options. “The goal should be exposing kids to more things, not forcing them into anything,” DeWine interjected.
It was an earnest policy discussion—the mild-mannered DeWine is not very Trump-like—and the main policy takeaway seemed to be a positive call for better vocational options. It reminded me of Florida Senator Marco Rubio’s argument during the 2016 campaign that America needed fewer philosophers and more welders. This is a debatable point, and Rubio himself recently changed his mind about it after reading the Stoics; he now believes America needs philosophers, too. There’s voluminous evidence that post-secondary degrees lead to higher incomes and better life outcomes, despite the popular narratives about art history majors moving back home with their parents, and it’s a good bet Rubio and the executives at DeWine’s roundtable want their own kids to go to leafy colleges with decent literature departments. Nevertheless, the focus on how to produce more welders is a legitimate policy concern, based on a serious assessment of a gap between what American students learn and what employers want them to learn.
A few days later, at a campaign event hosted by Ohio Congressman Jim Renacci, who is running for Senate on a much Trumpier platform than DeWine’s, I saw hints of a less substantive campaign against higher education. It was more reminiscent of Governor Scott Walker’s red-meatattacks on the University of Wisconsin as an ivory-tower bastion of left-wing professors ripping off hardworking taxpayers. The underlying theme was that liberal elites have rigged the system to funnel Americans into colleges that look down on the kind of white working-class families who supported Trump. Speaking to a group of staunch Republicans at a northeast Ohio soybean farm, Renacci told a story about an opioid addict he met who fell in with a bad crowd because an uncaring taxpayer-financed educational establishment told him college was the only plausible path to success. Renacci said the addict plaintively told him: “I didn’t want to learn trigonometry.”
“We need to stop pushing everyone into college,” Renacci said. “Let’s get this stigma off our backs: You can live the American dream without college.”
Renacci’s event was supposed to be about trade, but none of the local farmers expressed any concern about the beating they’re taking from Trump’s trade war. What they expressed concern about was illegal immigrants who commit crimes and demand handouts; the deep state; Democrats who want to steal from Medicare to fund Obamacare; and Antifa thugs. Even though their party controls Washington and Columbus, they believe they’re under siege; one 60-something farmer told me he’s afraid to speak out because “radical Democrats will burn your house down.” When I said that seemed unlikely in the rural expanses of Ashtabula County, he said I should check out the angry leftist millennials he’s seen when he’s visited the Ohio State campus, “wearing boots and backpacks and shouting stupid slogans.” I asked him whether he supports government spending on higher education for those millennials, and he shot back: “I’ll tell you what I don’t support: free college for illegals and higher taxes for me.”
There are real policy debates to be had over higher education, and they’re important. U.S. universities aren’t blameless: They’ve jacked up their tuition costs much faster than inflation, overpopulated their faculties with liberals, failed to hold themselves accountable for the employment outcomes of their students and policed speech to the point that they look more concerned with stamping out “micro-aggressions” than promoting free inquiry. At the same time, a lot of work has been done to try to make colleges, especially community colleges, more relevant to the job market; DeWine’s roundtable event highlighted a model partnership between local educators and manufacturers. The Obama administration also established tough new rules limiting federal dollars to institutions that don’t move students into gainful employment. Ironically, the Trump administration is trying to roll back those rules, as well as others providing relief to students defrauded by Trump University-style for-profit diploma mills.
What they expressed concern about was illegal immigrants who commit crimes and demand handouts; the deep state; Democrats who want to steal from Medicare to fund Obamacare; and Antifa thugs.
But modern politics isn’t about these nuances of policy substance. It isn’t evidence-based. The debate over immigration isn’t really about measured wage effects or growth effects; it’s about whether a diverse America is the “real” one, and whether nonwhite newcomers make the country great. The Trump fans who came to see Renacci in Ashtabula County didn’t care any more about the details of higher education studies than they cared about the details of Paul Manafort’s guilty plea or our trade deficit with Canada. (It’s actually a surplus, a fact that will change approximately zero minds about Trump’s trade rhetoric.) The signal of substance breaks through the noise of politics so rarely that the noise has become the signal.
Nevertheless, substance does end up affecting people’s lives. Our higher education system is still one of America’s most valuable competitive assets, and breaking it in a fit of cultural fury would be the national equivalent of choking on diesel smoke to own the libs. Meanwhile, polls show that Americans, and particularly Republicans, are already increasingly suspicious that four-year colleges are really worth the money. That could affect their future choices and limit their own children’s options, all because “college” now feels like the other team.
Donald Trump was not the first Republican president to exploit America’s divisions. Think of Richard Nixon rallying his “silent majority” against bra-burning, free-loving, acid-dropping hippies, or even George H.W. Bush running against flag-burning and Willie Horton. And Trump didn’t create the so-called Big Sort of Americans into two ideologically polarized, geographically and racially segregated, mutually suspicious partisan camps. The rift between the mostly white camp of gun-owning, evangelical-church-going Fox News watchers who live relatively spread out and the more diverse camp of Whole Foods-shopping, funky-cafe-going NPR listeners who live closer together has been widening for decades.
Trump may be America’s leading culture warrior, but a war requires two armies. The frequent journalistic safaris into the right side of America’s divide tend to focus on the unwavering faith that Trump supporters have in Trump, but polls suggest the left side is just as prone to motivated reasoning about politics, and perhaps even more consumed by anger over politics. In a Pew Research Center survey, 47 percent of liberal Democrats said that if a friend supported Trump, it would put a strain on their friendship, and 68 percent of all Democrats said it’s “stressful and frustrating” to talk to Trump supporters. Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor of Florida, had to fire his youth outreach director for posing for an Instagram post while wearing a shirt featuring the 2016 electoral map, with blue states labeled “United States of America” and Trump states labeled “Dumbfuckistan.” It was a perfect manufactured-outrage episode for our time—needless to say, similar shirts on which the blue states are labeled Dumbfuckistan are available for purchase—but it did reflect a common Democratic disdain for Republican rubes in the provinces.
So the culture war is not all about Trump. But Trump has a destructive genius for exploiting the culture war, exploding Washington’s norms of decorum and euphemism to trash his adversaries and torture the truth, portraying Puerto Ricans as ungrateful, immigrants as dangerous and Democrats as un-American. You’re with him or you’re with the terrorists. And the rest of Washington, which was already uncelebrated for civility, has followed him into perennial attack mode, to the point that even Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh bellowed partisan conspiracy theories during his confirmation hearing.
Trump’s entire Make America Great Again theme was always a cultural call to arms, deeply rooted in nostalgia for the supposedly good old days of the 1950s, before the messy disruptions of Black Lives Matter or #MeToo, before the steel industry had to worry about global competition or the coal industry faced limits on pollution. And since he’s abandoned his populist promises to crack down on Wall Street, build $1 trillion worth of infrastructure projects and get every American good health care, he’s doubling down on his racial and cultural messaging to his white working-class supporters, betting his attacks on the intelligence of LeBron James and CNN’s Don Lemon will overshadow his efforts to strip protections for pre-existing conditions and gut oversight of financial rip-offs. So far, it seems like a good bet.
Our higher education system is still one of America’s most valuable competitive assets, and breaking it in a fit of cultural fury would be the national equivalent of choking on diesel smoke to own the libs.
It’s hard to have serious public debates about the massive changes in public policy that Trump is pursuing, because there’s no longer a clear path for facts and logic to break through the daily onslaught of demonization and obfuscation. We’re too busy fighting to think. It’s especially tough to have an evidence-based debate about an issue like trade when Trump proclaims at one rally that his tariffs have prompted U.S. Steel to open seven new plants, and after fact-checkers point out the actual number is zero, he ups the number to eight or nine at his next rally. He understands that modern political debates don’t depend on facts or logic. Where you stand—on questions of whether to believe Kavanaugh’s accusers and whether there was any collusion with Russia, as well as questions about corporate tax rates or lifetime insurance caps—depends almost entirely on where you sit. Deficits are bad when your team is in charge, benign when my team is in charge. I’m being denied due process by a witch hunt, but you belong in jail. I’m no puppet; you’re the puppet.
This is presumably how entire countries turn into Dumbfuckistan. The solutions to our political forever war are pretty obvious: Americans need to rebuild mutual trust and respect. We need to try to keep open minds, to seek information rather than partisan ammunition. We need to agree on a shared foundation of facts from authoritative sources. But those words looked ridiculous the moment I typed them. Americans are not on the verge of doing any of those things. Once the dogs of war have been unleashed, it’s hard to call them back. And we should at least consider the possibility that we’re fighting this forever war because we like it.
The thing I remember most about Trump’s rallies in 2016, especially the auto-da-fé moments in which he would call out various liars and losers who didn’t look like the faces in his crowds, was how much fun everyone seemed to be having. The drill-baby-drill candidate would drill the Mexicans, drill the Chinese, drill the gun-grabbers, drill all the boring Washington politicians who had made America not-great. It sure as hell wasn’t boring. It was a showman putting on a show, a culture-war general firing up his internet troops. It wasn’t a real war, like the one that Trump skipped while John McCain paid an unimaginable price, but it made the spectators feel like they were not just spectating, like they had joined an exhilarating fight. They got the adrenaline rush, the sense of being part of something larger, the foxhole camaraderie of war against a common enemy, without the physical danger.
It’s not clear how a fight like that would ever end.