The American Experiment is facing a new test. Is it possible for a nation to be both democratic and fully integrated (race, religion, gender)? How do we overcome the natural human tendency to self-segregate and to demonize “the other”?
It’s an issue that’s not unique to our nation; the question is tearing apart Israel, South Africa, and much of Europe as you’re reading these words (as I wrote about at some length last week).
Multiple European governments (Sweden, Italy, Hungary, Poland, the UK, etc.) have flipped rightwing in the past decades explicitly in reaction to Brown-skinned immigrants fleeing Russia’s bombing of Syria and Bush’s destruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. The most recent government to fall, just last week, was that of the Netherlands.
The American Experiment, however, stands firmly in the space that these other countries are rejecting: the belief that people who look or pray or love differently than the majority can and should fully participate in society at all levels.
At the 2021 G7 summit in the UK, President Biden was explicit:
“Every other nation is based on ethnicity, geography. America is based on an idea — literally, not figuratively, an idea. We hold these truths to be self-evident; All women or men are created equal, endowed by their creator. We’ve never lived up to that. But we never before walked away from it … that’s why it’s so important that we keep hollering.”
But what will it take to make that noble idea work? After all, it’s never been seriously accomplished before in any other country in the world: the people of every other country on Earth base their sense of identity on genetics.
Some nations, like China with the Uighurs and Israel with Palestinians, even go out of their way to segregate and oppress their minority groups. We also see this across the world in less systematic and extreme forms: the segregation of Hungary’s Roma people, the systematic way Black people in the US have been kept out of the halls of wealth and power for 400+ years, multiple nations across southern Asia and Europe setting up refugee camps surrounded with razor wire and armed guards.
This concept of building an integrated, multiracial, and pluralistic America has been at the core of our political battles for over 160 years.
Abraham Lincoln, after waffling during the election of 1860, led the Republican Party toward embracing a multiracial nation and, after his murder by a Southern white nationalist, “Radical Republicans” like Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, Hannibal Hamlin, and Ulysses S. Grant granted Black people political power in the South for a generation after the Civil War.
Then the largely Democratic Party-controlled South rose back up with the failure of Reconstruction in the 1870s and the Democrats remained the party of white power and segregation right up until 1964. Those racist Southern Democrats proudly called themselves Dixiecrats, a label that meant they were openly white nationalists and white supremacists.
That year, 1964, President Lyndon Johnson, invoking the memory of JFK, pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress and shattered the Dixiecrats’ hegemony in the South.
Four years later, Richard Nixon’s Republican Party repudiated its origins and traditions and picked up those party-less racist voters, winning the White House in the election of 1968 with his notoriously racist “Southern Strategy.”
In the years since, the GOP has continued to openly embrace white supremacists, bigots, and haters, most recently trying to strip books and classes about the Black, immigrant, and queer experience out of our schools. It’s safe to say that MAGA Republicans are this generation’s Dixiecrats, but on the GOP side of the aisle.
In Florida uber-racist Ron DeSantis’ followers have removed a book about Roberto Clemente from the schools because it talks about the discrimination he faced growing up, and deleted mention of Rosa Parks’ race from a book about her, leaving kids to wonder exactly why she was supposed to sit at the back of the bus.
Governors Kemp, DeSantis, and Abbott in Georgia, Florida, and Texas have made a spectacle around arresting Black people for voting, leading to a collapse in the Black vote in those states; since the Supreme Court legalized the practice in 2018, Red states have also purged tens of millions of voters from the rolls, most hitting Black people in Blue cities.
In most Red states, voter registration drives have been so heavily criminalized — you can go to prison for years for making a simple mistake on a form — that the League of Women Voters and other groups have pulled out of many Republican-controlled states for fear of lawsuits or imprisonment.
The voting infrastructure of Houston — where one-sixth of Texas’ voting population lives — was just taken over by the Republican-controlled legislature: expect to see long lines and tens of thousands of Houstonians being turned away from the polls in 2024. The famous “war on woke” is code for a war on Black people, women, and the LGBTQ+ community and Republicans revel in it.
Not to mention Republican attacks on Black history, disingenuously calling it “critical race theory.” And the war they’ve declared on trans people.
So far, this has worked well for the GOP — just like it did for the Dixiecrats before them — because it’s a normal human tendency to separate the world into “us” and “them.” This dates back to our earliest years as the fully modern homo sapiens species.
For 300,000 years, tribal people were almost always homogeneous, only allowing limited integration with neighboring tribes to maintain genetic diversity. Most of the countries of the world have evolved out of these tribal roots and thus their majorities still identify themselves based on their parents and grandparents having been part of that nation’s original tribe.
But, as President Biden noted, America aspires to be different: we were founded on a pluralistic idea that today demands a multiracial, multireligious, multiethnic democracy.
And that idea is now being put to the test by the racist, homophobic, misogynous MAGA movement in today’s GOP.
They’re actively exploiting these structures in our brains that are rooted deep in our DNA, the wiring that says, “I must protect us from them.” The wiring that kept humans tribal for 300 millennia.
Republicans know that the easiest, laziest way of identifying a “them” is to go with people’s appearance (particularly skin color, but also things like wearing a hijab or the way orthodox Jews dress). This is why when Fox “News” hosts talk about crime they often go out of their way to put pictures of Black or Brown people on the screen.
America has tried hard to be better than this. During the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations we put multiple systems into place designed to bring different people together.
We had affirmative action, diversity training, hiring programs designed to broaden the base of boards of directors, executives, and workers. More and more female and darker faces began to appear in boardrooms; in movies, news, and on TV shows; and as elected figures.
But the Supreme Court and the GOP are calling these programs to increase diversity in America “woke” and have dedicated themselves to rooting out and destroying or even outlawing them.
In the meantime, much of America has been self-segregating, as Bill Bishop documented in his book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.
For example, in 1968 when Jim Crow still dominated much of the US, 77 percent of Black students attended majority nonwhite schools. That number fell to 63 percent by the end of the 1980s as the result of school bussing, but then the Supreme Court outlawed government-run school integration programs in 1991. As a result, the number has risen up to fully 81 percent of Black children attending mostly nonwhite schools today.
How do we overcome this tendency to “be with our own kind” — and the resulting weapon of racist demagoguery it hands the GOP — and bring our nation together? And how do we do it without violence?
Our historic times of greatest national unity were when we were fighting — or, as in the Cold War, holding off — an external enemy in a war. If humans must have a “them” to feel comfortable as a “we,” what “them” can we use for the US that won’t provoke or require war?
In 1985, President Reagan and Soviet Premiere Gorbachev met at Lake Geneva, Switzerland for a summit meeting to discuss reducing tensions between our two nations. At one point the two men ducked out of the meeting to go for a walk. Secretary of State George Schultz was describing it to reporters the following day with both Gorbachev and Reagan present.
As Jimmy Orr reported for The Christian Science Monitor:
“I wasn’t there…,” Shultz said before Gorbachev cut him off.
“From the fireside house,” Gorbachev said, “President Reagan suddenly said to me, ‘What would you do if the United States were suddenly attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?’
“I said, ‘No doubt about it.’
“He said, ‘We too.’
“So that’s interesting,” Gorbachev said to much laughter.
If we identify our national “them” opponent as, say, China, then we’re just prepping for war. Ukraine can legitimately call Russia their “them,” but invading or being invaded to generate a “them” — arguably what Putin did when he invaded Ukraine to boost his sagging national approval numbers in the face of a widespread recession — is the worst way to bring a country together.
We saw the consequences of this strategy here when George W. Bush exploited the national trauma around 9/11 by illegally and unnecessarily starting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to, as he told his biographer he would, get himself re-elected in 2004. It damaged America, wrecked those two countries, and the refugee crisis it provoked has been a big part of what is currently destabilizing Europe.
Instead, as Reagan and Gorbachev discussed, could something other than a different group of people be a national or even worldwide “them” or at least an “it” that could bring us all together?
Right now the world is being whacked by climate change, producing weather weirding like humanity has literally never before seen. There is now more CO2 in the atmosphere — and more severe warming and temperature extremes — than at any time in 300,000 years of human history.
And it’s going to get worse before it gets better. To radically simplify the science, during La Niña years the ocean is essentially absorbing heat from the atmosphere and storing it in deep waters. During El Niño periods — like the one we entered this summer — the oceans bring that heat back up to the surface and release it into the atmosphere.
In other words, what we’re experiencing right now with weather weirding is going to get a lot worse over the next year or three as El Niño continues and amplifies. Which makes now a perfect time for America to mobilize to defeat our new external “them” or enemy: climate change.
This doesn’t necessitate vilifying fossil fuel companies and their executives and owners, unless they continue to fund climate deniers in the media and politics. These companies could easily become part of the solution, reinventing themselves as energy companies and investing in green technologies, to join the new “war” against climate change.
Another “them” the nation may be able to coalesce around — if the GOP can succeed in purging itself of its MAGA wing (which is increasingly nutty and marginal) — is fascism.
Or, even better, identifying a new “them” as the coalition of fascists plus those among the morbidly rich who want to keep pumping CO2 into our atmosphere purely for their own profit.
Interestingly, some of the biggest promoters of the MAGA fascist movement in the US are also climate deniers who take huge amounts of money and support from fossil fuel billionaires and their allies.
At that same conference where Biden spoke, Vice President Kamala Harris opened the meeting with a keynote speech.
In it, she pointed out the importance of discarding our “internal them” mindset and replacing it with the notion that we’re all in this together, a point that climate change emphasizes as heat, drought, floods, and wildfires don’t make distinctions based on skin color, religion, or gender identity.
“I strongly believe no one should ever be made to fight alone,” Harris said about the importance of democratic nations hanging together and embracing pluralistic values.
“We must stand together: Students, parents, educators, faith leaders, business leaders and law enforcement officials, and we must clearly say that a harm against any one of us is a harm against all of us.”
And then she got to the essence of her speech:
“We are at an inflection point in our history, and indeed, in our democracy. Years from now, our children and our grandchildren, they’re going to ask us, ‘What did you do at that moment?’ ‘What did you do to help protect our communities, to fight hate-fueled violence, and to build a better nation?’ Well, I have confidence in what we’re going to be able to say. We will tell them, ‘We were all here together today.’“
This will be the biggest challenge of this generation of Americans: how to pull our nation together in ways that transcend the easy, lazy, bigot-loving labels of race, religion, and gender and affirm our common humanity, our common identity as Americans, and the great emergency of climate change that we all face together.
At the moment there are only a handful of Republicans who would join such a fight because it would require repudiating the money and support from the fossil fuel billionaires who largely own the GOP. But as the weather grows more extreme, those politicians will come under growing pressure from an increasingly frightened and battered populace.
Similarly, as the MAGA movement becomes more unhinged and obsessed with science denial, oppressing women, and hating on racial, religious, and gender minorities, their support will continue to fade until they become a rump political movement of little consequence. We’ve seen this before in American politics, like the Know-Nothings, or the Klan that once controlled over a dozen states.
To save itself, the GOP will have to leave them behind, re-embrace the Romney/McCain wing of the party, and just go back to hating unions while arguing for tax cuts for billionaires and the end of Social Security and Medicare. We’re already seeing this with recent moves by Mitch McConnell and Chris Christie.
The human instinct to form tribe and fight against an external enemy will never go away; it’s baked into our DNA, as tens of thousands of years of human history show. And bigots and haters will never stop evoking it to seize and hold political power.
But if enough of us can channel that instinct and direct it against the real enemies of both civilization and humanity itself — climate change and fascism — perhaps we can set aside racism, homophobia, and misogyny and pull this nation back together to save ourselves and the world.
It’s worth a try!
Imagine all the people
Livin’ life in peace…
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one.
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one.
— John Lennon