Polarization in American Life Gerry OShea
Calling someone a renaissance man is a big compliment. It conveys an image of a well-rounded intelligent individual with an eye for the needs of other people, especially the less-fortunate.
The renaissance historical period lasted for most of two hundred years, stretching from the 14th to the 16th century. It was an epoch of change, a response to the passing feudal system with its acceptance of superstitious medieval beliefs that gave way to a more rational approach to life. It was the era when the promotion of human intelligence and inventiveness came to be greatly valued and resulted in the development of the printing press and of the mariner’s compass – and of gunpowder.
The famous philosophers of ancient Greece, especially Aristotle and Plato, were studied in the renaissance schools in cities all over Italy and in particular in Florence. Teasing out the intricacies of rules for logical thinking led to a focus on the art of debate where truth was sought by speakers who not only presented their own ideas persuasively but also listened carefully to the arguments made on the other side. This need for balance was part of what the ancients called rhetoric and that subject was included in the core curriculum in every university.
That spirit of listening and compromise had a place among American political leaders up to about thirty years ago. In the senate, in particular, there was a willingness for the majority party to occasionally take on board and implement some of their opponents’ ideas and proposals. Passage of major legislation required sixty votes out of a hundred, indicating wide community approval of any new law.
Today the culture is very different. Partisanship dominates all aspects of public life with, for instance, the Postmaster General, the man in charge of the national mail service, actively promoting delays in processing postal ballots for the upcoming election. Democratic leaders are outraged but only a few Republican senators have spoken out against this blatant usurpation of power by a White House appointee.
The divisions in American society are shocking and frightening, far deeper and more intransigent than at any time in recent memory. For example, 48% of Republicans believe that there is a lot of discrimination against Christians and 43% of Americans think that the political system operates against white people.
James Mattis, former Defense Secretary, a man widely admired as a principled patriot, spoke scathingly of his previous boss on this issue: “President Trump is the first American president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people. In fact, he doesn’t even pretend to try. Instead he aims to divide us.”
Stephen Bannon, the influential Republican political scientist, claims that what he calls tribal allegiances determine party political preferences and that the power of intellectual persuasion is highly overrated. Thus, blue-collar workers mostly vote Republican based on a group understanding of which party best represents their feelings. Many of these men disregard their union recommendation that the Democrats’ policies align more with their economic needs.
Evangelical Christians are also reliable supporters of conservative Republican candidates, even though, contrary to core Christian values, their policies show little sympathy for the poor, and refugees in the southern border get a cold shoulder from the present government. Cahir O’Doherty, the columnist for the Irish Voice newspaper in New York, explained this hardliner dynamic when he wrote about the Orangemen in Northern Ireland who display their narrow bigotry every July marching season: “Rejecting whatever is not them means that they strengthen what binds them together.”
A persecution complex explains the behavior of many tight-knit groups, including evangelicals. They see themselves as the last bastion of defense against the encroachments of a liberal anti-bible culture. Christian evangelicals comprise about 25% of the American population, that is around 80 million people. The paranoid mind frame that claims they are being pushed around and unheard in the corridors of power does not represent the real world.
Catholics are immersed in a similar debate. Recently, Archbishop Vigano, former Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, who in 2018 wrote a letter accusing Pope Francis of covering up for the now-defrocked Cardinal McCarrick, wrote to President Trump, praising his leadership in the aftermath of George Floyd’s torture and death.
Vigano sees an ongoing battle between “the children of light and the children of darkness,” powerful biblical images corresponding in his mind to the despised progressives in the church and what he sees as the principled traditionalists. His letter agreed with the president by pointing the negative finger of fear and darkness at the Black Lives Matter protestors.
Religious extremists love to don the halo of rectitude and claim they are under siege by the forces of the imaginary Evil One. Vigano, whose main gripe with the pope may really be that he was skipped over for the cardinal’s hat, is also preaching a convoluted narrative that the coronavirus pandemic is really a pretext to deprive the faithful of attending mass as well as a strategy to impose a new international order ruled by “a world government out of all control.”
It is shocking to think how deep the political estrangement is in America. 49% of Republicans say that they would oppose a member of their family marrying a Democrat while 35% of Democrats say they would not want any close link to someone from the other party. Just a half century ago that figure registered at 5% in both parties.
New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat favors the old-time religion where right and wrong were clearly defined by the men in the Vatican. He decries the new approach, approved by Francis, that invites local churches to wrestle with the big moral issues of our time. Give an inch, he contends, on the clear traditional church position on marriage – one man, one woman, one time – or on intimate homosexual practices – unnatural so never allowed - and we are on the low road to approval of polygamy and gay marriage.
When Pope Francis seemed to open the door of tolerance a little on these two controversial issues, traditionalists, led by Vigano and Cardinal Raymond Burke, former Archbishop of St. Louis, named him as a possible heretic. This is a strong and powerful group with access to plenty money and to right-wing media outlets. It is hard to see how any reconciliation is possible with men who point the finger of heresy at the pope. For them the metaphor of the two worlds of light and darkness is pregnant with meaning and they see Donald Trump as an important protagonist on the side of the angels.
Truth-telling is always an important indicator in understanding a person’s character. In the United States few people outside of his own devotees think that President Trump has more than a nodding acquaintance with veracity. The Washington Post maintains an up-to-date record of his lies, and the number since he assumed office has jumped to more than twenty thousand. No previous president comes close to matching this level of disengagement from the truth.
Psychologists identify this flagrant inability to deal with facts as a mental condition called pseudologia fantastica which defines a compulsion to claim truth-telling by sidelining rationality and distorting memory. Professionals assess this as a kind of pathological lying used to enable a person to seem triumphant and special.
Thus, presidential statements are dismissed by a substantial percentage of citizens, which clearly heightens the divisiveness in the body politic. It is healthy in a democracy for people to question statements from those in authority; however, we are in a different world when so many disregard any important government pronouncement simply because they don’t believe a word the leader utters.
John McCain, war hero and Republican senator, was his party’s nominee for the presidency in 2008. At one of his rallies a woman interrupted to spew some negative tropes about the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, which the partisan crowd cheered. McCain intervened in her rant and told her that Obama was an honorable man with a fine family. They disagreed on policy issues but they were both loyal Americans. In the frenzy of a modern American election McCain displayed a magnanimous spirit and a clear mind which ensures that many people will remember him as a renaissance man.
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com