The Rich White Civil War and Why We’re Stuck With It

At this writing, the midterm elections are just two weeks away. The pundits tell us that the election will be a referendum on the President, his administration, and the Republican party. The questions that have been posed over the past two years—whether we should take Trump seriously or literally, whether language matters, what fitness for office means, which administration and policies should be credited for the economy—will be answered at the ballot box. There is a refreshing finality in an election.

This article is not an attempt to rehash the political and policy debates of the past two years. Rather, it is an attempt to step back and evaluate who has been driving the conversation (or lack thereof). A recent study by More in Common called “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” outlined by Axios and David Brooks in the New York Times, remind us of an often forgotten truth: today’s political conversation is dominated by a vocal minority. 

As shown below, Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives comprise only 14% of America. These two groups are diametrically opposed in terms of political views. But, interestingly, they are similar in some ways.  Progressive Activists and Devoted Conservatives are both disproportionately white, wealthy, and well-educated. As David Brooks notes, it seems that “tribalism is the fruit of privilege.” We are more likely to hear from these groups because they are more likely to donate time and money to political campaigns and are extraordinarily active on social media. 

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Lost and forgotten, particularly over these past two years it seems, are the rest of us. The majority of us, it turns out. You probably find it difficult to believe that 56% of the country are tempered and nuanced in their political views. This “exhausted majority” is comprised of Passive Liberals and the Politically Disengaged, who are the least likely to participate in politics due to lack of interest or lack of ability to do so (often due to economic or family concerns and commitments). Moderates also comprise a key component of the exhausted majority. They are generally interested in and informed about politics and believe that there are legitimate views “on both sides” (no matter how out of style that term has become).

The question that I have been struggling with over the past two years can more or less be summarized as follows: where are all these people? They represent over half of our country, but while our politics has plummeted into petulance and our discourse descended into despair this silent majority has remained, indeed, silent.

The question remains, why? David Brooks proposes a compelling reason. He argues that fringe movements are able to motivate and mobilize through “narratives of menace.” The far Right and the far Left convince their adherents that the other side is an evil that needs to be exorcised from society. Even though the Progressive and Nationalist elements remain small, they have both taken their parties hostage. How? Samuel Adams had a prescient observation: “It does not take a majority to prevail … but rather an irate tireless minority, keen on setting brushfires of freedom in the minds of men.” This motto is fine for Revolutions. Unfortunately, fires are less helpful when it comes to governing. 

Conversely, Centrists do not have a compelling narrative. David Brooks points out that “[centrists] have no coherent philosophic worldview to organize their thinking and compel action.” Centrism and civility are not mobilizing. They are neither easy nor intuitive. Margaret Thatcher summarized the problem, albeit unintentionally, when she said, “The Old Testament prophets did not say, ‘Brothers, I want consensus.’ They said, ‘This is my faith. This is what I passionately believe. If you believe it too, then come with me.’”

This is where we find ourselves today, two weeks away from the midterm elections. Both parties have been preaching their faith for the past two years. They have created narratives of menace to mobilize their voters in the hopes of “winning.” But neither seems to care about what we have already lost—bipartisanship, civility, and those of us in the exhausted majority. What we are stuck with, regardless of the outcome on November 6th, is the Rich, White Civil War. 

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