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Sunday, October 23, 2016

For all the decades of its existence, American social conservatism has been rooted in a premise simple enough to be fully expressed in just three words:

Us versus them.

As in, an implicit promise to defend the former against the latter. This was its mission when it pushed for immigration quotas in the 1920s, when it animated the Red Scare of the 1950s, when it defined civil rights as a clear and present danger in the 1960s, when hardhats rioted against hippies in 1970. It is its organizing principle even today, as red states pass legislation to protect themselves from Sharia law and some of us define religious persecution as baking a cake for a same-sex couple.

Us versus them.

Always, social conservatism defined “them” as something faceless and frightening against which the rest of “us” must struggle with everything we had, or else be overrun. It is an ideology that has contributed virtually nothing of value to the life of the nation — unless you count mindless panic as a good thing.

So one is gladdened by signs of its decline.

There have been many such signs in recent years, but one of the most compelling is found in a new Gallup survey. According to the venerable polling company, just 31 percent of all Americans now identify themselves as social conservatives. That’s the lowest number in the 16 years Gallup has been tracking that question. It also marks the first time social liberalism has pulled even: 31 percent of Americans now identify with that ideology. For social conservatives, the decline has been been precipitous: As recently as 2009, their share of the electorate was 42 percent.

And here, let us reiterate what we are not talking about. We are not talking about fiscal conservatism, which seeks to rein in government spending. We are not talking about foreign policy conservatism, which demands that America deal with its opponents from a position of toughness and strength. Nor are we talking about small-government conservatism, which considers Washington a maze of needless regulation and oversight.

Each of those ideologies has its virtues and failings, but they are not our topic today. Today, we are talking about the conservatism of us versus them.

One suspects it has been, in some sense, a victim of its own success. Social conservatism’s attraction has always lain in its appeal to simplicity. It says: Forget nuance, complexity, and all the historical, political, and socio-economic realities that make the world what it is. Forget compassion and the burden of shared humanity. Those people over there are the cause of all your troubles. That tribe is the one you should fear.

Such thinking has always enjoyed a measure of acceptability. It probably always will; for some of us, it is intellectual comfort food. But in recent years, that ideology has risen to a high water of visibility and political potency it has not enjoyed since the 1950s. The unintended byproduct is that we have been able to see very clearly what that rhetoric looks like in practice.

Turns out it looks like the outlawing of ethnic studies classes. And restrictions on contraceptives. And demonized Muslims. And scapegoated gay people. And the erosion of civil rights. And guns everywhere. Turns out it looks like an Arizona state lawmaker who wants to make church mandatory.

Gallup’s numbers suggest more Americans are seeing through this con job, this appeal to their basest selves. They suggest the GOP, held in willing thrall to this dead-end thinking for years, may now have a chance to break free. Indeed, if the numbers continue in this direction, it may have no other choice.

Or so we should fervently hope. We know, after all, through bitter experience what happens when you pit us against them.

Nobody wins.

(Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected]

Photo: cometstarmoon via Flickr

  • Dominick Vila

    The us Vs them attitude has been an integral part of our psyche throughout much of our history. It reached epic proportions in the days of the Soviet Union. It continued in the days of the dreaded domino effect that got us involved in Korea and Vietnam, the modern-day crusades, the decision to label anyone who dares defend their sovereignty or challenges our right to interfere in their internal affairs as a terrorist, and it is also manifested in the overt hatred directed at foreigners, especially Hispanics-Latinos.
    This circumstance is, to a great extent, a cultural war influenced by the desire to preserve old traditions and values, in a world that is rapidly changing, more ethnically diverse, and more accepting of foreign influences. In some ways our “us Vs them” dogma is eerily similar to what is influencing violence and despotism throughout the Islamic world. The result of this attitude is the imposition of our culture, values, traditions, and interests on others, regardless of whether they want them or not. Will it ever change, or will it take a major conflagration to accept the fact that we are all humans, with strengths and weaknesses, and preferences or expectations that are often different from those of other people?

  • Daniel Jones

    “Us vs Them” thinkers have claimed this to be patriotic, the means by which thuings like the Boston Tea Party were accomplished.

    I will now boil down the analysis to the result; bullshit.

    That such sentiments were there is indisputable, but the fact is there had to be real issues that drew the fury of the disenfranchised.

    To those trying to convert this country into the Corporate Sponsorship of America, I leave this humble reminder in the wake of Memorial Day. The gentlemen farmers and the rest of the folk here in that day came *together* and decided that virtual representation was not enough, and that we needed a direct voice in our own governance.

    The Citizens United verdict is drowning out that direct voice. Period. So is selling out corporate regulation overseas.

    The reason we tolerate and struggle to balance the other forms of conservatism and progressiveness is because striking that balance and finding the best way forward is the very process of democracy, the workings of voice direct–speaking to power and being heard.

    “Social Conservatism” is nothing more than trying to keep all the goodies in some little privileged tribe. It is casting out individuals and groups. It’s Us versus Them, and the one doing the deciding always turns out to be Gordon Gecko.

    Until the Elite stop trying to re-invent the wheel and play this country like the various parts of the British Empire got played, I say we are not in an actual democracy.

    Let Freedom Ring–for once.

  • FireBaron

    The other thing you will note about Conservatives – they tend to see everything as “Black and White”. They refuse to acknowledge there are shade of gray out there, let alone tinges of color, that can affect how something is perceived. The sad thing is many of my fellow Liberals think the same way.
    As many of my fellow bloggers on this site have noted, I do not always follow a “Liberal party line”.
    Yes, I am in favor of gay marriage, or, as I call it, marriage.
    I am in favor of everyone having an equal opportunity to succeed or fail. I am NOT in favor of favoring one person over another based on race, ethnicity, gender identification or any other measure. You try as an individual.
    I am in favor of public education, and especially believe there should be national uniform educational standards. Otherwise we risk maintaining our third-world status in education by our parochialism. However, I am not opposed to people sending their children to private school. My family did that with me, and without being eligible to receive any vouchers to pay for it.
    I am in favor of the Death Penalty. There are some crimes too heinous to not warrant it. However, I also believe that someone who seeks the Death Penalty as a form of Martyrdom should be denied that.
    I am a firm believer in freedom of religious belief. I do not believe that someone has a right to shove those beliefs down my throat in the form of laws protecting religious freedoms that are not in danger.
    I personally do not believe in abortion. However, I also believe I do not have the right to force that belief or opinion on anyone else. I can tell you that based on my anatomy it is highly unlikely that I would ever have to have one (It’s a guy thing – you wouldn’t understand!). Also, as a proponent of adoption, I believe every child deserves a chance. However, any decision like that should be between the mother and her doctor.
    I am a veteran and I believe in a strong national defense. I do not think we need to spend more than the next six countries combined on the defense department, especially when this goes to a handful of military contractors, and not to the folks actually putting their lives on the line.

    • Daniel Jones

      FB, that was glorious.

      I agree with various points. On the point of all this weapons money, I do add that further subsidizing the gun trade by putting heavy duty firepower in the hands of beat policemen instead of working on comprehensive gun control is kind of retarded, as we are spiralling into an arms race between the gun extremists and the police and an “Us versus Them” that tends to lead to a body count that makes Four Dead In Ohio seem absolutely insignificant.

      It hasn’t happened yet, I hope and pray, but eventually a group of heavily armed “protestors” will be strutting about or having at it with one another, heavily armed cops will come up, and a finger will clench on a trigger.

      What follows will be slaughter, most likely of anyone else unlucky to be there when it happens.

      • 1Zoe55

        Your comments are correct. One has only to recall the recent Waco incident in which nine men were shot to death, supposedly by rival gang members. Can you imagine the terror of the regular customers who just wanted a sandwich and a beer? My question: where were the heavily armed and armored policemen, similar to what was facing the people in Ferguson, Missouri? Given that the social media and the police force were warned that a gang meeting was to take place, why didn’t the police have a stronger show of force in order to protect the innocent public? No answers, just questions.

        • JPHALL

          They were not Blacks! No revolution possible.

      • ralphkr

        Ahh, Daniel Jones, I fear the arms race in the USA started long ago and it was the bad boys who first got the big guns. Back in the 50s I was a deputy armed with my Long Colt .45 revolver, double barrel 10 gauge shot gun, and a 30.06 Springfield sniper rifle. At one point I was facing two young men with German sub-machine guns and apparently no limit to ammunition but with an overweening ambition to kill troopers & deputies. Due to my military training & their ignorance of proper tactics I & the state trooper they were trying to eliminate walked away and they no longer existed. In the big cities the gangs were sporting AK47s while facing police armed with .38 caliber revolvers and 12 gauge shotguns.

        • JPHALL

          Don’t forget those who want the police to kill them and use anything to reach that goal.

    • Allan Richardson

      Actually, we spend more than ALL the other countries combined on the military.

  • pmbalele

    The article touches on many thorny issues that have bothered me since graduating from college. But one issue the article left out is status of federal district and appellate courts. It seems the judges there still hold that certain segment of society should remain as were in the 50s. This segment is that of Black people. I have read quite a few decisions from the 7th Circuit and found them really appalling. The Republican appointed judges still impose their belief in their decisions. One is that they still believe they are intellectually superior to Blacks. And such belief filters down to other government officials such as cops who should treat all people the same. Cops usually fill their arrest quotas in the Black communities. You will hear about deaths caused by overdose in White communities, but no-drug dealers are arrested there. Thank God Justice Keagan is putting a break on them.

  • wjca

    I really think we need a better label for this Us vs Them view than “social conservative.” Or maybe what we need is some way to distinguish between those who are socially conservative in their personal behavior and those who demand similar behavior in others.

    One can be the former, without being anything like the later. Consider President Obama, whose personal behavior can only be considered quite conservative (to the undoubted irritation of his opponents looking for scandal), but whose approach to others involves a degree of toleration that the Us vs Them worldview cannot encompass.

    One of my more liberal friends put it thus: “Oh, but you’re a tolerant conservative!” — like that was some kind of strange anomaly. But I suspect that it really is more common than not; just not much given to high-profile behavior. We have tended to think of ourselves as “socially conservative,” but the last few years have made that label less comfortable. Which may, as much as anything, explain the shift in self-identification. That is, it isn’t that people are changing their views so much as that they are revising how they label themselves.

    • Allan Richardson

      Jimmy Carter was a novelty when he ran for President precisely because he let everyone know up front that personally he was a very conservative Southern Baptist (but not a Biblical inerrantist, that is, a “Bibliolater” who believes the 6000 year old Earth and the rest), but he would GOVERN as an American, not as a Baptist. He even got interviewed by PLAYBOY and gave them his famous confession that he had “lusted in his heart” many times, but resisted temptation.

  • Robert Cruder

    If you cannot promise constituents anything better (because that costs money), then they must fear losing what they have.

    You cannot make them fear without manufacturing an enemy. International enemies are useful but they do not help one win elections.

    The problem with domestic enemies is that one must prevent constituents from meeting them. The risk is their learning that they are more alike than different and that the Republican party is working against their actual interests.

    Fox news and religious intolerance are the best tools to keep the two apart but both are weakening.

  • Kurt CPI

    Here, Pitts has it partly right except in his delusion that Democrats are earth-angels. Republicans do more war mongering. They choose more obvious “thems” to distract the focus of the people away from their power/money grabbing. Democrats however, are much better at disguising their “us vs. them” campaigns by asserting that the “thems” are taking advantage (human rights, civil rights, wealth distribution, etc.) of our own citizens, people in other countries, etc. It’s good-cop/bad-cop and both factions will milk their strategies until they become all too obvious to the American voter. The Republicans will stage a terrorist attack, or finance a war against one of our allies that rallies the people to that cause. Then the Democrats will come back a few years later to end the wars and pit us against the unrighteous rights suppressors. It’s a back and forth game with one intent – misdirection. The only thing that changes is the “thems”.